4.38 B

Happiness was a simple thing. It was a strong bed, comfortable food, and hot drink. Or was it a comfortable bed, hot food and a strong drink? Sometimes Zel forgot. He’d slept out in the open, through blizzards with not much more than a sleeping bag, or right behind the front lines as a battle continued into the night too many times to count. He was used to deprivation.

So why was he so grumpy waking up in the morning these days? He had a soft bed with silk sheets of all things, rooms heated with magic runes and a breakfast that had been prepared by a [Chef]. But he didn’t like it. Zel had grown used to waking up to the smell of pancakes cooking, walking downstairs and eating his food while a small white Gnoll peered at him over the table and stole scraps from his plate.

That was happiness. This? This was just a place where he lived at the moment. And yet, Zel knew it was his fault. He couldn’t handle being under the same roof as the Goblins. Was he too old to change? Or perhaps he had taken the easy excuse. Living once again in Peslas’ inn made it all too easy to leave.

Still, he’d miss this city. Zel sighed as he strode towards the city hall for another interminable meeting with Liscor’s Council. Like any good soldier, he was there right when he was supposed to be—early, in fact. The other Drakes lacked military discipline. All except for one.

Ilvriss was reclining in one of the padded chairs he’d insisted be brought in, covering his eyes and rubbing at his forehead. He winced as Zel closed the door with a soft click.

“Shivertail, don’t think so loudly.”

“You’ve been drinking again.”

Zel looked disapprovingly at the Lord of the Wall. Ilvriss only shook his head.

“Incorrect. I hadn’t stopped since we last spoke.”

“That was yesterday.”

“What is your point, precisely?”

The other Drake opened one bloodshot eye. Zel shook his head.

“You have to stop this. I understand your grief, but giving into it isn’t—”

“When I ask for your advice, Shivertail, I will ask.

Ilvriss turned his head away and closed his eyes. The conversation ended abruptly. Zel sighed to himself, but the [General] didn’t try to continue speaking. What was the point? The Lord of the Wall had reached the end of his quest. He’d found who’d killed his lieutenant, Periss. Ryoka Griffin had told him.

Az’kerash. The [Necromancer]. The thought that he’d survived made Zel clench his fists together. He was a danger. Now he saw more fully the grand plan that had led him to meet Ryoka in the forest, and coincided with her being the target of undead assassins—for that was what they had surely been—in Liscor. Normally, the news would have Ilvriss alert and making plans to defend his beloved Walled City as well. But—

Zel looked over at Ilvriss. The Drake was slumped over in his chair, cradling his head. Gone was the disciplined, arrogant front the Wall Lord had worn at all times. The truth of Periss’ death might have been necessary, but it had snuffed the burning fire in Ilvriss’ heart and left only mourning. He had drunk himself into despondency.

“You truly did love her, it seems.”

The other Drake looked up slowly, not looking at Zel.

“Love her? I would have married her if she didn’t think it was beneath my station.”

That surprised Zel. He would have expected any other confession to come out of Ilvriss’ mouth. He waited as Ilvriss went on, speaking slowly in the silent room.

“I couldn’t believe she’d died. I thought that Runner girl had to have been an [Assassin], one of my enemies plotting against me. I could have believed that she had been killed to hurt me, to hurt my city. But as an accident? She just followed that Human and died because—because I ordered it? Over a petty incident?”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

Empty words. Zel grimaced as he said them. Ilvriss’ glance told him that everyone had said the same thing. The [General] tapped a claw on the table.

“What I mean to say is that her death matters, Ilvriss. We know who the enemy is.”

“Yes. The Necromancer. Holed up in a castle in the middle of nowhere, forming an undead army. Sending his…servants out to eliminate his enemies under disguises.”

Slowly, reassuringly, Ilvriss’ brows came together. He shook his head and winced.

“Pieces, Shivertail. It feels as though I can see part of the spider’s web around me. I’d heard of freak deaths, the disappearance of a good friend—assassinations. All that is usual in our world, but now I think of every one and wonder…”

Zel nodded. Was it Az’kerash, weakening the Drakes? How long had his spies been moving? Looking at the history of Regrika Blackpaw, it truly did seem like she’d sprung out of nowhere a few years back. Everyone had a story of her past exploits, but send a [Message] spell to ask for the source of it and there was no record of her ever being born to the Blackpaw tribe, or of her growing up. He’d already begun to look into her travels and noticed the pattern of deaths or ‘accidents’ following her around.

“We have to spread the word. Carefully. Miss Ryoka Griffin’s life, and the lives of other innocents are at risk if we do not keep the secret. Not to mention we might force the enemy into acting before we are ready.”

“Do not tell me my business, Shivertail. I will reach out to my allies. I have done. Subtly. But also do not presume to lecture me now. I am grieving.”

“Through the bottom of a mug?”

“If I must!”

The two Drakes glared at each other as Ilvriss half-rose out of his chair. The door opened. Olesm walked in, precisely on time, juggling a sheaf of papers.

“I’m sorry, am I late? I was just receiving the latest reports from the Mage’s Guild and the [Scribe] was delayed—”

“Not at all. In fact, no one else has turned up.”

Zel nodded to Ilvriss as Olesm hurried to a seat opposite the two Drakes. Olesm bobbed his head awkwardly to the two of them, looking intimidated at being alone with two famous Drakes. Zel knew better than to try and strike up small chat; instead he leaned over towards Ilvriss and hissed at him under his breath.

“At least keep him out of your drinking sessions. Some of these young Drakes work hard for the future of the city and don’t need you stepping on their tails and holding them back.”

“I care about the next generation, Shivertail. Don’t lecture me—and besides, we were celebrating young Swifttail. He reached Level 28 yesterday!”

“So soon? That’s impressive.”

“I have a mind to recommend his name when I return to Salazsar. He’s wasted here, and if he joins that army of sellswords he’ll languish there as well.”

Zel grimaced at Ilvriss’ jab at Liscor’s army. He had been a close friend and student of General Sserys, former [General] of Liscor and leader of the famed mercenary army. He couldn’t deny that the army had suffered in the decades since then, but it felt disrespectful to his mentor’s memory to agree.

Changing the subject, he glanced at Olesm. The papers he was spreading out could only mean one thing.

“There’s news from Esthelm at last, Olesm?”

Olesm jumped and nearly dropped the papers he was spreading around.

“Yes sir! It came in just as I was checking this morning. I brought it here right away and sent Street Runners to gather the Council. I hope I wasn’t being presumptuous?”

Ilvriss smiled at Olesm and waved a languid claw.

“Not at all. I’m sure that General Shivertail appreciates your forwards thinking and quick action, as do I. But tell us, what is the news? I don’t feel like waiting for the rest of the Council to drag themselves out of their beds.”

He and Zel exchanged a grimace. The Council in Liscor was made up of various Guild heads and what passed for politicians in the city, but given Liscor’s relative isolation, they were hardly a premier group of leaders. Liscor generally trusted to its natural geographical defenses and strong walls as well as its powerful army to deter threats, and hadn’t suffered a real crisis since the last Antinium War. Olesm nodded and glanced towards the windows.

“Zevara, that is to say, the Watch Captain seems to be delayed. I think she got a report and is relaying it to Klbkch, that is to say, the representative of the Hive—”

He coughed, glancing anxiously towards Zel and Ilvriss. Zel suppressed any reaction and nodded mildly.

“I understand. If you don’t mind repeating the message, you can give us the short version now.”

“Certainly. To summarize, we finally received a message from Esthelm…a day and a half since the Goblin Lord was predicted to have passed by its walls. It seems that delay was unavoidable—every tail has been needed to tend to the wounded.”

The two Drakes exchanged a glance. Zel frowned.

“Dire news. But the fact that there are wounded seems to indicate they survived the Goblin Lord’s passing.”

“Yes sir. I have the full report here, but to summarize, the Goblin Lord assailed their walls with a portion of his force as his army marched by, was repulsed, and left Esthelm alone.”

“Intriguing. I wouldn’t have thought he’d leave any city standing, much less one as poorly defended as Esthelm.”

Ilvriss frowned as he accepted a parchment detailing the battle. Zel frowned at it, but nodded slowly.

“No, it falls with what Olesm predicted, Ilvriss. Esthelm’s citizens were ready to fight—nearly all of them have combat classes now, and the Antinium repaired their walls. Add that to the fact that there’s really not much for the Goblin Lord to take a second time, and it’s a fairly unappetizing target.”

Olesm nodded and coughed again.

“It uh, seems that way, General Shivertail. However, Esthelm had to prove that it wasn’t going to be taken so easily. They had to fight off several waves of Goblins and make them pay for each foothold they established before the attacking force dispersed. The casualties…”

“A quarter dead and over half the population wounded in some way. I see.”

Zel closed his eyes, imagining the carnage. The Humans had held their city, kept it, but at a terrible price. He pushed the parchment back and looked at Ilvriss. The Drake was grimacing, rubbing at his temples.

“It seems we’ll have a quick meeting. There’s not much we can do but wait for reinforcements from Liscor’s army and the second suppression force to arrive. And that will take a week at least.”

“You’ll have to repeat that six ways before the Council’s reassured, sir.”

“I know.”

Zel grimaced and Ilvriss growled some very insulting words about ‘spineless slug-like lizards’ under his breath. Meetings with Liscor’s Council were never easy. But then Zel smiled as he thought of his news.

“Well, perhaps the meeting will be long, but I will leave it to you and Ilvriss to sort it out. And I must apologize in advance, because the Council probably will take a great deal of reassuring.”

“And why’s that? If you’re intending to leave, Shivertail—”

“I’m afraid that’s just it, Ilvriss. I received a letter earlier this day through Celum.”

“What?”

Ilvriss broke off in snapping angrily at Zel. The [General] stood up, and smiled. He controlled the trembling in his claws and tail as he looked casually at Olesm, who was staring at him with wide eyes.

“Please explain it to the Council like this, Olesm. I’m leaving. I have a meeting with someone further north. I’ll be traveling to Celum, and then, hopefully, further north even than that. I’m aware of the dangers of the Goblin Lords and the Humans, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

What?

Both Drakes shot to their feet. Well, Ilvriss. Olesm had already been standing. The Wall Lord stared at Zel in disbelief.

“If you go north, half of those damn Humans will interpret it as an act of war! A Drake [General] hasn’t gone past Liscor since—”

“The last Antinium War. I know.”

Zel looked around the room calmly. He glanced towards the door and saw it open. Watch Captain Zevara strode in, looking breathless. She saluted as she saw Zel Shivertail.

“General Shivertail, I apologize for my delay. Is—is the rest of the Council not here yet?”

She looked incredulous and disgusted.

“I’ll send guardsmen to rouse them at once. My apologies—”

“Thank you, Watch Captain Zevara. But please, you might want to wait a moment. I was just telling the others that I was leaving the city.”

“Leaving the—”

Zel Shivertail smiled and straightened. The other Drakes were staring at him, and his heart was pounding wildly. But now he’d said it. It was too late to turn his tail and make another choice. He looked around the room.

“I’m going. Don’t worry Ilvriss; I’m still concerned with the Goblin Lord’s threat and—other matters. But I’m going to tackle it my way. I’m going north. To meet with someone.”

The room was silent. Ilvriss stared at Zel, and his eyes slowly narrowed.

“Who?”

The Drake [General] grinned at the Lord of the Wall as if he were two decades younger. Zel turned and strode out of the room without replying. The room was silent for two thundering heartbeats after he’d closed the door, and then all three Drakes charged after him. But it was too late. Zel was already running for the gates.

 

—-

 

In Liscor, a Drake [General] ran towards an inn and reappeared in a Human city nearly a hundred miles north in moments. That was a small miracle of transportation. However, once in Celum, Zel Shivertail’s ability to travel would be severely reduced. No other city had magical doors from a bygone era lying about, and if he wanted to travel with magic, Zel would find his options severely limited.

If you wanted to move fast, you had a few very improbable choices available to you. It was, in theory, possible to teleport people hundreds or thousands of miles, but only a few very high-level mages could do that. In fact, the most common use of teleportation was sending hand-sized parcels from one continent to another. That was the limit of most mages’ abilities. If you wanted to teleport a person from Chandrar to Terandria for example, you’d need a group of skilled [Mages]. Or an Archmage.

And if you didn’t have access to that many mages, there were only limited and ancient scrolls or magical artifacts that could help you. Scrolls of long distance teleportation were rarer than moon diamonds however, and not to be used lightly. A powerful kingdom might horde such artifacts for the most important of circumstances for generations.

So if there wasn’t magic, how else could one travel? By horseback? Wagon? By air? It was true that there were species that could fly, like the Garuda in Chandrar, but such travel was dangerous and highly impractical for other species. As for horses—yes, a [Rider] with high levels could travel at speed and a [Caravaner] might possess Skills that allowed him to travel at faster speeds, but the stark truth of it was that the size of Izril and indeed, the world, meant that travelling across a continent took weeks or months.

To move faster was an impossibility for almost everyone. Even famous [Mages] and celebrities would travel by carriage, where levels and magical wheels would allow them to reach up to a hundred miles per day. That was the limit of this world. No one could move faster. No one. Why, you’d need a Pegasus to go faster, and they were all extinct! You’d have to ride a Dragon’s back, or cast the [Fly] spell. Or ride a magical carriage.

Far to the north of Celum, hundreds of miles north in fact, a bright pink carriage shot down a small road meant for foot travel. The carriage was large, grandly ornamented with gold and careful woodwork embellished by some long-dead master carpenter, and now, casually painted over with eye-searing pink. Four misty, semi-translucent horses pulled the carriage, running faster than any living horse in existence.

The carriage barreled down the dirt path, weaving to follow the curving road, almost soundless thanks to the magic enchanting it. And there was a lot of magic on the carriage. Without it, the vehicle would never have survived the speed of the journey, or managed to turn as nimbly as it did in response to the driver’s movements.

A young man wheeling a handcart was heading down the road in the opposite direction, pushing a few sacks of produce or something else ahead of him and not looking where he was going. Why should he? Aside from monsters, bandits, or the uncertain nature of causality, he was perfectly safe. After all, there was no such thing as cars in this world.

The magical carriage drifted around a bend in the dirt road, shooting out behind a line of trees, a blur of pink death. The young man had only a moment to look up and see it coming at him, faster than thought. He put up his hands and screamed his last words—

Seconds after the carriage had shot past him, moving off the road for a split-second and continuing its mad course across the countryside. The young man stood where he was, frozen in fear. He would later abandon his cart and suffer reoccurring nightmares and maintain a distinct aversion for all things pink for year afterwards. But he was only one obstacle in the road, one skillfully avoided by the magical carriage’s driver.

And it was notable that this famed carriage, belonging to none other than Magnolia Reinhart, did not routinely run over pedestrians. In fact, it was known for only being decorated with the blood of bandits or monsters. Aside from the heart-stopping fright it generated, people who had seen it travelling reasoned it was safe. After all, who would be so foolish as to enchant a coach to move that fast and not give it the ability to avoid collisions?

 

—-

 

“Blood on my grave, that was close.”

Reynold muttered to himself as he turned the coach down the road, shooting past a quiet village. The world blurred around him, and the freezing wind blew hard at him as he sat in the driver’s seat of Magonlia’s pink carriage. Only the magical enchantments kept him from shivering in his butler’s uniform.

“Reynold? We’ve slowed. Is everything alright?”

A voice came from the carriage behind him, and the sliding panel connecting him with the interior slid open a fraction. Reynold coughed and raised his voice to be heard.

“My apologies Lady Reinhart. We’re passing by a village and I must navigate us over a river.”

“Ah, bridges. How tiring. Thank you, I completely understand.”

The panel slid shut. Reynold didn’t have to look behind him to know that it had been Ressa who’d both opened the panel and closed it. The silent [Head Maid] who accompanied her mistress everywhere was quiet as a falling leaf when she wanted to be. In fact, she could be right behind him and Reynold wouldn’t notice. It had happened before.

Part of Reynold wanted to turn his head, but he didn’t dare look away as he guided the coach over a small footbridge that left bare inches on either side for the wheels—all at a speed a bit faster than Ryoka could run. The horses and indeed, wheels of the carriage turned precisely as he adjusted the reins in his hand—moving as much from his mental orders as his physical motions.

Reynold cleared the bridge, scanned the road quickly, and accelerated to a velocity that would have left the average unladen Swallow, European or otherwise, far behind in the dust. The world blurred into a tunnel once again and Reynold could only trust to his Skills and his reflexes to spot obstacles in the road ahead.

“Reynold?”

The panel slid open as Reynold guided the carriage out of the forest and upwards towards a hill. He cursed as he spotted rocky terrain ahead and whispered a word.

“[Flying Wheels]—yes, Lady Reinhart?”

“I have some delightful chocolates here, and Ressa tells me I’m not allowed to eat them all in one sitting. Would you like one?”

The carriage’s wheels rose off the ground and shot over the rocks in front of them, climbing effortlessly as Reynold tried to find the best incline that wouldn’t send them crashing into the hillside. His knuckles were white on the reins as he sent the coach upwards at dizzying speeds, but his voice was level and only a bit high-pitched as he replied.

“You are most kind Lady Reinhart, but I ah, am quite satisfied at the moment. Thank you.”

“A pity. Ressa will have to eat them I suppose, or my other guests. Oh, we are travelling upwards, aren’t we? Reynold, make us fly, won’t you? I do enjoy that.”

“Yes, Lady Reinhart.”

Reynold nearly screamed. Instead of decelerating as he crested the top of the hill, he willed the carriage to go faster. The pink coach shot over the top of the hill and flew through the air for several heart-stopping seconds. Reynold heard a delighted laugh from the carriage behind him as he spoke a hurried word, activating another enchantment.

“[Featherfall]. [Featherfall!]”

Slowly, he saw the world approaching below him. Reynold jerked the reins and the coach smoothly turned left, avoiding a rock and a lake and returning to ground smoothly and finding the road again. He breathed a sigh of relief, and then spoke another word.

“[Grounded Wheels].”

There was a slight rumble and increased traction as the wheels met solid earth again. Now they were on a straightaway headed through some flat, lovely, open plains. Reynold could have cried in relief. He turned, and nearly jumped out of his skin as he saw Ressa, standing next to him. The [Maid] had climbed out of the carriage’s door and to the front without him hearing a thing.

“Reynold.”

“Yes, Miss Ressa?”

Reynold’s eyes jerked ahead of him as Ressa’s low voice spoke in his ears. The [Maid] eyed the road ahead and nodded to the magical horses pulling them ever faster.

“Don’t use the [Flying Wheels] enchantment if Lady Magnolia asks again. It wastes magical energy and we don’t have time to spend recharging the mana stones more than necessary.”

“Yes, Miss Ressa.”

“Spoilsport!”

An indignant voice called from within. Reynold breathed a sigh of relief as Ressa turned and pulled herself back into the carriage. He heard them talking for a second.

“We’re close to our destination. It looks like thirty minutes more.”

“Excellent. I’m tired of sitting and I could use a chance to stretch my legs before the next trip. Also, I’d like lunch.”

“It should be ready by the time we arrive. Without tea, this time. You don’t need to have that much sugar and we don’t have time to stop and let you pee every fifteen minutes.”

That was a poor batch of tea, Ressa. Honestly, it happened once.”

“And it won’t happen again.”

The panel slid shut and Reynold breathed a sigh of relief. He guided the carriage onwards, spraying mud and snow as he travelled across the countryside. Not the roads—even in winter, colliding with an errant traveler was too likely. He kept his head scanning the horizon for threats, points of interest, and to make sure he was going the right way.

This was his job. He was a [Butler], one of the many servants in the Reinhart employ. But he was also one of Lady Magnolia’s personal aides, which meant that he had…other…competencies. One of them was driving this carriage.

No one else could do it at this speed, which is why Reynold had driven north to escort Lady Magnolia wherever she needed to go. Also, Reynold was a long-time servant to Lady Magnolia and Ressa had personally approved his ability to be discrete in all situations. That was a very important quality to have, Reynold knew. Lady Magnolia’s bathroom habits were the least of the secrets he sometimes heard.

The carriage eventually drew close to a large city, and Reynold was relieved to finally slow to something less than death-speed. However, he didn’t have the luxury of driving into the city and being forced to obey the speed of local traffic—no, Magnolia Reinhart was far too busy for that.

She had an estate on the outskirts of this city. She had estates everywhere, but this one was rather small and not meant as a place for her to stay in. Rather, a delegation of [Maids] and other servants was already waiting for the carriage as Reynold stopped it in the middle of the frozen road outside the villa.

“Are we here? Good!”

The door opened and Magnolia hopped out before Ressa or Reynold could open the door or lower the half-step. Magnolia stretched and Reynold carefully dismounted as well, surreptitiously stretching his tense lower back as Ressa emerged.

“Food, fuel. Reynold will handle it. Now, are Lady Bethal and the Chevalier Thomast here? I trust they are being entertained.”

Frightened servants parted like a wave before her, and both women strode into the villa. Reynold sagged for a moment, and then waved at one of the [Maids] hurrying towards him at the head of a small procession. He knew her; his job meant he was acquainted with most of Magnolia’s staff.

“Janica, greetings. Tell me that’s hot bacon I keep smelling? I’m half frozen and I could use a bite to eat. And I think the mana stones on the coach need replacing.”

“You can have it on the road! Not now, you glutton! You need to show me and the others how to replace the stones—I can’t remember how and you’re the only expert.”

The [Maid], Janica, slapped Reynold’s hands away from the basket she was holding. The other servants nodded to Reynold deferentially—he outranked them all as one of Magnolia’s special [Butlers]. The [Manservants], [Porters], and generic [Servants] descended on the coach. Reynold sighed as he walked around to the back of the carriage and pulled out a large key. He unlatched a hidden compartment on the back and turned to Janica. She was an older woman with grey hair, but she peered keenly inside the inner workings of the carriage as if she were a girl seeing her first artifact.

“It always amazes me to see how it works! You say an Archmage invented this?”

“Apparently. It’s all runes and spellcraft to me, but here’s where the mana stones go. Hold on, are these all certified to have the maximum charge?”

The large, hand-sized gems presented to Reynold on a soft pillow were some of the most expensive objects in the world. He tiredly grabbed them and popped the ones in the carriage out of their sockets with an experienced hand. The [Porter] with the pillow trembled as Reynold placed two of the nearly spent mana stones on the pillow. One was a ruby, the other one a perfectly cut emerald.

The process that turned perfect gemstones into vessels for magic made them expensive enough that Gold-rank Adventurers could only afford the smallest of them. The ones that Magnolia Reinhart used for her carriage were beyond the pay grade of most Named Adventurers.

“Have them replenished at the Mage’s Guild. Don’t worry; they know how to do it, although I suspect it will take them a week or more. And these ones will last half a day if I keep travelling. Janica, take pity on me. I’d rather not eat and drive at the same time if I can help it.”

The elderly [Maid] was supervising the loading of the carriage. Reynold could see [Maids] cleaning out any trace of dust or crumbs carefully as platters and neatly-wrapped baskets were placed in the storage compartments above and below where passengers could sit. He coughed.

“Put the written reports under the table. Just there. There’s a compartment. It slides out—hold on, I’ll do it.”

He clambered into the carriage and showed the others where to load some of the supplies. While it was true that Magnolia’s personal carriage ran on mana stones, Reynold personally thought that it ran on two other things as well: food and information.

“You think she’ll have a chance to read all of this while she speaks with her guests?”

Janica frowned as she straightened a pile of papers before placing it inside the hidden drawer under the table in the center of the carriage. Reynold nodded.

“I believe Ressa will pull it out in the first fifteen minutes. You do know that Lady Reinhart eats and catches up with all her informants from here, don’t you?”

“I do…but it’s hardly what one expects of her. I mean, she could spend an hour or two in the villa—”

Reynold shook his head.

“She’d never waste time that way. We can be a hundred miles from here in an hour. Now, about the food?”

The [Maid] sighed.

“Oh, you. Here. Bacon-wrapped pork loin. Careful with the wrapping—you don’t want to get grease on your suit.”

The [Butler] could have cried as she presented him with a piping-hot delicacy. He did indeed take exquisite care to eat it while gripping the wrapping paper tightly, and to Janica’s disapproval, he scarfed it down in minutes.

“Honestly! Do you know how long our [Cook] worked on that, especially when it was requested specially by Lady Reinhart? You should consider yourself privileged that she’s thinking of you, ordering such greasy fare—”

“As I recall, she wanted it for herself Janica. Is that fresh bread I see? And is there a chance of a drink?”

“What do you think? Here, I’ve hot spiced wine—”

“No wine.”

“Excuse me?”

She looked taken aback. Reynold smiled at her apologetically.

“I can’t drink while driving.”

“What, not a drop?”

“It makes me slower to react. I’ll have hot milk if you have any. Hot water, otherwise.”

“I’d be a poor [Maid] indeed to let you go off with hot water! You there! Hot milk for Mister Reynold, and be quick about it! I want the coach buffed and polished by the time the [Ladies] return.”

Reynold grimaced.

“Don’t bother with that. The first puddle we go through, it won’t matter. And you don’t have time for anything more than the milk I think; Lady Reinhart will be here in minutes, never mind her guest.”

“What? Don’t be silly—”

Just as Reynold had predicted, he barely got a hot flask filled with goat’s milk before Lady Magnolia was striding out of the villa, followed by Lady Bethal and the elegant Chevalier Thomast at her side. Forewarned by Reynold, the other servants were standing at attention and the carriage was ready to go. The [Butler] was already in the driver’s seat.

“Ah, thank you Reynold. Lady Bethal, I’m sure you’ve met my driver before?”

“I have! Reynold, is it? Good day to you, sir. I trust Magnolia isn’t keeping you too busy, what with how she’s been travelling across the continent?”

Lady Bethal was all smiles and delicacy—when she wasn’t thorns and fury. Reynold bobbed his head to her politely, recalling the stories of her famous Rose Knights. Thomast nodded to Reynold but remained silent as ever.

“It’s my privilege to serve Lady Reinhart and you, Lady Bethal. If there is anything I can do, please do not hesitate to ask.”

“Oh, but he is well trained, isn’t he? I could just steal him away to be one of my personal attendants, Magnolia! Perhaps I will!”

Magnolia’s lips quirked up in a smile as Bethal let Thomast help her up into the carriage.

“He is. Well-trained, that is. I’d take it amiss if you stole him, Bethal. He’s one of the few servants I can rely on, the only one who can get me where I want to go fast enough.”

“You say that about all of your servants, Magnolia. But I want a [Butler] who can keep up with me! You seem to have monopolized all the best ones.”

“All the ones with interesting talents, at least. My advice is to train them to be [Butlers], not train [Butlers] to be interesting. Now, let us be off. Reynold, I need you to drop Bethal off by the village of Neunham. You know, the one that was raided by Goblins yesterday? If you need a map, I think we have one. Ressa, where are the maps?”

“There is no need Lady Reinhart. I know the way. We will be there in about two hours by my rough estimation.”

“Excellent.”

The door slammed shut. Janica barely had time to bow with the other servants before Reynold accelerated the coach out of the villa’s gates and into the snowy plains again. He sipped from his canteen, feeling the warmth in his cold body. With one hand, Reynold put down the canteen and fished around in the wrapped basket next to him. He felt something warm and pulled it up, sniffing at it.

“Hot rolls? With butter? You are a lifesaver, Janica.”

He ate, carefully guiding the coach onwards. It was cold outside, and the food kept him feeling alive. Inside, he could hear the muted buzz of conversation. Ironically, for all the enchantments, there wasn’t a spell of silence within the coach, so Reynold could pick out bits of conversation.

“…had my Rose Knights head out two days ago, and I sent them a [Message] spell to gather at that village. Of course, I hardly want to camp out longer than necessary, so I was relieved you were picking me up.”

That was Lady Bethal. Reynold listened with half an ear as he drove westward and south. One of the things that made him a capable driver was his knowledge of the continent. He could plot a route to Neunham in his head. He heard Lady Magnolia laugh lightly and reply, sounding slightly muffled.

“It is the least I can do, Bethal. Especially since you’re doing me a favor and sorting out that problem. But you don’t have to go with your knights in person.”

“Nonsense! If I’m not there, how will I know if they’ve done their jobs? Besides, it is a mission of gallantry and I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see my Thomast fight for anything.”

“As you wish. I have to attend to business, but I will send a carriage to pick you up whenever you are done. Please do stay in touch via [Message] spell, won’t you?”

“Very well. But isn’t that large army you’ve gathered north of here? I’d have thought you would have stayed north to lead them towards the Goblin Lord.”

“I hardly feel the need to lead an army myself. That’s what officers are for. The soldiers are heading this way on their own. I’ll meet them when they arrive, and I have business in Invrisil…”

“Oh? What about?”

“Hmm. I had a report from one of my servants that troubles me. Ressa, do pull out the reports. Anything from Sacra?”

Sacra? Reynold frowned. He knew Sacra—she was one of Magnolia’s special servants, like him. Only her specialty was undercover work. She’d trailed Ryoka back in Invrisil and he hadn’t seen her in the mansion after that, so he’d assumed she was carrying out one of Lady Reinhart’s requests. She was very good both in combat and in disguising herself; she’d been furious that Ryoka had managed to identify her so easily.

“Nothing else, Lady Reinhart. Although there is a report about the ah, adventuring group you’re patronizing and Esthelm—”

Esthelm? Dead gods Ressa, forget the children. Tell me, is the city standing?”

“Barely. It seems the Goblin Lord was repulsed a day and a half ago, but casualties are high…”

“Send gold and more help through Celum if possible, and add that to my list of things to discuss with Liscor’s Council. I will have to do that today—ah, how infuriating. At least there is the door. Bethal, have you heard about this? Some adventurers found a magical door of all things, and you’ll never guess what it does. It teleports people, so they somehow managed to create a link between Celum and Liscor—”

“My word! And the Drakes allowed it?”

“I don’t believe they had a choice. It’s in an inn, you see, just outside of the city—”

“Miss Erin.”

Reynold mumbled to himself around another mouthful of bread. He nearly choked and washed the food down with milk. He drove on, half-listening as the voices talked on of plans. But in time, he stopped listening. There were some things he preferred not to know as a butler, and the rushing world around him was peaceful. Reynold sat as the wind howled silently outside of the carriage, feeling the cold around him, hovering on that delightful edge where warmth and cold made him appreciate every layer he had on.

He felt alive.

 

—-

 

An hour and a half later, Reynold slowed and Lady Bethal and Thomast left the carriage in front of a village that had clearly seen fighting. Reynold knew combat, and he could see a story in the way the gates had been smashed open. But there was even more of a story in the dead bodies hanging from the roofs of houses. The villagers had managed to cut some down, but a few bodies remained and the ropes showed how many had been there.

“Troubling. I hope Bethal can sort it out.”

Magnolia murmured to herself as she stared into the village with angry eyes. Ressa looked at her.

“You doubt she can?”

“I think she might grow bored if she can’t find the attackers within the next few days. If she does, they die. If not, we add this group to the list of targets. Reynold, take us away. To Invrisil.”

The [Butler] had been staring at the carnage and remembering the past. He broke out of his trance and grabbed the reins.

“At once, Lady Magnolia.”

 

—-

 

Invrisil was a hop and a skip away from Neunham in terms of distance, but the journey was extremely taxing given how many people filled the roads even in the winter, even with Goblins about. Reynold had to slow the coach and work hard on avoiding hitting anything. His driver’s job was mentally and physically exhausting, and so he was very, very grateful when he sped into the grounds of Lady Magnolia’s mansion.

“We’re back!”

Magnolia was all smiles as she walked up the stairs to her estate. There was no welcoming line of bowing servants as was customary in the main Reinhart estate; Magnolia and Ressa were of the opinion that it wasted time for everyone involved, and was particularly unkind in the cold weather.

Reynold parked the carriage in the stables, rubbing his hands together as the cold caught up with him. He hurried through the back entrance and found one of the stable boys waiting.

“I think the mana stones need replacing, Jefry. They’re fairly new, but if Lady Reinhart has me driving about, I don’t want to have to rely on the spares or hope that we pass by one of her estates.”

“I’m on it.”

The young boy slipped into the cold without fear of the chill, something which the older Reynold envied. He hurried further into the mansion, greeting maids, and heading towards the kitchens. He dearly wanted something hot to drink and something to snack on while he sat and rested. He was exhausted from driving; it took a high toll on his nerves.

He never got there. One of the [Maids] he knew well—a Gnoll named Bekia, was just whispering to him that Sacra had come galloping back towards the mansion with important news she dared not send by [Message] spell a week ago when he heard Magnolia’s voice echoing from her personal sitting room.

“There’s a what living on my continent!?”

Every servant in the halls winced and some ducked. Reynold and Bekia hovered closer to the door Magnolia was shouting from behind. They heard her voice and Sacra’s muffled reply.

“In a small village? Riverfarm? Where is that? How long ago—what’s this about Lady Rie? Why didn’t anyone mention—this morning? How long ago?”

The door burst open. Reynold saw Lady Magnolia striding towards him, Sacra meekly following behind and Ressa following back after both of them. Magnolia snapped at Reynold as he was bowing.

“To Lady Rie Valerund’s estate, Reynold. Quickly!”

Another trip. Reynold groaned inside, but raced out into the stables to get Jefry to prepare the carriage. In minutes he was driving out into the cold again. He hadn’t even gotten a chance to sit down.

 

—-

 

“Here we are, Lady Magnolia.”

Reynold was cold and sore from sitting for so long, and very tired despite it being only just past midmorning. But he’d been driving since before dawn, so that was excusable. Magnolia burst out of her carriage and took one look around the destroyed town and then turned towards the mansion at the top of the hill.

“Damaged, but intact. I assume Lady Rie is alive. She had better be, or I will hold every adventurer here accountable.”

There was a large group of Silver and Gold-rank adventurers present, many still on horseback. They had prevented Reynold from getting any closer to the mansion, but as they turned and saw Lady Magnolia, they parted like the sea as she strode through the town.

Reynold followed, after finding a place to park the carriage. Sacra hopped down from the front. At least he’d had company on the drive here, and she’d caught him up with the incredible story of her undercover mission to find out exactly who the stranger that Ryoka had met with was. Reynold could hardly believe it. An [Emperor]? Here?

“You’re sure he’s not some [Lord] or a—an [Earl] or something, right Sacra?”

She glared at him. The woman who called herself Odveig and pretended to be a simple Silver-rank adventurer looked completely different from the austere [Maid] dressed in her uniform who strode after Lady Magnolia. Her voice was waspish as she replied.

“I’m sure. I don’t make mistakes and it’s not like he concealed the fact. Reynold. And you met him as well—didn’t you feel he was special?”

“Yes, but, well, an [Emperor]? Truly?”

Reynold shook his head. He could remember the urge to bow before Laken Godart, but as for the rest…he picked up his pace as he heard Magnolia shout in front of him.

“Where is Lady Rie Valerund?”

Hands pointed. Magnolia strode up to the damaged double doors of the mansion. The enchanted wood that had held back hordes of Goblins parted in an instant before her. Reynold strode inside after her and saw a woman in a gown overseeing her servants. They were packing everything of value in the mansion.

“Lady Rie! A word.”

Magnolia walked towards her and the other [Lady] turned. Servants, curious adventurers, and the guards who had followed her froze in place. They couldn’t help it. Only Reynold, Sacra, Ressa, and Rie herself could move. Magnolia studied the preparations for flight and smiled at Lady Rie.

“My apologies, Lady Rie. I did not receive your message until just now. I am delighted to see you well, but what is all this? You are leaving?”

“Lady Reinhart.”

Rie’s voice was cool, but Reynold had met enough [Lords] and [Ladies] to tell that Lady Rie was pressured by Magnolia’s appearance in person. She was a low-level [Lady] and Magnolia was the biggest shark in the ocean. She gestured to the frozen people around her.

“I regret to say that I no longer consider my home safe after the Goblin attack. I would have been dead but for the intervention of a certain man. Have you ah, heard of an individual known as Laken Godart?”

Lady Magnolia’s smile was sharp and bright.

“I have just now. I would love to hear about him. Why don’t we sit in what is left of your parlor and talk? Ressa, find us some chairs.”

She swept Lady Rie towards the parlor, and only now did the people around her find the ability to move their legs again. Ressa headed after the two [Ladies], but a man broke away from the crowd, seemingly determined to go after them.

“You there. Refrain from interrupting Lady Magnolia.”

Ressa interposed herself between the man and Magnolia in an instant. The big man, who was bald and wearing armor, slowed. He ducked his head.

“Pardon me, Miss, but I am Lady Rie’s Captain of the Guard. I should be with her if—”

He didn’t finish the thought, but left the rest unspoken. If Lady Magnolia, famed for her temper, decided to do something. The Reinharts were feared not only for their power, but for their role as arbiters and enforcers of their law across the continent. Ressa frowned at him and looked towards Reynold and Sacra.

The two servants leapt into motion without a word. Reynold intercepted the Captain of the Guard, adroitly pivoting the big bald man out of Lady Magnolia’s path before the man quite knew what was happening.

“Pardon me sir. May I know your name?”

“Uh, Geram. But I have to—”

“My apologies, Captain Geram. I am Reynold, a [Butler] in employ of Lady Reinhart. I assure you that she intends only to speak with Lady Rie on a number of pressing matters. Such discussions are best left to the nobility however, without personal interference.”

“But I—”

“Why don’t you sit here, Sir?”

Sacra didn’t quite kick the legs out from under Geram, but he found himself sitting, and, suddenly, holding a cup of tea. Reynold and Sacra hovered around him, and the [Maid] whispered to Reynold.

“Reynold, I have to go to Lady Reinhart. She’ll probably want my opinion. Can you handle him?”

He nodded and Sacra briskly stepped into the mansion. The big man, Geram, bit his lip.

“I should be at Lady Rie’s side.”

“Surely not for a simple discussion, sir?”

Geram hesitated.

“She and Lady Magnolia are uh—I’m sure Lady Reinhart is well thought of, but Lady Rie is a bit—bit—”

Frightened of her. And for good reason. But you’d only cause more trouble, going in. Reynold bit his tongue on the rest of the words and smiled politely.

“I am sure Lady Rie will rise to the occasion, Captain Geram. But while I have you, may I ask what transpired here? I see you have fought off an attack. Was this all the doing of Goblins?”

“Goblins? Uh—yes. Yes they were. We would have been got by them surely as I’m sitting here, if not for Emperor Laken.”

Emperor Laken. Reynold winced internally. Lady Magnolia would not be happy about that. And true enough, she wasn’t. In fact, she began shouting.

It took some doing to restrain Geram—Reynold succeeded mainly by getting the man to have a drink and telling him that if he did interfere, Magnolia Reinhart would put him into a box and leave him there. Whether in pieces or intact would probably depend on her worsening mood.

After about an hour’s time, someone came out of the parlor and headed straight for Reynold as he was miserably drinking water while Geram slowly finished a third cup of strong spirits. Reynold stood up at once as Ressa approached him. The [Head Maid] was holding a [Message] scroll and scowling, which never boded well.

“Miss Ressa, is something amiss?”

She nodded curtly.

“We have a problem, Reynold. You will have to take the carriage and head south. Towards Celum.”

Celum? If it hadn’t been for his [Butler] class, Reynold would have groaned aloud. That was a day’s journey and a hard drive even if he was full of energy, which he was not. He was hungry, cold, tired, and his butt hurt. But Ressa was clearly impatient. He hesitated.

“Am I to understand that I will leave you and Lady Magnolia behind?”

“That’s correct. We will send for another form of transport and make the journey back to Invrisil where we will await you.”

Reynold frowned.

“But surely we could send the other carriage—”

Magnolia Reinhart possessed two magical carriages, where most kingdoms didn’t have one. Her personal carriage was maintained at all costs; the other one was powerful, but often suffered from a lack of resources and [Mages] of the caliber needed to fix them. Either one was far, far faster than any other form of transport, however, which is why he was surprised he had to take Magnolia’s personal carriage. But Ressa just shook her head.

“The other carriage refuses to start. There must be something wrong with the enchantments.”

The [Butler]’s heart sank.

“Again? I could drive back and see if I could—”

“No. The carriage was supposed to pick up a very important guest. You need to drive to Celum and pick up the traveler—he will be waiting with a red cloak and you will recognize him on sight.”

“Yes, Miss Ressa. But the trip will take hours. I won’t be back until late in the night and I’ve been driving since this morning. I am…slightly exhausted, Miss Ressa.”

He knew complaining to Ressa was a dangerous idea, but Reynold had to say it. He hesitated as the [Head Maid] glared at him and pushed his luck further.

“Could I not drive back to the estate and switch drivers? I believe it would not take—”

“Reynold.”

She stared at him and Reynold shut up. Ressa shook her head briskly.

“No. The carriage should have left this morning, and I was not informed until now.”

She gritted her teeth and Reynold cringed and knew that heads would roll when they returned to the mansion. Ressa went on.

“Our guest requires the fastest driver to get him here. Time is of the essence, and the route goes past the area where the Goblin Lord is said to be marching.”

That was true, too. Reynold knew he was the best driver for the job, but the world was swimming and he was just a bit angry. He tried one last time.

“Miss Ressa, I understand, but my condition now—”

Ressa looked at him, and put a hand on Reynold’s arm. She didn’t grip his arm or pull out one of the daggers he knew she carried. It was a soft touch, and so intimate and unlike her that Reynold froze in an instant. Ressa looked into his eyes and lowered her voice.

“Reynold. This is important.

He fell silent, and realized Ressa was telling him that there was no time to argue, or even switch drivers. After all, the next best driver was Alkran, and he had broken his arm when the assassins had attacked. It still hadn’t healed properly. So Reynold straightened and nodded.

“Please forgive me, Miss Ressa. I will return at all speed.”

“Good. Go. And Reynold—please hurry.”

He had seldom heard Ressa use that tone. Reynold turned and ran for the carriage. In less than a minute he was on the road, and driving as fast as he could. But even going as fast as he dared, it would be six hours to Celum. Well, maybe five if he drove fast enough to really be dangerous.

He did. He drove for hours, until he came across the Goblin Lord’s army. They swept across the landscape like a horde of green locusts, burning and destroying anything without walls in front of them. Reynold drove wide of them, until he saw the people.

 

—-

 

This is the despair of [Butlers], the despair of the man who sees all and can do so little. Reynold knew it. He was not a powerful man; he was a servant in employ of a powerful woman. But he could do little more than assist her. That was his role.

So why did he have to see this? The carriage slowed as he saw the scene. It was the same scene you saw on battlefields, from the safety of your home. It was the scene that was universal and yet always unique.

It was tragedy.

They were refugees perhaps, a village that had evacuated in the face of the Goblin Lord’s armies. But this one had moved too slowly, or the Goblins had moved too fast. Whatever the case, the wagons and stream of villagers had been caught by a group of Goblins.

Not just a group. The advance force of the Goblin Lord’s army. Reynold had driven to avoid them, but the Goblins were spread out in a huge wave going north. They filled the horizon, and Reynold shuddered as he’d driven away from them. He was staring at war, a terrible army capable of sacking a city. How many Goblins were there? Tens of thousands.

And part of their force had decided to attack the villagers. A group of Goblins riding Shield Spiders rode ahead of a whooping mass of Goblins, charging at the villagers as they screamed and fled from their wagons, running towards the hills where they might find safety.

But too slowly. The Goblins were closing. Reynold saw it all as he drove past, and knew there was nothing he could do. Nothing. If he tried, he would surely be overwhelmed by the mass of Goblins. Running over a group of [Bandits] was one thing and dangerous enough, but this? There were hundreds of Goblins streaming towards the villagers and thousands more behind them. Tens of thousands behind them.

And yet, the villagers saw him. Some ran towards him, screaming and waving their hands, only to be cut down by arrows. Others were lifting children in their arms, turning, trying to get his attention. Reynold cursed them as he drove. Why were they stopping to get his attention when the Goblins were right on top of them?

“Run, run you idiots!”

It was too late either way. The Goblins were too close. They were already beginning to cut down the villagers from behind. Reynold saw it all so clearly. Even if they got to the hills, it was too late. Even if they had a lead, the Goblins would just track them down. It was too late to help too late—

They were cutting down men and women, children. Laughing. The red eyes of the Goblins turned towards Reynold as he drove past them. Some loosed arrows, but he was going far too fast for them to ever hit him.

It was his duty. He couldn’t risk the carriage or even himself, no matter what. Reynold tried to close his ears to the screaming. He told himself he was doing his job. He was just a [Butler].

A [Combat Butler].

Reynold’s carriage crashed into the first group of Goblins, scattering bodies. The ghostly horses trampled the Goblins in front of him to the ground; others bounced off the sides and front of the carriage. Reynold shouted as he drove towards one of the Goblins who looked like a leader. He was mounted on a Shield Spider. He snarled as Reynold unsheathed the sword he carried everywhere.

“[Sickle Cut]!”

A blade flashed and lightning crackled. Reynold’s sword beheaded the Goblin and the electricity earthed itself on the Goblins around him. The [Butler] snarled as he drove into the Goblins and turned the carriage.

“Drive, drive!

He’d lost momentum as he crashed into the Goblins, turning their advance party into a mass of broken bodies. The ghostly horses surged and Reynold felt the carriage regaining traction. The villagers were running, but the Goblins were right behind them. How much time could Reynold buy? A minute? Five?

One was too many. The Goblins were loosing arrows at him. Reynold dodged one and shouted.

“[Burst Speed]!”

The carriage shot out of the mass of Goblins, avoiding the rest of the arrows. Reynold turned the carriage. Not yet. He had to get their attention, buy time! He drove at the Goblins again and they scattered. But his control was precise. Reynold hit another group.

That’s the way. Scatter them. He chopped downwards as he passed by a Hob and felt the shock of his sword cutting into bone. It was the same feeling as being on horseback, of charging the enemy.

He had been a soldier, once. Reynold shouted something as the blood thundered in his ears. He saw an arrow speeding at his chest and twisted. It cut across his side, a line of fire. More Goblins. They were everywhere. How long had it been?

Seconds. Reynold spun the carriage, throwing Goblins off as they tried to climb on. He rode the horses over a Hob as it tried to grab the carriage. A small Goblin landed on the roof and Reynold stabbed it, the electricity shocking the Goblin’s skin, making it let go.

He had to get away. Circle for another charge. There were so many arrows—one hit Reynold’s arm but glanced off the cloth. Bad shot. Another—hit him in the shoulder. Reynold pushed the horses and then saw something black flying at him from the left. He spun the coach and felt it shudder from the impact.

He’d run over Trolls and not felt anything. Reynold turned his head and saw part of the pink carriage’s woodwork was splintered. What had hit him? A spell? Who shot it—

Black eyes. White pupils. A distant face. Reynold’s blood ran cold. He saw a Goblin standing in the distance, raising his hand as black magic swirled around him. The [Butler] shouted.

“[Invisibility Field]!”

The carriage vanished. Goblins snarled as they jumped for where he should be, loosing arrows, trying to slow the coach’s momentum with their bodies. Reynold spun away as more black bolts of magic flashed by his head. A Goblin clung to the carriage door—he cut it off. One stabbed him from behind and he threw it off as he fought with the reins. Where were the villagers? Gone?

Reynold burst out of the group of Goblins as more arrows shot after him. He reached for the potion that he kept in the compartment under the carriage. His world was growing dark. He found the bottle, and looked back.

The villagers hadn’t made it to the hills yet. They were nearly there, but the Goblins were reforming, coming after them. Quick! Reynold gritted his teeth. One last time. He turned the coach.

Blood was sticking to its sides, making it visible despite the spell. Reynold drove it onwards. He saw the Goblin with black eyes raising his hand, felt the black bolts of energy make the carriage shudder and groan. He drove into the Goblins. A duty.

He had a duty—

An arrow slammed him back in his seat. Reynold turned and saw a Hob leaping towards him. He raised his sword—

A duty.

 

—-

 

The sun was low in the sky, as a traveler in a red cloak stood by the gates to Celum and waited impatiently. He had waited all day, and it was practically night time already. He was considering leaving—in fact, he’d tried to several times, but something drew him back.

The first was the knowledge that this meeting had been arranged, and that Magnolia Reinhart was not one to break her word. The second was that he knew that it was a meeting worth pursuing. Still, the lack of any vehicles on the horizon had left him worried, and so he was debating stepping inside the city limits for food or a drink and sending another [Message] spell when he saw it.

On the horizon, a shape. Something moving incredibly fast down the road, headed towards him. The traveler stepped forwards in relief as he heard [Guardsmen] call out warning on the battlements above. But that relief turned to alarm as he saw the carriage approaching in more detail.

It was pink, or it had been. But red splatters of blood had dried on the front. The carriage was damaged in multiple places, and the driver—

“Dead gods.”

As the guards on Celum’s walls shouted the alarm, the traveler saw the carriage heading straight towards him. It turned and drifted for a moment before stopping in shower of mud and snow which barely missed the traveler. The driver paused and leaned forwards over his reins as the ghostly horses stood in the cold. He was covered in blood and an arrow was sticking out of his leg. He turned his head towards the traveler, and smiled weakly.

“I presume you are my guest for this trip? I do apologize for the delay.”

“Ancestors, are you alright?”

“Never better.”

Reynold pulled an arrow from his thigh and splashed a healing potion onto the wound with shaking hands. He glanced at the traveler as he pulled back his hood and froze.

You? That is to say, er—I am delighted to be driving such an esteemed personage, uh, sir—”

“You’re sure you’re alright? You look like you’ve been through a war!”

The traveler seemed more concerned with his health. Reynold straightened.

“Not to worry, sir! I merely had a run in with a few thousand Goblins. I assure you, I will be taking an alternate route on the return trip. If you will step into the carriage?”

“You’re sure you don’t need a [Healer] or another healing potion? What happened to you?”

Professionalism. Reynold gave the man his best smile as he sipped from the healing potion.

“Goblins, sir. Nothing to worry about. There is a cheese platter in an overhead compartment, I believe. Please help yourself and accept my deepest apologies for any mess that may have occurred. I would also like to render my sincerest regrets for the delay, which was caused by errors of my colleagues. And for the blood.”

He stared down at the traveler as guardsmen on the walls and gates shouted at him. The traveler hesitated. He looked around and realized that there were only moments before they were surrounded by Humans. He looked up at Reynold.

“Tell me, young…man. Are all of Magnolia Reinhart’s servants like you?”

Reynold grinned a bit manically at the traveler. He laughed, which was a serious breach of etiquette, but given the circumstances, understandable and worth it.

“Only the best of us, sir. Only the best. Shall we go?”

“I suppose. Yes, I supposed there’s no backing out of it now, is there?”

The traveler hesitated at the doors, but eventually stepped in. Reynold heard the carriage doors shut, and turned the carriage. Guardsmen shouted at him, trying to get him to stop. Reynold brushed hands away and flicked the reins. The carriage shot into motion, leaving the shouting people behind.

“I regret to say that our journey may be delayed by an hour or two, sir. Damage to the carriage has reduced our speed, and I must drive out of the way of the Goblin Lord’s army.”

“You mean you’ve seen them?”

“I believe parts of them are still stuck to the undercarriage, sir. May I take this moment to inform you of our wine selection?”

There was no response. Reynold laughed to himself. He was—was a bit disoriented himself. As he sped away from Celum he saw little black spots swimming in his vision, and felt his body swaying. He was…tired.

But he kept driving. He was a [Butler]. And a butler never abandoned his post. He owed Magnolia Reinhart too much for that.

Slowly, one of the wounds that hadn’t completely healed opened up again and spattered blood onto the front of the carriage, mixing with the rest. After a while, Reynold sipped more of the healing potion and the wound closed.

“Dear me. My attire is ruined. I should get that cleaned…as soon as I stop to rest.”

He sighed, and kept his eyes on the road. The last of the daylight burned away, and Reynold felt his body freezing. He was cold. It was dark. He reached for more energy, more fire, and felt himself drifting lower. But that was just his body. At the moment Reynold was full of life. He’d rest when it was over. For now he drove.

And inside the carriage, the traveler watched the driver through the panel. He stared anxiously at the man, but saw Reynold driving without faltering. And perhaps it was the unfamiliar sensation of riding in the carriage, or the instinctual understanding that Reynold wouldn’t stop until he’d completed his duty, but the traveler soon felt himself growing tired.

He slept. And then he dreamed.

 

—-

 

It was the past the traveler dreamed of. It was a memory that surfaced in his mind, an old conversation between him and a friend. It was ancient history, decades old, but it came to mind because of what he was about to do. He recalled a tent, the smell of wine, a slightly rough chair, and—company. He sat down, not remembering what the joke he’d just laughed at was, and saw his friend sitting across from him.

His friend. A long-dead face swam into focus in the traveler’s dream, and a voice spoke.

“I think I met a monster today.”

“Oh, really? What kind?”

“Hah. Not a real monster. I was speaking metaphorically. I met a Human girl. A young one. You might know of her. Magnolia Reinhart.”

“I don’t know the first name, but I recognize the last one. Well, well. One of the scions of the Five Families has come to our aid?”

“It seems like it. She’s responsible for that army. And this is the scary part—I’d swear she’s not even seventeen years of age. Maybe less; I don’t know Humans that well.”

“What, all of it? Is she some kind of [Commander]?”

“Hardly. She’s a [Lady]. And she’s certainly no warrior—I caught her throwing up after battle.”

“Why’s she come, then?”

“Because no one else would come to our aid otherwise. She came herself and brought an army capable of ending this war with her.”

“I’ll drink to her, then. Why’d you say you met a monster? Surely she’s not that hideous—”

“Don’t be a hatchling. I was being serious. I thought she was a monster when I met her. Now…I’m convinced.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“Let me say it another way. She’s a…Demon. You know, the ones from Rhir? Or maybe she’s something else. What I’m saying is that she scares me. She’s not like other Humans.”

“So? She must be outstanding to lead an army so young. She’s high level…so what? I’m not following you.”

“Hm. Perhaps I could say it like this. She’s like…a god.”

“The gods are dead.”

“Yes, but you know what I mean, don’t you? She’s like a god, or the opposite of one. Does that make sense?”

“Perhaps…she frightens you and she’s that different from her kind, is she?”

“Yes. Perhaps that’s the easiest way of saying it. It was the look in her eyes. I won’t forget it. She was throwing up when I saw her, but when she finished and turned—she was the one who rallied the Humans. All by herself, I’m sure of it. And they followed her. A coalition army of Humans to rescue we, the Drakes. Do you understand?”

“I think I do. But surely that’s not—”

“Just listen. I had a chance to talk with her. Just a short moment—you know how politics are. But it was when we had a chance that she really frightened me. I asked her what had prompted her to come to our aid when our species have been enemies for so long. And you know what she said?”

“What?”

“Just guess.”

“You know I’m no good at guessing. Tell me.”

“It was the same thing they said long ago. The same thing that the Five Families, the original Five Families said that they wanted as they were invading us, driving us back the first time. The same word, and I’ll wager, the same look of conviction.”

“I don’t know that word. So you’re saying she’s some kind of leader? A dangerous one for the future?”

“I don’t know. All I know is that I’m as wary of her as I am of the Antinium. That look in her eye, the way she speaks—it’s not that she’s not charismatic or a natural leader. Other people are—you and I lead. But it was the look, you see? The look and the conviction. She believes wholeheartedly in what she’s doing, and that’s what scares me.”

“Just tell me the damned word already, will you? What does she want?”

“Peace.”

“Peace?”

Zel Shivertail paused as he sipped from his cup and raised his head incredulously.

“That’s what I said.”

The Drake sitting across from him nodded. General Sserys, hero of the First Antinium War, smiled crookedly.

“A little girl leading an army to fight the Antinium. For peace. To save the world, she said. And you know what? She looked like a child then, with vomit dripping off her chin, but when I asked if it was possible, she just smiled. And then she looked like…I don’t know. Not a [Queen] or a [Lady], but something more. Like the opposite of a god, if they were alive. She stuck out her hand and said that I should join her. Together we could end the war and save the world.”

“And what, did you take it?”

Zel waited. Sserys shook his head.

“I didn’t get the chance. We were interrupted by some other Humans—[Lords], you know. But it stuck with me. Her offer. I felt like she was sucking me in, that she could see something I didn’t. I was afraid, Shivertail, and I won’t ever admit that to anyone else. I was afraid of her peace, of what she saw.”

“Afraid of a little Human girl. General Sserys, [Spear of the Drakes]. Afraid of peace.”

“That’s right.”

General Sserys looked at him, and Zel Shivertail paused for a second before bursting out laughing. The other Drake grinned in acknowledgement of the joke, and then he filled Zel’s cup. The two Drakes raised their cups in a silent toast and Zel raised it to his lips—

 

—-

 

Reynold? My goodness. Ressa! Get him healing potions and help him off of the carriage, quickly!”

A voice woke Zel Shivertail from his slumbers. He jerked awake in the carriage and realized he’d stopped. And then he realized who was speaking and froze. He sensed people rushing towards the carriage, and heard a sharp voice.

“Was it [Assassins]? How badly are you injured? Is the guest safe?”

“No attack—just Goblins. I do apologize Lady Reinhart—I made a decision to protect a group of travelers—I have also bloodied my uniform Ressa, for which I apologize.”

“Never mind that. Ressa, get the man inside. He’s frozen! Why is he so cold? Are the heating spells on the carriage broken again? And what about—”

The voice stopped as Zel opened the carriage door. The Drake [General] stared out into a dark world illuminated by bright mage lights and blinked down at the figures clustered around the [Butler] who was being held up by two servants. They were all Humans—well, all save for one of the [Maids] who was a Gnoll. And they stared at him with a mixture of awe and fear.

They knew him as a legend. One of the [Maids], a tall woman, moved slowly backwards towards a shorter woman, keeping her eyes on him. It was too dark for Zel to make out details, but the way she held herself, and her voice—he had never met her, and she had never met him.

But they knew each other. Zel Shivertail lowered his head slightly as he stepped from the carriage. Magnolia Reinhart moved past Ressa’s protective body and smiled.

“General Shivertail. I’m glad you decided to come. My apologies for the delay.”

Zel paused and nodded to Reynold. The [Butler] was still on his feet, being fussed over by two [Maids].

“Your man looked like he’d driven through a war and back to get to me. I commend his spirit.”

“Happy to serve.”

Reynold mumbled. Magnolia glanced at him, and then at Zel. Cautiously, slowly, she held out her hand.

“We have never met, but I hope we can speak freely, Zel Shivertail. I have long wanted to meet you, as you are no doubt aware. I hope we can set the issues you put forward in your letter right.”

“I have no doubt we can. But I have one question to ask you first. Something I have to know.”

Zel didn’t take Magnolia’s offered hand. He looked her in the eye and sensed Ressa staring at him warily, felt the prickles on his spines that told him the other servants were dangerous. But it was only Magnolia’s face he searched.

“Tell me why.”

“Why…what, precisely?”

“Why you’ve gone to all this trouble. Why you’re willing to help. Why all the things you promised me. What’s in it for you?”

Magnolia lowered her hands and tapped her lips.

“Nothing, perhaps. But it is my mission, shall we say? My ambition, most definitely. I have one dream, General Shivertail.”

“Which is?”

Zel held his breath. The world did. Magnolia Reinhart smiled, and in her eyes was a bright light. She held out her hand once more.

“Peace. To save the world. I will do anything for that goal. Will you help me?”

Zel Shivertail looked into her eyes. For a second he saw what Sserys had, decades ago. That light, that certainty. The other Drake had called it the look of a devil, a monster, or a god. And then he blinked, and saw something different. He hesitated, and then his claws rose. Gingerly, somewhere in the past of what might have been, the Drake [General] shook the Human girl’s hands.

And then they were back in the present, in the now. Zel looked into Magnolia’s eyes and smiled.

“Let’s save the world then, Miss Reinhart. Tell me, where should we begin?”

She laughed lightly, in relief, as Ressa let out a huge breath behind her and Reynold fainted.

“With the Goblins, my dear Zel. With the Goblin Lord first. And then Az’kerash. And then the Antinium.”

“And then?”

She smiled wider.

“We’ll see. Now, shall we discuss this inside? Say, over a cup of tea?”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

4.37 O

Argh! I’ve gone blind!”

Olesm’s first reaction upon putting on the ring was to roll about on the ground and scream. He felt like someone was stabbing his eyes out with a toothpick. Everything was spinning, confusing—blurring! He tried to focus his eyes on his claws, the sky, anything, but he didn’t see what he should have, just intense and very large blobs of color.

The agony persisted until someone grabbed Olesm roughly. He flailed at the person with his claws and felt someone grab one of his fingers. Olesm felt a hand twist the ring on his index claw and suddenly the world was back to normal. He blinked tears out of his eyes and saw Pisces standing over him.

“Wha—what happened?”

“The ring modifies your sight. Obviously.”

The [Necromancer] stepped back and Olesm sat up. A crowd of people had gathered around him. Olesm waved sheepishly at some people he knew. Pisces just sniffed. Olesm passed trembling claws in front of his face. Were they larger than they should be?

“Wow. A Ring of Sight? But when I put it on, everything was so—so—”

“The enchantment allows you to adjust the magnification effect by twisting the ring. It was not difficult to identify the nature of the spell. Which is clearly what you should have done before putting the ring on. Do you make a habit of using magical items without ascertaining their natures?”

Pisces stared pointedly at Olesm. The Drake felt the scales on his cheeks warm. He coughed and got up. Yes, the world was larger than it should be. He carefully twisted the ring on his fingers and felt everything slide back into normal focus.

“Um. Thank you, Pisces. Sorry everyone. Just an unexpected incident with a magical artifact. Heh.”

The crowd dispersed, since that really was a usual occurrence and Olesm hadn’t done anything else interesting like grow a second tail. Still very embarrassed, Olesm brushed at his clothes and looked at Pisces. He coughed, and the mage silently handed him the letter from Niers Astoragon.

“A Ring of Sight. An appropriate gift for a [Tactician] beginning his career. No doubt similar artifacts are used by most conventional strategists, hence the decision to gift one to you.”

“What? Right. Yeah, it’s good. I normally ask for magnification spells or—it’s good.”

Olesm peered at the letter again. The short missive still stunned him and he stared at the crest at the top of the letter. A letter from him. Niers Astoragon. If there was a hero among [Strategists], it was him. Everyone who respected planning, organization, smart strategy and—and anything having to do with that kind of thing respected Niers Astoragon.

He was famous for beating [Mages] and enemy [Generals] alike with his sophisticated mind games and winning battles thought impossible with clever insight rather than brute force. Of course, he was a Fraerling; brute force wasn’t an option for him.

Olesm was a huge fan of his and clearly Pisces shared the same opinion. The [Necromancer] was inspecting the envelope carefully, even sniffing it. Olesm snatched it away from the mage and turned. His heart was racing. He had only one thought in his mind.

“I have to tell Erin about this!”

She would be so excited to hear what had happened. Or—did she know who Niers Astoragon was? She’d be excited when Olesm explained him to her. He began hurrying down the street. For some reason, Pisces followed him.

“It seems this chess newsletter has reaped quite a substantial reward. Especially for so little work.”

“What? Oh, yes. It has.”

Olesm frowned at Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s eyes were fixed on the letter in his claws, and the ring. Olesm had to prevent himself from fiddling with it; he’d have to find out exactly how far he could see with it. If the blinding images were anything to go by, it could probably magnify his sight many, many times over.

It wasn’t far to the gates and the streets were mostly empty. People still didn’t want to travel outside of the city for fear of Goblins—and because of the snow—and since Erin’s inn was now infested with said Goblins, no one really had business outside. Olesm waved at the Gnoll on duty as he hurried out. And Pisces was still following him.

“So you intend to tell Erin about your success.”

“Yeah, that’s the plan. Are you going to her inn as well?”

“I do reside there.”

Olesm frowned as he marched through wet snow, glad he’d put his boots on today. He didn’t exactly want Pisces to come to the inn. The [Necromancer] was staring at him with what felt like disapproval.

“Look, can I help you? Not to be rude, but I’ve just had a bit of great news and I’d like to share it with Erin. Alone.”

Pisces sniffed.

“Of course. And may I add that it is an entirely deserved reward for your hard effort?”

That was clearly sarcastic. Olesm slowed his frantic steps through the snow and glared at Pisces.

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”

The [Mage] folded his arms.

“I would imagine my statements are self-explanatory.”

Olesm stared. Pisces rolled his eyes.

“Very well, if I must explain myself—I assume you are going to the inn to tell Erin exactly how wonderful the news of Niers Astoragon’s approval is. He has gifted you with his attention, a ring, and a chess puzzle for your, ah, publication.”

“That’s right. So what?”

Olesm glanced down at the letter in his claws. He couldn’t wait to try and solve the puzzle himself. He wondered if Erin could do it so easily. It was a puzzle from the Titan! And Niers had also written that he’d love to know more about the game of Go that Olesm had mentioned in his last newsletter. If Erin could play a few games with him, maybe show Olesm a few tips—

Pisces’ voice broke through his rushing thoughts like a cold bar of iron.

“And you are sure you deserve such rewards? You, and no one else?”

The [Tactician] raised his head.

“What? Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I do! I wrote the newsletter! Are you jealous?”

That had to be it. Pisces was jealous of his good fortune and the ring. Olesm covered it with one claw. But Pisces’ expression had now twisted into a sneer of contempt. He stomped through the snow and poked Olesm in the chest with one finger.

“It truly does amaze me. You have no concept of the irony of it, do you? You think Niers Astoragon cared for your newsletter? No. He cared for what you were a vehicle for—the games you so blatantly copied. He was impressed by Erin Solstice’s chess games, her expertise and abilities. Not yours. All your fleeting fame, your accolades, all stem from one person. Erin. Not you. If anyone deserves that ring and letter, it is she.”

A hole opened up under Olesm’s stomach. He felt it drop and a terrible fear engulfed him. No. It couldn’t be. He tried to protest.

“I—I did more than that! I added other games, my commentary. It wasn’t all Erin. I just used her games—”

Her first games. Olesm’s throat closed up as he remembered that he’d sent copies of her chess games with every letter. Pisces sneered.

“Ah yes, your commentary. Was it all lauding her brilliant moves, or did you copy her remarks as well? Certainly you deserve praise—for your abilities as a [Scribe]. Not as a [Tactician]. Least of all as someone with any original thought worthy of merit.”

With each sentence, Pisces poked Olesm again. The words cut deeply at Olesm, but the shame and pain twisted in his gut and turned into anger. The Drake knocked the accusatory hand away and lashed his tail in the snow.

“Shut up! I had the idea at first! Yes, I copied down Erin’s games, but she gave me permission, and who else had this idea? Shouldn’t I get credit for that?”

“Didn’t Miss Solstice herself suggest to you to expand your newsletter? I heard she was familiar with the exact same concept you thought was so original.”

Pisces crossed his arms and Olesm bit his tongue guiltily. That was right. Erin said it was like something she’d seen. Magazines, she’d called them. Monthly newsletters about chess. But he hadn’t known that!

But now Pisces was pressing the attack. The Human glared at Olesm in the snow just outside of Liscor, his eyes filled with scorn.

“You are nothing more than a copycat. If Niers Astoragon knew that the sum of all your accomplishments was nothing more than an opportunistic thief stealing from someone else’s talent, he would never have sent a letter, much less a ring—”

Shut up!

Olesm couldn’t bear it any longer. He bent into the snow, gathered a handful of wet snow, and hurled it at Pisces. The mage tried to dodge, but the snow smacked him across the face and shoulder. He brushed it away, looking outraged. Olesm glared at him.

“I don’t have to hear that from you. Yes, I took Erin’s games and showed them to people. Yes, she’s one of the reasons why people are so impressed. But I still did all this. Me! And no matter what you say, the fact is that you’re just jealous that Niers Astoragon knows my name. Whereas you’re a mage everyone hates, just a step above a graverobber!”

He bent and scooped up more snow and hurled it at Pisces. The mage stepped away, face crimson with anger, but Olesm was too incensed to care.

“I bet you wish you’d done what I did. Well, you didn’t. And now that someone famous knows me, me, you’d better believe I’ll use that and start making more newsletters as fast as I can! That’s what I’ve done! What have you accomplished? You—you spineless [Necromancer]! What have you done, other than steal from people and cause trouble? Ceria and the Horns of Hammerad are the best thing that ever happened to you! What have you got besides them?”

Olesm realized he was shouting. He didn’t know where that last bit had come from, only that it stemmed from the frustration in his chest. He threw a third wet snowball at Pisces. This time he missed completely.

The [Mage] stood in the snow, watching Olesm. The Drake was panting. Pisces’ face was white with anger. The truce that had been caused by Niers’ letter had been broken, and now their previous conversation rose into the air, making it hot and uncomfortable.

Pisces glanced over Olesm’s shoulder. He narrowed his eyes at the Drake and adjusted something on his belt. A bag of holding? Olesm glanced at it and a small bell began ringing in his mind. His [Dangersense]. But then Pisces began to speak.

“What have I accomplished? Turn and see.”

There was a rustling. A sound. Olesm whirled and something burst out of the snow behind him. He yelped and fell backwards, scrabbling for his sword as a pale yellow and white creature exploded upwards in a shower of snow. It was tall, thin, ivory bones swinging into place, a burning eye of green flame staring down at Olesm—

A scythe of bone swung down in front of the Drake’s face. Olesm froze. His eyes slowly travelled upwards. Yes, it was a scythe of bone, a curved claw sharpened to a cutting edge. But it was not a weapon. Rather, the scythe was the creature’s arm. And the long, whip-like assembly of bone led upwards to a strange, narrow body without a head. Olesm’s breath came in short, sharp bursts.

What was he staring at? A monster. No, an abomination made of bone. The creature that stood in the snow had a thin torso but long, spider-like lower half.  Four legs reminiscent of a spider’s held the thing up, but an odd, cylindrical waist connected the upper half to the lower. It had no head, but rather, a single central socket and ‘eye’ of flaming light set in the center of the torso, which was shaped like an inverted teardrop.

The two arms with scythes on each end were long enough to trail on the ground and while the ‘hands’ were the sickles of cutting bone, the creature had wicked barbs of bone sticking out along the edges of its arms. Olesm gulped as the scythe-hand near his face slowly retracted. He watched in horror and fascination as the thing backed up a few steps, and then collapsed into a pile of bones.

“Wha—what was—”

“My worth.”

Pisces was smiling as Olesm staggered around. The Drake felt he needed to sit, so he did. Straight into the snow. Pisces smirked at that; then his head turned to the walls of Liscor. He searched the battlements, but if the [Guardsmen] on sentry duty had seen the bone thing; no one had raised the alarm.

So they hadn’t seen it. Because Olesm felt sure that anyone who’d seen Pisces’ creation would raise every alarm in existence, if they didn’t just run away screaming first. He looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] turned back to him. Only now did Olesm recover his voice.

“What was that? What in the name of scales—”

“As I said. My worth. That is my latest creation. A Bone Horror.”

“A Bone—

Olesm’s mouth gaped open. He’d heard of such things, of course. Skeletons were only one kind of undead that could emerge in mass graves or places of death. Fortunately, such occurrences were rare and the remains were usually disposed quickly, but given enough time, fractured pieces of bone, half-destroyed corpses and so on could form horrible amalgamation undead, like Crypt Lords and Bone Horrors.

But Olesm was sure, sure that such undead were far beyond the ability of most low-level necromancers to create. Wasn’t the general rule of thumb that a [Necromancer] could only animate an undead equivalent to half of his levels? Or was it two thirds? Was it higher if he had a specific Skill? Olesm’s internal mind told him he would be reading every book on necromancy that night, but his conscious brain told him only one thing. Pisces had created a Bone Horror. It was his.

He’d made it. And for some reason, now Olesm saw Pisces as the other people in Liscor surely had. Zombies, skeletons like Toren, even Ghouls were one thing. But that? No creature on earth looked like that. Or if they did, they were as twisted as Crelers. No, Pisces had created that himself. It was a manifestation of his ideas. He’d brought that horror into existence.

“Why would you make something like that?”

Pisces was walking through the snow. He passed by Olesm, and the bones floated upwards. The Drake flinched, but they were floating into the bag of holding that Pisces carried at his side. The [Necromancer] turned his head, speaking casually.

“For combat. Why else? Naturally I cannot animate such a being for extended durations; indeed, I have not shared its existence with my teammates yet since their reactions would probably mirror yours. However, given proper time to prepare—say, before challenging a particularly dangerous monster—this Bone Horror will doubtless prove useful. What you saw was a prototype, of course.”

“A prototype.”

“Indeed. You noted the long arms? For mobile attacks. When used in conjunction with the four legs, this variant—what I term the Scythe Crawler—is very quick and able to attack its opponents from many angles a conventional creature would not. It is able to rotate freely about the waist, allowing strikes from improbable angles.”

“Improbable angles.”

“Indeed. However, this is only one variant I have come up with. Given the bones I have collected thus far—and I would like to expand that collection if I can purchase a superior bag of holding—I have ideas for a more powerful version. This one is regrettably weak against armored foes. But one with enhanced limbs and perhaps a ranged attack—”

“Ranged attack?”

“Yes, firing bones. It is possible to turn parts of the skeletal structure into a catapult, although obviously ammunition would be limited. But if combined with a recall spell, it could be useful. I haven’t worked out the exact specifications yet, but I am pleased with the results so far—”

Pisces finished bagging the last of the bones and turned. He’d been chattering excitedly, but now he stopped when he saw Olesm’s face. The slight smile that he’d been wearing vanished and was replaced by his customary look of disdain in an instant.

“Ah. Forgive me. I believe we were discussing achievements? Well, you may not acknowledge mine, but I consider it equivalent to any such letters. It is another step in my career. You may scorn it as you wish.”

Olesm felt like throwing up. Pisces turned away. The Drake stared at his back. He realized the look on his face was probably what Pisces saw all the time in the city. And yet, he couldn’t suppress the disturbed feeling in his chest. He didn’t know if he should. So instead he asked the only question he could think of.

“Is that why Selys was angry with you? Because you wanted to bring that into the city?”

“Do you take me for a fool? Of course not!”

Pisces snapped at Olesm. He looked like he regretted scaring Olesm with his creation. His eyes flicked towards the walls again. He shook his head.

“I—was talking to her about a similar, but unrelated matter. A trifle. I simply offered her to resolve the issue of giant rats within Liscor’s sewers.”

“What? Oh. We had a bounty on them, but no one wants to take it.”

“Quite. It is a disgusting job with risk of infection, not to mention disease. The rats live in the drainage pipes, growing overly large due to magical waste improperly disposed of…hunting down their nests would require crawling through pipes, a task few adventurers are willing to contemplate, however low-level they might be.”

“But you were willing to do it?”

Olesm stared at Pisces. The [Mage] looked affronted.

“I would rather die. But I offered to send one of my constructs into the sewers. A creation similar to the Bone Horror, whose task would be solely to destroy any rats below. It would be mobile, created for tight engagements, and naturally advantageous given a rat’s limited physical weapons against bone. But Miss Shivertail denied my proposal without deigning to relay it to her Guildmistress, citing city laws—”

“Oh. Right. That makes sense. We don’t let undead into the city for any reasons.”

“So she was telling the truth.”

Pisces’ face grew pinched. He gritted his teeth together, spoke sharply through them.

“Nevertheless, she could have asked. But apparently her grandmother—a fine case of nepotism in practice—distrusts necromancy. So rational thought is once away done away with and my suggestion is deemed meritless before any actual consideration. Due to prejudice.”

He glanced at Olesm and shook his head.

“Pah. I suppose it should not surprise me. Those who would decry an entire school of magic for one or two bad examples are clearly not worthy of coherent thought. Or my time.”

He turned away. Olesm sat up in the snow. He blinked at Pisces’ back. Olesm raised his voice as Pisces began to stomp back towards Liscor.

“I think it’s a good idea.”

“What?”

Pisces turned. He blinked at Olesm. Olesm wiped some snow off of his shoulder absently.

“I said I think it’s a good idea. Your sewer plan, that is.”

“You—you do?”

“Yeah. We haven’t been able to work out a good plan for clearing them for years now. We’ve tried spells—the rats just eat them or expend all the charges too fast. We try poison and they adapt. Plus, the sewers are pretty much poison as they are already, so…we try adventurers and they never get enough. We waste money on the issue and every now and then the rats swarm out of the sewers, which is a disaster.”

Olesm shuddered at the memories. He looked at Pisces.

“You have a good idea. I get why Selys turned down your proposal, though. Her grandmother would kick you tail-over-head out of the door in an instant. But I could authorize your idea myself.”

“What?”

“I am the city’s lone [Tactician]. I might not be exactly as important as Watch Captain Zevara, but I can do a lot on my own authority. Striking a deal and writing out a permit for a single undead under your supervision is within my jurisdiction.”

As he spoke, Olesm’s tail lifted towards his mouth. He gnawed on the tip for a second before realizing what he was doing and spitting it out. He coughed, feeling like a hatchling again.

“How does ten gold pieces sound to begin with? We could put a bounty of…I don’t know, one copper piece per ten rats killed? If your undead works with your mana it could kill thousands over the course of weeks. That’s hundreds of gold pieces for you.”

Pisces’ jaw dropped. He stared at the Drake [Tactician] and looked around as if he suspected a prank. He pointed at Olesm.

“But you—I could have sworn you thought—what of my latest creation?”

“That? That was disgusting.”

Olesm shuddered. Pisces’ eyes were fixed on him. The mage raised his hands angrily.

“And?”

“And what?”

His bottom was wet. Olesm returned Pisces’ gaze, breathing a bit hard.

“Not liking undead is one thing, but I’m not an idiot, Pisces. Look, that Bone Horror was—horrible. I think it’s disgusting. If you summon—animate, whatever, bring it to life again, I will throw up, hit you with my sword, and run away. Maybe not in that order. I hate undead, and that probably won’t change. But that doesn’t mean I think your ideas aren’t good. Can’t thinking, rational adults like us respect each other’s boundaries and still work together?”

For a solid minute, the Drake and Human just stared at each other in silence. Pisces was blinking, caught off-guard. Olesm was wet. He shifted and hoped that Niers’ letter hadn’t gotten soggy. But his legs didn’t want to stand just yet, so he stayed put. Pisces stared at Olesm and seemed to notice Olesm’s state at last.

“Ah. You are sitting in the snow. You appear to be quite wet.”

Olesm looked around. His tail was very cold and sitting in a rather deep and melting drift. He nodded slowly.

“So I am.”

Pisces stared. Then, slowly, he bent and offered Olesm a hand up. And after a second, Olesm took it.

 

—-

 

“I do apologize for my earlier comments. They were deliberately inflammatory and designed to offend. I believe the merit of your work is self-evident and did not merit my scorn in the slightest.”

“No, no, I have to admit that you had a good point. And I haven’t been nearly as gracious as I should be. True, I don’t like undead, but I can admire your uh, Bone Horror from a design perspective. And it’s true that your ideas really are just what the city needs. I should apologize as well.”

“Perish the thought. I would prefer to let bygones be bygones. It is rather agreeable to meet someone else with a rational mindset, not to mention a similar perspective after toiling for so long alone.”

“Indeed it is.”

A Drake and a Human walked through the snow around Liscor, talking animatedly. They were not headed in the direction of the Wandering Inn or back to Liscor. Instead, they were just…chatting.

Olesm kicked through the snow as Pisces’ robe left a trail of its own. Neither Human nor Drake noticed; they were too caught up in their conversation. After the ice had metaphorically and literally melted between them, the two had realized that they were different, but alike in many agreeable ways.

They were both young, both considered themselves thoughtful as opposed to impulsive—a choice reflected in their respective classes, and both shared a love for strategy, planning, and so on. Olesm was stunned to realize that in many respects, Pisces was like him.

For one thing, Pisces had probably the most complete understanding of Drake politics that Olesm had ever met outside of another Drake. He was up to date on the latest world events, and could discuss issues like the Germina-Reim incident and subsequent Hellios conflict without having to be reminded of the details. He had read widely about Niers Astoragon’s historical campaigns, knew several facts about Baleros that Olesm did not, and was an expert on Terandrian culture and politics.

He was incredible. And it was clear that Pisces considered Olesm a fellow peer, which was a compliment in itself from Pisces. But what the two really bonded over was their situations as young individuals trying to make their mark in the world.

“It’s all politics, Pisces. Everyone wagging their tails for one side or another, and no real focus on merit. I got my job in the city because I was the highest-level, yes, but my family had to kiss a lot of claws to get me where I was. But even though I am the city’s [Tactician], everyone in the council meetings ignores me when they feel like it because I’m young. As if seniority matters that much! I’m higher-level than at least two of the council members!”

Olesm shook his head, lashing the snow behind him angrily. Pisces nodded, lips pursing.

“It is ever the same across nations I’m afraid. In Terandria, the issue of personal power is compounded by bloodlines. Seeking friendship with the nobility is practically a requirement. As for wealth—”

“If you’re not rich, you won’t move a single tail your way. Yeah, I know. But it feels like to have wealth you need wealth, you know? I get paid a little bit from my salary, but if I wanted to command any respect I’d have to invest heavily into some profitable venture, or uncover a boatload of treasure—”

“You need not explain yourself to me, Olesm. Adventuring, like magic, is similarly gated. In Wistram, the older mages controlled the access to spellbooks with an iron grip. But if they had simply shared their largely redundant collections, everyone might profit! Instead, here we are, forced to scrabble along until we are as aged and decrepit as the fools who kept us down to begin with…”

Pisces sighed. Olesm patted him on the shoulder with a sympathetic claw. They walked onwards.

“You really did have a good thing with that Bone Horror. I mean, it’s disgusting for me, true, but I’d love to see it tearing up a Creler rather than anyone risk their lives.”

“Precisely the use undead were intended for! Please say that to Springwalker or Miss Byres. And you were impressed by the arms were you not?”

“Oh, yeah! Whip-like attacks, all those barbs—it makes sense, doesn’t it? I imagine it’s a lot stronger than those bears you rode in on the other week.”

The mage smiled slyly.

“Actually, those were the bears.”

“Get out.”

Olesm stared at him. Pisces waved a hand.

“No, no. It was just a matter of carving some of the bones, rearranging others—you see the Bone Horror is a product of my increased mastery of bones in general. In fact, the ability to create such a being directly correlates to my current level. I ah, reached Level 30 just the other day.”

“No way! You? But why didn’t you tell anyone?”

Pisces smiled proudly.

“I wished to keep it a secret. Let us just say that I experienced several revelations…and for my Level 30 Skill, I obtained a greater mastery of bone shaping. However, I might add that the ability to create Draugr would have been another common Skill at that level.”

“Draugr? That would be impressive. Those are like super-undead, right? I remember hearing about how a hundred of those could smash through most formations—”

“True. But I consider Bone Horrors superior.”

“What? No. Why? A Draugr—”

“Think about it, Olesm. True, a Draugr is impressive, but it requires a body, nay, relies on the strength of a deceased for full potency. In addition, it is harder to store such corpses, whereas a Bone Horror…”

“…Can be reanimated at will! And kept in a bag of holding! Of course!”

Olesm snapped at his forehead. Pisces nodded, smiling happily.

“In addition, I believe I can make such creations far stronger than typical examples. Consider my variant—it is far better structured than the default amalgamation the spell produces. Indeed, my ability to specialize such undead will allow infinite forms for any contingency. Plus, if I create a few custom undead rather than mass-animate them, they will be far superior. That is my belief.”

“Really? You hear about [Necromancers] raising undead in big armies all the time. Isn’t that more mana-efficient?”

“It is. But that is hardly conducive to secrecy or positive relations with other groups, is it? Moreover, the inefficiency of mass-produced undead…”

Pisces shook his head, looking troubled. He grumbled to himself under his breath.

“It is strange that legends fail to see why vast armies of largely similar creations are flawed. Whereas if the designs for undead were altered en masse and used as the template for future spells, the potential of a zombie or skeleton would be far greater. How can someone not see that? Experimentation is the key to growth, not—”

He broke off and eyed Olesm for a moment before laughing lightly and shaking his head.

“Forgive me. It seems I am the only [Necromancer] who believes in the total assurance of quality over quantity.”

“That’s too bad. Or rather, good, I guess. If other [Necromancers] were like you, we’d be in a lot more trouble when they appear.”

Olesm grinned at Pisces. The [Mage] looked surprised, as he always did when Olesm paid him a compliment, and then laughed.

“True.”

They walked a bit more through the snow when Olesm cleared his throat. He’d had a thought while walking with Pisces. Their conversation was excellent of course, but it occurred to him that the [Mage] could allow him to check up on his theory at the same time.

“Do you mind if we head this way while we walk?”

Pisces glanced in the indicated direction, away from Liscor and up a snowy hill. His eyes flicked to Olesm’s face for a moment, but he only nodded.

“Not at all.”

He’d already figured out where they were going based on direction alone. True, it was an easy conclusion if you thought about it, but Olesm still admired the way Pisces had come to it so flawlessly. He coughed, and brought up another subject on his mind.

“Er, Pisces. I know you and the Horns of Hammerad have been doing a lot of missions together.”

“We have enjoyed some success, yes. Although right now we are simply keeping busy rather than aiming at one goal. Our tasks are by and large simplistic.”

Pisces waved a hand. Olesm nodded. He cleared his throat again, feeling extremely embarrassed.

“Right. So you spend a lot of time with Ceria. And you’re old friends from Wistram.”

“Old friends. I suppose you could say that, yes.”

“Uh huh. So she talks to you I bet. Does she…does she ever mention me at all?”

The Drake halted in the snow. Pisces turned his head, looking amused and trying to cover that amusement at the same time.

“You wonder if Ceria harbors feelings for you still?”

“No, no, I was just curious if she felt—yes.”

Olesm hung his head, tail drooping. The sympathetic look in Pisces’ eye told him all he needed to know. Pisces hesitated before cautiously patting Olesm on the back with one tentative hand.

“I regret to say she does not mention her feelings to me in that regard. In other regards, yes. But in this…she may still be receptive.”

“No. No. I just wondered if—I mean, we weren’t a couple long. We didn’t actually do much couple-like things, actually. We just uh—but I thought—”

Olesm’s cheeks were flushing. He blinked at suddenly painful eyes. Pisces averted his gaze and cleared his throat tactfully. After a long pause, he spoke.

“I do not believe the fault was yours, if there was any fault to assign for the demise of any, ah, relationship between you two, Olesm. Springwalker—I mean, Ceria is a half-Elf. They do not value long-term relationships with other species, by and large.”

“I know that. But I thought she and I had something.”

“Perhaps you did.”

There was a sympathetic look in Pisces eyes as he shook his head.

“Ceria is used to mobility, travel. She is an adventurer and a half-Elf. She is used to persecution for simply existing in Terandria, and I do not believe she is looking for a long-term partner. Speaking as one who has also had a relationship with Ceria, I think she seeks temporary solace, not love.”

“Someone who—what? You and Ceria were—you two?”

Olesm’s head snapped up. Pisces blinked, and then he looked the other way.

“I ah, misspoke. We were only together for—”

“You two used to be together? When? In Wistram? Wait, is that why she hates you now?”

“Ahem. It is long past, and it would be inaccurate to call our connection anything more than a brief passing of ships.”

Pisces shook his head, but Olesm refused to let it go. The Drake walked in front of Pisces.

“Come on. Tell me. How close were you two? Why’d you break up?”

The [Necromancer] halted in his tracks and looked away. He bit his lip, and then replied.

“I don’t believe we were ever together, Olesm. Not truly. There was a time, once—but it never came to be. I misspoke earlier. Please do not repeat that to Ceria. I think she would take it amiss if she learned what I said.”

Olesm hesitated. He knew he should drop it, but he couldn’t.

“Why’d it never come to be, though?”

Again, the Human hesitated. When he looked back, it was with concealed pain in his eyes. He really wasn’t that good a liar if you looked past the sneer he was always wearing like a mask.

“She learned the truth. Who I am. Before I could explain. That was all.”

The memory of the Bone Horror resurfaced in Olesm’s mind. He stopped, and his tail drooped.

“Sorry. I’m uh, sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

Pisces shrugged, covering up his emotions with indifference. He glanced past Olesm.

“It is no matter. The memory only troubles me at times. And it appears we have appeared at another memory. Tell me, why are we here?”

Olesm turned. He hadn’t noticed it, but they had come up on a large, excavated hillside. He cautiously ascended a few more steps and found himself staring into a dark, stone doorway looming amid the half-excavated stonework. This was not the dungeon’s entrance. No. This was the crypt.

They had thought it was the dungeon at first. Olesm remembered Klbkch delivering the report to Zevara and all the speculation it had caused. He remembered the expeditions of adventurers going in, and then the fated one that had included the Horns of Hammerad. And then the night when Skinner had overrun the gates with an army of undead—

The night he had been down there. In the darkness, fighting for his life, hiding from the undead with Ceria in the coffins. Olesm shuddered. He felt terribly afraid of the crypt. Pisces stared at the dark opening, and then at the Drake.

“It was clear you intended to come here. The reason is what I cannot fathom.”

“It’s a…hunch. Look, I’m realizing this might be a bad idea more and more, but you’re a powerful [Necromancer]; I feel like I’d be safe with you if we went inside, right?”

“To do what, exactly?”

Olesm patted at his pockets.

“Follow up on a hunch. Remember the report I asked for at the Adventurer’s Guild?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I noticed some discrepancies in another file a while back. I never had time to check it out—and I wasn’t confident enough to ask Zevara for an escort before now. Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you about it. Unless you think it might be dangerous?”

Pisces eyed the dark opening, and then shrugged. He reached for his bag of holding and poured the bones onto the ground. Olesm shuddered as the Bone Horror rose upwards. It scuttled into the large opening and Pisces motioned towards it.

“My creation should attract any monsters inside, and we will be forewarned in case of most threats. Moreover, I believe the crypts were cleared recently, so I don’t anticipate any true danger. Unless you do?”

“Not danger.”

“Then let us enter.”

Slowly, the two walked into the darkness. Pisces conjured a ball of light and Olesm shuddered as he looked around the crypts. Yes, it was just like he remembered. The excavated rooms, still full of dirt and tracks, the haunting echoes, the temple decorations…

Pisces walked next to Olesm, looking around, frowning ahead, monitoring his creation’s progress probably. Olesm remembered that Pisces had also come here, to rescue Ceria and Olesm both a lifetime ago. He closed his eyes on the thought and nearly tripped.

“Careful.”

The Human caught him. Olesm shook his head.

“Sorry. I’m just—memories, you know?”

“Yes.”

Pisces’ eyes were sympathetic. He looked around.

“Now would you enlighten me?”

“Yeah. Let me just collect my thoughts for a moment.”

The two walked onwards, through narrow corridors, towards the tunnel sloping downwards to the second level. Olesm felt his scales tingling, but told himself there was no danger. If there were undead, Pisces would have sensed them. This place was nothing more than a grave now. It had always been a grave, but now the occupants were silent.

“So like I said, I noticed something when looking through one of the old reports. It’s my job to file a lot of paperwork and I remembered this one. So I was looking…you know that all of the adventurer’s possessions were confiscated by the city afterwards, right?”

“Yes. I do recall. Everything but what Ceria, Yvlon, and the few survivors carried were taken. A group of guardsmen cleared this place of the last of the undead. What of it?”

“Well, we did an inventory. Naturally. Weapons we didn’t need were sold and we repurposed the magical artifacts, potions, and so on. We also did a tally of the dead. A…rough count since so many were—were attacked by Skinner. Identification was impossible, but we knew they were Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, and so on from the bones, right?”

“Yes. Was there something wrong with your count?”

“Just one.”

Olesm’s breath came in short, sharp bursts as they descended the ramp leading downwards. He remembered. A group of running zombies had come up the corridor. And beyond that, the ambush—Pisces gripped his arm and Olesm caught himself.

“What was I…? Yeah, I found one discrepancy, but I had to make sure. This report is from the Adventurer’s Guild. I didn’t really need it; I already had the one the Watch filed. But I had to make sure both were the same. And they were.”

“And who was missing?”

Pisces’ gaze turned to Olesm’s. The [Necromancer] walked through the darkness, his face illuminated by the soft yellow light of his spell, calm, waiting. Olesm looked at him.

“You already know.”

After a second, the mage nodded.

“There is only one individual whose remains would stand out enough to warrant positive identification, regardless of loss of skin.”

The two came to the intersection. Olesm felt his heart pounding in his chest. Pisces looked left and right. He spoke one word.

“Calruz.”

“Yes. The guardsmen never found his remains. Not his bones, nor his axe. And they should have found something, even if he was torn apart. His body wasn’t listed among the undead that attacked Liscor—not that he could have been reanimated that fast. And there’s no way he would have escaped and not gone to Liscor, so I thought—”

Olesm trailed off. It was stupid, now he said it out loud. He looked down the corridors. He remembered hearing the screaming in the distance, hearing the others wonder aloud where the other Silver-rank teams were. The sound of something dragging itself closer.

But there was nothing here now. He tried to reassure himself. Pisces stared around.

“You think he’s still down here. But it has been months. He would not have survived.”

“Right. Obviously.”

Olesm bit his lip. Pisces glanced at him.

“So you want to find his remains? You believe his corpse was overlooked?”

“Yeah. Maybe in a crevice or some secret door. It’s—look, I know it’s silly, but he fought with us, with me. I might be dead if he hadn’t charged Skinner. If I can find his body—”

“I understand. But it is a vast space. Do you really think we can find where he fell?”

The Drake hesitated.

“We can try.”

 

—-

 

It was dark. The light of Pisces’ magic was the only source of illumination in the darkness, casting long shadows and making everything seem just as frightening as it was. Olesm was glad for the light, though. Without it he might have panicked. The memories here were too strong.

At least he could see well. Maybe it was his ring, but the corridors seemed as bright as day. Pisces and Olesm walked down hallways, peering into rooms and trying to comb the place systematically. They were watchful for undead of course, although Pisces insisted he didn’t sense anything. His Bone Horror kept prowling down corridors around them; it had scared the life out of Olesm twice now.

“I think we’re nearly done with this area. There’s only the treasure room where Skinner emerged from, and it was looted by something.”

“Indeed. Shall we pass through it just to be certain?”

“Yeah.”

The huge stone doors still stood wide open. Olesm breathed in at the sight; he could recall the two Silver-rank teams agreeing to stand watch while the Horns of Hammerad searched the rest of the crypt. They’d known something might be lurking behind the door. They just didn’t know that Skinner could open the door himself.

The room was emptied of all goods just like before. Olesm frowned around it; Pisces picked up a stone amulet and tossed it down in disgust.

“I take it the city still does not know who made off with the treasures inside?”

“No. And I’m not sure if there were any.”

“Come now. The guardian of the crypts must have guarded something of worth.”

“Yeah. But in that case, where is it?”

Pisces could only shrug. Olesm looked around helplessly and frowned.

“Nothing. Let’s go. We only have to check out that last room and we’re done.”

“What room?”

“That one, of course. You walked right past it.”

The Drake walked back out of the treasure room. Pisces followed, frowning. Olesm pointed to the doorway ahead of him, just opposite the double doors. Pisces stared at the doorway, and then at Olesm.

“I don’t see anything.”

“What? Don’t yank my tail. It’s right h—”

Olesm stepped forwards towards the doorway. Someone yanked him back. He stumbled and turned to Pisces angrily.

“Hey! What’s the big id—”

“Illusion.”

The [Mage]’s face was suddenly concentrated. He nodded at Olesm’s ring as one hand fell back to the rapier at his side. Olesm froze, and then realized what he meant.

“You think the Ring of Sight that Niers Astoragon gave me—?”

“What better gift for a [Tactician] than a true view of the battlefield? I see only a wall. And I cannot detect any illusion here. Not that I am gifted in such things, you understand, but it means this illusion is a good one.”

“It just looks like an open doorway to me.”

“Hm.”

Carefully, Pisces approached the open doorway, and slid his hand across what looked like empty air to Olesm. The Drake held his breath.

“It’s solid? I mean, it feels solid even when you push?”

“Yes. A powerful illusion. Here, grab my hand.”

Pisces reached out and Olesm gingerly took his hand. The Drake walked forwards and Pisces walked behind him through the doorway. Pisces shuddered as he passed through the stone opening.

“You okay?”

“I felt as though I was walking through stone. No, I am not. But the sensation is done with. Now,  what do we have here?”

The stone doorway led a few feet ahead into a small, circular room with a strange, hexagonal symbol drawn onto the floor. It was a small room; large enough to fit a few people inside perhaps. Olesm stepped forwards curiously and Pisces grabbed him again.

Gah! Stop doing that!”

“Stop stepping into uncertain situations, then. You don’t know what that pattern on the floor does.”

“Neither do you.”

“True, but I do not intend to touch it myself. Observe. This is appropriate caution.”

Pisces reached for his belt and fumbled with a pouch. Olesm nearly jumped out his scales as the mage lifted out a tiny Shield Spider. The [Necromancer] casually flicked it towards the opening and the spider began crawling into the alcove.

“What the—do you just carry Shield Spiders around?”

“It’s undead. Obviously.”

The [Necromancer] flicked his fingers and the spider scurried towards the hexagonal space on the floor. Olesm was about to point out that carrying around undead Shield Spiders didn’t make more sense than living ones when the spider crossed onto the hexagonal floor and the ground vanished.

“Whoa!”

Olesm recoiled as the Shield Spider dropped out of view. Pisces held up a hand and Olesm heard the faintest of sounds from the opening.

“It seems there is a rather long drop below. Fortunately, my Shield Spider was not harmed by the fall. It appears to have dropped into a large room. Full of bones.”

“Really? What else is down there?”

“Give me a second. I will look through the eyes of my creation.”

Pisces broke off and Olesm shifted from foot to foot as he eyed the opening. He was just opening his mouth when the hexagonal hole suddenly filled again, and the floor was stone once more. Pisces smirked and gestured to the floor with one hand.

“See there? If we were incautious adventurers foolish enough to explore the opening, we would have fallen into the trap and been caught down there ourselves. What a simplistic trick.”

“Right. That would have been really stupid.”

Pisces chuckled and Olesm laughed along weakly. He’d been about to suggest they investigate the opening in person. Pisces tapped at his lips as he studied the room below through his undead construct’s eyes.

“Yes, there are many bones around me, Olesm. Many, many bones. However, you may be interested to know that all of these bones are, apparently, organized and have been so for a long time.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that the owners of said remains died years, possibly centuries before any adventurers came here.”

Olesm’s breath caught in his chest. He had a thought.

“And there are no Minotaur skulls in the room?”

“None.”

“You’re sure? How big is the room? I mean—”

Pisces turned a reproving eye towards Olesm.

“I know what Minotaur bones look like. There are none similar to it, although there are quite a number of unusual bones. Very odd. They appear similar to a Gnoll’s in structure, but thicker. The skulls have a smaller cranial capacity and the jaws are enlarged…”

“Raskghar. They have to be.”

“What?”

Olesm quickly explained about the Gnoll’s primitive subterranean cousins. Pisces nodded.

“Ah. That would explain much. Yes, the majority of the bones in the room do appear to be these…Raskghar. One moment. I am coming to a conclusion.”

“Are you? I’ve got one too.”

“Hm. Enlighten me, then.”

“This was probably meant to be a disposal place of some kind. I doubt it was meant as transportation; otherwise there would be a way back up. And why would it be hidden? I bet the undead were supposed to dump their victims down there.”

“I concur. And?”

“…That’s all I’ve got. You’re the one who can see down there.”

“True. Ah, I suppose it is time for my analysis.”

Pisces cleared his throat and stood straighter, adopting a lecturing tone that still irked Olesm a bit. But the Drake listened, mainly because he didn’t have any other choice.

“It looks like this was indeed meant to be used as a disposal chute—perhaps for invaders or the ah, remains after Skinner had disposed of his foes. Yes, it would be an ideal spot for such parts to reanimate. However, this room has been repurposed. It appears to be a burial chamber now.”

“How do you—”

Pisces raised three fingers as he spoke, frowning at Olesm as he spoke over the Drake.

“I base my conclusions on three pieces of evidence. First, the bones within are systematically piled up with the skull at the apex of each pile, clearly denoting some sort of ritualistic and continual disposal process. Second, the bones have been separated from the body and I can spot evidence that some tool was used to scrape the bones clean of flesh. Thirdly, none of the skeletons have been damaged by scavengers which implies the room is regularly swept and maintained. Except in a few notable cases…”

He paused for a second and coughed. Olesm silently offered him a water flask and Pisces took a drink before continuing.

“There is a disturbance where my Shield Spider landed, which threw me off at first. However, it appears that this was an anomaly. The nearest pile to the opening has been knocked into pieces. The bones are scattered, as if from a large impact overhead. They have disturbed a few other piles, but there are several overturned piles, as if something large ran into them. The path leads straight to the sole exit in the room. Your thoughts?”

Olesm’s mind raced. He spoke slowly.

“It seems obvious.  Something—or rather, someone found this opening and walked into the trap. They landed on the pile and ran towards the door.”

Pisces nodded approvingly. His gaze unfocused again.

“And here, at the door—”

He drew in his breath sharply. Olesm stared at him.

“What?”

“A skeleton. Another Raskghar. However, this one was not ritually buried. The corpse is mostly decomposed and in one piece. And there is a weapon buried in its chest. A battleaxe. The haft is broken off.”

A battleaxe. Olesm’s tail lashed the ground. He started for the hole and Pisces grabbed him.

“Don’t be a fool! If you go down there we might not be able to return!”

“But a battleaxe—”

“I know. But allow my spider to proceed. There is but one exit. Next is a long corridor. There are several uneven tiles and—”

Pisces broke off with a cry. He winced as Olesm stared at him and shook his head.

“A trap. I could not identify it through the spider’s eyes. Whatever it was destroyed my creation. Thoroughly.”

“Do you have another spider? Or can you send something else? Can you animate the bones below?”

“I do not carry multiple spiders around as a rule. And the stone is preventing me from reaching the bones below. I do not sense them with my magic. Clearly we are not meant to know this passage exists.”

“But someone found it. Someone found it and fell. And they fought a Raskghar, killed it, but lost their battleaxe. And only one adventurer in our group carried one…”

Olesm stared at the hole. He turned to Pisces.

“Do you think it’s possible?”

The [Necromancer] shrugged. He was looking around warily, Olesm noticed, and as the Drake turned, he saw the Bone Horror had returned.

“It is possible. More than likely, perhaps. What of it? The Minotaur might have survived all of this, but he was wounded as he fled, was he not?”

“He lost his arm. The undead swarmed him. But—”

“Do you think he could have survived the rest of the dungeon in his condition?”

“I don’t know, but if he’s alive, we have to search for him!”

Olesm flared up. Pisces grabbed Olesm and slapped him across the face. The Drake gaped at him. Pisces was breathing faster.

“Get ahold of yourself! Think rationally, you fool. We have to leave this place now. I assumed we were safe because this area had been cleared. But if there are passageways below, into the actual dungeon—

There might be more monsters who’d climbed up. Or other things. Watching them. Olesm’s blood ran cold. He nodded silently and he and Pisces made a rapid retreat back towards the top floor. Only when they were outside of the crypt and in the cold daylight did they feel safe enough to talk again.

“I can’t believe it. There was a passageway down there all along. And Calruz—”

“It is too early to assume he was the one who fell down there. I agree the evidence fits, but to assume his survival is going beyond the limits of speculation—”

“And why not? You know how people survive in those kinds of situations! They level under pressure! Haven’t you heard of adventurers surviving after being swallowed by monsters? Or—or going into dungeons and coming out months later and gaining ten, sometimes twenty levels!”

Olesm grabbed Pisces by the robes. The mage shrugged him off, looking troubled.

“Such cases do exist, I admit. But what would you do? Mount a rescue expedition? Into an area that is clearly inhabited by monsters and trapped? By who? The city would never agree, and the only other group with a vested interest in Calruz’s life is—”

“Yours.”

The Horns of Hammerad. Olesm stared at Pisces. The mage didn’t meet his eyes.

“You know what Ceria would do if she thought Calruz was alive. Yvlon, too.”

“I am well aware. But that would most likely be suicide.”

“Even so! If you could convince another group to help you, the Halfseekers for instance—”

“I think they have had enough of volunteering themselves for others, especially after what happened at Miss Solstice’s inn. Don’t you?”

The Human and Drake stood together in the snow, staring at each other. Olesm’s tail drooped. He couldn’t argue with that. He turned to look back towards the crypt’s opening.

“But if he is alive…”

“If. There is too much to risk for an uncertainty. Too much to lose for an outcome that most likely does not exist.”

That too was true. And yet, Olesm couldn’t push the thought out of his head. He stared challengingly at Pisces.

“If there’s even a chance, Ceria should know about it. She deserves to know.”

“Does she? Or would it bring her needless worry and heartbreak?”

Another fair point. The Drake didn’t know. He felt strongly, but Pisces was speaking sense as well. He didn’t know what to do. Olesm stared at Pisces.

“Do you really think it would be best to keep it secret? Really? Just not tell anyone, like that?”

At last, the mage hesitated. He looked at Olesm, and then turned away. When he spoke, it was slowly, haltingly.

“Sometimes…sometimes it is best to keep secrets, painful though it may be. Because the truth, however liberating, can be too much to bear. Freedom demands a terrible price, Olesm.”

The truth of that was reflected in Pisces’ stance, the pain in his face and voice. Olesm looked at him, and nodded slowly.

“You may be right.”

Pisces turned back to him. Olesm hesitated. He withdrew the file he’d received from the Adventurer’s Guild and then slowly handed it to Pisces. The mage blinked at it. Olesm took a breath.

“You know Ceria better than I do. You know the secret. If you think it’s worth telling her, telling the others, do it. If not…you can give that back to Maviss.”

Pisces stared at him. Olesm looked into his eyes and slowly nodded.

“It’s your choice. You know Ceria best.”

Then he turned and slowly began walking back to Liscor.

 

—-

 

Some things were predictable. True, chance and the natural intermingling of cause and effect created a world in which unforeseen variables could lead to completely different outcomes, but it was still possible to predict what would happen to a relative degree of certainty. For instance, people were easy. Simple, even.

True, it was impossible to know each individual’s darkest secrets or the entire history that had culminated in the person who walked about today, but that didn’t matter. People were, in Pisces’ opinion, largely unimportant. He could predict the way the vast majority reacted to a given set of stimuli. They were predictable. Sadly predictable.

He had seen it all the same, replayed ten thousand, a hundred thousand times across as many lives. People were the same. It was only their environment, culture, events, and species which acted as variables upon their templates. The masses were not sheep; rather, they were dough from which the same kinds of bread arose, occasionally different, but all alike in origin and purpose.

Only a few individuals stood out from the crowds, a few people who could not be predicted, who were worthy of note. Niers Astoragon was one of them. Erin Solstice another. And Olesm…Pisces had found someone else worthy of respect, of attention, today.

Because he had not predicted this. The [Mage] slowly walked back towards Erin’s inn, paging through the file in his hand. It had been written by Drakes, in their species’ script rather than the universal written language adopted across the world. No doubt another one of their security measures. But Pisces had taught himself their written language and so he could read it.

It said exactly what Olesm had told him. The possessions of adventurers recovered, a rough count of bodies separated by species, and nothing remotely resembling a Minotaur’s corpse.

“It could be possible. But alive?”

That was not likely, Pisces knew. He had met Calruz briefly, and he had assessed the Minotaur as stubborn, arrogant, overly inclined towards violence and obsessed with the idea of honor—typical of his species, in short. The odds of someone like that surviving any amount of time in a dungeon designed to eat such individuals was remote.

And yet, if he didn’t tell Springwalker, then what? Pisces wandered into the Wandering Inn and realized it was occupied.

Sparsely occupied, but nevertheless inhabited by bodies. The Goblins were nowhere to be seen so they were probably in the basement. Instead, the two remaining adventuring groups were in the common room of the inn, right where Pisces had left them.

Ah, yes. He’d foreseen this as well. It appeared his teammates were still recovering from their expedition to the cave of roaches. Why they hadn’t been ready to run when the wall of insects had swarmed them was beyond Pisces. He cautiously stepped into the room and heard Yvlon’s voice. She was croaking; she’d thrown up numerous times after and during their mission.

“And then—and then they just came at us. All at once. They were in my armor, my hair, my mouth—I swallowed some of them.”

“Oh my god.”

Erin Solstice was there, holding Yvlon’s hand, motioning Lyonette and Drassi over. They had buckets of hot water and soap. And blankets. Yvlon huddled in hers. Across the table, Ceria was sitting with Seborn, staring into her mug and shuddering. Jelaqua and Moore were wincing as she continued the story.

“I thought we had them. I really did. I learned a poison spell just for this. You know, from my book. Poisoned snow, I thought it would kill them. But it just made them agitated. And then the big ones came out—”

Yvlon made a sound, and beside her, a large insect uncurled himself. Ksmvr raised his head, scratching at the bites on his carapace with one of his three arms.

“I thought I was predator. Am I prey? Why did they attempt to eat me? Have I fallen so far down as to be food for food?”

“Aw, no, no, Ksmvr! Those are just dumb bugs. Come on, cheer up. I’ve got nice, hot food for you all as soon as Yvlon stops throwing up. And we’ll get you into fresh clothes, take you into Liscor for baths—just let Aunt Erin and Cousin Selys take care of you all.”

Cousin Selys? Pisces rolled his eyes as he saw everyone fussing around the rest of his team. Honestly. They were bugs. True, Pisces had [Flashstepped] out of the cave before they got him, but still.

No one was paying attention to him. Pisces settled down at a table to think. He sighed. To tell or not to tell? He could predict what Ceria would do. At least…what she’d probably do. She surprised him, sometimes. But in this?

What was the correct decision? Well, Pisces knew what he’d do. And yet, would Olesm honor his word? That seemed unlikely. The Drake was too impulsive. And part of Pisces also…

No. No, it was foolish. Pisces scrubbed at his hair, dislodging some insect shells and dandruff. Something hiding under the table snatched one of the wings that floated down with a paw. Pisces jumped, and saw Mrsha stuff a large beetle wing into her mouth and spit it out quickly.

“Hello?”

He stared. The young Gnoll stared up at him. Pisces hadn’t interacted with Mrsha much, although she was good at cleaning unwanted food from his plate and distracting others. He gestured towards the group sitting in the middle of the room.

“I believe you will find more entertainment with Miss Solstice. Over there.”

Mrsha turned her head towards Erin. The [Innkeeper] did indeed have plates of hot food she was trying to tempt Yvlon and the others with. But for once, the Gnoll didn’t bite figuratively or literally. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at Erin and her ears flattened. Pisces frowned.

“Odd.”

Why was Mrsha upset with Erin—ah, the Goblins. Of course. The Gnoll prowled around Pisces and he felt a hand searching at his belt and pockets. He slapped it away. But Mrsha had learned long ago that respecting personal boundaries was not a winning move and so she kept bothering him.

“Shoo.”

He flicked his fingers and a bit of water sprayed her. Mrsha wrinkled her nose and jabbed a claw into Pisces’ leg. He muffled a shout and clapped at his leg. She danced away.

Now would telling Erin to drag Mrsha away help or not? No, she’d probably yell at her and ineffectually deal with Mrsha. Or Lyonette would. The best solution was bribery. Pisces rummaged around at his belt and pulled something out. Yes, this would do.

“Here.”

He handed her his wand. He’d forgotten to use it during the battle with the roaches. Again. Habit and years of practice had made Pisces accustomed to casting with his hands. And of course, it was a feasible option in combat despite the ridicule it attracted from other mages—Ceria herself had proven that a mage’s hands were a decent catalyst for low-level spells.

If Pisces used the simple spells he’d mastered in conjunction with his rapier, he could act as a strong combatant while his creations fought. However, if it were possible to expand his quick spellcasting with the wand to allow him to use Tier 3 or Tier 4 spells while fighting with his rapier—

Mrsha was curiously inspecting the wand. She knew what it was of course; she wasn’t an idiot, just mute. She banged it experimentally on the table, waved it in the air, and poked Pisces with it. He didn’t care; the wand was too sturdy to break easily, no matter what she did.

And then Mrsha raised the wand to point towards her. She stuck the tip in her mouth and began to chew on it. That was unpredicted. And concerning. Pisces grabbed for the wand. Mrsha leapt backwards and pulled it out of her mouth.

She blinked at him. Pisces blinked back. He lunged, and she sped away, dashing upstairs with her new toy in hand. He cursed as he rose to follow her; she couldn’t do magic with it, but he wasn’t about to donate a valuable magic item to Mrsha’s toy fund. And if she lost it, what then?

“Pisces! Stop bullying Mrsha! And what’s this about you running away while everyone else got bugged?”

On cue, Erin noticed Pisces and began to harangue him. He groaned internally. He opened his mouth, and turned to make some excuse, or point out Mrsha’s theft.

He froze when he saw Ceria. The half-Elf had gotten up from her table, and was looking at him. Just looking. But it was without reproach, without anger. Ceria nodded at Pisces.

“You okay, Pisces? You had a few bad bites yourself. Do you need a healing potion?”

That was unexpected. Pisces stumbled over his words.

“I ah—I believe I am fine, Springwalker. Ceria. I don’t believe wasting a healing potion on my injuries is warranted at this moment.”

She nodded.

“Good. Selys tells us you were at the Adventurer’s Guild. Your idea. Why didn’t you mention it to us? It’s not a bad one, although I can see why it wouldn’t work with the Drakes. But if we took the contract, we could let you use your creation while we pretended to work. Why not?”

It’s not a bad idea. Pisces stared at her. It was an echo of what Olesm had said. He hadn’t predicted that. And he hadn’t predicted this. He opened his mouth, coughed.

“I uh, believe that is not necessary. I spoke with Olesm earlier this morning. He has agreed to let me work on his authority. The pay is quite acceptable.”

“Oh? Good for you.”

Ceria raised her eyebrows. Selys groaned.

“What? That idiot. I bet I’ll have to be the one to account for everything! Do you know how hard it is to count rat tails? And how disgusting that is?”

Pisces ignored her grousing. Selys would be the best one. And the most probable one. None of the other [Receptionists] would give him the time of day, but she at least was impartial, if rude. But his eyes were on Ceria.

The secret. Pisces had been so sure when he was arguing with Olesm earlier. But now, all his objections melted away, as they always did. He stared at Ceria and felt the urge to tell her.

“Pisces? You okay? You’re looking a bit sick. You’re not going to start throwing up like Yvlon now, are you?”

She smiled at him. Pisces wavered. Countless secrets pressed against his lips, begging to be spoken. So many things that mattered, that might change everything and nothing. For a moment he felt them all pressing at his mind, begging to be said. A thousand secrets. A thousand untold truths.

I ran away from home.

My father still thinks of me as nothing but a disappointment.

I am working on a new undead creation.

My [Fencer] class doesn’t exist; I never wanted to level, so I never did.

Sometimes I wake up at night and miss what could have been between us.

I apprenticed myself to an ancient monster. For knowledge and power.

I know Erin and Ryoka are from a different world. And I know there are more like them.

I ate your extra helping of lasagna yesterday and let you think it was Ksmvr.

I reached Level 30 yesterday.

I’m sorry.

And more. The word crowded Pisces’ mind. So many lies and terrible truths. Too many. And he had learned his lesson, so Pieces chose the easiest one to speak. He opened his mouth and let it out. One less burden, one less wall between his heart and the world. He looked at Ceria and sighed as he spoke.

“Calruz is alive.”

Everyone stared at him. Pisces hesitated. He raised one finger.

“Probably. Possibly. I might have jumped to conclusions based on partial evidence.”

He looked around the room, and then shrugged. He waited five seconds, and the shouting started.

As predicted.

 

—-

 

Olesm made his way back to his small office in the building that was technically the city hall of Liscor, but was more often used as a place for fancy parties and gatherings. Only recently had it been used for meetings of Liscor’s council. They normally didn’t need to meet.

But Olesm had his place here, and he was present almost every day in the small cubicle he’d been allotted by the city. He liked it, actually. He had access to the city’s records, a place to snooze if he was tired, or just practice chess. The place was seldom occupied. It was his private abode.

But he also had work to do here. Olesm groaned as he rubbed at his back and settled in his comfy chair. His head hurt from this morning’s drinking, his bladder was full from Krshia’s tea, and he was sweaty and wet at the same time from his little adventure with Pisces. He stank of crypt dust and fear.

But all of that was nothing compared to the secret in his heart. Calruz was alive. Or might be. The Horns of Hammerad might not have all ended with Ceria. And who knows? If he had survived, had other adventurers? Had more found their way into that secret passage? He’d have to double-check the numbers of deceased adventurers with the remains recovered, but of course, some had fled the crypts and others had been eaten. A full count would be tricky.

The Drake muttered to himself as he looked around his organized desk for the right files. He noticed a few more papers in the little basket he’d put out for people to put things in. More work. Olesm glumly paged through a few reports.

“Information request—approved. Latest sighting of Goblin Lord and assessment? Approved, of course. Why did they send this here?”

He irritably pulled out his enchanted quill and scribbled on the pages, adding a wax seal of approval. One of his jobs as [Tactician] was to look over anything that might reveal confidential or important Drake secrets to other races or other cities. That meant he had to authorize a lot of trivial stuff.

Yes, that was his job. Olesm absentmindedly pulled over a report and scanned it. How many Silver-rank teams in Liscor? Probably the Humans wanting to know how many teams they’d lost. Approved. He drizzled wax and stamped it with his seal impatiently.

Now this, this reminded him of what he really was. Unimportant. Olesm sighed. After his glorious letter from Niers—which had gotten wet—and all the things Ilvriss had said, it was important to ground himself in reality. He wasn’t a big deal. He had potential of course; Olesm knew his worth, but he was also aware of his lack of influence, personal power both in levels and possessions, and youth. He wasn’t a prodigy. He was barely smart.

Another report. This one about goats? Oh, the Eater Goats. Yes, approved. Celum had a right to know about monster attacks and migrations. Olesm glumly reached for the second-to-last paper.

Now, Pisces, he was talented. He’d already reached Level 30! True, Olesm was close to that himself, but Pisces was creating horrific, amazing Bone Horrors and he was an adventurer who was most definitely Gold-rank at this point. That was success. But what would Olesm be? After he hit Level 30, he’d still be stuck here. Doing nothing.

Another request. This one was from an individual. A Gold-rank team. Fancy that. Ylawes Byres, seeking confirmation that Yvlon Byres lived in the city? Obviously that was unconfidential. A brother seeking a sister. Or a father? Olesm shrugged and scribbled a note informing the adventurer that Yvlon was in Liscor and Celum thanks to the magic door and noted her membership in the Horns of Hammerad.

Yes, he was a small-time paper pusher, but at least he could take the time to help out in small ways like that. Olesm stamped the wax, feeling a bit better. He reached for the last bit of paper, scanned it, stamped it, and leaned back in his chair.

Would Pisces tell Ceria? Olesm bet he would. Pisces was a good person, for all he acted like he wasn’t. And he liked Ceria. They had been a couple.

Olesm paused as he stared at the ceiling. He put a claw over his face as his lips trembled. Ceria. He turned in his chair and closed his eyes bitterly. Sleep. That was all he needed. He was a worthless worm, but at least he could sleep. And then he’d have to go to Ilvriss and smile and—

The unhappy thoughts milling about in Olesm’s head slowly receded. His breathing grew slower and his body relaxed. He drifted off—

 

[Tactician Level 28!]

[Skill – Rallying Presence Obtained!]

 

Olesm’s eyes opened wide. The Drake shot out of his chair and punched at the ceiling. He shouted.

Alright! Yes, yes, yes!

He danced around in his small office, laughing happily until a thought struck him. Olesm paused, and then drooped.

“Aw. This means Wall Lord Ilvriss is going to make me drink again.”

He sighed, and headed for the door. Maybe this time he could get them to fill his mug with wine. Olesm liked wine.

 


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4.36 O

Of all the inns in Liscor, it was fair to say the Tailless Thief run by Peslas was without dispute the best. No other inn had the same quality of food prepared by a [Cook] with [Advanced Cooking] and other Skills, or a high-level [Innkeeper], or the advantageous placement that Peslas’ inn enjoyed. So Olesm would agree it was the best inn. Within Liscor, of course.

But he was growing sick of it. It wasn’t just that Peslas was an intolerant old egghead in Olesm’s opinion, or that he missed another, younger, more intelligent and certainly more attractive [Innkeeper]. No, it was the drinking.

Peslas’ inn served Drakes of all colors, and it was a Drake-themed establishment. That meant that spirits manufactured by Drakes were served almost exclusively, although it had to be said that Peslas had a very nice store of wines from around the world.

However, it was a Drake custom to have a shot of the fiery spirits they loved to brew before anything else. Even wine. The burning sensation added to the following experience of drinking wine, or so it was claimed.

Personally, Olesm didn’t particularly enjoy the alcohol that had made Izril famous. The Drakes’ signature Firebreath Whiskey for instance had the same reputation as the Drake species that made it. It was offensive, hard to tolerate in large doses, and usually the prelude to the fight if imbibed too heavily.

But it was a purely Drake drink, and so every time Wall Lord Ilvriss went drinking, Olesm would have to down at least a shot or two of it. He’d grown to associate Peslas’ inn with such drinking experiences, and so hated it.

“Another round, Peslas! And fill young Swifttail’s glass. Don’t be stingy! Everyone who drinks tonight does so on my coin. A Lord of the Wall from Salazsar treats his brethren away from home with due respect! Never let it be said otherwise!”

Olesm groaned as he sat around the full table of Drakes and heard the cheer go up. It was predicted of course; Ilvriss had been here last night, and the night before that, and Peslas’ inn was packed.

“Here you are, sir. And for you, Olesm.”

Peslas himself bustled over with a refill. Olesm glumly watched as the glowing orange liquid was splashed generously into his mug. He turned and raised it to the Drake in armor sitting two places away from him.

“Your health, sir.”

“And to you, young Swifttail!”

Wall Lord Ilvriss raised his mug and drank down the fiery liquid, not stopping until he’d drained the mug to cheers from the officers, mages, and other members of his personal escort. Other Drakes, officials in the city or influential individuals, tried to emulate the Lord of the Wall with mixed results.

Olesm drank more slowly, gulping down the spirits and cursing Peslas for filling his mug so high. He got half of it down in the end and Ilvriss slapped his back, laughing heartily.

“A fine attempt! We’ll have to teach you to drink properly while I’m still here, Olesm! A [Tactician] should be able to drink with his commanding officer, especially if he’s to rise through the ranks. And I fully expect you to in due time. A young prodigy at my table! It reminds me of when I was young.”

“You’re too kind.”

Olesm murmured and tried not to rub at his shoulder. He sat next to a high-level [Lieutenant] as Ilvriss began recounting one of the tales of when he’d been young. The other Drakes leaned forwards, laughing and interjecting comments or questions. Olesm tried to look interested and died a bit inside. It was always like this.

He hated being here, hated having to drink with the Wall Lord—just past breakfast for goodness sake! But, and here was the tricky bit, it was a real honor to be invited to such a gathering. Olesm wouldn’t have been allowed near this table if Ilvriss hadn’t requested him sit with him. Yes, it was an honor. Because Ilvriss liked Olesm.

As the son he’d never had. Or perhaps as the student to whatever Ilvriss was mentoring. Maybe the Wall Lord was just bored, but after a few meetings with Liscor’s council, the Lord of the Wall had begun inviting Olesm to spend more time with him in Liscor. He seemed interested, pleased with Olesm’s ideas and what he termed ‘youthful invigorations’.

Ilvriss had taken Olesm under his tail, and as such, Olesm was often forced to go drinking with the Wall Lord and his personal retinue, or listen to long conversations about politics or the good days when the damned Ants weren’t here, Drakes were Drakes, and the Humans were nearly ready to crumble because they were cowardly fleshbags.

Despite the aforementioned honor of being invited, Olesm still might have dared to avoid such gatherings for his own health, if he weren’t under strict orders to the contrary.

It had been explained to him very thoroughly. Part of his job—rather, his real job—was to keep the Wall Lord happy while he was staying in Liscor. Due to the presence of the Goblin Lord’s armies, it was impossible to assure his safe return to his home city. In fact, Hawk, the lone Courier in Liscor, refused to try and make the trip.

Olesm personally thought that was a bit cowardly of the Rabbit Beastkin. Hawk was a Courier, and Olesm knew for a fact that his levels and Skills would probably allow him to survive any encounter on the roads, even if he ran straight into a raiding army of Goblins.

But that was Couriers for you. Some were cautious, and others were brave to the point of suicidal. Hawk was pragmatic. He’d seen both a Wall Lord and General Shivertail himself suffer defeat at the hand of the Goblin Lord, and after that, the destruction of two Drake armies. True, General Shivertail and Wall Lord Ilvriss hadn’t been prepared and their armies had both been worn down from tearing each other to shreds, but the Courier didn’t want to risk his ears.

So Ilvriss was stuck and antsy with it. He’d already gone out twice and slaughtered one of the Hollowstone Deceivers—the Rock Crabs as Erin termed them—and wiped out a number of Shield Spider nests. When he wasn’t consulting with his various allies and contacts via [Message] spell or taking part in one of the innumerable strategy meetings going on in Liscor, he was here. Drinking.

The Drakes around the table roared with laughter as Ilvriss said something that might have been funny and Olesm tried to pretend he’d been listening. Inside he writhed in agony.

All Olesm wanted to do was go back to the Wandering Inn and sit there, drink something, and have a tasty snack while he played chess with Erin. He longed for that, those fleeting moments he kept in his memories. They had been simpler times.

But he couldn’t now, although he wanted to. Olesm knew it would be impossible to get Ilvriss to shift his daily drinking session there because Erin didn’t stock Firebreath Whiskey, she wasn’t a Drake, and she was now hosting Hobgoblins in her inn. Olesm would have dearly loved to know what had possessed Erin, but the upshot was that he’d probably get Ilvriss to agree to chop off his own tail before the Drake agreed to drink under the same roof as a living Goblin.

What a mess. Olesm traced on the table with one of his claws, devoting one earhole to Ilvriss’ account of his first battle. Erin really was in it this time. Watch Captain Zevara was furious and everyone was talking about how stupid she was for taking in Goblins. No one was willing to visit Erin’s inn to get to Celum at the moment. Olesm sighed. He wondered if Erin would go out of business if she didn’t kick the Goblins out. Why were they here, anyways?

More complications. It really had been better before, when Erin’s inn was small and Olesm could walk in and have a chat with her without someone interrupting. But those days were gone, and Goblins were ruining everything for everyone.

And now the army was coming back, or at least, a small taskforce to help out with the Goblin situation. Olesm shuddered. He didn’t have to be a [Tactician] to predict that there would be trouble if the Goblins were still in Erin’s inn when they got there. They’d cause trouble.

Actually, they’d cause trouble even if the Goblins were nowhere to be seen. They always did every time they came back. And the commanders in Liscor’s army made Zevara look relaxed. She was relaxed compared to how they did things.

“And there I was, broken sword in hand, staring down a damned [Blademaster] with an enchanted bastard sword of his own. I backed up and looked around but there was no help coming. Fortunately, I had been given a ring by my mother for my first battle, so I raised it and twisted it—the very ring you see here—and…”

Everyone seemed to be hooked on Ilvriss. Olesm’s [Tactician] senses told him now was an ideal moment. He carefully lowered his mug and poured the rest of his drink onto the floorboards underneath the table. No one noticed; quaffing had been undertaken earlier this morning, and the room was already messy.

Drinking in the morning. Olesm shook his head. Half of the Drakes here would have to get to work. The rest, like Ilvriss, probably had livers made of steel because they’d be drinking and talking all day if no one interrupted him.

Then again, that was their right. They were high-level [Warriors], experienced soldiers, and veterans of numerous battles all. The Drakes who surrounded Ilvriss at all times could lead armies with the Lord of the Wall. Olesm felt small around them.

And yet, Ilvriss kept telling him he was a prodigy. Which was actually warranted, Olesm knew. He was a Level 27 [Tactician]. And he’d been Level 22 a few months ago. Olesm could hardly believe it. That kind of leveling was insane outside of wars. It was probably one of the reasons why Ilvriss had taken an interest in him.

But prodigy? It might be fair to say, but Olesm didn’t feel smart at all. He might be Level 27, but Erin had reached Level 30 in the same amount of time. From Level 1. From nothing. Remembering that, it wasn’t hard to stay humble. Meek.

Absently, forgetting he’d already gotten rid of his drink, Olesm raised his mug to his lips. Ilvriss noticed the Drake blinking into his mug and raised his voice.

“What’s this? Done so soon? Good lad! Another round for young Swifttail!”

“Oh, no, please—”

If he had to down another mouthful, Olesm thought he might actually puke. He waved a hand and Ilvriss laughed again.

“Don’t be so modest, young Swifttail! We’re drinking in part to celebrate you! A Level 27 [Tactician]? When I was your age I hadn’t reached Level 20! Soon you’ll be a [Strategist], and when you are, you’ll truly be a person of influence in your own right.”

He waved a hand expansively at the two [Strategists] that were part of his own retinue. Olesm had met the male and female Drakes—they were a married couple—and he ducked his head at them, noting their approving smiles. They treated him like a son as well.

“You’re too kind, Wall Lord.”

“Am I? Am I? Perhaps. But if I am, it is only because I recognize talent. A [Strategist] may be essential to every army, but they are hardly common! You could join any army with that class. I know you’re a citizen of Liscor, but it would be a shame to waste your abilities in a mercenary army, even one as acclaimed as Liscor’s. When the day comes that you reach that level, I hope you might consider moving to Salazsar. The Walled Cities have need of fresh minds like you.”

This was beyond a compliment. Olesm went red, and the table of Drakes laughed. He stammered, trying to change the subject.

“I uh, I’m not sure I’m that close. Is [Strategist] that simple of an upgrade from [Tactician]? I thought it was a Level 40 class, at least.”

That was a flat lie, but Ilvriss took the bait.

“Level 40? Hah! What prank have you fallen for? [Strategists] are Level 30. Or…I’ve heard they can be lower if you combine a military rank with the [Tactician] class. A Level 20 [Tactician] and a Level 10 [Sergeant] or something, you understand? But that’s a shortcut. A diluted achievement. Young Olesm’s pure.

There was a slur in his voice. He was already drunk. Another Drake, an obsequious [Merchant] who always flattered Ilvriss, raised his own mug.

“Hah, yes! A pure young Drake. We should be careful we don’t sully his youth before he gets a taste for the world. Young Olesm here needs to taste more of life’s pleasures before he enters politics, Wall Lord. More drink, more time in battle…and in bed, I should wager!”

Ilvriss howled with laugher and banged on the table with the others. Olesm rolled his eyes and twitched his tail irritably. There had been a lot of talk like that. Olesm hadn’t ever taken part in a war, so to all the veterans he was fresh-tailed, and they made jokes at his expense.

It was time to go. Olesm knew he shouldn’t play this card too often, but he had a job to do today so it was a legitimate card. He pushed back his chair, bowing apologetically to Ilvriss.

“Much as I’d love to drink, I’m afraid I really do have pressing obligations, Wall Lord.”

“Ah. I’d forgotten.”

Ilvriss paused and scowled, as if the bright sunlight streaming into the room were an afterthought. He glanced at Olesm impatiently.

“Can’t you postpone whatever needs doing?”

Olesm made an apologetic face.

“I’m afraid not, sir. I…it would be wrong of me to abandon my post, no matter how honored I am to be here. I must stick to my duty.”

Something changed in Ilvriss’ face as he listened to Olesm’s careful words. Quick as lightning his mirth disappeared. He lowered his mug, and Olesm saw the other Drakes around him quiet down and watch the Wall Lord warily.

“Duty? Ah, if duty calls one must obey, mustn’t they? But be cautious, young Olesm. Duty is a harsh mistress and she asks much. Death walks with you, and sometimes it cannot be avoided. Even if you had known—even if—”

He broke off and looked into his mug, all the mirth of a moment ago lost. Olesm exchanged glances with the other Drakes sitting around the table.

Wall Lord Ilvriss had been maudlin recently. Ever since the battle with Regrika Blackpaw and the other Gold-rank traitor, Ikriss. He was prone to snapping at others, drinking to excess, and fits of melancholy—not too different from his usual self, in other words. But the sadness was new.

Someone had to bring him back to his good spirits. This time it was Peslas. The [Innkeeper] hurried over with a hot plate of grilled fish and a mug of wine.

“Yes, to duty! Young Olesm must go, but surely you have more tales to tell, Wall Lord? I’d be grateful to hear more—it’s not often a legend sits in my inn!”

Ilvriss brightened a bit as he saw the food. He accepted plate and mug and nodded as all eyes fell on him again.

“Well, I suppose if I must—go, Olesm. I’ll remain here. As for stories, if that’s what you want Peslas, I have one about my finest subordinate. Periss. She was—a warrior and leader beyond repute. I remember the day I first met her. She’d downed a Wyvern. By herself! I was in my tent and I heard about a patrol that had been ambushed by monsters, so I rushed out and saw her there…”

Olesm backed out of the inn, grateful for the reprieve. Besides, he really did have a job to do. He was Liscor’s dedicated [Tactician], after all. Every Drake city needed one and Olesm worked hard at his job. True, there wasn’t always work to do, but recently there had been a lot. So much so that he’d only gotten the issue of the dungeon today. Or more specifically, what lived in the dungeon.

 

—-

 

Shield Spiders. Crypt Worms. Various undead. Enchanted suits of armor, Bog Wraiths, a trap full of Face-Eater Moths, giant infested slugs, the Children, the lists went on. Olesm was privy to almost every report that went to Watch Captain Zevara and other members of the Council and so he knew that Liscor’s dungeon was host to a huge variety of very nasty monsters.

Some were documented, others were variations on known threats. It was an adventurer’s job to handle them, and Olesm’s only input into the situation with the dungeon was to consult with Zevara about containing any threats that escaped from either the Dungeon’s official entrance or the rift in the snow. Plans were already being made to set up a more permanent set of fortifications around both.

However, there was one variety of monster that had been spotted by the teams going in and out of the dungeon’s rift that were… concerning. Among the monsters that roamed the maze of trapped tunnels were groups of Goblins and strange, Gnoll-like monsters who used weapons and fought with brutal efficiency.

The first group to encounter them (and survive), Vuliel Drae, had brought back several heads. Olesm had inspected them and they certainly looked similar to a Gnoll’s. However, the heads were far larger, sported vicious canines and apparently came from bodies far bigger than any Gnoll had a right to be.

The Adventurer’s Guild hadn’t been able to identify the monster when they’d sent the image of the head to other guilds for analysis. However, several of the older Gnolls had reacted strongly to the heads but refused to say what they’d recognized. Thus, it fell to Olesm to tactfully ask what these not-Gnolls were about.

He decided to go to Krshia, since he knew her the best and she was one of the leaders of the Gnolls in the city. Olesm rubbed at his head and swerved down the street, greeting Drakes and Gnolls he knew as they waved to him. The Gnolls sniffed and remarked about drinking so early; Olesm grunted about Ilvriss and they only laughed.

The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] wasn’t at her stall today, which was unusual. Olesm had to ask where her apartment was. Thankfully two other Gnolls at the small marketplace were able to direct him.

They knew him of course; Gnolls were very conscious of figures of authority and Olesm had made it a point to consult with the Gnolls who represented the unofficial figures of authority in Liscor. It was a shame none of them had a place on the Council; a few Gnolls might nicely balance out the idiots who thought with their tails.

Unlike Erin, Olesm didn’t regularly visit Krshia. In fact, he’d been staying away from both Erin and the Gnoll recently. Olesm still felt guilty about telling Regrika about Ryoka. That had led to Brunkr’s death, and, it seemed, Ryoka’s disappearance. He knew it was impossible to have known that Regrika Blackpaw, the famed Named Adventurer, was a murderer, but still. Olesm hesitated in front of Krshia’s door for several minutes before he reluctantly knocked.

The apartment was silent for a long time. Long enough that Olesm was turning to go when he heard someone shuffling towards the door. He waited, and Krshia slowly pulled the door open. She blinked at him and he stared up at her.

“Um, good morning, Krshia. Are you well?”

She didn’t look well. The Gnoll was barely dressed and she had bleary eyes and disheveled fur. She looked terrible, in short. Olesm cleared his throat as he glanced into her apartment. It too was a mess.

“I ah—I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but I was hoping I could speak to you as a representative of the Gnolls in Liscor. I wouldn’t want to intrude if you’re occupied, however…”

Only now did he realize he might be intruding on her grief. But Krshia blinked at Olesm and seemed to wake up a bit. She shook herself, and then nodded.

“I—hrr. Yes. As a representative, you said? What is this about? Come in—let me freshen myself and put on tea.”

She invited him in. Olesm was hesitant at first, but Krshia seemed glad of the company. She rushed about, clearing a space on the sofa—it looked like she’d been sleeping there—and putting on some of the spicy Gnoll tea. When she sat across from him and offered him some sliced raw meat, she looked a lot more awake than before, and curious, too.

“It is not often that Olesm Swifttail comes to my residence on official business, yes? That is what this is, yes? Has the Council decided something, or is this more informal?”

“It’s…formal, but not related to any decision the city has made.”

Olesm carefully chewed at the meat and sipped from his cup, grateful for both after drinking. Krshia nodded encouragingly and he went on, watching her expression carefully.

“I believe you have heard about the reports from the dungeon, Miss Krshia? Part of my job involves identifying monsters who may be threats to the city, particularly if they are unknown. And a recent team that went into the dungeon recovered several, uh, heads of a strange creature they claimed was fighting in tandem with Goblins. They um…”

The Gnoll’s forehead wrinkled and Olesm broke off. Krshia hummed to herself and nodded. Now there was a sharpness to her eyes that Olesm recognized with relief.

“Ah. I see what this is about. You wish to ask about these creatures which resemble my people so much.”

“Yes. Yes, the other Gnolls wouldn’t talk about it. However, if these—these creatures are a threat, or worse, are related to Gnolls—”

“They are. Both threat and related. It is an uncomfortable topic among my people, Olesm. Many of the young do not know of these…things. But I saw one of the heads and yes, I do know what they are.”

“Ah. Would you be willing to share your information? I promise, we only need tactical data, not anything—”

Olesm broke off delicately and Krshia shrugged.

“Tactical data? I do not know if it will help, but the story is only uncomfortable, not taboo. I will relate it to you. If you have time?

“Please, I would be most grateful.”

Krshia nodded with a slight smile. She sipped at her cup and chewed on more slices of meat. Her stomach rumbled a bit and Olesm wondered if she’d had breakfast. He took another slice, chewing appreciatively. Gnolls liked their food to be eaten when they offered it. A full bowl of snacks after a discussion was a disappointment.

“Hrr. Yes. Where to begin? I think we must delve into history first, Olesm. You see, the origin of these creatures that resemble us goes back to when the continent was first inhabited by our peoples. Drakes and Gnolls.”

The Drake paused as he reached for another slice of meat. He stared at Krshia.

“That long ago? But that’s ancient history. Thousands of years old!”

Krshia nodded. She smiled a bit as Olesm stared at her.

“Yes. Is it surprising I would know tales from back then? It is true few books survive so long, enchanted or not, but history is told through our tribes differently from the Drakes. It is spoken, passed from Gnoll to Gnoll. And we remember things in ways you do not. For instance, long ago it was said that Izril was not known as the home of Drakes and Gnolls, but as the home of Dragons.”

“Our Ancestors.”

Olesm murmured respectfully and with a hint of longing. He had never seen a Dragon before, only heard rumors. One in Terandria for instance, that preyed on livestock. But Ancestors, real Drake Ancestors, were supposed to be wise and cunning, full of magic and wonders. And greed, of course. That’s where Drakes got it from. Krshia nodded. She sniffed and chewed on a bit of the raw meat in the bowl. She clearly had no longing for the past.

“Yes. I have heard what Drakes say. But that is not the Gnoll experience, no. Our people remember a time when Dragons ruled and their descendants, Drakes, built vast and impregnable cities to shield themselves from war with their elders. Dragons and Drakes fought, but both preyed on a common species. Gnolls. We were food for Dragons. Drakes too. Our peoples lived in terror of the skies.”

Olesm shifted uncomfortably. Krshia smiled gently.

“It is not your fault for the past Olesm, yes? Regardless, in order to survive, it is said that we Gnolls dug deep and learned how to hide. We found refuge in caverns, lived underground. And down there, some of us…changed.”

“Changed? How?”

The Gnoll paused as she sat across from Olesm. She looked uncomfortable, but she shook her head and shrugged in reply to his question.

“It was dark in the ground, Olesm. Dark, or so the stories say, and we Gnolls are not meant to dig so deep. We spent years, decades, in hiding. Longer, I think, but the stories are not clear. In any case, we spent so long down there that some of us went mad from the deepness of it. Mad and wild. Their bodies changed as they forgot the ways of civilization—and we Gnolls are civilized, for all that you call us tribal creatures.”

“I have never thought so.”

“Hrm. No? Well, others say it and there is some truth to it. But these other Gnolls lost those hints of civilization. They became bestial, more like monsters than people, yes? That is when Gnollkind split. In the darkness, one group remained Gnolls and others became—not.”

Olesm stared at Krshia.

“How is that possible? You’re saying Gnolls as a species changed? How?”

She shrugged.

“It was only some. As to how, perhaps it was magic, or perhaps it was just a difference in what they ate. Or what they did.”

“I don’t follow.”

“The others, the not-Gnolls. They longed for the light, yes? That longing can be a terrible thing. They lost their mind in the darkness. Became as savage as the things that dug around them. Ate and killed, and gained strength for it. They gave up their levels, Olesm.”

Memory stirred. Olesm remembered hearing about Ryoka’s refusal to level. But he still couldn’t believe it.

“Impossible. As a people? You mean…”

The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] nodded.

“It was a trade, I think. A curse willingly taken, or—or something else. These not-Gnolls turned their backs on what made them Gnolls to become stronger. They obtained powerful forms, dangerous abilities…but at a price. They lost their ability to level in exchange for bodies like steel, strength beyond other Gnolls. But they lost their minds, became warlike, hungry only for blood and flesh. Again, at a price. It was said of these Gnolls that they underwent strange changes in the moonlight. Only during the full moon would they regain any measure of sanity.”

Olesm tried to imagine such creatures. It wasn’t hard, actually. Take away the intelligence of a Gnoll, replace it with a primitive mind and make them stronger—he shuddered as he imagined a tribe of them living deep in the darkness.

“I take it that the other Gnolls who didn’t change didn’t like these new Gnolls?”

Krshia nodded grimly.

“They began to hunt us. As if we were not their family. And so we fought back. In the darkness, Gnoll fought not-Gnoll and the difference between us became great. In time, the others were no longer Gnolls at all, but different. We called them Raskghar and they are our enemies.”

“Were your enemies, you mean.”

The [Shopkeeper] shook her head.

Are. We thought them wiped out long ago, but if they remain, they are our foes yet.”

“But hold on, you said that was thousands of years ago. These Raskghar—these cave Gnolls are only in Liscor, in a dungeon we just discovered. Doesn’t that change—”

Krshia was shaking her head again and again. She fixed Olesm with one steady eye as she sipped from her cup.

“We declared war on them, Olesm. As a people. Gnoll tribes may war and make peace as they choose of course, but when we make war, it is as a species. We do not lay down our arms until all tribes have agreed. So. If these creatures do live below Liscor, then we are still at war with them. Time is meaningless to our feud.”

“But—”

Olesm forced himself to break off. He was dealing with a different culture here, a different species. Krshia eyed Olesm and relented a bit.

“Recall that during the war, our people fought without peace against yours for hundreds of years, Olesm. The war did not end, though both our species suffered greatly. When we emerged from the ground we declared war on the Drakes, now that the Dragons had lost their hold on the continent. We declared it as a people, and such was the bloodshed that there has not been a greater loss of life since, not even from the Antinium.”

Olesm nodded. The war. Of course he knew that bit of history. People, mostly Humans, liked to talk about the Antinium Wars as the great wars of the century, but to the Drakes and Gnolls, there would be only one great war. It was the war. The war between their species.

“As I recall, the Gnolls were present throughout the continent but strongest in the north. They destroyed many of the Walled Cities built there and several in the south. There was countless death on both sides. However…it may be an unpopular opinion, but my analysis of the histories makes me believe the Gnolls were winning during that time.”

Krshia blinked. She seemed surprised, which was unusual for her.

“Oh? What makes you say this?”

Olesm shrugged self-consciously.

“It’s nothing conclusive. I’ve hardly done an in-depth study of the history, but it’s just that Drakes were famous for the cities we built. We kept most of our populations behind the Walled Cities—we still do, only in smaller and more numerous cities. But when we were fighting in the war, the Gnolls were slowly destroying our homes, breaking down the enchanted walls one by one. [Shamans], leading armies of hundreds of thousands, warrior-kings, bloody battles…we both lost, but Gnolls could always regroup and live anywhere on the continent. While we Drakes were losing our homes. So I think we were losing.”

He paused. Krshia was blinking at him and he could tell she had something to say. She sipped deeply from her cup and then refilled it. And his. Krshia smiled at Olesm.

“Hrr. Rarely have I met a Drake who is willing to say such things. Your people dislike admitting defeat. But that is the opinion of we Gnolls. We were winning. For that truth Olesm Swifttail, I thank you.”

She bowed her head slightly and Olesm felt his scales changing color.

“It’s nothing. Just facts. It’s just the facts, Miss Krshia. And as you said, the war was terrible for both sides regardless of who was winning.”

Krshia sighed, reluctantly agreeing.

“But of course. It matters little, yes? The Humans took half the continent while we squabbled. The Five Families destroyed the last of the Walled Cities and drove both our peoples south, past the High Passes.”

Olesm nodded gravely.

“The Gnoll tribes fought to the last for their lands, if I recall. Your people suffered a terrible loss.”

“One we have still not recovered from. That is why we as a people sued for peace with the Humans. Why we do not march north each year with your kind. Oh, some city-born fight in your armies, but the Gnolls will not die. Our tribes grow and we replenish, but our people are a fraction of what they were.”

“True, but the Gnoll populations have been on the rise historically. I remember seeing some figures…the Antinium Wars barely halted your growth. Why, if your population kept rising the way some of our [Strategists] and [Historians] are suggesting…”

The Drake was searching through his notepad. He paused as a thought struck him and peered suspiciously at Krshia.

“Miss Silverfang? Exactly how many tribes would you say are formed every year? And how many of those tribes double or triple their numbers every decade?”

Krshia’s eyes twinkled. The Gnoll averted her gaze and sipped at her tea thoughtfully. She spoke cattily, her ears flicking back and forth as she peeked at Olesm’s face.

“If my people do have plans that involve Drakes or Humans, it would only be in a few more generations, yes? Numbers matter. And I…hope it would be peaceful. All we wish to do is reclaim our old lands. If that means living next to Humans, so be it.”

“I see.”

Olesm filed that information away for later. He cleared his throat.

“Thank you for the history. It seems these Raskghar are a threat, both to your people and in general. I don’t think the Council or the Adventurer’s Guild would argue that point. May I ask what you know about their combat abilities? If they don’t level that’s one relief, but just how strong are they in general?”

The Gnoll pondered the question for a while.

“Hrr. It is too long ago for specifics to be passed down, but I would imagine a single one of these Raskghar would be a match for a Silver-rank adventurer. They were said to be strong, immune to pain, and have hides that were proof against iron. But those are legends. I imagine the truth is that they are simply stronger. Primal, primitive Gnolls who cannot level but have more strength than our kind.“

“I see. Well, thank you for your time, Krshia. I will have to relay that to the Adventurer’s Guild. I think these Raskghar would be classified as a threat similar to Hobgoblins. Unless you disagree?”

Krshia was shaking her head. She looked serious as she pointed a finger of her paw at Olesm.

“Not at all. Hobgoblins are dangerous, like the ones in Erin’s inn, yes? But they are a danger because of numbers as much as their skill. Raskghar are brutes. They may be stronger naturally than Hobs, but they lack levels so they would fall behind in strength. What makes them dangerous is that they are born to the darkness, Olesm. They hunt in places without light. They are not warriors, they are predators. They track their prey and ambush them. That is the danger.”

Not warriors, but creatures adapted perfectly to an environment with mazes and traps. Ambush specialists. Olesm nodded.

“I’ll emphasize that in my report and make sure the adventurers know to be careful. Thank you very much, Miss Krshia.”

“You are welcome, Olesm.”

The Gnoll smiled at Olesm and he sensed that she was in better spirits than when she’d first opened the door. Krshia eyed the scraps of meat left in her bowl and stood up.

“I have enjoyed your company. But you do not need to leave right away, yes? Sit. Let us talk. I have heard rumors about Erin, although I have not seen her in days. And I have more snacks—let us have some breadsticks. I have some honey…I would not like to waste it. And there is more tea.”

Olesm smiled at Krshia. He had not missed the shield and sword carefully propped up against one wall, or the way Krshia kept looking around. The apartment was empty. There was a vacancy in it. For a while he could fill it.

“I would be honored to sit, of course. Please, tell me, what do you think about this issue of the Goblin Lord?”

 

—–

 

It was a good two hours more before Olesm could leave Krshia’s home, but he considered that time well spent by comparison. Olesm first waddled over to one of the public toilets and relieved himself of half a pot’s worth of tea. Then he walked down the street. The snow had completely melted in Liscor, but it was still chilly outside. Olesm tugged at the cloak he wore and fished at his belt pouch.

He pulled out a pad of tightly bound pieces of paper; a luxury compared to parchment, but one the city paid him for. He also had an enchanted quill that drew ink from a pot without him needing to dip it, a very useful invention. Olesm walked and wrote, muttering to himself as he did.

“Gnoll breeding strategy. Talk to Gen. Shivertail or Wall Lrd? Concerns—future generations.”

Olesm paused as he stared at the cramped handwriting. Then he sighed and scribbled over the words. No, not a good idea. This was him being a hoarder, thinking too narrowly. Gnolls were not the enemy. Come to that, Humans weren’t the enemy. Not anymore. They’d lived here for generations. Didn’t that mean they had a place? They weren’t the ones who’d razed Drake cities and put thousands to the sword, no matter what the elders said.

No, the real enemy was the Antinium. And Olesm wasn’t sure if all of them were the enemy. Sighing, Olesm crossed out the words a few more times and jotted down the notes about the Raskghar.

“Did I spell that right? Oh well. It’s good enough. Now…”

Olesm hesitated and looked around, tail twitching as he stood in the street. He could go back to the inn and file the report later, but that would mean drinking. On the other claw, Olesm was fairly sure that Selys was at the desk in the Adventure’s Guild at the moment and he could probably spend hours filing a report in person and chatting with her. Also, there was that thing that had been nagging at Olesm for days. Maybe he could resolve it today?

It certainly beat drinking. So Olesm turned around in the street, waved to one of his chess-buddies, and hurried over to the Adventurer’s Guild. It was packed. As usual. Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes were all waiting in lines, or sitting out of the cold and talking.

Olesm was pleased that there was less of a crush than before; while it was true the adventurers were here for the dungeon, Erin’s door to Celum had allowed a lot of the pressure to be taken off of Liscor’s guild. Now adventurers were saturating the region around Liscor, rather than all crammed into the one city and causing trouble exclusively here.

Still, he had to wait in line. There were four counters open and each [Receptionist] was busy. Olesm spotted Selys and saw there was only one person in front of him. He hurried over and then recognized the Human arguing at the desk.

“—and furthermore, I object to your characterization of my talents. I am offering you an equitable, nay, charitable solution to an unresolved crisis in your city, and you are not considering it, let alone relaying my request to your Guildmaster!”

Pisces put his hands flat on the counter and glared at Selys. The Drake [Receptionist] glared back and leaned over the desk so that Pisces had to lean back or receive a slow head butt. Her tail thrashed behind the counter.

“First off, it’s Guildmistress. My Grandmother’s in charge and she doesn’t like [Necromancers]. In fact, she likes them less than I do. Furthermore, I can’t authorize putting a dangerous monster in the sewers—”

Dangerous?

Pisces spluttered. He was receiving a lot of unfriendly looks from around the room Olesm noted, but he was focused on Selys. He leaned forwards until he was nose-to-snout with Selys.

“It would be under my control at all times. True, it would be remotely, but it would operate under precise instructions—”

“Oh? Like the one you gave Toren before he abandoned Erin and went off and killed a bunch of people?”

The [Necromancer]’s teeth ground together audibly.

“That was a separate case with an autonomous creation with free will, not—”

“You have your answer. Next! Oh, hi there Olesm! How can I help you?”

Pisces was incandescent with fury, but Selys calmly pushed him aside and smiled sweetly at Olesm. He smiled back. Suddenly, Olesm recalled why he hadn’t ever really talked to Selys before they’d both known Erin.

She was a social personality, always talking, but she had an edge when she got mad. Selys and Olesm ran in different circles. Olesm coughed and stepped forwards, tail twitching apologetically as Pisces glared at both of them.

“Hello, Selys. I’m actually here to deliver a report about those Gnoll-like monsters that were found in the dungeon. I’ve investigated the matter and they’re a primitive offshoot of the Gnoll species. Some kind of throwback or…well, they’re clearly dangerous and they’ve adapted for the darkness. The Gnolls hate them and I have a few details on how they might fight.”

“Really? Freakish Gnoll offshoots, huh?”

Selys’ nonexistent eyebrows rose. She glanced out the window and made a face.

“It sounds important, and I’d love to hear about them, but I’m nearly done with my shift, Olesm. This jerk—”

She pointed towards Pisces with her tail and the [Necromancer] glowered. He still hadn’t moved away and was making Olesm uncomfortable.

“—took up a lot of my time and I’m actually meeting with Erin right after this. Can I call over my replacement and have her get all the details? Or better yet, can you send a report through all those official channels? It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s just that we’re a bit overworked, you know?”

She made a face. Olesm floundered, and then nodded. That wasn’t what he wanted, but what could he say?

“Of course. That would be fine.”

“Cool. Oh, and so I can mention it to Erin—what are these not-Gnolls called?”

“Raskghar. I think.”

“Got it. Hey, Maviss! Can you take over? Thanks!”

Selys walked out from behind the counter and another Drake took her place. Maviss, a Drake with light pinkish-red scales, smiled sweetly at Olesm. A bit too sweetly. Selys winked at her friend and Olesm edged back from the counter.

“Ah. Ahem. Selys tells me you’re very busy, so I’ll file that report and submit it tonight—”

“Are you sure? I’m sure I could write it all down if you want.”

Pisces was trying to chase after Selys until she tripped him up with her tail. He stood up to laughter, flushing with anger, and Olesm shook his head. He cleared his throat and then lowered his voice. There was one other reason why he’d come to the Adventurer’s Guild, and that was to follow up on a hunch.

“I wonder, Miss Maviss, whether your guild has the records of the recent expedition into the crypt by four Silver-ranked adventuring teams? The one with the attacking undead, led by the creature known as Skinner?”

Maviss’ smile vanished. She nodded. Everyone in Liscor remembered that night of horrors.

“We have lots of files. But don’t you get all of them as a [Tactician]?”

He shook his head.

“All the ones about the attack of course, testimonies, statements from the [Guardsmen]…but when the adventurers were uh, recovered and their remains were counted, that report got sent to your guild. If the city kept a copy, it’s lost somewhere. I was hoping I could see it. I’m especially interested in what the [Guardsmen] found. The possessions of the deceased adventuring teams that were confiscated and so on.”

The [Receptionist] thought about that and then nodded.

“I can get that for you. It might take a bit. Why don’t you wait here? Unless you’d like to help?”

She winked at Olesm. He blushed.

“I uh, no, I’m sorry. I have uh, a lot of pressing engagements. With the Wall Lord. I do apologize.”

“Oh. Alright then.”

Looking disappointed, Maviss sighed and walked out into one of the back rooms where files were kept. Formal documentation might not exist in Human guilds, but Drakes were sticklers for reports and filing, so Olesm was sure a copy of the report he needed was back there. He turned, intending to take a seat while Maviss searched, and jumped as he saw Pisces standing behind him.

“A report from the events surrounding the crypt and the attack of the undead horde? Why would you be interested in that?”

The [Necromancer] eyed Olesm, arms folded, completely unapologetic about eavesdropping. Olesm coughed.

“Good morning, uh, Pisces.”

“Olesm.”

The [Mage] and [Tactician] stared at each other. Neither quite knew what to say. True, they’d met and played games of chess against each other, but that was because both of them knew Erin. They weren’t exactly acquaintances; neither one could remember really having a long conversation together.

Olesm shifted.

“I uh, I’m following up a discrepancy with the reports, which is why I requested them.”

“Ah. I see. And what is it you have uncovered?”

“Confidential, I’m afraid. City business. What were you asking Selys about? It seemed important.”

“Confidential.”

Pisces’ tone was acerbic as he looked down his nose at Olesm. His gaze flicked to the Drake’s face, to his tail, and then to the notepad Olesm was still holding. The Drake hurriedly put that away. He didn’t like how Pisces always seemed so…so perceptive about things. For one thing, the [Necromancer] was one of the few Humans who watched Drakes’ tails for their reactions. Olesm kept his very still and raised his voice casually.

“How’s uh, the adventuring business? Doing a lot of fun…killing monsters? How’s Ceria doing?”

He winced. He hadn’t meant to blurt that out. Even if he had meant to ask. Pisces blinked. He studied Olesm and the Drake just knew he was recalling Olesm’s very brief fling with Ceria and the moment when she’d rejected his request to join the Horns of Hammerad. The memory made Olesm want to gnaw on his tail.

The [Necromancer] betrayed none of what he was thinking, though. He lifted his shoulder fractionally and sniffed.

“We have been undertaking mundane requests of little worth as of late. There are few worthwhile tasks to complete as I’m sure you’re aware. Oversaturation of adventurers…I believe Springwalker and the others are resting in the inn. They were most upset after our last mission.”

Olesm’s heart began to pound.

“Why? Is she—I mean, is everyone alright? I haven’t visited the inn in a while.”

Again, Pisces sniffed.

“Nothing damaging. Rather, we had accepted a rather odious task to clear an infested cave of vermin. The mission was hardly dangerous. Physically, that is.”

“Vermin?”

“Yes. An infested cave a few miles from Liscor. It was filled with roaches. Cockroaches. About ten thousand of them. Our task was to eliminate their nest and as many as possible. There were…complications.”

Pisces brushed at his robes. Only now did Olesm look down and notice several smears on the robes. They were enchanted to resist staining and dirt of course, but the liquid on the robes was sticky. There were black bits of shell and wing and a few legs—Olesm’s tail twitched and Pisces grinned.

“Ice magic is futile against those kinds of roaches. We had to burn them. Unfortunately, there were larger variants with nasty bites and they swarmed us. Well, I say ‘us’ when I mean my other three companions. They got into Yvlon’s armor and onto Ceria…Ksmvr was most helpful in eating them. I believe he and Ceria consider the roaches as snacks and were more offended by the bites than anything else.”

He seemed amused by Olesm’s reaction. Pisces looked around the room, meeting a few gazes before they quickly averted. He shook his head and sniffed a third time.

“I was intending to do more work today, but it seems my presence is unwelcome here.”

That was an understatement. Adventurers watched Pisces with folded arms. Some turned their backs to him. One made a gesture. Olesm winced. He knew [Necromancers] were unpopular in Liscor and the rest of the continent—well, most of the world, really—for good reason, but Pisces’ attitude seemed to exacerbate the issue.

“I got the report! Olesm, I have them and—oh.”

Maviss returned, holding a sheaf of parchment and stopped when she saw Pisces. He looked at her and she hurriedly shoved the file into Olesm’s hand before retreating behind the counter. Olesm paged through the report.

“It seems like everything I need. Miss Maviss, can I return this at a later date?”

“Absolutely! Uh—can I help you?”

Maviss stared at Pisces, tail twitching nervously. He looked at Olesm and then at her and shook his head.

“Not in the slightest, I would imagine.”

He turned. Olesm looked at Maviss.

“Thank you for the files. I have to be going.”

“Oh. Wouldn’t you like to stay for—”

The Drake hurried away and out of the guild. Olesm walked quickly, pausing to greet an adventurer he knew, and then hurried down the street. He wanted to open the report in his apartment, but realized someone was striding along in the same direction as him, practically at the same speed.

Olesm and Pisces halted in the street, staring at each other as Drakes and Gnolls walked around them. Pisces frowned at Olesm. Olesm scowled at Pisces.

“Why are you following me?”

Pisces sniffed.

“I am not. It would appear we were moving in the same direction purely by happenstance. That is known as coincidence.”

He turned. Olesm stuck his tongue out at his back and heard a giggle. He turned, and then his scales turned bright red as he saw Drassi and a few female Drakes he recognized gossiping together. They waved and Olesm waved back before covering his face with one claw.

Pisces glanced at the Drakes, and noticed one of the [Guardsman] on patrol giving Olesm a nod. The same [Guardsmen] spat as he passed by Pisces. The mage’s voice was acerbic.

“It seems you are well beloved in this city, Mister Swifttail.”

Olesm nodded. He felt a bit embarrassed, actually, given how people were treating Pisces.

“I get to know a lot of people in my job. It uh, seems like you’re not well loved here.”

The [Necromancer] shrugged.

“My reputation as a [Necromancer] precedes me. Too, there are my past crimes.”

Olesm recalled the incident with the monster terrorizing innocent villagers out of food and coin. He scowled.

“Yes. That. But I think people might still treat you better if you made an effort.”

Pisces was turning to go. He looked over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows.

“Why should I? Their opinions are set in stone. Besides, my isolation is a product of my achievements and who I am. Talent is lonely. I do not need friends or adulation. Success is its own reward.”

His words stung Olesm’s scales like nettles. And yet, at the same time Olesm had an instinctive sense that Pisces was lying through his teeth. He didn’t have a truth detection Skill, but the Drake still sensed it. And…talent?

Olesm though about Ilvriss praising him and the shame and mixed emotions he felt. Whereas Pisces practically shouted his own arrogance. That lit a fire under his tail. He snapped at Pisces.

“You seem to have an inflated opinion of your abilities.”

Pisces smirked.

“Accurately judging my own worth is not hubris. If others fail to comprehend my worth, that is their failing. Not mine.”

“Oh yeah? Well—well, what if you’re wrong?”

Snappy retorts were the specialty of Selys, not his. Olesm felt his scales flush and Pisces gave him a condescending look that was worse than a reply. Olesm lashed his tail against the paving stones.

“Okay then. If you’re so special, why are you lowering yourself to adventuring with others? Unless you’re not talented enough to do things by yourself?”

The mage’s eyes narrowed. He took a moment to respond, and his coolness infuriated Olesm even more.

“Pragmatism, of course. And perhaps a bit of—nostalgia. Regardless, my status as an adventurer is a career decision. The true mystery is why you aren’t an adventurer. You seem enamored with the profession, not to mention a certain individual. Why not pursue such interests?”

The words hit Olesm right in the heart this time. A critical hit. He stared at Pisces, feeling his fury rising. He spat.

I wasn’t invited. I asked, as you recall.”

“Indeed I do. Hm. If a rejection was enough to stop you, then perhaps it was wise of you not to choose to be an adventurer after all. Words may burn, but they are a paltry force compared to claws and magic. If you cannot weather rejection, combat would certainly prove your undoing.”

The arch look. The burning words. Olesm opened his mouth and lifted the report about the dead adventurers.

“At least I was brave enough to go with them the first time! Where were you? Too cowardly to join them? I know Ceria asked you—why come crawling to her later when you rejected her once?”

Pisces’ eyes narrowed dangerously. He opened his mouth and Olesm balled his claws into fists. Before he or Olesm could say anything else, both heard a voice calling Olesm’s name.

“Olesm! Olesm Swifttail! I have a delivery for you!”

The Drake turned his head. His eyes widened.

“Hawk?”

The Rabbitman was striding down the street, moving twice as fast as anyone else. As usual, Hawk appeared to be practically vibrating with energy. In the cold weather he’d left his muscular abdomen exposed and he seemed immune to the chill. Olesm wondered if he’d had any of Erin’s Corusdeer Soup.

The Courier halted in front of Olesm and opened a pouch on his belt. It must have been a belt pouch of holding, because he pulled out several objects before he came up with a very thick sealed envelope. Olesm stared at it. If Hawk was delivering it, the letter had to be sent by Courier. Or was Hawk doing City Runner deliveries?

“What’s this about, Hawk?”

The Rabbit Tribe Beastkin offered Olesm the letter.

“I’ve got a message for you, Olesm. What else? It’s a pretty lucrative delivery for me; a simple package. I got it from Invrisil—a quick run, even with the Corusdeer stampede I had to dodge. Here, just state to me on this truth stone that you are Olesm Swifttail and—”

“Wait, what? But I—I haven’t been expecting any deliveries! And this looks expensive!”

Hawk nodded.

“Sure is. I can’t tell you the specifics—Runner’s confidentiality and all that, but I think this came from First Landing. Which means it’s from another continent.”

“Another continent?

Pisces was staring intently at the letter and at Hawk. The Courier eyed him, but said nothing. He was all business as he offered Olesm the various tools Couriers used to prove their deliveries had occurred, and then nodded.

“Looks good. Here you go.”

He handed Olesm the letter. It was thick and the paper looked very costly. Olesm gingerly pulled out a dagger; he’d reuse the paper if he could, and looked at Hawk.

“You have no idea who this is from?”

“Probably someone who likes your chess newsletter thing. I hear that it gets good traction among the Drake cities. Didn’t you get a whole bunch of deliveries from the Runner’s Guild after some idiot misspelled your name wrong or something?”

“Yeah, but no one’s sent a message by Courier—

Olesm was fumbling with the plain wax seal. It wasn’t stamped, so whoever wanted to send this didn’t feel like broadcasting to the world who they were. He was thinking about his chess newsletter. Yes, it was certainly possible, but what with all the dangers of the Goblin Lord and so forth, Olesm had completely missed sending his chess games and analysis for the last two weeks. And it wasn’t like his chess newsletters had spread beyond the continent. So who—

His heart stopped as he pulled out the short message from the envelope. At the top of the creamy, soft paper flecked with bits of gold was an insignia he recognized. It was a wing, or rather, a stylized flowing wing comprised of three colors. Pink, yellow, and green, the same colors as the eyes of their leader. Olesm would have recognized the insignia anywhere as a [Tactician], and the inhaled breaths from Hawk and Pisces showed both recognized it too.

The banner of the Forgotten Wing company stared up at Olesm. It was one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros. The Forgotten Wing Company. The Iron Vanguard. Maelstrom’s Howling. And the Eyes of Baleros.

But of the four companies, this one mattered most. Because the greatest [Strategist] in the world led that company. And Olesm’s eyes travelled slowly down the page, skipping the precise, neat handwriting and finding the signature at the bottom.

Niers Astoragon.

Olesm looked up. Hawk stared at the letter. Pisces’ face was dead white. The [Mage] stared at the [Tactician]. The [Tactician] stared at the [Mage].

Hawk the Courier stared for a second longer and then whistled.

“Cool. That’s great, Olesm. Glad I decided to deliver it. Hey, do you know anything about those Goblins in Erin’s inn? I nearly kicked one when I came through the door. Hello? Guys?”

He peered at the two stunned chess lovers and shook his head.

“Never mind. I’ll go ask someone in a tavern. Let me know if you want to send a reply. It’s not listed on the contract, but I could ask. Later!”

He strode off. That broke the spell around Pisces and Olesm. They stared at each other, earlier arguments forgotten.

“Well? What does it say?”

Pisces was peering at the letter. Olesm hesitated, and then showed it to him. The two read it, and their faces turned paler. Olesm went line by line through the letter, muttering out loud in disbelief.

“To Olesm Swifttail…most impressed by your analysis…quality of the games represented…intriguing endeavor…attached puzzle I have compiled myself? Looking forwards to future publications? A SMALL TOKEN OF MY APPRECIATION!?”

He reached into the envelope and slowly lifted out a glinting brass ring. The insignia of an eye was set with a tiny diamond in the metal. Pisces stared at it. He stared at Olesm. Olesm threw up his hands. Pisces did likewise. The two screamed, and they began to dance wildly about, shouting in disbelief.

The people walking down the street halted and stared at the two as Olesm and Pisces danced about, shouting incoherently about chess and Niers and rings. They didn’t care, but it was the subject of much entertainment for everyone watching. Including the young woman and Drake standing down the street, munching on some toasted breadsticks dipped in cheese and watching everything.

 

—-

 

“What are those two idiots doing?”

Selys and Erin paused as they watched Pisces and Olesm dancing about in the street. Erin shrugged.

“Dunno. They look happy, though. It’s weird seeing them together, isn’t it?”

Selys sniffed.

“Hatchlings are the same wherever you go. Anyways, forget them Erin. You were telling me about the Goblins?”

“Oh, right!”

Erin began walking after Selys, leaving the dancing Pisces and Olesm behind. She sighed.

“It’s a problem. Not them, exactly, but pants.”

“Pants?”

“Yeah, we’re having a real pants crisis. They don’t like them. They want to wear their horrible old loincloths, but I made them get rid of them because they were nasty. Really nasty. But they’d rather walk around naked than with pants…”

“What, really? That’s disg—what do they look like?”

Selys!

“I’m just asking.”

“Mrsha lives in my inn!”

“Ooh. Okay, that’s a problem.”

“Yeah. She’s learned they’re a weak spot. And she hates the Goblins. So she keeps throwing things at them. She hit Badarrow right in the groin with a pot the other day, and you know what happens when she doesn’t like something. She bites. I want to avoid that. So if you know any good [Tailors]…”

“Let me introduce you to one right now. Don’t you worry; Aunt Selys is on the job! That’s Aunt Selys for Mrsha, obviously. Don’t call me an Aunt, Erin. It’ll make me feel old.”

“Aw. Can I call you my cousin?”

“Maybe…”

They wandered off. Pisces and Olesm kept dancing, and eventually they stopped. Olesm handed the letter to Pisces, and with a trembling claw, put on the ring.

 


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4.35 E

Day 72

 

In this world, the main method of transportation between settlements is with wagons. True, you could argue that Runners and magic play their own roles, but the price for such deliveries is usually out of reach for the common villager. They might be able to afford a letter in a bulk delivery or a trinket to send to a loved one or relative, but as regular, reliable transportation? Never.

Indeed, you could say that Runners are by and large more useful for their discretion and ability to deliver messages and items without fear of interception. The best Runners in the world deliver for [Lords] and [Kings], after all. Whereas magic trivializes the issue of sending letters between two [Mages]—but at a higher cost. Accordingly, sending a small package instantly from one spot to a point across the world is possible, but the cost is beyond prohibitive.

So wagons rule, at least for bulk deliveries. Or, at least, they would if bags of holding hadn’t been invented. Give a Runner one of those and they can deliver goods faster and more reliably than a caravan. So extremely rich cities with powerful Runner’s Guilds like Invrisil can actually out-muscle the local Merchant’s Guild. But bags of holding are very expensive, so wagons rule in low-income areas with less substantial urban development.

The point I’m making with all of this is that wagons are important, so roads are important. Keeping a road maintained and free of monsters or bandits is crucial to a small town or village’s survival. The problem is that the said bandits and monsters know it.

The Goblin raiding force hit the caravan of [Traders] just past dawn. They streamed out of a cave where they had been lurking for the last few hours or so and charged down the hill towards the wagons and armed guards. The Humans, lone Gnoll and two half-Elves screamed and tried to form a circle with the wagons, but the Goblins were too quick.

The raiding force met the few caravan guards hard, killing two of the armed warriors in the first clash. Three Hobs lead the lesser Goblins, smashing aside warriors. The [Traders] fought back with their guards, but they were outmatched. They hadn’t brought enough guards for a long trip; they’d trusted to speed to get them from one town to another. They could make the journey in an hour or two. Less, with Skills.

But that window was all the time the Goblins needed. They only needed ten minutes, in fact. Away from any kind of large militia or the walls of a city, they could raid and be gone too quick for pursuit. And the [Traders] could hardly afford Silver-rank teams to protect them, could they? And if they could…three Hobs were more than a match for a single team.

A flawless strategy. Or rather, it had been flawless until now. Because despite all their preparations, the way the Goblins had carefully snuck into the cave through a back entrance and their [Stalkers] had crept along the road, out of view, they had still been seen. And preparation was everything.

“Are we too late to save the caravan?”

I’m miles away from the stretch of road, too far away to see the desperate fighting among the wagons or the way the blood mixes with the mud and snow on the ground. Too far to see with my eyes, that is. But my [Emperor] senses can see the Goblins—thirty or so—pushing forwards, shouting wordlessly. And I can also sense the second force, not [Traders] or Goblins, approaching at speed out of the woods.

In the silence of my mind, I can see a figure racing ahead of the group, see him put a horn to his lips and blow. There is no sound in the vision in my head, but I can see the Goblins turning, reacting to the horn call. I smile. Hello, Goblins. Allow me to introduce myself.

I’m Laken. An [Emperor], ruler of Riverfarm, Protector of Durene’s Cottage, and now sovereign lord of Windrest, Tunslaven, Kiquel, and the surrounding areas. Some call my territory the Unseen Empire, but I think that’s a bit too arrogant. Anyways, I may be blind, but I saw you coming. And this is my army.

The Goblins brought thirty, so I sent sixty. Simple math and it’s pretty much our entire force, so I don’t feel worried about leaving people behind. Not that there’s much danger; I can sense any threat coming and react accordingly. Like this. And my army has fought Goblins before.

This is how it goes down. The Goblins are still reacting, still turning to see the force of armed warriors on foot racing out of the woods when Beniar’s [Cavalry], [Riders], and lone [Cataphract] crash into them from the side. They actually take down one of the Hobs in the first clash; a lance straight through the armpit. I wince as I sit in Prost’s house. Nasty.

The riders fight for a second and the Goblins, used to battle, turn on them, trying to swarm the riders off the mounts. But Beniar’s already pulling back, circling for another charge. He’s timed it well or Wiskeria has; the infantry crash into the other side of the Goblins in tight formation. Leading the charge is a tall half-Troll I watch with anxiety and pride alike.

Durene. She’s still not wearing armor because none fits her, and her club’s still made of wood, but her shield is better than the old door she used to use. She shouts a word as she leads the assault on the Goblins’ rear. I sense her body begin to glow and Goblins shrinking back, shouting wordlessly.

Now, what would she be shouting? Probably the Skill. [Radiant Courage]! Durene’s body is shining with light, but the glow doesn’t bother the soldiers around her. They charge, shields raised, into the Goblins and reap the benefits of their enemy’s sudden blindness. Durene smashes two Goblins with her club like a hammer. Her Skill is devastating in group fights like this, where she can blind her enemies while keeping her allies safe. Now Durene charges forwards at the closest Hob.

He’s dangerous. This Hob has a battleaxe and he turns, the sharp blade dripping with blood, towards Durene. And he seems less affected by the light she emits. He lashes out with his axe and she raises her shield. I see Durene shouting again. Now her shield glows. The Goblins and Hob around Durene stumble back as a wall blocks them from swarming my beloved [Paladin]. Durene grits her teeth. I see her plant her feet in the mud, raise her shield and shove. Goblins go flying through the air and the Hob stumbles back.

[Shield of Valor]. It’s a Skill that [Knights] and other classes learn; a powerful tool for holding back the enemy or, it seems, creating an opening. The Hob loses his footing and Durene capitalizes on it. She swings her club up and down—

I shift my vision away, although part of me sees the splatter. The battle’s over. The remaining Hob is smart enough to try to run, but he and the Goblins are boxed in now by their greed. Beniar runs down stragglers and the soldiers finish off the remaining Goblins, fighting defensively, wearing out their opponents rather than taking a risk. That’s thanks to their leader, who calmly sits atop a horse from the back and blasts the Hob with small jolts of lightning until she—the Hob is female—drops with two swords in her belly.

It’s over. I see Durene turning, wiping sweat with one hand as she rests her club against a wagon and the frightened [Traders] rushing towards my little army, waving their hands, shouting their relief no doubt. There’s no need to watch the rest; Wiskeria knows what to do.

I probably didn’t need to watch after the second Hob went down, in point of fact. But I do worry. Whenever Durene fights I can’t help but watch over her. That and make sure each battle is one stacked as heavily in her favor as possible.

That’s all I can do. I sigh, and get up from the table I’m sitting at. It takes me a moment to center myself. Suddenly I’m not on the muddy road, but many, many miles east of there. I’m standing in Prost’s house in a village known as Riverfarm, and I can hear the shouts and voices of countless people in the distance around me.

“That went well.”

Slowly, I make my way towards the door and pause with my hand on the doorknob. I wait, and then open it slowly. Outside, I sense a man turning towards me and nod.

“Mister Prost? The battle is over.”

“Over? That’s quick, your majesty!”

“Yes, well, the Goblins attacked a bit sooner than Wiskeria thought. We were almost too late getting into position so there were a few casualties among the caravan. However, no one else died.”

Prost’s sigh of relief is huge. I nod towards him as I step out into the street. My feet slip a bit and Prost catches me before I can slip onto the ground. I steady myself and thank him as he lets go quickly. It wouldn’t do for an [Emperor] to fall on his face now, would it?

Even though I can sense mud and other debris underfoot, I can’t always predict what will happen. Plus, I’m bad about watching where I step when I use my [Emperor] senses. For a blind man, there’s probably nothing more ironic.

“Thank you, Prost. Please let everyone know what’s happened. I’m sure Tessia will be relieved to know Gamel’s alright.”

“I will let her know directly, your majesty. Do you believe the caravan will continue onwards?”

I pause for a moment and cast my senses east again.

“I believe so. Yes, the wagons are already moving. Sensible of Wiskeria. They’ll get to Trottvisk within the hour, I think. Which will help immensely when we begin our negotiations with them.”

“I should imagine so, sire.”

Prost steps with me out of the muddy street, and I frown as I notice how much snow’s already melted. Not that we get as much snow as some places on the continent, but it certainly makes for bad footing. There’s mud everywhere, but ahead of me the ground feels…firmer for some reason. I frown as I try to make out what I’m sensing. Not dirt, but something else. Wood? What is it?

“I know we agreed that you should be the one to talk with them, Prost, but perhaps we should leave that to Wiskeria? I could alert her with a [Message] spell and I really can’t afford for you to go even for a day. We have so much to do—and I’m adding a paved street to our lists. This mud is too dangerous, and the last thing we need is for someone to slip and break something.”

I can sense the man nodding. My [Steward] leads me onto a dryer patch of ground. Oh! Sawdust! That’s what I was sensing. How sensible, and so much easier than digging up the entire street. Prost’s ahead of me as usual.

“Yes, sire. I will make plans directly—we have a good deal of stone from the quarry we’ve set up, and I’m sure one of our [Diggers] has a stone-related skill. If not, there’s always mallets…but on the topic of sending someone to Trottvisk, your majesty, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for them to come to you?”

I pause and rub my chin.

“Perhaps. But I’d like to talk with them sooner rather than later. We could use a steady supply of goods, and if we wait for them to make the first move—”

Prost coughs gently and I break off. It’s interesting how we’ve developed a system already. He would never interrupt his own [Emperor], and yet, he does just that by coughing or making some other sound when I’m being an idiot. So I wait and let him speak.

“I think, sire, that it would be simplest to send a messenger requesting them to come here. You are an [Emperor], your majesty.”

“I—do you think they’d really come?”

“Certainly. [Lords] and [Ladies] do the same, and it would spare us having to send a party ourselves…”

“…And we get to negotiate on our own ground. Excellent idea, Prost.”

“I’ll see to it at once, your majesty.”

“Good. Now, we’ve now expanded the totems to the roads between Trottvisk and Acran, but I’m still not sure about our northern borders. Obviously we don’t want to annex other villages, but can you have someone replant the markers down the…oh, the forked road just past Kiquel?”

I scratch my head.

“I can’t tell what’s at the crossroads there and it’s making me uneasy. And I know Jelov’s overworked, but I could really use another marker around that pond we found north of here. It gets fuzzy if they’re too far apart, and I could swear something is living down there…”

Prost follows along as I walk and talk. Around me, people call out, waving, speaking my name. Houses are going up, men and women are carrying wood and stone to new foundations, and in the distance, a group of [Farmers] is breaking new ground for fields. They want to plant now, and spring is only a month or so away by their reckoning.

I take it all in, part of me still amazed everything is happening. This is my empire. And it’s growing. Three villages are already pledged to me including Riverfarm, and we’re building new houses as fast as we can to keep everyone under a roof. And if a town decides to join, well—

I’m lucky I like to stay busy.

 

Day 73

 

There is a dignity to being an [Emperor], but naturally that dignity is compromised according to each situation. I’m aware of the sins of hubris, and so I try to tell people that I’m as much of a man as I am a leader. With that said, I know the people of my village cherish my reputation, so I try to be dignified as well.

It’s debatable how well I do. For instance, I still live in Durene’s cottage because I love it there, and Durene and I need…special time now and then. The village is not a good place for privacy. Everyone wants to live near me, and though Kiquel and Tunslaven are still standing, people keep coming here. Because they feel safe.

I’m going to have to do something about that. I’ve already made plans with Prost to expand both villages when we have time. There are good pastures in Kiquel and Tunslaven is too nice to abandon. However, it might be that Riverfarm eventually gets so big that both of the other villages become districts that are only a stone’s throw away from the main empire. Now that’s an intimidating thought.

Nevertheless, where was I? Intimacy. Right. Prost goes over every architectural decision with me and since I have a view of my entire kingdom in my head, I can organize the upcoming houses, fields, barns and so on in a very efficient manner. I can also make it so that no new expansions are being built in the direction of Durene’s cottage. That can stay as it is, thanks.

And yet, in public it’s still on me to preserve my image as an [Emperor]. I can’t walk around inspecting spots forever; I need a throne. Everyone says so, from Durene to Wiskeria to Gamel. Beniar doesn’t, but he thinks I should have a chariot. I was against a throne since I want to be active, but we all found an…unusual compromise.

“Good morning, Emperor Laken!”

“Good day, sire!”

“Hello, Cinney. Good morning Siccy. Why is there an egg in your pockets?”

The young boy turns guiltily to me as I move through the village on my throne. He shuffles and clears his throat.

“It’s a snack, sire! My ma boiled it and I was going to eat it, but I forgot—I’m sorry.”

I smile at him.

“Ah. I see. Never mind then, I was just curious. Your mother’s quite smart—boiled eggs are a favorite snack of mine.”

“I’ll tell her you said so!”

Siccy’s bright voice makes me smile as I ride on. I can sense him watching me as I continue sitting on my throne. Yes, it’s certainly impressive. Eye-catching? Most definitely. Comfortable…not exactly.

I shift, and my ‘throne’ grunts a bit. It plods down the street and the villagers give it a respectful distance, but they’re used to the Mossbear enough by now to call out greetings to me as I pass by. One daring girl even offers my mobile throne a piece of dried jerky, giggling as it snuffs and licks her fingers. Her father scolds her for getting in my way, and I smile and wave.

Yeah. I ride the Mossbear around from time to time. It’s…regal? I’d grant that it’s impressive, but I personally feel like I’m in some kind of satire of a certain world leader each time I sit on the Mossbear. At least my bear is docile; I’d hate to try and ride him when he’s running about.

It’s thanks to my [Beast Tamer] class that I can have a bear as a throne, anyways. Or maybe my [Emperor] class and my [Beast Tamer] class? I can’t help but feel like a Level 9 [Beast Tamer] is a bit too low-level to have forged a bond with a bear already. But hey, what do I know? And speaking of animals with bonds—

“Frostwing!”

I raise my arm and call out. I sense a shape diving towards my arm and I’m glad Frostwing decides to land on the leather armguard rather than my shoulder this time. The large and, apparently, blue bird preens herself as I stroke her head.

“You’re learning to fly really well, aren’t you? Good job! Maybe now you’ll be able to feed yourself, rather than gobble meat all day. Would you like that? I can tell you’re going to poop now. Don’t do it on me, please, or the bear.”

A beak pecks at my fingers and I sigh. A tiny little tongue licks my fingers—Frostwing must have noticed the honey biscuit snack I had for lunch. A real treat I had to share with the bear as well. He’s a surprisingly docile fellow for someone so big. I’m told Mossbears camouflage themselves and attack deer when they get hungry. Or people. I’m just glad it’s possible to tame him with hot, buttery mashed potatoes.

“Okay, okay. You’re hungry and you’re a terrible hunter. Ow! Don’t peck. We’ll get you something to eat. Let’s all just go see Prost, okay? Prost. That way.”

I nudge the bear mentally and with my legs and he ambles left. Frostwing flutters down to land on his back and sits with me as we proceed down the street. The bear. I haven’t come up with a good name for him yet. I’m thinking something German would be nice, but I’m really not inspired. And he’s not exactly fussed—it’s just that having [Lesser Bond: Unnamed Mossbear] in my head is a bit…well, I feel bad for him.

“Emperor Laken, good morning, sire!”

“Prost. What have we here? Hello Durene, we meet again.”

“Laken!”

Durene turns as I approach a cleared space with a lot of wood, nails, and busy people hammering and cutting wood. My half-Troll lover reaches up and strokes the Mossbear’s head. He whuffs at her as Frostwing caws impatiently. Prost edges around both bear and bird as I slide off and coughs nervously. I think he’s afraid of both animals, which is perfectly understandable. I step to one side and investigate the scene with my senses.

“That’s a lot of wood. A lot of nails and screws, too. Do you think you have all the materials you need?”

Prost hesitates. He glances around.

“I think Mister Helm’d be the better man to speak to that, sire, but I see he’s busy. I’m not an expert, but from what he and the other [Carpenters] and [Blacksmiths] say, building this…thing should be easy.”

“Trebuchet, Mister Prost. It’s called a trebuchet.”

“Yes sir. I’ve never heard of it as I said, and the other folk say they haven’t either. Then again, you hear about odd weapons being used in Chandrar and Baleros—do you think we can truly make it, sire?”

I have to hesitate.

“Possibly, Mister Prost. It’s worth a shot at any rate. I uh, can’t read the designs Ryoka gave me, but you told me they look good?”

“Oh, yes sir. It’s a very simple design. It’s just the size of it that’s stumping us, sir. You say these things are meant to hurl blocks of stone hundreds of feet away? I’ve heard of magical catapults that couldn’t do the same!”

“Well, these are siege weapons, Prost. In fact, I’d prefer a catapult, but Ryoka couldn’t remember how uh, torsion siege weapons were made. Trebuchets are a lot easier, according to her. Someone apparently made one out of duct tape once.”

“Duck tape?”

“Never mind. If you think you can make one, I’d love to use it on any attackers. Put it on wheels, maybe make them smaller since we’re not exactly firing at castles here and…well, why not? Just think about it, Prost. Six of these aimed at a group of Goblins and we wouldn’t have to fight a battle.”

“I can’t argue with that, sire. And it’s such a simple thing too. One arm goes up, a heavy block goes on the other end, and it all rests on this uh—”

“Fulcrum.”

“Yes, that. I’m most worried about whether the wood will stand up to all the weight, sire. Our first trial broke the fulcrum thing as you know. However, the lads—and the three ladies—are very excited about it. Miss Tessia’s almost as keen as the boys are to see this thing throw something. And on that note, I learned yesterday that three of our folk have a new class, sir!”

Prost leans over and whispers to me confidentially.

“They’re [Tinkerers], sir. Not [Engineers] like you’d hoped, but I’m told that’s the first step. To have three in one village, well, it’s extraordinary. Begging your pardon of course, I know you’d hoped for more.”

I shake my head, smiling broadly.

“That’s great news, Prost. I didn’t think [Engineers] were that likely, but I’d hoped, that’s all. You see, to gain the [Engineer] class I think the people would need the right tools, more knowledge about how to build things, and perhaps the right mindset. As it is, the [Tinkerer] class will probably become [Engineer] about, oh, I’d say Level 15 or so. So there’s nothing to worry about.”

I can tell Prost is giving me an admiring look. It’s completely undeserved.

“You know so much, Emperor. How did you learn about so many classes?”

I cough. I might have said too much. I hesitate over my reply.

“Someone…told me, Prost. Anyways, these [Tinkerers] have useful Skills?”

“Yes, sire. Tessia learned [Detect Flaw], which is a great help in itself. It’s a Skill that lets her know if we’ve cut something wrong or there’s rot in the wood and so on…I wouldn’t mind her going to all of our houses later on to check on them as well.”

“I think that’s a fine idea. At your discretion, Prost. Now, I know Durene’s helping you lift things, but could you spare her later on? I haven’t had much time to see her after she got back.”

I can sense Prost’s posture shift, and I studiously ignore the small smile on his face.

“Yes, sire. I could let her go right now—”

“No, no. I wouldn’t want to get in the way.”

I cough again, and turn away. An [Emperor]’s dignity. I try not to blush. I turn back to the Mossbear as Prost returns to the construction and sigh. When everyone and their dog knows about your relationship—and worse, now approves of it and actively tries to give you space—it’s nearly as bad as the prejudice.

Seid doch nicht so pervers. At least today I got to see the trebuchet fire. True, the rock went nearly straight up and crushed half of our experimental model. Prost and I concluded that the testing had better be done from far away using a long rope—and everyone should wear helmets just in case. But it’s a start. Hell, more than one. I’m building trebuchets now. Where does it stop?

I guess this kind of technology will help level the field against [Mages]. Our best mage is Wiskeria, and she’s a [Witch]. That’s a concern for later, though. Our new empire is still stronger than it has any right to be. Hopefully all these little tricks—the palisades we keep rebuilding further and further out, the network of totems, my ‘eyes’, and things like the trebuchets will keep us safe, keep my people safe from now on.

And maybe if no one else dies, the nightmares I’ve been having will someday stop.

 

Day 74

 

Today I had my first audience. It was spontaneous—I didn’t realize the messenger had arrived until he was riding in on horseback—largely informal, and took place while I was sitting on my throne. The Mossbear. Given those circumstances, I can’t see how it couldn’t have been a success.

“I’m deeply grateful for the gifts, from Trottvisk, Mister Rencil. And I understand the trading caravan gave my people several tokens of their appreciation as well. However, it was our pleasure to help fight the Goblins. They are a common enemy that transcends alliances and feuds.”

“Just as you say your majesty. But we are deeply grateful for your protection. I ah, am instructed to tell you these are only the smallest representations of our esteem. Our town did not know there was such an—an esteemed personage so close by, or we would have sent a delegation earlier, of course.”

The [Messenger] stammers as he tries to control his nervous horse around my bear. I smile and dismount. I think my closed eyes bother the young man on horseback as much as the bear.

“Please, allow me to offer you some refreshments and food. It’s the least I can do.”

“You are too kind si—I mean, your majesty. However, I couldn’t intrude. I’m—I was only instructed to deliver the gifts and report b—I mean, return at full speed.”

He’s stumbling over himself and almost falls over himself as he hands Prost the gifts—some wax candles, a bundle of fine cloth, and a bottle of some kind of drink. Probably alcohol. He clearly doesn’t think it’s a fitting gift, but I don’t really care. Mainly, I’m a bit concerned that my reputation as an [Emperor] has spread so far already. Rumor and gossip are one thing, but how—

Ah. Wiskeria and my soldiers must have talked. Drat. Regardless, I smile up at the man and offer him my hand. He fumbles with his glove and his hand is sweaty as it grasps mine.

“I shall await the delegation eagerly. I feel that mutual ties between my empire and Trottvisk would be beneficial for us both. You may know that my army keeps the area around my empire safe from monsters and bandits—I would like to do the same for your towns with their permission.”

“I will tell them that at once, your majesty. I’m sure we could provide you with anything needful—we have lots of goods—for your protection.”

“Uh, that wasn’t what I—”

Too late. The messenger is already promising me whatever Trottvisk can offer if we’ll keep the Goblins from sacking their town. I sigh over it later when he’s gone, but Prost and the others are approving. Protection for tributes. It feels wrong, but Wiskeria puts it into plainer terms for me.

“You have a finite force at your disposal, your Majesty. Fighting battles—even ones where you know the enemy is coming—will cost you time and lives. Why shouldn’t other towns offer you some sort of support for your protection? Going out of your way to keep the roads patrolled is enough of a boon as it is. Normally adventurers have to be paid vast sums to do the same.”

“I suppose you’re right, Wiskeria. And on that note, I hope you can find more recruits soon. We have half a dozen adventurers, around fifty warriors and archers, you, Durene, and…a Mossbear as our standing forces. That’s not exactly reassuring if a larger group of Goblins comes calling.”

My [General] nods calmly. She’s rarely in the village, often dealing with a threat or talking to other villages, but I trust her perhaps most of all my close advisors because she is so competent. She’s taken to her role as well as Prost has.

“Beniar knows some adventurers and I have my own contacts, but I believe we’ll find the most success recruiting old veterans and training new warriors from the villagers. The army might be small now, but it is substantially more powerful than most towns’ militias, in my opinion.”

“True. But we need more gear. If all we have is weapons taken from Goblins…well, let me know if there are any more [Knights] you would like me to dub. I think I could make about ten more.”

Wiskeria shifts as she laces her fingers together and frowns slightly.

“I think it might be best to wait, your majesty. I understand Gamel and the others are leveling quickly and that [Knights] are far superior to [Warriors], but if they are limited—”

“—I should wait for truly promising recruits. I understand.”

I grimace. Making [Knights]. Of course, it’s not without their consent and each person I’ve dubbed has told me how honored they are—Gamel still seems stunned and his girlfriend, Tessia, is over the moon about it—but it still feels wrong. Like I’m forcing them to become something they’re not.

“Emperor Laken?”

“Hm? I’m sorry, Wiskeria. I drifted off there. What were you saying?”

Silently, the [Witch] offers me a cup of the tea she brews and keeps in canteens at her saddlebags. I accept it gratefully—she brews very strong tea which has more caffeine in it than coffee. It also has a very refreshing minty taste.

“I was saying, that appointing [Lords] and [Ladies] might lure in even Gold-rank teams, if you so choose. Their loyalty might be bought, but if you’re concerned, I could ask about trustworthy groups…”

Her tone is cautious. I frown, but not because I’m disagreeing with her. Appointing…? Oh, right. That’s a good idea. But…alas. I sigh.

“Unfortunately, Wiskeria, I don’t have any more such titles to give out, at least not now. I could probably name one or two more [Lords] and [Ladies], but nothing more. I, uh, gave the other titles away to save my village a while ago.”

“I see.”

She’s looking at me with that piercing, inquisitive gaze. And adjusting her spectacles. I keep my face smooth. I trust Wiskeria a lot after it was revealed Odveig was the spy and she was loyal all along, but telling someone about making a bunch of Frost Faeries [Baronesses] and so on is a bit…well, let’s just say that it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of mental health.

“I’m willing to offer other groups land, or some kind of title, but I’d rather have people who are loyal rather than here for personal gain, Wiskeria.”

“I understand. In that regard I think we’ll be fine either way.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

Wiskeria counters my raised eyebrow with one of her own. She nods towards the door. I gave Wiskeria one of the first new houses we constructed, but she’s already hinting she’d like a personal home when we finish building the essentials. That’s fair. Her neighbors are already complaining of the smells her witch brews create.

“You just received a messenger from Trottvisk, your majesty. I imagine the other nearby villages and towns will have heard about that and your army, and will be sending their own envoys shortly. I expect at least one village will pledge themselves to you, and there will certainly be at least a handful of older warriors among their number. And that’s besides the gifts you’ll receive.”

I cough on the tea.

“You think so? But we already got tributes—”

She shrugs dismissively.

“Tokens of esteem. Tributes for an [Emperor] would be far more substantial, I imagine. Which is why spreading word of your name and class is important.”

I stare at her. Well, turn my head towards her while keeping my eyes closed. It’s practically the same thing.

“Did you plan all this ahead of time, Wiskeria? Is that why rumors about me keep spreading?”

She only smiles and sips at her tea. Witches. They’re so…mysterious.

 

Day 76

 

Goblins attacked a distant village and burnt it to the ground. The people were slaughtered or taken prisoner. I heard about this through a [Message] spell sent to Wiskeria. There was no word on how many Goblins attacked or if there were Hobs, but I told Jelov I needed more markers done now.

There is a limit to how much ‘space’ each marker can cover. We need more to extend our vision past the few towns and villages around my empire. Winning a battle is all about knowing where the enemy is coming with as much advanced notice as possible. If a large force does come here…we have to be able to set traps, lay in ambush. We don’t have the soldiers yet—

But I am leveling up. And if I need to I will fight. Order my villagers to fight, even when their bodies are spent. Even if that means seeing more of the dead faces in my dreams.

 

Day 77

 

The delegation arrived on horseback around midmorning, as I was about to visit Jelov the [Carver]. I would have seen them right away, but Prost insisted there was a formality to everything. He had their horses saddled and the visitors given a meal in the newly-built townhouse that also doubles as the main storehouse and kitchen, and I went to visit Jelov in the meantime.

“Your majesty, I’m so happy to see you! Can I offer you a seat? Whoops, there’s a chisel there…and that’s no good—let me just brush off some wood shaving here. Please, please, have a seat!”

I smile and sit as the [Carver] sidles around me, fussing over me. I get him to sit only after a lot of coaxing. But then, it’s probably only natural that Jelov is glad to see me. My usage of the marker totems that define my territory—and thus the limits of my [Emperor]’s sight—have made him an important man in the village, where before he was something of a hermit.

Now he has his own house, respect, and two apprentices. Jelov practically gushes all this out as he sits a bit too close to me, and I recall why I don’t visit him all the time. Spit is good for the skin. I keep telling Durene that.

“I’m working on more markers as we speak, sire, but my hands ache so. I carve all day, which isn’t to say it’s not worth doing! But I’m afraid you can’t rush art.”

I smile. Art. Each totem Jelov comes out with is subtly different. The symbol at the top is always the same of course—it’s the illuminati eye, known as the Eye of Providence. But Jelov takes liberties carving the rest of the eight-foot totems, sometimes illustrating battles, sometimes carving names or other weird symbols into the wood—I don’t mind, and he clearly feels like uniform totems would be a crime.

“I understand you’re working your hardest Master Jelov. And I’m not here to demand more of you—rather, I wanted to know about a little rumor I’ve been hearing. Something about miniature carved totems popping up around the village with my symbol on it?”

“Ah.”

Jelov gulps audibly. I put my cup to one side and turn my head towards him.

“What’s this about, Jelov?”

“Well—it’s nothing sire. Just a little sideshow, a distraction. A hobby more like. It’s just these—why don’t I show you one? Here?”

He rushes about his workshop and comes back with several objects that are all about the size of my hand. I study them in my mind’s eye. They’re…well, they’re scaled down models of the markers, carved in the same way, polished and rounded down at the edges.

“Miniature markers?”

“Totems, sir. Just like you said. Trinkets, really. It’s just a little thing I’ve been doing for the other folk who live here.”

“Why?”

He sounds surprised.

“Why, because they ask for them sire! Everyone wants one of these in their homes. They think it gives good luck. Or protection! If I wasn’t carving these large markers I’d be making these little ones all day. The demand’s through the roof! Err—not that I take time off to make them, not at all! These are just a bedtime occupation. A bit of carving between the sheets, before I sleep, sire. Honest!”

I have to shake my head. I know the markers are essential and people take pride in this empire and me, but this? I pick up one of the little totems Jelov’s carved and frown as I trace the etchings on the wood.

“You say people want this Jelov, but how do they pay for it? No one has any money to spare—unless they’re giving you something else?”

It was a hesitant request, but the villagers gladly gave me what little they had. I in turn traded with the various towns for more food, more supplies on their behalf. What was left over Prost insisted was mine, as I ruled everyone. Jelov crabs sideways, and his voice is…shifty.

“Well, y’see your majesty, there’s coin and then there’s a bite of food, some fresher pillows, maybe a scented candle…small things to exchange, you know? There’s no harm in it.”

“Bartering. Of course. But if people need money—”

“There’s time enough for that when we’re all eating rich, milord. Us simple folk just like having something to give and take with our spare time, that’s all.”

Jelov’s voice is surprisingly firm. I hesitate, and then relent and put the half-finished totem down.

“Just don’t let it take too much time, Jelov. And tell people the totems don’t work like they’ll hope. I can’t see everywhere at once and I wouldn’t even if I could.”

“Ah, you say that sire, but didn’t you rescue little Evvy when that old wall collapsed onto her? You were shouting for people to dig her out before we’d even noticed she was missing!”

“That was luck, Jelov. I can’t do it every time.”

“Once or twice is better than none, your majesty. And a bit of hope’s what folk like. Not to mention my carvings look good on the mantelpiece or by the bed.”

“I wish they wouldn’t put them there.”

“Why?”

I bite my lips on my reply. People are people, and I can’t help what I sense. But having an image of a couple…or trio…having sex in vivid details is not one of my interests, thank you. Villagers they might be, but the people of my empire have surprisingly kinky tastes. I could have lived without knowing that.

“Never mind. Why don’t they put them by the windows? That’s a very proper place for it. Far from the bedrooms. Maybe over the mantle?”

“You’d know best, wouldn’t you, sire?”

Jelov twinkles at me and I glumly resign myself. At least there’s no real harm in it, and if people like it—I turn as Jelov lifts up a tiny carved illuminati eye on a round wood ball with a flat base.

“Now this is a little trinket I came up with yesterday. Very small and convenient it is. Perfect for a pocket or as a gift. I’m told some folks are making their own—not as good as mine of course—and sending them to relatives.”

Wonderful.

“You think so? I think it could use a bit of color, myself. Do you want one, milord? I could get one painted and all special like. Maybe as a gift for Miss Durene?”

“I’ll think about it, Jelov. Just don’t let your hobby overtake your work.”

Sighing, I leave the [Carver]’s shop behind. Little illuminati totems. And people want them staring at them. What next? Well, next is arguably less fun. I wipe the spit off the side of my face, and then begin the negotiations.

They go well. Riverfarm, or rather, the Unseen Empire might not produce any agricultural goods, or trade goods, or any goods of any kind at the moment, but we’re currently the most powerful force in the area. And because I can see everything in my territory, I can promise safety without it being a lie. It’s funny how much people are willing to offer for that.

 

Day 78

 

Word spreads quickly about the Goblin attacks. Two more delegations arrived and another village, Batte, asked for my protection. I couldn’t give it. They were too far away. So the villages decided to come here.

Now the three closest towns and almost all of the villages accessible in a day’s journey are under my protection. Under the protection of the eighty-some warriors and Wiskeria, a [General], but a low-level one. My champion is Durene, a Level 14 [Paladin]. I’m worried. But Wiskeria comes by with a proposal, and it’s such a good plan that we send out messengers that night to each town and village. We have a plan in case the Goblins come in force. I hope we never have to use it.

 

Day 79

 

“Delivery for…Emperor Laken Godart? Yes, sir. My name is Thasius Griff. I am a City Runner from Invrisil. I have a delivery—several deliveries for you, your majesty. Do you have a seal?”

I stare at the City Runner in front of me. My eyes drift sideways to Prost. The man shakes his head and grimaces. I look back at Thasius.

“No. Should I?”

“It isn’t required your majesty, but a specialized and unique seal for our uh, wealthier clientele speeds up our deliveries. May I ask you to place your hand on this truth stone and declare your name?”

“Certainly. I am Laken Godart.”

There’s a delicate pause. Thasius coughs. I wait a beat. So, that’s what they want, is it?

“I am an [Emperor].”

“Thank you, your…your majesty.”

After a brief moment of hesitation, the smooth stone is taken back. Thasius steps backwards and fumbles with his bag of holding, a bit more hesitant than before. I tilt my head. I can’t see inside the bag of holding with my [Emperor] senses, so I’m as curious as my advisors around me.

My advisors. That means Beniar, Wiskeria, Durene, Prost, and Gamel. In truth, Beniar’s more of my cavalry leader, but he’s a solid adventurer and he sometimes has good advice. Durene’s here because I love her. Prost and Wiskeria are both intelligent and run my empire. And Gamel’s here because I want him to be here.

“I have—excuse me—I have several gifts from various clients, your majesty. If you will allow me, I will present them one at a time so you may confirm delivery.”

“May I ask who sent each gift?”

Thasius nods. He’s holding the first parcel in his hands, some wrapped, bulky set of objects.

“Each client specifically requested their name be mentioned with their gifts, your majesty. There is no request for a return message, but I will deliver any verbal or physical replies free of charge as part of the service.”

“I see. Very well then.”

The City Runner nods and clears his throat.

“The first gift I have is from the Merchant’s Guild in Invrisil. They offer you their profound thanks for rescuing two of their caravans from Goblin and monster attack respectively, and offer you a small gift as their thanks.”

He unwraps the cloth parcel to reveal…bottles. I frown at them, sensing the liquid inside.

“Forgive me. I cannot see what these ah, gifts are. Prost? Will you tell me what they contain?”

Prost steps forwards and the City Runner offers him the bottles. There’s a moment of fumbling, and Prost’s voice catches.

“These are—healing potions, your majesty. High-quality ones. And this is a—a perfume?”

“Scented oils, I believe. And this one is a potion of Armorskin, a powerful one. I believe they’re the same quality as the ones used by Gold-rank adventurers.”

“We can certainly use them.”

Wiskeria murmurs in my ear. I nod, but keep my face straight. I know my reactions are being watched by Thasius, so I nod while showing little emotion.

“An expensive gift. Please return my thanks to the Merchant’s Guild and assure them that I hope for continued prosperity between my people and theirs. What else do you bring?”

“A gift from a [Merchant], your majesty. Specially scented soaps.”

“Soaps?”

Yes, soaps. Some are clear red, others are light purple, one’s pink…Durene and Wiskeria touch them, exclaiming over them softly so I let them take the bundle. Soaps. Apparently they’re very expensive. And this merchant’s sending them to me as a gift.

Hmm. This time I just nod towards Thasius.

“Please thank your client for the expensive gifts.”

I don’t mention the [Merchant]’s name or go on. And Thasius notices. And I notice that he notices. Now I think I’ve got the tune of this game, so I go on.

Eight gifts were sent my way, from eight people who live in the general area of Invrisil or nearby. And, coincidentally, each one was delivered at once. Was it the Runner’s Guild who arranged that? Or were the roads not safe until now?

Curious. I recognize two of the gifts as being from the same senders as the letters I’d received over a week ago. I remember thinking hard over what to do with each letter, but I eventually did exactly what I’d been advised to do.

My reply to the various letters I’d received had been uniform, polite denials to their requests to meet. I’d told each person, from the [Merchants] to the nobles that I was busy, invited them to pay me a visit at their convenience and so on and so forth, and expressed my best wishes for the future. I’d signed it simply as ‘Laken Godart’ and not added any titles.

It seemed like the thing to do. Pique interest, keep them occupied wondering what my game was, and move on with the important business while they schemed. And so, after a week of waiting, the next move these powerful figures did was to offer me gifts. And while some were useless, like the soaps and received my scant thanks in return, others were intriguing.

“This comes from Lady Rie, your majesty.”

Thasius has to struggle with his next delivery and for good reason. I blink as he pulls out a long, long, package and small wrapped parcels of powder, tiny vials, and most curious of all—

“Milk?”

Yes, several large jugs of goat’s milk. I stare at the odd collection of items that sits on the table in front of me, and Thasisus explains.

“Lady Rie delivered a short message with the gifts. She understand your majesty is uh—uh—”

“Blind?”

“Um. Yes. So she ordered me to deliver the message verbally. It is as follows.”

I sense Thasius closing his eyes and he speaks slowly and carefully.

“To [Emperor] Laken, I am Lady Rie Valerund of Invrisil. I offer you my greetings and hope that the people you have chosen to protect fare well in these troubled times. I understand you have taken several villages under your aegis, and offer these medicines, ointments, and powders that have been created to ease children into this world. The young are our future, and the taxing requirements of raising them should be lessened if at all possible. I hope and trust we shall meet in the future as circumstances allow. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors, Lady Rie.”

The young man is panting when he finishes. I stare at the gift Lady Rie has sent me. Piles of—of—baby powder? And milk? I can’t help it.

I laugh. The sound makes Thasius start, but then I stand up. For a second I debate making him memorize a reply of my own, but then I relent.

“Please tell Lady Rie that I am most grateful for her thoughtful—and insightful gift. I would welcome a meeting between us and hope I can return her gift in time. I am most humbly in her debt as Emperor Laken of the Unseen Empire.”

Chuckling, I sit down. Thasisus stares at me before scrambling to break the next gift out. That night I share around soaps, candied treats, and other goodies. I don’t really want any of the things myself, and Wiskeria can use the potions. The only thing I keep is three of the soaps. They’re useful and Durene wants to use them. We try the first soap that night and conclude that the soaps are good, but we need a bigger bathtub. A hot tub would be very nice.

 

Day 80

 

The trebuchet arm broke, but at least we knocked down a tree. Now, if only we could aim the damned thing. Ryoka said the arm had to be…what was it? A ratio of 1:3.75? That’s really hard to put into practice.

And yet, a trebuchet…I see Tessia’s eyes shining as she fires a tiny, prototype and it sends a rock flying across the village. It’s a good idea. I just have to make sure none of the kids make models of the trebuchet themselves. The stone brained Mister Helm and nearly cracked his skull.

 

Day 81

 

Another town attacked. This one fought the Goblins off, but at heavy cost. The attacks are all coming around a mountain far to the east, and there’s a rumor going around that some kind of Great Chieftain of the Goblins lives there. All the better—or worse, I suppose. A Great Chieftain sounds bad, but if they’re further away, it means raiding parties won’t bother to travel this far. We’d have to have something they really wanted for them to attack, and the Unseen Empire’s greatest asset is that we’re poor.

We’re poor. Hold on, what’s moving down the north road? It’s just at the limits of my senses, but it feels like it’s headed north. And isn’t that where…?

 

Day 82

 

The attack was sudden, fierce, and came at dawn. Over two hundred and twenty Goblins poured out of the snowy landscape, and twenty six Hobs were leading them. It was a force that might take a town, or raze a village in less than an hour. But it was not a village nor a town that was attacked.

It was a mansion. Nestled comfortably adjacent to a small town, the home of Lady Rie and the Valerund family’s estate was in theory safe from bandits. The magical wards on the walls and the lady’s own private guard were more than a match for any monster or bandit attack.

But not Goblins. A [Shaman] blasted the wards off as the other Goblins swarmed through the town, setting it alight. Hobs cut down the shocked defenders as people fled towards the mansion.

No one made it.

The Goblins encircled the mansion, pounding on walls, trying to break the magically-reinforced glass. One Hob managed to bash through a window, but magefire and a hail of arrows dissuaded other Goblins from entering that way. Too dangerous. Instead, the [Shaman] began dancing in front of the door and the remaining Hobs brought out the battering rams. They began pounding on the doors as the lesser Goblins around them shouted, whipped into a frenzy by the [Shaman]’s dancing and spells.

Inside the mansion, Lady Rie Valerund and what remained of her guard sat and counted weapons. They had few bows, although there was a surplus of arrows for each one. Her servants and protectors were all gripping weapons, but they were only good steel, not enchanted. The Valerund family was not heir to the Reinhart legacy, and their bloodline had been whittled down over the years to one sole member.

The scion of the Valerund blood sat in one of her upholstered chairs and looked towards the captain of her guard. He, a brawny man who’d been an accomplished [Street Brawler] before she’d met him, was injured. Blood ran thickly down one arm before he poured a splash of healing potion on the wound. Lady Rie eyed the bloodstains on her carpet and said not a word about it.

“Have you sent a [Message] spell to Invrisil, to Lady Reinhart?”

She turned to her [Mage], a young man who had attended Wistram but failed to received his mage certification. The pale-faced man nodded.

“I did—but they said that help won’t arrive for hours yet!”

“In which time we shall be dead. And Lady Reinhart?”

Lady Rie’s face was calm. Only one shaking leg betrayed her, but she kept the motion hidden by one of her gowns. Her captain of the guard, the man who’d been known as Geram Redfist, looked at his mistress and then away. The young [Mage] gulped.

“She—was unavailable, my lady. I tried and tried, but the [Mage] who answered said—said there was nothing she could do anyways.”

Rie tapped at one lip thoughtfully. A loud thump echoed down the corridors and her face paled, but she went on as if she hadn’t heard.

“Either her magical carriages have broken down again or her staff are…indisposed. No aid from her, then. It seems the Goblins will break in within the hour. Unless I am wrong, Geram?”

The big man lowered his head. He carried no weapons, but he had two gauntlets on each hand and he had beaten the Hob who’d entered to death with his bare fists.

“They’ll be in sooner than that, Miss Rie. That damn [Shaman]’s creating something big out there and the Hobs are breaking the doors bit by bit.”

Lady Rie bit her lip.

“I thought those enchantments were meant to hold a Troll off. They were Wistram-certified. Nesor, you told me they were powerful.”

Nesor, the young [Mage], gulped.

“They are, Lady Rie. But—but no enchantment lasts forever! If you could shoot the Goblins or—or chase them away, the magic might replenish. I could cast a spell—”

Geram shook his head.

“Open a window and you’ll be filled with arrows before you can raise your hands, boy. There are Goblins climbing the roofs. They’re banging on the windows upstairs.”

“They won’t get in, surely.”

Rie looked at Geram. He shrugged.

“Before the Hobs bust down the doors? No.”

She understood what he was saying. And what he wasn’t saying. Rie looked around, at the frightened faces around her and stood up slowly.

“Well then. It appears we all have an engagement with destiny. My loyal staff, Geram, Nesor, it has been a pleasure, truly.”

The gathered servants, [Maids], lone [Gardener], and [Cook] stared at their mistress in horror. She looked around and sighed.

“For all my scheming and plans, I didn’t expect it to end like this. Not…not so inelegantly.”

“We’ll hold them off as long as we can. I’ve already barricaded the main corridor and we’ve got every bow at each end. We’ll make them bleed before they get to us, I swear.”

Geram clenched one fist as the thundering blows on the door intensified. Outside the Goblins screamed and the [Shaman] roared a word that made the silverware on the tables flash for a second. Rie flinched. Geram looked towards Nesor and the [Mage] hesitated before hurrying towards the makeshift barricades. The captain of the guard drew closer to Rie and lowered his voice. He took something off of his belt and handed it to her.

Rie stared at the object. It was a dagger. She looked up at Geram’s face. The man’s expression was grim.

“I won’t lie, Lady Rie, there’s no way out for us. I could try opening a window and making a break for it, but the Goblins would catch us before we went half a yard. As for holding here—we don’t have the manpower for it.”

She nodded and tried to laugh lightly.

“I suppose I should have hired that Silver-rank team like you’d always advised me, shouldn’t I, Geram?”

He smiled back. Someone screamed and his head turned. It was only a servant, seeing a Goblin’s face pressed against one of the windows. He shook his head.

“Three Silver-rank teams wouldn’t have made a difference, milady. But here.”

He offered her the dagger again. Rie stared at it.

“For me? I’m sure I’ll fight my best Geram, but I’m no warrior. If there’s someone who can use it better—”

“We’re all armed, milady. No. This is for the last.”

Geram’s bald head was sweating. He looked into Rie’s eyes.

“I’ll die fighting, with a Goblin’s throat in my hands. But milady, the Goblins are known to capture—that is, take prisoner women and—”

Lady Rie’s face paled further. Geram hastily raised a hand in case she fainted, but she caught herself.

“I see. I understand Geram, but that won’t be necessary.”

“But Lady Rie—”

She drew something out of her pocket with trembling hands. Geram stared at the viscous orange liquid within. Rie smiled bitterly.

“We all have plans for the end, Geram. In this case, this poison will kill me quicker than any dagger. And better, it will poison my body. If I am to die, I will make sure any…indignities…are repaid in kind.”

The bald man looked at Rie and smiled. He offered her a hand and Rie took it as if she were being led onto the dance floor at a ball. The two proceeded towards the barricade. Heads turned to follow them as they walked. Geram lowered his head towards her as he walked.

“It has been an honor to serve you, my lady. I was nothing until I met you.”

Rie whispered.

“Nonsense. You were always worthy. Now. It is time.”

The doors were splintering. The Hobs roared as they smashed the battering ram into it again and again. The magic wards were failing. Rie turned and raised her voice. It could hardly be heard above the shrieking of the Goblins just outside, or the pounding at the doors, but still her words reached each one of her servants.

“Ladies, gentlemen, this is it. The end. I am afraid we will die here. Perhaps horribly. And that is our fate.”

They stared at her. Lady Rie’s chin lifted. The shaking in her knees stopped.

“Did you expect otherwise? No. I did not. No matter how much we beg or plead, there is no mercy here. This is Izril. Here we fight and live and die without respite, all of us. Life is a battle. We use words like knives and fight with politics and swords. None of us are ever safe, and it is an illusion to say otherwise.”

She paused. A thundering roar came from outside. Rie closed her eyes, and then opened them. She looked each of her servants in the face.

“But remember this. We will be avenged. Because that is Izril as well. We repay death with death. These Goblins may win today, but they will not celebrate long. We will be avenged. Remember that, and sell your lives wisely—”

Milady!

Nesor’s voice, desperate and shrill. Rie closed her eyes. He had lost his grip, the poor child. She opened her mouth, tried to speak over him.

“Remember that! Do not give the Goblins any quarter—”

Milady Rie!

“Silence!”

Geram roared at the young [Mage]. He strode over to Nesor, and froze as the [Mage] pointed out the window. He stared. Rie turned, aware that something was happening.

“What’s going on? Nesor? Geram?”

No one answered her. Rie strode over to one of the windows. Her first impression was a heaving sea of green bodies, but then her eyes focused on something in the distance. They widened.

“What on earth…?”

There was another sound. Rie turned left and saw Nesor falling backwards. His eyes were flickering and she saw the telltale signs of an incoming [Message] spell. He gasped and she rushed over to him.

“What is it?”

“It’s—a [Message]. To you. Lady Rie. It says—says—”

Nesor was a poor [Mage], unable to process [Message] spells like an experienced spellcaster. Normally Rie didn’t care, but at the moment she couldn’t bear to wait. She shook him impatiently.

“Well? Out with it!”

The young man choked. Geram pulled Rie back, and then Nesor’s head rose. He spoke slowly, each word ringing in the sudden silence outside.

“Lady Rie. I thank you for your gift. Though it is humble, I seek to return the favor. In this dire hour, I offer you the gift of swords.”

Slowly, Rie’s head rose. She looked back towards the window and all the pieces fell into place. She walked towards the windows, and saw the army, shining as it marched towards the Goblins. She breathed the words slowly.

“Emperor Laken.”

 

—-

 

An army halts within range of the mansion. I have to pause when I see the numbers. Over a hundred—two hundred Goblins. And so many Hobs! And one of them is a powerful spellcaster.

It’s a force that could swallow Riverfarm whole. Far greater than the last one we faced or any since. And normally I wouldn’t dare risk my army fighting them. But it’s not just my army here.

Wiskeria gallops her horse forwards. Her voice is a shout that echoes as Goblins break away from pounding on the mansion’s doors and stream towards us.

“[Archers], aim! Hold, hold I said! Wait for them to draw nearer. Cavalry, on my signal! Infantry brace!”

A hundred bows rise at her order. A hundred. Or more. I didn’t count. They’re not our bowmen, not just ours, at any rate. No, they’re [Guardsmen], retired [Hunters], warriors, even a few adventurers. From each town and village we could reach. And not just them. Rows of armored [Warriors] brace themselves in a line while mounted warriors line up. They’re carrying banners, and Beniar’s voice raises with Wiskeria’s. He trots them left as the Goblins approach.

Loose!

A shower of arrows shoots upwards. Goblins scream and race towards us, some returning fire. Bodies jerk and tumble downwards. The Hobs are charging from the front. I see Durene standing tall, her shield and club in hand.

I’m at the back. I raise my hand as I hear a rumbling growl next to me. The Mossbear roars as the Goblins stream at us.

“Wait. Not yet. Wait…”

Wiskeria is shouting.

Loose!

Another flight. Now Beniar’s cavalry circles the Goblins, searching for their flanks. I see the Goblin [Shaman] dancing, casting huge jets of fire at the riders, burning them. From our midst, several robed figures with wands loose spells at the [Shaman].

And then they’re here. The Goblins charge into our ranks. Wiskeria turns and points. The soldiers surge forwards. My hand tightens on the Mossbear’s fur for a second.

Go!

He roars and charges forwards. Durene is trading blows with a Hob, and I stand, watching the battle in my mind’s eye. It’s all hazy. The markers are barely working. But I’m waiting. Wiskeria shouts my name.

“Laken! Now!

Kneel.

My words break across the Goblins as Beniar charges in to their midst. Some fall to their knees. Others just hesitate. The soldiers cut down the hesitating Goblins and charge forwards. I stand where I am.

An army. Over four hundred soldiers all told, including our forces. A levy. I stare towards the mansion where Lady Rie lives, a hazy shape in my mind’s eye. Is it worth the cost? Is it worth the dying men and women around me? I don’t know. But the Goblins are a threat. And so I raise my finger.

The [Shaman] is laughing; blocking spells with one hand and shooting globs of acid that melt the soldiers fighting around me. Wiskeria is blasting Hobs with lighting, and the archer’s arrows swerve before they reach the [Shaman]. I point at the laughing Goblin and speak into his ears.

“Look this way.”

He does. His head turns towards me and his attention wavers. I see him frown, then turn his head, eyes widening. Too late. Beniar rushes towards him and leaps from his horse. My [Cataphract], my [Captain], impales the [Shaman] with his sword and falls to the ground, hacking at the Goblin. I stand as the bloodbath continues. I am Laken, and this is my war.

I can sense each soldier that falls. I heard them screaming. Some beg for life, others curse the Goblins as they die. Others die silent, surprised. But never alone.

I hear them all. And I do not ask them for more. Not today. The battle is won. The Goblins, outnumbered, fight to the last. The Hobs do terrible damage to my forces, but they do die. I watch them fall.

And when it’s over, I meet Lady Rie. She says not a word, but walks out of her mansion, face pale, blood soaking the hems of her dress. Near the end I saw the doors open and her servants and personal guard rush out. They fought well, especially the bald man in armor.

She says not a word as she approaches me. I stand as the Mossbear whuffs and licks at an open cut on its side. Durene sits next to me, covered in blood, injured and alive. I walk over to Lady Rie, wondering what I should say.

She says nothing. As I approach, she drops to her knees in the muck and blood. I stare at her, and see the bald man and the young man in robes drop to their knees beside her. Lady Rie lowers her head. I watch her kneel, and sense the other soldiers around me doing the same. I look around.

The other soldiers kneel. A disparate group, soldiers and retired warriors, fathers and mothers and retired veterans from different homes. People who know this land, who rose up at a chance to defend it. It was nothing special, what I did. I proposed an alliance, offered them a chance to fight as one. Anyone could have done it.

But I did it. And now they kneel to me. And some shout my name.

“Laken! Emperor Laken!”

“The Unseen Emperor!”

“The Emperor of Beasts!”

That last one is new. I glance backwards and sense the Mossbear licking Durene’s arm. I have to smile. It’s a story, and I’m a bad actor in it. But I’m slowly learning my lines. Because this is what I have to do. The road’s been set and I have to walk down it.

I am Laken, and it’s begun.

My empire.

 

[Emperor Level 19!]

[Skill – Imperial Levy obtained!]

[Skill – Empire: Blacksky Riders obtained!]

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

4.34

Six Goblins. Twenty goats. It wasn’t a heroic battle, the kind you’d hear about in stories. It wasn’t one anyone would celebrate or long remember. But it was a proper Goblin’s battle. Close, intense, and perhaps meaningless. But the Goblins fought as if it were the battle to end all battles.

Because it was that or die. And while this might be the place that they did die, so long as one Goblin was standing, the Redfang warriors refused to fall.

Headscratcher’s weapon was a shortsword. It had been a regular sword before he’d been a Hob. Now it stabbed into a goat’s side and his other hand was free, so he grabbed the goat and pulled it into the blade, spearing it.

It kept moving. The Eater Goats were inhumanly tough, which was understandable, but they were also tougher than any goat had a right to be. They swarmed the six Goblins, and it was only their teamwork that kept the Redfang warriors alive in the first charge.

Stand in a circle. Keep moving—defend each other’s backs, watch the flanks. The Redfang warriors had fought hundreds of battles like this, and they slashed at the goats, keeping them at bay while they tried to score a critical blow.

Fast. The Goats leapt and weathered cuts with their bodies, screaming, darting in to try and bite a leg or arm. Have one on you and it wouldn’t let go until it had eaten you or died, Headscratcher knew.

He spun and kicked as beside him, Bugear punched a goat into the ground and hacked at it. The goat Headscratcher was aiming at glanced off his leg, and he slashed futilely at it as it bounded away.

Too slow! Headscratcher raged against his own weakness as he took a step back, watching three goats circle around him, all waiting to pounce. This wasn’t right. He was stronger than before! But his body was so very weak. He was hungry. Headscratcher fought the feeling down. A weak Hob was still stronger than a Goblin.

A Goat leapt at the same time as two of its companions. Headscratcher dodged the first and knocked the second away with his sword, but the third bore him to the ground. He shouted as its gaping mouth was suddenly inches away from his face, biting—

Someone pulled the goat off him. Headscratcher rolled away and saw Bugear hurling the Eater Goat to one side. The other Hobgoblin never saw the second goat until it had leapt on his back. He whirled, and there was a brief flash of metal, a ripping motion, a spray of blood. The Eater goat leapt away, and Bugear stumbled.

His throat was missing.

Headscratcher rose. A goat charged him. He kicked it. Bugear was stumbling, swinging weakly. He fell. Headscratcher ran forwards as Badarrow and Shorthilt charged into the goats, screaming, and scattered them.

He caught Bugear. Headscratcher looked into his friend’s eyes as Bugear clutched at the remains of his throat. The other Goblin looked into his eyes and squeezed his hand, then turned. He grabbed his blade and rose. An Eater Goat fell as he drove the blade into its side. Bugear made a sound as his ruined throat bubbled with blood. He charged into the goats, mouth open in a silent scream.

So many. The formation was lost. Badarrow snarled as he slashed at a goat, a dagger in one hand, a shortsword in the other. Headscratcher ran after Bugear as the Hobgoblin was swarmed. No, no!

Headscratcher threw one goat to the ground and stomped on it. The goat broke. He turned and another caught his arm. It bit down to the bone and tore a chunk away as  Headscratcher raised his sword. He knocked the goat away and speared it on the ground with his sword.

The Hob turned and roared. The goats ran towards him and he cut them down. One. Two. Three. He was burning with rage. But the goats kept on coming. They were fearless. And he—

Something knocked him to the ground. Headscratcher fell. A goat was on top of him, and he was fighting it. And then he heard a whistling sound, heard and felt the thunk. The goat stiffened on top of him and he pushed it away.

A knife was buried in the goat’s back. Headscratcher looked around. Who had thrown it? He saw a girl, standing in the melting snow, staring at him. Then she raised a hand.

“This way! Hurry!

The Hobs looked up. Five of them, now. The Eater Goats were savaging Bugear. They all saw the girl and there was a second of hesitation. Just a second. Then they ran, and the goats followed.

 

—-

 

Watch out!

Erin was the first to react after the first Eater Goat leapt the walls. She hurled her knife and the goat dodged. It skipped left and the blade bounced off the ground. Then it ran at Erin, screaming.

“To the houses! Lock the doors!”

Wirclaw loosed an arrow at the goat. It pierced the goat’s side, making it stumble, but the goat came on. The other villagers ran for the doors. A few raced out as the rest barricaded themselves in, holding pitchforks, a cleaver, a rake—

“Take this!”

Erin had a small vial in one hand. She hurled it, and the goat caught it in the face this time. The vial exploded as it broke on impact, and the miniature fireball roasted Erin’s face. She yelped, turned, and ran. That was wise, because after a second the goat charged out of the flames. It was burning, and part of its face had been blown away. But it was still coming.

Monster!

A huge furry hand caught the goat as it leapt for Erin. Wirclaw hurled the goat to one side and both he and Erin rushed over. Before the goat could get up they kicked and stomped on it. They only stepped back when it stopped moving.

“Dead gods.”

Wirclaw bent over the goat, chest heaving, eyes wide. He had clearly never seen anything like it before. Erin looked towards the walls and scrambled for her knife lying in the ground.

“More are coming! Hurry!”

She and Wirclaw ran up to the watch post above the walls again. This time Wirclaw loosed arrows as fast as he could, aiming at the goats before they could perform their jumping trick. Erin was with him, another small vial in hand. She’d only thought to bring two! She saw the goats breaking away, leaving only six or so of their number behind. Why?

Then she heard the laughter. It was fierce, distant. She turned, and saw the Goblins.

Hobgoblins. They stood in a line, six of them. One was loosing arrows at the Eater Goats; the others were waiting for the goats to charge. Wirclaw spotted them and lowered his bow for an instant in astonishment.

“Goblins? Why are they here?”

“I don’t know. I think they’re—helping us?”

“Impossible.”

The Gnoll shook his head, but Erin was sure. She grabbed Wirclaw’s arm.

“Yes! They’re drawing the goats away!”

“They will be slaughtered. These goats are monsters!”

The Gnoll pointed to one of the goats below. The horrible thing had eight arrows lodged in its side, but it was still running about, bleating and screaming. Erin stared at the goats. She stared at the Goblins. Then she uncorked the second vial. Wirclaw recoiled as a viscous smell rose from the vial.

“What is that?

“Acid. Octavia makes it. It’s strong, so keep back. And cover me.”

Erin walked down and went to the gates. She unbarred it with one hand as Wirclaw roared at her. The gates opened, and the villagers behind Erin shouted as the six goats charged her.

Erin raised the vial in her hand. She tossed the acid onto the faces of the first two goats who ran towards her, and raised her fist.

“[Minotaur Punch]!”

Another goat went flying. The remaining three were outnumbered, and the villagers charged them, weapons raised. The danger was in their numbers as much as their insane resistance to damage! Erin ran out of the gates, hearing Wirclaw’s arrows thunk into the ground behind her. She turned and saw the Hobgoblins fighting for their life. And behind them—something else.

Erin stared at the distant figures and waved her hands. She pointed once, and ran towards the goats and Goblins. She hoped they’d gotten the message.

 

—-

 

Now.

They all ran. The Human girl, the young woman, waved her arms once and then raced away. Not towards the village, but just away, through the snow. The Goblins followed her, because they had no other choice.

The goats gave them a few seconds of lead as they fought over Bugear and their comrades. Then, sensing their prey might get away, the rest turned and ran.

There were eleven or so now, all injured, but Eater Goats never gave up. And they were quick! Headscratcher turned as one raced behind him. He shouted, and Badarrow twisted. The goat bounced off his raised arm. Numbtongue spat as he lifted one of the two swords in his hand and threw it. The goats dodged around the sword, slowing them down.

Now Numbtongue was down a sword. That meant he ran faster. The Hobgoblins were nearly caught up with the girl, and so were the goats. She was floundering in the snow. Headscratcher turned, ready to fight, to die—

An arrow shot past his head. It curved around Rabbiteater who was in the rear and struck a goat in the head. The goat dropped. His buddies halted and looked around.

On a snow-covered hilltop sixty feet away, Bird lowered his bow and reached for another arrow. He fumbled as he grasped for it, and his fingers brushed one of the newly-healed wounds on his chest.

“Ow.”

“Are you okay?”

Beside him, Lyonette turned anxiously. She and Drassi were standing in the snow. So was Mrsha, despite Lyonette’s attempts to keep her in the inn. All three had potions and other alchemist weapons in their hands. Bird nodded.

“I believe the arrowhead of one of the arrows is lodged in my carapace. It will not bother me when shooting.”

As he spoke he loosed another arrow. This one caught a goat leaping for Erin’s legs. It fell too.

Erin and the Goblins were all running towards them. Lyonette gulped. She turned to Drassi.

“Ready? When they come—throw!

The Drake was pale-faced but she nodded. Mrsha lifted a bottle and Lyonette would have grabbed it if her hands weren’t full too. More arrows were flying from the direction of the village, but the suicidal goats kept coming.

“Erin! This way! Duck!

Lyonette waited until Erin and the Hobgoblins were twenty feet away before throwing. Drassi threw at the same time. The Human girl and Hobgoblins covered their heads and ducked as they ran. The Eater Goats looked up and saw two vials spinning towards them through the air—

They turned as the vials plopped into the snow and exploded into crackling lightning and a shower of thorny spines several feet away. Bird stared at the [Barmaids] as he reached for another arrow. And then Mrsha tossed.

Her aim was good. Her arm was terrible. The red vial with a shining orange center spun lazily down, just above one goat. It would have missed. Would have, but the goat, eternally hungry, leapt up and bit the vial in midair.

It exploded. Fire and bits of goat rained down. The other goats scattered, and then backed away as Mrsha, Lyonette, and Drassi threw again.

A tripvine bag exploded, catching two goats in the thorny tendrils that raced along the ground. A vial of pepper potion was swallowed by a goat that hadn’t learned the lesson the first time. That goat rolled around, shrieking. And Lyonette’s vial of Silverfrost missed everything and exploded into a frozen cloud next to the Hobgoblins.

Bird loosed an arrow. Erin turned. She had no knives, but she raised her fists anyways. The five Hobgoblins turned. They saw two goats tangled up in vines, chewing their way out, one rolling around on the ground, and a final goat, charging at them and bleating.

The final goat stopped. It looked back and saw a trail of its fallen friends, arrows sticking out of their heads, a flaming bit of snow where one of its friends had exploded, and another goat riddled with arrows from Wirclaw. It looked at the Hobs.

To its credit, it didn’t hesitate as it charged. The Hobs cut it down in moments and then turned to the three immobilized goats. They butchered all three with swift, precise blows.

And then it was over. Erin bent, panting, forehead covered with sweat despite the cold air. The Hobgoblins stood, blades dripping with gore, staring at each other and the odd company on the hilltop. Bird carefully drew another arrow and aimed it at Badarrow.

“Are you okay?”

Erin said it first to Lyonette, and then to the Goblins. They stared at her. Lyonette was the one who spoke.

“I—we’re okay, Erin. We found Bird lying on the ground a few minutes ago and he told us there were Goblins—we saw the goats attacking the village from a distance and came here. But what—”

“Goblins? Wait, why was Bird—”

“They shot me, Miss Erin. I regret to inform you that I did not manage to kill any of them. However, that may be good since your rule stipulates not killing Goblins. However, they are Hobgoblins so I did try. But they had better teamwork and so I was shot and fell off the roof. It was quite painful, but fortunately Miss Lyonette had healing potions.”

Bird calmly aimed at Badarrow as he spoke. Erin’s eyes widened and she looked at the Hobs. They glanced at each other and Shorthilt covered his face as Badarrow glowered at Bird.

“Wait, but they saved me! I mean, the village we were in was under attack by those goats. Why did they attack you, Bird?”

The Antinium hesitated. He looked at the Goblins and they, remembering, glared back. Bird didn’t exactly meet Erin’s eyes. He shuffled his feet before he spoke.

“I may have tried to shoot them from afar.”

He glanced at Erin and hunched his shoulders.

“I am supposed to hunt monsters.”

“But they’re Goblins! Wait—”

Erin closed her eyes as she held up a hand. Everyone looked at her. She took a breath.

“Okay. I think I get it. Lower your bow, Bird.”

“What? Erin!

“It’s okay, Lyonette. Trust me. Bird, lower your bow. These Goblins aren’t going to attack. Right?”

She glanced over her shoulder. The Hobgoblins blinked at her, and then edged away from her and the others. They glanced back across the snowy plains. One of them took a step away.

“Wait—”

They turned to look back at Erin. The Goblins stared at her, and one raised a hand. Drassi screamed and Mrsha hid behind Erin as the Hob who’d raised the hand glanced at her. He turned away.

“Ancestors, Ancestors, oh Ancestors—

“Drassi!”

Lyonette grabbed the shaking Drake. Drassi had faced down the Eater Goats despite her fears, but close proximity to the Hobgoblins was making the Drake tremble like a leaf. Erin called out after the Goblins as they trudged away, and then saw a group of Gnolls and Drakes heading her way.

“Uh oh. I’d better deal with that—come on!”

The others followed her as she jogged through the snow. The villagers lead by Wirclaw caught up with her, holding bloody weapons. None of them were hurt, which was a relief. Wirclaw half-raised his bow as he spotted Bird, and then glanced towards the Hobs in the distance.

“Miss Erin! Are you unharmed? Why did you leave? Those Goblins—”

“They saved your village, Wirclaw. No, don’t argue about it. Look, Lyonette and Mrsha and Drassi here helped you all. Can you take them back to your village for a little bit? I want to bring back the milk with them, and I think Drassi needs to sit down.”

“Certainly, but—”

Erin turned to Bird, ignoring the Gnoll.

“Bird, you go with them. Keep your bow out just in case I guess, but don’t shoot anyone unless they attack! Got it?”

The Antinium nodded. He looked at Erin.

“And what will you do, Miss Solstice?”

Erin squared her shoulders and then twisted her neck with a grimace. She must have twisted something while she was running or fighting. A healing potion would sort that out. But first things first. She turned and looked towards the five Goblins. They were standing around the spot where they’d first fought the goats. There had been six of them, then. Erin nodded to the Goblins and looked around at everyone staring at her.

“I’m going to talk to them.”

 

—-

 

Bugear lay on the ground. Or rather, what remained of him lay there. Most of his body was gone but his head had been mostly spared from the savaging. Headscratcher knelt in the muddy ground and snow and picked it up. Bugear’s expression had slackened in death, but Headscratcher could still remember his wordless snarl as he charged the Eater Goats.

He had known he wouldn’t survive, so he’d thrown himself into the fighting to distract the goats. It had bought them enough time to survive. The other Goblins knew it. They stood around Bugear in silence.

There were no recriminations. No words of reproach for Headscratcher, or indeed, no words of any kind. It was done. They’d fought and now they were fewer. Again.

Redfang warriors did not weep for the fallen. They were warriors; they knew what their fates were. They did not cry, because their leader, Garen Redfang, didn’t believe in it. So the five Goblins did not weep for their brother.

“Um, hello?”

A timid voice interrupted their moment of silence. The Goblins turned. Headscratcher wiped at his eyes that weren’t full of tears. He stopped and stared.

A girl stood in the snow. The same girl who’d helped save them, the one whom they’d seen on the walls of the village. She stared at them. How could she know what thought was running through their minds? What memories, what tragedies?

There were no words. And Redfang warriors did not weep. So the others brushed a bit of sweat, maybe melted snow water from their eyes as they looked at her. She was Human, an enemy most of the times, prey others. But they had met one who was neither. Once.

How could she know? She couldn’t. But the young woman saw their tears. And because she stood in front of them without a sword or spell blazing in their hands, they listened. The Redfang warriors had no hope of anything in particular. They were just lost and very tired.

And the young woman looked at them, at the head in Headscratcher’s arms, and did something they had never seen a Human do before.

She bowed.

 

—-

 

“Thank you.”

Erin bowed to the five Goblins. The snow was stained red, and when she raised her head, she saw they had mostly wiped their tears away. The five Goblins stared at her. She said it again.

“Thank you. You saved us. I owe you my life.”

Silence. The Goblins looked at each other. Erin looked at them.

Five Goblins. Five…Hobs. She had only ever met two Hobs before in her life. Erin remembered the Goblin Chieftain, a lifetime ago, and the other Hob who she had met with Rags. These five were not like either.

They were ragged. They had loincloths, ill-fitting pieces of armor that were too small on their bodies, and weapons. Their blades were well looked after, but obviously well-used as well. Erin thought they were good iron, rather than steel.

And each of the Hobgoblins was injured. One, the one carrying the head, had a huge chunk taken out of his arm and a bad gash down one leg, but he didn’t seem to notice the blood running from him. Erin did.

“Thank you.”

She said it a third time, mostly because she had no idea of what to say next. The Goblins looked at her, and then each other. One, the only Goblin carrying a bow, growled and turned away.

“I’m sorry about your friend.”

The other Goblins looked at Erin, and then at the head of their companion. They said not a word. Another Goblin broke away from Erin. The rest just stared at her as if they’d never met a Human before. Or rather, never talked to a Human before.

“Uh—”

What could she say? Thanks? She’d said that. I’m sorry? Ditto. Erin didn’t know what she should do. The Goblins had saved her. If they were anyone else—a group like the Horns of Hammerad for instance—she would have offered them money, asked where they were from and so on. But these Goblins…

One of them, the one with the bow, was retrieving arrows from the goats and butchering them at the same time. He glanced up and growled something at the others. Two more broke away and began helping him. His look was the least friendly as he stared at Erin.

“Are you…hungry?”

That was the only explanation Erin could think of. The goat meat didn’t look good and she would have bet it was stringy, but the Goblins were cutting them up quickly. Her words made the Goblin with the bow look up. This time he rolled his eyes.

“Okay, I got that. You’re hungry. Do you want something to eat?”

Five growling stomachs answered her. Erin stared at the Goblins. She knew she shouldn’t. She knew it might be a bad idea. But they were staring at her, and there was nothing simple in their eyes. One of them, the Goblin cradling the head of their friend, was staring at her like—like—

“Would you like to come with me? I have food to eat. You can have it. Free. You don’t have to pay.”

It popped out of her mouth, and once said, it was impossible to take back. The Goblins all turned. The one with the bow straightened. The one with the head dropped it, and then scrambled to pick it up.

“I—I have an inn.”

Erin felt she should explain as the Goblins looked at her. She pointed, and they stared across the rolling snow-covered hills towards her inn in the distance. They exchanged a look.

“You can go there if you’re hungry. I have food. Lots of food. And you could bury your friend…”

Erin’s voice trailed off. The Goblins were just staring at her. There was nothing hostile about their gazes, but they were so bewildered. So lost. She coughed.

“You know what? Meet me there. No one will hurt you, I promise. I’ll have food. You don’t have to come, but if you do…food, okay?”

She mimed walking to her inn. The Goblins stared at her. One nodded. Erin stopped pretending to walk, feeling silly. They weren’t stupid. Rags had never been stupid. If she were here, she would have been rolling her eyes, making rude gestures and telling Erin she got it already.

But she wasn’t. So Erin pointed again, and slowly backed away. Then she went to find Lyonette and the others.

“We might be having guests in a bit. You all okay?”

They stared at her. Erin pointed at her sled, still carrying all the milk she’d bought.

“Come on, let’s go back. Bird, I’ll pull the sled. Mrsha can ride on it. Let’s go.”

She turned and pulled by momentum more than anything else, her employees and Mrsha followed. Erin walked slowly back to her inn, hearing Drassi burst out into nervous chatter after a while and Lyonette soothing Mrsha. But her eyes were on the Goblins all the while. And when she made it to her inn and paused at the open doorway, she could tell they were still watching her.

 

—-

 

In the Redfang tribe, stories were still told of Garen Redfang and how their Chieftain had once walked through Human cities, often wearing a mask and a hood to conceal his features. He had spoken with Humans and other species, traded with them, and fought as a Gold-rank adventurer for a time. More than a few Goblins had dreamed of doing the same, but only dreamed.

It was a legend, a myth. No real Goblin would ever walk through a city unless they were there to be executed, or if their tribe was raiding it. And while the Redfang warriors had entered Human dwellings before, they had never gone into one without swords in hand.

Now they stood outside of an inn just a short distance away from Liscor and stared up at it. Not one of the five Goblins had a sword in their hands. It was a surreal experience. Headscratcher hesitated at the wooden door to the inn for several minutes before he pushed it open. Numbtongue stared up at the inn’s name as the other Goblins walked in.

“You’re here!”

The instant they stepped through, a voice shouted. The Redfang warriors flinched and braced themselves, but all they saw was a girl. The girl. And she was smiling at them.

True, it wasn’t a great smile. It was tinged with nerves and a bit of fear, a bit of uncertainty, but it was still a smile. The Redfang warriors were too afraid to smile back.

“Come on in, don’t be shy. Sit. Here’s a table—sit down. I’m just going to get—Lyonette!”

The Goblins jumped as the young woman ran through a door behind a counter. They looked at the table and hesitantly pulled at the chairs. Chairs were another odd thing, but the five Hobgoblins perched on them hesitantly. Rabbiteater’s ears kept twitching, and he turned his head sharply a moment before the Human girl rushed back into the room.

“Here. I have this—I know you need it.”

She had an armful of potions. The young woman carefully approached the table and the Goblins just as carefully leaned back. She hesitated and then dumped them onto the table. Headscratcher caught one before it could roll off and onto the floor.

“Thanks—”

The young woman froze at the same time the Goblin did. He’d reflexively started to hand the potion back to her, and she’d unconsciously begun to take it. It was a universal experience, and they stared into each other’s eyes for a moment before breaking away.

“You keep it. It’s for you. For your injuries.”

The young woman backed away as Headscratcher lowered his hand. She pointed to his arm. He started, and then glanced at the crimson bandage he’d tied to his arm. The other Redfang warriors blinked too, and then recalled.

Yes, their injuries. Some were quite terrible. Headscratcher might lose that arm to infection or never gain its mobility, such was the damage. Badarrow had bites that went down to his bones on his legs, and the other Goblins were just as injured. And the potions were—

Healing potions? They had to be, but for them? The Goblins stared at the young woman, expecting, suspecting a trap. They eyed the bottles on the table.

Remembering the ones that had exploded earlier, the Goblins were hesitant, but then they recognized the liquids within. Most Goblins couldn’t read, so they identified potion types by their appearance. And these looked like healing potions.

But who would give healing potions to a Goblin? That was what made the Goblins sure it had to be a trick. Not that they suspected the young woman of tricking them, but—

Logic warred with the evidence before their eyes. It was Numbtongue who moved first. He picked up a vial and squinted at the tiny label on it. After a moment he nodded and the others immediately uncorked the vials and bottles and poured it on their injuries. Then they received another surprise.

The healing potions were high quality. Headscratcher gaped as the chunk of flesh missing from his arm regrew over the course of a minute. This was good stuff! He looked at the young woman. She smiled hesitantly at him.

“Good? Use more if you need to.”

Mind boggling. The Goblins treated their wounds and then hesitantly recorked the bottles and pushed them together on the table. They felt guilty, as if they’d used too much, and eyed the diminished potion levels in the bottles uncertainly.

“You’re done? Cool. Let’s—why don’t I sit? I’ll sit here and we can…talk.”

So saying, the young woman scooted a chair out from another table and sat facing the Goblins. They looked at her. She looked back. The silence was unbearable.

“I am Erin. Erin Solstice. I’m an [Innkeeper].”

The Goblins stared at Erin. She coughed.

“Um. I know I said thanks, but thanks again. You saved me. I don’t know where those evil goats came from, but you were just in time. And I know your friend died…I’m sorry. And I’m also sorry that Bird shot at you. He’s the Antinium. The one on the tower.”

Silence. Erin shuffled her feet. The Goblins wondered if they should say something. And if so, what? They looked at Numbtongue. He shrugged.

“Are you with the—the Goblin Lord?”

Every head snapped back to Erin. She leaned back a bit and raised her hands.

“Not that I’m angry if you are. It’s just—I hear he’s not a great guy. But if you think he is, that’s fine! I’m not judging. But I just uh—”

All five Redfang warriors shook their heads at the same time. Erin looked relieved.

“Really? That’s great! You know, I thought he was a jerk, especially when his soldiers shot arrows at my inn, but I was thinking, here’s a bunch of Goblins and his army was just here, so…ahem.”

She broke off, and Headscratcher looked at the others. He raised a hand and crooked it towards her, tilting his head and baring his fangs. It was a quick statement, but he’d conveyed a general surprise that any building would have been left standing after the Goblin Lord had passed by. Shorthilt’s raised eyebrow and glance at one window told the others that his personal opinion was that this building had to be enchanted in some way.

The Human got none of this. She was fidgeting, glancing around, muttering under her breath. She looked at them and all five Goblins snapped back to attention.

“Okay. This might be weird, but…do you know a Goblin named Rags?”

Four jaws dropped. Badarrow’s eyes narrowed. Erin glanced from face to face. Her eyes widened. Rabbiteater nodded fractionally.

“You do?

The Redfang warriors glanced at each other. How did she know Rags, let alone by name? Erin was bombarding them with questions while Badarrow kicked Rabbiteater under the table. He nodded to Erin, and then twirled his finger around, indicating the room as a whole.

The other Redfang warriors followed his gaze. They stared at the Human girl, looked around the inn, her inn, and put the pieces together at last. The five Hobgoblins shuffled their feet and exchanged awkward glances.

This was so embarrassing.

Of course, Erin had no idea what they were thinking. She only saw their postures.

“Wait, what’s wrong? It’s not Rags, is it? Is she okay? I haven’t seen her in a long time—is she mad at me? Or…?”

Again, the Goblins shook their heads. How could they explain the inter-Goblin politics that had seen Rags absorb every tribe in the area to repel the Goblin Lord? Erin stared at them.

“Do you know where she is?”

They shook their heads. She hesitated.

“Okay. But is she well?”

They shrugged. Erin had to think.

“Do you…where are you going? Do you know where you’re going?”

They shook their heads again. Erin looked from face to face. Each Redfang warrior met her eyes, and then looked away. It was just a moment, but somehow, each felt like she’d seen a bit of the pain and despair they carried with them. Just for a moment.

“Okay. Okay…um…”

She wavered. As she did, Rabbiteater’s belly rumbled. Everyone stared at him. Erin shot to her feet. Rabbiteater nearly tumbled out of his chair.

“I’m so sorry! I totally forgot. I promised you food, right? Wait right here!”

She dashed into the kitchen. The other Goblins exchanged a look of wild surmise. Food? They’d buried a lot of the Eater Goat meat in the snow just in case, and they were hungry. But after the potions, they had to wonder. Would she actually feed them? Actually? With—with forks and the fancy tools Garen had told them all about?

Would there be anything to drink?

They heard banging in the kitchen, and Erin’s raised voice, arguing with someone else. The Goblins stared at the kitchen anxiously. All but one.

There was a blackboard with words written on them in chalk hanging from a ledge above the bar’s counter. It was a menu, although it had only been written once and never updated. Most people ignored it, but one of the Redfang warriors had spotted it.

Numbtongue studied the words written on the menu written above the bar’s counter. He nudged Shorthilt, grunted and pointed. Shorthilt stared blankly at the letters. He shrugged. Numbtongue sighed. He carefully studied the words written on the menu until Erin came back.

“Here! Food, as promised!”

She had a huge platter and five plates awkwardly stacked on them. They were thick, filled with heaping mounds of spaghetti pasta, and covered with little black things. The other Goblins had no idea what the black things were. They were squishy, and looked edible, and that was good enough. Rabbiteater reached for one of the plates as Erin carefully placed it in front of him, but Numbtongue caught his hand. He shook his head and the other Redfang warriors, seeing the motion, froze.

“What’s wrong?”

Erin looked at them, concerned. Numbtongue hesitated. He sucked in his lips, and then scowled. He hated doing this. Reluctantly he opened his mouth and pointed to the plates and black things on them.

“Acid flies? Blue…fruit?”

Everyone stared at him. Erin’s jaw dropped. She stammered.

“How did—buh—I mean, I don’t have any acid flies. Those are olives! They’re healthy, I swear—I didn’t know they existed, but—this is spaghetti and olives! It’s uh—I’m out of blue juice too. Did you—can I get you something—wait, I have more!”

She rushed into the kitchen. The other Goblins stared at the olives. Badarrow picked one up and sniffed at it with deep suspicion. Rabbiteater gave into his stomach and popped one into his mouth. He chewed, brightened, and began to shovel spaghetti into his mouth. The other Goblins looked at him, and then seized spaghetti in both claws.

Erin came back to find the Goblins shoveling spaghetti down their throats with incredible speed. If not delicacy. Watching Shorthilt tilt a plate back and slide all the spaghetti into his waiting mouth was an education in itself. The amazing bit was that not a single speck of spaghetti or olive was dropped. The Goblins cleaned their plates.

Slowly, the Human girl approached and the Goblins stopped eating. They stared at the mugs in her hands. Erin smiled and weakly raised the mugs filled with ale.

“I’ve uh, got drinks! Does anyone want a second helping?”

 

—-

 

Erin had watched eating competitions on television when she was younger. It was a thing. She hadn’t exactly liked seeing someone wolf down over forty hotdogs in one sitting, but she had to admire the speed at which it was done.

However, one of the things Erin had objected to was that in a food eating competition, none of the contestants ever seemed like they liked eating the food. It was about getting as much food as possible inside them as they could, not savoring the food.

By contrast, the Goblins sitting in the common room of her inn were a joy to watch eating. Because they clearly loved every bite. Oh, they still ate like starving wolverines, but every now and then one would pause and close his eyes while chewing, or make a grunting sound that expressed pure satisfaction.

Erin got to see only a bit of this, because she was rushing into the kitchen and out of it every few seconds. The Goblins didn’t stop with the spaghetti, or the meatloaf, or the lasagna, pizza, or even the steak! They ate and ate, and ate!

Erin kept going into the kitchen and coming back with more pre-made dishes and watched them disappear. The Hobgoblins ate as if they were starving, which they must have been. They didn’t look that scrawny, but Erin realized that if she compared them to the Hobgoblin she’d met before—the one who’d come in with Rags that one time—they were definitely a lot thinner.

She was worried they’d puke or their stomachs would get full, but the Goblins seemed to be able to digest the food as quickly as they ate. Their thin bellies inflated very slowly. As Erin grabbed a whole fried chicken seasoned with hot peppers, she decided she had to take a break. She turned to the Drake who was shakily cleaning dishes.

“Drassi, I need you to take over. Take this chicken out to the Goblins, will you?”

What?

The Drake jumped. Her pale scales grew paler and she raised her clawed hands.

“Erin, I can’t. I can’t even—I don’t know how you can have them here! Here! At least have Bird come downstairs with his bow! We should be calling the Watch, or, or—I can’t do it.”

Erin shook her head.

“Just serve them, okay Drassi? They won’t be dangerous and Bird is right there! Lyonette’s upstairs with Mrsha—I need to make more food or we’ll run out!”

“But—but—”

“Go out. Like this…hi guys! This is Drassi. She’s going to put the chicken down on the table. I said down on the table, Drassi—okay, why don’t you put it on this table?”

Erin managed to get Drassi to put the chicken down on the table and get her back into the kitchen. Drassi was trembling so hard she’d nearly dropped the whole thing. Erin had a suspicion that if she had, the Goblins would have picked it off the floor or just sat down and eaten it there.

“Okay, was that so hard?”

Yes!

Drassi glared at her. Erin sighed.

“But you did it. Just put the food on another table, okay? I’ve got to make more food. Uh…where’s the butter? And sprouts? They could probably use some greens with all the heavy food they’ve been eating.”

She began to fry greens, put together a soup, and start a few loafs of bread all at once. Drassi took out a few more dishes very reluctantly, but reported the Hobgoblins did indeed seem to be slowing now. Erin let her finish putting all the food onto platters for later and tending to the soup—and mountains of finished dishes, and walked out into the room.

Five pairs of eyes instantly focused on her. Erin froze, and then waved. One of the five Goblins waved back. The others just watched her.

Drassi’s fear was understandable, Erin felt. Each time she moved, the Goblins all stared at her. Erin waved at them and pointed.

“I’m just going upstairs. Okay?”

They didn’t reply, but watched her as she climbed the stairs. Erin found Lyonette and Mrsha’s room and hesitated before knocking on the door.

“Lyonette? Mrsha? Are you two okay?”

“Erin?”

She heard a lock turn and then the door opened. Lyonette opened the door a crack.

“Come in.”

Erin edged into the room and saw that Lyonette was sitting on her bed with Apista and Mrsha. The bee was crawling onto her pillow and Mrsha was shivering in Lyonette’s arms.

“Is Mrsha okay?”

“I think so. She’s not that afraid any longer, are you Mrsha? She’s just—she can smell the Goblins downstairs, Erin.”

Lyonette didn’t quite look at Erin as she ran a soothing hand over Mrsha’s back. The Gnoll flinched when she heard the word ‘Goblin’. Erin paused.

“Right.”

Mrsha had her past with Goblins. Erin had almost forgotten that. She sat by the bed. Mrsha looked at her. Erin offered her a hand and the Gnoll licked it.

“It’s okay, Mrsha. They’re not bad, I promise.”

“You’re sure?”

Lyonette spoke for the both of them. Erin hesitated. She looked at Lyonette. She realized she’d made a mistake. She’d assumed Lyonette would understand the Goblins being here, but the other girl was clearly as upset as Mrsha was. Erin paused, stroking Mrsha’s head.

“You never really knew Rags, did you?”

“I remember seeing her and screaming. But I didn’t, no. I’m sorry.”

“Right. And she was only here…look Lyonette, I know you’re nervous. Drassi definitely is. But these Goblins aren’t dangerous. I’d feel it with my [Dangersense] if they were. And they helped us.”

Lyonette nodded, but she didn’t look convinced. She stared at the floorboards, and then Apista as the bee crawled up a wall. She took a breath.

“I know your friend—Rags—was a guest here. But Erin, I have to say it. These aren’t normal Goblins. They’re Hobs. They lead other Goblins and they’re very, very dangerous. One Hob is a match for most Silver-rank adventurers. More than a match, sometimes.”

“I get that. But Lyonette, they saved us. They saved me, and they didn’t have to.”

“I know. I saw. They saved you from the goats, but they also shot Bird. I was the one who heard him fall. Erin, he would have died.”

Erin nodded. Her hand clenched. Bird was upstairs. He had a small room on the third floor and she’d ordered him to rest after his near-death experience.

“I know. But it was self-defense. And I owed them something. Look, I’ll feed them for now and we’ll see what happens, okay?”

“You’re the boss.”

That was a bad answer, and Lyonette clearly wasn’t happy about it, but it would have to do. Erin nodded, relieved. Then she bent down to Mrsha.

“I know they’re—I know they’re Goblins, okay Mrsha, honey? But they’re not like the other ones, I promise. They won’t hurt you.”

The Gnoll was still shaking, but she raised her head as Erin spoke to her. Erin was prepared for tears or fear, but that wasn’t what was in the Gnoll cub’s gaze. Her eyes blazed. They narrowed as Mrsha stared at Erin. There was anger there. Anger and deep reproach.

She had no words. But Mrsha made her opinion clear. Erin froze.

“Mrsha? They’re going to stay a bit longer. But they won’t come upstairs. Got it? If they cause any trouble, they’re gone. I promise. Just wait here, okay? I’ll get Drassi to come up with food—”

For once the promise of food didn’t satisfy Mrsha. The Gnoll swiped at Erin’s hand and she stared at Erin until the young woman left the room. Erin walked down the stairs and took a deep breath. Then she groaned.

“Oh no. What now?”

Someone had entered the common room ahead of her. An Antinium was holding a bow, and the room had frozen. Drassi was standing, shaking, mugs in hand, and the Goblin warriors had frozen, half of them about to leap out of their seats.

“Bird!”

Erin ran down the stairs. The Antinium turned his head, but his arms kept the bow trained on the Goblins.

“Miss Erin, they were attempting to leave.”

“What? Leave?”

Erin looked at the Goblins. They hesitated. One pointed towards the doors.

“You want to go? Why?”

Again, hesitation. The Goblin pointed down. Everyone stared at his crotch. Erin’s face went slack until she realized what he meant.

“Pee? You want to—Bird, he just wants to go to the bathroom!”

“Oh. That was the reason I descended as well.”

The Antinium slowly lowered the bow. The Goblins relaxed just as slowly. Erin strode between them, raising her hands, trying to play peacemaker again.

“Let’s all calm down. We don’t want any accidents…especially the yellow kind. There’s outhouses for everyone. The bathroom’s right outside. Here, I can show you—”

That seemed to be unnecessary. The Goblin shook his head as he walked towards the door. He put a hand on the handle and pulled it open. The door revealed a startled Jelaqua Ivirith, her hand raised to push at the door. She stared at the Goblin, and her eyes went wide. The Goblin stared back.

Jelaqua backed up. Her face was always dead white, but now she seemed to be stunned. Horrified. She opened her mouth and stared at the Hobgoblin standing in front of her.

“Garen?”

The Goblin stared back. He recognized the word, Erin saw. He opened his mouth.

“Redfang?”

A giant hand reached past Jelaqua. Moore grabbed the Goblin and threw him across the room. The Hobgoblin crashed into a wall. Jelaqua sprinted into the room as the other Hobgoblins shot to their feet.

The Goblin who’d been thrown struggled upright. He swung wildly at Jelaqua—she grabbed one arm and then brought his head down to meet her knee. The Hobgoblin stumbled, and she knocked him flat with one punch. Jelaqua stood over the downed Hobgoblin and looked around. Then she looked at the unconscious Goblin at her feet.

“Oh. It’s not Garen. I was worried there for a second.”

The other Hobgoblins leapt over the table at her, roaring. One jerked as Seborn clotheslined him in midair and slung him to the ground. The Drowned Man leapt on the Hobgoblin and started beating him down with his fists.

“Stop, stop!

Erin shouted, but Moore’s staff was already spinning. He flattened one Hob, and kicked the other. Jelaqua’s gauntleted fists flashed and the final Hobgoblin jerked back, stumbling from her punch. He feinted and jabbed at her; the Selphid let both punches meet her armor and hit him in the gut and chest with solid, heavy blows that made the Goblin stumble.

Enough!

Erin’s shout this time was backed up by more than just sound. The air in the inn cracked and the floor rumbled. The Halfseekers paused, eyes wide, and the two Goblins still on their feet halted as well.

Slowly, very slowly, Erin turned to look around the room. Jelaqua’s eyes flicked to the Hobgoblins, to Drassi poking her head out of the kitchen, and Bird who opened the door and paused when he saw the chaos. She looked at Erin and groaned.

“Please tell me this isn’t what it looks like.”

The other two Halfseekers looked around. Moore shook his head. Seborn got up slowly.

Miss Solstice, I believe we’re owed an explanation.

Erin looked from face to face and tried to smile weakly. The normally jovial Halfseekers didn’t return the smiles. Right. They didn’t like Goblins either. She gestured to the tables.

“Why don’t we all sit. Does—does anyone want a drink?”

 

—-

 

The drinks did help, but barely. The Goblins sat in a corner of the room, their injuries healed once again with Erin’s potions. Jelaqua shook her head grimly as Erin finished the story.

“And so you invited them in. Why am I not surprised?”

“It’s just—they saved my life, Jelaqua.”

Erin spread her hands helplessly. Jelaqua turned and glared at the Goblins. They flinched. There was a clear distribution of power there, and they could tell they were on the losing end of it. The other two Halfseekers looked just as grim.

“We like all kinds of species Erin, but our group has its problems with Goblins. You do know we lost half our members to one?”

Jelaqua’s statement made the other Goblins sit up at their table. Moore’s eyes were shadowed as he watched them. Seborn’s gaze could have fried the egg in front of him. Erin waved her hands, trying to defuse the situation.

“I know, I know! But these are good Goblins, guys! Just give me a moment. They might not be here long. I’m just feeding them!”

“Right. Well, you’d better explain that to the others.”

Jelaqua glanced towards the door. Erin looked as well.

“What others?”

“Your usual crowds. Who else? I saw the Horns finishing up their request at the Adventurer’s Guild a while back. They’ll be here soon too, and a bunch of people from Liscor. You’d better have a good explanation ready for them, too.”

“Oh no. Wait here. Drassi! Go to Celum and make sure no one comes through! Jelaqua, Goblins—stay here!”

Erin ran for the door. She threw it open and saw the Horns of Hammerad and a number of other people trudging towards her inn through the snow. Her dinner crowd, as usual. Erin raced down the hill towards them.

“We’re closed! Go away! Shoo!”

The people heading towards her inn hesitated as Erin ran towards them. She shouted, waved her arms. Ceria frowned as Erin shouted at the others.

“Erin? What’s going on? What do you mean you’re closed?”

“Does this mean there is in fact, no food?

Pisces peered at Erin, looking concerned. She grinned desperately.

“That’s right! No food! We have a—a thing going on. A thing with the food! I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back later! Not you, though.”

She grabbed Pisces as he turned around and dragged him back. The other Horns of Hammerad clustered around Erin as she whispered to them.

“There’s a minor thing in the inn, okay? We’ll all go up and nobody scream, okay?”

“Goblin!”

Every head turned. A Drake who’d approached the inn from a different spot on the hill backed out of the door, scales pale. He turned to them and ran down the hill, waving his arms and screaming.

Hobs! There’s five Hobgoblins in there! It’s an invasion! Run for your lives!

Erin groaned. She saw her guests turn and began fleeing towards Liscor’s gates. Alerted by the commotion, the guards on the walls began shouting down at the people below. In moments, horns were blowing.

Ceria looked at Erin. Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Pisces did likewise. Slowly, Erin turned and grinned weakly at them. Ceria crossed her arms.

“Erin. What have you done?”

 

—-

 

Human!

Erin flinched as the door to her inn slammed open. The five Redfang warriors would have jumped to their feet, but the two adventurer teams kept them seated. They tensed as a group of heavily-armed guardsmen led by Zevara herself stormed into the room. The Drake Watch Captain halted when she saw the Hobgoblins, and then rounded on Erin.

“I didn’t believe it when I heard it. I thought even a Human, even you wouldn’t be stupid enough for this. Harboring five Hobgoblins? Now? While the Goblin Lord is marching on our cities? Have you lost your mind?

“I can explain!”

Erin strode forwards quickly and put herself between Zevara and the Goblins. She saw Relc standing behind Zevara with a group of Drakes in full plate armor. He and the other guardsmen were ready for a fight. But it couldn’t come to that.

“Speak quickly Human.”

Zevara lashed her tail as she stared at the Hobgoblins. Her sword was half out of its sheath, and the [Guardsmen] behind her looked ready to fight. Relc’s eyes smoldered as he stared at the Goblins. They were tense, but they waited for Erin to speak.

She explained as fast as she could. Zevara was incredulous.

“You were attacked by goats?

“Eater Goats, Captain. They have to be. Those buggers are nasty. If there’s a herd coming down from the High Passes—”

One of the guardsmen murmured to Zevara. She turned to Erin.

“We’ll inspect the bodies. But if these Hobs fought them, so what? Monsters fight monsters.”

“But they did it to save the village! I’m sure of it! They attacked the goats when they were about to jump over the walls! Look, Captain, I know they’re Goblins, but remember Rags?”

Behind Zevara, Relc twitched. Zevara glanced at him, then at Erin.

“I remember a group of Goblins starting to raid the roads around Liscor before they vanished. If that’s your argument—”

“These Goblins aren’t a danger! I promise!”

“Hah! And I’m supposed to let five Hobgoblins sit here while—”

“It’s five Goblins.”

“Five Hobs! Do you understand how dangerous that is? A Silver-rank team wouldn’t be a match for them! And why are they without a tribe? They could be spies, saboteurs—”

“Why did they sit in my inn and eat food for the last two hours, then?”

Zevara hesitated. She eyed the Goblins. One waved at her. The other raised his middle finger.

“It could be a Goblin ploy—”

“Oh come on. Really?”

Some of the guardsmen shifted behind Erin. One murmured.

“She has a point, Captain. That would be stupid, even for a Goblin—”

“They might have heard there’s a softhearted Human with a fondness for Goblins around here. Maybe they lured the Eater Goats here themselves. I don’t know, but I’m not having them here! And you, why would you think this is a good idea?”

The Drake Watch Captain glared at Erin. She glared back.

“Haven’t you seen the sign outside my inn? Didn’t you see what it read? It says, ‘no killing Goblins’!”

Zevara paused.

“That’s not—”

Erin glared at her. She rounded on the other Drakes and Gnolls in the Watch, raising her voice.

“Did you think that was a joke? That I wasn’t serious? I am. Unless the Goblin is attacking me or other people, or stealing or—or being a jerk, I won’t let you harm them.”

Zevara’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“This is Watch business, Human. You may not be in Liscor, but you’re close enough to fall under our jurisdiction.”

“So what, you’ll kill them right here and now because you think they might be a threat?”

The Drake hesitated. She eyed the Goblins. They were watching her. At last, she nodded.

“That was our intent.”

All five Redfang warriors shifted at once. The Watch did likewise. Zevara held up a hand.

“We won’t have a fight here. I’d rather force these Goblins to leave the area than risk any deaths.”

Slowly, the Redfang Goblins relaxed their grip on their weapons. But Erin was the one who objected this time.

“You can’t.”

“What?”

“They’re starving. Can’t you see?”

She pointed at the Goblins. The Redfang warriors glanced at her in astonishment. Erin spread her hands.

“They were hungry when they came in, and I think they’re on the run. They aren’t allied with the Goblin Lord—I think they’re part of Rags’ tribe. Look, Captain Zevara, why can’t I let them stay in my inn for a day or two?”

Everyone was gaping at her. Zevara shook her head.

“You really are as crazy as Relc says. I won’t allow it.”

“Well, I won’t let you lay a hand on these Goblins! Give me a day or two and I’ll let them go—maybe out of Celum. But no one’s hurting them here.”

Zevara stared incredulously at Erin.

“And what will you do if we decide to move them? Stop us? By yourself?”

She glanced around the inn. Both the Halfseekers and the Horns of Hammerad were present, but they didn’t seem inclined to stand up for Erin the same way as they had before. Erin nodded.

“If I have to.”

Someone in the group of guards people laughed. Zevara stared at Erin.

“Stand aside. We’re removing the Goblins.”

Erin’s eyes narrowed.

“Try it.”

For a heart-thundering second, Zevara’s hand tightened on her sword’s hilt and every warrior in the room tensed. Then the door opened. Half a dozen swords cleared their sheaths, but the figure standing in the doorway made everyone hesitate.

“Enough. Watch Captain Zevara, stand down.”

Zel Shivertail stood in the doorway. He glanced around, pinning the Redfang warriors with a glance. The Drakes backed up and he strode forwards to speak with Zevara. The two Drakes bent their heads. Erin couldn’t hear anything, but she saw Zevara’s tail lashing and caught a few words.

“—on my authority—can’t be s—quite. The situation—won’t allow—follow orders.”

At last, Zevara turned. She looked like she was ready to blast Erin with flames, but she held back. She clenched her claws into fists and glared pure murder at the Goblins.

“If they hurt anyone, it’s on your head, Human!”

She whirled and stormed out of the room. Slowly, the guardsmen followed her. In the newfound still, Zel Shivertail looked at Erin. He sighed.

“A word, Miss Solstice?”

 

—-

 

They stood outside and spoke in the cold.

“Thank you for helping me. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t.”

Zel inclined his head slightly. He glanced through a window into the inn, where the Redfang Goblins were still sitting, tense, watched by both adventurer groups.

“Truthfully, I don’t know if I should have. Goblins are dangerous, Miss Solstice.”

“I know that. But I think these ones are good. Why did you help me, by the way?”

Zel grimaced.

“Call it instinct. Not mine. Yours. You picked out Regrika Blackpaw and her associate’s treachery. If you can do that, perhaps you’re right about these Goblins. But truthfully, I have ulterior motives.”

“Which are?”

Erin studied Zel, but he didn’t meet her gaze.

“I’m sorry. But I can’t say. Regardless, I managed to convince Watch Captain Zevara to back down. However, if those Goblins cause any kind of disturbance—”

“I’ll make sure they won’t. And they won’t necessarily stay here. I just—I couldn’t leave them alone, you know?”

Erin shrugged helplessly. The Drake [General] eyed her and sighed.

“No, you really couldn’t, could you? Well, I will let you handle this at your discretion—however many misgivings I have. But if you…no. I’m afraid though, that if you do intend to shelter the Goblins, I won’t be staying at the inn.”

“Why?”

Erin stared at him. Zel Shivertail paused.

“I fought Goblins back in the Second Antinium war, and countless times before and since. They’re monsters to me, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t be able to sleep under the same roof as them. I’m sorry. I’ve seen what they can do, and while I can trust your word…I’m sorry.”

He looked at Erin. She hesitated, and then nodded slowly.

“I get it. But I think…I think I will offer them a place to stay for now. I don’t think they have anywhere to go. And I…want to know about Rags.”

Zel nodded.

“In that case, I’ll move out before tonight. I wish you luck, Miss Solstice.”

He turned. Erin called out behind him.

“Why did you do it? Stand up for me? And why were you sure I’d give them a place to stay?”

Zel looked back.

“You’re kind to strangers, Erin Solstice. That’s all. And that’s not a bad thing. If you can prove some Goblins are worth living, well, who am I to stop you?”

Then he walked into the inn. After a second, Erin followed him.

 

—-

 

“Do you…have names?”

Erin sat with the Redfang Goblins. They stared at her, and glanced behind her. Zel Shivertail was talking quietly with Lyonette, who was upset with Erin, and he was talking to Mrsha, who was clinging to his leg. Sitting around the room were the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers, who were both watching them as well.

Erin tried to ignore all of them. She focused on the Goblin ahead of her.

“I’m Erin. But you know that. Do you have names?”

They hesitated. The Goblins looked each other, and shrugged. They weren’t proper names, not like Rags had. But they were something. Erin looked at Headscratcher and pointed to him.

“Okay, what’s yours?”

He scratched his head. She waited. The Goblin looked at her and scratched his head again.

“You don’t know?”

He shook his head and the pointed to it. He slowly and deliberately scratched his head.

“Headscratching?”

Pisces coughed. He cleared his throat as Erin looked at him.

“I believe, Miss Solstice, that the answer is far simpler. That is his name. And rather than Headscratching, I believe you would call him…Headscratcher?”

Headscratcher nodded in relief. Erin stared at him.

“What, really?”

The skepticism in her voice hurt more than any ridicule. Headscratcher drooped and Erin tried to reassure him.

“No, no, it’s a great name! I’m just surprised. You’re Headscratcher. That’s cool. And uh, what about you?”

She pointed at Shorthilt. The other Goblin began to pantomime as well. Erin’s brows furrowed as she tried to work his name out.

“Short. Right. I got that. Short…short…sword? No? Short hilt? Shorthilt? That’s your name?”

He gave her a short nod and stared challengingly at her. Erin sucked in her lips.

“Right. It’s uh, a good name! Very original. I think.”

Slowly, she went around the table, getting each name from each Goblin. Rabbiteater and Numbtongue were hardest to figure out, especially because Erin had neither rabbits nor numbing agents in her inn. But they got there.

“It’s nice to meet you all. Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badapple—sorry, sorry! Badarrow, Rabbiteater, and Numbtongue, right?”

They all nodded. All four Goblins had repeatedly elbowed Numbtongue throughout the conversation, but he’d refused to open his mouth. Now Erin smiled at them. Goblin hearts did odd things in their chests and more than one Goblin poked at his heart experimentally.

“Good to meet you all. Sorry about everything earlier. Let’s do this properly. I’m Erin, this is Ceria, Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon—Drassi’s hiding in the kitchen. She’s the Drake. Lyonette and Mrsha are upstairs…Mrsha’s the cute little Gnoll. And uh, this is Jelaqua—”

The Selphid leaned over her table. She wasn’t smiling.

“Where is Garen Redfang? How do you know him?”

The Redfang warriors looked at her. Her eyes were fixed on them. Slowly, Headscratcher raised one finger. He pointed at himself and the others, spoke a word.

“Redfang.”

Erin stared blankly at Jelaqua. The Selphid frowned. Someone else spoke up.

“They must be his tribe.”

The Halfseekers turned and looked at Yvlon. The armored woman cleared her throat as everyone stared at her.

“I know a bit about them. I don’t know about Garen Redfang himself, but the Redfang tribe…they’re a notorious Goblin tribe around here. They’ve been active for years and no one’s managed to defeat them or find their lair. They live in the High Passes.”

Seborn shifted in his seat. His gaze hadn’t shifted from the Goblins since he’d sat down.

We heard about that. What else do you know?

Yvlon conferred with Ceria for a moment.

“They’re supposed to be the most dangerous Goblin tribe around the High Passes. The best at fighting—some of them ride Carn Wolves, and they’re rated as a threat that no single Gold-rank team should try to handle alone. By all accounts, they’ve done away with several Gold-rank teams and quite a lot of Silver-rank teams over the years.”

The other Redfang warriors looked proud. Headscratcher kicked them under the table and they paused, and then shuffled their feet. Jelaqua shook her head.

“That’s what we heard. But I only care about Garen Redfang. Your leader. Where is he?”

She looked at Headscratcher. He and the others all shook their heads and shrugged at the same time. Jelaqua made a sound of disgust and rose to her feet.

“Great. I can’t sit here. Moore, come on. Seborn, you stay in case something happens.”

She stomped out of the inn. Erin watched her go. Then she looked at the Goblins.

Now then. Now, after all the drama…she still didn’t know what to do with them. Part of her wanted to go tell Zel that they were leaving and he could stay. The rest of her knew that she’d made up her mind as soon as she’d seen them.

Goblins. Hobgoblins. Did it matter? The five who sat at the table warily eying her and the others in the room were like Rags and unlike her in so many ways. They were bigger, all male, and clearly trained warriors, but their eyes were the same. There was the same hurt there, the same curiosity when they stared at her magical chessboard or saw something new.

And they had seen too much. She remembered seeing their wounds and they had too many scars. They had been starving. Their stomachs were bulging, but they still looked like they could eat.

And one more thing made Erin sure. A memory. That last time she had seen Rags, she had turned her away. This time…Erin closed her eyes. She took a breath, and looked at them.

“I know a lot of people came by and threatened you. However, you all don’t seem to know where you’re going, am I right?”

The Redfang warriors shuffled their feet. Shorthilt nodded. Badarrow kicked him under the table. Erin smiled for a second.

“In that case…stay, okay? No one’s going to kill you. Not while I’m here. Stay. If you’re looking for Rags, well—you can stay here for a while at least. You need to eat, and sleep. I promise you, if you’ll stay, you’ll be safe.”

The Goblins looked at her incredulously. So did the Horns of Hammerad, Lyonette, Drassi, and everyone else in the room. Zel just sighed and hefted his pack onto his back. Erin hesitated. She looked into Headscratcher’s eyes.

Was she making a mistake? Yes. No one would come to an inn with Goblins. No one. The door to Celum had opened twice despite Octavia’s attempts and the people had fled screaming when seeing the Goblins. Zevara was angry, Relc was angry—Erin had no idea if Klbkch and the Antinium would be too. This was not smart. And yet—

A Goblin’s tears. She looked into Headscratcher’s eyes and remembered. Crying for their friend. Who’d died to help protect her. Without thanks, without a grave. Without a word spoken.

“Stay.”

She reached out and offered her hand. The Goblins stared at her. Slowly, Headscratcher raised his hand. He raised it and slowly extended it. His palm was callused, his grip as tentative as a feather. His blood pulsed beneath his skin, and he looked Erin in the eye.

She smiled. And then she turned and looked around the room.

“Who else is staying?”

 

—-

 

It might be no one. Lyonette was willing to stay, but Mrsha might have to go the city, in which case Lyonette would go. Erin wanted to try a single night at the inn, but she wasn’t sure. As for the Horns of Hammerad, they had a quiet discussion in a corner. Ceria was very upset, which in turn made Erin upset.

“Look, just be cool, okay? They can stay in the—in the basement for tonight. Okay?”

“Erin! We sleep in the basement! And these are Hobs! I get Rags, I really do, but—”

“Ceria. It’s not a discussion. I’m sorry, but if you really can’t deal with them you’ll have to go somewhere else. But look—they’ll be in the basement but you won’t.

“What do you mean?”

Ceria frowned. Erin smiled weakly at her.

“I finished upgrading my inn, remember? And I have all those new rooms—I was going to offer them to you anyways. You’ll get rooms on the second floor if you stay. Okay?”

The half-Elf looked at Erin uncertainly, and exchanged a glance with Yvlon. Beside her, Pisces’ eyes lit up. He nudged Ceria in the side.

“Take the offer, Springwalker.”

“Oh come on. You can’t be serious, Pisces—”

The half-Elf turned and glared at him. He glared back.

“I would live with a Creler in the basement if it meant a private room for myself, Springwalker. Five Goblins is a small price to pay for an upgrade.”

“Plus, you’ll all get separate rooms! And mints on your pillows as soon as I learn how to make them! Please? Come on Ceria, you remember Rags. She was cool! These guys are cool too! Probably.”

Erin pleaded and begged, and in the end Ceria gave over, mainly because rooms at Erin’s inn were infinitely preferable to cramped rooms in Celum or Liscor, especially with the prices they might have to pay. That was one issue solved.

The other one was more serious. Erin had two new hires, and she suspected both objected to the Goblins in no uncertain terms. At least, she knew Drassi did. She hadn’t seen Ishkr for a while. He was still in mourning.

In any case, Ishkr was still missing, but Drassi was on the roster for tomorrow and the day after as well. Erin sat with her as the Goblins…did something in the basement.

“Honestly, Erin, I don’t know if I can. I—it’s not that I don’t like you or trust you, but having monsters under this roof—”

“I get it Drassi, I do. And I know you’re upset Jelaqua, Moore, Seborn. I wouldn’t blame you if you left, but please give this a chance?”

She was begging with the Halfseekers as well. They were hesitating for the same reasons as Ceria had. There weren’t many places that catered to Selphids and half-Giants both. Still, Jelaqua’s jaw was clenched and she kept glancing towards the trapdoor leading to the basement.

“Just tell us why, Erin. I get that they saved your life, but a meal’s thanks enough. So these Goblins are lost. So what? What makes them worth trusting?”

“I don’t think they’re monsters. I think they’re lost. They look lost, Jelaqua. And so…so sad. I couldn’t just tell them to wander off and get killed by adventurers or monsters.”

“And you trust them? You trust them not to slit your throat in the night? Because they could. You’re in danger, and everyone in this inn. You might trust them, but…how sure are you? Are you willing to bet your life on this?”

The Selphid eyed Erin. Drassi looked at her as well. Erin bowed her head. Then she raised it.

“I am. I believe in people. I believe that Goblins are more than monsters. Because they act like people. They might act like monsters, but—don’t people say that about Selphids? To a Human like me, a Drake might be a monster. Or a Gnoll. But they have feelings. And so do the Goblins. They might not speak, but they cry. And I think that if you can cry, you’re a person.”

Erin clenched her hands on the table. Drassi looked at her, and then blew her nose—or rather, nose holes—noisily on a handkerchief. Jelaqua stared at her, and then looked at Moore and Seborn. Moore brushed at his eyes. The Selphid sighed. Seborn looked at his human hand and his crustacean side. All three Halfseekers had the same look, bordering on tears of their own in their eyes. They nodded. Jelaqua made an unhappy face.

“When you put it like that…how can we up and leave? We’ll stay too. Just in case you need us. But we won’t hang around with them, Erin. I just can’t.”

“I get that. I can serve you breakfast whenever, or make up a bag—thank you so much.”

Erin rose and grasped Jelaqua’s hands. The Selphid laughed and shook her head.

“Do you know how many people shudder when they hold my hands? Do you know how many people think Moore eats people? A chance. Dead gods, I guess I’ll try anything once.”

“Once upon a time, I remember you saying the same thing when a Hobgoblin wanted to join our group.”

Moore’s eyes were distant. Seborn nodded.

We were betrayed once. But remember what Ukrina said? ‘If we do not give other species a chance, what hope is there for the rest of the world?’ Once more, Jelaqua.

The Selphid turned to Erin and gave her a crooked smile.

“You heard them. Sentimentalists, that’s us. Okay, let’s do this.”

 

—-

 

And that evening, Erin stood in her common room and felt a strange sensation creeping up on her. A familiar feeling.

Emptiness. Silence. Isolation.

Her inn, normally bustling, was deserted. Her upper floors were almost empty. Mrsha, happy Mrsha, refused to come downstairs. Drassi was hiding in the kitchens and the fire in the common room was low.

And yet, she didn’t feel terrible. Erin stood in the common room and felt a chill. She brushed her arms and realized only part of that was coming from the fire. She went over and fed it fuel, but the feeling persisted.

Rags. Goblins. A dying Goblin lying in her kitchen. The smell of burnt oil. Erin couldn’t give the feeling in her heart words, but perhaps. Perhaps what Zel, what Jelaqua said was true. Was she making a mistake or—

A foot creaked as it met a floorboard. Erin whirled, and saw a big shape hunched by the open trapdoor. A Goblin crouched, crimson eyes on her. Erin stepped away from the fire, heart pounding, and the figure was cast into relief.

Headscratcher crouched by the trapdoor, frozen in place. He stared at Erin. She stared back. He wasn’t holding a weapon or anything. And he wasn’t wearing anything. That was very apparent.

Her eyes travelled down. Headscratcher was very naked. Erin raised her voice.

“Drassi? Go into the city and buy some pants, would you? I think the Goblins need extra pairs. Their loincloths are, um, bloodstained.”

“What? Pan—

Drassi poked her head out of the kitchen and stared before screaming. Headscratcher shuffled down the trapdoor, looking very embarrassed. Erin turned away and heard the trap door open and close. She hesitated, and then went into the kitchen to calm Drassi.

When that was over, Erin laughed to herself. Silly Goblins. For some reason that reassured her. If you could be silly, if you could be embarrassed, you weren’t a monster, right? You were only a monster if people called you that.

Her eyes travelled back across her empty room. Yes, the word had spread. Now everyone in both cities knew. She had Goblins. Erin laughed. So what? They weren’t evil, she was sure.

And this time, Erin swore, she’d treat them better. As Drassi hurried out of the inn, Erin found the sign that had been buried all winter in the snow. She eyed it, dug it out of the frozen ground after much swearing, and replanted it. Right in front of her inn, by the door. For the world to see.

“This is my inn. Mine.”

Erin spoke to the warming world, into the darkness. She rested a hand on the cold wood. Yes, this was who she was. What her inn was.

The Wandering Inn. It had one rule. No killing Goblins. Erin smiled to herself. Yes. This time she’d do it right. She’d be better. And show them—show everyone—there were some Goblins who weren’t evil.

She turned and froze. Headscratcher, Badarrow, and Shorthilt all froze as they crept through the snow. They were all naked, and all, apparently, in dire need of the outhouse. She stared, and then shouted.

Put some pants on!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

4.33

It was said that of the five continents, Terandria was the wealthiest, the safest, and the most advanced place to live in the entire world. And that was true. But only if you averaged things out.

Wealthiest? Terandria might be second place to Baleros, where the riches of the jungle and the companies turned blood into gold, or third if you debated the relative size of Izril and compared the three populations of Gnoll, Drake, and Humans to the smaller Terandrian continent. However, it was certainly a rich place, and fewer people died for its wealth.

As for advanced—in magic and technology, Terandria boasted the sole gathering of Dwarf-kind, and thus exported steel and metals far stronger than that. And its strong ties to Wistram meant that mages frequented its shores. However…one could say the same of Baleros and Rhir, whose militaries boasted the most ancient artifacts and highest-level craftspeople.

But safest. Yes, Terandria could call itself safe. Wars were endemic to this world and Terandria had its fair share. But in Terandria, there were rules. Wars were begun and ended with signed declarations, laws against slaughtering civilians and non-combatants were enforced by all nations. And since the populations of each nation were largely Human, they seldom wiped each other out.

It was a subject of mockery in other countries across the world. Terandrians were cowards, it was said. The fat, bickering rulers of each nation would roll over when poked with an ink-stained quill. And perhaps it was true that Terandria had grown too political, that it fought with words and poisoned drinks more than actual soldiers and armies. Perhaps they had grown soft.

But Lyonette missed her home, all the same. Sometimes. She remembered why she hated it, but she also remembered that she had never seen a dead body before leaving. Not once. She was too delicate as a [Princess] to look upon a poisoned uncle’s face, or go to the funeral of an esteemed [Knight]. And death didn’t intrude in her old life. Terandria was safe. Genteel.

On Izril, even Gold-rank adventurers could die. Good, innocent Gnolls could die. Brunkr, someone Lyonette had feared, someone she’d barely known, but begun to like—could die without any reason. And his killer would get away.

People died on Izril. And when they did, they tore holes out of Lyonette’s heart.

 

—-

 

Morning. Lyonette woke up and felt like the sky had fallen. She stared up at the ceiling of her room dully, too tired to get up and start her usual routine. What was the point?

She only moved when she noticed two things. First, was that Ryoka was gone. Yes, she remembered. But it was still another empty space where it should have been filled.

The second thing was that Mrsha was missing. That made Lyonette sit up. She dressed herself quickly and hurried downstairs. She found Mrsha in the common room to her intense relief.

The little Gnoll was lying on the ground in a corner, by the patched-up wall. She was a little ball of white fur, lolling on the ground. Listlessly. Mrsha stared blankly at a wall.

“Mrsha?”

The Gnoll’s short tail wasn’t wagging like usual. She didn’t respond when Lyonette came over. Lyonette tried to gather her up into her arms, but a sense in her head stopped her. She paused as a huge bee crawled onto Mrsha’s head and fanned its wings gently.

“Apista, shoo.”

Lyonette gently made the bee get off Mrsha by offering it her arm. The bee obligingly crawled onto Lyonette’s head; it wasn’t pleasant, feeling its sharp little legs crawling on her skin, but Lyonette put up with it. She bent and tried to pick up Mrsha.

“Come on Mrsha, don’t lie there.”

The Gnoll resisted. Passively. She was limp as a rag, and heavy. Lyonette stopped trying to pick her up and tried a different tack.

“I know you’re sad, Mrsha. I am too. But…I bet you’re hungry. You should eat.”

Mrsha didn’t respond. Lyonette crooned to her, edging over and stroking the back of Mrsha’s head.

“I know you like honey. Why don’t you have some with eggs? And Erin made a pizza two days ago. And she made lasagna last week. What if you had a bit of all that? With some sweet juice? Milk?”

The Gnoll cub’s tail twitched. It began to wag ever so slightly. Lyonette kept encouraging her. In the end, Mrsha got up and padded over to a table. She sat there, staring at the wood, while Lyonette hurried into the kitchen. Apista flew onto the table and twitched her antennas to keep Mrsha company.

Breakfast was a thin slice of lasagna, half a slice of pizza, a fried egg drizzled with a spot of honey, and hot milk. The last of the milk, in fact. It was well used. Mrsha ate her breakfast slowly, but with a sense of growing…peace? Calm? Perhaps the word was relief. A temporary relief from sorrow. Yes, that was it.

Tending to Mrsha helped Lyonette as well. She was able to eat a bit herself—just a slice of the odd ‘pizza’ that Erin was so fond of making. It certainly was easy to eat. And so she was present when Drassi walked in.

“Lyonette, I’m so sorry.

That was the first thing the female Drake said. She’d heard, of course. Not all of it, but enough. And she’d gotten all the big parts. Regrika Blackpaw, the traitor. Her murder of Brunkr and then the death of a Gold-rank adventurer. In Erin’s inn. And all this right before the Goblin Lord’s army marched by the city.

“It was terrifying. All of the Watch was on the walls and we were ordered to stay indoors, but we were all out on the streets of course. I kept thinking, ‘what about Erin and all the people in The Wandering Inn’? But then I heard you’d all fled to Celum, so I was relieved. But oh, it’s too cruel. And after Brunkr was—”

Lyonette put a hand over Drassi’s mouth and the Drake shut up. Both [Barmaids] looked at Mrsha, who’d paused in eating her egg. Gnoll hearing. Drassi coughed guiltily.

“I want to help. You should stay with Mrsha, you really should. Ishkr’s…not feeling well. I don’t think he’ll be in. But I’m sure I can handle whatever’s needed myself!”

“That’s fine. Thank you. I don’t think we’ll have many guests. Can you help me get ready? We have…the Horns of Hammerad and Halfseekers are still here. And Zel. And Erin. I bet she’ll be down soon.”

Drassi paused. She glanced towards the door and then at Lyonette.

“Erin? I saw her outside just a minute ago.”

“What?”

“Yeah, she was pulling arrows out of the dirt. The ones the Goblins shot. And she had a hammer.”

“A—”

Something went crack by one of the windows. Everyone jumped. Lyonette turned, and saw one of the glass windows, open to let the sunlight in. Someone was hitting it. With…a hammer?

“Erin!”

When Lyonette raced outside she found Erin, a carpenter’s claw hammer in hand, smashing it repeatedly on the glass window. Erin stopped and turned to Lyonette.

“Morning, Lyonette.”

“Uh—good morning. What are you doing?”

Erin stared at Lyonette. She didn’t look like she’d gotten much sleep. Her eyes were bloodshot and she was unsteady on her feet. She raised the hammer.

“Hitting my windows. With this.”

“Yes. Why?”

“Stress test.”

Erin grunted, and then turned her hammer. With the claw end of the hammer she swung it at the window. Hard. Lyonette braced herself, but rather than break, the hammer’s edge skated across the glass. Erin eyed the undamaged window, and then punched it.

“Ow. That’s tough.”

“What’s all this about?”

“I’m seeing how tough my inn is now. I didn’t tell you—the other day I got [Reinforced Structure].”

“Oh. Oh! So that’s why the inn wasn’t damaged when the Goblin Lord—”

“Yeah. But I want to know exactly how strong my inn is.”

Erin studied the window again, and then balled a fist. She took a breath.

[Minotaur Punch]!

The impact this time was loud and sharp. Lyonette saw Erin pull back her hand, wincing.

“Are you—”

Erin showed her hand to Lyonette. There was no blood. But there was a definite fracture in the glass where she’d hit. It was small, but it was there.

“Not that strong, then.”

She shook her head. Lyonette stared at her. She stared at the window.

“It looks strong to me. You couldn’t break it, and the glass is pretty thin!”

“Yeah. But if I can fracture it, anyone with more than twenty levels in a combat class can probably break it. And someone like Regrika could probably still put a hole in my walls.”

Regrika. Lyonette felt a cold surge of fear and anger in her stomach when she heard the name. She looked at Erin.

“Do you think she’s going to come back…?”

“No.”

Erin shook her head. She looked at her window, and then turned away. She trudged around to the front of the inn.

“I don’t. But even if I never see her again, what about next time?”

“What do you mean, next time?”

“A Rock Crab. The Goblin Lord’s army. Or another adventurer. Another Skinner. Or…”

Erin shook her head. She looked so tired. Lyonette stared at a boarded-up wall in Erin’s inn, where Moore had smashed through to run from Regrika. That had been before Erin’s new Skill. Now, she wondered if the half-Giant would have been able to manage the feat.

The [Innkeeper] was clearly thinking the same thing.

“Next time, I won’t be able to rely on luck. And that was what it was. Luck saved everyone but Ulrien. Revi still got cut up, Moore needed healing, and Jelaqua…I can’t keep doing what I’ve been doing. I thought I was prepared. I was wrong.”

Lyonette shook her head adamantly.

“You did everything you could! You got two Gold-rank teams and Zel Shivertail and a Wall Lord to help you. You made sure Mrsha and I—and Apista—were safely out of the inn. What else could you have done?”

“Something. Anything. When she was fighting, Regrika—I couldn’t scratch her. I bought healing potions, magical items from Octavia—do you know I didn’t think to use any of them? It wouldn’t have mattered if I had, anyways. I need something more. More protection. More power. More…”

She shook her head. Erin glanced towards the open door to her inn, leaking warm air. She went to close it and paused.

“Are you okay? Is Mrsha?”

“I’ll be—”

Lyonette’s throat closed up before she could say she was fine. She wasn’t. Erin looked at her. She had a haunted look in her eyes. And Lyonette remembered that Erin had seen people die before as well.

“Take the day off if you need to. Keep Mrsha company.”

“It’s okay. I can manage. But are you alright? You look…”

“I’m fine. I’ve been through this before.”

“Oh?”

Erin nodded. She stared into her inn, and then turned away. There was something quiet about her today. Quiet, and intense. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning or visibly upset, either. She was just…present.

“It doesn’t get better. But I can work without crying this time. Because I have to. It’s easier to have something to do. And so much has happened. Ryoka’s gone. Ivolethe’s gone. Brunkr and Ulrien…the Goblin Lord. I need to…”

She stared up at the blue sky without finishing her sentence. Lyonette looked around. The snow was still thick everywhere she looked. But it was wet. Melting. It would take a week at least for the warming weather to melt the snow. When it did…Lyonette foresaw a lot of mud and water.

“Come on. I’ve got food and Drassi is here. You should have breakfast if you haven’t already. And I’d bet the others will wake up any time soon.”

Erin blinked. She looked at Lyonette.

“Yeah. Let’s do that.”

 

—-

 

Quietus. That was what followed death. In the moments between grief and anger, reconciliation, regret, denial, and perhaps, peace, there was silence. It was not always the same.

Some wept. Some mourned out loud. Others retreated inwards or found places to go to be alone. Some just…left.

It was the same across the world. In Rhir, a [Clown] sat in a room full of broken mirrors, too full of grief and horror to shed any more tears. A [Princess] wept alone in her bedroom, because she could not show her sadness outside. A kingdom was full of drums, and the people swore vengeance over pyres. Hatred stems from grief.

Silence in that place was loud. It was men and women crying out for vengeance, a [King] sitting on his throne, loudly praising those who fought and denouncing traitors. It was the sound of drums, beating to a mourning city. But in the fractured moments of time between each thump of a drum was that moment of silence. Of numb loss.

In a small inn outside of Liscor, the silence was different. It was pure quiet. Hushed voices. A talkative Drake who chattered quietly, trying to make a Gnoll smile. It was adventurers walking downstairs.

The Horns of Hammerad barely spoke. And they left early. Their silence was another contract; hunting down a large nest of Shield Spiders that had infested a section of Liscor’s sewers, burrowing through stone and dirt. Or maybe their eggs had been carried into the tunnels somehow? Either way, it was a job for a Silver-rank team, not Bronze. It was dirty, but it was work to keep them occupied.

They left. But carried silence with them. Silence was Pisces slipping Mrsha a piece of oily bacon, Ksmvr talking about the mission by himself since no one would join in. Yvlon thanking Lyonette and the two staring at each other for a moment before turning away. Ceria putting a hand on Erin’s shoulder.

The Halfseekers were different. Jelaqua was loud, drinking early in the day. Moore and Seborn were naturally quiet, but they filled the air today with sound.

“Now it’s just one Gold-rank team in here. At least until the Horns get certified. That means we’d better act the part. Moore, cause some trouble.”

“How?”

“Knock over a chair or something. Start a fight.”

The half-Giant obligingly turned over a chair. Seborn knocked over his empty cup. Jelaqua looked disgusted. Lyonette giggled a bit, and Mrsha’s tail wagged a bit more.

“You two are disgusting, you know that? Looks like I have to cause all the trouble myself. Hey Erin, got anything I can smash?”

“How about a window?”

“What?”

When they heard about Erin’s tests on her inn, the Halfseekers all went outside to test the durability of Erin’s inn. They argued, kept themselves busy. Jelaqua rapped on the window, first hard, and then punched it.

“Right. Looks like I could break this with my flail, but it might take two swings. Maybe three, depending on how much space I had. Moore could probably put his fist through it as well, but I’d hate to imagine what that’d do to his hand. Seborn…it would be pretty hard.”

Moore sighed.

“I would probably put an enchantment over my hand, Jelaqua. Cover it with vines. Or thorns. I’m not a savage.”

“Good point. Seborn, you think you could break it?”

The Drowned Man shrugged.

I don’t feel the need. I’d rather just unlatch the window and jump in, or find another route. But I could probably break it with my daggers. It would slow me down, though.

“Go ahead. I don’t mind.”

Erin stepped back from the window and invited Seborn to use his daggers on it. The Halfseekers eyed her. Jelaqua paused and shook her head.

“Nah. Glass is expensive. It’s good you got the Skill, though. A bit more protection’s always good.”

“You should look into some spells. I know a decent [Enchanter] who does warding spells.”

Moore nodded to Erin. She looked at him.

“Really? How much do they cost? And how strong are they? Would they stop someone like Regrika?”

The Gold-rank adventurers looked at each other. Jelaqua sighed. She scratched at the black stitches around her forehead.

“No. Never mind.”

Erin looked at the stitches. They were holding together the top of Jelaqua’s head, the bit Regrika had sliced off with the rest of her body, but the severed bit was already looking slightly…decomposed.

“Are you okay? Is your body…”

She didn’t know how to complete that sentence. The Selphid grinned at her wearily.

“Damaged. Thanks for asking. I tore a lot of muscles and the top of my head’s rotting off.  But hey, I’m alive so who cares about my body?”

She grinned. Erin remembered that Jelaqua’s head had been empty when she’d seen inside. The memory made her want to bring up the lasagna she’d had for breakfast.

“Right. No brains. That’s…a bit icky, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Not a problem. Nothing looks pretty from the inside. I should know!”

“But how’d your brains—I mean, your body’s brains—how did they uh, disappear? Is that something you have to do when you—”

Terminology was becoming an issue. Jelaqua smiled.

“Brains have nothing to do with how I control a body. I don’t need ‘em. As for how they disappeared, well…it’s this thing, okay? Excess body fat, useless organs—I get snacky, and sometimes—”

Moore elbowed Jelaqua gently.

“That’s disturbing. Even for me, Jelaqua.”

“Sorry, sorry! You did ask. I know you fleshies don’t like talking about it. But Erin did ask, and I want to be open about that.”

The Selphid raised her hands. Erin smiled at her and resolved never to ask about that again. Or at least not after she’d just eaten. She took a second to compose herself, and then gestured at Jelaqua’s head.

“So you need a new body, is that right?”

“Preferably. But I can manage without one if I have to for a month or two. Might get ugly, but I don’t know if I’ll find a new body around here.”

The Selphid grew serious. She nodded towards Liscor.

“Drakes do not like people using their bodies. Neither do Gnolls. They have a thing about it. You know, from the Necromancer? And people don’t like Selphids in general. It’s almost worse than back home because they don’t know about Selphids, so there are all these rumors I have to deal with…I’m willing to pay in gold of course, but I think I’ll have to ask around in Celum and that’s a gamble.”

Erin nodded. The logistics of corpse acquisitions were unfortunately not a new subject to her. Pisces had made similar complaints in the past.

“And I bet you want a good body, right? One with lots of teeth…freshly dead, and probably with muscles, right?”

“She gets it!”

The Selphid turned to Seborn and Moore, looking relieved. They nodded approvingly. Jelaqua walked back inside with the others and sat at a table. Zel was having breakfast. He nodded to Erin, and then winced as Jelaqua began grousing about finding a new host body.

“You would not believe how hard it is. Forget having a specific taste in bodies, finding one that’s not old, infected with some disease and in one piece is hard enough. I’m not one of those elitist types of course—I’ll go for anything without a pulse if it can get the job done. Heck, with all the wear and tear in my profession, that’s mandatory. But I’d like another female body. I mean, the male ones are alright, but let’s be honest—the dangling bits tend to get eaten by bugs before I can enter the corpse, and that’s a pain whenever I have to relieve myself from then on…”

Erin was in a position to regret ever asking about Jelaqua’s woes, but at least it was distracting to hear the Selphid grouse. And that was good. True, Zel lost his appetite and Lyonette had to cover Mrsha’s ears, but it was fun. In a way.

“What about Antinium bodies?”

“Excuse me?”

Jelaqua paused in her rant about having sex, and stared at Erin. The girl shrugged.

“I know a lot of Antinium die. It’s not…good, but if they were willing to give you a body, would you be able to use it?”

Bird paused as he walked downstairs. He had his bow in hand. He nodded.

“Antinium bodies are exceedingly durable.”

Erin jumped. She’d forgotten that Bird was staying here! She was about to apologize when she realized that Bird was agreeing with her. The Antinium sat at a table. He was uninjured, and he requested ‘unborn birds’ for breakfast. As usual. Lyonette gave him a plate of eggs which he began to eat happily.

“Ants? I’d never given it a thought.”

Jelaqua looked troubled as she picked at the stiches on her head. Seborn grabbed her hand. She gave him an annoyed look.

“It itches.

It’ll itch more if it fully decomposes.

“You suck. Okay. Antinium…it’s a thought, Erin, but there’s a few issues. Antinium aren’t welcome in most places on the continent. Also, I’m not familiar with their bodies. It would take a while to get up to speed, and that’s not good if we’re going to take on the dungeon again. I don’t know if their insides are different, which might be dangerous. And I mean, four arms? That’s tricky.”

She waved her two arms around and Erin nodded.

“It’s just a thought. If your uh, head gets rotty, I can ask Klbkch about it.”

“Thanks. Yeah, better that than decomposition, right? I mean, I can deal with maggots and flies laying eggs—just a snack when you get down to it. But people complain of the smell, and then I start leaking…

“Right. Thank you for breakfast. I’ve got to be on my way.”

Zel pushed his plate back. The [General] stood, looking queasy, and Erin saw Jelaqua raise a hand guiltily. Moore covered his face.

“Sorry about that.”

Erin hurried over and cleared the table. Drassi was in the kitchen doing dishes. Zel shook his head.

“Not a problem. I’m in a hurry anyways.”

“Oh? What are you doing?”

The Drake grimaced.

“Sitting with Liscor’s Council, talking, reassuring people and communicating—slowly—with other cities, mainly. We’re in touch with Esthelm via [Message] spell and talking over forming another army with the Walled Cities.”

“Esthelm?”

That was right. Esthelm was right in the Goblin Lord’s path if he was heading north. Erin felt a surge of panic, but Zel gently gripped her arm.

“Don’t worry. Our [Strategists] including young Olesm, say that the Goblin Lord won’t try to take the city. It’s not worth his while and he’s in a hurry. We’ll see what happens, but their walls are rebuilt thanks to the Antinium. And you. I’ll let you know if something happens.”

“Okay.”

He nodded.

“Besides that I have a [Message] spell to send…and while I’m thinking of it, I should give you this.”

He reached for his belt and opened a bag. It must have been a bag of holding, because the small pile of gold coins clinked onto the table in a quick flow. Erin stared at them.

“What’s this? You already paid for the week, and this is way too much—”

“For the wall. And damaged chairs. Tables and so on.”

Zel looked at Erin, and shifted his gaze towards the hole in the wall. Moore opened his mouth and Jelaqua stepped on his toes. Erin stared at the gold coins and pushed them back.

“I can’t take this. It’s my fault—”

“Please.”

Zel refused to touch the coins. He stood up. Erin tried to offer them back, but he refused.

“I know what you’re trying to say, but you did what I would have done in your shoes. Better. You uncovered a real threat, and…it was not your fault. I was the highest-level warrior on the field that night. The battle was mine to lose. I wasn’t here. This is my way of apologizing.”

“Even so—I don’t need it. I don’t. I have enough money coming in. Lots, actually. And Ryoka left some of her gold—look, I can’t—”

Zel edged around Erin and left the inn before she could block him. Erin stood in the doorway forlornly, watching him march quickly through the snow. Jelaqua sighed and got to her feet.

“We’d probably pay if he didn’t. He’s right, you know. No one blames you for what went down, Erin. You did what you could. It’s just…”

She shrugged. Moore and Seborn were also getting to their feet. She looked at them, shook her head. Mrsha, Lyonette, Erin—Drassi poked her head out of the kitchen. Jelaqua looked tired.

“Sometimes you run into a real monster. Someone invincible. Something. Sometimes you lose. That’s the way this world works, right?”

She turned and looked around, her customary smile gone. She nodded, and the Halfseekers slowly walked out the door.

Erin stood, watching them go as well. A half-Giant, wading through snow that only came up to his ankles. Seborn, quiet as a shadow. Jelaqua, leading with head turned up to the sky. Erin stood in the quiet inn and stared at the spot where Ulrien had died. Mrsha hugged Lyonette and Apista fanned her wings by the fire.

After a while, Drassi poked her head out of the kitchen again.

“We’re out of milk, by the way.”

Life moved on.

 

—-

 

It was the goats that saved them. Because of them, the six were granted another day to live. And they were grateful. They had to live. It was that or die, and they were too proud to die. Their friends had sacrificed too much for them to die.

But they would die soon. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then later. The only question was how they would die. For that was their fate.

They were Goblins. And they had no tribe. They were warriors without a purpose. They had fought and bled and half their number had died for a Human. A monster with a soul. Someone who had looked at them and seen a reflection.

And now six remained. Six Goblins. Elite warriors of the Redfang Goblin tribe, sent by Garen Redfang himself on a mission they had long since abandoned and no longer cared about.

Lost.

Last night, the Goblin Lord’s army had marched north. North, past the city of Liscor. North, towards Esthelm and the lands beyond. Their numbers were in the tens of thousands, not including the undead army that marched ahead of them. They were legion—an army to strike fear into the hearts of all but the mightiest. A Goblin Lord rode with them. A figure equivalent to any [General]. With him leading the army, they could destroy a lesser nation.

And yet, they had come under attack last night. Just once. It was as the group of six Redfang warriors were desperately hiding behind the cover of some rocks, lying low in case the patrolling sentries headed their way. They might have been found. Again, but for the goats.

Eater Goats. One of the monsters from the High Passes, a match for a Carn Wolf. These creatures were deadly, quick, fearless, and could eat anything. Their jaws could crunch stone or metal. And they hunted in packs.

A group of them had charged the Goblin Lord’s army. Just over a hundred attacking tens of thousands of Goblins. But the goats were fearless. And hungry. The winter had driven them from their homes. That, and…something else perhaps. Some disturbance. Whatever the case, they had spotted a lot of prey, and gone rampaging into the Goblin Lord’s ranks.

Hiding behind their cover, the Redfang warriors had enjoyed hearing the screams of Goblins as the Eater Goats ambushed them. The goats had taken down Hobs, chewed through armor and bitten through bone, and devoured the undead trying to kill them before retreating. Of course, the Goblin Lord’s army had encircled the goats with steel, shot arrows into their hides, blasted them with magic.

It was a testament, then, to the fearsome nature of the goats that after attacking an army of tens of thousands, a little over thirty goats still escaped. And not because they’d been dying either; it was just that they’d eaten their fill.

Monsters. But their intervention had allowed the Redfang Goblins to hide in the meantime and let the Goblin Lord’s army pass them by. And so the next day, the six Goblins rose and followed the Eater Goats as they headed south, searching for more food.

There was a logic to it. Despite the Eater Goats being considered a terrible threat worthy of a Gold-rank team, the Redfang Goblins knew they had little to fear from them. That was because their tribe, led by Garen Redfang, had lived in the High Passes for years and clashed with the Eater Goats many times. They were known to the Eater Goats, in short.

There were two settings the goats had. They regarded the world as made up of two things. Food and not-Food. Through bloody battles where they had slaughtered the goats, the Redfang Goblins had earned the enviable title of not-Food, allowing them to pass by the Eater Goats without incident. So long as one side or the other wasn’t hungry.

The trick was red paint on their faces and bodies. All six of the Redfang warriors wore it. That combination of red and green warned the Eater Goats not to attack. Thus, the Redfang warriors could let the goats move ahead and enjoy the protection of the ravenous monsters. Afraid of Shield Spiders, Mothbears, Armored Crawlers, or Wyverns? No problem. The Eater Goats would take down anything that moved.

And in the meantime, the Redfang warriors could scavenge the kills.

 

—-

 

The place where the Goblin Lord’s army had clashed with the Eater Goats still had a few fallen bodies. The goats, having eaten last night, were all resting until their systems worked through their meals. That meant the Redfang Goblins had a short window to procure their own rations. They were hungry; they’d been in hiding for the last day from the Goblin Lord’s army.

The six Goblins hurried down the pass and ran across the muddy ground, searching for fallen bodies that weren’t completely rotten. It was a miserable, horrible task, but they had to do it. It was that or starve. They were hungry enough to eat an undead Goblin, but all of them prayed it wouldn’t come to that.

One of the Redfang warriors paused as he found a figure in black armor lying in the snow. He nudged the body, turned it over, and saw a fat Hob’s face. Dead and still caked in mud. Skin cold from the air which still had yet to warm. Perfect.

He called the others over. Two Goblins approached. They eyed the Hob, nodded. Three lifted the huge corpse up and moved back towards their hiding spot. The other three hosted corpses of their own and joined them.

Normally, three Goblins couldn’t carry a Hob of any size, let alone a fat one with armor. But the Redfang warriors were strong. Unlike every other Goblin and some adventurers, they trained for combat. And the six who now started a fire in the snow were more different still.

Rabbiteater. Bugear. Numbtongue. Shorthilt. Badarrow. Headscratcher. They tossed wood on a growing flame, warmed their frozen bodies, and carved up the dead Goblins, roasting flesh on pans and eating greedily. Hungrily. They were starving. They’d been starving for days. Normally, a small Goblin could live for a week on a single body, but these Goblins consumed all they found and went back to look for more. Because they weren’t small Goblins any longer.

They were Hobs.

All six. Headscratcher carved more fat and tossed it into the pan, grunting with surprise when he missed. Badarrow caught the flesh out of the air. He had been the first to grow used to his longer limbs and new musculature. He tilted the pan and the smell made Rabbiteater grunt. Badarrow flipped the meat towards him and the other Hob grabbed it out of the air.

They ate for over an hour. Because they were hungry. It had been a week since the Goblins had begun growing at an abnormal rate, nearly doubling their height in a matter of days, and the cost of it was reflected in sunken cheeks, thin bellies, and their craving for any food—even the bodies of their own.

Shorthilt reappeared by their fire and tossed something down. The other Hobs looked and saw it was a pack. Of rations for the Goblin Lord’s soldiers! They were on it in a second, fighting over the hard, gritty bread and frozen bit of cheese and jerky. It didn’t matter that the food was half-rotten. Goblins would eat anything in hard times, and they knew they needed all the energy they could get.

The Hobgoblin transformation process was usually like this. But as Numbtongue pointed out with an eloquent grunt after their hunger pangs had subsided, it was rare for so many Hobs to appear at once.

The other Redfang warriors considered this. Bugear scratched at his ears, a tick left over from a time when bugs had actually infested his ears. Now they were gone, which was a disappointment since he could have used more to eat. But it was also a reminder of who he’d met, of who he’d lost.

The action was both a message and a habit. The other Goblins stared at Bugear and looked away. They remembered, too.

A city full of undead. A place of ruin and shattered Humans. A monster who ate like they did. A girl, begging for help. Goblins in black armor. The [Knight]. The skeleton dancing in delight. The flowers.

Death. That was what they had left behind. The Redfang warriors stared at the fire. They’d lost so many. Their leader, the taciturn Grunter, Rocksoup always complaining of indigestion, Leftstep, who’d once dueled a Gold-rank [Fencer] with a stick and a shield made of bark. Bitefly, who ate flies. Orangepoo, whose name spoke for himself. Patchhelm, obsessed with armor, and Justrust, whose swords were as deadly for tetanus as they were for their ability to cut.

All gone. The Redfang warriors sat, remembering. All gone, and for what? Badarrow gnashed his teeth as he gnawed at a bone, making his feelings plain.

Headscratcher held something up. The others looked. It was a flower.

Eloquently put. Badarrow tossed the bone aside and sighed. Headscratcher ate the flower. They’d been over this too many times to count. Too many times to dwell on it, but they did.

They were alone. And they had lost their group, as well as their purpose. Or rather, their conviction. After meeting a Human, after fighting for her, perhaps loving her—how could they kill another Human? What was the point?

Shorthilt made their general position clear by tossing a bit of intestines too filthy even by Goblin standards into the fire. The smell made the other Goblins growl, but he was right.

Garen Redfang was wrong. He was also an idiot. Rags, their new and rightful Chieftain, was probably right. At the very least, she was smart and worth following. If they could rejoin her tribe.

But where were they? The Redfang warriors had combed the area looking for clues about where their tribe had gone. They’d tried to enter the High Passes, but found no sign of any Goblins in the area. And the danger was too great, so they’d come south, hoping to find Rags around Liscor.

However, all six knew that if the Flooded Waters tribe had been anywhere around Liscor, the Goblin Lord’s army would have already destroyed them utterly.

So what now? Headscratcher scratched his head and patted his stomach. The others looked at him gloomily. Yes, the problem was obvious. Besides finding their tribe, the six warriors were in dire straits of their own. Because they were still hungry, and they would continue being hungry for a while.

They were Hobs. Six new Hobs, which shouldn’t be! Most small tribes had one or two Hobs at most. Big tribes could of course have many Hobs—there were rumors of a tribe living in the mountains who had hundreds of Hobs, and the Goblin Lord’s army had thousands. But who’d heard of six Goblins all turning into Hobs at once?

It made no sense. But it had something to do with what they’d been through, the Redfang warriors were sure. Losing Grunter, their leader and only Hob had triggered the change, as well as the ferocity of the battle they’d been through. Normally this would be a cause for celebration; a Hob was special, and they would be far stronger for their transformation. But only if they were with their tribe. Out here, away from any support and scavenging for food in the last stages of winter?

It was a death sentence. Already, the Redfang warriors felt hungry again. Numbtongue and Rabbiteater went to look for more corpses. The rest sat and debated what to do.

It wasn’t a hard decision. To the Goblins’ uncomplicated minds, there was only death, and more death. To the north, there was merciless death, overwhelming death, the death of enemies from the Goblin Lord’s army. They couldn’t hide twice and they’d die in an instant against so many foes, Hobs or not. Surrendering to join the Goblin Lord’s army was…also not an option. They’d been seen fighting at Esthelm against the Goblin Lord’s army and besides that, the Redfang warriors had their pride.

South, then. The only way they could go. To Liscor. However, the Redfang Goblins were sure that meant another kind of death as well. Badarrow captured the idea by breaking a bit of ice with one hand. It would be a death of pieces, a slow death. They’d find food or starve. Or be hunted down as threats.

Bugear nodded. He kicked dirt over their fire and Headscratcher pointed. The Eater Goats were rising, already heading southwards for more food.

Yes, it would most likely be their deaths. But what other choice did they have? They were warriors. At least this way there was a chance. And if they had to die fighting, well…

The Eater Goats ran swiftly down the rocky slopes and onto the road, moving quickly, jumping incredible heights with ease. Their teeth were still red from their feast, their hides still matted with blood. They screamed a hunting call. The Redfang warriors followed at a distance.

If they had to die, at least they’d have a worthy foe to die fighting against. They hated those damn goats. But, as even Badarrow would concede, they were a lot easier to fight against than Gargoyles.

 

—-

 

“So you’re a [Farmer].”

“That is correct, Miss Solstice.”

“That’s cool. I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions. But it’s just weird. I didn’t think I’d ever uh, meet a Gnoll [Farmer]. Do you—is that normal?”

The Gnoll raised a furry eyebrow. His fur was a dirty blonde, and he’d paused in his chores long enough to chat with Erin. He shifted the empty pail as he considered her question.

“Hrm. No, I suppose it is not. My people, they do raise animals, but they do not plant, yes? However, we learned to farm the land from the Drakes, and so some of us abandon our travels to settle near cities.”

“Like Liscor. That’s what I never got. Why would anyone ever live in a village near the city? I mean, this is a nice hill you’ve got here. Very big. But…it’s uh, a bit undefended.”

The Gnoll bared his teeth as Erin gestured to the village she stood in. It really was a small place. A pair of farms, a few houses, and a ten-foot high wall were the only defenses. The Gnoll only shrugged.

“There is no safety anywhere, yes? So long as we do not stray beyond the walls, it is easy to defend. Stone Deceivers—”

“What? Oh, you mean Rock Crabs.”

“Rock Crabs? Hrm. That is a good name for them, yes. They do not attack walled settlements. Shield Spiders are a threat if they burrow, but they can be heard tunneling. As for Goblins and other threats…I have a bow and the others in the village are able to fight. The Watch patrols in the area. It is safe, and needed.”

“Because you feed the city?”

“Exactly so. Without us, Liscor would starve. Oh, there is fishing to be done in the spring, and [Shepherds] can keep their sheep within the walls if need be. But all cities save for the Walled Cities require [Farmers].”

“Right. I gotcha. And you specialize in milk, right?”

The Gnoll nodded.

“That is so. I keep many cows. They are curious creatures, or so I think. Even after raising them for many years, I find it odd, yes? But they give milk, which my people love. You said you wished some.”

“Oh! Right. I’d like to buy some, yeah. Krshia said she gets it from you and you were going to bring some in a day or two, but I’d like some today if you have any you can spare.”

“Certainly. It is expensive in the winter of course—”

“I’ve got money. Don’t worry. I just need some. You see, I have this little Gnoll I’m helping to look after—”

“Mrsha. Hrr. Yes. I know.”

Erin blinked.

“You do—but—right.”

The [Farmer] smiled. He gestured towards his house.

“We have different kinds of milks, yes? Some cows give better milk. Richer, fatter…and of course I have had the great luck of obtaining a Fischer Cow pair. Now I have several such cows. And goats. I believe a young Gnoll would like goat milk most.”

“Goat milk? Well, I wouldn’t mind having some of—what’s a Fischer Cow?”

“They like meat. Their milk is very rich, although the cows themselves…they bite.”

The [Farmer] showed Erin a scar on one arm. She shuddered.

“Meat eating cows. What’s next?”

“I would love to have one of the magical types of cows in my barn one day. But they are rare and hard to raise, yes? For now, I have several bottles of goat milk and more. Come, please.”

Erin sneezed. It was cold, and the Gnoll’s offer was very tempting.

“Okay. I might have to make a few trips to get all the milk I want, though. I’ll buy in bulk. I have a little sled—”

“It is no issue. I will be here all day.”

“Cool. Hey, do you want to buy some honey? Lyonette got a lot last time and I thought I’d ask. Don’t know if cows eat honey, but it’s good stuff.”

“…Honey?”

 

—-

 

“I am Bird. Bird I am. I hunt birds with my bow. This is my song. La. Lah, la…birds.”

Bird sang quietly to himself as he stood in his watch tower on top of Erin’s inn. His bow was in hand, and he was scanning the sky for birds. This was his purpose, but he was being extra alert today.

Because he had failed. Two people had died while he was on duty. True, one had died inside the inn, at the hands of a Named Adventurer and the other had been killed in the city, but the deaths weighed on Bird.

He was a guard. A protector. Revalantor Klbkch had impressed on him the grave nature of his duty. He had been given a chance, a chance to protect Erin to whom he and his comrades owed so much.

She had given him the bow he held. She had taught him chess. She had freed his fellow Workers. Freed them in their heads.

For that he would always love her. And he had failed her. Her guests were dead. Bird knew he didn’t understand things like Pawn did, but he understood failure.

So he stood in his watch tower, ignoring the cold. He hunted for birds. He would hunt for birds and that would make things better. One bird, two birds…if it took him a thousand birds, he would shoot them all down. That was the only way he knew how to make things better.

Bird didn’t know much about the world. He knew some things were bad. Some things he had to watch out for. Rock Crabs, Shield Spiders, Face-Eater Moths…these things weren’t birds, so the Antinium only identified them as threats. The world was hard and complex.

Not like birds. There were blue birds and red birds, yellow birds and black birds. There were birds that flew high overhead, birds who could fly through the clouds thousands of miles overhead. The Antinium was still trying to figure out how he was going to shoot them down.

There were birds who could fly faster than the wind. Birds who were larger than houses. Birds who flew through the sky and left trails of glowing air in their wake. Birds that were beauty and wrath, elegance and cunning.

They flew. Bird could still remember the wonder he’d felt the first time he’d looked up and seen a bird flying. The envy. And he could remember shooting one. He hunted birds because he was jealous. Because they were beautiful. Because they were food.

Because he loved to hunt. And if you had a bow, what was the point of shooting at slow things on the ground? The masters of the sky were true challenges, from the tiny birds that could dodge an arrow’s tip at point blank range, to the big birds that might take a full quiver to down.

Bird had an arrow in one of his hands as he scanned the horizon. Check for birds, check for threats. He looked up, and then down. No birds in the sky. But they’d be coming soon. His [Hunter] instincts told him so. The world was warming, and that meant food for the birds and a time for mating, nesting. He just had to wait.

Look up—a flicker behind one of the clouds, about two thousand and three hundred feet up. A bit too high to shoot. Look down. Bird saw something move. He turned and stared.

“Goats.”

There were about thirty of them. They surged across the snow, screaming. Bird could see their bodies covered with blood; one of them looked like it was missing half its face, but it didn’t seem bothered. Another had an arrow sticking out of its side. Bird thought about that.

“Goats. Goats are an animal. They are not monsters. Therefore, they are no threat.”

Satisfied with that conclusion, he turned to resume scanning the landscape when he noticed something.

“The goats are going in the same direction as Miss Solstice. Towards the farming village.”

He stared at the distant hilltop. At the goats. At the one missing half its jaw. Bird shrugged.

“Goats are food. Can you milk a goat? I will ask later.”

Again, he was about to turn, when he spotted something else. A group of six, crossing the snowy plains. They were distant, but Bird’s eyes were enhanced thanks to his [Eagle’s Eyes] Skill. He liked it because it was based off a Bird. And what he saw made him pause.

“Green. Goblins.”

Six of them, all moving fast. They all had weapons, if not armor, and they were larger than the average Goblin. Bird thought and amended his analysis.

“Hobgoblins.”

He paused, arrow in hand. Bird watched the Goblins running, and slowly opened his mandibles.

“Goblins. Goblins are a monster. They are a threat. However, Erin’s sign says not to kill Goblins.”

That was a paradox. Bird scratched at his head and brightened.

“Ah. It said nothing about Hobgoblins.”

He put the arrow to his bow, sighted, and held his breath. Halrac had taught him how to shoot. Bird was grateful. He wished the Goblins were birds. That would make things so much more fun. Land-based things were so…easy.

The Goblins were over eight hundred feet away, a vast distance and far further than his bow was capable of shooting. Normally. Bird had no idea about technical terms like draw strength, the materials used in the composition of his bow, and so on—he didn’t know that it was a recurve bow. But he did know how to hunt birds. He knew that an arrow might not pierce a bird if it was shot from too far away.

“That is what Skills are for. Now. [Long Range Shot].”

He pulled the arrow back, sighted, and loosed.

 

—-

 

The Redfang warriors were arguing and split on their argument. They’d followed the Eater Goats down the abandoned road, and they had seen the goats pick up a scent. They saw the village the goats were headed towards, and half of them were in favor of waiting for the goats to do their work, and the other half were in favor of helping. Somehow.

None of them were under illusions. The Eater Goats outnumbered them and they were deadly. One could kill an average Hob. Six versus thirty wasn’t a fight, it was a death sentence.

And yet, Headscratcher insisted it wasn’t right. And however much Badarrow and Shorthilt snarled at him, he was growing more impatient. The Goblins were running after the Eater Goats anyways; they’d have a brief window to loot the village regardless of what happened. Headscratcher was cresting a hill when Bugear looked up in alarm and tackled him to the ground.

An arrow whistled through the air, catching Headscratcher in the arm. If Bugear hadn’t pushed him, it would have caught him in the chest. The Redfang Goblins immediately dove to the ground. Badarrow snarled as he grabbed his own bow and raised his head.

Where? The Goblins looked around, keeping low, aware that their position might be open. Headscratcher snapped the arrow in his arm, raised his head and ducked down.

Nothing that way. Rabbiteater crawled rapidly to the left and looked around a small rise of snow. He growled.

Nothing.

As Numbtongue raised his head over the hill, all six Hobs heard another whistling sound. Numbtongue ducked, and the second arrow nearly took him in the head. He snarled, and all six Goblins poked their heads up. They looked around, but only Badarrow with his enhanced eyes spotted anything. He pointed.

There!

The Goblins looked. All six ducked. The archer in the tower’s next arrow thunked into the ground that was giving them cover.

A lightning-fast debate with hand signs took place as the Hobgoblins analyzed the situation, and then, as Bird was waiting for them to pop up again, all six suddenly stood up.

“What is this?”

The Antinium stared at the six very helpful targets that had suddenly appeared. He shrugged, not deciding to question it since they weren’t birds, and aimed for the one he’d hit first. He sighted down his bow, and then jerked back.

An arrow streaked past his head, shattering on one of the wooden posts of his tower. Bird stared at the broken fragments as they splintered past him, and then at the Goblin in the distance holding the bow.

Badarrow grinned savagely. His best three arrows were in his hand. He nocked the first, aimed, and loosed.

[Farshot Mastery]. He’d learned the Skill after sniping the Goblin [Shaman] during the battle at Esthelm. Unlike Bird he could shoot as many arrows as quickly as he wanted, uninhibited by a need to use a certain Skill. Badarrow advanced, loosing all three arrows in succession.

As he did, the Redfang warriors advanced. Not at a run, but at a quick walk. Those of them with shields had them raised. They were waiting for a return shot.

When it came, it was straight at Badarrow. The Hobgoblin [Archer] grunted, and stepped sideways. The arrow flashed by his chest, scoring a line and making him growl. But it was a miss.

Advance. Badarrows’ shots came three at a time, flying with incredible accuracy to land on Bird’s position. The Antinium took cover by the stairwell, wishing he’d asked for a place to take cover from enemy fire when the Antinium had built this place. But birds didn’t shoot back! Well, most of them didn’t.

When he rose, an arrow struck him in the chest. Bird stumbled back, stared at the arrow, and touched it gently.

“Ow.”

The other archer might have been able to hit him at range, but his bow wasn’t good. It didn’t have the power to pierce his carapace with a single shot. That knowledge was important. Bird looked and saw the Redfang Goblins had covered over two hundred feet while the other archer kept him suppressed. They were advancing quickly, now.

“Troublesome.”

He aimed and used [Long Range Shot] again, but the Goblins were a bit too quick, and his arrows had to travel too far. He grazed one on the arm, and nearly got one on the eye until a lucky shot hit one in the knee. That Goblin fell, rolling until he was obscured in the snow. Bird ignored him. The real threat was hitting his tower now, concentrating on volume rather than accuracy.

Two more arrows struck the Antinium. They were both in each other’s range now, and the second and third arrows penetrated his carapace. Bird fumbled with an arrow. He could not die here. If he did…he would have failed again. Unacceptable.

“My turn.”

The arrow was coming. All five Hobs tensed. Shorthilt was hiding in the snow, and he had a healing potion. He’d make it back to them if he could, but the arrows were fast and deadly. The next one came fast and high at Badarrow. The Hob twisted to avoid it, grinning—

And the arrow curved into his side. Greatly surprised, Badarrow spun. Headscratcher caught Badarrow as he nearly fell. The Goblin gripped him, pulled himself upright—

The next homing arrow struck Bugear’s shield. It had curved right for Badarrow’s head. The Redfang Goblins looked at the distant archer. Badarrow snarled as he grabbed arrows from his bow. Whomever this strange bug was, he was good.

And yet, he was only one. Bird had to take cover again as arrows lashed his position. The other Goblin didn’t have his curving arrows, but he was quick! Bird peeked up, and an arrow nearly took his eye out.

“Dangerous.”

They were too close now. Too close! Bird had to risk a shot. This time he’d hit the archer in the head! He stood and took a fourth arrow to the chest.

“Ah.”

The cracks in his carapace were spreading. Bird fell against one of the guard railings of his tower, and lurched upright. One arrow. He drew it to his chest, sighted. Time felt slowed. He aimed at the Goblin. They both were aiming. The one who fell won. He could take the other Goblins down if he could just—

Where to aim? Head, chest—head. Bird drew, and spoke as he loosed.

“[Homing Shot].”

His arrow curved through the air, heading straight for Badarrow’s head. The Goblin archer sighted down his bow, aiming for Bird. He didn’t move. The arrow flew towards his head—

And Headscratcher’s sword shot out. The Goblin’s sword blocked the shaft as Bugear thrust his shield in front of Badarrow’s chest and Numbtongue covered his groin with a second shield. Bird stared.

“Companions. I see. How regr—”

The fifth arrow struck him just below the neck and sent him tumbling off the side of the tower. The Antinium crashed into the roof of the inn and slid towards the end. It was a long drop down. Down—

To oblivion.

 

—-

 

In the silence after the pitched archery duel, Badarrow lowered his bow, arms shaking, breathing heavily. The other Goblins clapped him on the back as they patched themselves up.

None of them were hurt that badly. Badarrow’s stomach and Shorthilt’s knee were the worst of it. A healing potion was very carefully used to mend both wounds.

As the Goblins regrouped, they moved away from the inn. Whatever the archer had been doing up there, it didn’t matter. The bug was dead, but no one was going to loot the inn. It was too close to the city—the Goblins might have already been spotted. They headed in the direction of the Eater Goats, hungry and desperate.

They spoke not a word about their victory either. It wasn’t a miracle, or a product of Badarrow’s superior levels or Skills. It was simple teamwork. Both sides had good archers, but one had located their attacker together, covered their archer and provided targets to distract the enemy. They didn’t fight alone.

 

—-

 

Meanwhile, in a small village, Erin was dragging her sled towards the gates. Several huge containers had been filled with different kinds of milks and she was wondering if she’d be able to get it to her inn without breaking any of them.

She was rechecking the ties on her sled when she heard a sound outside the gates. Erin frowned and stepped up onto the platform that allowed her to peek over the walls. She looked down and saw a goat standing outside.

“Hey Mister Wirclaw! I think one of your goats got outside somehow!”

Erin turned and hollered at the Gnoll [Farmer] who’d helped her pack the milk. He frowned and trotted over with his son, a small Gnoll with light blonde fur. Both Gnolls peeked over the walls with Erin.

“That is not my goat.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. I know them all and this one is clearly wild. It is strange, though, no? Where would such a goat come from in the winter?”

“Should we let it in? It looks hungry, poor guy.”

“Perhaps. But…hrm. Is…something wrong?”

Erin frowned. She felt it too. A prickling at the back of her mind. She looked at the goat. It was staring up at her with big, off-putting brown eyes. The pupils of the goat were a horizontal bar, not round at all. And it was staring. At her.

“Yeah. I think I feel my [Dangersense] going off. But it’s just a goat, right?”

Wirclaw hesitated. He looked back towards his house and nudged his son.

“Fetch me my bow. Miss Solstice, perhaps you should back up. I do not think that is—”

Then they spotted the second goat. It walked around the wall. It was a goat. Scrawny, its body a mix of black and brown. However, one thing separated it from the other goat.

It was missing the lower half of its jaw. Erin clapped a hand to her mouth as the goat looked up at them.

“Its teeth—

This goat had sharp teeth. Not sharp like a shark’s or a predator that just ate meat, but an omnivore’s teeth. And caught between the teeth and staining it was—

“Blood. And that is flesh. Miss Solstice, step back.”

Wirclaw grabbed the bow from his son’s hands and put an arrow to it. He sighted and shot an arrow before Erin could protest. The goat without a jaw stared as the arrow sped towards it and skipped to one side. The arrow thudded into the dirt.

Both Humans and Gnoll stared. Behind them, the few Gnolls and Drakes in the village were gathering. The two goats stared at Wirclaw and then turned.

And then a lot of goats popped out of the snow. Erin recoiled and Wirclaw growled. The goats stared at Erin and Wirclaw, and then screamed.

It wasn’t like a Human scream. Not at all. The Eater Goats screamed like a chorus of the damned, and then the first one rammed the gates. It had a set of slightly curved horns on its head and Wirclaw yanked Erin back from the wall.

“They’re trying to get in!”

He shouted at the others in the village and Erin saw them racing to get weapons. She scrabbled at her own belt pouches and pulled out a vial and a knife from a sheath at her belt.

“They can’t though, right?”

“The gates are thick. We should be fine—”

Wirclaw was aiming and loosing, but the goats were dodging. One of them backed up, its eyes on the Gnoll. It took a few jumps back, and then brayed. It charged towards the wall the Gnoll and Erin were standing on.

“It can’t get up—”

Erin was saying that when the goat leapt. It cleared at least seven feet and thudded into the wall. Too low. But the impact sent both Human and Gnoll scrambling backwards.

“Okay, they can jump! Real high!

Erin was shouting. Wirclaw opened his mouth. He might have been saying that their walls were still high enough when two more goats charged forwards.

This time one goat leapt first. He vaulted into the air, a good six feet up, and the second goat leapt on top of him. He jumped a second time, using the first goat as a stepping stone, and hurtled over the wall.

The goat landed lightly on the ground in the center of the village. It turned, and stared around at the small gathering of Drakes, Gnolls, and one Human. It cocked its head, seemed to sniff, and then bared its teeth. It screamed, and charged.

 

—-

 

The Goblins saw all of it of course. From their position, the Redfang Goblins could see the first Eater Goat clear the wall and hear the screams from within the village. They had predicted that would happen. The Eater Goats were suicidally fearless and almost immune to pain; that didn’t mean they were stupid.

Now they had a choice to make. Headscratcher stared at the village. He’d seen a young woman on the walls. A Human.

He looked at the others. They’d all seen the same thing. The Hobs looked at him, and then away. Badarrow spat. He’d made his position clear several times. It wasn’t worth it. They’d die, and she’d die. And for what? She was just a Human.

Just a Human. The other Goblins reluctantly agreed. It wasn’t the same. She wasn’t worth it.

And she would die. Headscratcher lowered his head and scuffed at the snow. His foot unearthed something. He stared, bent, and picked something up. The other Goblins paused. They turned, incredulously to Headscratcher and saw him holding—

A bug. It squirmed in his grip. He popped it into his mouth and crunched it. The Goblins all sighed. Headscratcher grinned. He cracked his neck and laughed silently at them. To ask them what they’d been expecting. He pointed.

The other Eater Goats were trying to repeat the trick and send their friends over the walls. Just one or two could wipe out the entire village. They’d kill everything within. They were too dangerous.

They all knew it. Fighting thirty? They’d die.

And maybe that was the point. Headscratcher reached into a small pocket he’d sewn into his clothing. He pulled something out. It was wilted, squashed, barely recognizable. But it was still a flower.

The other Goblins stared at it. Headscratcher looked at Badarrow. The other Goblin grunted irritably and pulled out an arrow. Headscratcher grinned.

Bugear scratched at one ear and nudged Shorthilt. They pulled out their swords. Rabbiteater lifted Grunter’s axe. Numbtongue sighed.

The Redfang Goblins slapped each other on the backs, grinned, and shook hands. They looked at the sky. Then they formed up.

They didn’t have the numbers for a proper formation. They couldn’t swarm their opponents. So they made a line. Badarrow raised his bow and put his best arrow to the string. He loosed one arrow, then another.

The Eater Goats were charging, trying to jump the walls again. The first arrow struck a goat in the back of the head. It dropped, and then stood up. The goat looked around for the source of the arrow, saw the Redfang Goblins. It bleated, a terrible, elongated scream, and the other goats turned. One seized the arrow in the first goat’s head and bit it off. The goat convulsed as the arrow was torn out of its head. At last it fell down.

And the Eaters charged. The goats raced towards the Redfang Goblins, screaming, a few staying behind to circle the village. The Redfang Goblins waited.

“Redfang!”

Badarrow shouted the word as he drew and loosed. He was running out of arrows. But he kept shooting, sending each one of his precious arrows into the mass of goats. His aim was flawless today. One by one they fell, but there were so many and they were fast!

“Redfang!”

The other Hobs shouted the word. The Eaters screamed. Headscratcher looked at his friends, and they looked back. It wasn’t a decision he’d made alone. They’d all made it.

It wasn’t about living. It was about dying right. It was about finding somewhere to die. Because they didn’t have anything to live for. They had no tribe, no leader. They just had each other.

And a memory. Of a girl, of a plea. And of that glorious, terrible moment when they had been something more than mere Goblins.

This is a story of a band of Goblins. A shattered, lost collection of souls. Dreamers, warriors who had tasted something else. This is a story about heroes.

Badarrow reached for another arrow and found none. He tossed his bow aside. Twenty goats remained. They screamed and charged. The Goblins did likewise. Six against twenty. Death.

Not one Goblin hesitated. The Redfang warriors raised their weapons and ran forwards. They were laughing.

And the young woman heard it.

 


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