In the hour after she woke up, Erin learned much of screaming. More specifically, of being screamed at. It wasn’t a pleasant experience at the best of times, even if you liked the person who was screaming at you.
And Erin did not like Miss Agnes. Not anymore. For that matter, she didn’t much like Maran or Safry, and she deeply regretted hiring them. Unfortunately, regrets meant little at this point.
“—thieving monster! You stole my best workers, my business—I shouldn’t be surprised if I found you stole money from me as well! When I, out of the goodness of my heart, let you work in my inn, I never expected—”
“Shut up, Miss Agnes.”
“How dare you!”
The angry [Innkeeper] and owner of the Frenzied Hare shrieked as Erin glared at her. She was spitting as she yelled, and Erin had had enough. It had been two minutes since she had stormed into Erin’s inn and begun yelling—her and two other older Humans, one a man in his late forties, the other a woman who was as old as Miss Agnes, but had aged far better.
Erin glanced at them as Agnes drew breath for another tirade. She waved away Lyonette and Ishkr who were hovering about and walked out of spit-range as Miss Agnes began to shout.
“Don’t you dare turn away from me, you—you brazen hussy! You ingrate! I should be calling the Watch on you! I said to come back! Do you hear me!? Do you—”
She really needed better insults. Erin had heard Ryoka say a lot worse than ‘brazen hussy’ when she stubbed her toe. She walked into the kitchen as Miss Agnes shouted. The older [Innkeeper] stormed after Erin—
And backed away fast as Erin walked out of the kitchen with a knife and a frying pan. The other man and woman stood up as Erin calmly stared at Miss Agnes, who’d gone white. In the refreshing silence, someone coughed.
“Need a hand, Erin?”
“No, I’m fine, Ceria. Sorry about the noise everyone. Ishkr, Lyonette, just keep serving food. I’ll handle this.”
She waved at the Horns of Hammerad and addressed the room. The Gold-rank adventurers who’d been trying to enjoy their breakfast in peace, as well as Erin’s staff got back to work. Most of them kept staring, though. Pisces was already taking bets from Jelaqua and Typhenous on whether it would come to a fight.
“It’s never boring here. Never. I could eat and watch this all day if I wasn’t worried my body’s stomach would explode.”
Erin ignored the Selphid’s comment as she slowly pursued Miss Agnes back to the table. The man who’d come in with her, a guy with a bushy red beard and his fair share of wrinkles, coughed delicately.
“Miss Agnes, I believe you’ve upset, ah, Miss Solstice is it? Why don’t we start again. Miss Solstice, please, there’s no need for violence.”
“There’s no need for shouting, either. How about a deal? You shout and I’ll poke. Now, what’s this about?”
Erin deliberately put the knife and pan on the table as she sat back down. The other two stared at her as Agnes edged her chair back towards them. The woman’s face was dead white. All bark and no bite, Erin guessed.
It was the other woman who coughed delicately.
“My first name is Erin.”
“Miss Erin, then. I fear we’ve gotten off to a bad start.”
The woman gave her a charming smile. She had a few streaks of grey running through her long brown hair, but she was still in good shape. She had a very nice smile, and a friendly air that made Erin want to relax around her. However, because that put Erin in mind of Lady Magnolia’s sweet words, the effect of the Skill was severely diluted. Erin crossed her arms.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
The smile faltered. The woman exchanged a glance with the man. He stood up and offered Erin a callused hand.
“Timbor Parithad, at your service, Miss Erin. My apologies for Agnes. I am the owner of the Drunken Swordsman, one of the finest inns in Celum.”
The Drunken Swordsman? Erin vaguely recalled hearing about the inn, but she’d never been inside. Erin shook Timbor’s hand. The woman sitting next to him smiled again, without the Skill.
“Ulia Ovena. I’m an [Innkeeper] as well. I run Blazehound, an inn just off of the main street. We cater to adventurers—we’re more like a bar than an inn, to be honest.”
“Hi. I’m Erin. What are you doing in my inn?”
The [Innkeepers] exchanged a glance. Timbor coughed, and looked at Agnes, but the woman stared at him as if, after shouting and threatening Erin, her role was at an end. He turned and smiled at Erin.
“Miss Erin, I’m afraid we’re here about the unpleasant business revolving around Miss Agnes’ inn and yours. We heard that another [Innkeeper] had been helping to manage the Frenzied Hare of course, and then there was that commotion around the magic door the Horns of Hammerad brought to the city…well, we knew there was an inn here, but we hadn’t introduced ourselves properly before, well, as we understand it, there were a few disputes between Miss Agnes’ inn and yours. We’re here to discuss the matter, as it were.”
Erin raised her eyebrows. The longwinded speech had done little to make her feel happier about the other [Innkeepers] being here. She hadn’t had breakfast yet. Timbor’s smile wavered. Ulia took over without missing a beat. She had a pleasant voice, too. Charming voice, nice looks, great smile…was all that from her Skills?
“Miss Agnes has told us a few things, Miss Erin. She believes you brought some business to her inn and then took it away. These ah, [Actors] that have put on those marvelous plays in Celum—”
“Fascinating stuff. Had to see one myself. Hamlet. What a stunning performance. I had no idea that Watch Captain could perform like that.”
Timor coughed as Ulia glared at him. The female innkeeper continued.
“Yes, well, Miss Agnes seems to think that you stole her business, since the group mostly eats at your inn and they perform elsewhere now. And then of course, there’s the matter of Safry and Maran. You ah, stole them from Miss Agnes—”
“I hired them. They wanted to work in my inn.”
“Yes…but then you fired them. Not three days after they’d begun working. We’ve spoken with both young women and they’re quite upset.”
Erin shrugged. Her face was stony.
“They were terrible workers.”
“How dare you.”
Miss Agnes glared at Erin, rage overcoming fear for a moment. She pointed a trembling finger at Erin.
“They were my best workers! My only workers! And you took them and then threw them away! For a Gnoll and a Drake? How dare you? How dare—”
Timor dragged Miss Agnes down into her seat as she tried to stand up. He smiled weakly at Erin.
“We’re here on their behalf, Miss Erin. We, that is to say, the innkeepers of Celum, feel there’s been a bit of a miscarriage of justice, and we’d like to sort all this out without getting the law involved.”
So that’s what it was. Erin stared from face to face.
“The innkeepers? You mean, you’re representing all the innkeepers in Celum? What, are you some sort of Guild? The Innkeeper’s Guild?”
Ulia smiled as Timor snorted.
“Not a Guild, Miss Erin. An association.”
Erin stared. She could do a blank stare incredibly well, and, what most people didn’t know, she could do it even when she knew what was going on. Sometimes she did it just to annoy Ryoka or Pisces. In this case, Erin knew what Ulia meant, but she bought time as the woman explained it to her in order to think.
An association was different from a Guild. Formal Guilds like the Runner’s Guild, Merchant’s Guild, Adventurer’s Guild, and so on had wide-ranging networks that spread across continents. There was an Adventurer’s Guild in most cities, and if the ones in Izril were distinct from how Terandrian Guilds did their business, they were all based around the same idea.
However, associations were just that. No one was going to join the Innkeeper’s Guild because that sounded stupid and [Innkeepers] and [Barmaids] had better things to do. A Guild was a lot of work to maintain and there was no point to having one. But in a city, all the [Innkeepers] would still know of each other and support each other if they had a good relationship. It was like how Krshia had a network of [Shopkeepers] and [Merchants] in Liscor she could direct business to and get help from.
An association could be a very powerful thing. Or a pain in the ass. The not-quite-smiling [Innkeepers] sitting in front of her were clearly hinting that they could be one or the other, and yet they still failed to intimidate Erin.
A few weeks ago, Erin had dealt with annoying Frost Faeries who could bury her inn in ice if she annoyed them. As far as she was concerned, the association of Celum’s [Innkeepers] weren’t half as annoying as a single faerie.
“So that’s where the matter rests, Miss Erin. If the [Barmaids] weren’t to your satisfaction, well, it’s still unfair to Miss Agnes to take her help, and to them. They’re jobless now, and of course they can’t go back to the Frenzied Hare. But I’ve had a chat with some of the others and Timor’s agreed to put them in his inn and trade Miss Agnes a few of his workers. So that’s settled. However, this issue of taking workers and business…”
They were threatening her. Before she’d had her poached eggs and cheese sauce on toasted bread. Erin had worked hard on that breakfast—yesterday. Lyonette had warmed it up and it was lovely and hot. It was getting cold. Erin’s eyes narrowed.
“I gave Miss Agnes that business. I helped the [Actors]. They’re not her clients. Her inn’s too small to do a proper play in, anyways. And Maran and Safry were lazy, cowardly, and huge jerks. They wanted to join my inn, and that was because I was willing to pay more than Miss Agnes.”
“You can’t just—”
Agnes shut up as Ulia gave her a warning glance. Ulia smiled apologetically at Erin and spread her hands on the table.
“Miss Erin—may I call you Erin?”
“Ah. Miss Erin, then. We’ve been [Innkeepers] for many years. As many years as you’ve been alive, I’ll wager. And while we in Celum understand competition is healthy, there’s a lot to be said for working together. If everyone was fighting over patrons and stealing each other’s best workers, well, things could get nasty. That’s why our, ah, association works together. What would you call a system where everyone was at each other’s throats, fighting for customers? Anarchy?”
“How about a free market?”
Ryoka was passing by the table. She waved at Erin and pointed to the poached egg on her plate.
“Good stuff. I’m going out with Ivolethe. You got things here? Want me to get Klbkch?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Erin’s stomach growled loudly as the [Innkeepers] stared at Ryoka. Their eyes found the floating Frost Faerie as she carried another wobbly poached egg through the air. Erin had no idea what that must have looked like. She took a breath and the three innkeepers looked back at her.
“I’m not paying Miss Agnes anything for anything. And I’m not saying sorry. And I’m not paying Maran and Safry either.”
“Miss Erin—let’s be reasonable here. A dispute with the innkeepers of Celum is not—what would happen if we started fighting? Would you like us to take your guests? What about your workers?”
Ulia was trying to negotiate. She’d hinted quite unsubtly that a few gold pieces could smooth everything over. Erin wasn’t having it. She had an upset feeling in her stomach now, and not just from the lack of food.
Erin turned in her seat. The Gold-rank adventurers were filing out of the inn, but she had a few Drakes and Gnolls who’d braved the chill to be here in the morning. Some guests from Celum, too. Erin waved at them.
“Go ahead. Steal my clientele. If you’ve all got magic doors leading to Liscor, go on and have them go through. But Drakes and Gnolls don’t like most Human places. They only go into Celum to look for better prices. I don’t think they want to stay at a Human inn. And try hiring my workers, too. Drassi and Ishkr. I’m sure they’d love walking a hundred miles to Celum every day rather than work at my inn.”
She glared at the [Innkeepers]. They glared back, all pretenses of joviality forgotten. Timor coughed deeply and growled.
“Listen here, you brat. We’re experienced innkeepers who know a lot more about this business than some upstart. I suggest you make things right now, rather than see what happens if you decide to make this a real issue. I’m a Level 24 [Innkeeper], Ulia’s a Level 27 [Innkeeper] and—”
“I’m a Level 30 [Magical Innkeeper].”
Timor choked on his words. Erin stared at him, and at Ulia’s suddenly pale face. She stood up and grabbed the knife.
“You want to threaten me? In my own inn?”
For a second Erin thought about using her [Inn’s Aura] skill to scare them, but then she spotted someone walking in the front door. She waved him over and then pointed to Pisces as he went back for a sixth egg.
“That’s Pisces. He’s a [Necromancer] and one of my guests. He lives in my basement. You want to cause trouble? He’ll pull all the bones out of your body through your nose. You want to hire someone to make trouble? Come meet my security. Bird?”
The Humans turned and Ulia screamed. Agnes and Timor turned pale as Bird, holding a freshly-shot bird stared down at him. The Antinium lifted a hand slowly.
“Hello. I am Bird. I shoot birds.”
Agnes, Ulia, and Timor all stared in horror at Bird, Pisces, and then at Erin. Erin folded her arms and nearly cut herself with the knife.
They went. Erin sighed as the door leading to Celum slammed shut and waved at Lyonette.
“Eggs! Food! Some for Bird, too!”
Lyonette rushed over, looking apologetic.
“I’m so sorry, Erin. Pisces just took the last of them…”
She pointed to the necromancer, who took one look at Erin’s expression and decided to finish his meal outside at speed. Erin flipped over the table she was sitting at.
She spun as the door to Celum opened and threw the knife she was holding. The blade thunked into the wall as Octavia froze in the act of opening it. Erin blinked. She’d thought it was Agnes, coming for one last word. Octavia took one look at the knife lodged in the wall of Erin’s inn, and then closed the door without another word.
After a while, Erin had some cheese sauce on bread while Bird ate the bird he’d shot. Raw. That was how she started her Monday morning.
She assumed it was a Monday. It would have felt so wrong if it were a Thursday.
Some days Lyonette felt very bad for Erin. It was easier to feel bad, now. In the days since Erin had fired Safry and Maran she’d become a lot more accommodating to hearing suggestions from Lyonette, and had accordingly started treating her like a partner in running the inn, rather than, well, another Toren.
Erin’s job wasn’t easy. Lyonette knew that. Only Erin could make the wonderful meals that kept her guests coming back, and even if she did store the food for days in advance, she still had to cook for a few hours each day to keep ahead of her customer’s large appetites. Especially Moore’s.
Added to that, Erin had to deal with all the big issues, like Miss Agnes and the other [Innkeepers] coming down and trying to extort money or an apology from her. Lyonette had hovered about while the entire tense discussion had taken place, feeling guilty about the whole thing. But Erin had told her it wasn’t her fault and Lyonette had quite liked the part where she kicked them out of her inn.
“Still, it might be trouble down the road so watch yourself if you go into Celum. Uh, I don’t know if they’ll do anything. They might just spread nasty rumors, but you don’t know.”
Lyonette nodded as Erin warned her afterwards, glumly eating her cheesy toast. She left Lyonette to clean up while she tried to persuade Bird to let her cook the goshawk he’d shot—or at least pluck it first.
There weren’t many dishes left to take to the kitchen. Ishkr was extremely good at clearing tables, and he was already happily washing the prodigious stack of plates, bowls, silverware, and cups. Lyonette left him to the idle work since the Gnoll liked it so much and decided to play with Mrsha in the meantime.
Erin had decided that the task of raising Mrsha was just as, if not more important than keeping the inn running. Thus, Lyonette had free reign to do what was needed to keep the Gnoll cub occupied. Sometimes that meant running about after her, playing catch, or just finding her.
She hadn’t left the inn. Lyonette was watchful of that, but Mrsha wasn’t in the common room either. She could be upstairs or in the basement, bugging Ceria or Pisces as they studied their respective spell books.
Lyonette guessed upstairs. Mrsha had been worn out from yesterday’s trip to Garia’s home with Ryoka and she might be taking a nap now. Ryoka hadn’t said much about the experience, but for some reason Mrsha had been leaping around and trying to do handstands the entire time she’d been back.
Maybe she could ask Ryoka about it? Was that being nosy? Lyonette still didn’t know how to talk to the surly Runner girl. Ryoka wasn’t in the inn to ask, anyways. She had gone off to practice ‘jumping around like an idiot and staring at the wind’, which Lyonette took to mean…exactly that.
Now Lyonette ascended the wood staircase, calling out for Mrsha.
“Mrsha? Are you there?”
She heard a faint sound, a clacking noise, that of something connecting with a wooden surface. It was coming from her room. Frowning, Lyonette pushed the door to the room she shared with Ryoka and Mrsha and saw the Gnoll.
“What are you doing there?”
The small Gnoll cub spun guiltily as Lyonette entered the room. Lyonette saw a chessboard sitting in the center of the room, and then blinked as she saw ghostly chess pieces arranging themselves on the board. Mrsha turned as a line of pawns flew into place. She grinned happily and, to Lyonette’s horror, scattered them across the room with a swipe of the paw.
“Mrsha! Stop that!”
The white-furred Gnoll blinked innocently up at Lyonette, and then turned eagerly to the board. Lyonette saw the fallen pawns soaring back across the room and falling back into place on the board. It was an eerie sight, but she knew that across the world, somewhere, someone else had picked up the pieces. Mrsha watched a pawn settle into place and poked it.
Instantly, the pawn scooted back. The Gnoll poked it away, and grinned happily as the pawn slid back, with more force this time. She pushed at it again—this time the pawn stayed stubbornly in place. Mrsha heaved and the pawn—and board—went flying.
The Gnoll was randomly shifting pieces around the board or knocking them to the floor and watching them as they soared back up and returned to their original position. She had no idea that this was because someone else had to pick them up, and probably thought it was magic, or some amazing game designed just for her.
However, Lyonette understood the issue and rushed to stop Mrsha from upsetting the board—and the board’s mysterious owner—any further. By the force of which the pieces were being slammed back on the chessboard, Lyonette guessed the other side was getting increasingly angry.
She winced as the last chess pieces were slammed into place. Mrsha squirmed, trying to get to the board to overturn it once more. Lyonette grabbed her, put the upset Gnoll in time-out, and picked up the chess board. She rushed downstairs to tell Erin about it. On the way, Mrsha tripped her. The Gnoll thought it was incredibly amusing to watch the pieces and board right themselves.
Lyonette did not. Mrsha got a spanking, and then she took the board—carefully—down to Erin.
“Oh no. Oh my god. I—I forgot.”
Erin stared in horror at the chess board that Lyonette had brought down from her room. A howling Mrsha ran about the inn as Lyonette chased after her. Erin ignored Mrsha as she tried to appeal to her for sympathy. All of her attention was on the ghostly pieces arranged on the board in front of her.
The pieces were frozen in the middle of a game. Just as they had been when she’d left them. Erin stared at a knight which was threatening her king. She…vaguely remembered that move, the last one her mysterious opponent had made. It had been on the day she’d left with Toren on the sledge. She’d been dreaming of what to do to counter it—probably move her king rather than lose her bishop—when she’d been abducted to Celum.
Now, far later, the board was rearranged exactly as Erin had left it, despite it having been messed up countless times by Mrsha. Her unknown opponent had remembered and restored it each time. They had been waiting. For her.
“How could I?”
There was no way to explain the pain in Erin’s chest. She was a chess player, a maniac who loved the game. She knew her opponent was as well. She—or he—had been waiting for Erin to make the next move. All this time.
It was like leaving someone hanging when you were playing a game of online chess, only a thousand times worse. Erin respected her opponent on the other side of the board. But she’d forgotten about them.
They hadn’t forgotten about her, though. Once Lyonette had finally caught Mrsha and made the Gnoll take a nap, she explained to Erin about finding the board and playing a few games with the mysterious owner herself.
“It was…six games, I think. I did it every now and then, when I didn’t have anything to do. I leveled up, but whoever was on the other side got bored of playing with me, I think. After the last game they reset the board to this. I tried playing—so did Olesm. But once the other player realized we weren’t you, they reset the board to this. Every time.”
“I don’t believe it. They were waiting.”
Erin’s hand trembled as she stared at a piece. She pushed it to one side and it snapped back into place. Lyonette winced, as did Erin. The feeling of the invisible opponent was made clear by the motions of the chess pieces. They were beyond irate. Incensed was probably a better word for their feelings at the moment.
“I put it in my room so no one would take the board or mess with it. I’m so sorry I forgot to tell you!”
“No, I understand. I should have remembered. It’s just—I forgot. I can’t believe I forgot. I have so much to do and I—”
Erin stared at the board. She looked at the pieces and whispered.
“Would you—would you like to play?”
Lyonette timidly floated the suggestion, but Erin didn’t know. She felt—guilty. As guilty as she’d ever been of anything. She wanted to apologize, to beg for forgiveness for abandoning the game she loved. But there was no way to do that.
There was only the game. Erin stared at the board. So long. She’d played Go with the others, but this was different. This was chess. The thing she lived and breathed. So what if a computer could beat the world’s best players? So what if there were video games?
This was eternal. Erin’s hand wavered as she took the king piece. She lifted the ethereal chess piece up and slowly placed it in front of the knight. And waited.
Silence. Erin knew her opponent had seen the move. It was a legal one. One of the only legal moves Erin could make, in fact. But did they think it was her?
A minute passed. Then two. Erin grabbed Mrsha as the Gnoll snuck towards the table. The Gnoll blinked up at her.
“Touch the board and you will regret it.”
Erin smiled pleasantly at the Gnoll, without a trace of the anger she’d directed towards Agnes and the others. She loved Mrsha, and Mrsha knew that. The Gnoll cub looked into Erin’s smiling face, turned, and ran yelping up into her room.
The knight on the board moved. Erin’s head snapped back around and she saw the knight slowly shift positions. It moved up, down, and stole one of her pawns.
A good, safe move. But it felt grudging. The other player didn’t think it was her. Erin half-smiled.
She pushed up a bishop and simultaneously threatened a rook and the other player’s queen. Thanks to the knight’s absence it had been possible. That was a trap that Erin had set, oh, about a month ago.
It floored the other player. They probably had seen it coming, but they’d been too upset over Mrsha. Understandably so, but there was no mercy in chess.
This time, the next move came within a minute. Erin saw the queen move to threaten one of her pieces. She still took the rook. Double attacks were there to punish. Then she hunted down the knight, stole the queen, and ended the game in six minutes.
She hadn’t forgotten. Erin cracked her fingers and winced at the pain. The other player hadn’t moved the pieces since Erin had checkmated the king. She thought they might be in shock.
So Erin reached out, turned the board around so she had the black side and reset it. She left the white side as it was. A challenge.
The board reset itself. Pieces flew into place. Then a knight leapt over the pawns heads. Erin smiled and pushed forwards a pawn.
She turned. Pawn the Antinium was staring at her. He was hovering right over her shoulder. She nearly fell out of her chair.
“Pawn? What are you doing here?”
“I have been here for the last five minutes. As have my Soldiers.”
She turned and saw a group of painted Antinium lined up patiently while Lyonette served them fried fish and honeyed milk. Erin hadn’t heard them come in. She blinked at Pawn and then saw a piece on the board move. She quickly turned back to it.
“Sorry Pawn! I’m uh, playing a game. How are you?”
“I am well. My Soldiers and I are taking a break from combat duty in the Hive. We have slain many monsters and I am showing the new ones around.”
“Really? Cool! Uh…combat duty?”
Erin was distracted. She was pondering her move. Pawn nodded.
“I see you are occupied. You are playing an interesting game already, I note. Belgrade and Anand would both love to see this. As would Olesm, I suspect.”
“Isn’t it good? This is the Tennison Gambit right here. See how they’re gambling their pawn? It comes from the Réti Opening—you know, starting with the knight. Belgrade and Olesm can’t really get their heads around hypermodern strategy yet, although Anand is good at using the wings to dominate, which is why he usually beats Belgrade. I wonder what would happen if I used a reverse Budapest Gambit here? Nah…is that stupid? Hm…”
“I believe this game may take a while. Or the subsequent games will. Lyonette, would you mind if I left my Soldiers here to visit the city?”
Pawn left. Erin was vaguely aware of that, and of a Soldier with yellow spatters of paint on his body sitting and staring at her. At some point Olesm rushed into the inn, screaming.
“I’ve got to write this down for my newsletter! Quick! Anand, let’s set up a board here! And Belgrade—oh. Sorry. Are your wounds fine?”
Erin looked over.
“Hey! You two are hurt! How did that happen?”
Anand and Belgrade paused. Both were covered in some kind of orangeish slime that was covering several cuts. Belgrade clicked his mandible together.
“We were wounded in defense of the Hive. Our worst injuries were healed, however.”
“Lyonette! Get a potion! And Anand, pull a chair up if you want to see. Look at this.”
Erin waved the chess players over and they crowded around. She kept playing as she explained her position.
She lost that game. It was a brutal match where her opponent tried to strip all her pieces away and Erin did the same. It ended fast, and when it was over, Erin slowly rearranged her board.
There was a silence in her mind. A quietus, that overwhelmed the sounds of Olesm chattering and the Soldiers covertly feeding Mrsha scraps of fish when Lyonette wasn’t looking. The last two games had been…a test, Erin felt. She’d caught the other player off-guard and won the first time, and the second they’d played aggressively, at their best. Erin had matched them, though she’d lost.
Now they knew. They knew it was Erin. And as Erin was white, she set the pace.
She picked up a pawn and stared at it. Silence. In the mind, and in her heart. Erin looked at the board. She loved the game. Whatever else changed, she still loved the game. She looked at the pawn. The room full of people, the watchers, all had disappeared. There was only silence. An empty stage. Then, for the first time in what felt like years, Erin began to play.
A simple song. A dance on a chess board only a few feet long. It started out as a quick shuffling of the feet. Pawn to D4. Clearing the throat. Pawn to D5.
Anyone could do the dance. Erin moved Knight to F3, and after a moment of hesitation in which the music skipped around aimlessly, the other side moved. Knight to F6.
Now the tune was picking up. Was there a violin in the orchestra? A cello? A piano began to play.
Bishop to F4. Now Erin could see the dance floor. She began a slow dance, tracing her steps slowly across the floor. The London System. That was the name of today’s jig. But what would her opponent do next?
Hesitation. Erin looked across an empty floor and saw someone move. The Pawn moved to E6. Now they were in unknown territory.
The game shifted. Erin pushed a Pawn forwards. The music rose. Now there was an orchestra. She began a waltz across the floor.
And then? There was music. There was a dance. Her partner came at her across the chess board, flicking pieces towards her, grasping at the center. Erin danced back, sending her knights up, fortifying her position. Across the dance floor, her opponent spun and leapt to the same tune. Both sides mimicked the other. Knights and Pawns, building, edging together for superiority.
But no blood spilled, no pieces taken, not yet. Erin and her opponent met on the grand marble floor of the hall as the flutes and bows strained the air with building crescendos of sound. Not yet. Twenty moves in, and the board was still developing.
A Bishop came out. Erin tapped her foot and sent hers up. Mimicry. Mocking. Taunting. Waiting.
Then the black Pawn advanced and took hers. The first blow was struck. Erin reached out and tapped her opponent lightly. The music enveloped them both.
It wasn’t like a dance. It was like a dance. It was just chess. What could you say about a game that was so static, so unchanging over the centuries? Nothing. Everything.
Erin walked through a different world. She played the game and lost. A second loss. She reset the board in a moment and played again. This time she won. And then won again. And again. And again and—she lost the sixth game after that.
Time lost meaning. There was just the game. Erin had lived for twenty years. Of those twenty years, she had spent a lot of time breathing, sleeping, eating…but there was only one thing she had ever practiced. She’d spent more time playing chess than she had learning how to drive, how to cook, how to sing or dance or do anything else. This is what she knew.
This is what she had lived for. And her opponent was the same.
“You were lonely, weren’t you?”
Erin whispered the words as she played. Win. Lose. Lose and then win again. She remembered. It was lonely, playing alone. It was hard to be by yourself. There was no one who could understand what you were doing when you played with other students over lunch. You had to search for people like you, but it was so hard to find someone who could see what you saw. The higher you went, the lonelier it got.
Erin had seen the clouds as a child and turned away. She’d come back as a teenager, climbed again because there was something beautiful she saw way up high. Now she touched the clouds and broke through. She danced on top of the world and showed the other player there was still sky above. Here we are. How far can we go? The game is endless. Come, dance with me.
Play with me.
She said only a few words through the games. A few words, from one lover of the game to the other. It was a simple message.
The reply was short, and simple.
I know. You are forgiven.
That was all. Erin stopped playing when her right hand began to hurt. She blinked, looked around, and realized all the lights in the room had gone out.
So, apparently, had the sun. It was close to midnight. No one was in the common room of the inn—or awake. Erin blinked around and realized she’d been playing all day.
There was a groove in her flesh from where she’d pressed against the table’s edge and her jaw hurt from resting so long on her propped up hand. Erin stretched and nearly fell over when she got up.
“That probably wasn’t a productive use of time.”
It wasn’t an [Immortal Moment] that had consumed all this time. It wasn’t a spell or anything else supernatural either. It was just obsession. Erin wandered into the kitchen, scarfed down half a pot’s worth of Gnollish tortellini, huge, meat-stuffed, and oh so juicy, and then passed out on the floor.
A good day. If you didn’t count the screaming.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 31!]
Was it because she picked a fight with the other innkeepers? Defended her home? Maybe it was because Erin had been doing good business lately. Accumulating experience points or however it went. Erin woke up blearily, wished she had a Skill that made it so she didn’t have to sleep, and got on with the day.
“Are you going to play more chess today, Erin? Because if you are, we could use some more prepared food first. Not that I want to bother you, but uh…”
“No chess. Too much chess makes brain go poof.”
Erin rested her head on the table, feeling as though someone tiny had just kicked her brain a few times. That was the thing people didn’t understand. Chess was exhausting. Not physically, but mentally. Erin was surprised she’d kept up the same level of concentration for so long.
It was probably because she hadn’t played for a while. She could put her brain into overdrive for a day, push her limits because of that. Because of the passion. However, the next day was killing her. Erin dragged herself into the kitchen and did some easy cooking to pass the time.
Then she had a feeling in her stomach. It wasn’t indigestion. Erin frowned and poked at her midriff, and then realized what the feeling was. She poked her head out into the common room.
“I am here. Do you want me to shoot something?”
Bird stood to attention. He’d been coming by every day, as per Klbkch’s orders for him. Erin asked if he knew whether the Hive could build her inn. Bird had no idea, so he wandered off to find Pawn.
He came back at midday with Pawn, a group of the painted Soldiers, and a score of Workers. Apparently the situation in the Hive was resolving itself. Erin conferred with Pawn about what she wanted and he had his Workers begin construction, warning Erin it would take several days to finish the work.
“We must remove parts of the roof and construct parts of the inn before lifting them up. We shall assemble scaffolding today and lay down a foundation. Tomorrow we shall knock that wall down and begin expansion.”
He pointed at the west wall of Erin’s inn. She frowned.
“Aw. I like that wall. Can you do the east side instead?”
Pawn stared at her. She laughed.
“Ah. I see.”
Bird stared at the Workers hauling lumber up to the hill and then approached Pawn.
“Pawn, I would like my tower to be high. So I can shoot birds.”
“Yes, Bird. I will make it high.”
Bird nodded a few times and lifted up his makeshift bow and arrows. Erin stared down at them and then glanced at Pawn.
“Do Antinium use bows, Pawn? Bird’s the first Antinium I’ve ever seen who uses one. But Ryoka says the Antinium used to use arrows in the first Antinium War.”
“Ah. Well, I do not know about the other Hives. Tersk tells me the Armored Antinium use crossbows, but our Hive does have a supply of bows and arrows. In limited quantities. There is little use for them underground, but Workers may use them in battle.”
“Oh. And they’re all like this?”
The bow Bird carried wasn’t bad per se, but it certainly was no masterwork. He’d made it from a single piece of wood, and used hemp for the string. The arrows were sharpened wood tips, without arrowheads. They were feathered, though. Some of them had incredible feathers. Bird was not a discriminating fletcher.
“This is a typical bow, yes. We are aware that it is not of high quality manufacture, but the Antinium usually only use bows against aerial foes. Hm. Perhaps I should see if Workers will work with my Soldiers. A few with bows could be…”
Pawn lapsed into thought as Bird tried to convince him to make his tower extra high. Erin had a thought from looking at Bird’s bow and found Ryoka. She was heading out to go stare at the wind with Ivolethe.
“We’re using chalk. Colored powder. The theory is that it’ll help me see the wind.”
Ryoka explained to Erin while Ivolethe quietly froze Pisces’ mug to the table. When the [Necromancer] went to pick it up, his hand stuck to the glass. Erin nodded as Pisces shouted in pain.
“Okay, but what about bows?”
“Bird’s got a bow, but it’s a crappy one. It looks bad, anyways. Can you think of a better bow for him?”
Ryoka listened to Erin’s description of the bow and looked out the window to see Bird shooting arrows and arguing with Pawn over how high the tower needed to be given his range. She nodded.
“That’s a self bow. That means it’s one piece of wood. Easy to make, but you’re right that there are better kinds out there, and that’s not counting enchantments.”
“If you were going to recommend a bow…”
Ryoka pondered the question for a while.
“Recurves, composites, reflex…why not a recurve? It’s smaller than a longbow and it’s got a punch. I’ve seen Gnolls using them—they’re good hunters. Why not ask Krshia if she has one?”
“I think I’ll do just that.”
Erin smiled at Ryoka and went to pull some gold coins out from her savings. On the way she met Lyonette.
“Erin, look, look! It’s moving!”
She had a bowl in her hands. And in the bowl—practically hanging off the sides of the bowl was a bee. Erin knew Lyonette had the bee. She had seen many bees, most of them dead. She just wasn’t prepared for this bee in her face.
“Gah! Why is it so big?”
This bee was twice the size of a regular Ashfire bee, and those were already the size of a fat hand. Lyonette beamed.
“I think it’s because I was feeding it all that jelly! Isn’t it amazing? Look, you can see it’s moving about a bit!”
The bee was indeed moving. The pupae had developed into distinct features, and now it was twitching a bit. Erin stared at the bee and edged away. Why was Lyonette not bothered by it? Oh, right. She killed bees and stole their honey every week.
“Is it—shriveling up?”
“I think so. It’s starting to grow little hairs, look!”
Mrsha was excitedly sniffing at the bee. Erin backed away towards the kitchen, hands raised. Drassi was trying to hide behind Ryoka and Ryoka was trying to prevent Ivolethe from attacking the bee.
“It looks great Lyonette, really. But why don’t you put it in your room before Ivolethe attacks? Let me know if the bee starts to move. Actually, let me know the instant it moves, okay? In fact…I’ll go down to the city right now and buy a leash.”
Lyonette blinked at Erin. Erin nodded.
“Yes. A leash. Because you’re going to leash your bee, right?”
“I—don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just raising it—Apista, I mean. I don’t know if I can control her.”
Erin stared at Ryoka. The other girl shrugged. Erin turned back to Lyonette with a smile.
“Let’s find that out soon, okay? Great! Uh…keep it—her—away from the Antinium too.”
Both Pawn and Bird had noticed the bee Lyonette was holding and were staring at it. They looked innocently away as Lyonette glanced over.
That done with, Erin grabbed gold coins and silver ones and rushed into Liscor. She found Krshia selling salt by the sack in her shop. The Gnoll looked happier than she had in ages.
“Erin. It is good you are here, yes? After your last visit Brunkr seems better. Hrr. Much better, yes. Will you visit him? He has been asking about you.”
“Sure! I’ll visit him tonight. Listen, Krshia, do you have a, uh, leash? And collar? I’ve got a bee that’s about to hatch and I do not want it flying around before I know if it’s an angry bee or a nice one.”
Krshia blinked at Erin, but she nodded when she heard about Apista.
“There are dog leashes which can be adjusted. And collars. One of my cousins in the city, he breeds dogs. I think he will have some that can be used.”
“Gnolls have dogs as pets?”
Erin paused. She’d seen some dogs in Celum, but not in Liscor. Krshia shrugged.
“It is not too common. Some Gnoll tribes breed dogs to be eaten or as pets, but pets are difficult to raise in a city, yes? But some Drakes like pets. Gnolls have an easy time training dogs anyways. We are pack leaders to them.”
She grinned toothily. Erin looked at Krshia and thought that if Gnolls ever made it to earth, Cesar Millan would probably be out of a job.
“Cool. Great. Also—bows. Do you have, uh, recurving bows?”
“Recurving? You mean…recurve?”
“Yeah. All the curves. Or…composite? Reflex? I’m asking for a friend.”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] nodded.
“I shoot a recurve bow myself. I know a very good [Bowyer], and I will introduce him to you, yes? He is part of my tribe so he will give you a discount. What bow did you want? Enchanted ones are very expensive.”
“Uh…I want something that’s good to shoot birds with. I have money.”
Erin looked pleadingly at Krshia. The Gnoll sighed and smiled, and made time to go with Erin to the said bowyer and select a fine recurve bow made of yew. It cost a metaphorical arm and a leg, too.
“Twenty six gold coins?”
The bowyer nodded, looking proud of his work. Erin stared at the bow dubiously. Krshia coughed and motioned Erin aside so she could talk to her.
“It is worth hundreds, yes? Yew is good wood. Some say the best. And the bows are hard to make. This is a price at its base—without counting labor, only parts. A bow for this price, it would be four hundred gold coins if shipped far north, or to a place where there are no good bow makers. Enchanted bows may be worth more, but this is finest work.”
“Wait, then why am I paying—”
“A favor. For Ryoka’s friend, yes? The debt is honored. And Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin are both of the same tribe.”
The [Bowyer] nodded at Krshia, smiling widely. She winced as Erin stared at her.
“What did Ryoka do?”
“She did my tribe a favor. One beyond worth. Friendship was the price. And this—is an act of friendship. So we will charge you for only the cost of the wood and transportation. As friends.”
Erin thought about this. She dug in her money pouch and pulled out gold coins.
“Deal. And I’ll tell everyone that this is the best shop for bows, okay?”
Krshia and the [Bowyer] smiled as Erin put the coins on the table. Erin reached for some silver to account for the last gold coin and pulled out the odd coin she’d received. She stared at it. So did Krshia.
“What is that coin, Erin Solstice?”
“This? Oh it’s…I don’t really know. I got it from one of my customers. Do you know how much it’s worth, Krshia? Or how what it is?”
“Hmm. Hm. I have not seen a coin such as this.”
Krshia took the coin from Erin with careful paws and held it up to the light. She sniffed at it, wrinkled her nose, and sniffed again.
“It is ancient. I can tell you that. It smells of the earth, as if it were buried long. But the material…hm. Brathiak, lend me a knife, yes? Good steel, I think.”
But when Krshia went to obtain a sliver of the coin, the knife she was using failed to scratch the surface. She applied a lot of strength and nearly sliced her own paw. In the end she handed the coin back to Erin, shaking her head.
“Strong metal. I do not know what it is made of Erin. But it must come from an ancient kingdom, yes? It may be worth much to a collector, but I could not tell you the value. Perhaps a Dwarf could, if you met one.”
“Okay. I’ll hang on to it.”
Erin slipped the coin back into her pouch and paid for the bow. She carried it out of the bowyer’s shop with profuse thanks, and began walking back to her inn.
There was something odd about Gnolls. Most of them didn’t say much to Erin in passing—they just sniffed and nodded, which was their way. They could smell if Erin had had her period, if she’d had indigestion while pooping, and they could probably smell what she’d eaten for breakfast and when she’d eaten it. They were also, thankfully, unconcerned with the Human body.
Some male Drakes tended to whistle and make comments at female Drakes as they passed. Humans did the same thing, which Erin didn’t like, but Gnolls just sniffed or growled at each other so it didn’t bother her. Except for today. Today, as Gnolls saw Erin going down the street she could have been the hottest thing walking.
For both genders. Gnolls kept coming up to Erin and asking about the bow.
“Hrr. Yew, yes? Would you mind if I felt it?”
“Good construction. Do you shoot?”
“We should hunt together sometime. A bow like that deserves use.”
The lesson for the day was that Gnolls were weird about bows. Mrsha sat up and stared when she brought the bow into her inn. Bird stared when she brought it to him. She thought he would have burst into tears if he could.
“This bow is for me?”
“Yes! I got it from a friend of Krshia’s for almost nothing! I’ll uh, give it to you as advance payment for guarding my inn, okay?”
Bird was shaking his head as he felt the bow with trembling hands.
“It is too much. Too beautiful. I cannot take it.”
“Yes, you can.”
Erin made him lift the bow and try it out. The first arrow that Bird shot went halfway through the wall of her inn. Erin made him try the bow outside after that.
Halrac had come back with his group early from the dungeon. He was rubbing healing potion over a cut on his arm. He nodded at the bow and Erin saw him lift his bow up to see.
“I use a reflex bow made from spriggan wood. Highly flexible and enchanted for longer range and accuracy. It’s the best bow for close quarters and sneaking around, but you got your friend a good bow. It must have cost a small fortune.”
Bird turned to Erin, stricken. She waved her hands.
“No, no. It was a favor. That’s how I got it so cheap.”
“Some favor. Gnolls love bows.”
Halrac grunted. Erin nodded.
“Yeah…I owe Ryoka for that one. But that’s what [Innkeepers] do, right? We trade in favors and good will and stuff. Speaking of which…can you do me a favor right now?”
The [Scout] eyed Erin.
“Can you teach Bird how to shoot the bow properly? I mean, I don’t want to insult Bird, but you’re a master [Scout], right? Maybe you can show him a few tricks? Skills? How to make an arrow?”
Halrac glanced at Bird. Erin knew he didn’t like the Antinium that much, but Bird’s obsession with bows and shooting things seemed to win the grumpy man over. He nodded.
“I can do that. Come on, you. Let’s find something to shoot at.”
He strode out of the inn. Bird alternatively bowed to Erin and ran to follow. Lyonette stared at them and then looked at Erin.
“That was really nice.”
“Yeah. Well…I’m uh, going to get you something too. A sword. Or a mace. Hammer. What kind of weapon would you like if you used one? Do you use one?”
“A sword? Me?”
“Didn’t you say you wanted more classes? I’ll get you a sword and you can practice fighting, okay?”
Erin poked at her upset stomach while Lyonette gaped at her.
“But I—I’ve never held a sword before! Ever! I wouldn’t know where to begin! Erin, I’d need a teacher—”
“I’ve got one in mind. Maybe. I’ll let you know. Sorry, I’ve got to talk to Octavia.”
Erin opened the door to Celum and saw Octavia selling a bunch of matches over the counter. Erin stared at the crude match boxes and saw Octavia accepting silver coins for them. She felt…that was a rip off. The [Alchemist] was grinning when she turned to Erin.
“Can you believe it, Erin? I’m getting rich! All thanks to your little Gnoll cub! I’ve been selling shipments of matches to the [Merchants]—people want what I’ve got! It’s only a matter of time before other [Alchemists] start copying my design—hah, obviously—but I’ve leveled up three times from developing the matches!”
She grinned in delight at Erin. Erin nodded, smiling, and poked at her stomach again. The feeling hadn’t gone away since this morning.
“Great. Do you want another job? Aside from perfecting the penicillin, by the way. I’ll need some of that too if you’ve got more.”
“The mold? Leveled up from that too. Sure!”
Octavia laughed as she brought out some of the mold poultice she’d mixed up for Erin a few days ago. Erin carefully took the jar of paste and passed Octavia a few coins.
“It’s not completely effective, you know.”
“I know. I’m trying to isolate the exact stuff Ryoka was mentioning. I’ll work on it. Now, what’s the other thing you wanted to talk about?”
“Healing slimes. And I want pepper potions, more healing potions, and whatever other alchemist weapons you’ve got. Or any you can get.”
“Well of course, I can get you some pepper potions—brewed up a batch just the other day. And I’ve got a tripvine bag—I could see if anyone else is selling a burn blast mixture, although that’ll cost—wait, back up. What was the first thing you said?”
Octavia frowned as her brain caught up to her mouth. Erin was busy pulling potions off the shelf. She dumped them in front of Octavia.
“Healing. Slimes. Can you make a slime? Can you make one made out of healing potions? Can you make one for me?”
Octavia stared at Erin.
“I have no idea. But a healing slime sounds…very profitable. Or it could run me out of business. Why don’t you talk to one of your [Mage] friends about that and uh, tell me if it works?”
“Will do! How’s fifteen gold coins for the lot sound?”
The Stitch-Girl saw all the potions and items Erin was trying to walk out with. She rushed out from behind her counter to stop Erin.
“That’s worth way more than fifteen gold coins! Even with my usual markup! You can’t just take them, Erin!”
“Well, that’s all the room I’ve got in my budget. Look, I need this stuff, Octavia.”
“Yes, I understand that by you trying to take them. But—”
“Who told you how to make match sticks?”
Erin stared at Octavia. The [Alchemist] opened her mouth, and then closed it.
“Just this once. One debt paid, how about that? And I’ll give you more ideas in the future.”
“I really need these, Octavia. Please?”
Octavia looked like she might have an aneurysm as she stared at the potions piled up in Erin’s arms. She looked around for inspiration, and stared at the boxes of matches on display in her shop. She gnawed at her lip and nodded.
“Just once. Then we’re square, got it?”
“Charge me as much as you want another time. Thanks!”
Erin left the shop and carefully lined up all the potions in one of her pantries in the kitchen. Lyonette stared at the bottles and bags in awe.
“How did you pay for all of that? Is there any money left over?”
She looked almost afraid to ask. Erin nodded.
“I got it for cheap. Again. I’m cashing in favors here.”
Lyonette looked curiously at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated and poked at her stomach. Same feeling.
“Call it a hunch. Look, I’ve got to go into Liscor for one more thing. Can you tell Ceria, Typhenous, Revi, Pisces, Moore…you know, all the mages that I want their help? The key word is ‘slimes’. Also, ‘healing’. Maybe ‘acid’, too.”
“Slimes? Healing? Acid? Okay, but I think they’re busy…”
“Tell them I’m calling in my favors if I have them! I also want to talk with Pisces about the undead! Tell him he’s not in trouble so he doesn’t run!”
Erin called out and left the inn at a trot. She had one more destination that day.
“Thank you for doing this, Erin.”
Brunkr sat in Krshia’s apartment as Erin applied the poultice that Octavia had given her. She spread it gently on his infected arm, trying not to make the Gnoll wince.
“How’s it feel? Better?”
Brunkr gingerly flexed his arm as he stared at the red gash in his arm. It had stopped leaking pus. The first few molds that Octavia had managed to isolate hadn’t done much for him, but this one was effective—or the honey and regular cleaning were doing their job. Erin had checked on Brunkr all week, and he was looking better each day.
Now the gash was actually healing. Brunkr was also well enough to be hungry, and he’d eaten half a cow already, or so Krshia told Erin. He seemed fit again as well.
“Have you been working out?”
“I have been running. It does not bother my arm, and I am restless, now that I feel better.”
Brunkr grinned at Erin. He let her wrap his arm carefully with the bandage she’d prepared and then offered her something to eat. Since Erin had forgotten to have lunch, she had some of the sliced raw meat the Gnolls loved so much. Someday she was going to get sick from it, but it tasted really good.
“I’m glad. If you keep healing like this, Ryoka thinks you might be able to use a healing potion soon.”
“I would not risk it after last time.”
Brunkr flexed his arm and grimaced at the memory. He nodded to the wound as he spoke to Erin, smiling at her. He had become very welcoming and hospitable as of late.
“A wound like this—if I take care with it, I may still use my other arm, yes? Why not let it heal with time and train in the meanwhile? I feel able to practice with a sword—this is my shield arm.”
“Oh, right. You’re a [Warrior], aren’t you?”
“I aspire to be a [Knight], in truth. But the class requires something I do not have. Until them, I am simply a [Warrior]. One of the best in my tribe.”
He said that without modesty, but without bragging as well. Erin remembered Brunkr fighting when he’d attacked Toren and she had to agree that he was pretty good. He’d taken a lot of her punches without falling down.
“If you want to practice, I have an offer for you. Would you be willing to uh, go by my inn and train Lyonette? I want to let her learn to be a [Warrior], if she’s willing.”
Brunkr froze. He stared at Erin.
“Me? Train Lyonette?”
“Yeah. And maybe Bird too. If he wants to learn how to fight with a sword, that is. I don’t want to learn—I use a frying pan and a knife. But some tips would be good. Maybe you can make up with Mrsha too. She feels bad about what she did.”
Brunkr stood up and paced about slowly while Erin snacked on more of the meat. What did the Gnolls call it again? Ssarish? No, that was the Drake version. She’d forgotten.
“Teach—I can teach. But why? I would not mind, but…it is an odd request coming from you. My Aunt tells me today you bought an expensive bow for your guard.”
“And I stocked up on potions. I’m going to buy a burn blast potion too, if anyone’s selling.”
The Gnoll sat, staring at Erin.
“A powerful item. Silver-rank adventurers use that, as do Gold-ranked ones. Why would you need such a thing?”
Erin hesitated. She poked at her stomach and Brunkr noticed.
“Are you feeling sick? I cut the meat for the Rashgr myself. It should not be—”
“No, I’m not feeling sick from the food. It’s something else.”
Erin shook her head. She’d been feeling the sensation all morning. She looked at Brunkr and decided to confide in him.
“Actually, Brunkr, I’ve been feeling worried all day. I felt a bit worried yesterday, actually, but then I played chess and…but I felt it today as well.”
“Uneasy. As if…something’s coming. I know Pawn has his Soldiers and there’s Gold-rank adventurers in my inn, but they’re not there all the time. And the dungeon is dangerous—Relc is always talking about it. So…I’m just taking precautions. I’m going to talk to Pisces about one more thing he can do, and try to cross-breed slimes.”
Brunkr stared at Erin. She knew she wasn’t making too much sense, but she just felt strongly that she should be doing something. Her head turned.
The Gnoll saw Erin looking around the room, and then look towards one of Krshia’s walls. There was nothing there, but Brunkr knew that Erin was pointed northeast from the position of the setting sun in the sky.
“There’s something…coming. Something bad, I think. I just feel uneasy.”
“Hrr. If you say so, I will agree. But what? Could it be the Goblin Lord? The monsters from the dungeon? Something else?”
Erin shrugged. But she looked uneasy. Brunkr had seldom seen Erin looking nervous, but now she did.
“I don’t know. But I just feel like I should be ready. Like we should all be ready.”
She reached out and pushed the half-full jar of poultice towards Brunkr.
“If you want to help, come tomorrow. Or tonight. And tell me where to buy a sword. I don’t have that much money left after the bow and potions, but Ryoka can lend me some money. I’ll talk to the Horns of Hammerad—see if they’re ready too.”
“Ready for what? A war?”
Erin hesitated. The young woman looked around, and Brunkr saw her eyes fix on that same spot to the northeast.
“Bad things, Brunkr. Just…bad things.”
“We have arrived.”
Venitra, first-born of Az’kerash’s creations and loyal servant to her master, paused as she stared at the distant walls of the city. They weren’t as tall as she had expected, but then, she had seen the Walled Cities up close and few structures could match the memory of their colossal fortifications.
In any case, the city was not important. She drew the travelling cloak tighter around her undead form. The white bone from which her entire body was made—an armored body that any Dullahan would envy, but far stronger, woven with spells crafted by her loving master himself—was concealed from any eyes at a distance. She had to stay hidden.
She was not here for war. Not yet. She had to find someone. The Runner. For that, she would traverse the world. It had been an arduous journey getting here, but at last they had arrived. Venitra, and—
Venitra turned her head to regard her companion. Ijvani usually travelled in a cloak of woven shadows, a production of magic that protected her from sight as well as attack. However, she too had exchanged her usual garb for a simple traveler’s cloak. It was just as well no one was around, however. A single look into either undead woman’s hoods would reveal a nightmare.
Two kinds of nightmares, in fact. Where Venitra’s hood would have revealed a sculpted face of bone, something similar to a Golem but far more unsettling, Ijvani’s cloak concealed a different secret. An unsettling one. A thought—inspiration from the Necromancer’s mind given form.
Two burning golden eyes stared at Venitra. They were placed in the hollow, grinning skull of a skeleton. That was what Ijvani was. A skeleton mage. No ordinary mage, though. Her magic was on par with any Gold-rank adventurer. Yet even that did not set her apart. It was her body.
Bone, yes. Reanimated, yes. But her bones were not the pristine white of Venitra’s form, or the yellow of bones left to rot. Instead, Ijvani’s bones shone. They shone black.
Black iron. Ijvani was not as heavy as Venitra, but she weighed far more than she should. Her entire body was a kind of armor, and carved into the metal were glowing runes, symbols of destruction. She and Venitra were made for battle, made to kill, each in their own way. They would find the Courier, find the Runner, find who she had told and slay them all.
“It is time, Ijvani.”
The skeleton mage nodded. Venitra strode towards the city of Liscor, preparing herself. To find their quarry, they would have to search. Hide themselves. The Drakes and Gnolls could be tricked. This would be the first city they searched through, for any trace of the Runner’s passing. After that, would they go north? Only time would tell. Would their master grow weary of waiting and contact them? Venitra longed to hear his voice. Perhaps—
Ijvani’s voice stopped Venitra. The bone-white woman looked back at her companion, annoyed.
“What is it? We are wasting time.”
The black skeleton was consulting a bloody map they’d found on the corpse of someone they’d horrifically slaughtered on the road here. She was peering at the city and at the mountains. She turned and stared south.
“Remember that mountain we climbed over?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“I think…we shouldn’t have done that. According to this map, we’re not at Liscor.”
Venitra stared at Ijvani. The skeleton nodded.
“This…is Esthelm. Liscor is that way.”
She pointed. Venitra stared. She stared at Ijvani, the map, and then towards Liscor. She sighed. Ijvani looked at her.
“You really should have brought Kerash. He knows this continent far better than I do.”
“I brought you because you and Oom are our best trackers.”
Venitra’s face contorted into a scowl as she looked accusingly at Ijvani. The skeleton mage nodded.
“At tracking. But I need a quarry to locate them by magic. Oom needs a scent. We have neither. I’m not good at reading maps on the other hand, or signs. You’re supposed to be our master’s most competent creation. Why can’t you ever find where we’re going?”
Venitra shook her head.
“Shut up. We’re leaving.”
She started walking towards Liscor, her heavy tread cracking the earth. She’d gone ten feet when Ijvani called out after her.
“I lied. Liscor is that way.”
She pointed in the other direction. Venitra stopped, stared at Ijvani. Her tone was thick with malice.
“If you were not our master’s creation, I would destroy you right now.”
“You can try. I am the greatest skeleton to ever walk the earth. So my master designed me.”
She couldn’t argue with that. Venitra stomped towards Liscor. When she found that accursed Runner, she was going to rip her toes off one by one. To start with.
Kenjiro’s grandfather had died the year Ken went into university. He had been 88 years old at the time. Ken had fond memories and bitter memories of his grandfather, many having to do with how his father and grandfather used to bring up old arguments when they met.
They came from two different generations. Ken’s father had been born after World War II. His grandfather…had lived through it. He had been fifteen when Japan surrendered. When Ken was little, and when he was growing up, his grandfather would sometimes tell Ken stories of living through those last year of the war, when U.S. planes would drop bombs across Japan.
There was little guilt in his grandfather’s eyes for the war. Japan had fought, and it had lost. America had dropped its bomb to end all bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now there was peace. But there would always be a bit of hatred in Ken’s grandfather. Not just for the bomb, but for the nights he’d spend staring up at the sky as bombs fell.
Ken remembered how his grandfather’s hands shook, recalling the days when fire would rain down from the skies. It had seemed like all of Tokyo was aflame, at times. Now Kenjiro wondered if this is what his grandfather had seen.
Fire. Geneva’s camp was aflame. The mage, Zalthia, the Firebringer, had set it on fire. But that wasn’t all.
Someone was screaming at him. Ken looked around. His head felt empty. His ears were ringing from the explosions. He realized he was standing around aimlessly as Luan charged over to him. He had a mace in his hands. He was bleeding.
“Ken! We’ve got to get out of here! There are soldiers in the camp! They’re killing the wounded!”
Ken stared at Luan. He was in shock. He trotted after Luan as the South African young man cursed and shoved at Ken, getting him towards a patch of trees. Ken stared back at the tents. Everything was on fire. The [Mage] had set fire to every bit of the camp. Nothing would be left; the flames were too strong to fight. She’d hit the operating tent. Why? What harm could Geneva have done? What could Aiko—
He blinked. A part of Ken woke back up.
He looked at Luan. The older young man—no, the man’s face was gray with the horror of what he’d seen, but he was holding his mace, ready to fight. Ken looked around.
“Where’s Aiko? Luan, did you see—”
“I don’t know. She might have been in the tent—hold on, Ken!”
Ken didn’t listen. He raced towards the burning operating tent, halting only when he heard the sounds of fighting. It was coming from the camp, and Luan, running after Ken, stopped when he heard it too.
Ken looked at Luan. The man hesitated.
“Maybe. The airstrike was one thing. Maybe they sent people to make sure we’re all dead? Come on, let’s see. Be ready to run or fight!”
Creeping around blazing tents, flinching from the heat, Ken and Luan finally saw what was going on. A group of warriors was struggling amid the burning wreckage. Dullahans and a lone Lizardman that Ken recognized.
Eight Dullahans were fighting a lone figure in the center of the camp. Each Dullahan was armed with a weapon, and they were fighting in unison. Their movements were precise, and Ken and Luan knew any one of them could have killed both Humans in a moment.
But the enemy they were battling didn’t fall, despite half of his body being burned black and the numerous wounds he had taken. Calectus snarled, his Lizardman’s body twisting and lashing out with his long halberd. A Dullahan with a shield blocked the blade and stumbled back; Ken saw the shield deform from the impact.
Ken whispered. Luan nodded. His face was pale.
“I—I don’t know if jumping in will help or not. They’re moving too fast for me!”
“Do not. They are all too strong.”
Ken tried to grip Luan, in case he ran in. The Dullahans were armored and Luan only had the painted leather armor and crude mace to fight with. He’d die in a second.
“Yeah, but he can’t take them on alone—”
Calectus whirled as a Dullahan launched an arrow. It buried itself in his shoulder, piercing through the chainmail he wore. The Selphid didn’t stagger or fall, though. Instead, he turned and leapt towards the Dullahan who’d loosed the arrow. He swung his halberd and the Dullahan fell as the tip of the halberd sliced through his armor.
Another Dullahan ran at Calectus from behind and two more closed in. Ken saw Luan tense, and tried to grab him. Then he saw Calectus turn and kick one of the Dullahans into the air. He landed eight feet away.
Both Humans froze when they saw that. So did the Dullahans, for a moment. The Dullahan that Calectus had kicked had been wearing iron armor, dark and sturdy. He must have weighed at least two hundred pounds with it on, and Calectus had kicked him like a ragdoll. Ken’s eyes went to the fallen Dullahan and he saw an imprint in the iron armor.
The other two Dullahans backed away. Too slowly. Calectus whirled his halberd, and Ken heard a ripping sound as it cut through air and one of the Dullahan’s heads. The other one fell back fast and Ken heard her shout.
“Selphid is rampaging! Get back!”
The Dullahans immediately spread out, suddenly acting wary of Calectus. Ken didn’t understand. Rampaging? Was Calectus doing something? Then he saw the Selphid tense and bend his knees. He leapt—and kept going higher.
Calectus jumped up as if he were no longer weighed down by his armor or gravity. He leapt six feet into the air and one of his feet crushed a Dullahan’s helmeted head as he landed. He turned—two Dullahans were rushing towards him. Calectus ran one through and grabbed the other’s head. His hand was on the other Dullahan’s face as the Dullahan stabbed him with a dagger. Calectus squeezed—Ken saw his grip close and the Dullahan sagged.
Two left. One turned to run, the other, a female Dullahan with a sword, charged at Calectus. He met her with a roar and cut through armor and flesh with a single strike. He ran after the last Dullahan.
Both were coming towards Ken and Luan. The Humans backed away and the Dullahan saw them, hesitated, and looked over his shoulder. He saw Calectus coming for him and ran at the two young men, holding two hatchets in his hands. He never got to them.
Calectus’s halberd cleaved through the Dullahan’s steel armor and cut the Dullahan in half. Both torso and lower body spun away and Ken felt a splatter of blood hit his chest. He stared down at the stain on his shirt and then at Calectus.
The Lizardman’s dead eyes turned towards Luan and Ken. He shifted the grip on his halberd and Ken backed away. Luan raised his voice, shouting.
“Calectus! It’s us!”
There was a pause in which Ken thought he could see his life reflected by the tip of the Selphid’s halberd, and then Calectus lowered it.
“You two. You’re alive.”
It was a statement, not a question. Calectus sagged and suddenly he stopped being a one-Selphid army of destruction. Ken rushed over to him and stared at Calectus’ wounds. He had arrows in his shoulder and thigh, numerous bloodless cuts all over his body, and a deformed skull. If he were a living Lizardman, he would have long been dead. As it was, Calectus just looked exhausted.
“Are you hurt, Calectus-san? Do you need—”
Ken had no idea what a Selphid would need. A healing potion? Those didn’t work on the dead. Calectus shook his head.
“I have torn this body’s muscles and taken many wounds. I must find another. But later. Where is Geneva?”
“We don’t know. We saw the mage burning the camp and then saw the Dullahans—”
“Assassins. Zalthia was sent by the Centaurs, there’s no question about it. And the Dullahans felt like experienced [Soldiers], not mercenaries for hire. Only one of them ran.”
“You mean…both sides attacked us?”
Ken stared at Calectus. The Selphid nodded shortly.
“There may be more about. Help me find Geneva.”
“And Aiko! She is—Luan, the operating tent!”
Remembering, Ken and Luan both ran for the tent, Calectus following and warily looking around. Ken shouted the moment he saw the tent wasn’t completely engulfed by the flames. He ran towards the smoke, screaming.
The tent was billowing black smoke from the inside. Ken took a breath and rushed towards the opening. He saw fire, felt the heat and saw a dim table—and a body, burning. He ran to it and tried to drag it out.
The flames burned Ken’s hand. He dragged at the body, screaming inside while he tried not to breathe. Someone grabbed him and dragged him out. Ken gasped for air as he cleared the tent. He looked down and saw…
A stranger. A dead Dullahan’s face stared up at him. She wasn’t wearing armor. She was one of the Selphids, only there was no life behind the dead face. Calectus leaned on his halberd.
He shook his head as Ken and Luan looked at him questioningly. The Selphid inside was dead. Only now did Ken feel the pain in his hands and cry out. Luan reached for him.
“We’ve got to get healing potion on your burns.”
Ken shook his head.
“First Aiko. Where is she?”
A voice from behind. Ken whirled, and then stumbled to his feet and ran. He ran around the tent and then saw Aiko. She was kneeling over another body. Another Dullahan. This one was wearing armor and had a sword.
He was dead. There was blood on Aiko’s hands. She looked at Ken, her hands shaking. She was alive. Ken sagged, and then took in the scene a second time. The Dullahan was dead, and Aiko was not. She had killed him.
The knowledge was in Aiko’s eyes, the proof of it on her crimson hands. She looked at Ken, shaking.
Ken stared at the dead Dullahan. A scalpel was in his eye and another one was sticking out of his neck. The young Japanese man was no expert, but it looked like an artery had been sliced. His armor was painted with red.
Luan ran towards her and hugged her, ignoring the blood. Aiko stared at him, and then at Ken.
“I killed him, Ken. I did not mean to, but I was afraid—”
“You—you did the right thing. He would have killed you.”
Ken replied automatically, but he was still staring at the dead Dullahan. He’d never killed anyone. He’d killed undead, as had everyone else, but Aiko had—had she taken him by surprise? Defended herself and gotten lucky?
Calectus interrupted the moment. He snapped at Aiko as he surveyed the area.
“Have you seen Geneva? Do you know where she was?”
Aiko seemed paralyzed, but she snapped out of it as she focused on the question.
“I do not know. I think she was at the edge of camp. Maybe?”
“Spread out and search! If you find anyone, run and shout for me!”
The Selphid ordered the Humans. He was more concerned about Geneva than the others, even the other Selphids. Ken looked at Luan and Aiko. She was shaking and he was holding her, trying to comfort her. Luan looked at Ken.
“Go. Find Geneva. Aiko and I will search in a moment.”
Ken didn’t know what to do. He wanted to speak to Aiko too, but Luan was already urging Aiko to move. They all sensed it. Geneva’s camp was the target of the attacks. It was inconceivable that she wouldn’t have been the first one both the assassins and Zalthia went for.
It wasn’t hard to find her. Ken was the first to spot the lone body in front of the blazing inferno that was all that remained of the Dullahan escort. He ran towards the body, shouting for Luan and Aiko. They ran towards him as he skidded to a stop and stared at Geneva.
She was dead.
There was no way she could be otherwise. Her throat was sliced open, exposing red blackness. Her stomach had been pierced multiple times by a blade. Ken stared down at Geneva and felt hot tears coming to his eyes. He turned away as Luan reached her and cried out. Aiko buried her head in her hands, smearing her face with blood.
She was gone. But then, to Ken’s horror, the eyes of the corpse opened. Geneva’s still body moved, and a hand rose. It covered her throat and Ken saw her open her mouth.
Ken screamed and leapt backwards. Luan stumbled back and Aiko shouted in horror. Geneva was dead. There was no way she could be alive. But the voice that rasped from her throat sounded like her. Geneva’s eyes had opened and they were staring right at Ken. How could she be conscious? How—
Had she become undead? Was this some kind of zombie? Geneva stared at Ken. He looked at her, shaking.
Her eyes flickered. The voice lowered, deepened.
“No. I am Okasha. I am a Selphid sharing Geneva’s body. Her mind is unconscious and she has been wounded badly. I am keeping her body alive. Do you have a healing potion?”
“Calectus might have one. I’ll get him.”
Luan backed away. Ken heard him running and shouting for the Selphid. Ken just kept staring at the thing possessing Geneva’s body. A Selphid? But he thought that Selphids could only inhabit dead bodies. Could they do it with living ones? And if so…
“Geneva is alive?”
Aiko knelt by Geneva—by Okasha—and stared in horror at the wounds in her stomach. She reached for them, hesitated.
“She is wounded. Badly, I think.”
Geneva’s hand stayed clamped to her throat. Her eyes moved down to look at Aiko.
“Her heart has stopped. I am manually pumping blood throughout her body. Her body and mind have gone into shock, but I am maintaining a flow of blood to all parts of her body. I have stopped her external bleeding, but I cannot continue this forever. Please. Help her.”
“I—I cannot. I do not have sutures or a needle. You need a healing potion.”
Aiko was helpless. Ken knelt by her and looked into Geneva’s eyes. He addressed Okasha.
“Can you hold on? Will Geneva-san die or—or bleed?”
He stared into her stomach, at the red wounds. There was…something there. Something vaguely orange, blocking the wounds, just inside of the body. The Selphid? Ken shuddered as it slowly undulated. Geneva’s voice replied, cold and distant.
“Geneva Scala cannot die. I will not let her.”
The wording of that made Ken’s blood freeze. Then he heard a shout. Ken turned his head and saw Calectus charging towards them, Luan following.
He tore a potion from his belt and splashed it on her wounds. The thing that called itself Okasha pointed out each of the injured sites, telling Calectus to wait while she held together parts of Geneva’s internal organs to be healed in turn. Then the stomach wounds closed and Geneva sat up, her throat mended.
She was alive. Just unconscious, as Okasha reported. But she was alive. Only…what was she?
Ken didn’t know. He realized there was a lot he didn’t know, but then Calectus was telling everyone to run into the forest. Ken did, and suddenly he was staring around, seeing the shapes fighting in the valley, hearing the horn calls. Now that the trials of now were over, he realized the entire valley had descended into hell.
The fighting had begun sometime after Zalthia’s airstrike. Only it wasn’t the controlled battle in the valley. Soldiers charged each other on the hills; mages blasted each other and tore apart the tree cover. The fighting was everywhere.
In the moments spent crouched, watching mages send arcs of magic raining down into the forests and hearing Calectus report that the Centaurs and Dullahans were fighting all over the valley now, cutting any hope of escape off, he listened to Okasha explain what she was. What Geneva had lost. Why they were…together.
“A Selphid living in a Human body.”
Calectus nodded. He’d come back with another body after going scouting. This time he was a Dullahan, head firmly locked into place. A female Dullahan, in fact. He—or was it she now?—still had her Halberd, and the deathblow Calectus had given her body was an open gash, gaping at Ken. He looked away, seeing hints of movement from within. The same thing was in Geneva.
“Her spine is broken. A bone on her neck was crushed when a soldier hit her there. Without me bridging the connection, she would have been unable to move.”
Okasha was sitting, looking at Ken and the others. Aiko and Luan were starting at her, almost unable to look away. Okasha was Geneva and wasn’t Geneva at the same time. She spoke with Geneva’s voice and shared her body, but all of her mannerisms, from the way she sat and the way she spoke, were different. It was terrifying, because it took everything Ken thought he knew about her and turned it upside-down.
The knowledge of Okasha came with the strictest of warnings which Calectus impressed on the three Humans. What Okasha had done was beyond blasphemy. Inhabiting a living body was something the ancient Selphids had done once, when they’d created a terrible empire. They had been overthrown, and ever since, any Selphid found to be inhabiting a living body was put to death.
As was its host.
“It is forbidden by every nation in the world. It would mean Geneva’s death and Okasha’s if it were found out. You will not tell anyone about this, or I will kill you. Not your friends, not your lovers—no other Selphids either. No one.”
Luan nodded as Calectus stared at him. Aiko and Ken nodded quickly as well. They were stunned by the revelation, but it wasn’t the most pressing issue right now. The battle going on between both sides was.
“Whatever the reason, the attack on Geneva’s camp seems to have been the start of all-out war. Both companies have abandoned their positions and are attacking with all their forces. It is a bloodbath.”
Calectus had scouted in either direction and found only fighting. There was no chance of running from the battle without meeting the other soldiers. Aiko’s voice was shaky as Luan hugged her with one arm.
“I do not understand. Why are they doing this now?”
“At a guess? Because one side got desperate. This is a mistake. Neither company wished to lose the majority of its forces, so they agreed to fight in the valley’s center until one side withdrew. Now? They will fight until one side is obliterated. The winner will be mostly destroyed as well, however. As will everyone in the valley.”
That included them. Calectus and Okasha were talking about what they could do when Okasha raised a hand.
“Geneva is waking up.”
Okasha got up and walked away from the others. Ken watched her back and saw Geneva jerk suddenly. She stumbled—he thought he could see Okasha stopping her from falling. Then Geneva’s mouth opened and she spoke to herself. A pause. A short sentence, and then Geneva replied to herself. It was creepy, watching her have a conversation with herself and yet not herself. Then Geneva’s head turned and she took in the smoldering remains of her camp.
She collapsed. Her hands shot out, breaking her fall, and Geneva ended up sitting. She stared at the camp in silence. After a while, Ken stood up and made his way over to her.
“We’re both in here, Ken.”
“Oh. Geneva-san…? Geneva?”
Geneva’s voice was hoarse from the healing. But it was her. Ken thought it was. The horror in the [Doctor]’s eyes was too real to be anyone but her. Unless it was Okasha pretending to be her sometimes? No. He had to believe it was her.
“Are you alright, Geneva?”
It was Geneva who looked at Ken, and he flinched away from her gaze. She stared at him, and then at her camp.
“They’re all gone. All the wounded, the soldiers—all of them. Just like that. The goodwill I built up, the lives I tried to save…nothing. It meant nothing.”
He looked at her. There was nothing he could say, so Ken didn’t try. He sat next to Geneva and heard her whispering. Was she talking to Okasha or him? Or neither?
“This was my fault. I thought I could stay neutral, avoid conflict. Instead I became a part of this war. I’ve—failed.”
She stared back at the camp, and then turned her head. Part of the valley had been set ablaze. Struggling soldiers were killing each other in the valley, in the forests. Neither side was falling back. It was to the death this time. The wounded would cry out, and the side that won would deal with them.
“It’s all burning.”
“We must go. It is not safe to hide here, Calectus says. Geneva, I am sorry, but we must run.”
Ken felt wretched saying it to her, but he had seen Centaurs racing through the trees not thirty feet away from where they were hiding. It was only a matter of time before they were found.
Geneva didn’t answer, but Okasha made her stand up. She spoke for Geneva, her voice lower.
“What are our options?”
“Run and fight, or hide and then fight.”
Those were the two conclusions Calectus had come up with. They could head in any direction, preferably away from the valley, but both companies were trying to flank each other and they could head right into a battle group. But if they stayed put, they’d end up meeting soldiers too. And there was no food or shelter here. Either way, it ended with a battle, and Calectus was frank about the odds she’d have against a group of Soldiers.
“I could kill the assassins—but only because I didn’t have to protect anyone. And they weren’t expecting a Selphid. They thought I was alive at first, or they would have aimed for me, not my body. If we run into anything larger than a group of ten, we all die.”
“So that’s it? We choose which way we think is less risky?”
Calectus nodded grimly. She nodded to the camp, checking to make sure her head was on right. Selphids couldn’t take their heads off like Dullahans could. At least, they couldn’t do it and not have the heads begin to rot.
“I had a group of soldiers who could have fought with us, but the airstrike and assassins killed them all. Without another force, there are not enough warriors. Okasha could fight—”
Geneva interrupted. She looked at her hand and shook her head.
“I can’t. I can’t let her, either.”
“Just me, then.”
Ken and Luan looked at each other. They wanted to say they could fight, but only Aiko had ever killed someone. But what could they do otherwise? If they had to fight—
Ken had a thought. He stood up and looked up the valley, towards a hill. He tried to squint to see if there was fighting there, but couldn’t see anything through the trees. Luan saw where he was looking and spoke up.
“That’s right! What about Gravetender’s Fist?”
Everyone looked at Luan. He pointed through the forest, up the valley towards where the neutral ground was. Or had been. Calectus frowned and shifted her grip on her halberd.
“You think you can get them to shelter us?”
Ken, Aiko, and Luan traded looks. Luan nodded to Calectus and Geneva.
“We know them. Quallet’s reasonable…I think. There are a lot of our friends in the company. It’s worth a shot, and better than trying to get out alone, don’t you think?”
Calectus considered the idea, and then nodded.
“They’re the only other side in this mess. If we find them there, we can try to work together. Otherwise…we’ll still be closer to the edges of the fighting.”
It was a tenuous plan, but having agreed to it, Calectus didn’t waste any time. He had everyone get up and creep towards the neutral zone, stopping when they heard fighting in the distance. Calectus frowned, glancing up at the tall, broad-limbed trees and around warily. There was a problem.
“I can fight small groups, but if we run into a patrol, they will call for help. We need someone to scout.”
Luan spoke up, but it was Okasha who volunteered herself and Geneva.
“I’m a [Rogue]. I should do it, with Geneva’s permission.”
“Absolutely not. You’re valuable.”
Calectus snapped at her, but Okasha was insistent.
“I can do it, Calectus.”
“How? If you’re spotted—”
“I have stealth Skills. And I’ll do it from above.”
Everyone looked up as Okasha pointed at the branches. She looked at Calectus, then flicked her glance towards Ken and the others. Ken thought she was worried about them hearing, but the situation must have warranted it, so Okasha spoke.
“I’ll exceed Geneva’s limits. I can leap from tree to tree. I did it with my last body. I can do it with hers. Let me do it, Calectus.”
Luan stared up incredulously at the treetops. The branches were thick and could probably hold someone’s weight, true, but jumping from one to the next would require inhuman strength! Or maybe the athleticism of a trained Olympian, neither of which Geneva had.
However, that wasn’t an issue, as Okasha explained to the Humans.
“We can exceed our limits for a brief period. It is a trick that pushes a body’s muscles and nerves past their physical threshold. Other species can do it in times of dire need, but we have no such limitations of the mind. The cost, however, is that the body we inhabit will degrade and break down far, far more quickly.”
“Yes, and doing that to a living body would be painful—”
Calectus was frowning and objecting, but Geneva interrupted. She looked from Calectus to the trees, to the other Humans.
“Let’s do it. If it means no fighting, I can bear the pain. Okasha, go ahead.”
Geneva’s head nodded and Okasha spoke.
“I will take over. Geneva, this will tear your muscles.”
Geneva’s gritted her teeth.
“I can heal them. Do it.”
Ken stepped back as Geneva’s knees bent and she lowered her posture. There was no sign she was…what had the Dullahans called it? Rampaging? But when Geneva leapt, it was straight up, nearly twice her height. She caught a branch and swung herself onto it, moving with incredible grace. Ken gaped.
“I’ll move ahead. Calectus, wait for my signal.”
She jumped from one of the branches to the next, a standing long jump that catapulted her to the next branch. Ken turned to Luan to ask the Olympian hopeful if he’d ever seen anything like it, and saw Luan’s slack-jawed expression.
“How can she do that?”
Aiko asked Calectus, who was scanning the trees from where Okasha had gone. The Selphid answered without turning her head.
“Humans, Dullahans, Lizardfolk…all of your species can do the same. Have you not ever heard of your kind performing great feats in times of need?”
Ken vaguely recalled a story about a mother who had lifted an entire tree off of her son. Or how a passerby would lift an entire car, thousands of pounds, off someone who was trapped beneath. He had no idea what the term for it was.
Was it really possible for everyone to do that? And if so, what could Selphids do with that kind of ability?
Ken looked at Calectus out of the corner of his eye. He—was now a she, and a she from a different species altogether. A Selphid could take over any dead body, and any living body. They could survive wounds that would kill a living person without injury, tap into strength they didn’t have…
They were frightening. Not only that, Ken had no idea how they thought or behaved as a species. He had only known Calectus and now, Okasha. Ken was glad they were on the same side, at least, for now.
Something flickered in the trees above him. Ken looked up and saw nothing in the shadows. But Calectus had. She pointed and snapped in a low voice.
Adrenaline and fear shot through Ken’s body. He ran, sprinting through the trees, tapping into a speed born of pure fear and proving the Selphids were right. Something moved above him and Ken flinched, but it was Geneva. She ran across a branch as thick as Ken’s waist and then leapt to a tree ahead of him.
Ken saw Geneva leaping from tree to tree like a monkey, moving with the same inhuman strength and speed that Calectus had displayed. She called down at Calectus and the others, directing them away from the fighting. Ken ran, lungs and legs burning, watching Luan run ahead of him and hearing Aiko struggling by his side. Calectus took up the rear, watchful, sometimes falling back to clash with pursuers.
When they broke out into the open and ran for the neutral ground Geneva landed and sprinted across the hundred meter gap in less than ten seconds. Ken tried to breathe and run faster as he heard shouts in the distance. However, if they had been spotted, the group of five was deemed less of a threat and no one came after them.
Geneva had paused in the first few trees of the neutral zone. She was sweating, and as Ken ran towards her and practically collapsed, he saw she was gripping her legs.
Geneva’s face was twisted with pain. Okasha spoke with her voice.
“Try not to move. I am massaging the muscles and removing the…”
“Lactic acid. I can feel everything burning.”
“Torn muscle. I warned you. I am secreting a pain relieving agent, but you must use a healing potion.”
Luan raced into the grove, half-dragging Aiko. She was panting, a ragged note of pain in her voice from the extreme sprint. Calectus was last. An arrow was sticking out of her armor’s shoulder. Ken hadn’t realized they were being shot at.
“Are you alright Geneva, Okasha?”
“Fine. We could use a bit of the healing potion.”
Calectus handed the quarter of a bottle over, cautioning Okasha to be sparing. A few drops and Geneva’s expression of pain eased. She stood up, legs fully recovered from the muscle strain. Calectus shook her head as she studied Geneva.
“The ability to stop bleeding, move a body when critically injured and heal each injury with such precision…this is why it was made forbidden. It is too powerful. Too dangerous. Two souls in one body. Two minds, each with their own set of classes and Skills. An army of such warriors would be unstoppable.”
“Not if the entire world is after you.”
Okasha shook her head and then Geneva took back over. She looked at Ken.
“Are we at the neutral zone?”
“A bit farther, I think. This way!”
Ken took over and the group moved slowly through the forest. He thought they were close to the campground, and then heard a shout. A group of armed soldiers burst out of the trees, shouting. Ken saw Calectus drag Geneva back, leaving Luan, Aiko, and Ken to defend themselves. Luan raised his mace and then Ken heard a shout.
“Hold on! Hold on, you bastards! It’s Ken and the others!”
One of the charging soldiers halted and blocked the path of the others. He was holding an axe, and as he came closer, Ken saw it was Daly.
“Bugger me, you lot are alive!”
He strode over to them as the soldiers halted, although none of them sheathed their weapons. Ken nearly wept at the sight of Daly. He was alive! And now that Ken wasn’t terrified out of his mind, he saw more Humans and familiar Lizardfolk, Dullahan, and Centaur faces amid the soldiers.
Daly strode over and gave Ken a one-armed hug that impressed Ken with sweat, blood, and other body odors. Then he clasped hands with a grinning Luan.
“What happened? All we heard this morning was that the [Doctor]’s camp was attacked, and then it was like the world was ending! Both the Centaurs and the Dullahans started fighting everywhere and we’ve been attacked six times in the last hour!”
The young man from Australia led Ken and the others into the neutral ground while the other soldiers went to hide in the trees again. Daly had certainly seen war now, as had the others. He had a huge cut running down his neck and his collarbone. It had cut his armor in half, but it must not have been that deep, since Daly was still upright.
“The Dullahans are claiming that the Centaurs used [Mages] to burn down the camp, and the Centaurs are saying the Dullahans sent soldiers in to burn the camp and blamed it on them. Which side attacked?”
Daly stared at Ken as he and Luan explained what had happened. The Australian shook his head and spat.
“Lies from both sides. Fucking brilliant, am I right? At least Aiko’s safe too. And hey, who’s this?”
Only now did Daly spot Geneva and Calectus. His eyes widened as Ken told him who they were.
“The [Doctor]? I heard about her. The Last Light. You’d better see the Captain. He’ll want to know she’s here.”
Daly took Geneva, Ken, and the others to Quallet’s tent in the middle of the camp. Only this time, Quallet wasn’t the only person inside. When Daly knocked on the flap and ushered everyone in, Ken saw Quallet was standing with the other surviving neutral parties around a map of the valley.
Quallet was there, as was the female Centaur, the leader of Rot’s Bane. Ken thought her name was Exara. What was a surprise was seeing Xalandrass, the war vendor occupying a corner of the tent while he tended to his wounds. Quallet’s eyes widened on seeing Geneva, but when he’d heard what had happened—and heard Calectus was a Level 36 [Honor Guard]—he immediately made room for them around the map.
“Right now we’re holding position and trying not to be a target. But it’s only a matter of time before they send a big force our way to secure this spot, or messengers with an offer to join either side. I’m hoping for a messenger, but I think our chances are slim either way.”
There were symbols all over the map, glowing, indicating where the fighting was. Ken looked down at a shifting landscape of yellow and blue, engulfing every section of the valley and cutting off any hope for an escape route.
Exara, the female Centaur, gave Calectus a brief appraisal of the forces they had with them.
“They killed Ulvial in the first attack. I’ve taken command of the rest of his company with Quallet…we’ve also joined forces with the war vendor’s group. Their camp was also attacked. I’ll say this for the [Merchant], though—he didn’t hide. He crushed at least six of the soldiers who attacked him with his tail. Broke all their bones just like that.”
She nodded at Xalandrass. Ken approached the Naga as the others clustered around the table and discussed options. Technically Geneva was no commander, but the other captains seemed to think she had a place with them and certainly valued Calectus’ input.
Xalandrass had a potion bottle in his hands and was pouring it slowly over the cuts on his body with eyes closed. He opened his eyes warily and then blinked as he saw Ken.
“Ah, little Ken. I did not expect to see you. Alive.”
The Naga laughed and then grimaced. Xalandrass had a deep cut down part of his serpentine tail, but he was healing that as he spoke with a potion. He’d thrown open his stores and supplied Gravetender’s Fist and the other companies with enchanted weapons and potions. It was one of the reasons why they’d been left alone; they weren’t an easy target. But it was only a matter of time.
He explained this to Ken in a lowered voice as the captains reached the same conclusion with Calectus. Xal’s face was grim as he gave their odds of surviving a flick of the tail.
“If we side with a company, we may have a chance. But what if the company we side with dies, or we are sent into a bloodbath? Or…I suspect we might be stabbed in the back once it is over, regardless. They have violated the terms of war all companies share, by attacking forces on neutral ground. I have had to kill several soldiers myself. It is not…well, it is ironic. And you escaped your attack with her, hm? The [Doctor].”
He grinned at Ken and his tail flicked delicately at Geneva. She was speaking with the others now, grim and horrified, but still determined. She was arguing against them trying to cut their way to safety, with only her convictions and no strategy behind her statements. For her, that was enough.
“So that is what she is like. I understand. It is hard to describe her.”
Xal looked thoughtful as he gazed at Geneva. Ken stared at the Naga, and looked hesitantly at the map.
“Shush. Formalities and flattery are useful when bargaining and flirting, but not now, I think. Say what it is you need to say.”
The Naga flicked his tail up, touching it gently to Ken’s lips. He smiled at Ken. Ken nodded.
“Xalandrass, do you know who attacked Geneva’s camp? There was the Firebringer and Dullahans. Did one side do all of it, or was it both? And why? The soldiers love Geneva. So why…?”
The Naga smiled a touch sadly and shook his head at Ken’s naiveté.
“The soldiers don’t need to know a thing. A single [Strategist] could have ordered the attack, or the leader of either company. And both sides can deny attacking as well. The Centaurs can claim Zalthia was hitting targets of opportunity and failed to recognize Geneva’s camp. The Dullahans sent assassins so they could claim it was a rogue group or mercenaries sent by the other side to frame them. I do suspect it was both, but what does it matter? The deed was done and now we are stuck.”
Back at the table, the argument was getting heated between Geneva and the others. To Ken’s surprise, Luan was joining in the discussion, trying to convince Geneva they needed to fight. But she was insistent and Ken heard her adamant reply as Ken and Xal approached the table.
“There has to be another way. If we fight, we become a target for everyone. I cannot, will not end this all in senseless death.”
“There is no other option. We’ve agreed that staying here is riskier—either we die or they die. I won’t call that senseless!”
Quallet snapped at Geneva, resting his gauntleted hands on the table. She stared back and then flicked her eyes towards the tent. The roar of battle was background noise now, never ceasing.
“There’s a better way. I’ll go ahead of everyone.”
The captains stared at her. So did Ken, Luan, and Calectus. Aiko had left, to wash off the blood of the Dullahan she’d killed. Geneva looked at everyone in turn, resolute.
“The soldiers know me. They know who I am. Maybe if they see me, they’ll stop fighting long enough for us to get through.”
Exara looked troubled, Quallet thoughtful. Calectus was dead against it, and surprisingly, so was Xalandrass. He slithered over to Geneva, smiling at her. She looked warily at him.
“I hate to disregard such courage, my fair [Doctor], but I must tell you that if you do that, you will die. To no good purpose, either.”
“Why? I understand the risks, but if I can get enough soldiers to see me—”
“Ah, but it is not the soldiers you must worry about.”
Xalandrass cut Geneva off. He flicked his tail, indicating both sides on the map.
“This has gone beyond simple infractions of conduct. Both companies have attacked neutral parties. One company might have broken the rules at first—and I would put money on the Dullahans being the ones—but both sides are party to this now. Any witnesses would bring back terrible retribution onto them. So it is in the best interests that no one survives this battle.”
He reached out with his Human-like hands and touched Geneva lightly on the chest.
“You may stop the fighting, but only for a moment. Both sides will want you dead, and will see it happen easily. All it takes is an arrow or spell, from either side. The victor can claim whatever they want, but so long as either group can claim it was an accident, the soldiers will believe it and more importantly, you will be dead. As will we all.”
Geneva stared Xalandrass in the eye, and then nodded.
“I accept that risk. I’m willing to die if you can escape. If I go out, I can at least buy you a few minutes maybe. Enough time for you to get clear of the worst of the fighting…”
Calectus interrupted. She leaned forwards, glaring at Geneva.
“You are my ward, Geneva. I cannot allow you to throw your life away.”
“What choice do we have, Calectus?”
Quallet cleared his throat.
“If we were to put up a white flag—it wouldn’t stop them from attacking, not now, but what if we negotiated? Swore an oath not to reveal what we saw—”
“We’d never get them to go through all the trouble of finding a [Mage] to administer the spell to every one of us in the company.”
Exara argued back. Ken looked at Luan, and silently, they left the tent while the others argued. Ken didn’t know what they should do, but he had no useful insights. Neither did Luan, so they went into the camp and tried to find their friends.
Daly was resting with the others. He had a bandage on his neck wound—not from Geneva, but courtesy of Aiko. When Ken asked about who was alive, he looked away.
“Etretta’s gone, Ken. She saved my life. Cold bitch walked in front of a lightning bolt for me. I didn’t get a chance to tell her—tell her—”
He lowered his head. Luan and Ken stared at him. Daly wiped at his eyes, swore, and told Ken where to find some of the others.
Ken found Quexa among the wounded. She wasn’t wounded now of course. Xal’s potions were keeping everyone healthy. But she was too injured to continue fighting.
One of her legs had been cut off.
“Hey Ken. I thought you were dead.”
Quexa smiled at Ken when she saw him approach. He stared down at her, at a loss for words. She glanced at the healed-over stump of her leg and then away. She smiled. Tried to smile. It was fake, but she chattered away as if it were nothing.
“Oh. They cut off my leg. Well, I say they—it was a Centaur. With an axe. And my tail. I’m more upset about my leg than my tail, I mean, I could live without my tail, but my leg—”
The Lizardgirl’s eyes filled with tears. Ken bent down and hugged her. She sobbed and clung to him.
This was war. Not suppression, hauling dead bodies and fighting the undead. This was war, and they were caught in it. Ken thought they would die, and Luan thought so too. After Quexa had cried herself to sleep, Luan found Ken, looking worried.
“They’re still arguing over what to do. It looks like we’ll try to fight our way through after all, but Ken…”
He shook his head. Ken stared at him anxiously. Luan had been unwaveringly brave and responsible, but now he looked like he was at a loss for what to do.
“It’s a mess, Ken. We have too many groups here to trust one another when we try to break out. That Xal guy, the Naga—he looks like he’ll make a break for it when the fighting starts. And Calectus is only concerned about Geneva. As for Quallet and Exara, how do we know either one won’t split or try to cut a deal with either side?”
Ken didn’t know. He remembered Quallet when he’d asked if the [Captain] had given up the Americans to the Dullahans. And Exara was a Centaur. Did that mean anything?
Someone strode out of the tent, amid the arguing. Ken stood and saw Geneva headed towards them. The [Doctor]’s face was flushed, and she looked angry and helpless.
“They won’t listen. I’ve told them that if we fight, we’ll only make things worse. We’ll become part of the enemy, not neutral! And we need to be neutral. If not—”
She looked at Ken and Luan, and both saw the pain in her eyes. Luan guided Geneva over to the fire. Amazingly, there was food being eaten even with the fighting so close by and occasionally hitting their camp. But people had to keep up their strength. He offered some very dry bread to Geneva as he spoke.
“You’re talking about aid workers, right? Neutral parties?”
Geneva nodded, looking frustrated. Luan nodded too. Ken vaguely understood what they were referring to. There were groups who went into war-torn countries or places where a war was going on. They were on no side and helped victims while trying to remain neutral. It was a good cause and it saved lives. Luan understood, but he did not agree with Geneva.
“Médecins Sans Frontières. I know of them too, Geneva. But what they believe in…it’s admirable, but you can’t expect it to apply to things here.”
“I have to believe it. If not, what’s the point of believing in anything? If no one will believe in the rights of victims, in honoring the attempt to aid people—what can be done? Then the only way to resolve anything will be to kill anyone who disagrees with you.”
Geneva’s hand was white on her cup. Luan opened his mouth, and fell silent. Geneva stared past him, towards the battle between the Centaurs and Dullahans.
“Témoignage. That’s a word in French. It means ‘to bear witness’. That’s what Doctors Without Borders believes in. I thought I could be like them, or at the very least, like the Red Cross. So long as I could help—but there’s no one to bear witness to, and even if all I do is help, I’m still a target.”
There was something in her eyes, in her voice. Ken thought he saw hope dying in Geneva’s eyes as she looked at him and Luan.
“What good is neutrality if there is no one to witness it? What’s the use of honor in war—of morality when one side can throw it all away when no one’s watching?”
Neither young man could reply. Geneva got up without a word and left her full cup. She marched back into the tent and Ken heard her raised voice. After she’d gone, Daly came over. He squatted down, pressing at the bandage Aiko had put on his neck and grimacing.
“I heard what she said. That [Doctor]—Geneva, right? She’s the right sort.”
Ken and Luan nodded. Daly paused.
“Trouble is, she’s wrong about this. There’s no reasoning with those bastards out there. Who cares if we bear witness? What good will it do?”
He lifted Geneva’s cup to his mouth and drank it all down. Then Daly tossed the cup aside and grimaced.
“The world is watching. Isn’t that what they say every time shit happens? Back in our world, I mean. The world is watching. Well, I guess that makes everything alright, don’t it? Sure makes me feel better, and I’m sure the poor bastards getting shot feel better too, knowing that.”
He was right and wrong at the same time. Ken felt that. He thought Geneva was right, but at the same time, he knew Xalandrass and the others were correct as well. He spoke, letting his thoughts out one bubble at a time.
“I think the soldiers do believe in Geneva, Daly-san. Daly. If they saw her, they would stop fighting. However, the leaders of both sides will kill her. And then blame the other side for doing it.”
“Yeah, that’s the issue. I’ve heard soldiers speaking of the Last Light. They think she’s as close to a goddess as anything—although they believe in gods. But what can we do? If we surround her with soldiers, she’s a target just waiting for a [Fireball] spell. How can you stop her from being a target and still tell everyone she’s here?”
Daly shook his head. Ken stared at the cooking fire, and then at the tent. A target. That was the problem. If only both sides knew what was going on, but how could you tell them? Soldiers believed what their commanders told them—who’d listen to someone from the other side, or someone they didn’t know? You had to show everyone the truth, but how could you do that in a war?
At the head of the camp, Ken saw the company banner. The flag of Gravetender’s Fist soared above Quallet’s tent, shining though there was no sun on it. Why was that?
Oh, right. It had a spell on it to shine in the darkness. So that when everyone was working, people would see the flag and know the company was neutral. That was how it worked.
That was how it was supposed to work. The suppression companies were in the middle of the battlefield, a target for all sides, yet not a target.
A target yet not a target. Ken thought he was on the verge of something. He got up and walked over to the flag, studied it.
Luan was on his feet. He approached Ken.
“What are you thinking, mate? Something on your mind?”
Ken took the flag. It glowed in the half-light of the tree’s shadows, a bright light. Something to identify the Gravetender’s Fist company. To keep them safe. They were safe because they were noticed.
He turned to Luan and Daly, the banner in his hands. Ken lifted it, and saw how both young men stared at it. There. Both of them were looking at the same thing. What if you did that for everyone? Was there a way? He remembered something Xalandrass had said he had in his inventory.
“I think I have an idea, friends. I know how Geneva can go out without being a target.”
Daly stared at Ken, and then at the flag.
“Are we going to send a message to one side then? Both?”
Ken shook his head as he handed the flag to Daly, and then strode into the tent. He turned to the two of them, smiling.
“We will tell them Geneva is here. We will tell them we are here.”
Luan stared at Ken. Ken grinned.
This was the last battle, the final engagement. The Centaurs and Dullahans were locked in combat, battalions maneuvering and charging into combat across the entire valley. A unit of Dullahans charged across the broken ground, trying to cut off a retreating group of Centaur [Mages]. Two wings of Centaur [Lancers] fell on the Dullahans, and both sides were swept up as a group of Lizardfolk rushed to the Dullahan’s aid.
There was chaos on the ground and in the skies. Arrows and spells flew through the air, making the mages capable of flight stay on the ground. Soldiers watched out for banners to identify friends from foes, but were ready for an attack even from allies. It was chaos.
In this situation, who could spend time looking for a third party? Anyone who took a step into the battle zone would be a target. But it was that very issue Kenjiro Murata thought he could solve.
He stood on the edge of the neutral ground, staring down into the valley. The shortest route away from the fighting was through an area where the fighting was thickest. The fact that the most soldiers were here didn’t bother him; on the contrary, it was better that he did this here, where there were more to listen.
Xalandrass pressed something into Ken’s hand. It was a lovely ring that might have been made of amazonite or a similar stone, inset with beads of clear glass that shimmered with magic. Ken took it and put it on. He didn’t sense a difference, but Xalandrass had assured him this ring was the most powerful one in his collection.
That meant the loudest. Ken took a breath, and looked around. Geneva stood next to Quallet, Exara, and Xalandrass. Behind them, the collective forces of Gravetender’s Fist, Rot’s Bane, the remains of Untimely Demise, Xalandrass’ guards, Calectus, Luan, and Aiko, were all waiting. They were all staring at him.
Ken had taken too deep a breath. He released it, took another shaky one, and then felt a hand on his back. Geneva stared into Ken’s eyes. Without a word, she nodded.
She trusted him. Ken felt calmer. He took a third breath, and then shouted.
“Ah. Hello? Excuse me!”
The words weren’t thunder. They were more like an earthquake, an avalanche, a blasting thousand-man-band’s worth of noise that cracked over the loudest explosion and roar of the battle below.
Xalandrass’ magical rings to amplify the voice were of the highest quality. Ken’s words made every soldier look up at him as a new target. Instantly, Ken saw archers taking aim, commanders, pointing, so he spoke.
“Please! Do not attack! We are not your enemy!”
A brief hesitation. Ken could see confusion on some faces. Who would fall for a lie like that? Who would be so brazen, so stupid?
Ken would. He motioned quickly and Geneva stepped forwards. Every eye focused on her, and Ken heard some cries of recognition.
“This is Geneva Scala, the [Doctor] known as the Last Light! Her camp was attacked—”
A roar went up. Ken spoke over it.
“By both sides.”
Silence. Ken looked at Quallet. The man was pale-faced, but he remembered what to do and stepped forwards with Exara and Xalandrass. Ken pointed to all of them in turn. He had the battlefield’s attention, for the simple fact that he was loud and the soldiers believed in Geneva.
“This is [Captain] Qualass of Gravetender’s Fist and [Captain] Exara of Rot’s Bane! They are both suppression companies, and this is Xalandrass, a [Merchant]! They are all neutral parties in this conflict!”
By the end of that statement, Ken’s own ears were ringing. He could see Xalandrass wincing, as were the people around him. But Ken’s words had had an effect. Soldiers were staring at the captains and Xalandrass, all groups they knew were neutral in any war. Ken’s next words were simple, direct.
“We are leaving. If you attack, we will fight back. But we will not attack you. Please, do not kill us.”
That was all. He took the ring from his finger and put it in his pocket.
Both sides were staring up at Geneva and the others. The frenzy of movement below had become an oasis of inaction. But it couldn’t last. They had to move.
Ken looked at Quallet, Exara, Xalandrass—none of them seemed able to take the first step. Then Geneva moved. She made a sound like a sigh or a prayer and slowly began to descend into the valley.
The others followed. Quallet slowly walked down, axe at his side, looking warily at the soldiers closest to him. Ken followed, unarmed, heart beating out of his chest. Slowly, the rest of Gravetender’s Fist, the other soldiers, weapons sheathed, walked with him.
A sea of bodies were between them and safety. Ken’s heart felt like it would burst as Geneva slowly walked towards a group of Lizardfolk, bloody, spears held uncertainly. She was just staring at them. They stared at her.
They recognized her. How could they not? They might not have ever seen Geneva’s face themselves, but how many soldiers had they met who could describe the woman who’d saved them? And Ken had said it.
She was the [Doctor]. Would they kill her? She was unarmed. They were all neutral parties. And the soldiers stood, knowing that every single one of them had seen this. Would anyone dare attack them? How could they?
Everyone here was a witness.
Slowly, the ranks of soldiers parted. They stood aside, some stumbling back. Others dragged the wounded away. And the wounded did cry out for Geneva. She looked at them, face pale, and slowly shook her head. There was infinite regret in her eyes, but she didn’t look away. She stared at the people she could not save.
Ken stared at the commanders. They would be the ones to order the attack. Some were shouting, their voices dim and muted in the silence. Others fought towards Geneva, but were held back. One raised a staff glowing with magic and was dragged from his saddle by his men.
They were a quarter of the way across the battlefield when it happened. Ken heard a group of Centaurs galloping, and suddenly the Dullahan’s side was ready to fight. He turned, about to put the ring on and shout, when he saw a group of Centaurs race out of the sea of bodies and slow to a stop. They flanked Geneva on her left, and Ken saw a female Centaur with a bow and a male Centaur he thought he recognized leading them. The female Centaur, a [Captain], shouted.
“Centaurs! You are to refrain from attacking at all costs. Any fool who disobeys I will personally shoot!”
Her voice rang out and the Centaurs around her put an arrow to their bows. Their tips gleamed with magic. Evercut arrows.
The words weren’t just for the people around her. The [Captain] was staring towards the skies, and Ken saw a shape that had been flying down out of a cloud fly back. Zalthia waved at Geneva from above as she reversed direction. Ken’s heart began to beat again. It stopped again when he heard the thump. He turned his head and saw a giant Dullahan, a War Walker with a huge sword advancing on Geneva.
The Centaur group backed up and looked ready to loose, but the War Walker began walking on Geneva’s right. The Dullahan head controlling the massive [Behemoth]’s body was deep and huge, as if his entire frame was a megaphone for his words.
“I am Bastiom. I will cut apart anyone who attacks the [Doctor] or her company.”
More Dullahans joined him. Now there was a stream of bodies, protecting Geneva as she led the small company across the battlefield. Ken stared. He recognized some of the people in the crowd. He had saved the Dullahan who walked on his right, shield raised towards his own side.
They walked on. Ken found himself walking faster, and then he was listening to Geneva. She spoke quietly with Luan, no longer at the head of the group. There was no need. The message was spreading.
“What can we do? They’ll kill each other when we’re gone.”
Luan was looking at both sides, shaking his head as he spoke to Geneva. Ken heard her low reply.
“We bear witness. That’s all we can do.”
They passed from the valley. Up ahead, the groups of soldiers were lessening. They were going to survive. Part of Ken didn’t believe it. Another part…another part wished the same could be true for the soldiers. He hoped that maybe, after they had left, the silence would continue. Perhaps the soldiers would put down their weapons, talk?
It couldn’t happen. Behind him, Ken could see some commanders moving their forces and soldiers bracing and drinking potions. The fighting would continue. This was only a brief interlude. Peace was a pipe dream.
But it was a dream Ken could believe in. And at that moment, he saw the same hope, the same faith, in Luan and Geneva’s eyes.
Luan stared at Geneva. She seemed lost, looking around, staring at her hands. She looked up at him.
“I don’t know what I’ll do after this. I can’t keep going back to the battlefield, but I don’t know…I don’t know what I should do after this.”
The tall South African man blinked at her for a moment, and then smiled. He looked thoughtfully at Geneva, and then at the sky.
“You know, I heard once that aid workers in conflict zones served for…let’s say a month. But after that, they were forced to take a vacation. In order to stay sane, yeah?”
“What’s your point?”
He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned down to speak to her. Ahead, the forest opened up and a trail appeared. Quallet ordered the company to march faster as both Centaurs and Dullahans broke away, heading back towards the battlefield.
“You’ve been through too many battles, Geneva. Rest for a while. There’s good you can do away from the fighting. And we need you.”
She paused. Geneva closed her eyes, looked at Luan, Ken, and at Aiko and the others. She looked at the Humans from her world and then at her hands. Then she nodded.
The word was all it took. Behind them, the young Japanese man known as Kenjiro Murata finally began to believe they would live. Ken stared up at the sky, filled with smoke, but incredibly blue.
Behind him, he heard a shout, and then a thump. He turned, and saw a plume of smoke rising. War. His spirits sank. Quallet had heard and ordered everyone to pick up the pace, now!
They marched on. Ken found himself trailing behind. He couldn’t help but stare up at the sky. He wondered…if there really was a safe place in the world. He couldn’t imagine it, surrounded by death and violence on all sides.
He looked down. Geneva and Luan had slowed to wait for him. Aiko, helping Quexa move, had turned. Daly was waving at him. Ken realized he was standing still, staring as the group marched ahead.
Luan and Geneva walked back. Luan held out a hand and smiled at Ken.
Ken stared at the hand. He stared at Geneva, and saw something on her face. It was faint, awkward, and full of regrets and sadness. But if you got past that, it looked almost like a smile.
He hesitated, and then took Luan’s hand, leaving the war behind. He went marching away, looking for an answer to his question.
A week later, Ken found it. It wasn’t in words, and it didn’t come from a person. It was a slow realization that culminated in a moment where he sat on a white beach, staring out into the ocean.
In the days after they’d fled the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company, Quallet had taken charge. His only goal was to get them away from the fighting in case either company sent a force after them. They did not, whether because they were still locked in combat or thought it would be futile, Ken didn’t know.
But soon, as the danger became further and further away, the group began to splinter and think of their own needs. Exara was the first to leave with her company, and a good deal of the soldiers in Gravetender’s Fist left with their pay—doubled for combat duty—and drifted away at each passing village and town.
But some continued onwards. A good core of Gravetender’s Fist, some of Ulviel’s forces, and Xalandrass went on with the Humans from the other world. The [Merchant] was sick of combat, and he promised that if they travelled with him as protection, he’d take them to a lovely place where they could rest, safe and away from any danger.
Xalandrass was as good as his word, and the protection of a war vendor meant that the weary company could travel east, taking the main roads until they reached one of the island port-towns. This one was a small haven, not troubled by conflict.
It had a beach. And what a beach it was! Ken had never been to Hawaii, one of the Japanese tourist’s must-visit locations, but he’d heard tell of their amazingly scenic beaches. He thought, with no little amount of satisfaction, that Hawaii tourists would have given their left earlobes (and a lot of money) to visit this beach.
It was pristine, untouched by pollution, industrialization, or most other things that had ‘-tion’ in the word. The community of mainly Lizardfolk that lived by the beaches and fished for a living were only too happy to take the gold that Geneva had been bribed with and feasted the Humans and other soldiers when they arrived.
Now, Ken was on the beach, watching people play. He was not in the water. Instead, he was sipping from a very pleasant, fruit drink and watching Luan race across the water in a kayak.
The South African man was at home on the water. He’d found that the Lizardfolk used a similar device to a kayak and within the first hour had set about customizing one of their boats to his specifications. Now he was racing the Lizardfolk, most of whom were only too happy to teach an uppity Human a lesson on watercraft.
They had the shock of their lives. So did the other Humans, and Ken, honestly. He’d watched the Olympics, but he’d skipped over the rowing sections, and it was something else to see an athlete row in real life. Luan’s kayak skimmed across the water, impossibly fast, and Ken saw a group of Humans and other races on the beach, screaming at him as the Lizardfolk wallowed in the water behind him.
“Go! Go you insane bastard!”
Daly was screaming and chasing after a Lizardman who’d bet gold that Luan could never out-row one of his kind. Quexa was laughing and balancing on the simple prosthetic leg that Geneva had helped design, and Aiko was watching Luan, a flower hidden behind her back.
She was going to confess to Luan today. Ken had mixed feelings about that and let his gaze wander back to Luan. He was circling a small outcropping of rocks and coming back, his paddles smoothly cutting through the water. He really was incredible.
Ken was glad he’d been allowed to see Luan row. He looked up as the race concluded, and saw Geneva approaching. The [Doctor] wasn’t smiling, but neither did she look particularly upset. She just had to work on smiling. It had to be surprised out of her, but it was happening more and more of late. She sat next to Ken, and looked at Luan rowing.
“It’s a lovely place, isn’t it? There’s a girl from Ecuador and she tells me the beaches here are better than her home. Daly and the others say Australia has nothing like it either.”
Ken nodded. He felt at the sand, looked at the water, the greenery. It was a tropical paradise in every sense of the word. It made you almost forget about the violence further inland. Almost.
“There are grander places in Baleros, you know. Xal was telling me about it. There’s so much beauty here. Beaches like this one that can stretch for a hundred miles in every direction, open fields that are filled with grass and edible plants…you can almost understand why everyone’s fighting over all of it.”
Ken nodded again. Geneva stared out across the ocean.
“I made a mistake, Ken. I shouldn’t have tried to work and stay neutral on each battlefield. I was just painting a target on my back. Okasha’s right. Things aren’t the same here.”
“I didn’t mean—”
Okasha tried to speak, but Geneva rode over her.
“There is no Geneva Convention here. There’s only me. I can’t rely on the goodwill of another company, or their morality or honor. I know that now.”
She fell silent. Ken thought to himself and spoke slowly.
“I think…it is good you know that. But Geneva, I think you were right to do what you did. I admired you. So did everyone else. If you had not done what you did, we would have died there.”
The two sat in silence for a long time. They saw Luan trudging towards them as the sun began to fall. He was covered in water, and smiling.
Ken stared at Luan, but Aiko wasn’t with him. He opened his mouth, closed it tactfully. Luan saw and smiled. He rubbed at his hair and sat.
“Aiko confessed to me a few minutes ago. I broke her heart. I feel bad about it, Ken, mate, I really do. But I had no choice.”
Did he not like Aiko? Luan smiled ruefully, and looked at his hands.
“Simple. I’m already married.”
Ken stared. Geneva blinked. Luan looked at them and waggled his hands at them. They were dark, but now that Ken looked closely, he could see a band of lighter skin around Luan’s ring finger.
“I don’t wear a ring when I kayak. Or travel and kayak. I might lose it or it could get stolen. I normally leave it at home, in a box on my dresser. Funny, I never thought I’d miss an object that much.”
“Do you have a child?”
Geneva looked at Luan. Ken was still grappling with him being married. Luan nodded. His smile faded.
“One year and five months old. I tried not to think about him, or her. Too busy surviving to worry and get distracted, you know? Now…I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.”
The three sat in silence for a while. Below, the people on the beach began to set up a bonfire and food was soon being devoured below. Ken wondered how much gold Geneva had left. Quallet had contributed his share of funds and Xalandrass had left them with some gold as thanks, but they couldn’t do this forever.
The others must have had the same thought. Aiko returned to the group, red-eyed. She didn’t mention what had gone on, and Luan and Ken and Geneva treated her like normal. They talked of mundane things, of hopes for the future.
“You know, Aiko’s been drawing some pictures. Geneva was working with her on it. Aiko made some manga-like drawings depicting hygiene, how to bandage a wound—you know? Practical stuff for everyone. I think we might be able to sell it as a book or something.”
Luan was telling Ken that as they sat around a fire, nibbling at roasted fish on a stick, seasoned with salt and some kind of hot pepper. Ken nodded.
“Do you know what Captain Quallet is going to do?”
The [Mercenary Captain] had had his fill of leading a suppression company. He’d been drifting around the port, looking grumpy and aimless. Luan grinned.
“I had a thought. We’re all sticking together, us Humans from another world. Why not invite him to lead us as a company?”
The idea surprised Geneva and Aiko, but not Ken. He’d heard Luan speaking with the others about it. Luan nodded.
“We don’t have to fight. We can earn money—but there are advantages to being in a company. It means we pool resources, we support each other. We need that. And who knows? Maybe we can find the others who drifted off on the first day. Maybe some of the Americans made it.”
Ken thought about being a company. Geneva had been speaking about teaching some people to do surgery, or at least tell people how to keep themselves clean and manage disease. People needed a [Doctor] outside of war, even with healing potions. If she could do that, what could everyone else do?
Daly leaned forwards and flicked a bit of bone into the fire. He’d joined them for dinner, although he was usually fussing about Quexa. He’d been looking out for her ever since they’d left the battlefield, and it had been he who’d carved the prosthesis she was using.
That was another thing. Geneva’s knowledge of medical prosthesis was heads and shoulders above the crude stumps and peg legs that people here used. Everything from penicillin to blood transfusions would revolutionize this world, and all she needed was time, coin, and the people with the right skills or Skills to help her. That was what she could do. Ken wasn’t sure what he could do.
He was a Level 18 [Negotiator] now. His leveling had been meteoric that first night he’d slept and it seemed like this was what he wanted to do. Luan was convinced his rowing abilities could be put to use as a [Scout], or a Runner delivering messages. And Daly?
He was a [Warrior]. Not just a [Warrior], but an [Axe Fighter]. He still believed what he’d told Ken. There were times to run and times to fight. Whatever the others did, he and some of the other Humans who’d been in Gravetender’s Fist would be there to protect them. Now he leaned back, chewing and spoke thoughtfully.
“You know, the Red Cross company isn’t a bad name. But it doesn’t have the right ring to it, especially if we’re going to be fighting. That’s why I was thinking Geneva could have her company, and we’ll make our own.”
The others looked at him. Ken’s heart sank.
“But if you are in another company Daly, won’t we separate?”
“Yeah. There’s that. But we’re not Red Cross. We might fight, or take guard jobs. I don’t think Geneva’s willing to call us Red Cross, and I wouldn’t like that either.”
Geneva nodded quietly. Besides Okasha, several other Selphids had appeared one day, and Calectus was still sticking around. They wanted something from her, and Ken sometimes worried what it was.
“But we shouldn’t form different companies. Or if we do—we should all be part of one larger company. We’re on the same side. Ken showed us that. We have to work together. All of us.”
Luan was speaking, and Daly was nodding and spreading his hands wide, not disagreeing, but not having an answer he could give. To Ken’s surprise, Geneva smiled, and because that was rare and special, everyone looked at her.
“You know, I think we have something like that. Back in our world.”
It took Luan a moment to catch on to what she was saying, Aiko five seconds, Daly six, and Ken had to have Aiko whisper the answer to him before his face lit up. The others instantly agreed that it was a good idea. They were talking about having Quallet join to help them out as a paid leader when Daly frowned, looking worried.
“What about Lizardfolk? Dullahans? Centaurs? Selphids? And other races, are we going to let them all in?”
Luan laughed and nudged Daly. The Australian man looked covertly at Quexa and she waved at him and told everyone that he kept staring at her. He laughed and that was that.
Everyone was better than no one. Ken realized their new company would have all kinds of people in it. People like Aiko, who had talents that could be used outside of fighting, people like Geneva, who were useful wherever they went. There would be fighters like Daly who could do what was needed, and peerless people like Luan who had one skill they could do better than anyone else.
And then there was Ken. He’d help them all get along. That was his calling, and that was what made him happy. He liked understanding people, and he believed in people. That wasn’t always easy.
It was now. Ken found a cup and raised it. He’d explained how to toast in Japanese, and now the others raised their cups, shells, or in Daly’s case, tankard, with him. They didn’t shout ‘乾杯’, though. Instead, they looked at each other and smiled.
Luan looked at Ken. Ken grinned and looked at Aiko. She blinked, glanced at Daly, and then looked at Geneva. Two souls looked out from her eyes, and Geneva smiled again.
A little while later, an angry Fraerling paced back and forth on his desk, reading the reports that were written on pages as tall as he was. Niers Astoragon was not in a good mood, and the reason for that was the chessboard behind him.
It was ghostly, the pieces magical. They had been set up in the middle of a game and they had stayed in that same place for…what? Months? Years?
Probably just a month. But that was too much. Niers glanced at a letter with gold-rimmed edges. He studied a map of Izril. He kicked over a tiny cup of wine and grudgingly read the latest report before the wine made the ink illegible.
It was a general report of the newest companies, the recent events in one corner of Baleros. A [Strategist] had to know how the winds were blowing as well as rumor and gossip in order to do his job. Well, some strategists could just wing it and did better ignorant than they did well-informed, but Niers preferred knowledge to idiocy.
He sighed as he studied the outcome of the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company.
“Fools, all of them.”
There was no return for either company. Their reputations were ruined, and they had destroyed themselves fighting over a valley that was practically unusable now. Neither side would back down and so everyone lost. Typical of Centaurs and Dullahans, really.
Something caught his eye as Niers absently paged through the report. This was about a new company that had declared itself. That wasn’t in itself noteworthy; new companies could come and go in the drop of a hat. Three drunken idiots could call themselves a company, so his [Spies] and [Informants] had to sift carefully through all the rumors and declarations to pick out companies that might actually be noteworthy.
There was little special to recommend this one, which was why it was just a few lines in the report. It had a few sub-companies, listed with less than a hundred members in each. That was also normal, but it was the name of the entire overall company that caught Niers’ eye because it was so audacious.
What a name. Who would come up with it, in Baleros of all places? But there it sat, glaring up at Niers. A declaration to the world. A statement of intent, or what the company represented? He had no idea. Niers stared down at the name written in ink.
The United Nations.
That was it. No appellation marking them as a company. No declared ties marking them as a part of a larger company or affiliated with another group. They had a strong connection with a local Naga war vendor…and several of their members were former undead suppression company members. One of them, Quallet Marshhand, was an individual of some skill.
But nothing more.
United. It was a word Niers had dreamed of, had spoken to the other Great Companies of Baleros about. It was a hope for this continent, for a world, that Magnolia had tempted him with. But it was an empty dream.
Yet someone had the same one. Niers glanced at the name and memorized it, just in case. Then he flipped the page and kept reading. He had a job to do. Every now and then, Niers would glance at the chessboard’s pieces that had not moved and look away.
There was something curious about Niers after the report. He was still in a bad mood, but as he filed the report away he had a curious sensation. It was a subtle feeling, but he had trained himself not to ignore his instincts. Something cried out to him as he opened the report and stared down at the name in ink.
Yes, he could feel it. It wasn’t coincidence. It wasn’t chance. This was only the start. And everything he had witnessed, all the little pieces, they were falling into place. Something was happening.
The world was beginning to move again. Behind Niers, on the chessboard, a piece slowly slid forwards and stopped.
Quallet Marshhand was shouting at a Centaur. He knew it was a stupid thing to do. Centaurs were belligerent, touchy, and the only way to get them to agree to something was to flatter them. But Quallet was fed up, and there were some times when he just needed to scream at something.
The Centaur commander was clearly unhappy at being shouted at, and kept trying to snap at Quallet. His soldiers were also trying to be menacing, but Quallet knew he was in the right. He snapped at the ash-colored Centaur as his company worked in the darkness, putting the undead to rest and burning the rest of the corpses.
“No, you listen to me. That was my company you shot at! We announced ourselves and carried both a banner and night lanterns! How could you not see—”
“He was not standing with the lantern.”
“He was ten feet away from it! How could you not tell they were together? They were hauling a dead Dullahan. If that didn’t tip your idiotic soldiers off—”
“The Dullahans have disguised themselves so before.”
The Centaur was unmoved. He glared down at Quallet, looking uncomfortable at his patrol’s attack on Quallet’s soldiers, but equally enraged.
“The Dullahans have been attacking our camps disguised as your people. They, damn them, have done this twice now!”
“That does not justify what your men did! You attacked my soldiers—shot one with an enchanted arrow! If he dies—”
“If he dies, we will pay the blood price. But we will not change our methods. Not now.”
The officer’s face had locked up into a stubborn rictus. Quallet stared at him, shaking with fury.
“And how am I supposed to stop that from happening again?”
“Stay within our designated areas. Identify yourselves.”
“We did that—if you want our company to do our duty, keep your soldiers away from mine! Because I promise you, if this happens a second time I will cancel our contract and demand full pay for—”
The Centaur cut Quallet off and the [Mercenary Captain] nearly drew his axe right there and then.
“We must continue patrolling. I will instruct my soldiers and tomorrow negotiations will begin over reparations and perhaps change the location your company works. Until then, keep close to your lanterns.”
He whirled and trotted away, rather than continue arguing with Quallet. His soldiers left too, wincing as Quallet let loose a set of invectives that made the battle-hardened warriors flinch. Quallet would have liked to do more than curse.
But there was nothing he could do. Quallet stomped away to speak with Raeh and Xor. He immediately pulled back all of the company within range of the banner and made them move together at all times. Less corpses would be disposed of, but he wasn’t about to lose more soldiers than he had.
Luan. The enchanted arrow had gone deep into his side. Quallet had seen Raeh’s eyes, seen the fear. The only way to get it out was to cut into the flesh and bone and find the arrowhead…a tiny thing somewhere in all that blood and guts. There was no way Luan would have survived if Raeh had done it. Maybe this [Doctor] could save him. But Quallet feared the young man was already dead.
“Luan? Luan! Stay awake. Please!”
Ken knelt by his friend’s side, speaking urgently to Luan as his eyes flickered. The black-skinned South African was shaking, sweat beading on his forehead.
He was dying. Blood was seeping from his arrow wound, staining the clumsy bandage that Aiko had tied around his side. The one who’d tied it, Aiko, was holding Luan’s hand as he groaned and shivered. That was all she could do. Ken looked around frantically.
“Is the [Doctor] here? My friend needs help!”
He was speaking—shouting at—a pale warrior with a halberd. He was a Selphid. His body was that of a Lizardman, but the scales were pale, close to white. The body was dead, but something else looked down at Ken and shook his head.
“Wait. The [Doctor] is still sleeping. She has worked without rest for over a day now. When she wakes, she will see your friend.”
Ken opened his mouth, but the Selphid stared at him.
“Quiet, or I will remove you. That will not help your friend.”
Ken closed his mouth. Luan was at the head of a line of wounded soldiers. There were only a few as the fighting had barely begun. It was just past dawn. But some of the soldiers were badly wounded, bandaged, unable to be healed by potions, carried by their friends to wait for the [Doctor] like Luan.
Some were already dead. Ken’s stomach was a knot of fear, but he made himself grip Luan’s other hand and wait.
“Give him more healing potion, Aiko.”
She did. Raeh had pressed the remaining bottle into her hands as he’d sent them to look for the [Doctor]. It could not heal the wound so long as the enchanted arrow was in place, but every time she carefully poured more into the wound, Luan’s color would get better and he seemed to grow in strength. But then the arrow’s magic would open the wound again, and he would scream.
Life went in, life went out. But Ken saw that the healing potion was not putting as much in as went out of Luan over time. He was getting weaker. He needed help. And the [Doctor] was asleep.
It felt like hours before she woke. When she did, Ken knew in an instant because the Selphid who had been standing guard over the lines of the wounded turned his head. From a small tent a form emerged, blinking in the light of the day. She turned her head and Ken saw a Human face. For some reason that reassured him. He had wondered if the [Doctor] was a Dullahan, but she looked…normal.
Then she began to lurch down the hill and Ken wondered if he’d made a mistake. She couldn’t be who Luan was waiting for.
When Kenjiro first saw the woman known as the Last Light, the famed [Doctor] of the battlefield up close, he thought he was looking at another zombie. Her skin was olive in color, but pale. Her hands were covered in blood, as was her clothing. Her brown hair was covered by an odd cap—a cut-down leather helmet stained with sweat.
She looked as if she needed a [Doctor] herself. One of her arms was practically white, as if blood flow had been constricted there. Her steps were brisk, but she stumbled twice as she approached the line of wounded. There was red in her eyes. Broken blood vessels.
When she spoke, her voice was hoarse.
“What happened to him?”
Ken looked at his friends. Quexa and a Lizardman had come with them, helping carry Luan. They were sitting by Luan, and looked at Ken. So did Aiko. So Ken took a breath and tried to explain.
“He—he was shot by an arrow. A magical—he does not heal. It is here.”
He showed the woman the wound and the [Doctor] knelt. She appraised his side for a second and then stood. She nearly fell down again, and the Selphid guard caught her.
“Arrow wound. Understood. Don’t move him. Stay with your friend. If he wakes, don’t let him get up. Keep him still, got it?”
Ken broke off. The woman was already moving past him, speaking to the soldiers second in line. She knelt by a man with a broken sword blade protruding from his stomach, nodded. Ken stared at the piece of metal—it was frosted over. Magical? The man with it in his stomach was shaking uncontrollably and moaning. But the [Doctor] did not see to him either. She moved on to the next wounded soldier, then the next.
The [Doctor] had nearly reached the end of the line when Ken ran towards her. The Selphid barred the way. Ken stopped and pointed at Luan.
“Will you help him?”
“Yes. Later. I have other patients to attend to first.”
Ken turned and saw two other Selphids with pale bodies carefully picking up the Soldier with the enchanted blade in his stomach. He gaped.
“But we are—first!”
The woman shook her head.
“Not the point. I am triaging. I must decide who needs attention first. This is not a situation where the first who arrive get treated first. I will save those who need my help most, and then move on to the less critically injured.”
She’d raised her voice so everyone waiting could hear. Ken understood her words, but couldn’t accept them.
“But my friend—”
“He has more time. I will see to him when I can.”
The [Doctor] turned away. Ken took a step, but the Selphid barred his path, his face grim. Ken stared helplessly at the Lizardman’s face and the intelligence lurking behind the dead features. He saw the [Doctor] move on, and then hesitate. She turned and spoke crisply.
“I am a [Doctor]. That means I save lives, no matter who it is I treat. I will try to save your friend—if I can. But I can’t promise anything. I will get to him as fast as I can. But you must wait.”
And that was it. Ken went back to Luan. In less than a minute, the woman had finished her surveying the patients. She marked them—Ken could see how she pointed and the Selphid guard laid colored stones by the wounded. Green for the least wounded. Yellow for moderate wounds and red for those about to die. Black meant they were dead or…or they weren’t going to be treated.
Luan was yellow. He was going to die, but not as soon as some. The [Doctor] strode up to a tent where the other Selphids had carried the first patient. Someone came out with a bowl of healing potion he dribbled on those with the red stones. It helped.
Ken applied healing potion to Luan’s wound. The skin closed. Broke open. Luan screamed. He waited, staring at the tent. It felt like hours passed before the tent flaps opened and the man with the enchanted blade in his stomach was carried out—minus the blade.
That was the first. There were five more to go. Ken watched another body go in as a group of ragged Human soldiers stared at the tent. Hours passed—Quexa told him it was minutes. The tent flaps opened, and a corpse came out.
Ken felt his stomach drop. Another body went in as the Selphid guard laid the body down and the soldiers, the friends of the female Lizardwoman who’d taken five arrows to the chest, wept and clung to each other in grief. The tent flaps were already closing around the third wounded soldier marked with a red stone.
A corpse came out. Another body came in. Another corpse. The fifth soldier lived, but his arm was gone. As the sixth came in, Luan started gasping and his eyes started rolling back into his head.
Aiko was clinging to him, whispering to him in English and Japanese. But it was no good. The wound kept bleeding and the healing potion had run out. Ken stared helplessly at the stained bandages, crimson from all the blood loss and remembered some of the medical techniques he’d seen on TV. He had never been trained, but he couldn’t just sit back any longer!
“We should—出血を止めまれ! Apply compress—”
He reached for Luan’s side, guided by only a few memories of what to do with an open wound. Apply pressure? Where? Along the edges?
Aiko was white-faced, hands hovering over the open wound. Ken heard a shout as he reached for Luan.
“Don’t touch him!”
The Selphid guard stopped Ken as Quexa and the Lizardman stood up, just as worried. The Selphid pulled Ken back, explaining as Ken protested weakly.
“It’s an Evercut Arrow. It cannot be removed without opening him up, you see? If you shake your friend about, it will cut through his insides. Do not move him any more, and do not let him move.”
“But he is dying.”
The Selphid looked him in the eyes, calmly. He had seen death. He lived in a corpse. He pulled Ken back as Quexa took Aiko and hugged her.
The Selphid’s name was Calectus. He made Ken sit, drink some water from Ken’s water flask. Ken had forgotten he had it. Calectus didn’t give Ken any false assurances, or hopes. He just told Ken to leave Luan, to not make things worse.
“Hope that he lives long enough for Doctor Geneva to see him.”
So Ken did. He prayed under his breath by Luan’s side as the sixth patient left the tent a corpse. Then it was Luan’s turn.
Geneva didn’t calculate her success rate as she worked. If she did, she would have given up long ago in despair. But she couldn’t ignore the brutal arithmetic of life and death.
Some lived, some died. Sometimes Geneva would save four, twelve people in a row. Then she’d be wondering when the next patient would come in that she couldn’t save. Or sometimes she’d fail to save five people in a row, and keep praying the next patient was treatable. Because they had to be. The next one had to be. It was a game her mind played. It tried to find logic and patterns in chaos.
As the Selphid assistants took the sixth body outside, Geneva rested her hand against the table. She knew who was coming next. The black-skinned youth with the enchanted arrow in his side. She didn’t know if she could save him.
“Be ready Okasha. I need you to move fast. He will have lost a lot of blood and I need to find the arrow before I can heal him with a potion.”
Okasha moved Geneva’s right arm up, blotting at her sweaty forehead with a damp cloth. Geneva saw the flaps open, and then the young man was on the table in front of her.
“Beginning the incision.”
Geneva didn’t need to do any diagnosing. She knew what had hit the young man. The Roving Arrow company had begun using the Evercut arrows a few days ago and Geneva had seen too many cases of these wounds to count. The arrows lodged in the inside and kept moving, slowly digging through organs and preventing healing until the patient died.
Swiftly, she cut with her scalpel across the young man’s chest, cutting open cloth, and then she cut again, opening up his side. She didn’t worry about infection or disease—her leveling up had granted her the invaluable Skill of [Sterile Field], an upgrade over [Sterile Equipment]. Nothing in a radius around her would be affected by unsanitary conditions, although they would if they left her presence.
So Geneva’s scalpel was clean as it sliced into the young man’s side. He opened his mouth and cried out—he was awake. The two Selphids immediately leapt forwards and held him down as Geneva tuned out the sounds he was making. She adjusted for his struggling and cut.
“I can see the entry wound. Going deeper.”
His flesh parted under the fine blade. Geneva stared into pulsating insides and saw red. The arrow had cut into the young man’s insides. The blood was concealing everything. Geneva’s eyes darted around, looking for the telltale glint of metal. Nothing.
If she were in a hospital she’d have a suction machine to clear away the blood. Here she only had—
Okasha moved Geneva’s right hand at her command, sponging away blood. She put the towel aside, picked up another one. It was horrible, unsanitary, and Geneva’s only option.
She had some water that she used to rinse away the last of the blood. Now Geneva could see. And she saw…
Nothing. She could tell where the arrow had ripped through the young man’s side, into his liver. But it wasn’t in his liver anymore. He had stopped struggling, either passed out from the pain or…no, he was still alive. But she had to move quickly.
“Where did it go? Do you see it?”
A voice in Geneva’s ear, too quiet for anyone to hear but her. Geneva felt her hand move. She could see the passage of the arrowhead now, though. From the liver, something had cut…Geneva saw an opening in the stomach lining and went for it. And at last she saw it, a tiny piece of orange metal, glinting and—moving—among the red flesh.
They were in her hand. Geneva knew what to do now, and carefully maneuvered them towards the arrowhead as it squirmed, cutting into the stomach. She took a breath, and then gripped it tightly. Instantly, she felt tension in the forceps as she tried to lever the arrowhead out of the flesh.
“It’s fighting me. Careful—”
Geneva twisted, and then flicked the arrowhead out of the wound. It flew off of the surgical table and onto the ground, still buried in a bit of flesh. One of the Selphid aids ran over to capture the arrowhead, taking care not to let it touch his skin.
“There. Check for fragments—where’s the healing potion?”
Okasha had it ready. Geneva swept through the rest of the body, but found nothing else wrong. She was running out of time.
“Apply the potion now.”
She normally used it sparingly, but the arrowhead had cut through so many parts of the body…Geneva closed the stomach, liver, and other damaged organs and then sutured the incision she’d made before closing that too. It helped, she found, and reduced the need for as much healing potion.
And then it was done. The young man went out and Geneva heard a scream of relief and shouts. That lifted a tiny part of her spirits. But then the next body came in, this time a soldier who had some kind of spell that was eating away at his legs, both of them. She had no way to stop it. She had to amputate. And then…
And then it was evening. The bodies stopped coming in. Either the soldiers were being killed off without a chance to be rescued, or all the injuries were healable with potions. That happened. Geneva stumbled out of her tent and found herself blinking up at a sun setting in the sky.
A voice interrupted her. She turned and saw a man in armor with a helmet tucked under his arm and an axe at his belt. Calectus, the Selphid guard and highest-level warrior who’d volunteered to protect her, was watching him warily. Geneva took a step and nearly fell. The man caught her arm.
“Thank you. Ah, can I help you?”
“You already have, Miss. My name is Quallet Marshhand. I am the commander of Gravetender’s Fist, a suppression company hired for this engagement.”
“Oh. The ones who dispose of corpses.”
Quallet nodded as he and Geneva sat on some chairs that someone had found. He studied her, and she studied him. He was much what she had expected from a company commander. She’d seen and treated many by now. She was clearly not what he’d been expecting, though.
“This morning you saved one of my soldiers. I am grateful, although I don’t know what the custom is. My company can offer you—”
Oh. That was why he was here. Geneva sighed as she felt exhaustion catching up with her. She cut Quallet off brusquely.
“I’m a [Doctor]. I don’t charge fees for my work. If you want to donate, that’s fine, but I tend to each patient that comes to me without bias. I don’t take sides in war. Saving lives is my only priority.”
He blinked and considered this, not offended by her abrupt interruption.
“I see. In that case, let me offer you some money and my thanks. The young man you saved—he’s a good soldier.”
“They all are.”
Geneva tried to smile at him, and failed. She stood and shook Quallet’s hand. He gave some coins to Calectus—she saw silver and coppers, no gold. Geneva didn’t know whether to be insulted or not. She didn’t really care. Some commanders gave her nothing if she saved hundreds of their men, others, like Quallet, felt the need to come and thank her for each one.
She wasn’t doing this to be paid. She was…she was…she just had to do it. Because she’d sworn an oath? Because it was right? No. Because it was all she could do. It was all she could rationalize herself doing in this terrible world filled with blood and death.
Troubled by that thought, she turned away and nearly fell. Her leg shot out as Geneva nearly collapsed forward. Okasha steadied Geneva and spoke.
“I’m fine. I should stay up. If there’s more—”
“You didn’t get enough sleep last night. If there are more wounded, I will wake you. But your mind is exhausted. You sleep. I will eat and rest us both.”
Geneva shook her head as she felt at her pocket. But Okasha was insistent, and Geneva knew what she was about to do.
“Sleep, Geneva. You must sleep. You have worked enough.”
Darkness engulfed Geneva’s mind in a moment. She felt oblivion come. It was welcome.
Okasha had never invaded a living person’s body up until the moment a few months ago when she had had no choice. It was anathema to her kind, and punishable by death. But a body was a body, and she had adapted quickly and learned that a living body was far different from a dead one.
For one thing, a living body reacted to secretions Okasha could produce, as well as the ones it naturally secreted. Okasha had learned that long ago and made use of that fact to get Geneva to rest when the woman needed it.
She just had to trigger Geneva’s brain to secrete a little bit of the chemicals that induced drowsiness, the thing that Geneva called ‘melatonin’.
Oh, the things Humans came up with. How could they come up with a name for something Selphids had poked and prodded at for millennia? And yet, Geneva had told Okasha things about how the Human body worked that even the Selphids hadn’t known.
“Or perhaps we did know, once. Before our kind was hunted for the crime of stealing bodies from the living.”
It was Geneva’s voice, but Okasha who whispered with it. To differentiate between the two, Okasha lowered the range of Geneva’s vocal chords to make her voice deeper. She steered Geneva back towards camp, heading towards the [Doctor’s] tent.
Geneva’s mind was asleep; Okasha was in control. The Selphid only took full authority over her body when Geneva was asleep or in dire need. And she was uncomfortable with that, to be honest. What she was doing was abhorrent to Selphid culture. It had been banned by ancient treaties under threat of total extinction for their race. If Okasha was revealed to be possessing a live body, she would be destroyed, she had no doubt.
And yet, Geneva would be paralyzed without her. For all the [Doctor]’s genius, she had no knowledge of a way to cure damage to the spinal cord, and she had been struck by Thriss’ mace on the back of her neck. She would die, unable to move anything but her head without Okasha. And she couldn’t die. She was too valuable to the world.
Okasha saw that. That was why she helped Geneva, looked after her. That was also why six Selphids had joined Geneva’s camp. It was one of them who walked towards Okasha now. Calectus, most senior and highest level of the Selphids. He had come at Okasha’s behest, and he knew more than he let on.
For instance, about the fact that Okasha was in Geneva’s body. He knew Okasha had taken over Geneva as well—Selphids could see through body postures better than anyone else and so his face was disapproving as he looked at Okasha. He still had not forgiven her transgression, and spoke to her brusquely, as a senior to a junior.
After all, Okasha was only a Level 23 [Rogue] and now, a Level 15 [Medical Assistant]. Whereas Calectus was…
A Level 36 [Honor Guard]. Okasha stood in awe of him and humbly bobbed her head as Calectus motioned her to the tent where food was served to the wounded and Geneva, when she remembered to eat.
“She is asleep?”
He asked this as brusque confirmation as Okasha ate with Geneva’s body. The Selphid paused to savor the hot food—it was tastier than when she inhabited a dead person’s body. Geneva’s taste buds were all intact, and the sensation was blissful.
“Yes. She didn’t level today.”
“You can tell when it happens?”
Calectus frowned at Okasha as the Selphid nodded.
“If I listen, I think I can almost hear the announcement myself. But it’s always inaudible…I wonder if our predecessors worked with their hosts, rather than just controlled them?”
“Idle speculation. It was a mistake and it cost our kind everything.”
The older Selphid was disapproving. Okasha nodded meekly. He studied her, frowning as she finished her plate and filled it with a second helping. Geneva needed the energy.
“Do not take risks, Okasha. I do not like you forcing your host to sleep; even that is risky because we do not have the experience of interacting with a living host. Take no chances while you are working with her. Let her take no chances. The value of Geneva Scala’s life far outweighs yours or mine. So we have agreed.”
Geneva nodded. Calectus paused. She looked up at him. The Lizardman’s body he had recently inhabited was all very well, but she knew he was more at home with Dullahans. She coughed as a bit of food went down her lungs and fished it out with her Selphid body.
“How long will you stay with Geneva, Calectus?”
“As long as it takes. If there is any Human, any person in this world that can save our people from the Wasting, it is her. Allow her to reach Level 30, and then, perhaps suggest to her that it is time to leave. I do not like the way this battle is going. Both sides are growing far more…savage.”
Okasha nodded. She’d felt it too. She and Calectus were soldiers, and the use of Evercut arrows spoke to a desire to hurt the enemy badly. Such arrows could only be used once and they were expensive…the Centaurs wanted to beat the Dullahans at all costs.
The two Selphids made no more conversation. Okasha finished eating and returned Geneva to her tent. There she made Geneva lie down. Time to sleep. Okasha let herself drift, relinquishing control of her body. Selphids slept like Humans.
A few hours later, Geneva awoke. She sat up slowly, and whispered.
There was no response. It was dark out, and the Selphid was asleep. Geneva was about to get up to pee—that was what had woken her up, but she felt at her pocket first.
Tucked away in her pants was a small stone. Geneva carefully pulled it out, trying to sense if Okasha was waking up. She was not.
Slowly, Geneva brought the stone up and tapped the surface. Instantly, she heard rustling sounds, and then a voice.
“Or perhaps we did know, once. Before our kind was hunted for the crime of stealing bodies from the living.”
It was in Geneva’s voice, but she had never said the words. Geneva shivered as she listened on. The small stone she held carefully between her fingers as it replayed the events of the last hour after she’d activated it.
It was a small voice recorder, a magically carved rune embedded in the center of an azurite stone. Geneva had bought it a while back and Okasha had forgotten she carried it. It took just a touch to activate. Geneva could do it when putting her hands in her pockets and the Selphid wouldn’t pay attention if she wasn’t in full control of Geneva’s body.
The conversation between Okasha and Calectus played as Geneva lay back in bed. She listened; closing her eyes for a moment, and then shook her head.
They should have asked her. But help was help. She stood up, and went to pee. In the morning there would be more wounded to tend to, and Geneva was still tired. This was her routine. This was how every day went.
This was her life, now.
“Luan-san, you’re awake!”
Ken and Aiko were there when Luan opened his eyes, as evening had begun. He sat up, gasped, felt at his side, and looked around.
“The [Doctor] healed you. Can you tell? Do you remember?”
Aiko hugged Luan fiercely as he blinked, confused, and then put his hand to his head. He shook his head as Ken tried to give him an explanation of all that had passed.
“Shame. I thought I was a goner.”
He stood up, shakily, and then felt at his side again.
“I’m cured! I can’t believe it. What was the [Doctor] like?”
“Very strange. She was…she was very much like a doctor from our world.”
Ken told Luan about what had happened as Aiko went to get him some food and let the others know Luan was awake. Luan frowned.
“She was talking about ‘triage’ and needing a ‘blood transfusion’ and many other complicated terms. I did not know there were [Doctors] in this world.”
“That is odd. How would someone know about blood transfusions here? Unless…does everyone know about that? That is a very advanced medical concept, I think.”
Ken nodded. Then he hesitated. Aiko rushed back in with some hot gruel and Luan devoured it. Ken took Aiko aside and whispered to her.
“Blood transfusion. That is—what is a ‘transfusion’, Aiko?”
“Oh! That is odd! Luan, do you think she might be—”
Luan stared at Ken, and both felt a sudden jolt of excitement. It couldn’t be. Could it? Ken tried to remember—it was a young woman, a Human young woman who’d talked to him. A [Doctor]. That was a word from his world. Here [Healers] were far more common. Could it be? Was there someone else?
Luan put a hand to his side again, still not quite believing he was cured. He and Ken speculated about whether a person from this world would even know what a transfusion was before Aiko told them there was trouble outside.
It was the Humans. Or rather, Ken, Aiko and Luan’s group. They were arguing around the fire. They had been arguing for hours, apparently, but Ken had been too preoccupied with Luan to notice.
Now he saw Johanas shouting at Daly, pointing back at the battlefield where the Dullahans and Centaurs were still fighting.
“Those things killed Jessica! And those fucking Centaurs nearly killed Luan! I’m not sticking around to get killed. Let’s get out of here and—”
Daly was standing across from Johanas with a group of Australians. There was a clear divide in the group and it turned out they were arguing about leaving. Ken stared as Luan groaned and Aiko helped him into a seat. Only the groan turned out to be about the issue, which Johanas had brought up and Daly and the others didn’t want to hear.
“We’re not leaving, you bloody idiots. You heard what the Captain told us about deserters—”
“Better than dying here or hauling more fucking corpses!”
The Americans were clearly ready to split. They’d been rattled by Luan getting shot last night, and that, on top of having to deal with dead bodies every night had been the last straw. The Australians were of a different opinion, as were the other young men and women in the group.
“You wanna go? Fine. But we’re not on board with this. Just because you lot are fed up, doesn’t mean we all want to risk our necks.”
Daly was arguing with Johanas. The American young man clearly wanted everyone to go with him. He turned to the group.
“In that case, let’s vote! Democracy! Everyone who’s in, raise their hands—”
Hands shot up, but Paige shouted as she crossed her arms.
“Screw your democracy! Over a third of the group is you lot. We voted last time, and that’s how we ended up here.”
There was a general agreement. Johanas flushed and opened his mouth angrily to retort. Ken turned to Luan. He caught sight of Xor and Raeh watching the disturbance at a distance, but neither officer seemed inclined to stop the fighting so long as there wasn’t violence. Quallet was ducking back into his tent—Ken spoke to Luan.
“What do you think, Luan?”
“What do I think?”
Luan’s face was still pale, but he bared his teeth.
“I think the Americans have a point.”
Ken and Aiko looked at Luan, shocked. He shook his head.
“Friends, I don’t know about you two, but I am not looking forward to going out there again. I just got shot. But—”
He frowned as the debate ended without a definitive conclusion. Daly took a swing at Johanas and both sides pulled the two apart before they could start brawling. Luan watched everyone disperse and shook his head.
“—But I don’t think abandoning the company is any better. Let’s talk to Daly and see what he thinks.”
It turned out that Daly and the other Australians were dead set against leaving and refusing to consider the matter.
“It’s not a vote, alright? We’re going to stay no matter what the others do.”
Daly spoke curtly to Luan as Aiko supported him. Ken’s attention was drawn to a short, furry creature that Daly was bending down and petting. It had green fur and a white belly and huge, round ears, a long cord-like tail and small paws. It was cute. Ken had no idea where it had come from.
“What is that, Daly?”
“Cute, ain’t it?”
The Australian young man grinned, forgetting his earlier ire as he bent to feed the thing a bit of bread. It squeaked—a surprisingly deep sound—and nibbled at it as two more hopped out of the brush.
“They just popped up while I was snacking. Friendly as you like. Go on, pet them.”
Ken did. To his delight, the rodent rubbed its head against his hand. Aiko immediately bent to pet it, while Luan took a seat on the ground.
“It’s like a quokka, I think. Doesn’t it look like that, Daly?”
Paige, another Australian girl with a scarred-over bite wound on one arm reached out and stroked the little furry creature’s head. Soon, she and every Human in the company were trying to touch the affectionate creatures. Ken felt himself smiling—until one of the Lizardfolk noticed what was going on. Ken heard a shout and saw Quexa running over excitedly.
“Ooh! Look! Beriats! Don’t let it get away!”
She ran over to the large rodent that Ken had been holding in his lap. It froze at the sight of the Lizardgirl and then leapt from Ken’s lap and tried to run into the forest. Too slow. Quexa caught up with it and lifted her foot with a triumphant yell.
She stomped on the green-furred rodent’s back, breaking its back with a sickening crack. Paige cried out in horror, but in a moment the other Lizardfolk were running over. The Beriats darted away, but the Lizardfolk grabbed them and beat them against the ground, using the Beriats’ tails as a handle.
There was a moment of shock as the Humans stopped shouting and the Lizardfolk happily lifted the corpses of the Beriats up. They blinked at the stunned Humans.
Aiko burst into tears. Luan went to hug her as Ken edged between her and the Lizardgirl. The Lizardfolk were getting insults from all sides and were clearly not understanding the issue.
“What? We’ll share. Beriats taste good when cooked. Or raw!”
It took some doing for Ken to smooth ruffled scales—and explain to Quexa why the Humans were upset that a bunch of cute animals had been butchered before their eyes. Quexa and the other Lizardfolk didn’t really understand—they were used to killing livestock themselves, and they regarded Beriats as a pest that ate grain and stole food, for all they weren’t a physical threat.
They were a pest. But they were cute. Ken felt that should have saved the Beriats as he watched the Lizardfolk happily skin them and roast them over a fire. They had brightened up everyone’s day, and now they were dead, made into hot food the Lizardfolk did indeed share around.
It was fitting of Baleros, of this place with as many horrors as marvels. Ken just wished the Beriats didn’t taste so good. He tactfully did not eat his portion anywhere around Aiko, but he was too hungry for hot meat to turn it down when Quexa offered. Not to mention that it would have offended the Lizardgirl to have refused.
That night, Quallet mustered Gravetender’s Fist and gave them a short speech before sending them out. They would no longer be working near the Centaur’s camp he promised, but they were still expected to do their jobs. He didn’t address Luan especially, but everyone knew Luan had been saved by a [Doctor]. Luan’s group was also assigned to an area close to where Quallet planted the company banner, with less corpses and danger overall.
It still didn’t make picking up bits of dead bodies easier, but at least Ken could detach his conscious mind to do it. He only paid attention to make sure Luan was fine, but the healing potion had restored the young man’s strength, and Luan was in better physical shape than Ken. He was still jumpy and kept watching the shadows, but he was alright.
However, trouble started as dawn began to break. Luan pulled Ken aside as Aiko stabbed a few bodies, looking for undead.
“Hey Ken, have you seen any of the Americans?”
Ken immediately felt worried, remembering the argument of a few moments ago. Luan hadn’t seen them either, and it turned out no one had.
“I don’t know where they are. Neither does Daly or anyone else. They’re not where they were supposed to be assigned. Xor’s kicking up a fuss looking for them. Let’s get back to camp. I’ll tell you if something happens.”
Worried, Ken finished his duties. Quallet heard about the missing Americans and would have gone looking, but it was too close to dawn. Furious, the commander ordered the company back and they reached their camp. Ken tried to stay awake as he heard Quallet interrogating Daly and the others about where Johanas and the others had gone, but he was exhausted. He hadn’t slept since Luan had been shot, so he laid his head down…
“Ken. Ken! Wake up!”
It felt like a moment had passed. Ken groaned as he felt someone shake him. He protested, but the hand came again, shaking him roughly.
“Just a moment Luan…”
A hand dragged Ken out of his bedroll. Ken heard Luan’s voice as he woke up a bit more, and only now registered the tension in it.
“Ken, wake up. It’s the Americans.”
There was something in Luan’s tone that took the exhaustion right out of Ken’s mind. He got up at once, blinking around.
It was just past dawn. He hadn’t slept an hour. But the instant Ken saw Luan’s face, any thoughts of sleep fled.
“What is it?”
Luan stepped out of the tent without explaining. Ken followed. There was something hollow in his stomach, a terrible foreboding. He was not filled with dread so much as a…certainty. He didn’t want to be right.
Ken stopped when he reached the edge of the neutral zone, a place where he could look down into the valley. He expected to see the soldiers fighting, but neither side had begun. Instead, in front of the Dullahan army there were a group of eight kneeling figures. Ken’s heart stopped when he recognized them.
Johanas knelt beside five girls and two guys, all American. They were lined up in front of a Dullahan. A Dullahan with an axe.
Ken didn’t need any more context. He stared, white-faced at Luan. Aiko was there, trembling. So were the other Humans and the rest of Gravetender’s Fist.
“They got caught sneaking through the forest last night. They’re—they’re going to be executed.”
Executed. Ken stared down at the kneeling group of Humans as the Dullahan with the axe shouted something and the soldiers behind him roared. He felt a ringing in his ears.
“We have to stop them.”
Luan looked at him. Ken had no answer. The Dullahan stepped forwards and Aiko made a sound. Ken didn’t realize he was next to her until he was putting his hands over her eyes.
She didn’t protest. Ken stared down at the bodies, feeling sick, horrified. The axe came up—someone stepped in front of him. Ken saw black skin. He stared at Luan’s back.
“You don’t need to see it.”
Luan’s voice was low. He blocked Ken’s view. Ken opened his mouth, and then heard the scream. It came from Paige. She stumbled back and he heard Daly shout and turn away.
Ken heard another shout, and more screams. He saw Luan’s back trembling. There was another roar from the Dullahans, more screams, and then Luan stumbled away. Ken heard him throwing up with several other people, not all of them Human.
It was over. Ken stared down at the valley as the Dullahans raised their weapons and shouted at the Centaurs, who shook the ground with their hooves and roared back. He saw bodies without heads, a red axe being wiped clean by one of the Dullahans and horror in the eyes of the other Humans.
The battle began minutes later. But Ken stood there, just staring at the place the bodies had been. Johanas’ corpse was soon lost among the fighting. But Ken remembered it. He wondered if he’d be assigned to dispose of it that night.
In that moment, Ken knew he could never go back. He looked at Luan. The young man was wiping his mouth. Vomit had stained part of his shirt. He looked at Ken, and Aiko grabbed the arms of both. Tears were streaming down her face.
“I can’t do it.”
That was all Luan said. Ken nodded.
“We must go.”
“We do, and we will die.”
Aiko’s face was drained of color. Luan looked at her, and then at Ken.
“The [Doctor] knew about blood transfusions. Maybe she’s from our world.”
It was a slim hope, a slim chance. But Ken grasped at it.
“We can ask her.”
Aiko stared at the fighting. If they went out without a banner, they would be a target for both sides. But they’d navigated the fighting once. If they kept clear of it, and most importantly had a banner—
“A white flag. That was what Captain Quallet told us to use.”
Ken stared around, hoping to see it. Luan paused.
“They keep the flag with the company banner. It’s in Quallet’s tent, and there’s always a guard. But you can probably talk him into giving it to us.”
“But it’s dangerous—”
Ken hesitated. Luan looked at the battlefield and came to a swift decision.
“I can’t be part of this. We can’t. Let’s go.”
Geneva had been sharpening her scalpels with a whetstone when the group of two young men and a young girl had rushed into their camp, waving a white flag. She hadn’t recognized them at first, until she’d looked at the tallest young man’s side. She hadn’t paid attention to his face, but then she remembered the shorter young man who looked almost Japanese.
And then he’d spoken, and the world turned upside down.
The scalpel fell from her fingers. Instantly, Geneva bent and recovered it from the dirt. She stared at Kenjiro, Aiko, and Luan as if they were ghosts.
“You. You’re all from—”
“You know about blood transfusions. You saved my life. You operate on people, and we’ve heard that you appeared a few months ago. We appeared last week. I’m from South Africa. This is Ken and Aiko. They’re from Japan. Are you…like us?”
The black young man—Luan—looked at Geneva. She felt Okasha moving inside her, whispering.
“Another world? Geneva, what—”
The word passed from Geneva’s lips. She saw the Japanese girl put a hand to her mouth, and the young Japanese man sag. With relief?
“I don’t believe it.”
Luan stared at her. He walked towards her hesitantly, and reached a hand out. Geneva stared at it. And then she rose and took it.
“I’m Luan Khomala, from South Africa. I am—I used to be a kayaker. In training for the Olympics. Who are you?”
Geneva felt the grip, strong and sure. A pulse beat through Luan’s fingers, and she stared into dark brown eyes, a strong, smiling face with short hair. She hadn’t looked at his face before. Her voice was hoarse as she replied.
“I—I’m Geneva Scala. I was…a medical student. I’m from America.”
She saw Luan’s smile vanish as she said where she was from. Suddenly, Ken had lowered his head and Aiko was crying. Geneva looked at them.
“I didn’t know. I had no idea there was…anyone from my world. I never had a chance to ask around or—I didn’t know.”
Geneva sat with the others, in a rare break from the fighting. No—it wasn’t a break. It was that the fighting had been too fierce for anyone to bring the wounded to her, so Geneva actually had time to talk. The irony of that was bitter on her tongue as she sat with Aiko, Luan, and Ken.
And spoke. It was the first time Geneva had really talked with—with anyone. She heard the three out, listening mainly to Luan as he explained the incredible circumstances that had led them onto the same battlefield as her. Incredible, but not unbelievable. She had had the same experience. In Baleros, it was hard to find paying work for those who were unskilled—except in war.
It was the deaths of the other Americans, the other people from her country that shook Geneva the most. She hadn’t heard about the executions. There had been a group of people from her world, from where she lived, perhaps from the same state, and they had lived and died so close by without her ever knowing.
“I can’t stand this place. I’ve seen and heard of horrible shit in the countries where I come from—there are African warlords who’d fit right into this place. But I can’t just do my job disposing of dead bodies while it goes on.”
Luan gestured with a shaking hand at the cover of the forest, beyond which he could hear and see the fighting going on. He looked at Geneva.
“How do you stand it? You’ve been through, what, three battlefields?”
“Four. Counting this one.”
Geneva stared down at her hands. She’d seen so much blood and death over the past month—more bodies and horror than she’d seen in the worst videos of ER rooms at hospitals. Somehow she’d kept her sanity and mind through it all. She’d grown numb to it, at least in part.
“What is it you’re doing, Geneva-san? Why are you here?”
That came from Ken, the young Japanese man. He leaned over the table, looking curiously at her.
“Were you hired? Are you being paid to save people?”
“No. Not at all. I’m not here to…I do my job. I try to save people. That’s all.”
Geneva tried to explain. The others tried to understand. Geneva stood up and paced around, grateful that Okasha was just listening to all this. She didn’t know if she should tell them about her.
“I—I was trained to be a doctor, a medical practitioner. I wanted to be a surgeon. And this…I never graduated from medical school, but I still believe in the Hippocratic Oath. I see people dying. Soldiers. And I can help them. There are no medical techniques in this world. No one knows about suturing, or surgery—they don’t know about blood transfusion. Or blood types.”
Something took a hold of her tongue. Geneva found herself correcting her statement.
“Well, Selphids do. But they don’t share that knowledge.”
The others looked at her and Geneva tried to pretend nothing different had happened. She continued.
“So I do what I can. I patch people up—I can deal with injuries that healing potions can’t fix, like the arrow that hit you, Luan. But I can’t stop the fighting. I’ve just done what I can. That’s all I can do. I’d like to help you three, and the others, but…I can’t do anything.”
The three exchanged hopeless looks. Geneva stared at them. She knew what suppression companies did. She’d seen the undead rising—had one appear on the operating table before Okasha bashed its brains in. That hadn’t violated her oath, but it had disturbed her. There were magical, fantastical things like the undead and mages in this world, but people still bled and killed each other like they did in hers.
And now there were people in need, people from her world, frightened, without any way to protect themselves, stuck in a war and dying. Geneva felt the same urge as she did when she saw someone who was wounded. She had to help.
But how? She paced back and forth and came to a quick decision.
“If you can leave your company—I’ll make sure you’re fed and have a place to sleep here. I can’t, won’t leave. Not until this is over. But you’ll be safer here than you will out there.”
Luan looked at her. He was Geneva’s age, maybe older. He stood.
“It’s not just us. There are more—there were more, but there are still at least forty people. Can you feed us all?”
Geneva had food. The Selphids had food, rather. They’d brought it with them and provided a lot of the supplies she needed. She hesitated, and then nodded. She wasn’t sure, but she had only one answer in her heart.
“Only people from our world, though. I can’t ask the people with me to guard more than that. Luan, Ken, Aiko…I don’t know if you’ll be safer here than in your company, to tell you the truth. I don’t have a company, and I don’t dare leave this area.”
They nodded. Luan stood and looked towards the sky.
“We’ve got to go back.”
“Will you be safe going back? I could ask Calectus to—”
“We will be fine. I am a [Negotiator] and we have a flag. A white one.”
Ken reassured Geneva, although she wanted to be the one to do that to him. He was pale, as was Aiko and Luan. They’d just seen their friends killed and now Geneva was handing them a hard choice. They looked at her. Aiko bowed and so did Ken. Luan nodded.
Then they were gone, leaving Geneva alone. Only, she was never alone. Okasha had heard the entire thing.
At that moment, Geneva couldn’t have cared less.
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
Ken looked at Luan as they found their way back to camp. Luan’s face was set. He looked at Ken and Aiko.
“I’m going to go with Geneva. I can’t do this, guys. I can’t—can’t go out there and keep wondering if I’ll die the next time a patrol thinks I’m an enemy. I nearly died once. I won’t risk my life to clean up after a war. I don’t know if you’ll come with me, but I’m sorry. I’ve made up my mind.”
The two Japanese college students blinked up at Luan. Ken and Aiko shared a look. Aiko was the first to speak.
“I…don’t want to ever stab a dead body again!”
Ken felt his entire body resonating with Luan’s statement. He took a breath.
“I will go. And I hope—I hope the others will come too.”
Daly raised his head and shook it. Ken saw the motion, recognized it, and still didn’t comprehend.
“No? Why not?”
“I’m not going, Ken. Even if this [Doctor]’s from our world—I’m going to stay in the company.”
He was sitting by the fire, somber, and he’d been alone until Ken and Luan had come to talk with him. None of the others were in the mood to speak, but Daly’s decision stunned Ken. Luan sat next to Daly, eyes on his face.
“Are you worried about being safe?”
“Not that. I just don’t think leaving the company’s a good idea.”
“Daly, what we saw this morning—”
The young man from Australia swore and turned to Luan, eyes overly bright.
“I know what we saw. But the way me and the rest of us figure it—we don’t have a choice. We signed on to be soldiers, and if we desert now, we’re stuck in the same boat.”
“Geneva says she can protect us—”
“Maybe she can, maybe she can’t. That’s not the point!”
Daly raked his fingers through his blonde hair. His hands were shaking, but his voice was more controlled when he spoke.
“We may not like what happened, but every bloody bastard out there is higher level than we are. The Captain is right. This is the safest way to level up and learn how to fight. So long as we don’t try to run.”
“So what? So you’ll all gain levels fighting. And then what? Will you join up as a soldier? Keep working here?”
Luan folded his arms. Daly shrugged.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead. No one has. But if we don’t have a way to defend ourselves, what’s to stop us from getting shot? Or getting killed like Johanas and the rest?”
He looked meaningfully at Luan as he said that. Ken didn’t know what to say, but Luan shook his head.
“Daly, after what I’ve seen, I don’t think any amount of levels or Skills or weapons is enough. Fighting in these wars, with these companies…if I can help it, I’d rather not fight at all. I have something to live for. Someone to live for.”
Someone? Ken looked at Luan, and then at Daly as the other young man shook his head.
“I guess that’s the difference in the way we see things. Some days it’s fine to run. Other days you’ve gotta buckle down and fight.”
And that was it. He refused to go, and told Ken and Luan the same went for the rest.
“We’re sticking together on this. Each one of us. We’re a team, and a lot of the others are decent sorts. The Centaurs are right bastards, the Dullahans are stuck up, and the Lizardfolk love killing cute things, but they’re all like us. We’re a company and we’re not going to abandon each other.”
There was something wonderful about what he said, and also…Ken felt drawn to what Daly was saying, but he shared Luan’s horror. And he agreed with Luan. It was one thing to risk his life, but for this? To haul dead bodies away so more people could fight? That was senseless to Ken, more than the call of staying with the company was.
Ken and Luan didn’t just ask Daly of course. Aiko was asking some of the girls she knew, but the answer was the same. The others wouldn’t join up with Geneva, who they’d never met. They were going to stick together, to keep working. They’d been shaken by the executions of that morning, and they had seen the truth in what Quallet had told them. Only one of them had died so far while clearing the undead. But those who had fled had died. True, Johanas and the others had only been a fraction of the American group, but no one, including Ken, thought the others had survived.
In a strangely perverse way, the executions had brought the rest of the Humans, the rest of Gravetender’s Fist closer together. They were a proper company now. Only Luan, Aiko, and Ken couldn’t be part of it.
“We’ll be watching for you lot. If you survive the fighting…well, we’ll see then, won’t we? Watch how you go.”
Daly shook Ken’s hand, as did the others. That left Ken, Luan, and Aiko to march up to Quallet’s tent as night began to fall. Ken wondered if they were doing the right thing. Johanas and the others had fled without a word. What would Quallet do if Ken told him to his face that he wanted to quit?
Stare. That was the answer. The [Mercenary Captain] was getting ready for the night’s work. Now he turned and stared at the three.
“If you go, you’ll be deserters. You saw what happened to deserters this morning. Why risk it? And why tell me?”
“Because we want to be honest about it.”
Luan met Quallet’s eye. The Captain eyed him back and nodded to the forest.
“So you’ll just run off and pray you don’t get spotted by a patrol? Because if you do—”
“No. we will go to the [Doctor].”
“The [Doctor]? Why—”
“We know her. She’s…from where we are.”
The Captain frowned. He looked at Ken, then at Aiko, and then Luan. But it was Ken his eyes settled on, and Quallet remembered his promise to give Ken a bonus. He shook his head.
“I won’t stop you. But if you leave my company, you’ll be on your own. That [Doctor] seems competent, but she has no company. She’s got a handful of soldiers protecting her, and she won’t have enough healing potions to do her job forever. Not at the way this war is going. What makes going with her better? She’s one person. A single [Doctor]. Alone.”
“She’s not alone.”
Aiko was the one who said it. Ken and Luan closed their mouths and looked at her. She stared at Quallet, eyes still red from crying, but resolute. She spoke carefully, forming the words in English.
“She is not alone. We are like her. We are not…not soldiers. She is like us. She does not kill.”
“Neither does my company. We fight undead. We dispose of the dead. What makes her work any different from the work we do?”
“She saves lives.”
Luan spoke. Quallet opened his mouth, and then Ken interrupted him. He looked at Quallet, and a slight suspicion made him speak.
“Captain Quallet. May I ask a question?”
“You are a smart captain. You are experienced as a leader. You heard us arguing. So…”
Ken hesitated. He looked at Quallet.
“…Did you tell the Dullahans that our friends would try to run away last night?”
Aiko gasped. Luan’s eyes widened. Quallet just stared at Ken, and then he turned away. Ken stared at his back, and then he walked out of the tent.
There was a rite of passage among medical students, although it wasn’t publically talked about. And that was that in many graduate programs, regardless of whether you were studying to be a physician or just aimed to practice general medicine, it used to be mandatory to take a class in which you would dissect a human cadaver.
Geneva had known she’d have to open someone up when she’d first enrolled as a medical student. She’d dreaded the moment, feared the impartiality of it. Then had come the moment when she cut open the gray, lifeless body. It had felt solemn, and she remembered the classroom being hushed as the students around her felt themselves taking a step into a world many would never dream of entering.
They cut open a body, dissected it, identified organs, and within a few days, felt used to it. That was the point. No amount of illustrations in books or lectures could give you the hands-on experience of touching a real body, and that was what a surgeon or specialist needed most of all.
Of course, now medical programs were cutting back on using human corpses, due to lack of time and the expense of obtaining ones for medical students to practice on. And yet, therein lay the irony of surgery, of Geneva’s profession.
To become a great surgeon, one capable of taking on the hardest challenges, one had to practice. But no one trusted a new surgeon. And yet, a surgeon had to operate, and thus, make mistakes to grow experienced.
In short, it always came back to the same contradiction: a surgeon grew from the patients who died under her care.
It wasn’t always like that of course. That was a harsh generalization. In another hospital, there would be veterans, older doctors, and other surgeons on standby who could help out in an emergency. But part of Geneva had wondered, idly, while she listened to her professors lecture her whether experience was all a doctor needed.
The average surgeon took on many operations each year. Hundreds. But they also followed a strict set of rules, having to clean themselves, create sterile operating environments—all to make sure their patients had the best chance possible.
In wars, medicine was not so nice. During the Second World War, doctors had to see to patients without the luxury of a schedule, or even a full team of trained helpers. Soldiers would come in all at once, sometimes by the hundreds, and it would force the helpless doctors and medics to make the hardest choices. They’d have to balance who would live and who would die, and who would be easier to save. They could save one life while ten more passed, or save ten and let the one die.
Perhaps those doctors had been the best. They would have operated countless times each day. Did that confer some sort of instinct? Some innate sense of the body and how to save it? Geneva had idly wondered about that as a student. Now—she knew. And the answer was simple, painful.
No. After a while, all the bodies began to look the same. The living—but especially the dead.
“Beginning the incision. Make sure the patient is still asleep and let me know if they wake up!”
Geneva snapped as she raised a scalpel and sliced into the wounded Dullahan’s chest. The blade she was using delved past the shattered chest plate of the Dullahan’s armor—a small mercy or she would have had to saw through it, taking precious time. Now Geneva cut into the thick skin that was the last layer of protection between the Dullahan’s internal organs and the outside world.
The two [Soldiers] who stood in the tent nodded. They were used to the work, and both were ready to grab the Dullahan if he woke. They stared grimly at the broken and bleeding insides of the Dullahan, and then away. They’d volunteered for this, and respected Geneva for what she could do.
But few people could look at what a surgeon did to the body without flinching. Geneva’s left hand was a blur as it cut, exposing a bloodied mess of organs beneath.
“Internal bleeding. I need a healing potion!”
Her right hand shot out and grabbed a bowl of liquid. Geneva carefully administered it, watching as the organs, muscles, and tissue that had been battered and torn by the mace slowly closed.
Healing potions. Faster and better than anything in her world. Geneva eyed the rest of the wounded site, and saw nothing wrong.
Her hands moved with experienced speed. Her left shot out and grabbed a curved needle, already threaded in preparation for this event. The other found a pair of forceps.
The [Soldiers] in the tent turned back to watch as Geneva began to sew up the Dullahan’s mended chest. This they could appreciate, and there was something miraculous about how fast Geneva moved. Her left hand was a blur as it stitched up the flesh of the Dullahan’s chest, closing the long incision in moments. Her right hand moved slower by comparison, carefully grasping the flesh and bringing it together to be sewn up.
And then it was done. Geneva stepped back from the closed flesh and grabbed the bowl of healing potion. She sprinkled a few drops of it over the stitches, and watched the wound heal.
Partially. That was all she could ration. Geneva put the bowl back and found the Dullahan’s shattered chest plate. She couldn’t fix his armor, but it was important to them that it stayed together.
“Wash this. Make sure you give him the lecture about keeping the wound clean.”
She spoke to one of the [Soldiers], another Dullahan with dull grey iron armor. She nodded and after locking her head into place on her shoulders, carried the Dullahan off of Geneva’s operating table and out of the room.
Done. Geneva sagged for a second, feeling the tension of the operation fade away. She spoke, although there was no one else in the tent but her.
“That was a relief. I thought a piece of the armor might have been stuck in his chest.”
There was no one there to hear that could be seen. But a voice replied, inaudible except in Geneva’s head. Because it was speaking in her head.
“If it had been, what would you have done?”
“Removed it. Hoped the healing potion solved the worst of the issues—sutured what I could. Time was of the essence, Okasha. If I had the ability to do blood transfusions, I’d have more time. But I haven’t been able to fix up a proper needle and pump mechanism.”
“I see. Should I see if there are any ways to construct such a thing later?”
Geneva shook her head slightly, speaking to the thing listening to her. In her. The Selphid named Okasha was in her body, controlling her right arm. She could probably feel the vibrations in Geneva’s vocal chords before the words left her mouth.
“Don’t bother. The healing potions replenish lost fluids, and they’re faster. It’s better to use them rather than try and maintain a blood bank, especially in this heat.”
Okasha didn’t reply, but Geneva felt an acknowledgement, a gentle twitch that ran through her body’s nervous system. It wasn’t unpleasant; the opposite, in fact. But it would have terrified her to experience such a thing, to know someone was sharing her body a few months ago.
Now she didn’t react. Geneva had long since made her peace with what had happened. Although there were things to get used to.
Like how her body would move. Geneva found herself walking over to a bench in the corner of her impromptu operating area, sitting down. She hadn’t intended any of it, but Okasha had taken over and Geneva hadn’t tried to fight. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she did, to be honest. Okasha had never brought the subject up. She was a friend, an assistant on the operating table, and she worried about Geneva. Too much, sometimes.
“You should rest. You’ve been awake for over a day now.”
Geneva knew that. She felt the exhaustion in her body, but she shook her head anyways.
“I’m fine, Okasha. I need to stay awake.”
“But if you don’t sleep—”
“I’ll sleep after this lot. I promise. Just give me a moment.”
Okasha fell silent. Geneva sighed, and lowered her head. The Dullahan would live. He wouldn’t fight for a day at least—she’d keep him here in the field hospital she ran, until the convoy arrived at night to take him back to his army. Then, depending on whether they decided to treat him with more healing potions, he might be fighting tomorrow.
The living came to be saved, and then went back to kill or be killed the next day. Geneva had struggled with that knowledge, wondering if she was doing the right thing. She didn’t know. She only knew that she had sworn an oath. If there was a life she could save, she did.
There was no one else who could. In Baleros, a continent that bled, Geneva was the only [Doctor]. The only true one, at any rate.
She wondered, sometimes, what those brave souls laboring to save lives had felt during the war. Did they fight for every life, clinging to it, fighting to fix the horrible things bullets and humans could do to each other? Or did the feeling of despair slowly sink in? Did the endless tide of bodies crush them?
She didn’t know. She couldn’t ask. Geneva sat quietly in the tent, hearing the sounds of battle in the distance, screams of the wounded around her. In a few moments the tent flap would open, and another wounded person would come in. Another life for her to fight for. But right now she just sat. She was tired, exhausted.
Geneva Scala, a Level 26 [Doctor], sat with Okasha humming a quiet melody in her ears, transmitting the song into Geneva’s mind by projecting the sound directly into the inner ear. It was a soothing melody, and Geneva closed her eyes. If she slept for a minute, Okasha would make sure her body stayed upright.
She was so tired. She would have loved to rest, but there was always someone crying out. There was always a war. This was her third battlefield since coming to this world. Geneva had been working non-stop since then. Saving lives. Fighting.
She couldn’t remember what it was like to smile.
Kenjiro Murata knew he was no hero. He was not a warrior, although he’d been in a few fights growing up. But he wasn’t someone who liked to fight, and he preferred to defuse tense situations rather than escalate them.
That was Ken’s problem. He wasn’t many things. Some people were good at everything. Not Ken. He wasn’t a top athlete although he liked running on the track. He’d never placed that high on exams, and if he was honest, he wasn’t good-looking. Not that he had an unattractive face! But none of those attributes could define him in a meaningful way.
In truth, there was only one thing Ken was good at, and that was understanding other people. He liked meeting people. He liked talking to people he didn’t know—especially foreigners.
It wasn’t that he was that social, either. Ken would have agreed that he was no social butterfly—if he’d understood what that phrase meant in English. He just…liked other people. He liked other cultures, studying about other nations. He dreamed of travelling, which is why he had rejoiced at a chance to visit Australia as part of his university’s foreign exchange program.
Ken wasn’t that good at learning languages so he felt awkward, but he’d been excited to travel to Australia and talk with everyone he could. That was why he’d wanted to be a businessman, preferably someone who travelled abroad and negotiated business deals in foreign countries.
It was his big dream, the thing that Ken had aimed for ever since high school. He knew his grades weren’t the best, but he’d persevered. He wasn’t excellent at speaking English—he wasn’t gifted, but he kept practicing. If he had a talent, Ken would have said he was good at observing people, learning how they acted.
This is what he saw.
It came towards him, making a horrible scratchy sound through its damaged vocal chords. It was a zombie, the weakest of the undead. But it was also a Centaur, and so it was terrifying for other reasons.
“Get around it!”
Someone shouted. Luan ran past Ken and bashed the Centaur’s back left leg. It stumbled, and Ken dodged away from its swinging arms. The Centaur, tall as any horse—taller, in fact since it had the human torso on top—twisted, and the dead female’s head focused on Luan.
Ken heard the call and he ran forwards at the same time three others did. He cut at the Centaur’s side as Aiko speared it from one end and two Dullahans cut at it with swords. Luan ran forwards and delivered the final strike—a hammer blow to the Centaur’s head. He alone was tall enough to hit her there, and the Centaur, body too broken to move, finally fell.
Ken backed away, shaking, sweaty. He waited for the Centaur to move as Aiko pulled her spear back and stabbed it in the head, but it didn’t. It was finally dead. He breathed out and heard a voice.
“Everyone okay? Hey, you two good? Ken?”
Luan was walking around, checking on everyone. As leader of their small group, one patrol of the Gravetender’s Fist company, he felt the need to make sure they were well. Ken raised a shaking hand and gave him a thumbs up.
“Good work, mate.”
Luan raised his fist and Ken turned his gesture into a weak fist-bump. The tall South African man grinned at him and turned to the Dullahans.
“You two good?”
They were. Everyone was good, even Aiko. She stepped away from the corpse as Luan turned to it. Ken heard him groan.
“Now we’ve got to drag this back to the pile. Damn it. We should have lured her closer.”
He gestured, and the five gathered around the Centaur. Grimly, each one reached down and began to haul the body away. It was horrible. Ken and the other Humans had gloves and the Dullahans had gauntleted hands, part of the armor that covered their entire body, but the stench and smell was overpowering.
Not to mention the Centaur wasn’t entirely whole. A part of her fell off as she was being dragged—Ken looked away and tried not to gag.
Perhaps it would have been easier if they cut her up and carried the bits to one of the corpse piles that would be burned come dawn. But neither Ken nor the other new recruits in Gravetender’s Fist had the stomach for it. So they dragged the body, swearing as they crossed the uneven ground and mud, heading towards a place where a pair of armed soldiers with lanterns stood looking in every direction.
“Hey! It’s us!”
Luan called out as the two soldiers spotted their group. He didn’t need to say anything else. He just needed to reassure the soldiers that they were alive and not undead. The lantern that Aiko carried helped, but Ken had learned to be wary of every moving shape as they worked.
Their group deposited the corpse at the pile of bodies. It stank. Flies buzzed and Ken had to back away fast or vomit again. Not that his stomach was full—he’d been told not to eat anything before nightfall, and this was why.
One of the soldiers commented and Luan grimaced.
“She got up right when we came by. Scared us all to death.”
“Be grateful she wasn’t a Ghoul. Only thing worse than a Centaur Ghoul is a Dullahan one.”
The soldiers called out as Luan and the group trudged away. Ken glanced at the two Dullahans, one male, one female, but neither reacted to the statement. Probably because it was fact. A Zombie Dullahan was a nightmare to fight, mainly because of their armor and the fact that their head might be lying on the ground, making putting them down again that much harder. You had to batter them to pieces unless you found the head.
“Let’s go back. It’s this way, I think. Right, Aiko?”
Their group trudged back the way they’d come. They had an area to cover, and the zombie Centaur was only one of the bodies they had to haul back to the pile to be burned. It was a horrible, foul job, and Ken hated it. But he had signed up and so he had to work.
This was Gravetender’s Fist. A suppression company enlisted to dispose of the undead and corpses that were the natural byproduct of a conflict involving two companies, the Razorshard Armor company, and the Roving Arrow company.
Ken’s unit, along with everyone else in the company, had a simple job. They went out, found dead bodies, collected them into a pile, and burned them so undead wouldn’t spawn from them. They killed any undead that had already risen, and then got off the battlefield before the two sides began fighting again.
This was their third night doing it. Was it better the third time?
Yes. A bit. The third night was better than the first, if only because there was no shock and horror. The fear was still there, almost overwhelming the senses in the torch-lit darkness, but Ken and the others could operate under it now.
Aiko called out to her left and Ken, Luan, and the two Dullahans stopped dead in their tracks. They moved towards Aiko and spotted a group of corpses. They approached warily, weapons at the ready. A pile of bodies could be burying a zombie or something worse. Aiko stepped forwards and stabbed the pile repeatedly, but nothing moved.
“Let’s take them back.”
Luan sighed and Ken reached down to tug at the armor of one fallen soldier. He paused as he saw a Human face in the lantern light, twisted with fear. It was staring right at him.
Aiko’s voice snapped Ken’s head up. He saw her looking at him. He shook his head.
He began to pull at one leg, as Aiko gingerly took an arm. They dragged the body away and Luan bent.
“Hold up. The sword’s here.”
He pulled it away before Ken and Aiko dragged the body any further. Luan went around collecting armor, weapons, that could be used, while the Dullahans dragged one body. Ken and Aiko resumed pulling their burden.
Back towards the pile. It was most efficient that way, apparently. Burning each body where it had fallen was too hard, and it carried a risk of spreading fire. So the Gravetender’s Fist company had designated areas where piles of corpses were collected, to be disposed of later.
The pile Ken and the others were assigned to was taller than he was, and it was one of many. It took hundreds of people hours of non-stop work to collect the bodies and burn them before the next day began. It felt meaningless because the next day the soldiers would begin slaughtering each other as soon as it was light, but the work was necessary.
Bad things appeared if the bodies weren’t laid to rest. Ken saw one of those things later that night. He heard a scream that rose above the buzzing of insects, the voices in the distance, and the pounding of his heart.
He and the others froze in place. Ghoul. One of the stronger, faster variants of undead. They were rarer, but far deadlier than a zombie. And the call had come from nearby.
“What should we do?”
One of the Dullahans looked around, her hands tight on her sword hilt. She was wide-eyed. She’d seen a Ghoul before, seen what they could do. Ken’s stomach twisted with fear. He’d seen too.
Luan’s voice was steady. He motioned them to stand in a circle, as they’d been instructed to do.
“Stay together. Watch for anything—”
“Look! The Captain!”
Aiko cried out. Ken saw their company’s captain, Quallet Marshhand, sprinting in the direction of the scream. He shouted, and Ken saw a blur of movement heading towards him. Quallet slashed out at it with his axe, incredibly fast. For a moment his form was obscured, and then Ken and the others saw him hacking at something on the ground. The chaos ended.
The Ghoul was dead.
“Back to work!”
Quallet shouted at all of the people who’d stopped, his voice reaching far across the valley. Ken felt a hand on his shoulder and Luan nodded.
“You heard him. More corpses.”
That was life. Ken slowly began to move forwards, shoulders aching, sweat and insects fighting for space on his body. He kept dragging bodies towards the pile until he heard a horn call, and hurried back towards the gleaming flag, illuminated by magic and lighting up the area around it. As the sun broke over the hills around the valley, Quallet led his weary company back towards the neutral ground where they could rest and sleep.
Another day done. Countless more to come.
When he wasn’t on duty, which lasted the whole night, Ken slept. He woke up past midday like the others, found food waiting for him, and ate the unpalatable rations in silence. Then he glanced at the sun.
It was falling fast due to the season being allegedly winter. Ken had already learned to hate that fact: it meant he had to work more and night would come sooner. But for a few precious hours, he was free to stay within the neutral zone his company had been allotted. He could chat with other members of Gravetender’s Fist or the other suppression companies, scrub himself with dirt—water being far too precious, unless it rained—gamble for food with dice, squat in a latrine if he needed to relieve himself, or go back to sleep.
Small things. But Ken would have gladly squatted over the insect-covered pits in the ground for hours rather than spend five minutes hauling corpses. Well, maybe an hour for every ten minutes.
Instead of going over to where the people from his world, the Humans of various nationalities, mostly American, Australian, and European countries, were talking and sitting amongst themselves (or having sex in one of the tents, which had bothered Ken and Aiko when they’d heard about it—and heard it happening), Ken took a chance and went over to talk with another group that sat by a fire, talking amongst themselves.
The Lizardfolk, one of the main races inhabiting Baleros, looked up as one as Ken approached. He smiled and waved at them, which was received well, because they instantly waved him over.
“Human! Do you need something? Is it orders from Captain Marshhand?”
Some called out to Ken as he hesitantly sat by the fire, trying to smile, to project sociability. To Ken’s knowledge, this was the first time anyone from his group had tried sitting with the Lizardfolk. They’d chatted of course, but never for long. It had always been—what was the word? Awkward.
And Ken had an idea why.
“No I am not here with orders. I would just like to ah, talk.”
Some of the Lizardfolk immediately laughed and crowded around Ken, in a moment he found himself sitting by lots of scaly bodies. The Lizardfolk of Baleros were thin and reptilian, with long tails and colorful neck frills of flesh. They looked like they had odd versions of a lion’s mane—each Lizardfolk had a very colorful frill, which often contrasted with the rest of their scales.
“So why do you want to talk to us, Human? What is your name?”
Ken found himself looking at a blue-scaled Lizardgirl with deep red neck frills, bordering on purple. He knew her.
“You are Quexa, yes? I am Kenjiro Murata. I am very pleased to meet you.”
“Oh! You were assigned to my pile last night! Did you hear about the Ghoul? It attacked my group—nearly got me!”
Quexa grinned at him, her red neck frills opening and closing as she gestured to some other Lizardfolk.
“I thought I was going to die—I tried to hit it with magic, but it was too fast! Then Captain Quallet came and cut its head open! Lucky! You look different from the other Humans, you and that girl. Are you two having sex?”
Ken’s eyes widened and he tried to reply to Quexa in order. Lizardfolk had an odd way of talking. They’d ask and reply to multiple questions and statements in the same sentence. To fit in, Ken tried to do the same.
“I am very glad you are okay. I ah, am from Japan. It is a different country than the other, so I look different. I and Aiko are not having sex.”
Quexa’s eyes brightened in appreciation and Ken saw other Lizardfolk nodding as they listened to his scatter-shot response. He smiled inwardly. Yes, this was how you talked to Lizardfolk! He was right! The mood around him grew more intimate and Quexa scooted closer, a sure sign he was being accepted.
“Oh, I was asking because you look the same. And a lot of you are having sex! Every day you Humans have sex! Aren’t you worried about getting pregnant? Or do you all have birth charms? Can we borrow them? They must be very effective!”
“I uh, do not now about birth charms. Many of my…my friends are very worried, so they have sex. I uh, do not know about being pregnant. I hope they do not become pregnant, because we have no charms.”
“Humans are so reckless!”
“Are you interested in trying it with us?”
The Lizardfolk practically jumped on Ken, asking questions, laughing, speaking in a jumble with no clear leader. As was their way. Ken had watched them carefully before this moment, and he thought he understood Lizardfolk. He had observed how they interacted. So they could understand him. So he could understand them. So they could be…friends?
The first thing Kenjiro had observed was that of the three non-Human species in Gravetender’s Fist, the Lizardfolk liked to talk the most. In fact, they were what he would call おしゃべり, or ‘chatterboxes’ as some of the Americans called them. Only, that applied to their entire species, not just one in particular.
It wasn’t hard to observe the other races—Ken had served with them for three days already, on top of the time he’d been marching with them. And one thing Ken had noticed was that Lizardfolk stuck together. They liked being part of a group and, this was crucial, seemed to decide things en-masse.
They were also uncomfortable being the odd ones out, which is why Ken had noticed that every time a group of people from his world came over to talk to a few, the Lizardfolk had seemed edgy. It was only when they were in greater numbers than the outsiders that they seemed happy to talk.
They didn’t like being outnumbered. But when they weren’t, they were as social as could be, which is why Ken had chosen to speak with them, rather than Dullahans or Centaurs first. He wanted to, well, he just wanted to be friendly with them.
Ken believed in being friends, in forging relationships. It was a part of his culture—making strong ties and getting to know people was how the business world in Japan worked. It was everything, and Ken was trying to apply that idea here. It was all he knew, and they were all on the same side, right? All the more reason to be friends. Especially because Ken knew nothing of this world.
And Lizardfolk liked to talk.
“You’ve never met a Lizardperson? Ever?”
Quexa had moved rapidly past the horribly awkward and intimate talk of sex and was quizzing Ken about where he had come from. He couldn’t answer concretely, but she seemed happy enough to explain her people to him.
“We’re Lizardpeople! Only, you knew that. We’re the biggest species on Baleros—there’s Dullahans and Centaurs of course, but we have more sex than they do. We’re sort of like Drakes, if you’ve met Drakes, although they hate it when we say that. We’re not related, you know, although we look sort of the same.”
“Ah, yes. I know Dullahans and Centaurs. But there are other species, yes?”
Quexa laughed at Ken and the other Lizardfolk immediately shouted out names of species.
“Ever seen a Selphid?”
“What about a Fraerling? Ever stepped on one?”
“How about a Gazer?”
“Seen a Naga? One of our people?”
Ken hadn’t. Quexa pointed a Selphid out for him, and he saw one of the pale-white soldiers standing in the Untimely Demise company, talking with a Centaur. The Selphid had a Lizardperson’s body, but the body was clearly…dead. The scales were pale, and there was a bloodless wound on the side of the Lizardperson’s body that wasn’t bleeding. Ken shivered and Quexa noticed.
“Don’t worry! Selphids don’t steal living bodies. Or they’re not supposed to. They did that in the past, you know? Only, now if they do it we kill them. So they steal corpses! They live inside them. That’s a Selphid. I’d show you a Gazer, but I don’t think you’d see many in a Centaur-led army or a Dullahan one. They keep to themselves, mainly.”
The conversation diverged into a lecture about how weird Selphids were, with other Lizardfolk adding in details and stories.
“You know they never fight? Selphids. Even if they’re hired on opposite sides, if they meet they just bow to each other and won’t do battle, no matter what! I think that’s because there are so few. Well, we killed a lot of them a long time ago.”
“Hey, are any of your people [Mages]? You have a lot of shining magical artifacts. We see them, though you keep hiding them! What do they do?”
Pressured by the Lizardfolk, Ken tried to explain about the iPhones, computers, tablets, and other electronic devices some of the Humans from his world had carried. He showed his dead iPhone to the Lizardfolk and they were all over it, poking and prodding and vocally disappointed when it didn’t work.
Quexa handed the iPhone back to Ken. It had been dead ever since he’d come to Baleros—he’d forgotten to charge it and had been looking for a charger back in the Australian airport when he’d been taken. Aiko didn’t have hers, and neither did Luan.
“You should get that fixed! I bet a [Repair] spell would do it. I’d cast it, but I don’t know the spell.”
“Ah. And you are a [Mage]?”
She shook her head.
“I’m a [Sorcerer]. It’s not the same as the [Mage] class, you know. We cast magic by thinking about it real hard. Mages learn spells, but us [Sorcerers] are too lazy. We can’t use big spells unless we’re really high-level, but we don’t have to study. Cool, right?”
Ken tried to be as friendly as possible. After an hour of rapid-talk his head was spinning, so he got up and politely excused himself.
“I am very glad to meet you all. I hope we can talk soon, and that you are all safe this night. Thank you very much for greeting me.”
He bowed to them, making the Lizardfolk cry out farewells and warmly wave him off. Satisfied, Ken left the group and heard them continue chattering behind his back.
“See? I told you some of them were nice.”
“Did you hear his accent? I wonder where he’s from.”
“What about the shining things? You didn’t ask where they got them—”
Ken made his way back to the Humans and explained to Luan and Aiko what he’d done. The other Humans clustered around him, and soon they were going over to the Lizardfolk—in smaller groups. Chatter started up, and soon the Lizardpeople were comfortable enough to talk with Humans on their own. Ken felt accomplished, and then felt his happiness drain away as the sun set.
The valley was filled with bodies as Quallet ordered everyone to take up arms and march down into the darkness. He carried the flag of Gravetender’s Fist, a fist shooting out of soil emblazoned on cloth that shone brightly in the dark. It was one of the precautions the suppression companies took. They carried bright lights and waved shining banners so neither army would look at them as enemies.
That was the fourth night.
On the fifth day, there was beer. Ken heard about it as soon as he woke up, and found a mug filled with a frothy orange liquid shoved into his hands by one of the Americans.
His name was Johanas. He explained to Ken, face flushed, already clearly intoxicated. Ken leaned back a bit as Johanas excitedly talked.
“One of the guys traded a flashlight to him for a ton of beer! Hey, did you know that you can recharge all of our stuff with magic? It turns out if you cast [Repair] on something, the batteries get recharged too!”
He looked very happy at the news. Ken was happy too—but reservedly so. He appreciated drinking as much as anyone else, but not, it seemed, as much as the Americans. Some were under twenty one, which was apparently the drinking age in America. So many of the young men and women from America were drinking a lot—too much, in Ken’s opinion, to actually enjoy the experience.
Some were already throwing up.
“Thank you for telling me. Where did you buy the—beer—though?”
Ken stared at the orange liquid. It wasn’t like any beer he’d ever seen, but apparently it was a popular drink in Baleros. Johanas pointed north, towards another group sharing the neutral zone.
“See those guys? The [Merchants]? They’re…what, war vendors? Yeah, that’s what they’re called. They’ll sell to anyone for the right price.”
Ken did indeed know about the war vendors, opportunistic [Merchants] who travelled with heavy escorts to battlefields to supply armies in need of extra potions, arms, magical artifacts, and so on. And apparently, beer as well.
He spotted one of the [Merchants], and saw to his surprise a serpentine form, a good seven feet high, glittering gold and red scales that ran from a long and powerful tail up into a humanoid torso with two arms and a serpentine head. The Naga had long fins on the back of his head, like a Lizardperson’s frills. And that was because…
Ken stared hard at the [Merchant], enough so that both he and Johanas noticed. The Naga turned, saw Ken looking, and waved at him. Ken kept staring.
“Dude, don’t stare.”
Johanas tugged him away, but Ken shook his head. He deliberately scrutinized the Naga from shining head to toe, noting how the Naga wore clothes only on his upper half, leaving his serpentine lower body free. He was very flashy, and his scales and clothing shone. He had small jewels embedded in the fabric!
“Hey, he’s looking at us.”
The slightly drunk and sobering Johanas looked worried, but Ken was not. Another aspect of Lizardfolk culture went into his staring.
“I think they do not mind. How can I say…? They like to be acknowledged.”
The other young man gave Ken a skeptical look, but Ken’s theory was proven true in a few moments. Far from taking offense at Ken’s obvious study of his body, the Naga instead grinned. He twisted his body around, showing off his serpentine features much to the approval of the Lizardfolk watching him.
“He is one of the Lizardfolk, I think.”
“What? Him? But he looks nothing like them!”
Johanas was astonished. Ken nodded hesitantly.
“That is what they said. I think they turn into him. Into Nagas. Sometimes.”
The American young man stared at him. Ken turned his attention away from the Naga and shrugged. Johanas turned his head and then shook it, looking disoriented.
“Weird as fuck, man. I’ll, uh, I’ll see if the Lizards want to party, then. We have a lot of booze.”
So saying, he went over to the Lizardpeople. They were instantly on their feet and headed towards the place where the Americans were drinking, and Ken saw Johanas approach a group of Dullahans next.
Watch. Ken’s eyes narrowed slightly and he forgot the mug in his hands as he watched Johanas approach a group of five Dullahans. They had been talking quietly amongst themselves, but went silent as Johanas came over.
This is what Ken noticed. Of the five Dullahans, three had wooden armor, crude, seemingly hewn from trees. The other two though had metal armor. One looked like iron plate, the other, a type of scale mail. The other Dullahans seemed to defer to them.
It was about the armor. Ken was no expert, but the Dullahan with scale mail armor probably had the more expensive equipment, or body, than the one with iron armor. And that mattered. He watched as Johanas stumbled over and heard the young man’s voice.
“Hey, any of you lot want to drink? We’ve got free beer!”
He didn’t address the Dullahan in scale armor, nor the one with iron armor. And Ken knew immediately that was a mistake. The Dullahan in scale armor narrowed her eyes, and the Dullahan that Johanas had addressed, a wide-eyed, very young male in cheap wood armor, looked at her first before silently shaking his head.
“What about you then? Want to hang out?”
Ken winced as Johanas only now addressed the Dullahan in scale armor. She froze up. She looked irritated, furrowing her brows slightly. Johanas didn’t notice—Dullahan features changed only slightly and he was too drunk to see. She replied curtly and he stumbled away, shrugging.
The entire group of Dullahans had declined as one. None of them would go drink with the Americans, although a few Centaurs did drift over for the alcohol.
Ken was looking at the Lizardfolk, whom some of the Americans were unsuccessfully trying to convince to play a game of spin the bottle with, when someone spoke his name.
“Ken, what are you doing?”
He turned as Aiko approached him, speaking in Japanese. Ken pointed to the Lizardfolk, who were all refusing to play spin the bottle.
“They move as one group, you see, Aiko? If you cannot convince them as a whole, none will agree.”
Aiko eyed the group of Lizardfolk and shook her head.
“So? I think you spend too much time looking at them. Especially the female ones. What about Humans? We’re normal. They’re odd.”
Ken felt nettled by the comment. He turned away from Aiko, annoyed. He was trying to understand the other species. They were all in the same company—so what if Lizardpeople looked strange? So what if Dullahans could take their heads off, and Centaurs were half-horse, half-Human? He knew some of the people from his world couldn’t interact with the other species—he noted a girl refusing to go near one of the friendly Lizardfolk. But that wasn’t right.
“So what if they are different? We should get to know them better.”
He spoke sharply to Aiko. She stomped her foot, exasperated.
“We should stick together and work with other people from our world! They are talking each day, and you do not listen!”
A lot of the Americans were arguing it out with the Europeans and Australians, Ken knew. Everyone had been appalled at finding out just how horrible their duties were, and it was the Americans especially who wanted a change. But what could they do? He glared at Aiko.
“Should I go back and spend more time looking at Luan-san, then?”
Her face went red. Ken knew that Aiko had developed a crush on Luan. The South African man was older than everyone else, and he was always optimistic, always taking command. She punched his shoulder and Ken yelped and moved away.
She stormed off. Ken turned back, feeling guilty, and stared at the Centaurs and how they were interacting with the very drunk Americans. He had a theory about them as well, but he was interrupted by Luan.
“Hey Ken, I saw you and Aiko talking. Did you have a fight?”
Ken turned and smiled at Luan. His friend had a mug in one hand as well and was sipping gingerly at it. He made a face as he came to sit by Ken.
“You two in an argument? She looked pretty upset. What was it about?”
Of all the people to ask—no, Luan was the one who kept Aiko and Ken company, who looked out after them. Of course he’d ask. But Ken could say nothing. He bit his lip and tried to respond.
“I ah, how do I say this? I do not think I can tell you. It is not my secret to give away. I am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Luan grinned at him, and then frowned at his mug.
“Have you tasted this? It’s awful.”
Ken sipped at his drink and recoiled at the taste. The liquid was sour in a very unpleasant way. The Americans didn’t seem to mind the taste, but as Luan observed, they were only trying to get drunk.
“Half of them aren’t allowed to drink in their country. Crazy.”
Ken nodded in agreement. The drinking age in Japan was 20 years, but it wasn’t enforced in any strict sense of the word. In South Africa, it was apparently 18. That only mattered because Ken and Luan had had the chance to drink quite a few times before now. For Americans, it was apparently a lot harder.
“They are enjoying themselves. I am told they traded a flashlight for beer.”
Luan had heard that, and he wasn’t happy about it. He frowned as he took another sip of his drink and nearly spat it back out.
“They shouldn’t have done that. It was a bad idea.”
Ken saw Luan hesitate, and then glance around. No one was nearby to listen—they were either drinking, or trying to ignore the shouting coming from the people who were drinking. Still, Luan lowered his voice.
“That flashlight is very valuable. We don’t have a way to get more, and if we can repair it with magic, it’s too valuable to waste. But those assholes didn’t listen to me, or any of the Germans. They’re playing by their own rules and no one else’s opinion matters.”
“Damn right they are. Fucking bastards.”
Both Ken and Luan jumped. Someone had snuck up behind them. Someone with a class in [Rogue], which he’d gotten from sneaking around the battlefield. A tanned young man with blonde hair and a sword. His name was Daly, and he was from Australia. He put a hand on both Ken and Luan’s shoulders and he leaned in with them.
“You lot talking about the Americans, right? Know anything?”
“Not a thing, mate.”
Luan nodded familiarly with Daly. Perhaps it was because both of them said ‘mate’ that they got along. Or that they came from hot continents. Or…they just got along. Ken gently edged away from Daly. Intimate contact wasn’t exactly something he was at home with.
“Those wankers are up to something, and they won’t tell the rest of what. You heard anything, uh…what’s your names?”
“I’m Luan, this is Ken.”
“Pleased to meet ya. Thought I’d seen you around, but couldn’t remember your names off the top of my head.”
Ken was treated to a firm handshake. Daly squatted down next to them and began to grouse about the American problem with Luan.
“We’re all on the same boat, right? Why the hell are they keeping things secret?”
Luan shook his head as Ken sipped his drink and kept tactfully silent.
“Americans. I think they want to tell us what to do.”
“Yeah, well, since none of them have a nuke shoved down their trousers, I’ll pass on that. We’re in it together and unless they tell us what they’re planning, none of our lot is budging. The work we’re doing is shite, but at least none of us are dying.”
Daly nodded at the group of Australians he was with. There was an even ratio of males and females there, and they were having a conversation with some of the Centaurs, shouting to be heard above the party which was now enveloping all three companies. Gravetender’s Fist, Rot’s Bane, and Untimely Demise. Ken wondered if one of the officers would break up the mayhem, until he saw officer Raeh drinking along with the rest of them.
“Right well, it was good to meet both of ya. I’d love to have a pint with you, but those damned idiots are hogging it all.”
The Australian young man stood up with a groan, and then went off to get something to drink as well. Ken heard him shouting as he approached the group of Americans, who were now singing their national anthem.
“Oi! Stop hogging all the alcohol! Share some, you buggers!”
Someone waved at Daly and he gave them a ‘V’ sign with his fingers that Ken was fairly sure didn’t stand for ‘victory’. Luan laughed as he watched a group of Centaurs finally come over to shout at the partying soldiers to shut up.
Ken turned back to Luan. He hesitated, not knowing where to begin.
“Good friend Luan-san…”
“Call me Luan, yeah?”
“Luan—I have been talking with the others. Lizardfolk, and I was thinking of doing so with the Dullahans and Centaurs, only Aiko does not think it is a good idea.”
He was on familiar enough terms now to call Aiko by her first name, and he was glad that Luan felt he was a friend. Ken certainly considered him one. Luan nodded.
“Talking with them? Sounds good. I can’t get them to talk to me, but you got those Lizardfolk to open up. What’s Aiko’s problem?”
“I think she feels awkward. It is…they are very different, but I think they are like us. Some of the people from our world do not think so. But I—I think they are like us. What do you think?”
Ken held his breath, but Luan just smiled. He tapped his chest as he looked Ken in the eye.
“I was born during Apartheid, good friend Ken. I know about judging people by their skin. I think I should talk with Aiko, and you—should talk with the other species. We are all soldiers, yeah?”
Relieved, Ken grinned at Luan. That was how he found himself heading towards the group of Dullahans that Johanas had failed to invite. They were watching the partying with stony faces, and all of them stared flatly at Ken as he hesitantly approached.
This was different from the Lizardpeople. Ken braced himself. Where the species of Lizardfolk as a whole were cautious but quite open to talk, Dullahans were private. Notably so. They didn’t try to start conversations with people of other species unless it was out of necessity. But Ken thought the real barrier that none of the Humans had understood was the need for formality.
Americans weren’t formal. Europeans and people from Luan’s country…well, Ken didn’t actually know enough about each culture to be sure, but he knew that Japanese culture was very formal. Using the proper honorifics was extremely important in Japan, and it was something people from other countries had little grasp of.
It was like how in English, no one called him Murata-san or Ken-san, which would be more polite. It was all first names, which Ken found awkward at first. But Dullahans…they were slightly Japanese in the way they behaved towards one another.
This is what Ken had seen, from Johanas’ interactions with the Dullahans and other times. Dullahans had a hierarchy in any group, even if it was just between two of them. It was unspoken, but it was there and it shaped every interaction they had. And it was all based on armor.
Every Dullahan had armor. But the type of armor, quality, and materials different on each Dullahan. It was like clothing, only more intimate. It was a reflection of their personality and, Ken now understood, their social standing.
In a group, the Dullahans with the most impressive armor always spoke first, and everyone else deferred to them. It wasn’t just what their armor was made of either; someone with ornate armor was more important than someone with the same material of armor, but less craftsmanship. You had to have an eye for it, but Ken was confident in this case.
He approached the group of five Dullahans as they stared at him warily. They clearly didn’t want to talk, but Ken intended to prove he could show proper respect. That was why he didn’t immediately speak to the closest Dullahan, but rather, to the one with scale armor, the one Johanas had failed to immediately address.
“Please excuse my rude interruption, but I was hoping I could speak with you all.”
The Dullahan woman wearing scale armor blinked as Ken bowed his head towards her. She had placed her head next to her body, and now she grabbed her head and aimed her face at Ken to speak. She hesitated, and then replied.
“What do you wish to say, Human?”
The others looked from her to Ken as he introduced himself.
“I am Kenjiro Murata. I would like to introduce myself to fellow soldiers. May I ask your name?”
Again, he spoke directly towards the Dullahan in scale armor. She nodded after a moment.
“I am Etretta Fulvrie. I greet you, Kenjiro.”
She spoke his name somewhat awkwardly, but Ken pretended not to notice. He nodded towards her and she nodded back. Then Ken turned to look at the Dullahan sitting across from her, the one in iron armor.
There was a flicker of surprise as the Dullahans noticed Ken’s action. The Dullahan in iron armor glanced at Etretta. There was a flicker of approval in her eyes as she nodded slightly at him.
He introduced himself in a gravelly voice. He was named Lethic, and the other three Dullahans introduced themselves, in the order of the quality of their armor, not where they were sitting or their age. Kenjiro hid a smile. He was right!
“What is it you have come to say, Kenjiro Murata?”
“I wish to apologize for my comrade. He does not understand your culture, and he may have offended you. For that I am very sorry.”
Ken spoke to Etretta, and the group at large. He bowed first to Etretta, and then to Lethic. The Dullahans stirred, murmured quietly. Etretta’s eyes were sharp on Ken. She had a very fine sword and she, unlike the others, was an experienced soldier in Gravetender’s Fist.
“Humans often make mistakes. We are used to it. But you think you understand our ways, Kenjiro?”
“I would not say I understand, but I hope to know more. Your people are a very impressive one.”
Ken met Etretta’s eyes for only a moment before looking away. He had a sense that staring at a Dullahan’s head was too intimate. By contrast, staring at their armor was a sign of respect.
Again, his intuition paid off. Etretta cradled her head, growing visibly more relaxed as she and the others rested their heads on the ground or their laps, not holding them stiffly as they did around strangers. Was it a sign that they didn’t think they were in danger?
“I accept your apology, Kenjiro. I would speak with you more if you are willing. Are there still drinks to be had?”
Kenjiro smiled. And after a second, so did Etretta. As it turned out there was still alcohol to be had, although they had to pass by several comatose bodies to get to it.
That night, Quallet swore a blue streak and threatened to thrash anyone too drunk to do their duty awake. It was up to Ken and the other Humans to get the people who’d literally passed out while drinking up and somewhat sober. More than one person was stumbling as they headed out into the night.
The work was still desperate, still dirty, and this time, Kenjiro slipped while carrying a Dullahan’s corpse and found a pile of maggots squirming down his armor. He lost what food he’d eaten, but it was a Dullahan, Lethic, who pulled him up. Quexa burned the maggots off the front of his armor as Luan and Aiko helped get the rest out from under his armor.
Small things. Kenjiro stumbled back into camp too tired to walk properly and reeking of filth. As his head hit the ground he heard a voice in his head. It had a surprise for him.
[Warrior Level 4!]
[Negotiator Class Obtained!]
[Negotiator Level 2!]
[Skill – Amateur Linguist obtained!]
[Skill – Polite Demeanor obtained!]
On the sixth day, Ken watched the fighting. He couldn’t help it. Sometimes he could ignore it, when he was talking with people, watching the different species interact, but other times it was too raw, too visible to ignore.
Each day, the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company lined up their forces and sent them into the valley to fight. It wasn’t just like two masses of soldiers charging at each other, though. Both sides kept forces hidden in the trees, or moving around the outsides, clashing, trying to strike the enemy from behind.
Flights of arrows flew from the galloping Centaurs, and they charged into the armored Dullahans with lances and spears that pierced through the heavy armor. The Dullahans brought forth a group of [Mages] that blasted groups of warriors apart until a Centaur charge forced them to fall back as the furious Centaur warriors hacked apart a group of Lizardfolk assigned to guard the [Mages].
It was terrible to watch. Terrible, and yet some part of the fighting called to Ken. Not the blood. Not the limbs and hacked open flesh, but the moments of heroism. They still shook his heart. He saw a [Soldier] hold off three Centaurs with a Skill that made his blade dance and create a whirlwind of metal that held the warriors off until his comrades could join him. He saw a [Mage] raise an emerald shield up and calmly walk through a hail of arrows.
That was the glorious, magical part of the battle. But it was savage and merciless too.
A group of Centaurs had roped a Dullahan commander and were dragging him across the battlefield, howling war cries as the soldiers tried to free their leader. They kept dragging the Dullahan across the broken ground long after he’d stopped moving. When they cut him loose, the Dullahan’s corpse lay there. Ken saw the red streak it had left and turned away.
“Bloody horrific, ain’t it?”
Someone joined Ken as he watched the Centaurs regrouping for another charge. He saw Daly and another Australian girl standing at the edge of the neutral zone and staring down at the carnage. Daly nodded to the young woman.
“This is Paige. Paige, this here is Ken.”
Paige offered her hand and Ken shook it lightly. She stared down at the battlefield, face grim. She didn’t flinch away, though. Everyone from Aiko to Luan had gotten used to far worse, roaming the battlefield at night.
“They line up on the battlefield like gentlemen, and then start tearing each other to bits each night. What kind of place is this?”
“Better than if they fought at night, too.”
Daly shrugged, but Paige frowned.
“I heard someone got killed over by where the Untimely Demise lot were working. Not from an undead—they got shot.”
Both Ken and Daly looked at her in alarm. Paige didn’t know.
“I heard the Captain was asking about it. But I didn’t hear if he got an answer.”
Ken stared down at the valley, where Dullahans were marching towards the Centaurs, driving them back. It was incredible that after each day there were enough soldiers to keep fighting, but apparently both companies were sending their forces into the valley, rather than keep fighting and destroy the landscape around them. They were trying to wear each other down, rather than risk mutual destruction.
“So they’re just gonna keep tearing each other apart until one side starts winning? Sounds like the dumbest war in the world.”
“Sounds like every war.”
Daly and Paige were arguing as Ken excused himself. He’d seen enough bloodshed, and he had to think. Think about his new classes, for one thing.
[Negotiator]. Ken had told Luan and Aiko about it immediately of course, but no one else. He hadn’t known it was a class you could get, but it made sense. And the Skills he’d gotten! [Polite Demeanor] and [Amateur Linguist].
He could understand [Polite Demeanor]—apparently it made him look and smell less like someone who lifted corpses each day. According to Luan and Aiko, it made them want to talk to him more than anyone else, if only to escape the foul odor everyone else in the company had.
But [Amateur Linguist]? That was more intriguing. Ken had tried to use it, but apparently it was a passive Skill rather than one he could use. It seemed to help with his ability to speak English, and perhaps other languages, if he knew them.
The Skill didn’t make his speech that much markedly better, but suddenly Kenjiro could understand words in English without first having to translate them into Japanese. In short, he began to think in English, which made his ability to reply and comprehend what people were saying far easier. Aiko was purely jealous.
“So unfair! I want that Skill!”
Ken was very grateful for it, but he had no idea whether having the [Negotiator] class was a good thing, or whether it was useless. Luan was of the opinion any class was good news, but Kenjiro had heard a girl from the Netherlands saying that one class was best because of…something to do with maximum levels in a video game? Her opinion was being hotly debated among those who played video games.
He didn’t know what he was looking for in camp, aside from a distraction, but Ken found it in an instant when he saw Captain Quallet arguing with a group of Centaurs, one of whom was wearing important-looking armor. Well, arguing was a bit of an understatement. Quallet was bellowing at them.
“We can’t do our jobs if you lot won’t give us access! I don’t—no, I don’t care where your patrols are! The corpses are there, and if you want us to get rid of them, you’ll give us access!”
He was yelling at the Centaur officer, who was getting more offended by the minute. Ken hurried over, not knowing what he was doing, but knowing in his heart that Quallet was doing exactly the wrong thing if he wanted to convince the Centaurs of anything.
Unlike Dullahans and Lizardfolk, the third predominant species of Baleros, Centaurs, were neither taciturn nor talkative. They probably fit between both Lizardfolk and Dullahan temperaments when it came to how social they could be, but, and this was a big but, they had a temper. Collectively. As a species.
If there was a ranking for bad-tempered species, Centaurs would probably be at the top of that list, competing for first place with Drakes and Minotaurs, although Ken had never met representatives of those species.
Centaurs were touchy, prideful, and reminded Ken a bit of his grandmother. They didn’t accept bad manners at all, and the slightest offense was instantly corrected, regardless if it caused trouble for all parties involved. Right now Quallet was digging himself a hole by shouting at an officer.
The angry [Mercenary Captain] had a hand on his axe and the Centaur officer looked ready to pull out his bow and shoot him. Kenjiro heard the Centaur speaking curtly to Quallet.
“Our territory is being patrolled to keep the damned Dullahans away from our camps. Twice now they have tried to attack us with [Rogues] and [Assassins]. My [Commander] demands to know how we know your forces will be trusted.”
“I told you, you empty-headed donkey—”
Ken saw the Centaur officer’s eyes narrow and jumped into the conversation. Literally. He nearly knocked Quallet aside. The [Captain] stumbled, eyes widening with fury. He rounded on Ken, but Ken was busy speaking to the Centaur officer. He spread his arms wide, smiling as best he could.
“Honored friends, we would humbly like to request permission to cross into your territory. We intend no disrespect, but we…must painfully intrude because of our duties. We mean no offense. And we will identify ourselves as best we can.”
The officer eyed Ken as Quallet opened a furious mouth, and then closed it as he saw what Ken was doing.
“Hmf. So you say. But how will we identify your people?”
“Banners. We have one—”
Again, Ken interrupted Quallet. This time the [Captain] let him speak.
“If it is agreeable, we will raise our company banner. It is illuminated, and the rest of our company will carry lanterns to identify ourselves. We will respond to any challenges, and, we would like to cooperate more sincerely, we will stick to an agreed-upon area of your choosing.”
It was what Quallet was going to say—what the Gravetender’s Fist company did every time, but the wording of it was key. Ken deferentially let the officer think for a moment, and then the Centaur spoke grudgingly.
“That is adequate. We will specify the location before nightfall. Do not stray.”
Ken bowed his head and thanked the Centaur as he and his soldiers trotted off. Then he turned and saw Quallet staring hard at him. Part of Ken’s elated heart went up his throat. But Quallet didn’t berate him. Instead, he nodded at Ken.
“Good job. You have some kind of [Diplomat] class?”
“Um. No sir. I have just received the [Negotiator] class.”
Quallet grunted. He paused, and looked at the Centaur’s backs. Then he spat. Ken winced, but none of the Centaurs noticed.
“In that case, you’ll be dealing with both sides from now on. I hate bowing and scraping to the Centaurs, but they’re touchy. As for the Dullahans—if it comes to it, just bow to the one in the most polished armor. You know that?”
Ken nodded. Quallet eyed him and then clapped him on the shoulder. Ken staggered.
“Keep it up. If you can talk us out of more trouble, I’ll give you a bonus.”
He walked off. Ken massaged his shoulder, wishing people weren’t so intimate. But he smiled. And later that day, dozing, he leveled up again. Then he woke up. His smile faded. Ken went back to the battlefield and began hauling bodies. There was no happiness in that.
This night Gravetender’s Fist was working in a wooded area, part of the Centaur’s marked territory. They’d heard a stern injunction from Quallet and the other officers not to stray far from the banner, and each group had filled their lantern’s oil so it shone brightly in the night.
Now Ken and the others walked past trees, some marked by combat, felled by blasts of magic or powerful Skills. They had to be especially alert for zombies hidden in the shadow of trees, but they were used to the routine enough to talk in low voices.
“They are talking about leaving?”
Aiko whispered to Luan as Ken helped both of them drag a heavy Lizardman in broken armor to the pile. Luan nodded, looking angry.
“The Americans want to go. They’re saying this job is shit—which it is—and they want to abandon the company. They’re saying we can desert and head back to one of the cities, sell our swords and armor maybe.”
“That is a bad idea. Isn’t it?”
Ken stared at Luan, heart pounding at the thought. Leave the company? If they did, they’d have to leave the neutral zone. At night or by day made no difference. If they were caught—
Luan nodded, looking angry.
“I told them—the others told them—it’s a terrible idea! But the Americans are fed up with hauling these bodies. I can’t blame them for that, but a handful of maggots here is better than dying. They think we can do it though, and they’re going to bring it up tomorrow.”
“We must talk to the others.”
Aiko’s face was pale. Luan nodded, and shifted his hold on the Dullahan.
“Shit. I can’t see. Where are the others?”
Today Ken, Aiko, and Luan had paired with Quexa and three other Lizardfolk. It was Quexa who had the lantern. Ken lowered the Dullahan’s body while Luan adjusted his grip. They waited for the Lizardfolk to catch up—they were struggling to carry an obese Centaur.
“Never thought I’d see a fat Centaur. He looks round. I wonder if that’s how they got him. Too big of a target? Or was he too slow to run away? If a Centaur is too fat, does it just waddle around?”
Luan commented as he watched the Lizardfolk swearing loudly, trying to move the Centaur.
“At least it was not a zombie. That would be very hard to kill.”
Ken grinned, imagining an undead Centaur waddling towards him in the darkness. Aiko giggled, putting her hand up to her mouth and then snatching it down. Her hands, like every other part of her body, were filthy.
Luan laughed. He turned towards Ken, about to say something, and then there was a whistling sound. He blinked, and Ken heard a thunk.
Something sprouted from Luan’s chest. He gasped, and then Aiko screamed. The Lizardfolk dropped the Centaur and Quexa shouted.
Shouts rang out as shadows in the forest suddenly turned into galloping shapes. Ken reached for Luan as his friend sagged to the ground.
There was an arrow in his side. Ken reached for it automatically, but someone caught his hand. A Lizardman shook his head as Quexa ran over, waving her lantern and shouting desperately as the Centaurs galloping around them.
“We’re not enemies! Gravetender’s Fist! We’re—”
There was chaos. Ken heard pounding feet and voices, and then officer Raeh was there.
He shouted at Ken and the others and fumbled at his belt.
“Healing potion. Here! Snap the arrow off and pour it in—the arrow should come out. I’ve got to stop us from being killed!”
He stood up and waved his hands at the Centaurs, shouting. Ken bent over Luan. The man’s face was pale and beaded with sweat. Ken reached for the arrow, hesitated.
“I’ll hold him. Do it.”
Quexa and the Lizardman seized Luan. Ken looked at Aiko. She grabbed the arrow and he used his hands and tried to snap it.
It was hard. The arrow’s shaft was thick and as he moved the arrow Luan woke up and began screaming. Ken heard Quexa shout and he tried to break the shaft. He felt it splinter, and then it snapped.
Aiko pulled the bottle out frantically and removed the stopper. She splashed the liquid into Luan’s wound and Ken watched the skin seal over. The broken wood shaft of the arrow popped out of the wound, but the arrowhead did not. Had it passed through his body? In any event, Luan stopped thrashing.
Ken held his breath. Then Luan opened his eyes. He blinked, and then spoke.
“I thought I was a goner.”
Luan grinned at them, face covered in sweat, still very pale. Ken and Aiko smiled in relief. Luan laughed shakily. He sat up to say something, and then his face went white. He cried out in agony.
“What’s wrong? Luan?”
Aiko reached for him, but Luan knocked her hand away. He pressed his hands towards his side, and to Ken’s horror, he saw the wound was opening back up. Luan fell back, screaming again as the wound tore open a second time.
Horrified, Aiko reached for the potion to use it again, but Quexa stopped her. She called out.
“It’s not working! Sergeant Raeh!”
The Centaurs were gone, at least for now. Raeh came running back over, demanding to know why they hadn’t used the potion. When he heard what had happened he swore.
“It was some kind of enchanted shaft. Damn those four-legged bastards!”
He knelt by Luan’s side as the younger man cried out in pain. Raeh didn’t touch the wound, but he looked grimly at the head of the shaft.
“Whatever’s in there is still cutting him up from the inside. You—boy. Did the entire arrow come out?”
“No—no, only the—the shaft.”
“Damn it. It was an enchanted arrow after all!”
Raeh looked grimly at the wound. He beckoned for Quexa to bring the lantern over, and peered at the oozing wound. He pulled a knife out grimly, and then hesitated.
“I can’t…tell where it is. I need to cut it out before the healing potion can work, but—”
“Cut it out?”
Aiko was horrified. Raeh helplessly looked around Luan’s side as he thrashed.
“It could be anywhere in there. The enchanted arrowheads are nasty—some of them move. If I don’t get it right off, your friend will die. We can’t use healing potions until I get it—I—”
His hands were trembling. He didn’t know where to cut, and he thought he’d miss. Raeh hesitated, and Ken saw his hand tighten on the grip of the dagger. He raised it, and Ken caught his arm.
“It has to be done! Move over boy—I’ve got only one chance to help your friend. It’s that or slit his throat, because he’ll die in agony—”
“No! There has to be a—a hospital, yes? A doctor? Someone who can perform surgery?”
There had to be. But Raeh just stared at Ken and shook his head.
“There’s no one like that.”
He raised the dagger, and Ken felt true despair in his heart as he saw Raeh’s haunted gaze. That was when Quallet found them. The [Captain] ran towards them, axe drawn, [Sergeant] Xor following.
“Raeh! What the hell’s going on here?”
Raeh explained in short sentences and both Quallet and Xor knelt by Luan. Their appraisal of the situation was the same.
“It’s got to come out, but damn me if I don’t know where. ”
“He’s losing blood. A bad cut and he’ll be dead in minutes. We can’t fish around in his guts, Captain Marshhand. It might be kinder to—”
Xor was speaking, but it all seemed far away. Ken stood in an oasis of shock and horror, watching the moment play out as if it were on a screen or far away. There was static in his ears. Aiko was gripping Luan’s hand, he was screaming—Raeh had the knife.
Then Quallet looked up. He had the same empty look in his eyes, as of someone expecting to see only death. But he saw Ken, and something flickered in his gaze.
“No. Not us. There’s another way.”
Quallet stood up. He turned to his two officers.
“I’ll handle matters here. Raeh, get these two an escort and a white flag. There’s a spot to the north where a [Doctor] works. Have them get—Luan—over there. If they’re quick and lucky, this [Doctor] might be able to save him.”
“Are you sure?”
Raeh looked skeptical, but Quallet nodded.
“It’s their best shot. If we try, he’s dead either way. You know that. There’s no way we’ll find an arrowhead, but if what I’ve heard about this ‘Last Light’ are true, the [Doctor] might be able to.”
A [Doctor]. The word dragged Ken back into reality. He looked at Aiko, and saw the same desperation in her eyes. It was something to cling to. Ken knelt by Luan as Raeh turned and started shouting.
“Hold on, Luan.”
It was a stretcher they used to carry Luan, the same kind they used to haul bodies or bits of bodies. It was filthy, and Luan screamed when they put him on it, but they had no choice.
They carried Luan on the stretcher, Ken, Aiko, and Quexa, while the Lizardman carried the white flag. They ran out of the woods, trying to run and not jostle Luan or trip all at the same time. They ran through the forest as the sun began to rise, searching desperately, praying.
That was how Ken met the [Doctor] known as the Last Light. He arrived in a small camp as the sun rose and Luan’s blood ran from his side. It dripped from the stretcher and fell onto the wet ground, among the grass and mud. Bugs landed to feed on the red liquid, and in the valley, two armies gathered to fight once more.
And the bodies came in, the wounded, the desperate. Ken and Aiko stood with Luan, one among many. Waiting for her, hoping she was real. The voices cried out, begged, pleaded. For salvation, relief—
For a [Doctor].
It was a hot, humid day when Quallet Marshhand walked into the recruiting grounds and claimed the half-rotted booth he’d bought for the day. It was always a hot day in Baleros. At least the winter kept the worst edge of the heat off, but Quallet had gotten used to feeling sweat run down his face long ago.
The booth Quallet had bought for five silver pieces wasn’t worth half a copper one, in his opinion. The humid weather had already rotted half of the woodwork, and he was sure that if he put his axe or helmet on the booth, it would collapse. And scrabbling around in the dirt for his gear wouldn’t do him any favors, especially when he was on a tight schedule.
So Quallet leaned his axe against the booth and kept his helmet on. It was already hot, and at least the helmet added to his presence. He had to compete with the others standing at their respective booths and shouting. It wasn’t like this recruiting ground was particularly large; there were only six or so occupied booths, but the recruiters standing at each one were shouting loud enough for twice their number.
“Any [Mages] are welcome to the Tanglelurk Lights!”
“Roll up and become one of the Virulent Plague! Enlist with a friend and earn double pay for your first month!”
“Join the Raverian Fighters! We’re offering a premium on experienced warriors! Apply now!”
Quallet had to smirk when he heard the last shout. The Raverian Fighters? They must be desperate to be recruiting in the middle of a campaign. Anyone with half a brain would know better than to join that company, especially with how things were going.
Still, mocking the opposition was a pointless endeavor. Quallet was here to recruit, so he drew in a breath and began shouting himself.
“Gravetender’s Fist is accepting new recruits! Join an experienced suppression company and make coin without dying in your first battle!”
Heads turned and instantly, a fair number of the individuals in the recruiting grounds began drifting over in his direction. Quallet let them come, not bothering to redouble his shouting. Instead he stood, arms crossed, waiting.
It was about presence. In Baleros, a company of warriors might live or die based on the efforts of their recruiters. These groups or individuals would go from village to city, sometimes competing against hundreds of other companies to find talent, other times marching through an empty dirt street and shouting by themselves.
It was hard, unrewarding work, and usually given to an unlucky officer or as punishment detail. You’d never see one of the leaders of the Four Great Companies come to this recruiting ground. No, you’d get some unhappy [Sergeant], trying to meet his quota and stay out of the heat.
And that was the mistake most companies made. Because a company was only as good as its recruits, and Quallet had learned long ago that the best recruits were snapped up in an instant. Hence, why he’d come himself.
He was a Level 32 [Mercenary Captain], a seasoned warrior and a powerful leader in his own right. Quallet knew at a glance that he was the highest-leveled individual in the entire recruiting ground, and he had the armor and flash to go along with his Skills.
Thus, the large group of Humans, Lizardfolk, Dullahans and the smaller handful of Centaurs drew closer to see what he was offering. In Baleros, the mercenary companies that fought and bled and died for every petty squabble and major war came in every flavor and kind imaginable. New and experienced soldiers would frequent these grounds, seeking out the best contracts for themselves.
Not that this backwater village had any experienced warriors. It had probably been visited at the start of winter. Now, only unseasoned raw recruits were left, people with no combat classes that probably had never held a sword. Not ideal for company recruiting, but fine with Quallet. Scooping up a hundred such people was his goal today. It would allow him to sell his services in the nearest warzone for quite a bit of gold.
The trick was that he represented a company by himself. As a [Mercenary Captain], Quallet had the Skills to turn the worst fighters into a half-decent force, with him leading them. With a hundred or so fresh recruits, Quallet could advertise his company to the highest bidder at a competitive rate. Just so long as Quallet found a decent pool of people to draw from, and made sure that the best of the bunch weren’t snapped up.
He had an advantage there too. Among the precious Skills that allowed him to lead his company, Quallet had the Skill [Talent Seeker], which allowed him to find the best of any bunch for his company. Assuming the other recruiters didn’t have similar abilities—and it was a good bet this lot were only [Sergeants] and [Soldiers] with few Skills between them—Quallet would walk away with most of his company within the hour.
A decent crowd had gathered—quite a lot of Humans for a village Quallet could have sworn was filled with Lizardfolk. No matter. Him being Human helped in that area as well. He took a breath and spoke at a field roar, making the people closest to him flinch back.
“So you’re in need of coin, eh? Fancy going to war? Running from something, or seeking adventure? You’re in the right place. A [Soldier] lives to fight, and you’ll see plenty of that in Baleros, where the jungles run red with blood!”
That drew knowing nods from several in the crowd, but the Humans just stared at him. They were an odd bunch, dressed strangely with bright clothing. One had a strange, flat object with a glowing light coming out one end. Some kind of artifact? Quallet pretended not to notice. He went on with his little speech, going through the same motions like he had a thousand times.
“Don’t fancy being a [Soldier]? A [Warrior] will find just as much work, and the best can earn a living as an adventurer. Joining up with a company is the right first step. However, what these other companies don’t tell you is that of every ten raw recruits that enlist, six of them will be dead in the first year!”
That rattled his audience. Quallet looked among them. Yes, a group of young Lizardfolk, scales practically fresh. Dullahans with wood armor, all young, most carrying their heads and peering at him uncertainly. The Centaurs shifted from foot to foot and the Humans—still staring.
The other recruiters in the square were now giving Quallet death-glares from where they stood, but he didn’t care. He spoke the truth and every recruiter knew it. But only Quallet could turn that knowledge into an asset.
“Four in ten odds don’t sound good to you lot, eh? It takes a steady hand and talent to survive your first clash. Fancy yourselves natural-born fighters? You, boy.”
He pointed at a pale-skinned youth wearing some sort of hat. It looked like nothing Quallet had ever seen before. The material was bright and there was some kind of symbol on top. A company’s crest? A red bird sitting on an odd bit of wood stared at him over the word…‘Cardinals’?
Never mind. Quallet stared as the young man looked around and then grinned nervously.
“Yes, you! Ever been in combat? Ever killed an opponent? You look sturdy enough. Good with a sword, are you?”
The young man stiffened. He hadn’t, Quallet knew, been in any fights to the death before. He didn’t have the look. And he wasn’t armed. Come to that, none of the Humans were. But bravado was one of the key aspects of youth, so the young man with the odd hat grinned as his Human friends laughed.
“Not with a sword, but…I’ve been in a few fights!”
It took all of Quallet’s willpower not to grimace at the stupid boast. A few fights? He’d heard the same line repeated a thousand times from a thousand soon-to-be-dead faces. A few scraps with fists, rocks, and maybe the occasional dagger wasn’t a real battle. Until they’d survived a Dullahan ambush, or been on the receiving end of a Centaur charge, no one had the right to claim they were experienced.
But it suited his point.
“Good in a fight? Well, perhaps you’d fit in with the Raverian fighters. Or if you know magic, why not enlist with the Tanglelurk company? But if you do, you’ll be on the front, mark me. The first clash will have you going up against experienced warriors. Veterans who’d killed more people than you have fingers. So I wouldn’t bet a ‘few fights’ against a skilled [Halberdier], not for any odds.”
That took the wind out of the young man’s sails. Quallet turned, nodding at the two recruiters he’d just made enemies of.
“They’ll promise you gold for nothing, but it won’t be all of you who see it after months of fighting. Which is why I’m telling you to join my company.”
“And what does your company have that they don’t?”
That came from a brown-skinned Centaur with white fur standing at the back of the crowd. He had a good bit of room, mainly because Centaurs were huge and touchy. The Humans looked especially leery of him. Quallet replied calmly, meeting the Centaur’s gaze.
“I’m the [Captain] of Gravetender’s Fist. Haven’t heard of it? That’s fine. But we’re a suppression company. We don’t go to battle against veterans. We’re night-duty, corpse battlers. You know what I’m talking about.”
They did. The Lizardfolk shifted and some looked back towards the other recruiters. A few Dullahans turned away. The Centaurs were still listening although their faces had twisted with disgust. The Humans were…staring blankly. Did they not know, or just not care? Quallet took a breath.
This was the hard part. Lose too many Lizardfolk and you’d lose them all. The Dullahans were hard to sell to. He could probably get the Centaurs either way, but Quallet wanted all the recruits here. If he got them, he wouldn’t have to go through any more villages and stand in the hot air.
“Not fans of what my company does? I won’t blame you. But we provide an important service, a necessary service for most companies. You’ve heard of the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company, haven’t you? I’m bound for that battlefield after this village, and I’ll be leading my company onto the battlefield each night. It won’t be glamorous—it’ll be muck and death and filth—but it will be safe.”
What an ironic word. But it was true, and it drew attention back to him. Quallet strode back and forth, speaking to the crowd as they watched him.
“Yes, safe! As safe as war can be! You’ll see combat, true enough, but you won’t die like Bloodflies in my company. Eight out of every ten raw recruits that serves under me survives their first month. If you’re new to battle, you’ll gain your first ten levels in a combat class in this company, my oath on it!”
He alone could boast that. Quallet knew, the other recruiters knew, and most of the recruits with a brain knew that signing up with a company meant gambling your life if you were a new recruit. Put your mark with the Raverian Fighters and you’d be fighting on the front lines within the week, and you’d be lucky indeed if you didn’t run up against a high-level soldier, a [Mage], or simply got cut to pieces in the crush. But Gravetender’s Fist and companies like the one Quallet ran were different.
They were safe. For a given measure of safe, of course. And that had an allure that beat out all of the other recruiters’ desperate calls and pitches. Quallet got down to the details as the others stayed. He nearly had them.
“You’ll earn a silver piece for every night you spend fighting, and four copper coins for the nights you don’t. Think its poor pay for a soldier? We’ll give you lot a sword and armor if you don’t have it, healing potions for your wounds, and I’ll be fighting right alongside you all. My company begins leaving tomorrow morning. Ask as many questions as you like. And ask about—I’ll swear to a truth crystal all I’ve said is true. If you’re unsure, ask those other recruiters what your odds are. But if they’re honest, they’ll tell you my company is the way to go for those of you who want to survive.”
Quallet pointed at the haggard [Sergeant] recruiting for the Raverian fighters. The man gave him a haunted look as Quallet raised his voice.
“Over there lies glory. Glory. The glory of the brave and the dead. If you’re seeking battles to test your mettle, sign up by all means. But join my company if you prefer to fight and live.”
It worked. It always worked, especially when you had an ill-fated company you could point at as a reminder of what could go wrong. Tales of glory and fame on the battlefield were all very well if everyone was humming the same tune, but Quallet had learnt to be the one dissenting voice in the crowd. And people listened to the one odd voice.
He didn’t get all the recruits of course. No one ever did. Well, perhaps Niers Astoragon or Valka Cerethrian might be able to pull it off if they walked into the recruiting grounds. But that night Quallet signed over eighty recruits into his company, effectively doubling its size.
It wasn’t a bad haul, all told. He’d gotten the Centaurs—all of them. It turned out the one who’d spoken was a Level 11 [Fighter], and his friends had a few levels between them, which was good. Quallet had a handful of Dullahans, and a sizeable number of Lizardfolk. One of them had a magic class, which was an unexpected little gift.
As for the rest? The Humans had come almost as one entire package. They were odd, and signed their names on Quallet’s enchanted list with odd flourishes and curved writing, as if they were all [Scribes]. Some had laughed as they’d did so, and joked about ‘enlisting’ as if it were a completely new thing.
Odd. Quallet hoped he wasn’t borrowing trouble with their lot. But they didn’t seem like former [Bandits] or troublemakers in the ways he’d learned to watch out for. They were just weird.
He didn’t have to like them, just teach them how to fight and obey orders, anyways. Quallet marched his new recruits two miles out to the camp where he and the rest of the Gravetender’s Fist company was located.
Rows of tents and armed warriors lounging about were what greeted the recruits. Quallet saw two people—a Dullahan [Sergeant] named Xor and a Human [Soldier], Raeh, stride over to meet him. They were Quallet’s acting officers. He didn’t need many, but people who could lead when he was away were important, and he knew both males, having served with them before.
“That’s the rest of our company, Quallet?”
Raeh didn’t bother with formalities. Quallet didn’t see the need, at least between officers. He nodded at Raeh, and the man grinned. He wasn’t a big man, although he was very good with the sword he used.
“Finally. Time to be moving at last. I was getting bored of being eaten by the damn jungle.”
Xor looked disapproving. He did address Quallet formally, as Dullahans tended to do in every situation.
“Captain Quallet, there have been no disturbances in your absence. Would you like me to instruct the recruits, or will you do so?”
“I’ll do it.”
Quallet turned and spoke loudly to the group of recruits. The Humans had been staring around and the Lizardfolk had already sat down while the Dullahans stood at attention. The Centaurs just looked bored at the slow pace. Each race had its peculiarities.
“This is where you lot will sleep tonight! You’re all part of Gravetender’s Fist now, and you’re under my command. I promised you food and a place to sleep—and armor and weapons! You’ll get all that, but for now mill about. Some of you will be called out by these two men—”
He indicated Raeh and Xor.
“They are my officers and you’ll hop to it when they give you orders, just as you would when I tell you to do something! But there’s no fighting tonight. Tomorrow you’ll march and we’ll start training you before we get to the battlefield. You’ll have a good four days to practice.”
Some of the Humans looked dismayed. Quallet laughed.
“Four isn’t enough? You’d rather practice for a month? Don’t worry, we’ll beat the fundamentals into you, and you’ll get a class while marching if you haven’t one already. Your opponents won’t be that dangerous either, as you’ll see. But for now—eat! Food will be passed around shortly. Talk amongst yourselves if you want to, make friends. Everyone standing here will be fighting by your side and might save your life!”
The recruits looked around warily. Quallet wondered if they’d mingle. It didn’t usually happen. He went over a few more rules, trying to get it over with as succinctly as possible.
“You’ll each get one meal and one alone. There’ll be no stealing, or fighting of any kind in my company. I’ll personally see to that. If you can’t stand someone’s guts, keep away from them and pray they get killed soon. But cause trouble and I’ll thrash you myself. You’re soldiers in a company now, not children.”
That was it. Quallet let the recruits disperse, mingling with the few veterans and other new soldiers from other villages he’d already found. It was rare for most of his soldiers to stay more than a few months in Gravetender’s Fist. Quallet had grown used to new faces coming and going.
“Let’s feed them.”
He grunted to Xor and the Dullahan helped him unload the bags of holding that helped make Quallet’s company. They had been very dear to buy, but it allowed Quallet to do away with a lot of expenses for wagons, instead bringing out preserved food to be shared around by soldiers under Raeh’s watchful eye.
Recruits ate, recruits talked, some bragging nervously, others swapping tales or just keeping to themselves. Quallet watched as he chewed down some sour-dough bread and cheese, biting into one of the fleshy Picta-fruits and washing it all down with warm water. He swatted at insects as he saw each of the four races sticking to their groups for the most part.
It was good enough. It was like normal. Quallet went to his private tent as the new soldiers slept in the mostly insect-proof tents. The experienced [Captain] listened to the dull roar of the jungle’s wildlife, the occasional breeze blowing through the area, and the sound of snoring. He slept.
The next day, Quallet rose just after dawn, and with his two officers, got his soldiers up. They awoke, scratching at bites, moaning, probably regretting ever wanting to be a soldier.
That was normal too. Quallet fed them, showed the new recruits how to break down camp, stored it all in the bags of holding, loaded the heavy artifacts onto the lone wagon his company used, and moved out.
His routine was simple. Quallet wished he could follow it in his sleep. After he recruited his company back to a good strength, after buying supplies to last for weeks or months and cramming them in the bags of holding, filling their enchanted capacity to the brim, he took his command and headed towards the closest battlefield, or the one he’d been contracted to.
This time he was headed towards the place where the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company were fighting. A Dullahan-led company and a Centaur company, respectively. They were fighting over land, or maybe it was some old feud. Gold? Quallet hadn’t heard the details from the other [Mercenary Captain] who’d tipped him off. All he knew was that they could use another suppression company. The fighting had been fierce, apparently.
March his recruits. Arm them with cheap weapons scavenged from the battlefield or bought en-masse from the war vendors. Train them.
That came at the series of breaks to let the weary soldiers rest their feet. Quallet first distributed armor, letting the recruits fight over who got what, and then arms. For some reason, all the young men seemed to fancy themselves swordsmen, for all that there were perfectly good axes. Quallet eyed his new command again.
Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs, Humans, he all had in various numbers. But the largest influx of Humans had come from that odd group of strange-dressed young men—and young women—who’d come with him on the latest recruiting drive. They were…strange.
For one thing, they all seemed to know each other. If not each other by name, they shared some kind of connection Quallet couldn’t fathom. Some had very strange clothing, quite inappropriate for Baleros’s weather and stinging insects. Any fool knew to cover skin rather than flaunt it, but this lot had been practically devoured by the biting insects the first night.
Too, some of them had odd artifacts that were clearly magical. They made noise and light, and Quallet had seen more than one Lizardfolk edge over curiously. The Humans were very protective though, and didn’t show them to anyone.
Were they rich? Or were the artifacts cheap toys to make sound and light? Either way, it was strange. The Humans stared about at everything as if they’d never seen a real sword before, or another species. Still, they were hardly worse than any other recruit, which was why as the sun rose to midday, Quallet decided to start instructing them how to use the weapons he’d given them. Some of the young men had cut themselves, a few badly, by mock-fencing with the swords they’d been given.
He looked across his command and found one of the Humans who caught his eye. He stood out, mainly because everyone else who’d joined out had pale skin, tan skin, brown skin, or dark skin…this young man who was a bit older than most had dark black skin, like charcoal. Quallet called out to him.
“You there! Black-skin.”
The young man stiffened. He turned as Quallet strode towards him, looking surprised. And for some reason, angry.
“What did you call me?”
He was taller than Quallet, a giant, at least six feet, possibly six and a half feet tall. He had long arms, and a muscled body, although he seemed not to be at all comfortable with the mace he’d been given.
“I said you. You with the black skin.”
Quallet spoke calmly as the young man seemed to grow angrier. He pointed at the group of resting Humans milling about.
“Get some of your friends together. Twenty of them. We’re starting arms drills now.”
What was wrong? Quallet had given an order. He hadn’t insulted the young man, but in some way, he had. The black-skinned young man looked upset. Was it because Quallet’s skin was light, tanned from days in the sun? It didn’t matter either way. Quallet stared up at the younger man, adding a touch of [Commanding Presence] until he backed down.
“Yes sir. I will do that just now. Sir.”
Perhaps it was the way he had said it—he spoke as if he didn’t understand the common tongue quite right, which was incredible in itself—but Quallet watched as the young man walked off. Apparently, ‘just now’ didn’t mean much to him, because he took his sweet time before obeying Quallet’s orders.
It turned out his name was Luan, and he did eventually bring some nervous, giggling young men to Quallet for a demonstration.
“Here’s how you hold those shiny weapons you’ve been given. You lot—take out your weapons. Not like that! Watch me, now. If you’re taking your axe out, or your sword, you’ll want to do it fast. Like this.”
He demonstrated and made the young men do everything from take out their weapons to hold them correctly. Then Quallet had them swing at the air, at trees and stumps, making them get a feel for how the weapons moved and how to strike.
The Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs…it was the Humans who were the problem. Again. The young men that Luan had gathered treated Quallet’s orders like a game, laughing and slashing the air with wild cuts that wouldn’t have killed anyone. One of them, standing down the line as Quallet shouted at Luan—who at least had a good grip and stance—was swinging his sword around and laughing at the others.
Quallet turned to address this idiot when the young man’s hands, sweaty from the heat and exercise, slipped on the badly-wrapped leather hilt of the sword. He lost his grip and there was a scream from one of the young women as the sword went flying through the air. People scattered out of the way as the sword landed in the dirt. The young man who’d been holding it grinned nervously.
Some of his friends laughed, but Quallet’s eyes narrowed. He crossed the distance between him and the young man in an instant. The young man didn’t see the gauntleted fist before it split his lip and sent him tumbling to the ground.
The laughter stopped. Quallet heard the young man swearing and stood over him, one hand on his axe. Everyone else watched as the young man stared up, suddenly afraid. Quallet shouted at him.
“This is not a game! When you’re fighting for your life, having a proper grip on your sword will save your life, and the lives of the soldiers around you! If you cannot take this seriously, I will leave you in this forest to rot!”
The pale-skinned youth flinched from his words. Quallet turned and faced the rest of his company.
“Mark me, this is not a joke. You are learning how to fight! Hold your weapons properly, get a feel for them. Because you will be seeing combat this week!”
The young man got up, pale-faced and bleeding. No one spoke. Quallet pointed.
“Pick up your blade and keep practicing! You! Yes, you lot! Don’t just stand around! Get moving! I want to see you—all of you—practicing!”
He made the rest of his company do the same, feeling the eyes of the Humans and Luan on his back. Now they feared him, which was fine. A [Captain] could be feared. Quallet was just glad he’d had the opportunity to impress on them that this wasn’t a game. With luck, he’d have another opportunity before it came to battle as well. Every time he showed these raw soldiers what fighting was like, was another life he’d save when it came to their first night on duty.
“You! Wood-armor. Yes, you. Get the tents set up. Get as many hands as you need, but until they’re up, you lot don’t sleep!”
Quallet barked orders as his weary and sore company rested for the night. He made them set up camp, pass around food, and then let them pass out in their tents. Quallet slept easily, woke up the next day and began it all over again.
Train them, march them, feed them, and then let them rest. On the second day, Quallet began to lecture his company on their duties and had a nasty surprise.
“You mean you don’t know what Gravetender’s Fist does?”
He stared at the group of Humans in disbelief. They looked ashamed, but it was true. To everyone’s astonishment, it seemed that while the Humans had understood what being in a mercenary company meant, they hadn’t known what a suppression company—which was what they were in—did.
Quallet’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the rows of faces, trying to see if they were playing a prank on him. But it didn’t look like they were. The other species were giving the Humans very odd looks too.
Greener than he’d thought. Or maybe from another continent? But why would they be stranded all the way out here, then? Either way, Quallet amended his time-adhered to speech.
“If you signed up without knowing exactly what Gravetender’s Fist does, well, you should have figured it out from the name. Alone. Grave tending. Gravetender. It’s not exactly hard to see the connection. Understand?”
Blank looks. Quallet couldn’t believe this.
“The undead! The restless souls that rise from unburied corpses and in places of power! Have you never seen one before?”
They hadn’t. Xor had to actually rub at his head’s eyes with his hands and Raeh looked incredulous. The other Lizardfolk were staring at the Humans as if they were idiots. The Centaurs were making a joke of the entire thing as they laughed amongst themselves.
“The dead rise. Zombies, skeletons, ghouls…they get worse with time and depending on the corpse and amount of death. A [Necromancer] can raise them and command them, but undead will spawn naturally from unburied corpses. That might not be a problem in a quiet village where the dead can be laid to rest—or cremated—but this is Baleros. A place where war is always present! We’re headed towards a battlefield where two companies—with thousands or tens of thousands of soldiers—are fighting each day! What do you think will happen to all those bodies?”
How could anyone ask that like a question? Quallet scowled.
“Of course they do. And they’re not only a nuisance, but a danger. Leave a battlefield full of thousands of corpses alone for a short period and you’ll get ghouls and worse popping up within days. They’ll attack soldiers, spread disease—and that’s where we come in.”
He nodded to Raeh and the man took over.
“Gravetender’s Fist. We are a suppression company. That’s not like a regular company for you new recruits. Suppression companies specialize in one kind of fighting. Some kill Goblins or monsters that make a nuisance of themselves. Others, like our company, kill the undead on the battlefield.”
There were murmurs at that. Quallet watched the Humans warily. If they hadn’t known—how could they not know? But now he had to worry about them deserting too. He spoke crisply, trying to dismiss their sudden dismay.
“I said it was better work than fighting, didn’t I? You’ll be up against zombies and the like mostly. Nothing dangerous. A rotting corpse might be a threat, but it’s better than a veteran with a magical blade. Each night when the fighting stops we’ll go into the battlefield, between the armies often, and handle the dead. The soldiers fighting don’t want to do it—they’re tired, and if both armies are sending troops out it’ll be a night battle against the undead and each other. So that’s why companies like this one are hired.”
“Clean up duty.”
Someone in the crowd joked. Quallet nodded, ignoring the levity.
“We’ll be collecting corpses, burning them, and putting down any undead that decide to get up. It will be dirty work, quick, and dangerous if you don’t watch each other’s back. But the worst you’ll face out there is a Ghoul, and that’s only if you’re unlucky. It beats dying with an arrow in your neck when the real fighting starts in the mornings, mark me.”
The Humans stirred uneasily, as did some others in his company. Quallet raised his voice.
“That’s why we’re practicing! Now, your duties are simple. You’ll be working in teams, spread out to cover ground. If you find a body—you bring it over. Yes, they’ll be rotting, yes it will smell. And you will stab it through the head before you come, in case it’s rising. [Sergeant] Xor’s done this work a hundred times. He’ll instruct you. Xor, show them how to move with Raeh watching your back…”
They met the first group of undead on the road, a day before reaching the battleground. The shambling zombies must have missed the armies somehow, and they were roaming about aimlessly. It was a perfect opportunity, one Quallet had hoped for. He took command and ordered his company to engage them. Not all of course; it was only about thirty zombies, so Quallet took exactly that number out and had them fight.
They were all frightened, most close to wetting themselves as the zombies approached. But Quallet had chosen well, and the Centaur with white fur and the Lizardgirl with magic killed their zombie quickly and efficiently. Watched by Quallet, Xor, and Raeh, the other raw soldiers fought and killed their zombies, hacking away, running back, screaming—
Learning to fight. It was messy, horrible to watch from the eye of an experienced veteran, but it was the first step to forging his company into a fighting force. Quallet nodded approvingly as one young man killed a zombie with an axe.
“A good first step.”
He was one of the odd Humans, the ones with weird clothing. This one was pale-skinned and had odd features. Narrower eyes, black hair—he was a bit short as well and he had an expensive-looking long-sleeved shirt and pants on. They looked like fine material, but they were now covered in guts and gore underneath the battered leather armor he was wearing. Quallet didn’t know the young man’s story, and he didn’t care what his name was.
He’d heard others call the young man Ken, though. Ken…although one of the young women had called him something else. What was it? Ken…Ken…something.
Kenjiro Murata stumbled away as the zombie he’d killed sunk to the ground, its misshapen head collapsing inwards as it struck the ground. It couldn’t really be called a head at all, in fact. Kenjiro, or ‘Ken’ as the others called him, had bashed it so many times with the axe he’d been given that the rotting bone and flesh around the skull had caved in.
He stared at the corpse as it fell, stared at the horrible innards of its head, smelled the rotting flesh, saw some things wriggling in the decomposing corpse’s open mouth. Ken turned, about to vomit, when he heard a familiar voice crying out.
He ran towards the voice, leaving the dead zombie behind. Ken saw a girl with short black hair, wearing a battered piece of armor awkwardly over her jeans and t-shirt, backing away from another dead zombie.
It had a spear lodged in its belly. But it was still trying to move forwards. The girl backed away, screaming, and then shouting at the undead corpse in a language no one but Kenjiro understood.
Her voice was shrill, panicked. There was something insane about what she’d said. Stop. Please, stop. She’d said it to a zombie, but she probably couldn’t believe what was happening. Ken still couldn’t himself.
He ran over. The axe was in his hands. Ken smashed the zombie in the head, feeling a sickening connection. It fell over, and the girl turned away, covering her face in her hands. Ken stepped back, shaking as the second zombie he’d killed fell, twitching and making a gurgling sound. He looked hesitantly at the girl.
She was crying, sobbing, actually, with fear and horror. Ken opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it. He didn’t know what to say, not to Aiko. He wouldn’t have known what to tell himself.
He was in another world, with magic and monsters. And the undead. He was a soldier, and so was she.
They hadn’t known what they were signing up for at all.
Aiko kept crying as the angry [Captain] shouted at the people around them. Ken saw other people, some Humans like him, others wearing strange armor, Dullahans, fighting next to scaly lizard-people as galloping Centaurs ran by, spearing zombies and hacking them apart.
“Aiko-san, are you okay? 大丈夫ですか?”
Ken had a hard time speaking English, so he switched back to his native tongue, feeling oddly formal. He knew Aiko of course, but she wasn’t someone he knew.
She wasn’t a childhood friend, more like a classmate that Ken knew from sharing the same class with for multiple years throughout their junior and senior high school time. They hadn’t spoken much. It was a fluke that had put them together in the airport on that fateful day when they’d vanished from their world into this one.
Now they were alone, and Aiko was the only one who understood him.
“Yes. Yes, I—”
She spoke in English, speaking to Ken and also to the Lizardgirl who’d stopped to see if they were alright. The scaly, frilled head nodded and the Lizardgirl walked on, conjuring a ball of fire to throw at a zombie. Ken watched her with amazement in his heart, and then looked at Aiko.
“Are you okay? Hurt?”
She shook her head, but Aiko was clearly far from alright. She was pale, and as she looked back at the zombie, Aiko’s face turned dead white. She stepped back and put a hand to her mouth.
But she didn’t throw up. Instead, Aiko looked at Ken, a mortal horror in her eyes. He recognized it, because it was the same terrible feeling in him.
Zombies were real. Magic was real. They were in a fantasy world. Only it wasn’t wonderful. It was just as bad as any anime, only worse. Because Ken could smell the rotting corpses. He could feel every insect bite on his body, feel the heat of Baleros’ winter, and know that he had killed two people today.
Maybe they were already dead. But the sensation of breaking flesh and bone was—it was too much.
Aiko gave word to the feeling in Ken’s stomach. He looked at her. She’d said—well, he couldn’t process it in English, only in his native language. It was an expression. It meant, roughly, evil sown is evil reaped. Those who do bad things have bad things happen to them. He shook his head.
She stared at him. Ken felt compelled to explain himself. He looked at Aiko, hesitated, and then spoke rapidly in Japanese.
“If this were karma, surely we’d be punished in some other way. No, this is just reality. It is harsh, but we must survive.”
Ever since they’d come to this world, they’d had to survive. They’d sold their backpacks and luggage, found food and shelter for a few days, but like the others, like everyone from this world, they’d run out of money in an instant. This had been the only work they could take, the only work they could do.
“It is too cruel. I cannot do this.”
Aiko’s eyes were still brimming with tears. She looked at the corpse, gagged. Ken tried to look, and failed. He spoke to Aiko, trying to suppress the feeling in his stomach.
“They are dead, Aiko. If they were alive, I would feel guilty. But they are dead and we are…warriors now.”
He had the class. He was a Level 1 [Warrior]. A voice in his head had told him he had the class last night, and a Skill—[Lesser Stamina]. Perhaps that was why his arms weren’t burning despite chopping at two zombies with the axe?
“I know! I know, but I cannot—Kenjiro-san, why are we here?”
Aiko was distraught. She stared at the zombies, and Ken had nothing he could tell her. He didn’t know. One second they’d been in the Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, standing around and making awkward conversation as the rest of their group went off to buy souvenirs. Ken and Aiko had been forced to watch everyone’s luggage because they’d lost the straw pick. Some other people had been walking by, and Ken had seen a flash—
The next moment, he’d been standing in a jungle with Aiko and a group of over a hundred confused people, spread out across a mile’s landscape. That had been their first moments in Baleros.
It hadn’t gotten much better since then.
Movement. Something approached out of the corner of Ken’s eye and he whirled, holding his axe like Quallet had taught him. But it wasn’t a zombie.
Someone was coming towards them. Another Human. This young man looked older than both Ken and Aiko, who were both freshmen in university. The tall, black-skinned young man holding a mace and wearing rusted chainmail grinned at them, sweating heavily. There was something stuck on one side of the mace. Ken stared at it, and then at the young man.
The young man grinned and Ken knew he’d gotten the name right.
“Yes, and you’re…Ken. Kenjiro, right?”
He didn’t use honorifics. He wasn’t Japanese, but from somewhere else. No one from Japan had been taken to the other world that Kenjiro had seen. Ken nodded.
“I am…and this is Aiko-san.”
Aiko bowed slightly, and Luan grinned at her. There was so much absurdity to the moment, as the two Japanese students introduced themselves over the corpse of a zombie. But it was normal, so they clung to that.
Luan eyed the dead zombie and then Ken and Aiko.
“I saw you two fighting. Are you alright?”
How could you answer that? Ken hesitated, and then fell back on politeness.
“I am fine.”
“Yes, I am okay. Thank you very much.”
Aiko spoke with slightly accented English, stumbling a bit over the words. Neither she nor Ken were native speakers, although they’d done well in English class. Luan’s eyes flickered to them, and he nodded without addressing their blatant lie.
“I am glad you two are okay. You should stick with me and the others.”
He pointed, and Ken saw some of the other people he recognized, standing pale and sweaty a good distance away from the last zombies as they were put to rest. He followed Luan with Aiko and they heard Quallet bellowing at them.
“Good! We’ll have a break to drink and clean yourselves off, and then we’ll tell you what you did right—and what you did wrong!”
“I hate that guy.”
Luan made a face as he led Ken towards the others. Ken privately agreed, although he wouldn’t have said as much out loud. He nodded awkwardly towards the others as he heard one of them, an American named Johanas, talking loudly.
“We did it! We killed those fucking zombies. I mean, we did it. With swords and axes, like a fucking video game. Does this mean we’ll level up? What hell, man. What the hell is going on?”
That seemed to be the general consensus of the group. Everyone, even the people who hadn’t fought, were pale and shaken. Ken understood.
They’d known they were enlisting to be soldiers, but they hadn’t expected this. Somehow, Ken had thought it wouldn’t be…wouldn’t be…wouldn’t be real. He’d still clung to a hope that this was all a dream, and that having a world with classes and levels and people with Skills meant this was a game, or some kind of dream you could wake up from.
But it was all real. And from the looks on the other’s faces, they were beginning to realize this as well. Ken and Aiko stood around with the others, listening to them speak. Everyone was speaking in English, as it was the tongue all of them had in common.
“This is some crazy shit, huh?”
Someone was talking to him. Ken stared at the young man with blonde hair who was speaking, and tried to make sense of what he’d said. Crazy…oh, he was saying this was insane. Ken nodded.
“I think…this is very crazy, yes.”
“I thought this would be different. I thought since we had classes and levels, we wouldn’t actually kill people. Or it wouldn’t be that real. But this is totally like…like Sword Art Online, you know? Sort of like that, don’t you think?”
What had he said? Ken was trying to keep up. He hesitated.
“Oh? Yes? Maybe. I do not know. I am sorry…”
Ken saw the other young man blink in surprise.
“Sorry? No, it’s cool. I mean…”
He trailed off and the conversation ended there. Aiko edged towards Ken and whispered to him.
“What did he mean? What is…”
She hesitated and spoke the words awkwardly in English.
“…‘Sword Art Online?’”
“I think it is an anime.”
“Oh. Did you watch it? Do you know what it is about?”
They both fell silent. It wasn’t as if Ken didn’t watch any anime, and he’d certainly read a few manga over the years. But he was in college now, and watching anime was a bit…well, there was more to do than just that.
He watched the young man with blonde hair move back towards the others. The others like him. It wasn’t that the group of Humans who’d come from another world weren’t all on the same boat, but they were different.
They’d all been in the Melbourne Airport when taken, and so they were all sorts of nationalities. Some big groups of travelers had been caught up, while individual travelers had been seized as well, or parts of groups like Ken and Aiko.
Most of them were either Australian or American, with a heavier emphasis on American, since a huge tour group had been coming through. Other nationalities had come as well of course, but they were fragmented.
Some had already left. In the first moments of confusion when Aiko had screamed and people had cried out and come running, Ken had seen all kinds of faces. But when it had been established that no one know what was happing or what was going on, people began forming their own groups, usually based on shared nationality or some other identity.
When they’d finally gotten a fire going and lit up the jungle with their phones and other devices, Ken and Aiko had stuck with the others, trying to speak English and explain where they were from. A lot of kids from India had kept to themselves and didn’t speak to others much. They vanished on the first day.
In the days that followed as the travelers from another world tried to find civilization, more people left, suspicious or afraid they’d been caught up in a trap. They departed secretly in the night, or openly in larger groups.
A little over half of the original number had stayed together. The Americans, Australians, and some other people from European countries stuck together, and a lot of other people from countries with no friends came as well. Ken and Aiko followed the majority because they had no idea what to do.
Now of course, after deciding as a group to sign up as soldiers in order to eat and survive, everyone still didn’t know what to do. But they did talk among each other anxiously.
“Hey. I have water for you two. Need some?”
The tall young man named Luan was back, with water flasks. Ken thanked him profusely before taking his and washing his filthy hands. Aiko did the same on the spear she’d recovered from the zombie, splashing water carelessly on it until Xor shouted at her not to waste supplies. She jumped, and Luan scowled in his direction.
“Asshole. You know, I haven’t seen him smile once? Apparently all Dullahans are like that. Do you know them? Their legends, I mean.”
Ken blinked at Luan. The other young man was clearly not from America—there was something about the way he spoke, and how he didn’t fit with the other Americans. He wasn’t from any of the other major groups either, because he didn’t talk with them all the time. Ken nodded slowly, trying to reply as best he could.
“I do know. But they are…how can I say this? Fairy tale? They are…not-real things. Stories. Or so I thought.”
“Some of the guys are saying they think they’re like monsters.”
Ken turned and stared at some of the other Dullahan recruits. They had taken their heads off their armored bodies and were pouring water into their mouths. They could take their heads off their bodies, leaving only a glowing light from within. He spoke hesitantly.
“I think they are people like us, but they look so much like—like…Aiko, how do I say—?”
He conferred with Aiko and turned to Luan.
“Like walking armor, yes? Like knight armor, from Western culture?”
Luan’s face lit up and he grinned.
“Oh! Yeah, I get it. I was thinking they looked a bit like Alfonse. You know, from Full Metal Alchemist, yeah? I loved that anime!”
Ken and Aiko stared at him blankly. Ken nodded slowly.
“I think I know what you are saying. But Aiko and I—”
He broke off and conferred with Aiko. She hadn’t seen it either. Rather than be surprised at their lack of encyclopedic knowledge of all things anime, Luan laughed.
“That’s okay. I’m a bit of a weeaboo. Do you know that word?”
Someone obsessed with Japanese culture. Ken nodded and smiled.
“I like anime, but I have not watched many recently. But Aiko and I agree—this is like an anime.”
“A horrible one.”
Aiko’s face was pale as she sipped from the water canteen. Luan nodded, growing serious.
“This is some bad shit, mate. I was worried about you two when Quallet told you to fight, but you did well! You stabbed that guy right through the stomach! Bam!”
He demonstrated and Aiko’s face went pale again. Luan put a hand on her shoulder, making her jump at the unexpected contact.
“Sorry. I know this is all horrific.”
“No, it’s okay—”
She hesitated, and Ken realized she didn’t remember Luan’s name. To cover for her, he hastily spoke up.
“This is Luan-san, Aiko. And I am Kenjiro. I am very pleased to meet you.”
He bowed slightly to Luan, who then smiled and introduced himself.
“I’m Luan Khumalo. You two are from Japan, yes?”
“Yes. Where are you from, Luan-san?”
“You can call me Luan. I’m from South Africa.”
“Oh! What place in south Africa?”
Luan paused, and Ken saw Aiko cover her face and start laughing at him. It took Luan a moment to explain, and then Kenjiro’s face turned red.
“Oh. I am so sorry!”
Ken bowed his head, feeling flushed with embarrassment. But Luan only laughed heartily.
“its fine, it’s fine! I’ve met a lot of people who have no idea South Africa is a place.”
Thus, they became friends. As Quallet stood everyone up and lectured them at a roar on how to fight better next time, and then marched them onwards, Ken and Aiko began talking to Luan as the company moved down the jungle trails.
Luan was the first person they’d really got to know, and he was well-spoken, friendly, and strong. He carried his weapon and walked without succumbing to the heat, which was apparently, aside from the humidity, cooler than back home. Ken felt like he was in Okinawa, and he’d never been to Okinawa.
“Your English is really good. I am very jealous.”
Aiko commented to Luan as they were on the road. He smiled knowingly.
“Yes. It is, isn’t it? I grew up speaking English.”
They stared at him. Luan laughed again.
“I can speak four languages. English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Tswana…you can speak two, right?”
“Yes, but not good.”
Ken was acutely aware of how hard it was to speak with other people in English, and had kept silent up until now because of it. But Luan took the opposite view.
“Even if one is not as good as the other, that should be a good thing, not a bad thing. Most of these Americans can only speak one. If there were other people from Africa around, I could speak about them behind their backs.”
Ken and Aiko laughed, and then immediately looked around to see if anyone had heard. No one had.
The group they were in, the group of people from another world was indeed filled with Americans. They were the majority, and in a way, they’d taken charge. Several of them, mainly guys, seemed to have the final say in what was going on. They’d been the ones to suggest signing up with Quallet, and they were the most vocal, and thus, the most persuasive, members of the group.
They were also the most ready to be fighting. Some hadn’t been bothered at all by killing zombies, talking about this being like a movie or T.V. show, and seemed positively happy about the prospect of leveling up and fighting. By contrast, Ken and Aiko would have loved to de-enlist from Gravetender’s Fist, but they were stuck. Luan seemed to share their opinions.
“What did you two do when you were in our world?”
“We are…were students in university.”
“Oh, right! How old are you?”
Ken was twenty one, Aiko twenty two. Both of them were in the same classes. Luan grinned when he realized they had known each other all their lives.
“You two got into the same university?”
“That’s right. I was studying to be in business and Aiko-san—”
“I was trying to learn to be an artist. Not manga—I do illustrations.”
“Ag, shame! That’s great.”
The two of them looked blank. What Luan said made no sense—until he explained.
“Shame means good in South Africa. It’s like if you said—I found twenty bucks, yeah? Then I’d say, ‘Shame!’”
“Oh. I think I understand…”
Perhaps it was because they were both from different cultures that Ken and Aiko felt at home speaking with Luan. Unlike the people from America, they were alike in how they were all foreigners, outsiders to the main group. Aiko asked the obvious question to Luan.
“What did you do, Luan?”
He grinned, showing them very white teeth.
“Oh, me? I was on my country’s national Olympic rowing team.”
It took a few seconds for Ken to interpret this. When he did, he tripped. Aiko’s eyes went wide.
They stared. It took a while and Luan had to explain himself several times, but the world of Olympic kayaking slowly opened itself up to the two Japanese students.
Luan was an Olympic contender. Not an Olympian—he hadn’t gone to the Olympics, but he would have in 2020. He was South Africa’s first hope for a Silver or Gold medal in his event, the single scull.
He had trained to be part of a Coxless pair, which was a specialized type of boat that allowed for two rowers to use it at the same time. Luan was usually on the bow side—which was to say, the left side of the boat—and competed his good friend, Ben, who had the same goal as Luan. They wanted to take home the gold medal in the next Olympics, and had trained themselves intensively until they had become a serious contender, despite South Africa only having ever won one gold medal in the rowing event in the Olympics.
Being part of a coxless pair was extremely difficult, because Luan and Ben both had to balance each other and cooperate to move and row with the same force to go fast through the water. Luan had originally wanted to compete as a single scull—a type of event where only one person rowed with two paddles—but he’d met Ben while training and the two had become instant best friends.
However, because there were already two excellent rowers forming a coxless pair who’d won a Silver-medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics, Lawrence Brittain and Shaun Keeling, Luan had put his hopes on winning in the single scull event, and his times were good enough for him to seriously aim at the gold medal. He’d been in Australia for a break when he’d been transported to another world.
“You know, it’s shitty lucky, but at least Ben will get a chance to go instead of me, eh? He’s dreamed of being an Olympian as long as I have.”
Luan said all of this so casually that Ken couldn’t believe it. Luan was—well, he was one of the best rowers in the world. He was an athlete—which also explained why he didn’t seem fazed by the marching or fighting like the others.
Ken had no idea how to behave with Luan, until Aiko pointed out what should have been obvious.
“You are a good friend. I hope we will go back in time for the Olympics, and you can compete and win!”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Luan smiled at Aiko and looked ahead. There was a quiet worry in his eyes, though, and Ken saw it. Luan turned to them, serious, as the final day of their march wound to a close.
“You two should stick together with me. It’s going to be bad up ahead. I don’t think the others realize it, but that Quallet guy and the other experienced soldiers know it too. Our job is going to be dangerous no matter what he says.”
“But he said we will be safe, right? Safer? We will only fight zombies, not other people.”
Ken tried to swallow the fear that had jumped up in his gut. He would have liked Luan to lie in that moment, but the tall South African young man looked down at him. He was older than both Ken and Aiko by several years. He was twenty five, and there was something knowing in his eyes.
“It’s a war, Ken. Believe me, wars are never safe.”
The next day they arrived at the battlefield, a wide valley miles long, where two armies sortied from camps on hilltops and met in the valley floor. Hundreds of bodies fell each hour and the screaming—
Oh, the screaming.
Quallet knew he’d come close when he heard the sounds of mage spells in the distance. There was a rhythmic thump of something extremely powerful hitting the ground. He immediately signaled a halt.
“Raise the banner!”
It was essential to do this straight away. Each company had a banner and raising it was the only way to identify themselves. It might not mean they were safe, but an unmarked group wandering around would definitely be attacked by all sides. Under a banner, Gravetender’s Fist was at least nominally protected.
“We’re headed into a battlefield, but we are not fighting anyone living. The first soldier to draw arms or provoke the enemy I will cut down. Is that clear?”
Quallet addressed the company, impressing on them the seriousness of the charge. Then he had them move out, slowly, the banners waving as he approached the site of the battle.
His company was spotted instantly, of course. The [Generals] and [Commanders] of both sides kept sentries posted for attacks from every direction. In no time, a patrol of Centaurs was racing towards him.
Although suppression companies like Gravetender’s Fist provided a service needed by all sides, Quallet had contracted with the Roving Arrow company, which was mainly Centaurs, although Quallet knew they’d probably hired smaller companies to supplement their forces.
He didn’t get to meet with the company’s [Commander]—in fact, he didn’t meet with any officers. Quallet was instead directed to a neutral zone, away from the fighting and told brusquely that other suppression companies—those hired by the opposing side as well—were there.
This too was a standard practice in war. War vendors, [Merchants] who specialized in sales to an army during a conflict, as well as suppression companies and other independent parties often frequented battlefields. The custom was that there were areas untouched by the fighting, clearly marked as neutral zones where they stayed.
That was the custom. Although Quallet knew that sometimes such companies masqueraded as neutral and influenced a battle covertly—or overtly if they broke the rules of war. It was rare and such a company would be marked for all of time, but it did happen. He only prayed that this battle wouldn’t see such an event occurring.
It wasn’t likely. And everything seemed normal as Quallet found two other undead suppression companies waiting for nightfall in the space already allocated. Rot’s Bane, a small group of experts and Untimely Demise, a large company full of green soldiers much like his own, were already set up in the best spot. Quallet directed Xor and Raeh to set up where they could as he met the two other company [Captains].
“Quallet Marshhand! I told you this would be a profitable battle!”
The first man to stride towards him was a bald fellow named Ulvial. He was in charge of Untimely Demise and wasn’t as good a warrior or leader as Quallet—but he made do with a set of officers that stayed with him
“Ulvial. Good to see you. Thanks for tipping me off about this battle.”
Quallet clasped hands with him and nodded to the second [Captain]. She was a Centaur named Exara. He’d never worked with her directly, but he’d heard her small group was efficient and disciplined.
“A pleasure to work with you, Captain Exara.”
She trotted over to him and gripped his hand in a light handshake. Quallet looked around the open area they’d been assigned and noticed a group of Centaurs staring at them. All of them were armed and alert.
“Not your group, I take it.”
Exara shook her head.
“Guards. They’re watching my company since our contract was bought by the Razorblades.”
That was odd. Normally suppression companies were trusted—they banked their ability to be hired on their reputations for honest work without bias. Quallet frowned, but reassured himself with the knowledge that he was on the same side as the Centaurs. He looked back at Ulvial.
“Your company looks quite large. Expecting a lot of undead to work with?”
“Yes indeed! Haven’t you seen the battlefield? Both the Centaurs and Dullahans are carving each other up out there.”
“What’s the feud about?”
Exara and Ulvial shrugged at the same time. They didn’t know, didn’t need to know. They only had to do their jobs.
“Some land argument? Money? Someone hired them? Either way, we’ll earn gold by the fistful for dealing with all the bodies.”
“It’ll be a chore between our companies.”
Quallet was already calculating the ground they had to cover. The valley was big—he was used to such sizes, but they’d have to work in quadrants, possibly saving some areas for other days if they didn’t have enough forces.
“Oh, we’ll be working into dawn each day. But we’ll be paid for it, and paid well! It’s simpler and easier than dying in this bloodbath, that’s for certain.”
Ulvial laughed and Quallet winced. Suppression companies were indeed paid well, mainly because they were doing fighting of their own, but regular companies resented the need for them. Large ones like the Great Companies made their soldiers do the work, and there wasn’t a regular soldier alive who didn’t resent a suppression company from staying out of the real danger.
Some of the Centaur guards were glaring. To change the subject, Quallet asked about a map and was shown to the one Exara and Ulvial had already carved up into portions. He studied it and tapped a spot as he conferred with the other two.
“We’ll take the west side and work our way in. I’ve a group of new recruits, most of which don’t know a sword from their own arm.”
They nodded, not bothered by the spot he’d chosen. It was off-center from the fighting, which meant Quallet would get less corpses to deal with. Each suppression company was paid by the amount of corpses they disposed of, by fire or sword.
“Fine by me. I’ll take the south, then.”
“And I’ll head in from the east. Just make sure to have your banners up and illuminate yourselves. The soldiers from both sides are on heavy night patrol and they’re jumpy.”
Exara warned the other two [Captains] and Quallet nodded seriously. The last thing he needed was to tangle with soldiers from either side and get any killed. Ulvial grunted in agreement.
“No fear. I’ve seen what happens to anyone who sticks their heads out of the neutral zones. The fighting’s everywhere. Speaking of which, have you heard there’s another independent group out there? Not just the war vendors—some kind of rogue unit!”
That got Quallet’s attention. Rogue detachments of soldiers were a wildcard. They could be a group of warriors or bandits or any number of things that entered the fray on one side or none at all. They were a danger to suppression companies if they attacked while they were working.
“Who or what is it?”
“Not a large group. Not a fighting force.”
Exara frowned as she tapped a neutral zone north of their position. She hesitated.
“I’ve heard it’s a unit that treats wounded soldiers.”
“Any side’s. Apparently there’s a skilled [Doctor] working over there. She appeared when the battle started getting intense and offered her services. It’s caught the attention of both companies, and there’s a cease-fire in agreement in the area she works in.”
Curious and curiouser. Quallet’s brows snapped together. It was Ulvial who asked the obvious question.
“What’s so special about a [Doctor]? Both companies should have healing potions enough. It’s not like they lost their entire supply to raids like the Raverian Fighters.”
The mention of that company’s fate made both Exara and Quallet wince. The Raverian Fighters had barely survived their last engagement, as repeat attacks on their healing potion stashes—and attempts to resupply—had sent the company in full-blown retreat, barely a quarter of its strength.
Exara shook her head.
“I don’t know why she’s here, but apparently this [Doctor] can heal wounds without healing potions—and quickly, too! She’s apparently better than a [Healer] and with potions she can bring soldiers back when they’re considered dead by all.”
“A useful person to have around, then. I’ll watch out.”
Ulvial grunted and Quallet nodded. He doubted he’d need to use her services, but it was worth remembering.
Talk then turned to more practical matters, and soon Quallet was back at his camp.
“None of you are to stray beyond the neutral zone, or pick fights with other soldiers! You’ll be heading in to your first battle tonight. Yes, you’ll be hauling bodies, but you’ll see the undead, and without us to hold your hand this time!”
He needn’t have warned his soldiers. They were staring at the battle between the Dullahans and Centaurs with wide-eyes, even the ones who were used to fighting. Quallet only had to glance to his left to see distant shapes battling out in the valley below. There were Centaurs charging at armored shapes, arrows flying, magic breaking the ground, blood—
He looked away. There was no point in watching. But the new recruits had never seen such slaughter, and the Humans were transfixed.
“Dude. No way. This is insane.”
Quallet heard one of them speaking and shook his head. This was Baleros. A country where war was in the blood, just like how Rhir was constantly locked in struggle. And this wasn’t one of the largest warzones. This was two companies fighting, not ten or a hundred.
Still, it was a war, and being so close to it made all of Quallet’s senses sharp. He slept lightly until nightfall, knowing the new soldiers wouldn’t get a wink. It didn’t matter.
As night began, both sides began drawing back, avoiding skirmishing at night to avoid chaos, sending their troops to fight a neutral party—
And to avoid losing them to the undead. Quallet eyed the sinking sun and saw the other companies readying themselves. He had his soldiers gear up, refreshed their memories about who was supposed to do what—
Soon, there was no more fighting in the valley below. The darkness was extreme. The sounds of battle had ended, but now other sounds took their place. Animals calling out, insects—
And the screams of those left on the battlefield. There were wounded there, unable to be recovered or too injured to be saved with healing potions. Some of the Humans in Quallet’s company paled from the sounds. Others threw up.
All normal. Quallet gritted his teeth as he saw Exara bring her small company down the slopes, a shining banner raised and illuminating their forces. He ordered Xor to do the same and turned to his company.
Pale faces and frightened expressions stared up at him. Quallet saw most of the children who’d signed up to fight wavering. Of course they would. But here and there he saw determination like iron in their gazes, unflinching resolution at what had to be done.
The young man with black skin had that look. Strangely, so did the young man and woman, the two odd-looking ones standing next to him. They’d been petrified fighting the zombies, but now they had the look. It was the look that told Quallet they might survive this night.
It wasn’t bravery or bravado. It wasn’t the thrill of battle, but the will to survive. That was what they needed. Quallet looked into their eyes and then drew his axe. He pointed towards the valley below, where shapes were beginning to stand. To rise.
“Gravetender’s Fist…move out!”
Ryoka stood in the darkness, heart pounding. She was afraid. Mortally afraid. There were things she feared in the world, and she was about to face one of them.
She had met Dragons, [Necromancers], Goblin Lords, and yes, each one was terrifying in a way that left scars on the soul. If she closed her eyes, she could still taste the fear. Such memories weren’t nightmarish, though. Nightmares were generally figments of the dreaming mind, and as such, couldn’t come close to the experience of seeing a Dragon face to face.
Part of the fear was wonder. And when Ryoka sat up at night, heart pounding, seeing the Goblins slaughtering the Stone Spears tribe, feeling her fingers bitten off—
That was a horror, one that did not disappear for waking. Because a nightmare was only suspicion, paranoia, unfulfilled fear. Goblins existed. The Goblin Lord was coming. So was the [Necromancer], and Ryoka didn’t know what to do.
All these traumas—Ryoka hadn’t even included dead things around a fire, or evil carnivorous goats. With so much to be afraid of in this world, it seemed silly to have this fear.
And yet, it stemmed from a different place than the ordeals she had gone through. This one was personal, intimate, and it came from a time when Ryoka had been in her world. She just couldn’t face it without shuddering inside.
She hated visiting friends. Or to be more accurate, she thought she did. She’d never actually done it.
Ryoka hesitated outside of the door of the large farmhouse. By her side, Mrsha fidgeted in the snow. She looked plaintively up at Ryoka as her stomach rumbled.
It was dark. That didn’t necessarily mean that late; winter being what it was, the sun had gone down before it was time for dinner. And that was why Ryoka was here.
Dinner at Garia’s. She’d asked, and Garia had been only too happy to talk to her parents. And of course, Fals had agreed to come and Ryoka had known it was the only good thing to do as a friend. Still…
It was going to be awkward. Ryoka dreaded that. She didn’t know what to do, what to say, how to act, and she had a horrible fear of silence at the dinner table. At other people’s dinner tables, that was. Her naturally antagonistic relationship with her parents had made her accustomed to it at her house, on the rare occasions they all ate together.
But there was no help for it. Ryoka had taken Mrsha from Erin’s inn after Safry and Maran had been fired. She’d gone to Celum and run with the Gnoll carried on her back. There was actually a kind of basket the Gnolls used that could be used to carry their young. It wasn’t exactly easy to run with, but Ryoka had crossed through snow and run down empty roads until she reached a farm a few miles west of Celum.
That had surprised her, learning that Garia lived so close by. But she’d never talked to the girl about her family, aside from the basics. Garia lived on a farm. Her parents ran said farm. That was all Ryoka needed to know.
And the farm did seem like a proper…farm. It was hard to see in the darkness, but Ryoka had spotted a structure very similar to a barn coming in. It seemed quite large to be run by just two people. Maybe they hired help? Anyways, it didn’t fit with what Ryoka had expected. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected.
“And now we’re here. I should have asked more questions. Like do I bring a gift? I’m pretty sure a hungry Gnoll isn’t a normal hostess gift.”
Ryoka muttered to herself. By her side, Mrsha looked up imploringly. Ryoka had been standing outside in the snow for a minute, which in Mrsha time was probably a year. The Gnoll was clearly hungry—she could probably smell the food inside. She edged over to Ryoka and poked her leg with a claw, looking meaningfully at the door.
“In a second, Mrsha.”
She just had to steel herself. Okay, say ‘hi, thanks for having me’. Or did she introduce herself first? Ryoka hesitated. Maybe she should—
“Just go in, you daft coward!”
Someone shouted in her ear. Then Ivolethe kicked Ryoka in the back of the head.
Ryoka swatted at the Frost Faerie. Ivolethe flew around her and glared at Ryoka.
“Stop dithering. I grow bored with every passing moment ye stay out here, and my kind watches trees grow for sport.”
The Frost Faerie stared meaningfully at Ryoka. She’d come with Ryoka on the journey, amusing Mrsha to no end by tormenting Ryoka with flurries of snow, snowballs, snow pitfalls, and other winter-related pranks. Ryoka opened her mouth to snap back, felt another poke, and gave in after a short fight.
“Okay, okay. Stop kicking me—stop poking me, Mrsha. I know it’s you. Don’t look around. There’s no one else here! I’m doing it.”
Steeling herself, she raised her hand and knocked loudly at the door. Ryoka had heard muffled sounds from within, and there were lights burning behind the shuttered windows. Now, at her knock, she heard a loud exclamation from within and heavy, running footsteps.
The door burst open. Mrsha nearly went flying as Garia flung the door wide and then engulfed Ryoka in a bone-crushing hug.
“It’s so great you’re here! Oh! And Mrsha! I didn’t see you there! Hello! Remember me?”
She let go of Ryoka, allowing the taller girl to breathe, and bent to shake paws with Mrsha. The Gnoll blinked up at Garia solemnly, and then licked her lips as Garia held the door open.
“Come in! My family’s here and Fals came an hour ago. He’s really funny—but you knew that! There’s food ready and snacks—oh. Is uh, she coming?”
Garia had caught sight of Ivolethe. Like all people from this world, she stared a bit to the left of the faerie, looking at Ivolethe’s glamour. She looked apprehensive, no doubt remembering the events at the Runner’s Guild.
“Crap. I uh—”
Ryoka hesitated. She wanted to let Ivolethe come in, but she was well aware of the chaos the Frost Faerie could cause by herself. And it was dangerous for Ivolethe to be indoors as well, even invited. The iron in Garia’s home would be a problem.
For once, Ivolethe solved the problem by herself. She spoke loudly, making Garia jump. Apparently she could speak to whomever she pleased if the need arose, although she seldom bothered.
“I shall take my leave, Ryoka Griffin. I have things to see, and I don’t wish to listen to your mortal prattling all night.”
“Oh. Uh. Sorry.”
Garia stared at Ivolethe, white-faced. Ivolethe grinned at Ryoka and flicked her eyes inside calculatingly.
“However, if ye would leave food for me outside, I might consider blessing this place. A proper meal, though. Without iron, mind! And with lots of meat!”
“I’ll uh, I’ll do that.”
Wide-eyed, Garia watched as Ivolethe flew upwards and then disappeared rapidly into the sky. She looked at Ryoka. Ryoka shrugged.
“You heard her. Put something out after dinner. Lots of meat. I’ll bet her blessings are worth spit, but it’s better than having her annoyed. Don’t worry either way, though. She’s pretty harmless.”
Garia nodded uncertainly as Mrsha lost patience and padded into the house ahead of the two. Ryoka was about to follow when a snowball spiraled down from above. It hit the back of her head and nearly knocked her flat.
Of course Ryoka had grown used to snowballs thrown by faeries before. She’d been hit by ones with rocks inside them, bits of ice, and so on. But this one had come down at an extreme speed and angle. It had a ton of force behind it. In short, it hurt. Ryoka stumbled, turned and raised her middle finger to the sky.
A distant laugh answered her. That was coincidentally also when Fals and Garia’s parents came out to meet Ryoka. Their first impression of her was thus an angry Asian girl flipping off the sky, hair covered with snow. As first impressions went…well, Ryoka had had worse.
“So you’re friends with the Winter Sprites, Miss, ah, Ryoka?”
A few minutes later Ryoka was sitting around a table with Mrsha, Garia, Fals, and Mr. and Ms. Strongheart. Of course, no one spoke like that, so they were Wailant and Viceria, the married couple who’d raised Garia.
They…weren’t what Ryoka had expected. For one thing, well, they didn’t look the part. Not that Ryoka had expected a pair of Southern-accented people with hats and overalls, but she had considered the standards of farming in this world fairly below hers. She’d been prepared to meet a fairly poor couple, living in a village and farming a patch of land that might be owned by a [Lord] or other kind of landowner.
Instead, she met the oddest pair imaginable. The father, Wailant, had huge, tattooed and scarred arms revealed by his sleeveless cotton shirt. It had taken Ryoka several minutes just to process the incongruity of his appearance. She managed to break down the weirdness into several layers.
Firstly, his arms were muscled. Not surprising on a [Farmer], and Garia was certainly strong as all get-out from her years working. But the tattoos? One was of a twisting tentacle holding a ship, the other of some kind of horrific fish with a gaping maw. The other, well, Ryoka was just glad that Mrsha was more interested in her food than in Wailant.
And his shirt! That was another weird part of him. Because despite wearing a sleeveless shirt, it was far from a poor quality cloth. The shirt itself was a light blue gilded with gold. It had a flowing edge around the bottom and sides reminiscent of a golden wave.
And the scars. Unless farming in this world involved fighting mutant rabbits with teeth like swords, Wailant had gotten the savage scars that covered his arms somewhere else. He had a particularly nasty circular wound—from an arrow, perhaps—on the side of his stubbled face.
In short, he looked as little like a [Farmer] as Ryoka could imagine. And his wife, Viceria?
She was a [Mage]. She wore the robe, spoke like Pisces when he wasn’t being obnoxiously wordy, and Ryoka could sense the magic about her. She had long, flowing hair tied back in a braid—light brown, contrasting against Wailant’s black hair. She was slim, elegant.
Ryoka sat at a dinner table with the two of Garia’s parents as she ate, filling her plates with roast yams, a hot egg-and-pork casserole, spooned potatoes and some kind of weird, soft and sour vegetable called Tashal onto her plate, and tried to make conversation.
“Uh, yes. That’s right. Her name’s Ivolethe. She’s ah…a friend.”
“Oh? I wasn’t aware they had names. Garia told me about seeing your friend’s true form. I had no idea they were using a glamour at the time, but that would explain their other abilities. How did you meet her?”
Viceria tapped her fingers together as she studied Ryoka over her plate. She was using silver…silverware. In fact, the plates were costly ceramics. Ryoka carefully chewed down a bite of Tashal—it really was good with potatoes, like sour cream—before replying.
“I ah, attracted their notice. Those little b—those pests followed me for days, pulling pranks on me, throwing snow at my head, and so on. In the end I managed to impress them a bit, and Ivolethe seemed to like me.”
“So you have one of those devils following you?”
Sitting next to Fals and his wife, Wailant snorted. He folded his arms as Mrsha tried to fill her mouth with food. The Gnoll was happily consuming everything she could reach, and her plate kept being filled by Wailant, who seemed to enjoy watching Mrsha eat. She and Garia were the only things he seemed to approve of—Fals and Ryoka were getting the third degree.
“Those pests can wreck a farm in a day. I remember one of the farmers south of here lost an entire spring harvest when they covered his fields with eight feet of snow! He had to hire [Diggers] to shift it while all the other snow had long melted away!”
Ryoka coughed awkwardly and saw Garia wince. Her friend was sitting on her right, next to Fals, and she looked guilty as her father stared hard at Ryoka.
“I uh, didn’t know about that. I’m sorry for your friend—”
“My friend? I hated that bastard. I’m glad the faeries covered his fields. Served him right. But your friend’s not going to do it to my farm now, is she?”
“No. Absolutely not. Ivolethe doesn’t generally cause trouble—she just pulls pranks.”
“But she can do quite a lot on her own, can’t she? Garia told us about what happened to the Runner’s Guild in Celum.”
Viceria gazed at Ryoka, making the Runner girl cough. She was saved by Fals, who interrupted with a placating smile.
“I’m sorry to say the Runner’s Guild—and most of the people within—probably deserved it in that case, Miss Viceria. I haven’t seen Ryoka’s little friend doing anything else like that. In fact, I’d consider someone who’s familiar with snow and such an asset.”
“Oh. So that’s why Miss Ryoka’s had all those lucrative contracts? I wanted to know how she got deliveries for gold—hundreds of gold coins or so Garia’s said—while she’s still running deliveries for silver and copper. Is it all because of your Frost Faerie friend?”
Garia sat up in her seat, flushing scarlet and glaring at her father.
“Dad. I don’t think Ryoka is—don’t embarrass me!”
Wailant Strongheart was unmoved. He was giving Ryoka a look she wished she could bottle and use on everyone she didn’t like. Coming from him, it was, well, hard not to flinch. Ryoka met Wailant’s green eyes, not backing down.
“I got those contracts because I was in the right place at the right time. I didn’t take them from anyone.”
“So you say.”
Wailant shifted, uncrossing one arm. Ryoka could see every muscle in his right arm shift for the motion. Sitting across from her, Fals leaned back as one of Wailant’s arms flexed, making the fish tattoo seem to swim. He grinned a bit desperately and nodded at Ryoka.
“We’re ah, all City Runners here, Mister Wailant, Miss Viceria. No one takes advantage of each other if we can help it. We’re a team. Ryoka just happens to be one of the best Runners in our Guild. In truth, I wouldn’t take half the requests she does. Running through the High Passes? I’d rather play tag with a Creler, or paint myself red and run through the streets of Celum naked.”
That got a laugh. Garia giggled and Wailant barked out a guffaw and slapped Fals on the back. Ryoka winced as she heard the crack of flesh on flesh. Fals kept grinning, although it looked like he was now struggling not to cry out in pain.
He was being charming, funny, and talkative. At first Ryoka had assumed it was the usual Fals, but she’d quickly realized that this was a defense tactic. Keeping Garia’s parents entertained was far more preferable to having them ask piercing questions. Ryoka wondered how he’d survived an hour already.
To change the subject, Ryoka cast about the table. Hostile parents aside, Garia’s house was really very nice. Extraordinarily nice. Again, Ryoka had expected a family that conformed to medieval economics, which was to say, dirt poor. But everything in the Strongheart family home looked well-made and some things looked expensive. They had a bookshelf filled with books for crying out loud! Ryoka chose that as the subject and nodded at it.
“I see you have quite a collection of books. I uh, didn’t know that [Farmers] were so well read. I’ve tried buying books myself, but they’re as expensive as healing potions, some of them. How did you come by this collection?”
“We’re humble folk, Miss Ryoka. That doesn’t mean we’re stupid. Or poor, for that matter.”
How did she manage to put her foot further into her mouth? Ryoka saw Garia burying her head in her hands as Wailant pushed back his chair. There was nothing poor or humble about the way he brought out several of the books for Ryoka and Fals to admire. She stared at the covers, noting several from her time perusing Magnolia’s library.
“It’s a magnificent collection.”
“Of course it is! I’ve read them all. Viceria here knows several [Shopkeepers] and [Merchants] who sell to [Lords] and [Ladies]. Of course, a poor family of [Farmers] can’t afford more than one or two first-edition tomes. Read all of these, have you?”
“Not all of them.”
Ryoka found herself being quizzed aggressively on the books she had read as the dinner continued. All the while, she saw Garia grow more and more anxious. She kept breaking into her father’s flow, trying to change the subject.
“So uh, does anyone want dessert? Mrsha? Why don’t I uh, get it? And you, Dad.”
She practically dragged her father out of his chair and into the kitchen. Mrsha followed, waddling a bit with her full belly and standing upright so the food wouldn’t come out if she fell over. Fals took that moment to flee for the outhouse, leaving Ryoka in a moment’s reprieve.
Well, Viceria was still there. Ryoka eyed her across the table and saw the woman smile.
“I apologize for my husband, Miss Ryoka.”
“It’s uh, fine. Call me Ryoka. Why do I get the feeling that he doesn’t like me?”
Viceria laughed softly. She looked like she was ten years younger than she was, which was, according to Garia, in her thirties. Ryoka was having a hard time imagining her giving birth to Garia. Oh, the features were there, the hair color was the same, but the body shape—no.
“I think that it’s because you look a lot like the girls that used to give Garia a hard time when she was growing up. You have their look, and I think Wailant’s concerned you might be taking advantage of Garia. I won’t pretend I didn’t have the same thoughts when I met young Fals, but he seems decent enough.”
That clarified some things. Ryoka sat back in her chair, hearing Garia’s not-so-quiet argument with her father about much the same subject in the kitchen.
“Oh? What do I look like?”
Viceria shrugged, looking slightly bitter.
“Tall, beautiful, thin. It’s not as if Garia doesn’t look lovely herself, but she thinks she should look more like me, when she inherited her father’s build. And of course, her first class was [Farmer], not [Mage]…”
“Wait, her class?”
Ryoka frowned. Viceria looked surprised.
“Of course. Don’t you know? Some classes dictate the way in which we, well, look. I am a [Mage], for instance. Working with magic means I tend to look younger than I really am—of course, there are spells that help as well. But [Mages] tend towards thinness. We burn too much energy for most of us to gain weight. Whereas classes like [Farmer], well, anyone who grows up with that class tends to grow a lot larger than say, someone who was raised as a [Clerk].”
Was that really true? Ryoka frowned as she tried to unpack this. The way you looked could tie to your class? She could buy the bit about [Mages] burning energy, but surely broad shoulders were in Garia’s genes, not a byproduct of her class. Then again, this was a world governed by Skills. Why couldn’t there be a passive effect that did just that?
“I didn’t know about classes like that. But Garia and I are, well, friends. She made my acquaintance and we’ve hung out. I wouldn’t ever take advantage of her. She’s a good person.”
“We know. But while she doesn’t say it, we’ve heard her talking about people less kind than you two are. We’ve met some of them before, as well.”
Viceria shook her head, looking troubled.
“Some girls seem to think they’re better than Garia just because they weigh less, or they can run faster. Apparently, Garia isn’t well thought of in the Runner’s Guild.”
The same in every world. Ryoka gritted her teeth. She took a breath, and then looked Viceria in the eye, speaking clearly.
“I think Garia’s worth twice as much as other City Runners. She’s had my back in two fights so far, and both times she didn’t hesitate to help me, even when we were fighting a group of adventurers.”
The woman blinked at her.
“Garia? In a fight?”
There was an exclamation from the kitchen. Ryoka turned her head and saw Wailant, holding a pot full of custard. Behind him, Garia buried her face in her hands.
Wailant put the pot on the table and turned to face Ryoka. He wasn’t frowning, although he did loom a bit.
“Are you telling me my girl was in a fight?”
Ryoka leaned back a bit. This was going south. She wondered if she could jump out a window with Mrsha if it came to it.
“Yes, Mister Wailant. It was my fault. She was defending me after some idiots picked a fight and—”
“How’d she do?”
Wailant stared at Ryoka. She froze. He stared at her expectantly, as did Viceria.
“Did she knock anyone down? How many folks were in it? Did she kick anyone in the balls? I told her, that’s the way to start and end a fight in a hurry.”
Ryoka stared at Wailant. She felt like she was running on the wrong track—she’d felt that way the instant she’d met Garia’s parents. But for the first time, she felt like she could see the right way to talk to him. So she sat up in her chair, smiled a bit, and nodded at Garia, who was red as an apple.
“One punch, Mister Wailant. She took out a Bronze-rank adventurer with one hit. She probably would have done the same to his friends, but the Watch broke things up before we could get to it.”
The fight at the inn with the adventurers that Persua had brought came out over dessert. Ryoka sat at the table, eating lightly spiced custard while Mrsha licked two bowls clean and then lapsed into a food coma. Fals came back, and Garia covered her burning face as her two parents heard both times when Garia had stepped up in a physical way to defend Ryoka.
The mood in the room had changed. Wailant was nodding with fierce, fatherly pride and Viceria was smiling as they heard how Garia had knocked out her opponents with one hit on both occasions.
“That’s my girl. One solid punch is all you need. Once the other fellow’s on the floor, a few good kicks and they’re out for good.”
He jabbed out with a fast punch to demonstrate, nearly clipping Fals. Ryoka grinned at him as Viceria filled her bowl with some more custard.
“You’re pretty proud of Garia for fighting. I would have thought you’d be worried.”
“Worried? Hah! Our daughter’s got [Enhanced Strength]! At her age, no less! She could knock out an ox with her fists if she wanted to.”
“Dad! Stop! Come on!”
“I don’t doubt she could. But Garia’s no fighter. She’s a [Runner].”
Wailant ignored his daughter as she tried to kick him underneath the table.
“Yes, but she’s my daughter, and that mean’s she’s got a warrior’s blood in her veins. She’s more than a match for a green-ass adventurer who doesn’t know the handle of his sword from the blade.”
Ryoka eyed Wailant, askance.
“I thought you were a [Farmer].”
He grinned at her, suddenly chummy.
“I am. But I used to fight for a living.”
“Oh yes. I was a [Sailor]. Haven’t you seen the tattoos? I used to sail across the world, to all five continents!”
He flexed one bicep to show Ryoka the image of the tentacle grabbing the ship. She’d hardly missed it, but all the pieces suddenly fell into place. Well, some of them at least.
Fals blinked at Wailant.
“You were a [Sailor]? How’d you end up here?”
Wailant opened his mouth, but his wife cut in.
“My husband’s not a sailor, Fals. I’m sorry to say that’s the little lie he likes to tell. He did sail, but he was hardly an honest man.”
“Yeah, Dad. Tell the truth!”
Garia glared at Wailant, who protested.
“I was a [Sailor]!”
Two pairs of female eyes stared at him. He sighed.
“No? Fine. I was a [Pirate]. Happy?”
Both Ryoka and Fals’ mouths dropped open. Mrsha rolled over in her seat, oblivious, but suddenly Wailant the [Farmer] became someone else. He sat back in his chair, the custard forgotten and started telling the two Runners about his past.
“Oh yes, I was a [Pirate]. What, you think I got these scars from pulling up potatoes? Well, this one I got from killing a Creler. Nasty bastards—as bad as anything at sea, that’s the truth! But I took my first step on the deck. My family was from Baleros—yes, they were [Pirates] too. It’s in the blood, not that I knew them. My father died at sea before I was born and my mother died in a battle when I was five. I had two brothers and a sister—can’t tell you where they are. But I learned to fight and got my share of the plunder as soon as I could use a sword.”
The world was a funny place. Ryoka knew you could meet all kinds of people in her world, people who lived in quiet places who had all kinds of amazing stories to tell. But this? Wailant had been a [Pirate]. He’d sailed under a ruthless [Pirate Captain], taken down enemy ships, fought in the worst storms against monsters, even battled with a group of Gold-rank adventurers who’d been after his ship!
He’d been a Level 27 [Pirate] when he quit sailing for good and found an honest ship headed for Izril. Not because he’d lost his ship or run into any bad luck either—he’d retired as wealthy as any Gold-rank adventurer. But he hadn’t stayed at sea like the rest of his crew.
“I got sick of rocking ships, the damp, salt in my hair and thousands of glowing eyes watching me from the waters on bad nights. Out there in the depths of the sea…I could have become a [Storm Sailor], or a [Captain] of my own ship had I wanted to. But I chose land instead. Do I have regrets? Perhaps. I could have had a ship of my own, but you see, I knew in my heart that I was making the right choice…”
Both Garia and her mother rolled their eyes as Wailant went on. They’d heard this story a thousand times, probably inflated no end over the years. But Ryoka and Fals were entranced. Fals broke in as Wailant waxed poetical about nights spent on deck, staring up at the stars.
“How’d you end up around here though, so far from the sea?”
The man grimaced.
“Practicality. The vast amount of my fortune went to clearing the bounty on my head. What I had left I used to buy a farm, and then to pay for food and supplies for the first few years before I leveled up enough to make a living with my own hands. I bought it far inland because I was sick of seeing water—and because I had more than a few enemies who would like to see me dead. I thought a farm would be nice and relaxing—and it was, after I learned how to manage it!”
The first few years had not been kind to Wailant, but he’d persevered, not shying from the work.
“Plus, I had my advantages. I couldn’t figure out how to make the damn oxen plough a straight line for months, but I didn’t have to stick together in a village, afraid of monsters at night. If a band of Goblins came roaming around, or a Creler tried to dig a nest in my lands, I’d kill it with this!”
He had a cutlass, shimmering with an enchantment that he apparently kept with him while farming at all times. He’d looted it as his share of treasure long ago, and it had saved his life more than once on the farm.
“It’s also how I met Viceria. She was a Wistram graduate, trying to study the Blood Fields when she ran into a group of Carn Wolves. I found her escort dead and killed two of the damn things before the pack ran off. She and I got to talking, and well, nights are cold on a farm.”
Garia shoved her father, sending him tumbling across the room. He cursed like a sailor—or pirate—as he got to his feet, and Ryoka sat back in her chair. That explained…a lot.
“That’s incredible. And you—Miss Viceria—”
“Just call me Viceria. That’s right. I stayed. I’m an expert at magic involving plants. I’m no [Geomancer], but rather a [Green Mage]. That’s different from a [Druid], by the way. I’m a respectable level in that, but I found being a [Farmer] far easier than competing at Wistram. There’s not much respect for disciplines involving growing, or there wasn’t when I lived there.”
And so, the incredible farming duo had been born. Neither Wailant nor Viceria were specialists in the [Farmer] class like the Level 30 [Farmers] who could supply an entire city with produce, but they had their own skillsets that helped a great deal.
“Most farms, well, they need two dozen farmhands just to harvest and guards and so on. Even a high-level [Farmer] has to be wary of bandits and monsters. I don’t have that issue, and my wife has the spells to grow crops faster than normal, as good as a Skill! Between the two of us, we supply a good deal of produce for Celum. Enough to live comfortably on and I can always hire a few brats to take in the harvest when it comes time for it. Besides, the farming life’s fairly quiet, and I enjoy not fighting for my life every other day.”
Wailant and Viceria smiled as they looked at each other. Garia looked away, blushing, but Ryoka felt a bit envious. Wailant had seen the kraken—literally, apparently—and walked away. He’d found a way to live that was satisfying and he’d found someone to share it with.
She took a sip of mulled wine. By this point, everyone was sitting around a dim fire. Mrsha was curled up next to it, snoring, and Garia was yawning. As Fals and Ryoka chatted to her parents, Garia grew sleepier, until she had to excuse herself for the night.
“I might have to do the same.”
Fals admitted after a jaw-cracking yawn. He stood up as Viceria offered to show him to the room they’d prepared for him. She, Garia, and Fals left as Wailant sat by Ryoka, staring at the fire. Viceria came back alone, and that left Ryoka with the two older Stronghearts.
She didn’t mind. It was odd, but in the course of an evening, Wailant and Viceria had turned from intimidating, antagonistic parents into, well, people. Ryoka even found herself liking Wailant’s style of dressing. Apparently he couldn’t live with sleeves after having bared arms all his life.
“It’s an incredible place you have here, Wailant, Viceria. I’m glad Garia’s got such great parents.”
“Hah. Great parents would be able to help their daughter. But she’s a [Runner] and we’ve no idea if she’s safe or in danger half the time. It’s only when she comes back that we know she’s safe, and she does that too seldom.”
Wailant sat with a stiff drink in his hand. He’d already downed six, having an incredibly high tolerance for alcohol, but he was in the depressed stage. Viceria sat with wine by the fire, glancing between it and at Ryoka.
“She says she’s been doing well. But I’ve heard her stories and I hear you have something to do with helping her out.”
“Just a few things here and there. Nothing much.”
Ryoka shook her head. Wailant stared at her, tapping his fingers.
“That’s not what she says. She came back with potions at her belt a few weeks ago. That was thanks to you. We offered her coin for it before, but she’s too proud—”
“She won’t let us buy her magical artifacts, or buy her things ourselves.”
That surprised Ryoka. She would have thought Garia would have taken any chance to get ahead, but her parents shook their heads when asked.
“My daughter’s as stubborn as I am. She wanted to fit in, not get ahead. I told her the best Runners have all the advantages they can get, but she thought it would make her too different, that it was cheating. I told her, on the sea you cheat if you can do it! Put a hole in the enemy’s hull, climb onto their decks and stab them while they’re sleeping! But Garia’s not like me.”
“She’s not a warrior, you mean?”
Wailant shook his head, looking unhappy.
“I’d have liked her to be. It needn’t be her class, but it would set my mind at ease if she could defend herself. Only, she’s got no talent with a sword.”
Viceria nodded as she traced around the rim of her cup.
“She can’t use a spear—”
“And I wouldn’t bet a Drowned Man’s eye against her hitting anything but a tree with a hatchet. Our daughter’s strong and tough, but she’s too clumsy to be a warrior, if she had the temperament for that class to begin with. Which she doesn’t.”
Wailant downed his cup, tossed it aside. Viceria gave him an accusing look which he ignored. He stared at Ryoka.
“You say she punched out a man in armor? That’s good. But fists aren’t enough against swords or arrows, let alone magic. A brawl’s one thing, but [Bandits]? How can I rest easy knowing she might be jumped by them? Sea’s wrath, she has been attacked before. Someday I’ll get a letter from the Runner’s Guild, and then…”
He trailed off, looking tired and worried. In that moment, he looked like every parent Ryoka had ever known. Like her parents. She felt something squeeze at her heart.
“Garia’s brave. She has people looking out for her. Fals, for instance, and I try when I’m in the area. If fighting’s the problem, maybe she can carry artifacts?”
“Maybe. But an artifact’s only good if you can use it. A Skill lasts, and there’s the instinct of a warrior as well. I could be sure of myself if I was jumped, but if someone took her by surprise—salt and shores, I’m not half as strong as I would be on a ship, but I wish I could give that to Garia. Some way to dodge arrows. Or a ring! But that costs coin and the farm doesn’t earn enough for us to buy an artifact that expensive…”
Ryoka stared at the fire. A girl who couldn’t fight and two parents who worried about her. It was a story for this world. In any other world, Garia could live while relying on law enforcement, but here the law ended at the gates, and sometimes didn’t even work within a city. What could you give someone who couldn’t use a sword? Without the ability to use magic?
The Runner girl stared at Wailant’s arm, and then at her hand. She made a fist, and stared at it.
Both Wailant and Viceria looked at Ryoka. She blinked at her hand. It felt like forever since she’d…she stood up and threw a punch.
Wailant watched Ryoka as she punched and then threw a hook. She stood differently, moved differently than Wailant as she did. He’d punched like a boxer, but Ryoka kept her hands higher, at head-level, and further apart, bouncing on her feet. She was moving according to a style, and Wailant, used to fighting, saw it.
“Are you a [Fistfighter], or some kind of [Brawler]?”
“Not quite. I learned how to fight back home. Only, it’s not a Skill I learned, but a style. A way of fighting.”
Ryoka jumped and kicked. Viceria made a sound. Wailant stared.
“I’ve seen idiots do that when fighting. Jumping around before they get cut to ribbons. But that looked like it could have done damage.”
“Not to a monster. Not with my strength.”
Ryoka shook her head, remembering trying to fight a Carn Wolf. She punched and kicked, dodging back from an imaginary foe. Her muscles protested a bit. How long had it been since Ryoka had practiced?
“So why learn how to fight like that?”
“It helps. Against humans, people with knives. I could defend myself. But I’m not strong enough. If I throw a punch, it won’t knock down a Carn Wolf. Or a Minotaur.”
She paused, felt a pang and hung her head. Calruz. Wailant nodded.
“Minotaurs can’t be beat with bare hands. I’ve seen their black ships too many times. They’re deadly at sea and on land. No sane [Pirate] goes near their islands. But learning to fight like that…there’s some grace to it. Better than I do in a fight at a bar.”
“Yeah. Only it won’t save me from a monster attack. That’s what my legs are for.”
Ryoka turned to Wailant and Viceria. She tapped her arm.
“I’m not strong enough, like I said. If I punch with my…style, I can be sure I’ll hit someone. However, even with a good punch it won’t do enough. Not from me. But if someone else punched like that, someone who could knock an ox out with a punch…”
The former [Pirate] and [Green Mage] stared at Ryoka. Wailant sat up. Viceria smiled.
“You think Garia could learn to fight with her fists? She’s never learnt any other way of fighting. She doesn’t have the knack for it.”
“Yeah, well, martial arts isn’t just about talent. It’s something everyone can learn. It just takes practice.”
“Martial arts. Is that what it’s called?”
Ryoka shook her head, smiling.
“No. This is called Muay Thai Kickboxing. And this—”
She took a different stance, threw a different punch.
“—is called Karate. It might be better for Garia. I don’t know. I thought about teaching some techniques when I saw her in that fight at the inn. I never got around to it. But if you’re worried, I could give her some lessons. She could practice herself if she takes to it.”
She looked at Wailant and Viceria. It was just a thought, something to reassure them. The two parents looked at each other, speaking without words and then Wailant stood up. He cracked his neck, and then beckoned at Ryoka.
“Try me, then. Go ahead. I’ve a few drinks, but if you can knock me down…you don’t have a class, do you?”
She grinned at him.
“Not a one.”
“Garia said that. I couldn’t believe someone would be that stupid.”
“Really? Then let me show you—”
Ryoka twisted, kicked. Wailant dodged back. He laughed, surprised, as Ryoka hopped backwards. She grinned at him, beckoned.
There was something here. In this room, as Viceria told them to not damage the furniture and Ryoka tagged Wailant with a kick that sobered him up and he showed her how fast a former [Pirate] could punch.
In the end, they stopped with bruises and light hearts. Ryoka found herself being slapped on the back by Wailant, and talking with Viceria. She smiled, and carried Mrsha to a room upstairs to sleep. She thought, just for an instant, that it was strange. She’d expected awkwardness, dreaded meeting Garia’s parents, and gotten off to the worst start possible. But suddenly—
She was enjoying herself.
Fancy that. Then Ryoka slept. The next day, she began teaching Garia how to punch. And Ivolethe—
Began teaching her how to use magic.
Ryoka Griffin stood on a hill, facing the wind. She breathed in deeply, and felt the chill of the morning’s air blow through her hair. She stared into the open sky and felt the world pressing down at her.
The clouds were impossibly high overhead. The wind rushed about her, invigorating Ryoka, filling her with quiet contemplation. Her breathing slowed. Her pulse settled. She cleared her mind, became still, meditative. Her mind grew tranquil as Ryoka absorbed nature—
“Not like that, fool! What are ye doing?”
Someone threw snow into Ryoka’s face. She spluttered, opened her eyes, and scowled at Ivolethe.
“What the hell was that for? I’m trying to sense the wind!”
Ivolethe buzzed around Ryoka’s head, an angry blue butterfly with attitude.
“What kind of an idiot does that with their eyes closed? I told ye, to learn faerie magic, ye must first sense the wind.”
“Right. And that’s all you said. I’m here for a lesson. So tell me, how do I sense the wind?”
Ryoka folded her arms and scowled. Ivolethe looked exasperated.
The two were standing on a snowy hilltop near the Strongheart farm. Ryoka had woken up to a very enjoyable breakfast, talked with Garia about learning martial arts and gotten the girl’s wary agreement. She’d taught the girl how to stand and punch and Garia had seemed willing to give it a try, even though she’d giggled and not taken it as seriously as Ryoka would have liked. But Fals had tried it as well, and that had made Garia grow more focused.
Everything had been going swimmingly, in short, until Ivolethe appeared and demanded that Ryoka start learning faerie magic. And that too was great—in fact, Ryoka was excited by the prospect.
Only it appeared Ivolethe’s methods of teaching weren’t as straightforward as Ryoka’s. She’d taken Ryoka to this hill and told her to sense the wind.
“How does it work?”
Ivolethe sighed gustily. She flew in front of Ryoka, folding her tiny pale-blue transparent arms and pointed.
“Ye see the wind?”
“Uh, maybe. I see air.”
Ryoka stared at a blank patch the faerie was pointing at, which was probably what Ivolethe meant. Ivolethe smiled.
“Good! Now follow it.”
She waited. Ryoka stared at the empty patch of air and then glanced at Ivolethe.
“What do you mean, ‘follow it’? There’s nothing to see!”
Ivolethe slapped a hand to her face, making a sound like breaking icicles. She flew to Ryoka’s face and punched the girl in the eye. Ryoka shouted and swung wildly.
“Did I tell ye to stop looking? Look at the wind, you bleeding idiot!”
“There’s nothing to see!”
“Exactly! So look at nothing and see where it goes!”
Ivolethe screamed in Ryoka’s ear. Ryoka opened her watering eye and glared at the faerie. The faerie glared back.
“Let me get this straight. You’re telling me to stare at something invisible.”
Ivolethe rolled her eyes.
“Of course. To control the wind, to know it, ye must see it. And it is invisible! Of course it is! Otherwise you mortals would have already seen it!”
“But how can I see if—”
Ryoka guarded her face as Ivolethe swooped at her again. The faerie flew past her and spoke into her ear.
“Look, fool. Look at what is invisible and see it. With your eyes. With your soul. Look and see. That is all I need tell you. Look. Ye have done it once, on the magic coach.”
Ryoka remembered. She’d seen Ivolethe flying, and seen the wind, followed it for one glorious second. She didn’t remember how she’d done it, but…she nodded.
“Fine. I’ll try.”
Ivolethe nodded, still looking impatient. Ryoka took a deep breath and stared ahead. Watch the wind. See it.
She saw nothing. The wind blew, and it went still. It blew again, but aside from some snow caught up by it, there was nothing to see. Nothing to look at. Ryoka struggled to look at the wind, but she always looked at the wind, didn’t she? It was always there.
Invisible. Unseen. How was she supposed to see it? Ryoka tried adjusting the way she looked at the world, focusing her eyes, tracing an imaginary path the wind took. Nothing worked.
Five minutes passed. Ryoka searched the air for something she couldn’t see, couldn’t imagine seeing, and Ivolethe floated in the air beside her, making discontented faces. She yawned hugely, and Ryoka gritted her teeth.
“I saw that.”
“Did ye? Good. Your eyes are working, then. Now see this.”
Ivolethe yawned wider, showing Ryoka the inside of her mouth, pale red ice and sharp teeth. She flipped one wing as Ryoka growled to herself.
“Hurry up! I’m bored!”
“I’m trying to learn. You’re supposed to be my teacher! Shouldn’t you have some patience and let me try to figure this out?”
“No, fool! Because if ye were going to get it, you’d have already gotten it by now! Magic isn’t something you can keep trying over and over!”
“That’s because you’re not giving me any instructions. If you want me to see the wind, tell me how in more detail.”
Ryoka snapped, but Ivolethe just flipped herself over so she was staring at Ryoka upside down. She spoke, suddenly serious.
“Why not? Because it’s secret?”
“No, because there are no words for it. It is magic, Ryoka Griffin. Magic. It is something you understand in here, not here.”
She flew over and tapped Ryoka’s chest, then flew up and tapped her head. Ryoka nodded slowly.
“Instinct? I have to get a feel for it, that’s what you’re saying. Then if I keep practicing—”
Ivolethe sighed. She rubbed at her face, frowning hard. She shook her head.
“It is not instinct. You cannot learn this by practicing.”
“But you said—”
“It is grace, mortal. Grace and naught else. Grace and wonder. A moment. It is not something ye can learn in a book. It is not something you can keep trying to do. You will learn it in a moment of purest understanding—or never.”
The Frost Faerie looked at Ryoka in the eye. Ryoka felt a slight chill that had nothing to do with the cold. She opened her mouth, paused. What Ivolethe said spoke to her, but it made no sense at the same time.
“That’s not how magic works in this world, though. [Mages] study magic in books. They can write it down. They have to study.”
Ivolethe nodded, frowning.
“How shall I explain? That is magic. Tamed, and bent for use, yes, but it is still magic. But it is not my magic. Not the magic of the fae. Not deep magic, which runs wild. If ye wish to study that magic, practice. Understand, by all means. But ye shall never see the wind if you think of it as something to be understood, to be learned. The wind is the wind. I ask you to see it, Ryoka. Not understand the why of it.”
Ryoka struggled to make sense of this. On one level she got what Ivolethe was saying. On another…how could you stare at something and not want to know why it was? But that was magic. Ivolethe’s magic.
A moment of grace.
“Back to trying. Try and if you cannot see it, we shall try later. But this is the first step, Ryoka. The only step. Learn to do this, and ye shall see all in time.”
See the wind. Ryoka tried. She really did. But she couldn’t keep what Ivolethe had said in her mind and just try to feel something naturally. And the Frost Faerie saw it.
“Stop. Another chance will come. Look for the wind elsewhere, Ryoka, but ye won’t see it here.”
And that was it. The lesson was done. Ivolethe floated past Ryoka as the girl sighed, disappointed. The Frost Faerie laughed as she pointed down the hill.
“Go back to your mortal friends. Look at the child!”
Ryoka turned and saw that her martial arts lesson had attracted more than just Fals. Mrsha was standing clumsily in the snow, trying to punch like Garia. She kept punching, and falling over by her own momentum.
It was very cute. Ryoka laughed and took out her iPhone as she descended the hill. She tried to turn it on, but found to her deepest disappointment that it had run out of power! She cursed to herself. It was hard to remember to get Pisces to cast [Repair] on it. Erin would just have to imagine Mrsha’s antics.
“Ryoka! I don’t think this is right!”
Garia was complaining as she punched the air, blushing as Fals did the same beside her. She’d been willing to try learning, especially after her father had vouched for the effectiveness of Ryoka’s kick, but she was clearly feeling silly.
“Don’t worry, you’re doing good. Raise your arm a bit more. And like I said—each time you punch, breathe out. Like this.”
Ryoka demonstrated, bringing her fists up and punching slowly as she exhaled. Garia copied her, but complained immediately afterwards.
“I get that I’m learning to punch, but I feel silly. I’m just hitting the air!”
“Well, that’s the point. Look, you’re practicing, like you would with a sword.”
“Yeah, but—no one’s going to stand there and let me punch them.”
The girl rolled her eyes and Ryoka barely resisted doing the same.
“I know that, but you have to start at the beginning. Look, just punch like I showed you. You’re using the muscles in your stomach. If you can feel them as you punch…”
“But why would muscles in my stomach help my arms?”
Garia looked confused. Ryoka groaned. How could you explain hundreds of years of biological science to someone who hadn’t even heard of muscle fibers? Well, with martial arts, actually.
“It’s all connected. Look, one of the principle of martial arts is connectedness. Every part of the body works together. Your arms aren’t one separate thing. That’s why when you punch, your entire body, from your arms to your legs go into one motion. That’s why you take a stance and move the same way. It’s the most effective.”
“Is that why you had me do jumping jacks?”
“That’s part of the warm up, yes. So is swinging your arms, rolling your hips, and everything else. You need to be flexible. That’s what these exercises will help you do as well—build muscle so you can move freely.”
“I don’t see why. My arms are already strong. Isn’t that enough if I’m punching someone?”
Garia’s cheeks were red as Ryoka walked her through more exercises, making her learn how to do knee lifts to the elbow, and then hiza-geri, a form of knee striking from Shotokan Karate. She clearly didn’t want Fals to see her doing this silly routine, for all he was doing it with the two girls and Mrsha was too.
“Punching someone isn’t enough, Garia. Strength isn’t enough, although it’s pretty damn important. But martial arts practices defense, movement—it’s a way of living. It’s…a way to be graceful. Grace.”
Ryoka stared ahead until she realized she’d stopped doing knee strikes. She made Garia do twenty until the girl complained her legs were getting tired.
“And I have to do this every day?”
“If you want to get good, yes.”
Ryoka snapped, growing impatient with Garia. She was trying to help, but Garia seemed determined not to get through even the basic forms! She was trying to help—
“Why don’t you show us what a master looks like, Ryoka? I’m sure you see how all this matters, but I’m like Garia. It feels silly to do all this. What does it look like once you keep practicing for a while?”
Fals spoke up and Ryoka blinked at him. She opened her mouth to tell him it wasn’t one kind of thing—and then realized he was right.
Mrsha had grown bored of watching Ryoka practice with Garia. She’d started playing in the snow. Garia’s parents had a hot drink and were smiling and Garia looked fed up. Ivolethe was laughing at Ryoka, and Fals had his eyebrows raised.
They didn’t know what martial arts looked like. Perhaps no one in this world did. Ryoka nodded.
“You’re right, Fals. Let me show you what it looks like, Garia, everyone. Mrsha, get back. Ivolethe, you can stay right there for all I care. I’ll show you…what training your body can do.”
Ryoka took a few steps away from Garia and cleared some snow off of the ground. There was grass underfoot. Not ideal—Ryoka would have liked a firmer surface, but it would have to do.
Garia sat back with Fals, blushing at him and watching Ryoka with a bit of interest. Ryoka smiled to herself. There was something familiar about this moment. Hadn’t she done this once? Oh yes. When her leg had been healed. When she’d been able to move again.
It was the same. Ryoka took a breath, and then ran forwards. She jumped, and then did a handspring into the air. Her audience gasped, but that was only a warm-up. Ryoka landed, twisted, and back flipped up and over, landing on a patch of snow to silence, and then cheering.
“What was that? How did you do that?”
Garia nearly tripped over her own feet, running over to Ryoka. She stared in amazement at the girl, but Ryoka put up a hand.
“I’m just getting started. Watch out—”
She did a standing front flip, which was easy, but again, totally astounded everyone watching. Mrsha ran over to Ryoka, screaming in inaudible excitement. Fals stared at his feet and hopped experimentally as if to try.
The Humans and Gnoll watched as Ryoka did another backflip, this time with a run up. Ryoka cursed as she nearly slipped on landing. The snow was not the place for tricks. But her audience didn’t care. They had never seen someone move like Ryoka could.
The next thing Ryoka tried was a standing cork, or standing corkscrew. It involved her standing with her left leg raised slightly off the ground and behind her right leg, which was slightly bent. Then, Ryoka jumped up and her entire body twisted around and up, sending her spinning up and around. It wasn’t like a front flip at all. In fact, it was so fast that Garia and the others couldn’t even tell what Ryoka had done.
It was a move from a martial art devoted just to tricks. Appropriately, it was called Tricking, a way of doing flashy moves like you’d see in movies. Naturally, Ryoka had learned how to do several tricks, and this one, a standing cork seemed to defy the laws of gravity for those watching it for the first time.
In slow motion, it would look as if Ryoka’s leg came up, propelling her into the air, and then her body curled and twisted several times before her foot came down, landing her on the ground. Ryoka did this again for her stunned audience—
And wiped out.
Spectacularly, as it happened. Ryoka messed up the landing and slipped on some snow and hit the ground hard. She was up in a second to reassure Mrsha, but she’d hit herself hard enough to bruise.
That actually helped, because after seeing her flub so badly, the watchers were even more convinced Ryoka was insane as she did several more tricks. Determined to make up for that hilarious failure, Ryoka did a spinning aerial kick that hit Ivolethe as the faerie flew a good six feet up in the air. The faerie went flying, screaming insults, more surprised than hurt.
“How are you doing that?”
Ryoka laughed as she did a series of tricks, spinning and kicking into the air, flipping around—flying. Tricking. It wasn’t a formal martial art. Or rather, it wasn’t a type of martial arts that applied to fighting or self-defense. It was more like a sport, an activity, an exhibition of what the human body could do.
There were very few situations that required Ryoka to jump into the air, spin, land on one leg, flip herself forward and then kick, but that wasn’t the point.
It was a performance. Ryoka did a running flip off of a handstand in the snow, jumped up, kicked at a target twice her height in the air and landed. She nearly slipped and fell in the snow, but then she was laughing, hearing Garia and Fals shout in amazement.
“See? This is martial arts! This is what you can do if you practice!”
Next, Ryoka showed the group some more practical moves, doing the roundhouse kick she loved so much, punching, blocking, moving to avoid and counter invisible enemies. It wasn’t as showy as Tricking, but it was just as amazing to the people watching.
Because they had never seen this either. Warriors with swords were one thing, but this was different. This was martial arts, which emphasized moves that had no wasted movement, that could be performed because the user had practiced them again and again.
No one in this world did flips. What would be the point? Oh, maybe a [Tumbler] could do it, or an [Acrobat] if they even existed. But no one in this world had had the time to practice, to do a backflip. Because there was no point! No point, which is why there weren’t people doing acrobatic tricks in ancient Rome, at least, as far as Ryoka knew.
There was no necessity to anything Ryoka did. No reason to do it, except because it was amazing and wonderful and inspiring.
And as Ryoka ran and did a handspring into the air, she felt alive. She’d forgotten, somewhere, what it was like to just move for the sake of moving. The wind was blowing through her hair. She felt like she was flying, just like the first time she’d ever pulled one of these tricks off.
It felt as though at any moment, as you were flying upwards, the world twisting around you, that you could just soar into the heavens, that your body could carry you upwards without limit. Ryoka leapt, and saw something in the air.
A flash of movement. She saw the wind. She saw it twist around her—
Garia cried out and Ryoka found herself flipping over and over, upwards and up. And then down. She shouted, lost control—
It was a long way down. When Ryoka woke up with Mrsha covering her face, Garia told her Ryoka had gone for a gainer, a backflip off of one foot. She’d leapt into the air, and then, somehow, kept flipping upwards. She ended up flying ten feet into the air before falling. Ryoka had successfully done a quadruple gainer, a feat never performed in the history of human kind as something—the wind—had carried her up.
Unfortunately, she’d missed the landing. Panicked, confused by what had happened, Ryoka had landed the most impressive face-plant in the snow, again, perhaps the most impressive one ever seen. She’d knocked herself out as everyone had gone running over.
When she’d heard all of this and gotten Mrsha off her, Ryoka sat up, looked for Ivolethe, and tried to kill her friend.
“What the hell was that for? Was that payback for kicking you? Because if it was—”
“It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”
Ivolethe shouted as she flew away from Ryoka. The girl stopped, glaring at Ivolethe and swaying on her feet.
“What the hell do you mean? It was you! I saw it! You used the wind—”
“Not me, you fool! I did nothing!”
Ryoka stared at her. She realized what Ivolethe was saying and paled.
“But then I—”
The Frost Faerie grinned at Ryoka. The girl froze, staring at her, at the clear blue sky.
“But that’s impossible. I was showing off. I wasn’t trying to—”
Ivolethe floated up, smiling broadly. She tapped Ryoka in the chest, grinning and shaking her head.
“Showing off? That was the best time for it! You didn’t try. In that moment, ye were Ryoka at your most natural. You did not feel. You saw. And the wind saw you.”
“I did it?”
Ryoka stared at Ivolethe. She stared around, at where Fals was gingerly trying to do a handstand, at Garia, who was determinedly punching the air and Mrsha, doing flips as Wailant tossed her up and Viceria watched with a wand at the ready, just in case.
Then she looked at Ivolethe. To her surprise, there were tears in the faerie’s eyes.
The small Frost Faerie shook her head.
“Ah. I did not know. I did not know what else Humans came up with. I lived with a body like yours for years, but this?”
She did a corkscrew in the air, flipping over, a perfect copy of the move Ryoka had done. Ivolethe laughed.
“This! This is new. This is something else. And for this, Ryoka Griffin, I thank you. For showing me something I have never seen.”
She landed on the ground, and took a few steps. Ivolethe kicked up into the air and back flipped up past Ryoka, into the sky. Her laughter was all Ryoka heard. It filled the world as Ivolethe flipped upwards, not flying, but borne by the wind. Ryoka stared as the faerie flew and whispered one word.