Glossary

This is a glossary for all the people and places up to Volume 5. It contains spoilers about everything that has occurred to this point. You have been warned.

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L
M
N
O
P
Q
R
S
T
U
V
W
X
Y
Z

 

A

Acid Flies – Small flying black insects with green abdomens that are filled with flesh-eating acid. They explode when swatted. Also apparently very tasty if you like insects.

Adventurer – The ubiquitous monster-slaying, dungeon-delving, ale-drinking heroes who fulfill requests for gold. They’ll kill your monsters, clean out lairs, but they won’t iron your sheets. They come in Bronze-rank, Silver-rank, and Gold-rank classifications. There are also Named Adventurers, who are famous throughout the world.

Adventurer’s Guild – An organization that oversees adventurers. Adventurer’s Guilds are standard across the world but each one varies in terms of competency, size, and so forth. This is the place where adventurers hang out and collect their rewards. Adventurer’s Guilds provide a number of services, not least of which is classifying adventurers into rankings so people can judge them harshly.

Agnes – A Human [Innkeeper] who runs the Frenzied Hare in Celum. Used to be friends with Erin until a nasty incident involving her [Barmaids] drove them apart. Her husband is sick and can’t work, which means Agnes has to run the inn with her hired help. She sucks at cooking.

Aiko Nonomura – A Japanese girl from the other world! She was part of Gravetender’s Fist along with a number of otherworlders, but subsequently joined the Red Cross Company. She is not much of a warrior, but is able to draw quite well since she aspired to be an artist back in her world. Artist, not mangaka. Although she draws manga quite well too. She’s multi-talented!

American Group – A term used to refer to the summoned Humans in the Blighted Kingdom. Comprised solely of young men and women from America, this group was the most numerous gathering of people from Earth until they were slaughtered in their first foray against the Demons.

Initially regarded as a colossal waste of resources, they were shuffled off the front lines to a village on the outskirts of the Blighted Kingdom. However, when it became apparent that the summoned Humans could level extraordinarily quickly they were recalled to the capital for a second chance. Following Tom’s successful defense of the castle, their fortunes have risen although their fate has yet to be decided…

Amerys – A Human Archmage of Wistram and one of the King of Destruction’s Seven. Amerys, known ironically as the Calm Flower of the Battlefield is a lightning mage capable of shooting lightning, flying, and generally doing all the other things you wouldn’t want an enemy [Mage] doing. She is loyal to her King, but currently still residing in Wistram for reasons unknown. She also had an odd buddy-buddy relationship with Mars, who is the only person who can survive being zapped by Amerys. She shoots lightning when drunk.

Anand – One of the Individual Workers of the Free Antinium. Anand was once a simple Worker until he met Erin and was introduced to the joys of chess. Now he is a capable and adaptive [Tactician] that works to defend his Hive. His strategies are often free-form and aggressive, which puts him ahead of his fellow [Tactician], Belgrade. Anand enjoys playing chess, eating, playing chess, and occasionally staring at the night sky and contemplating the meaning of his short life.

Angler Ghouls – Seriously bad news. You see a glowing swimming dead body coming at you a thousand feet under the sea? You’re in the wrong neighborhood.

Anith – A Jackal Beastkin and the leader of the Silver-rank team Vuliel Drae. He’s a fairly low-level [Mage] with some decent combat spells but is well aware that he and his team are barely better than Bronze-rank fodder. Despite that, his team has had some amazing success over the last few days and Anith hopes it will continue. He’s an optimist.

Antinium – The Black Tide. The invaders from Rhir. These strange ant-people invaded Izril years ago and fought in two bloody wars known as the First and Second Antinium Wars. They live in Hives underground and mainly come in two varieties, Workers and Soldiers. More specialized versions are known to exist, but they vary from Hive to Hive. Each Hive has its Queen and own personality, but the Antinium are united in one goal: to return home.

Ashfire Bees – Big, flying bees as large as your hands or larger if you have small hands. They have massive stingers, are practically immune to fire, and will kill you in an instant if you approach their Hive. They can even kill things immune to their stingers by lifting them up and dropping them. And their honey is delicious. Oh, so delicious.

Assassin’s Guild – An organization similar to the Adventurer’s Guild, the Assassin’s Guilds across the world are more shadowy and less common. There is an active guild in the northern region of Izril, but their contracts are usually expensive and reserved only for those with the coin and influence to contact the guild.

The members of an Assassin’s Guild are dangerous killers, but even they have targets they hesitate to go after. Magnolia Reinhart used to be a preferred client and one of the few individuals that they refused to take bounties on, but much has changed…

Az’kerash – The Necromancer of Izril. The famed ‘Slayer of Kerash’ as his name implies, the Necromancer haunted Terandria for over a hundred years before invading Izril. He was supposedly slain during the Second Antinium Wars, but he survived his death and is gathering his forces in a hidden castle to the west of the Blood Fields in southern Liscor. He has an army of powerful undead and five—no, four powerful unique undead, his Chosen.

The Necromancer is cunning, powerful, and will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. He also has an apprentice in the form of the Goblin Lord, who he has taught necromancy and gives orders to. Az’kerash is a foe feared by his enemies, or rather, his enemies who know he’s alive. He’s also kind of a jerk.

 

B

Badarrow – One of the Redfang Goblins, Badarrow recently became a Hobgoblin after fighting in Esthelm and surviving the battle there. He is an expert [Archer] and extremely picky about the quality of his arrows. Taciturn and grumpy, Badarrow is nevertheless one of the leaders of his group although he often lets Headscratcher take charge. He dreams about obtaining an enchanted quiver of arrows someday. He really likes arrows.

Bagrhavens – It is said that some monsters were born of other species that engaged in dark, profane acts. These monsters sprung from the first of their kind, those who had broken all laws and depraved themselves to the point where they were no longer people. Bagrhavens are one such foe, and take the form of half-woman half-crow creatures that hunt in the night. Hideously fast and agile, they can leap on their foes and tear them to bits. They nest in the darkness.

Baleros – One of the five continents of this world, Baleros is known for its jungles, its insects, and the mercenary companies which fight in countless conflicts across the continent. There are few standing armies—rather, each ‘company’ is a small power unto itself and fights for the highest bidder or forms alliances to control land and resources. In Baleros, the Four Great Companies are considered to be the largest powers and each controls enough land and resources to be considered a nation unto themselves.

Baleros is rich with resources, blood-soaked with the small wars constantly being fought and yet for all the small conflicts it contains, it has suffered far fewer continental wars or terrible disasters compared to the other four continents over the centuries.

Banshees – Screaming ghostly ladies. They scream, you die. It’s a very simple concept.

Basilisks – Staring lizards. Basilisks can petrify their enemies with their glares, but the petrification can be resisted or reversed if it is not completed. They are dangerous if met when unprepared. Basilisk meat is also very succulent.

Batman – The Dark Knight. Also, what Ryoka used to call herself when she was a kid. She would hang upside down on balconies and scare her parents in the middle of the night.

Bea – One of the Chosen of Az’kerash. Bea is an undead woman, and can be mistaken for a zombie as her body is rotten and plague-stricken. However, while a zombie will continue to decompose, Bea’s body was made this way by design. A single touch from any part of her body is enough to convey numerous deadly poisons and infectious diseases which a conventional healing potion cannot cure.

Bea was closely attached to Oom, the only one of the Chosen who was similarly untouchable, until his death. Now she is alone and only her master can touch her without danger.

Beastkin – A type of species found mostly on Baleros and Chandrar, Beastkin does not refer to one specific people but a set of tribes known collectively as Beastkin. Each tribe takes traits from a specific animal, such as Cat Beastkin or Rabbit Beastkin. Scattered and relatively sparse, the Beastkin are a rare species but generally acclimate to any lands they find themselves in. They also tend to have interesting relationships with animals given their heritage. A Rabbit Beastkin is wary of cats for instance, and will generally save innocent bunnies by beating up any predators on the prowl.

Beatrice – A Dullahan [Runeshaper] and former friend of Pisces and Ceria. Beatrice was an older student in Wistram Academy when the two [Mages] first joined the academy. She was romantically involved with Calvaron, a Centaur, and their love would have been considered highly unacceptable if either one returned to Baleros. Beatrice grew distant from Pisces upon learning of his affinity for [Necromancy] and she cut all ties with both him and Ceria when his disastrous unleashing of undead led to Calvaron’s death.

Bekia – A Gnoll [Maid] in service to Magnolia Reinhart. Perhaps one might think it is silly to have a Gnoll as a housekeeper given their penchant to shed fur and the rarity of Gnolls in the service workforce. However, Gnoll [Maids] are excellent at sniffing out rot, pests, and intruders. She also cooks meat dishes wonderfully. And she does shed, but Humans smell so no one’s perfect.

Belgrade – One of the two Antinium [Tacticians] in Liscor’s Hive. Belgrade is a careful chess-player and [Strategist] and fond of static defensive maneuvers. That usually puts him at a disadvantage with Anand, his fellow [Tactician] and Belgrade often compares himself negatively to Anand. However, he has recently leaned several skills which allows him to create traps and fortifications, making his defensive abilities that much stronger. Belgrade loves pondering over games of chess and is one of Erin’s most avid students as he will listen to her lectures on chess games for hours where no one else will.

Beniar – Formerly the Silver-rank team leader of the Windfrozen Riders, Beniar is now a [Captain] and a [Cataphract] serving in the Unseen Empire. Initially brash and dismissive of Laken Godart, he has found a worthy leader in the [Emperor] and leads the small unit of cavalry in Laken’s army against his foes. He is something of a hothead and still has an inflated sense of his own worth, but he truly believes in Laken’s abilities and has found a home to defend and fight for. That is worth far more than any adventurer’s gold to him.

Bethal Walchaís – A high-level [Lady] and personal friend of Magnolia Reinhart, Lady Bethal is far, far more impulsive and hotheaded than Beniar could ever be. Prone to flights of passion, she leads her personal order known as the Knights of the Petal or Rose Knights against monsters or enemies of the land. Bethal is besmitten with her husband, Sir Thomast, and is the last of her line, her family having perished fighting during the Second Antinium Wars.

Headstrong, passionate, and a little bit insane, Lady Bethal has more admirers than enemies and her influence is great. She is also an excellent dancer both on the ballroom and in less formal settings.

Bird – One of the Individual Workers of the Free Antinium. Bird is a [Hunter], a predator of all things flying. He likes bows. He likes birds. He likes shooting birds, which may be contradictory to some, but makes sense to Bird. He is currently acting as a guard for Erin’s inn and enjoys sitting in the watch tower on top of the inn and shooting birds. He is very happy in life as Erin will occasionally come up to feed him hot food or give him a drink. Bird would be happy just to be able to shoot birds. He likes birds.

BlackMage – A [Mage] and [Engineer], BlackMage is a Human from Earth who is currently residing in Wistram. He initiated a group chat with a large group of people who owned iPhones with a fusion of magic and technology. However, his attempts to connect with other Humans from his world have been stymied by other parties hunting for people from his world and the dangers posed therein. He has agreed to make Wistram a rallying point for Humans from his world and is attempting to make that goal a reality. He is fan of 8-Bit Theater, the web comic, hence his username.

Blighted Kingdom – The sole Human kingdom on Rhir. The Blighted Kingdom, ruled by the Blighted King, is a nation constantly at war with the so-called ‘Demons’ of Rhir. Currently, the Blighted Kingdom is protected by four massive walls that prevent the incursion of monsters and enemies armies. A fifth wall is in construction and has been for over a decade, but the battles with the Demon King’s armies have seen a stalemate across the continent.

Blighted Queen – One of the rulers of the Blighted Kingdom, the Blighted Queen is a former [Warrior] who became the third wife of the Blighted King. Though she is a [Queen], her abilities as a ruler are practically non-existent and it is thought that if the Blighted King should die, his mantle will be taken up by one of his surviving daughters. The Blighted Queen is a powerful combatant and uses a mace with deadly effect.

Blood Fields – A strange area of land to the south of Liscor. The Blood Fields have traditionally been a place for Drake and Human armies to do battle rather than commit to an all-out war. As such, the constant bloodshed has given rise to a unique flora which is crimson like the blood that is spilled upon the ground. In winter, the Blood Fields are mostly passive, but their true nature emerges in the spring or when many bodies pass through the area…

Bog Wraiths – There exist many types of wraiths in the world. Some live in bogs.

Bone Giants – Big skeletons. Big skeletons. Used as siege weapons by the Necromancer during the Second Antinium War. Ironically, they’re not nearly as heavy as regular giants since they’re bone, so they pose a weaker threat. However they were used to great effect when backed up by a Necromancer that could keep repairing them and armed with mounted ballistae.

Bone Horrors – An advanced form of undead. Bone Horrors have no set shape, and are created out of whatever bones are available to form horrific, if sometimes clumsy, nightmares. They are extremely difficult to kill but lack the special abilities of most other undead. Pisces has created his own unique variants of these undead which are superior in combat ability and look scarier too.

Brunkr – A Gnoll [Warrior] with dreams of becoming a [Knight], Brunkr was sent to Liscor to assist and guard his aunt. He was one of the best warriors of the Silverfang Tribe and was killed by Venitra in Liscor. He briefly taught Lyonette the basics of swordsmanship and had developed the beginnings of a relationship with the princess and Mrsha when he was murdered.

Bugear – One of the Redfang Warriors, Bugear was known for the persistent infections of mites and other crawling insects in his ears. He was noted as both despising and tolerating the insects because while they stung and burrowed into his ears they were a portable food source as well. He perished outside of Liscor fighting Eater Goats with neither insects in his ears or fear in his heart.

Byres – A noble house in Izril, the offspring of the Byres house are often [Merchants] or [Warriors] despite their aristocratic lineage. They are considered a minor power and their wealth rises and falls with the demand for silver, which they export and temper their weapons with. The Byres family used to be known for their crusades against monsters, most notably the vampire threat that used to plague Izril and the world. With the destruction of vampires, their wealth and standing has been reduced, but they are still considered an honorable family with a proud ancestry.

 

C

Calac Crusand – The son of Venith and Maresar Crusand, Calac was born after the King of Destruction entered his slumber. He has a mixed view of his father’s king due to this, but is determined to prove himself to his father. Taught to be honorable by his father and ruthlessly efficient by his mother, Calac is a young, passionate man who could use less parental influence and an opportunity to be his own person. He’s a decent warrior but as in all things falls short when compared to either of his parents.

Calanfer – One of the numerous Terandrian kingdoms of royalty, Calanfer is ruled by House Marquin, to which Lyonette is heir, if distantly. The kingdom of Calanfer does not lack for [Princesses] and [Princes], but is not notably powerful militarily or economically. Their main capital are their royal heirs who can make political marriages and thus safeguard the kingdom through diplomacy.

Calectus – A high-level Selphid [Honor Guard], Calectus was assigned to protect Geneva Scala from harm. He is a very formidable fighter and a trusted voice in the Selphid community, which often asks difficult missions of him. Calectus admires Geneva’s work and ethos, but finds her personal morality often at odds with his mission of keeping her safe.

Calruz – A Minotaur [Fighter] and the former leader of the Horns of Hammerad. Calruz was or is a hotheaded, impulsive and occasionally arrogant Minotaur, but one that cared deeply for his team’s welfare and did not hesitate to lead them into battle. He was interested in Ryoka romantically, taught Erin the Skill [Minotaur Punch], and was presumed dead in the disastrous expedition into Liscor’s crypt. It was assumed by all that he had died when confronting Skinner, but it is now speculated that he is alive in Liscor’s dungeon. Whether he is alive or not, his body has yet to be found.

Calvaron – A Centaur [Mage] and Wistram student, Calvaron was a known broker of secrets, the unofficial currency of the academy. He made friends with Ceria and Pisces during their first year and helped both students in various ways during their time at the academy. He was romantically involved with Beatrice, but was slain when the undead Pisces unleashed in Wistram’s crypts attacked the academy.

Cameral – A Dullahan [Strategist] and one of Niers’ advanced students, Cameral is a solid and competent tactician and has learned from Niers for over four years now. Though he lacks noticeable weaknesses he often lacks the raw creativity that Niers seeks to instill in his students. His greatest achievement in life was beating the Titan in a game of Go, a feat which has earned him the respect and envy of his fellow students.

Camouflaged Scorpions – Don’t step on them. But then, since you can’t see them how would you know they’re there? A mystery for the ages. Until they sting you and you die.

Carn Wolves – A species of wolf native to the area around the High Passes in Izril, Carn Wolves are three times larger than normal wolves and are highly dangerous. They have rust-red pelts and hunt in packs. Some Goblin tribes have learned to domesticate and ride these wolves, and the Carn Wolves occupy a high niche in most ecological food webs. Though they are dangerous in the open, they are easy targets for [Archers] and spellcasters at higher elevations and thus not considered a Gold-rank threat.

Cecille Reinhart – One of the [Ladies] of the Reinhart family, Cecille is an arrogant, haughty noblewoman convinced of her own importance due to the status of her birth. She dislikes Magnolia intensely, but lets her manage the Reinhart family affairs as Cecille has no patience for such matters herself. She enjoys lavish affairs, mistreats her servants, and greatly resents the spending limit Magnolia has imposed on her family.

Celestial Trackers – A former Silver-rank teams contracted by Laken Godart to protect him and the village of Riverfarm. The Celestial Trackers were formerly led by Odveig until it was revealed she was a spy for Magnolia Reinhart. Now the remnants of their group have become part of the Unseen Empire’s standing army. The Celestial Trackers were a group of [Hunters] and [Scouts] who specialized in tracking down monsters and prey and fighting them in their habitats.

Celum – A small Human city close to Liscor, Celum is considered a developing city that has yet to develop as much as the northern Human cities on Izril. Despite that it is fairly prosperous and has recently been connected to Liscor by means of a magical doorway in Erin Solstice’s inn. Additionally, the city has undergone something of a renaissance as a troupe of [Actors] has begun performing nightly in the city, attracting tourists and coin from other nearby cities.

Centaurs – A species indigenous to Baleros, Centaurs are prideful and dislike any affront to their dignity, much like Minotaurs. Unlike Minotaurs however, Centaurs are less focused on honor and their warriors often mount rapid sneak attacks, employing the trademark speed and marksmanship of their kind. They deeply resent being compared to horses, which they regard as incomplete rejects to their perfected forms, but they like sugar lumps, carrots, and having their backs scratched.

Ceria Springwalker – A half-Elf [Cryomancer] and the leader of the Horns of Hammerad, Ceria Springwalker was once a student of Wistram until she was expelled from the academy due to her association with Pisces. However, she was still named a mage of Wistram and bears the title proudly, if sometimes with regret. Her right hand is nothing but bone as she sacrificed her hand to save some of her friends during the expedition into Liscor’s crypt. Having lost her original team, Ceria is determined to keep her new team safe—and to rescue her friend and former captain Calruz if at all possible.

Chandrar – One of the five continents, Chandrar is a hot arid desert with an abundance of sand and a deficit of nice, cuddly things. The nations that rule this land are less prosperous than the rest of the world but make up for their difficult home with unwavering spirit. Chandrarian law is simple and direct. Offenders and war enemies are either slaughtered or made into slaves. Where other nations export goods or culture or resources, Chandrar exports people.

Charles de Trevalier – A rich and arrogant young man and a student of Wistram, Charles de Trevalier is well-connected due to his family’s wealth and influence. He has his own circle of allies and is an enemy of all non-Humans. He hates both Ceria and Pisces and has conspired against them numerous times, going as far as to throw a spellbook meant for Ceria into the sea. He lusts after female non-Humans, but does not consider them in any way equal to Humans, an attitude that has earned him many enemies and some friends in the academy.

Chole – An otherworlder summoned by the Blighted Kingdom. Chloe is a [Nurse] due to her studying to become a medical practitioner in college before she was taken. However, her knowledge of medicine is extremely limited and she is mostly only able to apply healing potions to her injured friends.

Chosen – A group of unique undead created by Az’kerash to serve him in all things. The Chosen are highly intelligent and capable of autonomous thought. Each one is a powerful creation designed to fulfill some role. They currently number four: Bea, Venitra, Ijvani, and Kerash. Their fifth member, Oom, was slain by Zel Shivertail and the group is led by Kerash who was appointed by Az’kerash to succeed Venitra after her failures at Liscor.

Circle of Thorns – A group set against Magnolia Reinhart. They have sent [Assassins] against her, employed the Assassin’s Guild to strike at Magnolia and her allies. But who they are and what they want is a mystery. They’re probably not nice people. Just a guess.

Cirille Bitterclaw – An Oldblood Drake [Commander] stationed in Baleros. Cirille is a decent commander whose unit is stationed in the city’s capital. She rarely sees action as her soldiers are used to keep order, patrol, and escort dignitaries around the city. However, she firmly believes that stronger support of the Blighted Kingdom is needed as she has seen the danger the Demons pose. Like many Drakes sent abroad, Cirille has a more open mind to cooperation with other races, a position that is contrary to the opinions of most Drakes living in Izril.

Cognita – A Truestone Golem and the leader of the Golems of Wistram, Cognita was created by Archmage Zelkyr to defend and manage the academy from all threats. Including that of mages. Cognita restricts access to the higher floors with three guardian Golems, forcing mages to challenge her to ascend. No mage has ever survived their challenge.

Cognita is seem as indispensable around Wistram but she is not liked. Her feelings on her continued service to Wistram is unknown. Cognita is intelligent and resembles a huge, perfectly sculpted woman. She can punch through stone walls with ease.

Corusdeer – A magical deer that thrives in snowy climates, Corusdeer are able to ignite their horns until they are hot enough to vaporize bone. These deer are hunted due to the alchemical properties of their horns, but pose a very great danger in herds. They are considered even more dangerous in the summer months, when their horns can start huge wildfires during dry seasons.

Crawlers – Known as Armored Crawlers, these things resemble the upper torso of a Human, minus the head and blow up to gigantic sizes. They have dark green hides that have been fused together with metallic bodies. Crawlers are mindlessly aggressive and thought to be the failed creation of a mage that spread centuries ago. It is unknown how or if they reproduce and no one wants to find out.

Crelers – Possibly the most disgusting and dangerous thing you will ever see. Crelers are considered a worldwide threat and their nests are destroyed whenever possible. They go through many stages of evolution, first hatching from eggs that can survive for years or decades in any number of hostile environments.

‘Baby’ Crelers have two forms, a gelatinous form where their internal organs are kept on the outside of their body and thus vulnerable and an attack form where they turn themselves inside out and become whirling masses of pinchers, legs, teeth, and so on.

Crelers past that stage become progressively harder to kill, and junior Crelers are already considered a challenge for even a Silver-rank team. Adults are considered a Gold-rank threat at least, and Crelers that have lived for over a decade are threats that may prompt the evacuation of entire towns and cities. And they never stop growing…

Crypt Lords – A type of undead formed out of an amalgamation of rotting corpses. Crypt Lords are huge, hulking monstrosities that have black ‘blood’ in their bodies, a highly poisonous substance they are capable of spitting at will. They are intelligent to a certain extent and can lead other undead. However, an individual Crypt Lord is only ranked as a Silver-rank threat. They are strong and tough, but alone they are manageable. It’s when they form undead hordes with hundreds or thousands of zombies that they become truly dangerous.

Curulac – A former Goblin King, Curulac of a Hundred Days terrorized the continent of Terandria for a hundred and two days in actuality. He destroyed countless kingdoms and ended many royal lineages himself, slaughtering Humans by the thousands. Terandria still reviles his name and hunts down Goblins actively in case one of his kind should ever appear again.

Cynthia – A Human from Earth, Cynthia was one of the Humans summoned to the Blighted Kingdom. She still believes that help will one day arrive for her and clings to the belief that the US Government is looking for her and actively researching a way to bring her back from this world. She has a deep fear of clowns due to Tom’s insanity but was actually the person to help him make his costume when they first entered this world. Cynthia is afraid, homesick, and desperate to be free of this terrible world where death and horrors are all too common…

 

D

Daly – A young man from Australia, Daly appeared in Baleros with a group of international students that had been travelling through an airport. He is a [Rogue] and [Axe Warrior] who served in Gravetender’s Fist until joining the United Nations Company. He is a strong warrior and fights in the combat division of his company. Daly has adapted quickly to this new world, and he and his friends from Australia are ranked on par with experienced mercenaries from other companies.

Dasha – A half-Dwarf adventurer, Dasha is a Silver-rank [Axe Fighter] and part of Vuliel Drae. Though she has never visited the home of the Dwarfs in Terandria she has adopted the culture of what she perceives to be her people. Intolerant about any remarks about her height, she enjoys hitting things, drinking, and staring at butterflies.

Dawil Ironbreaker – A Gold-rank adventurer, Dawil is a Dwarven [Warrior] and a member of the Silver Swords. He is a powerful fighter and exceptionally strong and tough, often wading into combat and trusting to his full-body armor to keep him safe. Though often plays up his Dwarven heritage, Dawil has never picked up a hammer except to bash monsters over the heads and actually enjoyed refined culture, like wine, viewing paintings, and pulling pranks on arrogant half-Elves.

Death Wailers – Evil fungi that scream like mandrakes when animals or people wander near. Unlike mandrakes, death wailers have no magical ability and simply scream with such volume that they will rupture the eardrums of those affected and cause internal damage. They grow on the corpses of the fallen, and as such can spread very quickly by destroying the local wildlife.

Demons – A term broadly applied to the non-Human mutants living on Rhir. Demons are beings affected by Rhir’s persistent corruption and manifest a variety of features from horns to extra eyes and so on. The Demon have their own kingdom that is at war with the Blighted Kingdom, although little is known about their culture or hierarchy. The Demon empire is commanded by the Demon King, and while they are capable of leveling and a great deal of military intelligence, they are not formally recognized as a people by most nations in the world.

Dragons – Ostensibly flying lizards with magic. Dragons are mighty creatures that are more myth than reality in the world’s eyes. Capable of flight and boasting incredibly tough bodies, the most ancient of Dragons can even cast magic despite their race being incapable of leveling and obtaining classes. Dragons are prideful, greedy, and mostly extinct…

Drakes – The descendants of Dragons. Drakes are a bipedal species quite similar to Lizardfolk, although they deeply resent the comparisons. Their species has many qualities of Dragons including their arrogance, avarice, and prickly personalities. Drakes live in the southern half of Izril in city-states with high walls. They often war amongst each other and only ever unite when their species as a whole is threatened.

There exist unique throwback examples of Drakes with special abilities, known as Oldblood Drakes, but the majority of the species lacks the qualities of their distant ancestors. Another grave insult for Drakes is to call them ‘Humans with tails and scales’, which will inevitably provoke a fight.

Drassi – A very talkative Drake who works as a [Barmaid] in Erin’s inn. Drassi chatters like other people breathe, but she is responsible and hardworking…even if she won’t shut up. She knows Erin through Selys and decided to work in Erin’s inn because she thought it would provide her with an unparalleled amount of gossip. She has yet to be proven wrong.

Drath Archipelago – A fractured series of islands near the edge of the world. The Drath people are an exotic group of foreigners with odd ways that are rarely seen. They live in their small islands, keeping to themselves, occasionally clashing with the Minotaurs or other sea travelers. The Drath people have learned to fear the edge of the world beyond which the earth and ocean ends. Not just because the world ends. The Drath fear what might come from beyond the edge of the world and hunt among the lands of the living.

Draugr – A type of powerful undead not commonly seen in the world, Draugr are exceptionally strong and tough, standing out from their lesser zombie kin. They can run and often appear where the undead are plentiful. They are ranked as a Gold-rank threat due to the danger of a Silver-rank team handling them, but the average Gold-rank adventurer is generally able to deal with most Draug one-on-one.

Dresh Horses – The reason why you look horses in the mouth. If you see something looking back…run.

Drevish – Known as the Architect, Drevish was a Human man once famed for being one of the King of Destruction’s Seven. A genius [Architect] capable of building incredible structures ranging from walls to citadels to entire settlements, Drevish was the oldest of the Seven. Irascible, cranky, and dismissive of military matters, Drevish lived to create wonders where none existed. His severed head was sent to Flos shortly after he awoke from his slumber as a declaration of war from the Emperor of Sands.

Dropclaw Bats – A predatory type of bat that enjoys living in caves and dropping on their prey. They have very sharp and large claws that allow them a single, deadly strike.

Drowned People  – Often referred to as Drowned Men, Drowned Women, Drowned Gnolls, and so on, the Drowned People of the sea are not technically a species as they are in fact other species altered by contact with aquatic monsters. A Drowned Man might start life out as a normal Human man until he accidentally or intentionally bonds with a sea creature, such as a squid. Thereafter his body will change to take on the qualities of the monster or animal, allowing most Drowned People to breathe underwater and live far more ably in the sea.

Drowned People rarely live lives on land due to the difficulty of such an existence and the alienation they feel, but rare exceptions do forsake the sea, though it will call them to the end of their days.

Dryads – Leafy trees that occasionally get up and walk about. Dryads are trees with extraordinarily high magical ability that have gained sentience. They are feared by [Woodcutters] because sometimes when cutting a tree, the tree will hit back.

Dullahans – A race of armored beings native to Baleros. Dullahans may look like normal people in many respects, but their bodies are unique in that their ‘skin’ is in fact the armor they wear, and their heads are detachable from their torsos. Dullahans are bound by a complex hierarchy and judge each other by the quality of their armor and other social values. They can upgrade their bodies from simple wooden armor to become massive behemoths clad entirely in steel.

Durene – A half-Troll [Paladin] and the lover of Laken Godart. Durene was originally a [Farmer] ostracized by the rest of her village until she encountered Laken wandering in a forest outside her cottage. The two quickly became a couple and Durene was the first person to join the Unseen Empire. Originally timid and indecisive, Durene’s confidence has grown with her prowess in battle. Now she is willing to fight to defend her home and the [Emperor] she loves.

Dwarfhalls Rest – A mountain to the northeast of Invrisil. Dwarfhalls Rest used to be a Dwarven settlement in millennia past, but it was long abandoned and has been claimed by Goblins in the past few decades. It is a defensible stronghold and has many tunnels that allow defenders to ambush would-be attackers.

Dwarves – Short people that live on Terandria. They have journeyed and settled on other continents, but they mainly keep to one continent.

 

E

Eater Goats   Hungry, hungry goats capable of eating almost anything. Also willing to eat almost anything. Eater Goats are considered a Gold-rank threat because these packs of goats hunt in relentless packs. Difficult to kill because of their incredible tenacity, Eater Goats will bite even if only their decapitated head remains. Their jaws can tear through steel and they are smart enough to even bypass tall walls with their incredible agility. Perhaps not deadly to most adventurers individually, Eater Goats instill fear in other monsters as they swarm over anything they consider food, which sometimes includes each other.

Eater of Spears – One of the Goblin Lord’s lieutenants. Eater of Spears is a towering, muscular Hob who earned his name from his practically impervious body. He can survive a lance to the chest from a charging [Knight] though he was unable to stop Zel Shivertail during battle. Eater of Spears is silent, strong, and can talk though he usually chooses not to.

Edward – Edward or ‘Eddy’ is an otherworld Human summoned to the Blighted Kingdom. Hailing from America, he is the most knowledgeable member of the American Group on all kinds of games, whether it be board games or video games. He is a self-styled gamer and aims to be a [Spellsword], assuming the class exists. For now he is a Level 5 [Warrior] and a Level 7 [Mage] due to his fear of actually participating in combat.

Elia Arcsinger – A Named Adventurer, this half-Elf [Archer] is renowned across the world for a single feat: slaying Velan the Kind. Her arrow was the one that pierced the Goblin King’s skull and made her world-famous. She has a unique Skill known as the [Line-Ender Shot], which is feared for its incredible power. Elia generally resides on Terandria where she is constantly hailed as a hero, but she occasionally travels to combat the Goblin threat, which many see as her mandate in life…

Eliasor Melissar – A young [Lady] of twelve years of age, Eliasor’s mother, [Lady] Patricia Melissar was recently killed by an [Assassin] during a reception at her family’s estate. As her father is previously deceased, Eliasor now rules over the entire Melissar house, a daunting task made even more stressful given the fear of a second [Assassin] targeting her life. She is currently protected and assisted by a group of Magnolia’s servants, and is considered under the Reinhart family protection, although that is little reassurance to Eliasor as her mother was one of Magnolia Reinhart’s closest friends and allies.

Elves – A long-extinct race, Elves are no longer seen in this world and all traces of their existence have been erased save for their bloodlines which exist in the form of half-Elves. Though the Elven civilization is erased, their blood strikes true even diluted across countless generations. However, the half-Elf race is a far cry from what Elves were. The fair folk were rumored to be spellcasters beyond compare, warriors made peerless by hundreds of years of training, and close to immortal as any species has ever come. Why they disappeared is unknown, or forgotten, and there are perhaps only a few artifacts shaped by them left in this world. Whether such artifacts have been found or are hidden away in some ancient tomb is also a matter for speculation.

Embrim Thrus – Known as the Plague Locust, Embrim is a Human man and one of the three members of the Tripartite Law company of Baleros. He is exceptionally gifted at necromancy spells and spells that revolve around sickness and plague. Despite his aptitudes, he resists being called a [Necromancer] and instead styles himself as a formidable variant of the [Battle Mage] class. Since he does not in fact summon the undead, his opponents are hard pressed to argue the point. And opening their mouths when Embrim is raining poison from the skies is usually a bad idea anyways.

Emily – A high-level [Hydromancer] and one of the otherworld Humans summoned to the Blighted Kingdom, Emily is the second-highest leveled person in the American Group. She has passed Level 30 in the [Mage] class despite being in this world for only a few months and leads her group with Richard. She is considered an idol and leader because of her good looks and capability for taking charge, although she does not get along with Tom. As far as he’s concerned, the feeling is mutual.

Emperor of Sands – An [Emperor] of Chandrar, the Emperor of Sands rules the largest nation on the continent as of today. They first rose to power in the years after the King of Destruction entered his slumber. The Emperor of Sands is a Stitch Person, but has no one true gender or even personality. They change bodies like clothes, each one having its own strengths and weaknesses, desires and interests. But the core of the Emperor of Sands remains. They rule their empire and expand, through diplomacy and trade and war and conquest. They see the King of Destruction as their natural enemy, as only one ruler can claim Chandrar as their own.

Erille – The [Princess] Erille is the younger daughter of the Blighted King. She and her sister are the only surviving members of the royal family aside from the Blighted King and Queen—their siblings have perished due to assassination or in battle over the years. Erille is a shy girl whose only true friend was the [Fool]—until his betrayal and death. She was fascinated with Tom since he shared many attributes with the [Fool] and had begun to trust him after he saved her life. But then Tom killed the [Fool], a man who was more father to her than her father herself.

Erin Solstice – Possibly the heroine of the tale. Erin Solstice is an [Innkeeper], a master-class chess player and a fan of strategy board games from Earth. She first wandered in to this world on her way to the bathroom and has been stuck ever since. Sometimes silly, sometimes serious, Erin took the abandoned inn she found just outside of Liscor and turned it into a prosperous place of business. Until her skeleton blew it up. Now she resides in an even better inn closer to Liscor and has countless friends and a few enemies. Erin’s only goal is to keep her friends safe and her inn running, in the short term, and possibly find her way back home in the long term. She goes from day to day in her inn, cooking food, talking with guests, and changing the world.

Esthelm – A city just to the north of Liscor, Esthelm was a fairly average Human city until it was attacked by the Goblin Lord’s armies and much of its population slain. Devastated, Esthelm’s remaining populace turned to anarchy until the combination of the undead and Goblins forced them to band together or die. Lead by Ylawes of the Silver Swords, the city beat back the monsters and undead and reclaimed their pride. The city is now recovering and has survived the Goblin Lord’s passing. Determined not to fall once more, Esthelm is fiercely recovering. It still remembered a young woman who was part monster who fought to save them, and the strange Goblins who gave up their lives as well so Esthelm would survive.

 

F

Face-Eater Moths – A lot more dangerous than they sound, and they sound quite bad. They will eat your face off, no questions asked. Adventurers dread finding nests of them in caves or underground locations. Because, y’know, they’ll eat your face.

Falene Skystrall – A high-level half-Elf [Battlemage] and the sole female member of the Silver Swords. Falene Skystrall is a Wistram Graduate and quite adept at magic. She is something of a stereotype of the half-Elven race which is by design; Falene believes she should set an example and represent her species by acting as the wise mentor and the aloof voice of reason in most situations. She often argues with Dawil, who regards her acting as just that: an act. Though Falene knows several Tier 4 spells and even a Tier 5 spell, she is fond of rapid casting of low-Tier spells in quick succession, overwhelming her foes with sheer variety and firepower.

Fals – A Runner often seen in Celum and the cities nearby, Fals is the highest-level Human [Runner] in the area and a City Runner greatly respected among the local Runner’s Guilds. He is nowhere near the level of a Courier, but he is quite quick and able to defend himself or escape from monsters or brigands on the roads. He had a one-sided crush on Ryoka at one point and is the target of affection by quite a few other Runners, including Garia Strongarm.

Feor – The oldest living Archmage of Wistram, Feor is a half-Elven [Mage] of great renown among his people and…less renown elsewhere. Within Wistram he is a huge political force, often leading Wistram’s mages in making decisions with his considerable influence and power. He is a powerful mage although he has not in fact obtained the [Archmage] class—he represents the pinnacle of what mages in Wistram can achieve without entering the higher floors.

Feor is determined to increase his magical power, but not by risking his life in what he thinks of as a suicide attempt. Consequently his gaze has strayed out of Wistram to new and powerful magics across the world. He has heard of a legendary Antinium capable of casting unique spells at will and deeply desires to meet her, despite the inherent dangers of such an encounter.

First Landing – The captital of the Human cities in northern Izril, First Landing is so named because it was the first city built by the Five Families when they first invaded or as they would put it, ‘colonized’ Izril thousands of years ago. First Landing is a trading capital of the world, home to thousands of influential people and countless more plebeians. It’s defenses have been strengthened significantly after the Second Antinium Wars, to the point where it is considered on par with a Walled City. By Humans. Drakes just laugh at the comparison.

Fischer Cows – A rare breed of cow that produces magical milk. Fischer Cows are expensive and hard to raise due to the increased difficulties of feeding and housing such creatures. Nevertheless, a [Farmer] or [Herder] who manages to keep just one such cow producing milk will earn a huge profit selling his milk to [Alchemists], [Nobles], and [Chefs], all of whom desire the milk for their oiwn purposes.

Five Families – Veltras, Reinhart, El, Terland, and Wellfar. These were the five original noble families that left the continent of Terandria to settle in Izril. The Five Families invaded the home of the Drakes and the Gnolls with powerful artifacts, laying siege to Walled Cities and destroying them in a lengthy war that divided the continent in two. The Humans took the northern half and the Drakes and Gnolls were forced into the southern.

The Five Families have waned in strength from their days of glory and many of their ancestral artifacts have been lost, but they are still famed throughout the Human lands as influential figures. Each family is led by a scion who commands their fortunes. The two best known scions are Tyrion Veltras and Magnolia Reinhart, both of whom are considered some of the most important Humans on the continent and perhaps the world.

Flesh Worms – See ‘Skinner’ for a unique variant of the species. Flesh Worms are huge, deadly worm-like creatures with two tendrils that they can use to literally grab the flesh off their victims. A mature Flesh Worm can easily rip the skin right off a Human and uses the dead skin to coat itself, forming a layer of protective ‘armor’. Flesh Worms are intelligent, strong, and tough, and are considered a foe worthy of a Gold-rank team.

Flooded Waters Tribe – A small tribe based around Liscor now led by Rags. The Flooded Waters Tribe used to be a weak group of Goblins led by a single Hob, barely surviving by preying on passing travelers and other monsters. Now they are a massive tribe formed of Goblins from countless other tribes.

Led by their extremely intelligent Chieftain, the Flooded Waters tribe is most notable for its large number of crossbows and stone crossbows and it’s Infantry, who wield twenty foot long pikes, capable of impaling their enemy at range. This tribe is notable in that it does not actively raid or destroy Human settlements, preferring instead to waylay caravans and travelers on the road and steal their goods while leaving the Humans (usually) alive.

Floodplains – An area around Liscor filled with many hills and valleys. The Floodplains are significant because of their name, and host to a number of dangerous creatures year-round, including but not limited to Hollowstone Deciever or ‘Rock Crabs’, Shield Spiders, Goblins, Corusdeer, and possibly Dragons.

Flos Reimarch – The King of Destruction. Flos Reimarch once conquered all of Chandrar and was poised to conquer the rest of the world when he suddenly abandoned his empire, letting it collapse into ruin. This marked the end of the era and was known as the King of Destruction’s slumber. For decades Flos has sat in his decaying shell of a kingdom, until he was spurred to reignite his dreams once more after learning of the existence of Earth and other worlds.

Passionate and imposing, Flos is the highest-leveled [King] in the world and beloved by his people. Countless years after his slumber he still has many powerful vassals at his command, scattered across the world though they might be. His return has sent fear into the hearts of other nations, and though his kingdom is diminished, it is considered a world-wide threat by some. The King of Destruction was attended by seven legendary vassals in the past, known simply as the Seven, but only three of his vassals have rejoined him now. One is absent, and three are dead.

Foliana – Known to most as Three-Color Stalker, Foliana is a Squirrel Beastkin and the nominal leader of the Forgotten Wing Company, one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros. She genenerally leaves most of the work up to Niers, though. Extremely deadly and nearly impossible to detect, Foliana gained a fearsome reputation from her habit of sneaking into enemy camps and slaying commanders and other high-level officers by herself. She is one of the highest-level [Rogues] in the world and enjoys muffins.

Fool – Known simply as the Fool, this [Fool] was a fixture in the Blighted King’s court in Baleros. An extremely high-level representative of his class, the Fool faithfully entertained the guests of the Blighted King for many years. However, when he discovered the cost of summoning the ‘heroes’ from Earth to Rhir—a cost the Blighted King paid in the unborn lives of his subjects—he rebelled, forming a secret pact with the Demons to abduct the princesses and invade the capital. He failed, in no small part due to the actions of Tom whom he had befriended only days earlier.

The Fool, generally regarded as a useful irritant, displayed the true abilities of his class in his last moments, catching and juggling lightning and making a mockery of the elite warriors of the Blighted King. He died as he had lived, laughing at the failures of Humanity.

Forgotten Wing Company – One of the Four Companies of Baleros. This company is made up of all species and is led by Foliana, known as Three-Color Stalker, and Niers, known as the Titan of Baleros. It surprises many to learn that Niers is in fact the second-in-command, while their leader is in fact the reclusive and very strange Foliana. However, the arrangement seems to have worked; the Forgotten Wing Company became one of the four greatest companies of Baleros from nothing. It is now feared for its devastating ability to strike at the worst moment for others thanks to its leader and strong assortment of experienced [Strategists] it employs.

Fortress Beavers – Extremely big beavers who can build literal fortresses out of wood. They can block rivers, cut off entire roads…look, the name really says it all.

Fraerlings – The small folk of Baleros. And they are very small. Usually not more than a foot high, Fraerlings are reclusive and keep to themselves in tiny hidden villages, rightly fearing larger animals, monsters, and people. They have a high degree of civilization and technology, but only ever go into the cities to trade, and even then, rarely. There is only one Fraerling of note who has strayed from his home to become a figure of world renown, and that is Niers Astoragon, the Titan.

Frenzied Hare – An inn run by Miss Agnes and her husband. The Frenzied Hare is less-frequented inn in Celum due to its poor cooking and mediocre beds. It used to get more business when Mister Agnes was the [Innkeeper]. However, his prolonged sickness has forced Miss Agnes to take over and the inn has suffered as a result. The Frenzied Hare enjoyed a great boom of prosperity for a few weeks when Erin Solstice took over, but has since lost its popularity with Erin’s absence and subsequent feud with Miss Agnes.

Frost Faeries – Mischievous tiny flying immortals that hail from another world. The Frost Faeries appear every winter to spread snow and chaos and greatly enjoy tricking mortals and playing pranks on them. They defend themselves with snow and ice if attacked but never kill—they are bound by the laws of their King, which prohibit interference with this world. Mind you, the Frost Faeries have a loose relationship with rules in general, but even they have their own truths.

Invisible to all but people from Earth due to their glamour, Frost Faeries are treated as a natural phenomenon by most. Which is good because the fae are pranksters and troublemakers at heart. Like the legends, the fae lose their powers around cold iron, love gifts of sugary foods and flattery, and strike dubious bargains. The Frost Faeries do not lie however, merely twist the truth. And they hate half-Elves for reasons unknown.

 

G

Galuc – One of the Centenium, Galuc the Builder perished along with many Antinium in their ill-fated voyage across the sea from Rhir. A powerful figure, his presence lives on in the forms of the Soldiers and Workers, all of whom were modeled after his body. While Soldiers are physical giants, they are still mere reflections of Galuc, who was as large as any half-Giant and famed for his ability to build and—a rarity even among the Centenium—a sense of humor.

Gamel – Once a villager, now a [Knight] and personal attendant to Emperor Laken. Gamel was nothing more than a young man living in Riverfarm with distant dreams and no concrete aspirations—until the day the avalanche struck his home. It was Emperor Laken who saved Gamel’s friends, family and his love, and it was to him that Gamel pledged his loyalty. Though he is inexperienced as a warrior, he was given the [Knight] class by his [Emperor] and has shown nothing but loyalty to Laken. He was mortally wounded in a battle against Goblin raiders, but Laken saved his life, further proof of the bond that connects ruler and subject.

Gamel also has a young woman who is the center of his affections, but he has yet to take their relationship any further. Strident he may be in defending his ruler, but he still struggles with love.

Garen Redfang – The former Chieftain of the Redfang Tribe as well as a former Gold-rank adventurer and member of the Halfseekers, Garen Redfang is a hero among Goblins. To those who knew him, he is a traitor. Years ago, Garen disguised himself and wandered from Human city to Human city, passing as a traveler until he found a group of like-minded souls named the Halfseekers. He quickly became part of their team and the Halfseekers became a group known throughout Izril—until he betrayed his comrades and slew half of them before fleeing into the wilderness. The exact reasons why he did so are unknown, but Garen soon created one of the most powerful tribes and occupied the High Passes.

Garen has since lost control of his tribe and much of his influence, but he remains an exceptionally dangerous foe. He wields ‘Redfang’, a crimson blade that gave him his infamous name and his skills are considered on par with any Gold-rank adventurer in the world. Garen is a decisive war leader, a deadly fighter, but a poor Chieftain. In combat he excels. But when it comes to inspiring people or managing things like supplies, Garen is actually less useful than the average Hob.

Gargoyles – Nasty stone beasts that frequent mountainous areas such as the High Passes. Gargoyles are considered a Gold-rank threat due to their proclivity to pose as pieces of the landscape until their prey wanders by. Although not nearly as dangerous as many Gold-rank monsters, their tough skin, ability to ‘spit’ stone shrapnel and their tendency to hunt in packs makes them too much of a threat for Silver-rank teams to handle. Their innards are fragile however, and if you can break their stone skin, Gargoyles fall quickly.

Garia Strongheart – A Human [Runner] who usually delivers around Celum, Garia Strongheart is exceptionally strong due to growing up as a farmer, but meek and mild most of the time. Suffering from self-esteem issues due to her larger build, Garia sees herself as a subpar Runner, for all that she can carry more than most other Runners. One of Ryoka’s few friends, Garia has an unrequited crush on Fals and often envies Ryoka’s natural talents. She recently began practicing martial arts at Ryoka’s insistence, although Garia usually settles any fight with a single punch. She once knocked out a bull with a punch. She’s embarrassed about that fact, actually.

Garry – One of the Individual Workers of the Free Antinium. Garry was one of the original Workers that learned to play chess at Erin’s inn. Despite becoming an Individual, he is the least well-known of the five surviving Workers, owing to his duties. As a [Cook], Garry spends his time almost exclusively cooking for the Queen of the Free Antinium, satisfying her cravings for actual food instead of the Antinium’s horrible nutrient paste.

Garry likes cooking and enjoys his job, although he dreams of cooking with Erin, rather than producing endless appetizers for his Queen. But he never complains. And he sometimes makes snacks to take to his Worker friends when he gets off duty.

Garudas – A race of bird-people that inhabit Chandrar. Garuda are one of the few sentient species that can fly, and their bodies are relatively frail compared to most species as a result. Hollow-boned and swift, Garuda tribes are somewhat reminiscent of Gnolls. Although in their case, the Garuda vigilantly patrol the arid deserts and fight bloody wars over the limited water supplies. To an unprepared army, Garuda attacks are hard to repel, as the feathery warriors will simply drop rocks from above, loose arrows and magic out of range, and retreat before they can be counterattacked. Prideful and fierce, Garuda make few friends, but those they do accept are comrades for life.

Garusa Weatherfur – A Gnoll [General] from Pallass, Garusa Weatherfur was one of the foremost generals in southern Izril. An aggressive attacker, she was briefly mentored by Zel Shivertail and was one of two generals sent to suppress the Goblin Lord. During their campaign, she and Thrissiam Blackwing engaged in a brief romantic relationship before fighting the Goblin Lord in a pitched battle that saw Garusa in a position to take his head.

However, the intervention of Az’kerash turned victory into defeat and Garusa was slain and reanimated into a Draug. She was then put to rest by Thrissiam Blackwing. Her death sent a ripple of shock through the Gnoll community, who regarded her as one of their heroes. Garusa was one of the few Gnolls to reach such a high position of command in a Drake society, and her loss is still mourned by many tribes.

Gazers – The strange seers of Baleros. Gazers are a relatively unknown species, as they keep to themselves and rarely stray out of their jungle home. Nevertheless, their ability to cast magical spells and cause effects with their multiple eyes is so powerful that one of the Four Great Companies—the Eyes of Baleros—is led by Gazers. Still, it is rare to see Gazers even in Wistram. They practice magic differently from most [Mages] and they have…problems dealing with other races. And each other.

Gazi Pathseeker – A half-Gaze, one of Flos’ Seven, and perhaps the most famous representative of her kind. Despite her Human heritage, Gazi has most traits of her Gazer ancestry; she has a single large eye and four smaller eyes, all of which are capable of seeing through walls, flesh, and rotating in every direction. Her main eye is so powerful that Gazi can charm and paralyze her enemies, and such is her visual ability that she can deflect arrows and dodge almost any attack. It was that ability which earned her the title of Gazi the Omniscient.

Feared for her ability to hunt down enemy [Scouts] and [Spies], Gazi remained fiercely loyal to her King after he entered his slumber and wandered the world to find something that would wake him. She attempted to kidnap Erin and Ryoka until being blinded by Erin, and has since returned to Flos’ side. Gazi still hasn’t forgotten the eye-poking incident. But she is patient. She was once a slave.

Geneva Scala – A Human from Earth, Geneva Scala was a medical student when she was transported to Baleros. First signing up as a [Doctor] as part of a mercenary company, Geneva quickly felt a calling to bring her knowledge of medicine to a world sorely in need of it. Her understanding of surgery and anatomy combined with this world’s healing potions allowed her to save countless lives on the battlefield.

However, war has no respect for Geneva’s dedication to save lives and her neutrality as a doctor caused the war to spill into her camp more than once. Paralyzed after one such attack, Geneva’s body was taken over by the Selphid, Okasha, who now lives symbiotically with her. After escaping another bloody battlefield, Geneva has become part of the United Nations company and leads the Red Cross division, attempting to continue saving lives as best she can.

Geram Redfist – A former [Brawler] of some renown, ‘Redfist’ Geram found himself offered a position as Captain of the Guard by Lady Rie Valerund. Bemused, he accepted and has become Lady Rie’s right-hand man. Loyal, good in a fight, and full of street smarts, Geram is a dedicated servant of his [Lady]. He does not know what to make of [Emperor] Laken, whose service he has also entered, but he is willing to accept a man who saved his life.

Gerial – A Silver-rank adventurer and former member of the Horns of Hammerad. Gerial was a solid second-in-command to Calruz and a competent adventurer until the ill-fated encounter with Skinner in Liscor’s crypt. He perished trying to buy time for his team to run. All of his dreams and hopes died with him, but his past lives on. It may one day catch up to those that survived…

Gershal – A low-level [Lieutenant] hailing from the city of Vaunt, Gershal is no legendary leader. His home city manufactures cheese and while it is very good cheese, neither its small army nor its officers are outstanding in any way. Nevertheless, Gershal is a solid leader who fought well in the battle against the Goblin Lord outside of Invrisil. He stood with Zel Shivertail in the hour of the [General]’s death and the Tidebreaker’s passing has motivated Gershal to become a better leader himself. Whether that is an idle promise or not remains to be seen.

Ghosts – Scary. Ghosts don’t resemble floating bed sheets so much as wailing, twisted pieces of spectral memory that lash out at the living. Ghosts represent fragments of the people they were and can take on terrible forms. They are also impossible to kill without magic, and so become the bane of warriors everywhere. Considered a high-rank undead threat, Ghosts are an elite type of monster that come in many sub varieties, like wraiths, night stalkers, and so on.

Ghouls – An advanced zombie in many respects. Ghouls are tougher, faster, and smarter than zombies, which doesn’t really say much when you get down to it. A Silver-rank threat, a Ghoul is a tough fight for a [Warrior] at low-levels, but can be easily baited into traps or defeated when attacked by multiple combatants. Ghouls are only really deadly to experienced fighters when they launch sneak attacks, which is, unfortunately, what they love to do.

Giant Moles – You laugh, but when a giant mole the size of a house decides to eat you, who’ll be laughing then? The mole, that’s who.

Gnolls – Furry hyena-like people who live in tribes in the southern half of Izril. Gnolls are nomadic, tribal people who value self-sufficiency and teamwork. They have keen noses and are excellent hunters, trappers, and if need be, fighters. Some Gnolls live in Drake cities, but the Gnoll and Drake species have a troubled history, and sometimes clash—when they’re not fighting Humans, that is.

Gnomes – An ancient race, only spoken about in myth and legend. Who the Gnomes were, what they did, and why they vanished is all unknown. The one thing that is known is that they once reached the moon. Seriously. A Dragon said it, so it must be true. Ahem.

Goblins – A species of people defined as monster by most of the known world. Goblins are a tribal, nomadic species that often steals or ambushes travelers to survive. Considered unintelligent and a minor threat most of the time, Goblins become far more dangerous when led by a Chieftain, or worse, a Goblin Lord or King. In such times nations or even the world must unite to put down the Goblin menace, but such is the prolific nature of Goblins that they are never eradicated for good. No one ever asks the Goblins what they think of their lot in life. No one has ever cared until now.

Goblin Chieftain – A Goblin leader who has taken command of a tribe of Goblins, whether by force, cunning, charisma, or other factors known only to Goblins. Chieftains are generally the highest-level Goblin in their tribe and their tribes can range from a few dozen Goblins to a massive tribe thousands strong. A Goblin Chieftain is a dangerous threat, and some famous Chieftains have even been classified as Gold-rank threats.

For all that, a Chieftain is only a stepping stone to greater things. A particularly powerful Chieftain may one day become a Goblin Lord, and talented Chieftains are often hunted down to prevent just such an event occurring.

Goblin Lord – If only one out of ten thousand Goblins had the potential to become a Chieftain, one in a million, or one in tens of millions of Goblins could ever rise to become a Lord. Not much is known about the criteria that allows ordinary Chieftains to become Goblin Lords, but every Goblin Lord has demonstrated overwhelming ability in one field or another.

Goblin Lords suited to battle are terrifying opponents on par with a Named Adventurer and can command massive armies over a hundred thousand strong. Their existence is exceedingly rare, and the only time multiple Goblin Lords have ever been sighted is when a Goblin King emerges. In any other time, a Goblin Lord will instantly be hunted down by every civilization to prevent just such a nightmare from becoming reality.

Goblin King – The pinnacle of Goblinkind. A Goblin King emerges every few centuries at most. They are bringers of calamity and wage war on nations, endings the lines of kings and wreaking havoc. They are considered a worldwide threat and the last two Goblin Kings, Curulac of a Hundred Days, and Velan the Kind, both decimated the continents they appeared in. Goblin Kings lead millions of armies with their Goblin Lords acting as lieutenants. They are incredibly difficult to kill, cunning, and full of wrath.

No one knows what makes a Goblin King, but sheer talent and unique ability that no other Goblin can match is undoubtedly one of the criteria. Goblin Kings bring destruction. For their kind as well as the world.

Golems – A type of constructed being made by [Mages]. Golems are generally huge, thoughtless creations designed for labor or war. Tough to kill and without a will of their own, most Golems are rare. However, a few rare variants do exist, and some even have the ability to think. Whether or not that equates to free will is unknown, and no one is about to make more thinking Golems to try and find out.

Gravetender’s Fist – An undead suppression company specializing in removing corpses from the battlefield. Gravetender’s fist, like other suppression companies, made their wage by going from battlefield to battlefield at night and putting down undead and collecting the bodies of the fallen to be burned. This small company was dissolved after a disastrous battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company embroiled it in the conflict. Since then, the surviving members including the Humans from Earth have created a new company known as the United Nations company.

Great Companies – Baleros has no armies. Or rather, its nations seldom bother with  armies of their own and prefer to hire mercenary companies to keep the peace, do battle, and suppress monsters. Of the thousands of companies on Baleros, large and small, there have always been the Four Great Companies. The current leaders of Baleros who are practically nations unto themselves are the Forgotten Wing Company, The Iron Vanguard, Maelstrom’s Howling, and the Eyes of Baleros.

The Iron Vanguard is primarily made up of Dullahans while Maelstrom’s Howling is almost exclusively comprised of Centaurs. The Eyes of Baleros are considered to be a Gazer-led company although they recruit from multiple races.

Grev – A street urchin of Celum, Grev is a Human child whose only family in the world is a Drake by the name of Jasi. Born to Human parents after his older sister was adopted, Grev lost his family early on in life and his sister took the burden of raising him far too early. Consequently, Grev is a product of the streets and used to steal and work with the criminal element of Celum before an encounter with Erin Solstice. Now, he is a member of the Players of Celum, a troupe of new [Actors] which he and Jasi are part of. Grev now employs his time assisting with the theatre by producing supplies, props, and so on. All legally, of course.

Greydath – One of the Goblin Lords who fought with Velan the Kind. Greydath of Blades was perhaps the strongest Goblin Lord living in terms of sheer martial might. He may well be the strongest Goblin in the world now, as all the Goblin Lords were thought to have perished after Velan’s death. Masquerading as an old, senile Goblin in Tremborag’s mountain, Greydath followed Rags’ tribe for reasons known only to him. He has lived for a long time—long enough to have a white beard—and he once was a mentor to Pyrite when the young Goblin was growing up. Greydath is unmatched with the old greatsword he wields. Or at least, he hasn’t found anyone capable of killing him yet.

Griffins – Giant eagle-lions with attitudes. Griffons hunt in packs and are considered a serious threat in northern Izril and Terandria. Ironically, these savage hunters are not common in the southern half of Izril at all—they have a territorial relationship with Wyverns and have pushed into their habitat after crossing the sea from Terandria. That’s right. They’re invasive giant eagle-lions. The worst kind.

Griffon Hunt – A Gold-rank team of adventurers. Griffon Hunt is a famed team known for their history of hunting the deadly Griffins of northern Izril. Its original members have mostly left, but two of the founders, Halrac Everam and Ulrien Sparson, stayed with the group and recruited two [Mages] to fill out their ranks.

Joined by Revi, a [Summoner], and Typhenous, an experienced [Mage], they successfully continued their group’s legacy before venturing to Liscor in hopes of being the first to explore Liscor’s new dungeon. It was there that the team met Erin Solstice and, after a murder involving the Named Adventurer known as Regrika Blackpaw, they confronted her. However, the Gnoll was too powerful and slew Ulrien before fleeing.

Devastated by their leader’s loss, Griffon Hunt came close to falling apart as the three remaining adventurers dealt with the loss in their own way. Though Revi and Typhenous are new to the team, they are loyal members of their group and refuse to leave Halrac to himself. However much the [Scout] wishes they would.

Grunter – A Redfang Warrior and Hob, Grunter led his small band of warriors until he perished at Esthelm. Quiet, defined by his burps, Grunter was a solid, steadfast Hob who spoke little and cared more than he let on. He fought and died with only one word on his lips. Redfang. Redfang, his pride, his hope, and glory.

 

H

Half-Elves – A race of people with a number of reclusive settlements in Terandria, half-Elves are a rare sight throughout the world. Hated for the sins of the past, the half-Elves of today are insular and largely trust only their own kind. Half-Elves are known to be gifted in magic, a remnant from their true Elven ancestry. No matter who bears a child, they will always be born half-Elf. This trait has allowed the race of half-Elves to survive throughout the millennia, but they are currently a small population and only a few of their most adventurous children travel abroad.

Halfseekers – A Gold-rank team referred to as the ‘Half Freaks’ by their enemies. The Halfseekers are a well-known group known throughout Izril for accepting half-species and people ostracized for being different. They are a happy-go-lucky group that helps those in need—or were, until the betrayal of one of their members, Garen Redfang. This large group of adventurers was reduced to three: Jelaqua, Moore, and Seborn, and are now trying to rebuild and claim a share of Liscor’s treasure.

The Halfseekers currently reside in Erin’s inn and take a laid back approach to life in general. Each one of them has sworn to kill Garen Redfang if they ever meet him again.

Halrac Everam – Known as Halrac the Grim, this Human [Scout] is a Gold-rank adventurer and member of Griffon Hunt. A former [Soldier], Halrac’s skills and reputation is such that he’s considered close to becoming a Named Adventurer. However, this [Scout] does not seek fame—he hates being around most people and prefers the company of his friends.

He has one less friend now, having lost his comrade Ulrien in a recent encounter with Regrika Blackpaw. Halrac is currently driven by anger and frustration and has been entering Liscor’s dungeon alone, venting his grief by taking on hordes of monsters by himself.

Harpies – Probably extinct, but then again you never know your luck!

Hawk – A Rabbit Beastkin [Courier] who lives in Liscor, Hawk is known throughout the city. Adopted by Drakes, the Rabbit-man is obsessed with finding scaly love as members of his own species live only in a few regions in Baleros. He has yet to find any female Drake willing to put up with his vegetarian diet though, and the Courier runs alone. Speaking of running, he’s quite good at that. Hawk is extremely quick and a dangerous person to try to mug—he is very good at foot-to-face combat and can easily dispatch or outrun almost any foe he meets while delivering parcels across the continent.

Headscratcher – One of the Redfang Warriors, Headscratcher is a Hobgoblin warrior adept at fighting who leads the four remaining members of his group. Initially viewing Humans solely as an enemy, it was Headscratcher who became closest to the young [Florist] in Esthelm and it was he who mourned her death most of all. Heartbroken by the loss of his friends and the young woman, he is determined to keep his four remaining comrades alive—even if it means his death.

Hedault – A Human [Enchanter] based in Invrisil, Hedault is widely considered to be the best [Enchanter] in the city. He is adept at identifying and repairing artifacts that adventurers bring him and his services are widely sought-after.

Hedault is impatient and often highly critical of most enchantments for their uniformity and lack of originality. He does not suffer fools or backchat, but got along surprisingly well with Ryoka Griffin. She convinced him to buy a magical wand from her in exchange for a large number of magical artifacts and an outstanding favor to the Horns of Hammerad. Hedault still has the wand, and it has enhanced his magical prowess greatly although he has not revealed to anyone that it is in his possession—or how he got it.

Hethon Veltras – The older son of Lord Tyrion Veltras. Hethon is more timid than his brother, Sammial, and rarely speaks up. He does not know what to say to his father, who he rarely sees, and he is unsure if he will ever become a [Lord] worthy of ruling the Veltras family.

High Passes – A deadly mountain range that separates the continent of Izril in half. The High Passes are incredibly tall mountains, the peaks of which have never been climbed. Deadly monsters make the High Passes their home and as such, travel over the mountains is practically impossible.

Only two passes exist through this mountain range—one of which is filled with monsters and never used. The other is a safe route that passes by a Drake city, Liscor. The High Passes have never been conquered, never been explored. At least, that’s what people say. There are those who have ventured into this deadly place, and those who make it their home…

Hollowstone Deceiver – See Rock Crab.

Horns of Hammerad – A Silver-rank team of adventurers. Formerly led by Calruz and known as an aggressive company of competent adventurers, the Horns of Hammerad suffered near-complete destruction when they attempted to explore Liscor’s crypts with a group of other Silver-rank teams.

In the aftermath of their defeat only one member, Ceria Springwalker, was thought to be alive. She reformed the group and recruited three other aspiring adventurers to join her. Yvlon Byres, an injured [Warrior] and formed leader of the Silver Swords, Ksmvr, an exiled Antinium Prognugator, and Pisces, a [Necromancer] expelled from Wistram. This new team managed to work together despite the many different personalities and made headlines when they found treasure in the Ruins of Albez, earning the Horns of Hammerad many powerful artifacts.

This newly-equipped team is now substantially more powerful than it was before and could be considered a pseudo Gold-rank team. However, they are still inexperienced and new, and thus unproven. The Horns of Hammerad are now currently seeking to enter Liscor’s dungeon, having been informed that their former leader, Calruz, may yet be alive…

 

I

Ijvani – One of Az’kerash’s Chosen, Ijvani is a black skeleton mage. Her bones are coated with metal and she is highly resistant to harm. As the sole dedicated spellcaster of Az’kerash’s creations, Ijvani considers herself more intelligent than her kin. She proclaims herself the ‘greatest skeleton in the world’ and is confident in her own abilities to the point of arrogance, a trait that stems from her trust and faith in her master/creator, Az’kerash. That faith has been shaken after the battle with Zel Shivertail and a wounded Ijvani now slowly makes her way back to her master’s castle.

Illphres – A high-level ice-mage, this Human woman was counted as one of the most experienced and influential mages in Wistram under her demise. Illphres, like the other mages she associated with had reached the highest peak of potential in Wistram, just under that of the Archmages. Unlike the Archmages however, Illphres was determined to ascend to the higher levels of Wistram and pass Cognita’s deadly test. She and several other mages decided to challenge the Golems.

They failed.

Until her death, Illphres had taught Ceria Springwalker magic, reluctantly taking the young half-Elf and then slowly growing to enjoy Ceria’s presence. Illphres left her student with a magical tome after her death, but the spellbook never reached Ceria and was instead hurled into the sea by Charles de Trevalier. Illphres’ command of ice magic was so advanced that she could build a fortress out of ice and cut entire ships in half with her ice magic, as well as ‘skate’ across the sea.

Ilvriss – A Drake Lord of the Wall. Ilvriss is arrogant, rude to non-Drakes, picky, and often temperamental. However, he is also brave, a caring leader (of other Drakes), and heartbroken. In a battle between an army led by Zel Shivertail and forces under his command Ilvriss lost his second-in-commend, Lieutenant Periss. Unbeknownst to the world, the two had been secret lovers and her mysterious death caused Ilvriss to journey north, following the one Human who could tell him how Periss had died: Ryoka Griffin.

Having become embroiled in Liscor’s politics, Ilvriss eventually learned it was Az’kerash, the Necromancer himself who had killed his love. However, vengeance became the last issue on Ilvriss’ mind with the death of Zel Shivertail and his only goal for the moment is to return to his home city of Salazsar and gather his allies close.

Far from home, Ilvriss’ personality has changed and he has grudgingly begun to respect non-Drakes, or one of them at least. Nevertheless, he is still prideful as ever and is currently embroiled in a political battle with Pallass to return home.

Imani – A young woman from Earth, nationality unknown. Imani has dark skin and had the misfortune of being teleported into a Creler nest with a group of people. She was the only survivor. Shell-shocked by her first entry into this world, Imani was last seen in the presence of other Humans from Earth in Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion. Where she is now is unknown.

Insill – A Drake [Rogue] with black scales and a member of Vuliel Drae. Insill is a Liscorian native and a Silver-rank adventurer with very little experience compared to seasoned adventurers like Ceria or Yvlon. Nevertheless he is quite capable at detecting most traps and has entered Liscor’s dungeon with his team in hopes of finding treasure. Somewhat naïve, Insill’s group was only saved by a masked swordswoman they encountered in the dungeon. The Drake has subsequently fallen in love with this stranger and dreams of meeting her again.

Invrisil – The City of Adventurers. Invrisil is a massive Human city sitting squarely in the center of the northern half of Izril. It is a prosperous city with an exceptionally strong economy due to the presence of many adventuring groups that keep the surrounding area safe. Although the city is technically part of Magnolia Reinhart’s domain it is nominally ruled by a [Mayor] and elects its own officials. The city is always filled with new ideas, technologies and people, and is considered to be one of the major cities on the continent.

Ishkr – A Gnoll [Waiter] employed at The Wandering Inn. Ishkr is a city-born Gnoll who came to Liscor with the Silverfang Tribe two decades ago. Hardworking and preferring silence, Ishkr does not observe as many Gnollish customs as the rest of his people. He enjoys working for Erin as she gives him quiet jobs he can perform by himself, and he is a competent helper as well. He enjoys steady jobs, good pay, and Erin’s cooking. He also has a secret.

Isles of Minos – An archipelago removed from the five main continents, the Isles of Minos are home to the sole Minotaur population in the world. The Minotaurs guard their isle jealously and allow only small embassies to visit their port-Capital, so not much is known about the Isles. Warships crewed by Minotaurs regularly patrol their waters, threatening death to any pirates or travelers who do not follow strict rules when sailing through the area.

Isodore – The older daughter of the Blighted King of Rhir. Isodore is around seventeen years of age and is considered next in line for the throne despite her low level and youth. As such she is constantly under a great deal of scrutiny and danger as she is one of two children to survive the assassination attempts over the years against her. Concerned with her younger sister’s safety and wary of Tom and the otherworlders summoned to defend Rhir, Isodore has learned to watch and listen rather than speak.

Isolationists – A political faction within Wistram. The Isolationists believe that Wistram should cease accepting new students from abroad and close their doors to all but the most determined of mages. Isolationists prioritize the study of magic and disdain involving the Academy with politics. They are a small faction and often clash with the more mainline political groups. Several of their number including Illphres challenged the Golems recently and were wiped out, weakening the group’s influence in the academy.

Issrysil – The Drake name for the continent of Izril, seldom used since no one but Drakes can pronounce it properly. See Izril.

Ivolethe – A Frost Faerie considered old even by her kin, Ivolethe was the only member of her kind to befriend Ryoka. Unlike the rest of her impetuous sisters, Ivolethe saw something in Ryoka that attracted the two together. She went as far as to call Ryoka her friend and bent the unwritten rules of the fae in many places for Ryoka. She attempted to teach the young woman magic and often hung about Ryoka, lending her sharp tongue to many situations.

Ivolethe delighted in stories and art from Ryoka’s world, as such creativity was the only new thing the immortal considered worthy of humanity as a species. Ivolethe perished when she directly broke the rules of the Faerie King by freezing Venitra as she was about to kill Ryoka. For her crimes her body was shattered. And that, apparently, means the death of the fae.

 

J

Jasi – A young female Drake, Jasi lived in Celum all her life as a [Washer], barely tolerated for being a Drake and earning just enough to survive. Struggling to keep her young brother Grev out of trouble and making a living, Jasi met Erin when the [Innkeeper] was pursuing Grev for leading her into a mugging. Initially she was offered a job as a [Barmaid] in the Frenzied Hare, but when Erin perceived the distaste Miss Agnes had for the young Drake she taught Jasi and Wesle how to act on stage.

At first reluctant, Jasi found herself bitten by the acting bug and has become a celebrity in Celum and the local cities. She is now a successful actor in the Players of Celum, a troupe where she stars in most productions as the leading lady Drake. She is eternally grateful to Erin, not least because she will never have to rub her scales off washing clothes. She still has scars on her hands from those days, a reminder of who she used to be.

Jelaqua Ivirith – A Gold-rank adventurer and the leader of the Halfseekers, Jelaqua is a famous Selphid who originally hails from Baleros. She formed the Halfseekers, a group of powerful half-breeds to champion the cause of anyone cast out from society for being different. They were a famous group that even had a Goblin among their ranks until they were betrayed. Garen Redfang slew his companions and escaped with a key they had recovered from a dungeon.

Now Jelaqua seeks to rebuild her shattered party of which only three members remain and slay Garen. Affable, fun-loving and deadly with a flail, Jelaqua’s body was recently injured in battle and she now seeks to replace it before it rots to piece, which is generally considered objectionable by most species.

Jelov – An old [Carver] and a subject of the Unseen Empire. Jelov used to be a villager of Windrest until the village was forced to flee to Riverfarm due to Goblin attacks. Fearful of being cast out due to his advanced age, Jelov was gratified to learn that Laken Godart had need of his talents. Initially carving large totem-markers to expand the boundaries of the Unseen Empire, Jelov has now created a huge variety of totems and smaller version that he sells to the subjects of the Unseen Empire as good luck charms. He is an affable old man in love with his craft, but don’t sit too close to him. He spits.

Joseph – A Human from Earth, Joseph found himself in Izril and was quickly found by Magnolia Reinhart along with other Humans. A rather sporty young man from Spain, Joseph was taken with the idea of a magical world, underestimating the very real dangers of such a place, much to Magnolia’s disgust. He was summarily given a sword and an escort and told to slay monsters as a Bronze-rank adventurer, and his current location and status is unknown.

 

K

Keith – One of the Otherworlders from Earth summoned to Baleros. Keith was a Freshman with a Major in Civil Engineering before he was summoned. He gained a few levels in [Blacksmith], but found that the gap between his theoretical knowledge and the practical applications in this world were too hard to bridge. Like many of his friends, Keith has lost his [Hero] class, but he still tries to contribute to the group with his architectural knowledge.

Keith arguably has more knowledge of metallurgy, physics, and construction than most [Builders] in this world—he just needs the time and funding to prove himself. He hopes that his return to Rhir’s capital will give him that opportunity to forge something truly unique, like armor made out of a titanium alloy.

Kenjiro Murata – A young man from Japan, Kenjiro or Ken found himself transported to Baleros with a large group of international students from around the world. Struggling with the language barrier and the reality of his new situation, Kenjiro stuck together with the only other Japanese student who had come with him, a childhood friend named Aiko. He enlisted in the Gravetender’s Fist Company with a large group of other students and found himself thrust into a dangerous battlefield within his first week.

Ken learned to fight and forged friendships with another marooned soul, Luan, but found that he preferred communication to war. He was instrumental in saving lives when the fighting between two mercenary companies began to violate the terms of war and targeting neutral groups. He escaped with his friends and the [Doctor], Geneva Scala and formed the United Nations company.

Now Ken serves as a [Diplomat], using his understanding of different races and cultures to protect and gather those stranded from his world into a company that can protect them all.

Kent Scott – A mysterious stranger who participated in a magical group chat. Kent Scott used an assumed name—likely the owner of the original iPhone—to talk with the others and ask for their names. This ploy allowed the mysterious Kent Scott to locate at least some of the stranded Otherworlders via scrying, but what he did with the information and his true motives are as of yet, unknown.

Kerash – One of Az’kerash’s Chosen. Kerash is a powerful Gnoll Draugr, the reanimated corpse of a long-dead Gnoll Chieftain who was rumored to have been as close to a [King] as the Gnoll species ever had. He was famous…a century ago. However, he was slain at the prime of his life by Az’kerash, an act of terror so famous that it gave the Necromancer his name—Az’kerash, or ‘Slayer of Kerash’. The Gnoll people have never forgotten this injustice, but they are unaware of Kerash’s new purpose: serving his master.

Kerash is currently foremost of Az’kerash’ chosen, following Venitra’s disgrace. He is a capable warrior and extremely difficult to kill owing to his superior physical body and undead endurance, but lacks the special qualities of his fellow Chosen.

Kingslayer Spiders – There are Shield Spiders. Blade Spiders. Swarm Spiders. And so on. Any good insect population inevitably has a lot of variants, and the spider population is nasty. In this case, the Kingslayer Spiders earned their name by killing a [King] as he was hunting. So yeah. That’s them.

Klbkch – One of the few remaining Centenium. The Slayer. Former Prognugator of the Free Antinium and now the Revalantor of said Hive. Also, Senior Guardsman of Liscor. Klbkch has lived a life longer than almost any living being in the world. Many lives, in fact. He has been reincarnated to serve his Hive in many forms, dating back to his original creation in the ancient Antinium Hives built in Rhir by the First Queen.

He is old. And over the centuries, he has lost much of his strength. In ages past, Klbkch was an assassin and sword master without equal. Now he only has his experience to dwell upon; he lost his original form long ago and was reincarnated into a Worker’s body when he came to Izril. Since then he has obtained a slightly more agile form, but he is a shell of his former self. Despite this, Klbkch has only one task in mind: rebuilding the Antinium to send a force back across the seas to Rhir. He is driven by that goal and his service to his Queen.

While Klbkch will do anything for his Hive, he has nevertheless found some satisfaction in being a humble [Guardsman] in Liscor. Ironically, his first friends may have been in Relc and the Drakes and Gnolls who grew to accept him here, and he has become a regular at Erin’s inn and a respected face around the city. However, Klbkch’s goal has been and always will be the same. After meeting one of his fellow Centenium, Xrn, the Slayer has decided to return to Rhir—with or without the Grand Queen’s permission.

The task of building a force that could fight its way into and out of Rhir is enormous, but Klbkch has never shirked his duties. He is dedicated, ancient, and ruthless when needs be. He also enjoys eating acid flies at Erin’s inn.

Knights of the Petal – Also known as the ‘Rose Knights’, these pink-armored elites serve Lady Bethal Walchaís and are a feared fighting force in Izril. Only numbering around eighty or so in total, the Knights of the Petal make up for their small numbers by boasting exceptionally high-quality magical artifacts and armor. They can virtually ignore most mundane weaponry and their enchanted arms are capable of besting most foes within a few strikes.

Disciplined, loyal, and probably a little crazy, the Rose Knights are Bethal’s symbol of authority and one of the reasons why she is considered a powerful [Lady] of the realm.

Krakens – Ship destroyers. They can grow to insane sizes, reaching miles in length. Unlike the predators of the land, the sea is deeper and vaster, and as such, Krakens are only one of the monsters that haunt the deeps. With that said, they are greatly feared for good reason. They also taste good when barbecued and dipped in a spicy sauce.

Krshia Silverfang – A Gnoll [Shopkeeper] in Liscor. Krshia was the first Gnoll to ever make Erin’s acquaintance and her fortunes have fallen and begun to rise since meeting Erin. Originally a prosperous shopkeeper, Krshia had led a good portion of the Silverfang Tribe to Liscor years ago, in order to earn money and bring a grand gift back to the meeting of the tribes. However, when Lyonette destroyed a stockpile of magical spellbooks with an accidental spell, Krshia lost not only her business but years of work from all the Gnolls in Liscor.

Subsequently, Krshia found herself struggling to rebuild her fortunes. With Ryoka’s help she has acquired an even greater treasure than before—a magical spellbook containing thousands of spells. For this, Krshia has declared herself and her tribe in Ryoka and Erin’s debt. She is now fighting to reclaim her spot as one of Liscor’s best businesspeople and preparing for her return to her tribe—in triumph, not shame.

Krsysl Wordsmith – A Drake [Writer], most famous for his twin historical accounts of the First and Second Antinium Wars. Krsysl initially won praise for his account of the First Antinium War, which was commissioned by Magnolia Reinhart to highlight the dangers of the Antinium. However, his second historical narrative lacked the impartiality of the first and glorified the Drake side of the war while diminishing the efforts of every other species.

Lambasted for his lack of integrity as a [Writer], Krsysl found himself ostracized from the writing world by most of the world. Defiant and unapologetic to the last, this Drake writer has not written since, and while he has some enduring popularity among his people, he has faded into obscurity in the world’s eyes.

Ksmvr – The former Prognugator of Liscor’s Hive. Ksmvr was created by the Queen of the Free Antinium in secret, so that if Klbkch were ever incapacitated he could manage the Hive. That day came sooner than he had anticipated, and Ksmvr found himself thrust into a leadership role without training. It has to be said that he failed miserably at his job.

Cast out for his failures, with one of his four arms severed, Ksmvr fell into despair before he became an adventurer and one of the Horns of Hammerad with Erin’s help. Now Ksmvr regards his three companions, Pisces, Ceria, and Yvlon, as the only important people in his world. He would readily sacrifice his life for them, a sentiment which causes his teammates distress.

Often socially inept, Ksmvr eagerly learns all the correct and incorrect lessons he can by observing his teammates. He regards Pisces as a mentor, Ceria as an infallible leader, and Yvlon as something akin to a big sister, although Ksmvr has no concept of a sister, or a family.

 

L

Laken Godart – The [Emperor] of the Unseen Empire, Protector of Durene’s Cottage, and your friendly neighborhood blind guy. Laken was teleported into this world right outside Durene’s cottage months ago and quickly became friends with Durene, without whom he might have quickly perished.

After gaining his [Emperor] class, Laken quickly developed a supernatural ‘Emperor sense’ which allowed him to detect everything in the property he owned, effectively giving him sight so long as he remained within his empire. Subsequently, he expanded his area of control from a single cottage to an entire village when Laken saved Riverfarm’s population from an avalanche that had just struck the village, burying its inhabitants.

Hailed as a savior and accepted as their [Emperor], Laken went on to protect the village from Goblin attacks and bought both food and protection in the form of two Silver-rank adventuring teams for the village.Since then, Laken’s control has only continued to expand as villages and towns and cities have pledged themselves to his new empire in exchange for protection. He now commands a small army and finds himself grappling with the burden of authority.

Amiable, patient, and thoughtful, Laken Godart is not a classical [Emperor] by any means. He is romantically involved with Durene, a half-Troll girl, and advised by a former [Farmer] and a [Witch]. He is a strange traveler, but he has made a home. And he is an [Emperor]. The first Izril has seen in millennia.

Larr – A Gnoll [Archer] and a member of Vuliel Drae. Larr is a Gnoll from Liscor. He joined Vuliel Drae because he was acquainted with Insill and he wanted to become a Gold-rank adventurer. And that’s about it. Like the Gnoll himself, Larr’s history is short, taciturn, and straight-to-the-point. If the Gnoll has any interesting qualities, it’s the adventurers he hangs out with in his team. Oh, and his unrequited love. But that’s not something Larr ever talks about.

Libertarian – A faction of [Mages] within Wistram. Libertarians believe in the supremacy of mages, as do most of Wistram’s factions, but they claim that Wistram should use its considerable influence and power to take a greater role in politics. The Libertarian faction usually pushes for Wistram to actively support mage-friendly nations and condemn or blacklist those that might prove to be enemies of the academy. A powerful faction, the majority of the Liberarian faction are Humans that hail from Terandria. Among their number are Charles de Trevalier and Rievan Forstrom.

Liches – Not the awesome, regenerating, nigh-immortal monsters you’re thinking of. Liches in this world are simply another form of undead, skeletal spellcasters who were once [Mages] in life. They’re still considered very deadly despite that, owing to their ability to rain death upon their enemy without regard for their safety. A Human [Mage] could be felled by an inopportune arrow; Liches must be destroyed completely or they will return. Not a fun threat, although most Liches are considered a Silver-rank threat owing to their frailty in physical combat. Assuming you can get that close, of course.

Liscor – The gate city of the High Passes, the guardian into Drake lands! No one actually calls Liscor that. This Drake and Gnoll inhabited city is notable in that it rests in the middle of one of two passages through the High Passes, a gigantic mountain range, that link north and south Izril. As the other passage is considered too deadly for any crossing, Liscor effectively controls the flow of traffic between north and south. Of which there is very little.

In truth, Liscor is more of a buffer in case of a Human attack than anything else. Considered impregnable owing to the unique geography surrounding the city and the powerful walls and its strong standing army, Liscor is exceptionally hard to take by siege and if an army does not conquer its walls within a short span of time, countless armies will rush to defend Liscor from any attacking force. Liscor’s presence has thwarted many attackers over the years, from Antinium to Human armies to the Necromancer itself.

The city is currently home to a good population of Gnolls as well as the Drakes who run the city, as well as the only Antinium Hive ever to be based in a Drake city at all. This unique relationship came about when the Antinium saved Liscor from the Necromancer’s armies and a peace treaty was forged at Liscor. The residents of Liscor are still somewhat uneasy about the Antinium, but are far more tolerant of them than any other Drakes in the world. Liscor is also now receiving an influx of Human visitors, mostly adventurers who seek to conquer the newly-discovered dungeon now threatening the city.

There are a few settlements outside of Liscor. Farming villages mainly, but a new inn has sprung up just a few minutes’ walk from the walls. It is run by a strange Human girl who has become the subject of much rumor and debate in Liscor as of late…

Liscorian Army – One of Izril’s more iconic mercenary armies, Liscor’s standing army is considered a formidable, if numerically small, force. Numbering only a few thousand in number, they prefer quality over quantity and hire themselves out to other Drake cities as a mobile fighting force. Liscor’s army has declined in stature since it was led by the iconic General Sserys, and it has become estranged from Liscor’s general citizens over sharp divisions about the presence of the Antinium Hive within Liscor. Nevertheless, Liscor’s army does regard the city as home, and returns to the city every few years…usually leaving after causing a good deal of havoc. It’s a strained relationship.

Lism – A grumpy, speciesist Drake [Shopkeeper] who runs a store in Liscor. He was one of the first Drake that Erin ever met and swindled Erin on her first day in Liscor. Ironically, it was also he who introduced Olesm to Erin when the young woman demanded her money back and won it in a game of chess. Lism is Olesm’s uncle and is fond of his nephew—although he still regards non-Drakes as inferior. He has a rivalry with Krshia. Until recently, the Gnoll has outperformed his shop daily in sales.

Lizardfolk – Not to be confused with Drakes. Lizardfolk are native to Baleros and stand have a rivalry with the fiery Drakes of Izril. A one-sided rivalry, actually. Drakes despise the social, inquisitive and usually cheerful nature of Lizardfolk, who value change and social interaction over personal wealth and power.

Lizardfolk aren’t even a single race; the majority of Lizardfolk are bipedal and take on the appearance of walking lizards with neck frills. However, their species has the potential to evolve or change shape—for instance, Lizardfolk may turn into Nagas by fulfilling an unknown criteria, or other, more exotic shapes. They regard these select subspecies as leaders of their kind, and thus live in a class-based society in their jungle homes. They don’t mind being called Drakes, but rather enjoy how angry Drakes get at being called Lizardfolk.

Luan Khumalo – An Otherworlder hailing from South Africa, Luan is perhaps the most athletically fit Human to come from earth. A paddler whose abilities are on an Olympic level, Luan is as fast on water as he is on land. First appearing in Baleros with Ken and Aiko, Luan found himself swept into conflict where blood and violence overwhelmed any attempt at mercy and compassion. He quickly became friends with Ken and helped save his friend’s life and eventually form the United Nations company. Married and a soon-to-be father, Luan’s only relief from worrying about his family is protecting his friends and finding a way home.

Lyonette du Marquin – A [Princess] from a Terandrian Kingdom, Lyonette du Marquin first came to Liscor as a thief, far from home and lacking the desire to work or interact with the ‘savage’ other species and ‘peasant’ commoners she found herself surrounded with. Sentenced to die in the cold, she was saved by Erin and given a job as a [Barmaid] in The Wandering Inn. Lyonette has come a long way from the tantrum-throwing girl she was in the past.

Now a competent [Barmaid] and intelligent young woman, she regards the inn as a home more than her distant kingdom, and has become a mother to Mrsha and a friend to Erin. Lyonette has a pet Ashfire Bee that she raised herself and has learned to even raid the deadly beehives and steal honey. Resourceful and keen to learn and level up, the Lyonette of today would scarcely be recognized as the Lyonette of the past. She attributes much of her change to Erin, and has sworn to repay that debt one day, in any way she can.

 

M

Mad Ones – A group of eccentric [Engineers], [Alchemists], and other creative classes based in Baleros. The Mad Ones were affiliated with the King of Destruction during his reign, as he was the only one willing to tolerate and fund their dangerous and often insane experiments. Considered a Gold-rank and occasionally Named Adventurer rank threat due to their experiments, the Mad Ones nevertheless produce the occasional useful invention. They are also left alone by and large, because sending an army to destroy or detain them would probably result in an explosion. That is to say, more explosions than normal.

Magnolia Reinhart – Known to some as The Deadly Flower Blooming in the North, Magnolia Reinhart is scion to the Reinhart family, and one of the most deadly women in the world. Rich, cunning, influential, and addicted to sugar, Magnolia Reinhart has all the wealth of her family and countless secrets and artifacts to draw upon. She helped drive back the Antinium in the First Antinium War, was part of the coalition that slew the Goblin King, and has continued expanding her influence since then.

Magnolia Reinhart has met both Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin and is aware of Otherworlder Humans entering her world. She claims she is opposed to the spread of new technology and determined to safeguard her home by defeating the Antinium once and for all, but few who know Magnolia trust her entirely. Those who don’t know her trust her not at all.

Magnolia Reinhart is powerful, but she has many enemies including the mysterious Circle of Thorns. On the other hand, Magnolia has a small army of servants, ties to the Assassin’s Guild, and a pink carriage which runs over bandits. Her enemies had better sleep with both eyes open.

Magnus Corpsus – A small cabal of [Necromancers] based in Izril. They have a small army of undead and mainly raid graveyards and commit minor crimes from their hidden base. They’re small fry.

Manticores – Half lion, half scorpion, half…thing with wings. Look, manticores are monsters, okay? They’ll sting you with your tail or bite you or hit you with a wing. Just stay away.

Maran – A [Barmaid] who works at the Frenzied Hare. She was briefly employed, then fired by Erin. She holds a grudge. So does Erin.

Maresar Crusand – An expert archer and the wife of Venith Crusland, Maresar was a [Bandit Lord] before she found love—ironically in the very man who’d set out to hunt her down. But that was years ago and it’s not an interesting story. Maresar pledged loyalty to the King of Destruction and survived to see his empire collapse. Staying with her husband, Maresar had one son and when Flos awoke from his slumber she returned to his side despite her husband’s resentment.

A strong warrior, Maresar’s true strength lies in her underhanded tricks. A bandit is always a bandit, after all. And she was a pretty good bandit.

Marian – A Centaur [Strategist] and one of Niers’ advanced students, Marian is a daring leader who fights in her people’s preferred style with rapid attacks and mobile armies. She is a good [Strategist] who could lead many of Baleros’ companies, but she has much to learn to obtain the Titan’s final approval. Marian is too set in her style, and it is the opinion of Niers Astoragon that predictability breeds weakness. Thus, Marian finds herself struggling as her teacher assigns her work that involves static defenses or slow-moving units. She has a rivalry with Venaz and is Umina’s good friend, although Marian privately fears that Umina is more talented than she.

Mars – A Human [Vanguard] and one of the King of Destruction’s Seven. Not much is known about Mars the Illusionist, save that she is Flos’ mightiest vassal in single combat and his champion. During his conquests, Mars would challenge the enemy army’s champion to a duel and after slaying her opponent, would charge into the army’s ranks. Her armor is practically indestructible and Mars is a veteran of many wars. She is known as the Illusionist because she always uses enchanted artifacts to appear as a beautiful woman, concealing her true appearance.

If Mars has a weakness, it is her inferiority complex. She does not believe she deserves to stand by her king without the mask of magic, the sole chink in her impenetrable armor.

Metalbite Slimes – A variety of slime made of liquid metal. Metalbite slimes are a terror for armored adventurers as they will attempt to consume armor and those wearing said armor. Hard to kill owing to their unique bodies, Metalbite slimes are nevertheless an easy target for magics which affect their mobility. Ice magic is extremely effective as a competent mage can freeze a Metalbite Slime solid.

Mihaela Godfrey – Mother of Valceif Godfrey, Mihaela is a famed Courier who lives in north Izril in semi-retirement. She was famed for being the only Courier who was able to escape the Antinium armies during the First Antinium Wars and participated in the Second Antinium Wars by outrunning enemy armies and scouts alike to relay information for Izril’s defenders. She recently learned of her son’s death. And of who is to blame for his death.

Minotaurs – A proud race of bull-people. Only don’t call them that. Minotaurs are honorable, touchy, and quick to anger. They enjoy the challenge of battle and very few become [Mages]. It is a sign of prestige in Minotaur culture to be a warrior—other classes are looked down upon. Minotaurs reside on the Isles of Minos, an archipelago that few visit. Minotaurs keep to themselves by and large, though some younger members of their species will travel abroad in search of fame and glory.

Minotaurs are known for being warlike, and have fought in several recent wars against other continents. However, each time they have been repulsed and Minotaurs have their own problems on their isles. They face an eternal foe with which they ceaselessly do battle. And when the Minotaurs fail to contain their foe, the world suffers…

Montressa du Valeross – Known as ‘Mons’ to her friends, Montressa is the daughter of a minor noble family of Terandria. She was a student at the same time as Pisces and Ceria and though she was a year younger, she quickly became part of their circle of friends. A bright student, Montressa was one of the few students who stuck by Pisces after his [Necromancer] class was revealed. However, following Pisces and Ceria’s expulsion from Wistram, she has fallen out of touch with both students.

Moore – A half-Giant [Green Mage] and a member of the Halfseekers. Despite being called half-Giant, Moore is in fact closer to quarter giant due to his mixed heritage. Nevertheless, he is a giant to all who meet him and the intimidation of his massive size is only tempered by his gentle nature.

Moore is a friend to most and his magic is suited to defense and aiding his companions. He is a danger in battle though, as this [Mage] is only too happy to break skulls with his quarterstaff rather than waste time casting spells. Moore is often asked why he became an adventurer given his kind nature. His response is that he has no problem killing monsters or his enemies. And it is perhaps telling that Moore has very few enemies in the world.

Mossbears – A slightly magical subspecies of bears known for their green fur, which is often covered in lichen. Mothbears are larger than the average black or brown bear, and some can even exceed polar bears in size. Voracious eaters, Mossbears sustain their massive bodies by eating magical lichens and plants, which they have learned to identify over countless years of evolution. They are generally peaceful unless disturbed. Or hungry.

Mothbears – Not to be confused with Mossbears. Mothbears are not, in fact, a subspecies of bears but an unholy fusion of moth and bear. Unable to fully fly, these gigantic monsters can still jump on their prey. Large, ferocious and attracted to bright lights, Mothbears are a dangerous threat for Bronze-rank adventurers, but considered to be a threat Silver-rank adventurers are generally capable of handling.

Mountain City Tribe – A tribe of Goblins living in Dwarfhalls Rest, a mountain located in the northern section of Izril. The Mountain City Tribe is notable for their vast numbers and extraordinarily high population of Hobs. This is due to a societal system implemented by their Chieftain, Tremborag. He styles himself the Great Chieftain of the mountain and appoints sub-lieutenants who have their own factions.

The Mountain City Tribe often raids nearby villages and cities but has kept such activities to occasional attacks to avoid attention. This has changed with the schism caused by the arrival of Rags and Garen Redfang, which saw a number of Goblins leave the Mountain City Tribe to join Rags’ tribe while Garen Redfang remained in the mountain. He is now second only to Tremborag, and the two Goblins have ramped up their attacks on Human lands in preparation for the upcoming conflict with the Goblin Lord.

Mrsha – The [Last Survivor] of the Stone Spears tribe, Mrsha is a young Gnoll cub incapable of speech. Mute since birth, she witnessed her entire tribe being slain by the Goblin Lord’s army. Saved only through the intervention of Ryoka Griffin and the fae, Mrsha’s fur was forever changed by her trauma and she now has pure white fur. This is regarded as an unlucky symbol by most Gnolls and those who are born or gain such fur are known as Doombringers, cursed ones who bring death upon all who associate with them.

Mrsha currently resides in Erin’s inn under the care of Erin and Lyonette. Though she has lost much, she lives happily most days and treats Lyonette like a mother and sometimes older sister. She’s also stopped stealing bras, although sometimes she steals food from Erin’s kitchen instead.

 

N

Nagas – A specific evolution of Lizardfolk. Nagas are one of the forms that Lizardfolk may turn into once they have fulfilled unknown criteria. Nagas are imposing half-serpent half-humanoids being who possess a superior level of strength and agility from their common kin. They are considered seductive as well, and are generally one of the more well-known types of Lizardfolk evolutions seen across Baleros.

Nalthaliarstrelous – The personal gardener of Magnolia Reinhart. Nathalistrelous is a [Druid] and considered to be one of the more dangerous servants in Magnolia’s employ. He resents taking orders even from Magnolia and his garden on her estate is fully overgrown and in places, dangerous. Why Nalthalistrelous consented to become Magnolia’s personal gardener is unknown. He resents personal contact, questions about personal life, and people stepping on grass.

Nekhret – A famous Archmage of Wistram, long deceased. Nekhret was a famous magic user who obtained the actual class of [Archmage], unlike her successors in recent years. She was known to be a powerful necromancer and her remains were interred in Wistram’s crypts after her death, an unusual choice for Archmages, who usually preferred to be buried elsewhere, or left no remains to be buried at all.

Nekhret’s tomb was left untouched for centuries until Pisces disturbed it and claimed her bones, unleashing a powerful spell of revenge upon the academy. He still possesses Nekhret’s bones, and used four of them in the creation of Toren, giving the skeleton far greater capabilities than her common kin.

Nereshal – A [Chronomancer] or time mage, Nereshal uses a branch of magic widely considered to be impossible or impractical to use by most of the world. As the steward of the Blighted King’s palace in Rhir and one of the personal confidants of the king, Nereshal possesses a wide range of power, both magical and social. He is capable of freezing his enemies in place, enhancing the speed of archers and arrows alike, but devotes most of his powers to extending the Blighted King’s life far beyond normal. It is rumored that Nereshal does the same for himself, and it is unknown how old he actually is. Nereshal has served the Blighted King for decades and if his magic continues to work, may serve him for many more decades still.

Nesor – A young, timid young man in the employment of Lady Rie Valerund. Nesor is a failed student of Wistram who left the academy after failing to meet their requirements. He is still capable of casting a number of spells, but his magical aptitude, like his confidence, is lacking. He is loyal to Lady Rie for giving him a place to work, and does his best, although his best is sometimes not enough.

Niers Astoragon – The Titan of Baleros and possibly the highest-level [Strategist] in the world. Niers Astoragon is a Fraerling, as tall as a cup of water, and in his late years. He was a successful adventurer before he became the second-in-command of the Forgotten Wing company. It was due to his efforts as well as Foliana’s that his company rose to become one of the Four Great Companies in his lifetime.

Niers is a strategic genius feared for his ability to play mind games with his foes and turn unwinnable battles into victories. He is also credited with inventing chess, and is an avid fan of the game. Recently, he has begun playing a mysterious opponent via magical chessboard, and speculation is rife who his opponent could be. Niers Astoragon knows his opponent is in Liscor but has not inquired further out of a desire to keep himself in suspense. Few things interest the Titan these days, but his new opponent and the new ideas and developments sweeping across the world have begun to rouse his interest.

Noears – One of the Goblins in the Flooded Waters Tribe, Noears is a [Mage], an unusual class for a Goblin to acquire. Extremely intelligent, Noears originally lived in Tremborag’s mountain where he masqueraded as a brain-dead idiot to avoid being drawn into the political struggles there. Having thrown his lot in with Rags when she fled the mountain, Noears is now a prominent figure in the Flooded Waters tribe and lends his lightning-based magic to his new tribe whenever necessary.

Numbtongue – One of the Redfang Warriors, Numbtongue is a Hobgoblin known for his ability to speak the common tongue. However, that knowledge does not mean he wishes to speak—after an unfortunate incident in his youth, Numbtongue is surly, preferring to keep his voice to himself unless needed. Like his fellows he is one of the survivors of the group sent to assassinate Erin Solstice. Now, living in her inn, Numbtongue is fascinated by songs and the spoken word. He can even read, although he keeps what he reads to himself. He understands more than he lets on, and he reveals very little of the true scope of his understanding.

 

O

Ocre – A small city neighboring the larger city of Remendia, Ocre is one of the cities just north of the High Passes. Not considered important in any respect, Ocre is best known for its proximity to the Ruins of Albez. The city is generally quiet as only a few adventurers go into the well-explored ruins hoping for a lucky break. However, the recent success of the Horns of Hammerad has sparked renewed interest in the ruins and Ocre has seem a small boom of visitors as a result. The Horns of Hammerad are local heroes in the city, due to their success in the dungeon.

Octavia – A Stitch-Girl [Alchemist] living in Celum. Octavia is a fast-talking, potion-slinging saleswoman whose only desire in life is to earn more money by selling her customers something. Anything. A small-time [Alchemist] in Celum, her fortunes have turned since meeting Erin. After a rocky start where Erin’s antics nearly destroyed Octavia’s kitchen multiple times, Octavia became Erin’s friend, and has even allowed Erin to install her magical portal to Liscor in her shop.

She now sells a variety of unique potions thanks to Ryoka’s help, and offers the world’s first version of matches, which has earned her a tidy profit. Octavia is hoping to expand her store soon, and she has a feeling that a certain [Innkeeper] might help her rise to even greater heights in the future.

Ogres – Even uglier than Trolls, if you can believe it. Ogres don’t get along with Trolls because they keep getting confused for each other. And while they are alike, Ogres are bigger and stronger than most Trolls, but lack the defensive toughness embodied in Troll skin. There are many exceptions among subspecies, but a general rule of thumb is that Ogres are stronger and Trolls are tougher and Ogres are really ugly. They smell, too.

Okasha – A Selphid [Rogue] that was saved by Geneva during battle. Okasha was a mercenary soldier who found herself saved by Geneva’s quick thinking. She repaid her savior by becoming a [Nurse] and aide to Geneva until the [Doctor] was hurt in an attack. Okasha entered Geneva’s body both to save her life and to help move her new host’s body. Without her, Geneva would be paralyzed owing to her spinal cord being irrevocably damaged.

However, Okasha’s actions are highly taboo among Selphid culture and throughout the rest of the world so she keeps her presence hidden. She is able to share her skills with Geneva and does whatever it takes to keep Geneva alive. Okasha believes Geneva might be the savior of the Selphid race, which is in peril for reasons yet unknown.

Oldblood Drakes – A subspecies or rather, genetic anomaly among Drakes. Those possessing the old blood manifest the traits of their ancestors, the Dragons. This can be anything from vestigial wings to the ability to breathe magical fire or fly. The intensity of such abilities varies, but those marked as Oldblood are honored in Drake society and often promoted more quickly than other Drakes. Occasionally the manifestation of their ancestry can be a negative thing indeed, and some Oldblood Drakes are born with deformities or worse. See Scorchlings for more detail.

Olesm Swifttail – The highest-level [Tactician] currently residing in Liscor, Olesm is no battlefield [Strategist] but a growing, if talented, young Drake with a passion for chess. First having met Erin after being completed defeated in a chess game, Olesm soon grew to be Erin’s friend. He admires the [Innkeeper] greatly and even loves her romantically—a feeling he has never expressed and which has never been returned.

Olesm has recently been involved with Ceria Springfield with whom he shared a one-night stand and is the subject of affection for many Drakes in Liscor, including Watch Captain Zevara. At the moment he is attempting to improve his strategic skills and runs a ‘chess magazine’ of sorts which has attracted attention from Niers Astoragon himself and earned him a small amount of fame. Olesm often considers himself a minor character in someone else’s story and largely unimportant. He may or may not be correct.

Oom – One of Az’kerash’s Chosen, deceased. Oom was an acid slime created by the Necromancer for one task: to assassinate high-level [Warriors] such as Zel Shivertail by immobilizing them in his body. Preferring to wear a trench coat and hat to conceal his true nature, Oom was a silent member of Az’kerash’s minions. The only creation that was not truly undead, Oom had only one friend in his short life, Bea. He was deployed to the battlefield to slay Zel Shivertail, but was killed by the Drake [General] instead.

Orthenon – Known as the Left Hand of the King of Destruction, Orthenon is Flos’ [Steward] and one of his most trusted vassals. Not one of the King’s Seven, Orthenon managed Flos’ kingdom as the King of Destruction rode to war and is considered on par with, if not more capable than many [Kings] in the world in terms of his ability to manage a nation.

Adept at combat owing to his [Blademaster] class, Orthenon is no stranger to the battlefield when necessary. He is steadfast, intelligent, and physically formidable, a perfect supporter of his [King]. Orthenon is a [Steward]. He is also a [Blademaster] and he was once a [Traitor] until Flos removed the class. But his sins have not been forgotten by those who cast him out…

Osthia Blackwing – An Oldblood Drake [Captain], Osthia Blackwing served under her uncle’s command in a battle against the Goblin Lord’s army until she was defeated and taken captive. Now she is the Goblin Lord’s prisoner and his source for information about the world and his master, Az’kerash. Osthia fiercely hates the Goblin Lord, but she hates the Necromancer more for slaying both Garusa Weatherfur and her uncle, Thrissiam Blackwing.

Osthia is a rare type of Oldblood who comes from a famous Drake family in Pallass. She is able to both fly and spit acid, and has risen rapidly in the ranks as a result of her abilities and her skill in battle. She is presumed dead by all who knew her, but she is still alive. Some days she wishes she wasn’t.

Othius the Fourth – Most commonly known as the Blighted King, Othius is the ruler of the Blighted Kingdom, a nation locked in eternal struggle with Demons and the monster hordes of Rhir. A powerful [King] and one of the most famous rulers in the world Othius’ true age is unknown, and he has ruled his kingdom for decades, all while battling the Demon King’s armies. He is a defensively-oriented [King] and his Skills allow his soldiers to survive their deadly encounters with their enemy. It is hoped by many that Othius will continue to live for many more decades, as his kingdom and his Skills are seen as the only thing that holds back the Demon King’s armies from swallowing Rhir whole.

 

P

Pallass – One of the six Walled Cities of the Drakes. Pallass is known as the City of Invention due to its large population of [Blacksmiths], [Alchemists], and other craft-related artisans. The northern-most Walled City, it has a strong military force to back up its technological achievements and is considered a stable force in the region.

Pallass is ruled by the Assembly of Crafts, a group of Senators elected by democratic vote from among the best and wealthiest of Pallass’ citizenry. Pallass’ citizens are also sort of somewhat dismissive of ‘uneducated’ or technologically inferior cities, leading to bad relationships with numerous Drake cities.

Parasol Stroll – A mercenary company who once followed the King of Destruction. Parasol Stroll is iconic for the enchanted parasols that each [Mage] carries. These lightweight parasols can deflect arrows, cast spells, and provide welcome shade from Chandrar’s hot sun. Magic can be stylish as well as pratical.

Pawn – One of the five surviving original Workers to become Individual, Pawn leads a special unit of Soldiers and Workers in the Hive of the Free Antinium. He was the first Worker to ever talk to Erin and named himself after she helped him discover his soul. Pawn learned of religion from Erin and has since become determined to make a heaven for the Antinium who die, even if no god or higher power watches over his people.

He is an [Acolyte], an Antinium who prays to no one deity but to Antinium and the hope of salvation. Pawn has seen countless friends die, and his only hope is that their sacrifices were not meaningless and that a better place awaits them in the heaven he will try to build.

Peclir Im – A Human. The [Chamberlain] of the Forgotten Wing Company. He has a very prestigious position, but it is rare to find someone who can keep up with the whims of Niers Astoragon and Foliana. Peclir has served for four years. His predecessors all quit due to reasons of insanity. Let’s hope he has a longer tenure.

Pekona – A silent [Sword Dancer] from overseas. Pekona is a resident of the Drath Archipelago, a strange place from which she has brought little save for the katana she wields. She does not speak much about her home. She does not speak much, in fact. She joined Vuliel Drae for reasons no one knows save for Anith, their leader. She’s a good fighter. Everything else is pretty much a mystery. Or she’s just a grump. It’s probably both.

Periss – The former second-in-command to Wall Lord Ilvriss and his secret lover. Periss died at the hand of the Necromancer’s minions while pursuing Ryoka Griffin. Her death still haunts Ilvriss and has been the motivation behind all of his recent actions. Periss fell in love with Ilvriss quite by accident. They grew fonder of each other after she saved his life on the battlefield, and they continued their romance in private due to their relationship as commander and subordinate. Some nights Ilvriss still recalls his last order to Perris and wonders if she resented him for it at the end.

Persua – A sallow-faced girl, according to Ryoka. In fact, Persua’s face is attractive, if slightly pinched. That is probably the best that most people would say of her. Persua is manipulative, spiteful, and dangerous. She has threatened to murder Ryoka Griffin and was responsible for shattering the girl’s legs and trying to kill her at least once.

Persua is Ryoka’s enemy and hates her with a passion. The feeling is mutual. Recently, Persua qualified to become a Courier and has gone north, seeking greater fame and attention. If there’s not much positive about her here, well, that’s because no one’s heard her side of the story. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Peslas – A Drake [Innkeeper] in Liscor who runs the Tailless Thief. He is a big Drake and boasts the most prosperous inn…in Liscor’s walls. He is over Level 30 in the [Innkeeper] class and quite rich. He enjoys socializing with friends and often gives away free drinks, which doesn’t really matter too much because his inn is the most expensive bar none in the city. According to Erin, he’s sort of a jerk.

Pisces – A Human [Necromancer] and former student of Wistram. Pisces considers himself a genius, an expert with a rapier, and the one clear-headed thinker in a world full of idiots. The idiots for the most part, hate his guts. But beneath the layers of arrogance and cynicism lies a young man who was at one point a friend to Ceria, and a talented young mage. But he has ever been a [Necromancer] and the world will judge him on that alone.

Expelled from Wistram for his misdeeds, Pisces is wanted in many places for extortion, intimidation, theft—but never murder. He is by his own admission a graverobber and does not hesitate to pursue his interests of creating undead. And yet, he has been a hero as well. Of late Pisces has joined the Horns of Hammerad and contributed to their success in substantial ways.

Now he stands on the edge, teetering between the odd friendships he has forged with his companions and people like Erin and his distrust of the world. Whether he will be a better man for it or return to his own ways is a question for the future. All that is certain is that Pisces will probably have something sarcastic to say about it.

Pivr – The Revalantor of the Flying Antinium. Pivr is arrogant, convinced of his Hive and his Queen’s greatness, and he has wings. He is obnoxious company, especially to Xrn. Despite this, Pivr has empathy for his fellow Antinium and changed somewhat after visiting the Free Antinium in Liscor. Whether that really matters remains to be seen.

Poisonbite – A Goblin raid leader who used to be part of Tremborag’s tribe. She abandoned her former Chieftain to follow Rags and is now an officer in the Flooded Waters tribe. Poisonbite got her nickname from the two poisoned daggers she coats in a self-made poison before battle.

Prickly and devoted to proving that female Goblins can be better warriors than male ones, Poisonbite enjoys having a female Chieftain. She’s thought of taking the spot herself, but she’s acknowledged that Rags is far smarter than she is and is content to be second-in-command. Just as soon as she can figure out a way to be better than Pyrite. And Redscar. And maybe Noears. She thinks Noears is cute because of the missing ears. But she’d never tell him that.

Prost Surehand – Formerly a [Farmer], now a [Steward] serving Emperor Laken Godart, Prost first knew Laken as a stranger sharing an inappropriate relationship with the village pariah, Durene. Initially friendly, then hostile, Prost later became a devoted follower of Laken after his village was buried in an avalanche and Laken came to the rescue.

Now a competent [Steward], Prost regards Laken as a true leader and savior to his village. Though he knows little about being a [Steward] his class and his experience dealing with others has led him rise to the occasion. He is married and has several young children who are all alive thanks to Laken.

Purple Smile – An Antinium [Sergeant] of the Free Antinium, Purple Smile has a purple…smile painted over his mandibles and face. It’s very creepy. Easygoing and carefree, a rarity among Antinium, much less Soldiers, Purple Smile is a counterpoint to Yellow Splatters. A deadly fighter when he needs to be, Purple Smile usually takes the easiest route available, making him an excellent leader and a great relaxer. He still looks creepy, though.

Pyrite – The former Chieftain of the Goldstone Tribe, Pyrite is a placid Hob whose intelligence is belied by his looks. Always eating something and always thinking, Pyrite is Rags’ second-in-command. He is a strong fighter and often makes up for his Chieftain’s inexperience with his own. Pyrite enjoys mining at his leisure and has actually learned how to find gemstones with uncanny accuracy. He generally gives the precious gemstones and gold away since it’s just useless rock, after all.

 

Q

Quallet Marshhand – An experienced Human [Mercenary Captain], Quallet led a specialized company across Baleros offering a unique battlefield service: putting down the undead corpses that would spawn nightly from the dead soldiers on the battlefield. His company, Gravetender’s Fist was small if well-respected and generally comprised of a few veteran soldiers and many raw recruits.

During a battle between the Razorshard Armor and Roving Arrow companies, Gravetender’s fist found itself targeted as both sides began to break the rules of engagement and target third parties. Quallet escaped by banding together with the Red Cross company and other neutral parties, and has since joined the United Nations company as an experienced leader.

Queen of the Free Antinium – One of the six remaining Antinium Queens of Izril. The Queen of the Free Antinium has no name and is defined by her Hive. Unlike the other Antinium Queens, the Queen of the Free Antinium chose to pursue a stronger relationship with the Drakes and Gnolls of Liscor rather than specialize her Hive. As such her Hive contains only Soldiers and Workers and she is shunned by the other Queens for her radical stance.

The Queen of the Free Antinium is possessive of Klbkch, whom she regards as a true hero of the Antinium and her companion. She has begun experiments to create more Queens in secret, defying the will of the Grand Queen, whom she has lost faith in.

Queravia – One of the King of Destruction’s Seven, Queravia was a famed Stich-Woman and perhaps the greatest [Strategist] in the world—until her death. A gambler, Queravia’s strategies played with luck and she was dubbed the Gambler of Fates for her ability to turn unwinnable battles into complete victories. She led an invasion force into Baleros and successfully destroyed countless Balerosian companies until she met her match when Niers Astoragon led a massive coalition army against her and ended her life. She was romantically involved with Flos, and it is speculated that her death along with another of his Seven was the impetus for the King of Destruction’s slumber.

Quexa – A Lizardgirl from Baleros, Quexa was a low-level [Sorcerer] and new recruit to Gravetender’s Fist when the company began its ill-fated contract. Initially fascinated with the otherworlder Humans, Quexa fought with her company to defend itself when both companies began attacking their camp. She lost the lower half of her left leg in the fighting, but found support in Daly, who took it upon himself to help her in the day and weeks that followed. She is now a member of the United Nations company and romantically involved with a certain Australian man. Daly, in case you weren’t sure.

 

R

Rabbiteater – One of the Redfang Warriors. Rabbiteater’s first memory was of starving after being abandoned by his parents. Or perhaps his parents were killed. He never saw them again so he will never know. He learned to catch rabbits with unparalleled skill and thus obtained his name. Swift, deadly, and always a bit puckish, Rabbiteater lacks the unique qualities of his surviving comrades. He is not as good at fighting as Shorthilt, an archer like Badarrow, as gifted at words as Numbtongue, or as strong as Headscratcher. But he’s also not a jerk. And that matters because the other four Goblins can really get on each other’s nerves sometimes.

Rags – The Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe. Rags was once a small Goblin. She watched her family being slaughted by Relc. She was accepted into Erin’s inn. She was taught there. She learned kindness from Erin. She learned magic from Pisces. She left, and became Chieftain of her tribe. She faced down Garen Redfang. Her tribe grew larger. She entered Tremborag’s mountain after fleeing the Goblin Lord. She left there too, and her tribe grew larger.

Now she leads an army of powerful Goblins, hundreds of Hobs, and has survived many battles against the Humans that try to kill her people. And Rags only is still four years old. She is, quite simply, a genius and considered attractive by Goblin standards. She is a deadly shot with the dwarf-made crossbow she wields, knows a few spells, and is extremely good at strategy. She has a lot resting on her small shoulders.

Sometimes Rags dreams of going back to the inn and laying all her burdens aside. But she is far from home. And yet it is to home she will return. One day.

Raskghar – The ancient, primitive offshoots of the Gnoll species. Raskghar were Gnolls who dwelled deep in the underground and forsook their ability to level and gain classes for brutal strength and cunning. Bestial and drawn to savagery, Raskghar regain their intelligence only once every month when the moon shines brightest. That’s right. They’re reverse werewolves. And they live in Liscor’s dungeon. They can smell their ancient enemies, the Gnolls, above. And they howl in the darkness, waiting for the war to resume.

Razorbeaks – Also known as Dino Birds to Erin. Razorbeaks are pterodactyl-like birds that live in Izril. They have very sharp teeth and hunt smaller birds, rodents, and when they fly in number, sheep, goats, cows, and people. They are cowardly alone and dangerous together. Their eggs don’t taste half bad either.

Razorshard Armor Company – A Dullahan-led group that participated in a particularly nasty battle with the Roving Arrow company. The fighting abandoned all the rules of engagement normally honored in Baleros and both sides began targeting neutral parties. It is not known what the fate of the Razorshard Armor Company was, but the disgrace of their actions will certainly follow them. The Razorshard Armor Company is considered powerful due to the presence of several Dullahan [Juggernauts]—massive Dullahan giants capable of smashing enemy lines apart on their own.

Redfang Tribe – A famous tribe in Izril, the Redfang Tribe is considered dangerous to even a Gold-rank team and they are classified as so dangerous that multiple teams must attempt to subjugate them. The Redfang Tribe lives in the High Passes. Led by Garen Redfang, they boast the highest individual might of any Goblin Warriors although their tribe is somewhat small. Their Chieftain specializes in only one thing: combat, and as such the tribe is actually quite poor and has gone hungry in the past due to Garen’s lopsided skill set. Currently, the Redfang tribe follows Rags while only a core has stayed with their former Chieftain.

Redscar – The second-in-command of the Redfang tribe. Redscar is a normal Goblin rather than a Hob, perhaps due to his fondness for the Carn Wolf he rides. He is a deadly warrior second only to Garen himself and leads the Redfangs after abandoning his former leader to follow Rags. Redscar’s defining feature is the scar on his face. It’s not actually that red, but the nickname was too good to pass up. Redscar likes male Goblins. Female ones are fine too, of course. But still.

Regis Reinhart – An ancient ghost that haunts…guards…oversees the Reinhart family vault. Regis is bound by powerful spells to oversee the Reinhart collection of artifacts and is able to distribute them as he sees fit. He only allows those who have contributed something of worth to withdraw an item, although he will make an exception in times of great need.

This guardianship of the family treasure is one of the reasons the Reinharts have been unable to squander their wealth in previous generations and Regis intends to keep it that way. He still maintains an active presence in the real world through intermediaries and spies and sometimes even influences events. He has nothing but contempt for most of his living family, except for Magnolia whom he regards as one of the great Reinharts of history. He’s a doting grandparent too, although he usually doesn’t show it.

Regrika Blackpaw – The fake Named Adventurer alias used by Venitra when in disguise. Regrika Blackpaw was considered a hero of the Gnolls and greatly respected in Izril until she was exposed for murdering both Brunkr and Ulrien. Now she is a wanted criminal although no one has seen a trace of her since she disappeared. The Gnolls are especially keen to find their traitorous own and have put an internal bounty within the tribes on her. Alive.

Reim – The kingdom ruled by Flos, the King of Destruction. Reim was, at one point, an empire that stretched across nearly all of Chandrar. But when the King of Destruction fell into his slumber the empire collapsed and Reim became a tiny nation that crumbled away over the years as their [King] slumbered. Devastated by the passage of years and their absent monarch, Reim struggled to stay alive, waiting for the day Flos would return. Now the King of Destruction has returned, Reim has come to life and it returns to its former glory with each passing day.

Reinharts – One of the Five Families of Izril. The Reinharts are known as a group of plotters, schemers, rogues, and traitorous bastards with machinations and fingers in every underhanded plot in Izril—but those are just things people say about them. In truth, the Reinharts are, like all the Five Families, rich and powerful. It is true that more than a few of their heirs take to plots, poison, and intrigue than most, but they are hardly alone in that regard. They may be the best at what they do, though. Currently, the family is led by Magnolia Reinhart who does everything while the rest of the family lives in their ancestral estate, throwing lavish balls, parties, and living a hedonistic lifestyle free of worry. They do it with style, too.

Relc Grasstongue – A former [Sergeant] and a [Guardsman] of Liscor, Relc is quite possibly the strongest [Guardsman] in the world. A powerful spear fighter on par with a Gold-rank adventurer, Relc disguises his fearsome battle prowess with an authentic layer of laziness and sometimes, stupidity. As an actual member of the City Watch he doesn’t deserve his Senior Guardsman rank, but he is tolerated because when a monster pops out of the sewers or the bar fight gets bloody, there’s no one you’ll want backing you up. Assuming he didn’t stand the bar fight, that is.

Remendia – A large city north of Liscor. It is situated near a smaller city, Ocre. And both cities are located near the Ruins of Albez. And that’s about it. Remendia, like Ocre, has little to distinguish it from other cities. No one’s ever destroyed it. No giants have ever smashed a building in. There’s not even been a widespread mass summoning of horrific monsters from the deep! And that’s the way Remendia likes it. Boring.

Ressa – The [Head Maid] in Magnolia Reinhart’s employ. That’s what she says, anyways. If she was the kind of person who answered stupid questions. Ressa has been by Magnolia’s side for as long as anyone can remember. She is dedicated, efficient, and expects nothing less out of the many servants she commands. She also has an enchanted poison dagger, three magic rings and—oops. I’ve said too much. She may be a ninja maid. That’s all I’m saying.

Revenants – A rare form of undead that appears when the actual soul of a person possesses an undead, rather than the crude intelligence most undead share. Revenants can think and possess some of the thoughts, skills, and memories of when they were alive, but such beings are inevitably twisted by death into insanity or a lust for vengeance. Extremely dangerous, even [Necromancers] hesitate to create such beings as Revenants are exceptionally hard to control.

Revi – A bad-tempered [Summoner] and Gold-rank adventurer. Revi is a new member of Griffon Hunt and joined the group to earn money and become famous. At least she’s honest about it. She has a sharp tongue and short temper and that drives many people away from her, but Revi has a heart of…well, a heart made of cloth. But it’s stitched together quite nicely! She’s a Stitch-Woman and she’ll hold together her team despite having lost Ulrien, their leader. Even if she has to drag the others kicking and screaming to do it.

Revivalist – A faction in Wistram dedicated to improving the lot of [Mages]. Which is what all the factions say. The Revivalists choose to pursue this goal by advocating for opening Wistram’s doors to all members of the public and doing away with the selectivity and need for expensive tuition fees. They dream of an era of magic where Wistram’s mages flow forth into the world. They clash sharply with elitist factions like the Isolationists.

Reynold Ferusdam – A [Combat Butler] in service to Magnolia Reinhart. You will see Reynold when you see Magnolia’s coach. He alone can properly pilot the pink, speeding deathtrap that Magnolia uses for transportation and he’s skilled enough with a sword to defend it too if need be. Reynold gets to see a lot of strange people in his job ferrying Magnolia or his guest about. He never complains though. He does his job well and efficiently and his worst nightmare is cleaning the stains off the carriage. You wouldn’t believe how many bandits he runs over in a week.

Rhir – The smallest of the five continents by far, Rhir has only one kingdom. The last bastion against the Demons and monsters that flow forth from deep within the continent. The Blighted Kingdom has held its ground for millennia, sometimes falling back, sometimes pushing back the monsters and Demon King’s forces. Little is known about the origin of the horrific, mutated monsters that will routinely attack the Blighted Kingdom, but little needs to be known in truth.

Only a few facts matter in Rhir. The Blighted Kingdom stands. The Demons must be held back. If the Blighted Kingdom calls, the nations of the world must answer or be drowned by the nightmares of Rhir. So long as the Blighted King rules from his lonely throne, the world is safe to squabble amongst itself. For now.

Richard Davenport – A Texan from Earth and a [Knight], Richard is the leader of the group of Americans who found themselves transported to Rhir. He never volunteered for the job, but as one of the few people who survived the first deadly encounters with monsters and kept leveling up, he is now a powerful [Knight] who often carries his friends on his back.

Responsible and caring, Richard is nevertheless quite aware how little influence he has on his fate in Rhir. A [Knight] he may be, but one [Knight] matters little to the Blighted King. On the other hand, his best friend, Tom, has attracted the attention of the kingdom. If Richard could convince Tom to assume a greater responsibility he and the others might have a chance of figuring out what is going on in this strange world he’s arrived in.

Rie Valerund – A minor [Lady] of Izril who was rescued from Goblin attack by Laken Godart. She has since pledged herself to his cause and employs her talents in building his kingdom. Lady Rie is hardly a powerful lady whether in level or influence and her family’s power has waned since the Second Antinium War where all of its members save for her were slain. Nevertheless, she has quite a few connections and she is currently employing all of them to be a useful supporter of Laken, in whom she sees quite a lot of potential for her own fortunes to rise.

Rievan Forstrom – A [Mage] of Wistram and a teacher, Rievan is a member of the Libertarian faction. He does not like Ceria. He does not like half-Elves, in fact. Beyond that there’s little else to say. He is not the main character of this story, in case you were wondering.

Riverfarm – A small village sheltered by a mountain and a river to the west of Invrisil, in the middle of northern Izril. Riverfarm was an ordinary village, poor and unremarkable save for the presence of a half-Troll outcast living away from the village. However, recent months has seen Riverfarm change completely. First visited by a strange Human from another world and then struck by an avalanche that buried most of the villagers alive, Riverfarm was saved by Laken Godart and claimed as his. Now it is the beginning of an empire as other villages, towns, and cities turn to Riverfarm as a beacon of safety and guidance in these dark times. Riverfarm is the start, but what fruits will grow from this village remain to be seen.

Rock Crabs – Also known as Hollowstone Deceivers, this breed of crab is a gigantic predator native to the area around Liscor. Hiding in massive stone shells, Rock Crabs wait patiently for their prey to pass by them before grabbing their victims and messily disemboweling them with a gigantic claw. Rock Crabs are a substantial threat because their shells are so tough, and even if you can get underneath their shells they remain quite deadly. They are afraid of poison, however, and flee if they sense any kind of dangerous substance in the air or on their shells. They have poor immune systems. Ever seen a crab with a cold?

Ruins of Albez – An area of rubble and buried passageways that is all that remains of a city. Located near Remendia and Ocre just north of the High Passes, Albez is known as a dangerous spot for adventurers that often offers little in the way of reward. Long ago picked clean by treasure hunters, Albez was thought to be an unprofitable, dangerous place to venture. Until, that was, a team of four Silver-rank adventurers returned from the dungeon with treasure. Now Albez is again a target for the hopeful. But whether it has any more secrets lost to time is anyone’s guess.

Runners – A term broadly used for messengers who deliver letters, secrets, and packages  in exchange for coin. Runners come in three varieties—Street Runners who move within a city and rarely venture beyond the walls, City Runners who deliver from city to city, and Couriers who may make journeys across the sea or through the most dangerous locations.

Runners are paid depending on the difficulty of their errand and the most famous of Runners can become as rich and famous as any adventurer. Indeed, the skillset needed to be a Runner often mirrors that of an adventurer, as bandits, monsters, and sometimes assassins will waylay Runners carrying the most valuable of cargo. Still, for most Runners their code is simple: deliver the package. Get paid. Don’t die.

Ryoka Griffin – A young woman from Earth. Ryoka Griffin is best described like a cat. Like a cat, she is opinionated. Like a cat, she likes to run around. Like a cat, she knows how to fight. But like a cat, she would most like for everyone to leave her alone. Having come to this strange world by accident, Ryoka Griffin made her living as a City Runner, surviving on her own until fate sent her to meet Erin Solstice. From there, Ryoka began to grow more involved in Erin’s tale, making friends with a Frost Faerie named Ivolethe, rescuing a young Gnoll cub named Mrsha, and attracting the attention of powerful and dangerous individuals.

After being targeted by the Necromancer, Ryoka lost her friend Ivolethe in a desperate battle with the undead servants sent after her. Heartbroken, she left Liscor, running north. She has not been seen since. No one knows where she has gone. Or if she will come back.

 

S

Sacra – You may know her as Odveig. You may know her as someone else. On the surface she is a [Maid] working in Magnolia Reinhart’s employ. But put on a Ring of Illusions and she could be a [Butcher] working down the street, an old man begging next door, a Silver-rank adventurer laughing while hunting monsters. Sacra is a spy. And she’s a good one. If Magnolia Reinhart wants to investigate something, she’ll send Sacra. And you’ll never know it. Sacra is the 007 of the medieval world. And she can also make some great tea.

Safry – A [Barmaid] employed at the Frenzied Hare. She was briefly employed, and then fired by Erin Solstice after meeting and becoming friends with the [Innkeeper]. They’re not friends any longer.

Salazsar – One of the Walled Cities of Izril. Salazsar is known for its gemstones, of which it has several profitable mines. It is in fact built on a gigantic vein which has yielded precious gemstones and ores for thousands of years. Some cities have all the luck.

Salvia – Bold, brash, and daring, Salvia is the relaxed [Captain] of Nonelmar, a city close to Vaunt. She has an amiable relationship with Gershal and is his opposite in many ways. Her unit of [Riders] is fairly strong and well-trained and Salvia herself is a good leader, if low-leveled compared to officers on the front lines. She’s obsessed with cheese from Vaunt.

Scorchling – A rare case of Dragon ancestry manifesting itself in Drake children in negative ways. Scorchlings are burnt the instant they are born and their scales burn away as long as they live. These offspring usually have short lives as Drakes consider them to be cursed by their blood rather than most Oldblood Drakes. Nevertheless, some do live to maturity and lead solitary, difficult lives as outcasts among their own people.

Sea Serpents – Giant water snakes. Their scales are tough as steel, and larger examples can wrap themselves around a warship and crack it like an egg. They are particularly nasty in clutches where they can attack by the dozens. They’re like…snakes. In the water. Look, that’s all you need to know. Oh, and some of them can do nasty things like spit venom. Or shoot lightning. Like snakes.

Seborn – A Drowned Man whose body is half-crab. Or half-lobster. Erin’s never managed to muster the courage to ask which it is. Seborn is a Gold-rank [Rogue] and a member of the Halfseekers. Drowned People rarely go ashore but Seborn abandoned the sea to become an adventurer on land with his companions. He lost over half his team when Garen Redfang betrayed them and has since journeyed with Jelaqua and Moore. He has sworn to kill Garen before doing anything else and while he has other commitments that weigh on him, vengeance comes first. Seborn does not forgive or forget. Aside from Garen, he’s pretty relaxed, though.

Selphids – A race of…parasites? Wait, are they parasites? Let’s see. They invade the bodies of the dead and use them as hosts. They can also do that to the living although that is considered taboo. They were once a world-spanning civilization that ruled other races by fear and terror until they were overthrown. Now the Selphids are a small species, distrusted and loathed in many places. That might make them parasites or it might not, but either way, Selphids can switch bodies at will and their lives are only threatened if their true selves—a squishy blob that is very vulnerable outside a body—are damaged.

Selphids are capable of performing superhuman feats (or superdrake feats, superdullahan feats, etc.) by pushing their bodies past their physical limits. Still, they try and take good care of their host forms most of the time. Freshly dead bodies ain’t cheap.

Selys Shivertail – A [Receptionist] in the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor, Selys was the first Drake to get to know Erin. Social, friendly, and opinionated, Selys is a good friend who puts up with Erin’s antics and often interjects a bit of sanity and her world’s perspective to help out her Human friend. She enjoys free time, shopping, and generally anything that doesn’t include work. She has a love-hate relationship with her grandmother, Tekshia Shivertail, who is also the Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild. Yes, it’s nepotism. So what? Drakes are okay with nepotism.

The Seven – A term used to refer to the King’s Seven, or the seven foremost vassals of Flos, the King of Destruction. The Seven were unmatched in their field and served their King until he fell into his slumber . Of the Seven, three are known to be dead. One of them, Drevish, was slain by the Emperor of Sands and the other two perished before Flos went into his slumber. The remaining four are Mars the Illusionist, Takhatres the Lord of the Skies, Gazi the Omniscient, and Amerys the Calm Flower of the Battlefield. Currently all but one has returned to Flos. Amerys has not left Wistram for reasons known only to her.

Shield Spiders – Armored spiders native to Izril. Shield Spiders’ carapaces are prized as an alternative form of armor by [Blacksmiths]. Good luck getting it off the spiders though; Shield Spiders live in nests underground and swarm over anything that walks over the pit traps they love to create. They’re dangerous in numbers, but you can stomp one to death if you’re angry enough. Ask Erin.

Shorthilt – A Redfang Warrior. Shorthilt is known for his love of sharp things. He can sharpen anything. Sticks, knives, swords…he takes good care of his weapons and is obsessed with finding better equipment. The other Goblins laugh at him for his attention to his blade, but do they laugh when he cuts straight through an opponent’s shield? Well, yes. If it’s funny.

Silverfang Tribe – A tribe of Gnolls known for being rich. Literally, it’s in their name. In truth, the Silverfangs are more of a mercantile tribe who prosper by trading goods. They are quite large and quite influential and have sent a number of their people to Liscor. Lead by Krshia Silverfang who is sister to the tribe’s current Chieftain, the Silverfangs have prospered in Liscor over the last decade. They do not have silver teeth, contrary to their name.

Silver Spears – A Silver-rank team that was led by Yvlon Byres before it was destroyed during the disastrous expedition into Liscor’s crypt. Slain at the hands of Skinner, the team was totally wiped out save for their Captain, Yvlon. The Silver Spears were a team dedicated to fighting evil and taking up causes, again until their destruction. And they weren’t a copy of a certain other team. No, not at all.

Silver Swords – The original, Gold-rank team dedicated to fighting evil monsters! Accept no substitutes. The Silver Swords are known for taking up missions of mercy and just causes even if there is no reward to be had. A righteous team, they are famous in northern Izril as a powerful group despite being comprised only of three members. The Silver Swords are courageous heroes to many. To the rest, they’re a bit, well, a bit pretentious. But don’t say that to their faces. They can be touchy.

Skeletons – What you find when you peel away the fleshy bits. Some of them get up and walk about if you don’t watch out. At least they’re fragile. Sort of.

Skinner – A monsterous guardian of Liscor’s crypts. Skinner was an ancient Flesh Worm armored in thousands of layers of skin torn from his prey. He commanded an undead horde and slew the Silver-rank teams that ventured into his lair before assaulting Liscor with the undead army. Skinner’s attack was only halted at great cost by the Antinium, the valient efforts of Liscor’s defenders, and a chance encounter with a certain [Innkeeper].

Unlike most Flesh Worms, Skinner benefitted from an incredible armor of dead skin, so much that he appeared to be a different creature entirely until the armor was destroyed. He also possessed two dangerous artifacts, twin gems capable of casting the [Terror] spell. With these abilities Skinner truly fit his role as a lesser guardian of Liscor’s dungeon.

Slimes – Weird blog-things. They roll about, eating stuff. Slimes come in all forms. Water slimes, mud slimes, poo slimes…yeah. Destroy the core inside of them and they die. But uh, maybe wash your hands afterwards. Also, there is no such thing as a Healing Potion slime. Absolutely not. That would be silly.

Snapjaw – One of the Goblin Lord’s lieutenants. Snapjaw is a formidable Goblin with metallic teeth and an oversized head. A [Biter] who kept gaining levels, her bite can now tear through steel. She’s ravenous, deadly, and likes chewing on rocks. She has no end of male and female Goblins in love with her.

Sserys – A famous Drake [General] who helped pushed back the Antinium during the First Antinium War. Sserys was slain in a final attack on the Hive of the Grand Queen of the Antinium. Not much is known about his final hours, but Sserys is remembered as one of the greatest Drake heroes to have ever lived. The [General] in command of Liscor’s army and their icon, Sserys coined the iconic Drake phrase: ‘Drakes do not run’. At the end, he stayed true to his word.

Stitchworks – Octavia’s shop in Celum. Once a small place often subjected to noise, smell, and occasionally sight complaints by the City Watch, it is now a prosperous business, having many unique items on sale including matches, stink potions, smoke bags, and pepper potions. It still smells weird inside, though.

Stone Spears Tribe – A tribe of Gnolls that lived adjacent to the High Passes in southern Izril. They were wiped out after the Goblin Lord assaulted their tribe, slaying all but a young Gnoll named Mrsha. Despite the best efforts of two Drake armies, the Goblin Lord slew the Stone Spears tribe to their last as both warriors and noncombatants alike died that one might live. That is what Ryoka and Mrsha believe. However, there may be other survivors…

String People – A people make of cloth and string, native to Chandrar. String People are very unique in that their body parts are detailed pieces of cloth. Once attached, these body parts become real flesh and blood. Stitch People can feel like us, smell like us, bleed like us…but if they think it’s a bother, they can remove their body parts until later use. That makes them formidable foes, although their species is deathly afraid of fire, which can mean a swift end. Stitch People’s bodies vary depending on the quality and craftsmanship of the cloth from which their parts are made. Poor-quality cloth means rough skin or deadened reflexes. On the other side of things, exceptional goods like silk can produce otherworldly results.

 

T

Tailless Thief – The most expensive in in Liscor. Probably one of the best too, but it only caters to Drakes. The owner’s a bit of a jerk. But the food is…well, it’s good if you like Drake cooking. And the liquor’s good, but good luck getting anything not made by a Drake. Again, they sort of have a theme going on.

Takhatres – The Lord of the Skies and one of the King of Destruction’s Seven. Takhatres is the fastest being on all of Chandrar. He is a Garuda, one of the flying people of the sands and his tribe is one of the largest. As a warrior, Takhatres is deadly to inexperienced or low-level foes. He wears practically no armor and his only weapons are enchanted daggers, but combined with his extreme speed he can slaughter a group of soldiers in minutes. He is loyal to his King, dedicated, and sort of single-minded. Like a bird.

Tallis – Known as Tallis the Stormbreaker, this Goblin Lord was a [Shaman] who followed Velan the Kind to Izril. Slain in the Second Antinium Wars, he was considered equal to or superior to an Archmage of Wistram. His magic was such that he could literally split the skies and drag an army into the air.

Tamaroth – Has a beard.

Tekshia Shivertail – The Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild of Liscor. In her youth, Tekshia was a famed Gold-rank adventurer known for her prowess with the spear. She has long since retired and was responsible for raising her granddaughter after both of Selys’ parents died during the attack on Liscor by the Necromancer. No-nonsense, Tekshia does not suffer fools. Or most other people.

Tenbault – A certain city in Izril. It is noted because it is home to a famous [Healer] who is so high-level that thousands of people flock to the city and camp there for months or even years hoping she will tend to their needs.

Terandria – The continent of Humans. And half-Elves. And yeah, Dwarves too. But mainly Humans! Terandria is a continent of kingdoms and boasts the oldest lineages, the most ancient of kingdoms…and the most politics too. It is considered to be the most peaceful of the five continents although wars, monsters, and other disasters can strike it just as any other place. But due to the overwhelming majority of Humans, the only wars that take place are between nations rather than species. Again, there are half-Elves and Dwarves, but they keep to their own small settlements. The Humans occupy Terandria now. And they will not relinquish it.

Teresa Atwood – Everyone calls her Teres. She is the twin sister of Trey and hails from England. More forthright and bolder than her brother, Teres is used to taking charge. Since coming to this new world she has followed the King of Destruction, slowly growing to admire parts of his reign. Teres is talented with a sword and has been taking lessons from Orthenon whom she admires. At the same time, a rift has opened up between her and Trey, one which troubles Teres differently. She sometimes feels as though she is a leaf caught up by Flos’ passing. It is an exhilarating, terrifying feeling. And despite it all, she wants to see where she will go next.

Teriarch A Dragon.

Termin – A [Wagon Driver]. He drives wagons. He knows Erin and the Horns of Hammarad. You will never see him again. Ever. I’m sure of that.

Tersk – The Prognugator of the Armored Antinium. Tersk was a simple Prognugator, believing in the supremacy of his position, his Hive, and his Queen. Then he journeyed to visit the Free Antinium and his thinking…changed. He returned to his Hive thoughtful, wondering what might be. He wishes to see Pawn, to see the Free Antinium again. But they are far from each other. And Tersk has his own duties. Someday though, he knows they will meet again.

Tessia – Gamel’s girlfriend. When the avalanche struck her village she was buried in the snow until Laken pulled her out. She will never forget that moment and works hard in Laken’s new empire.

The Krythien Sect – A small band of [Necromancers] and [Bandits] that Pisces had a brief relationship with in the past. Small-time thugs and mages controlling the undead. They probably won’t ever be mentioned again, so you should forget all about them.

Theofore – A luckless [Assassin] in Magnolia Reinhart’s employ. First forced to spy on Ryoka Griffin, Theofore was then caught in a war between Magnolia Reinhart and the Assassin’s Guild. Nearly killed by his own, he is now living in Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion and sent on increasingly difficult tasks. So far he’s survived, but it has to be said, he is starting to resent that fact.

The Putrid One – A mysterious Necromancer mentioned in old histories. He was the Necromancer before the Necromancer, if that makes sense. Look, the point is he was bad news. No guesses why. His name was well-deserved. Ew.

The Wandering Inn – An inn set just outside of Liscor. It sits on a hill, and it is run by an [Innkeeper] who hails from another world. Go up to the door. Knock on it. Wait and soon you may be greeted by a smiling face. Or by a fireball. An Antinium? A grinning skeleton. The inn might be under siege, or there may be a party going on. So visit it if you dare. Knock. And then think about ducking.

Thomas – Tom to his friends. Poor Tom has a voice in his head. He’s not sure if it wants him dead. It laughs and laughs and makes him dread. Poor little [Clown] with hands all red. You shouldn’t have stayed. You should have fled.

Thomast Veniral – Husband to Lady Bethal. [Chevalier]. Expert duelist. Okay dancer. Thomast is a silent man. His wife’s fiery temper and energy is a contrast to his stoic nature. People may wonder why he married her. But it would take a man like Thomast to compliment Bethal. One only wonders what he gets out of the relationship. Probably…an interesting life.

Thriss – A [Sergeant] enlisted in the 4th Battalion of the Raverian Fighter’s Company. Thriss first hired Geneva Scala while on recruitment for his company. A good fighter, he served his company faithfully until he attacked Geneva, believing she had conspired with the enemy to attack his camp. He paralyzed Geneva before being slain by Okasha. One wonders if anyone now remembers his name.

Thrissiam Blackwing – A [General] of Pallas sent to suppress the Goblin Lord, Thrissiam Blackwing was considered a strong defensive commander and was paired with Garusa Weatherfur in subjugating the Goblin Lord. Both [Generals] cornered the Goblin Lord after days of bloody fighting (finding battlefield romance in each other) before the Necromancer intervened. Thrissiam fell after slaying the undead Draug that Garusa had become and sent his niece for help. When he finally perished, he did not leave enough of himself behind to be reanimated.

Timbor Parithad – This [Innkeeper] dude in Celum. Has a red beard. Runs a decent inn. Erin doesn’t like him.

Timor du Havrington – A prime example of inbreeding between the nobility in Terandria. Timor is not an inspiring [Lord], but he does have the class. He is a [Mage] in Wistram and a personal enemy of Ceria and Pisces’, owing to his dislike of half-Elves. Arrogant, rich, and prone to holding grudges, it was Timor who purchased Pisces’ rapier after it was sold to allow Pisces to stay another year in Wistram. He now wears it proudly, though he has no right to either the silver bell or the blade.

Tkrn – A low-level [Guardsman] in Liscor. He is a member of the Silverfang tribe and as such, Krshia often gives him orders to pursue while he goes about his job. It’s not that he minds that much, but he sometimes wishes he didn’t have her constantly telling him what to do. Zevara gives him enough work as it is.

Toren – Once he was a skeleton. Then he became Toren. Something…happened in Toren’s creation that was unlike any other undead. He gained sentience. Created by Pisces as both an experiment and as a guard and servant for Erin’s inn, Toren quickly became more than a mindless undead. He gained feeling. He gained personality. And when he finally had enough of obeying orders he rebelled, abandoning Erin and becoming a murderous threat to anything living.

And yet, Toren thinks. He grows. From being a skeleton barely about to take one of Erin’s punches he is now a [Skeleton Knight] prowling in the dungeon of Liscor. Unknown to all, he has adopted a guise as a masked adventurer. He has…thoughts in his head. Some days he regrets leaving Erin. Some days he wishes she were still alive. Some days she wishes Erin were alive. Toren doesn’t know what he is. What she is. He only knows he is becoming something else. Something unique.

Traders of Roshal – Slavers. The Traders of Roshal are based in Chandrar. They have their own city. Roshal. This much was probably obvious. They are quite similar to Wistram in terms of power and influence, although they are considered far more distasteful to associate with than the mages due to what they trade in. Nevertheless, Roshal is a neutral party which brokers and oversees almost all slaves the world over. Few people cross them. The Traders have their own ways of settling things and they have dark secrets.

Tremborag – The Great Chieftain of the Mountain City tribe. Tremborag is a huge, fat, fat Goblin Chieftain who commands a huge tribe unlike any other. He promotes infighting among his lieutenants, and has adopted the worst of Human customs for his own. Formidable despite his size, Tremborag is able to transform his fat into muscle and destroy even Gold-rank adventurers by himself. Whether or not he is truly a Great Chieftain, he is powerful. He refused to march with the last Goblin King, Velan the Kind. And he refuses to bow to the new Goblin Lord. Or anyone else.

Trey Atwood – A young man from England and Teresa’s twin brother, Trey is less forward than his sister. Inclined to less sporty outlooks, Trey often lets his sister take charge and she sometimes does it even when he doesn’t want her to. He is a personal aide, or servant, or captive of Flos’ and was responsible for waking the King of Destruction with tales of Earth and lands unknown to Flos. Trey has a complicated relationship with Flos, having seen both the King’s strongest sides, his weaknesses, and his faults.

Since Trey learned of Flos’ acceptance of slavery his relationship with both Flos and his sister has been strained. Oddly, this has also led to a burgeoning friendship with Gazi who has taken it upon herself to teach Trey both magic and combat. Trey wishes she wouldn’t. Gazi is a painful teacher to have.

Tripartite Law – A three-mage mercenary company in Baleros. Tripartite Law is known for its rapid, aerial assaults as all three of its mages are capable of flight spells. Deadly, feared and hated for their area-wide attacks, Tripartite Law briefly encountered Geneva Scala and the people from Earth in a series of bloody battles. The [Mages] escaped unscathed. Those they encountered did not.

Typhenous – A [Mage] and Gold-rank adventurer, Typhenous joined the team of Griffon Hunt several years ago and has journeyed with them ever since. One of the oldest adventurers around, Typhenous’ grasp of magic is wide, if sometimes shallow. He has never attended Wistram and as such, lacks the raw firepower of some [Mages], but he uses his spells and his cunning to aid his group and himself where he can. He’s a sneaky old man, in short.

Tyrion Veltras A Human [Lord] of Izril. Tyrion Veltras is a powerful warrior, a commanding leader, and a jerk. He is scion to one of the Five Families of Izril, and as such, is considered exceptionally influential, perhaps second only to Magnolia Reinhart. He detests intrigue, plotting, and underhanded tricks of any kind and as such is one of Magnolia’s fiercest enemies. This rivalry stems back from when he and Magnolia were children. They have a history.

 

U

Ulia Ovena – An [Innkeeper] in Celum, Ulina is one of the highest-level [Innkeepers] in the city. She is extremely charming due to the Skills she uses to make her visitors feel welcome, and she works with other innkeepers in the city to earn a profit rather than compete. She is at odds with Erin Solstice over her hiring of two [Barmaids] from Celum, but too scared of Erin to confront her face-to-face a second time.

Ullim – The majordomo of the Veltras estate, Ullim’s family have served the Veltras’ for generations. Ullim’s burden is considerable under the current family scion, Tyrion Veltras as he is forced to manage both household and Tyrion’s two young sons in the [Lord]’s absence. While Tyrion is on campaign his household waits. Ullim would judge Tyrion more harshly, but the lord Veltras lost his wife less than a year ago and knows only war. His two sons grow up in his absence and Ullim strives to provide them with everything but what he can’t give them: their missing father’s presence.

Ulrien Sparson – The former leader of Griffon Hunt, Ulrien was a powerful Gold-rank [Warrior] who used a greatsword. He was a close friend of Halrac’s and the two of them were the original members of Griffon Hunt when the team hunted Griffins. A former [Soldier] and a silent and good soul, he was one of the adventurers who confronted Regrika Blackpaw at The Wandering Inn over the murder of Brunkr. He was slain by Regrika and his death has shattered his team.

Ulvama – A Hobgoblin [Shaman] of Tremborag’s Mountain City Tribe, Ulvama rose to her post by using her body and her abilities to gain influence in her tribe. She is a powerful spellcaster due to the size of Tremborag’s tribe and advises Tremborag on occasion. However, as Tremborag himself thinks of females as lesser to males in many respects, Ulvama lacks the influence of the other male Hob leaders and constantly plots to gain more authority among the tribe.

Ulva Terland – A scion of the Terland family, Ulva Terland and Petra Terland were the favored scions of their house. However, Petra Turland’s death during the second Antinium Wars shattered her twin sister and Ulva has let the Terland family fall into disrepair. For all of that, she is still a member of the Five Families and her influence is great.

Umbral – One of the survivors of Esthelm, Umbral has taken on a leadership role within the shattered city. Having first encountered Erin on her way to Liscor and then when she returned on a mission of mercy, Umbral is deeply grateful to both the Drakes and the Antinium for their support. The Humans who are his people on the other hand Umbral treats with more reserve, remembering how they failed to come to Esthelm’s aid until an [Innkeeper] and a Drake [General] plucked at their consciences.

Umina – A Lizardfolk [Strategist] and one of Niers’ advanced students, Umina is a creative spellcaster and tactician who often earns her teacher’s praise for her unique strategies. Despite this, she is insecure about her abilities and often defers to her classmates’ opinions. She admires Marian’s confidence and dreams of changing her form—perhaps into a Naga so she would be able to rapidly race across the ground like her Centaur friend.

Undead – A catchall phrase for the monsters that arise when bodies are left unburied en masse or in the presence of magic. Undead come in many forms and are considered a plague on the living by most nations in the world. Bodies are often buried in coffins or cremated for this reason; those disposed of without precautions can rise once more, and no one enjoys seeing their undead aunt lurching down the road late at night.

Unicorns – They exist. And they’re sort of jerks.

Urksh – The Gnoll [Chieftain] of the Stone Spears, Urksh saved Ryoka Griffin’s life after she was nearly frozen to death by the Frost Faeries. He was a capable leader who looked after the mute Mrsha until his death—he and his tribe stuck a bargain for her life in the face of death. The Stone Spears died, but a child was saved on that snowy night. One was better than none, or so Urksh hoped as he passed away.

 

V

Valceif Godfrey – A deceased Courier, Valceif Godfrey first met Ryoka when delivering a package to Erin on the way to Liscor. He was considered a very able Courier and could run at speeds no normal Runner could match. He was slain by a group of [Bandits] after being struck with a [Sleep] spell, due to having lent his protective charm to Ryoka. His death weighs on Ryoka’s conscience and she has informed his family that she is to blame for his death.

Vampires – Bloodsucking mosquitos, Vampires were once a threat that plagued Izril and the world until they were hunted to extinction. They now sparkle…in hell.

Velan – Known as Velan the Kind, most recent of the Goblin Kings and a pivotal figure in the Second Antinium Wars. Velan was known as a peaceful Goblin Lord who resided on Baleros and managed to even form a number of peace treaties with other races. His tribe traded with other nations and grew without incident until Velan became the Goblin King. For reasons unknown he broke all of his peace treaties, massacred his way across the seas and to Izril where he waged war on every side until he was slain at last by a coalition army formed by countless nations from across the world. He should have dodged.

Venaz – A Minotaur [Strategist] and one of Niers’ advanced students, Venaz is competitive and abrasive, often attempting to outdo his fellow students. He is considered a prodigy among his kind and outdid every one of his rivals in the Isles of Minos to be selected to come to Baleros to learn from the Titan himself. Despite this, Venaz often fails to understand some of Niers’ lessons, particularly the ones about subtlety. He conflates strategy with war—and little else. Thus he is always annoyed and upset to find another student has outdone him with lateral thinking, a concept with which he struggles.

Venith Crusand – A [Lord] and vassal of the King of Destruction, Venith accepted the truce of other nations after Flos entered his slumber and managed his lands for years after his [King] abandoned his dreams of conquest. Initially furious at Flos, Venith has rejoined his ruler and is now a steadfast vassal once more. A warrior who favors a sword and shield, Venith is an extremely capable defensive fighter though he is far from the level of the King’s Seven.

Venitra – One of Az’kerash’s Chosen, Venitra is a towering woman made entirely of bone. Created in the image of a female knight, her body is practically invulnerable to conventional attacks and she possesses a number of magical abilities innate to her creation. However, Venitra is also the youngest of the Chosen and is impulsive and thoughtless, lacking the control of the elder of the Chosen. She was once Az’kerash’s most favored creation until her failure at Liscor. Now she strives for her master’s favor once more, fearing that he will discard her as a useless creation.

Viceria Strongheart – A [Farmer] and [Green Mage], Viceria married Wailant Strongheart after being rescued by him decades ago. She happily abandoned her life as a mage of Wistram and settled down to a peaceful farming life. She is able to magically enhance the crops on her farm to grow faster and produce more plentiful harvests. Viceria does keep in touch with Wistram from time to time, and has a small amount of influence she occasionally uses. Once a mage of Wistram, always a mage of Wistram.

Village of the Dead – A unique landmark in the northern section of Izril, the Village of the Dead is a destroyed village where the souls of the undead constantly spawn and respawn, unable to be killed or commanded, even by [Necromancers]. It is thought that this is the result of some terrible spell or artifact, but no one has ever managed to uncover the secrets of the village. The undead rise moments after falling and while the threat is beyond that of even Gold-rank teams, it is contained as the spell has a small radius around the village. Thus, the Village of the Dead remains. Waiting.

Vincent – One of the summoned heroes of Baleros, Vincent is a [Thief] and a Human from Earth. A reluctant warrior who cannot throw himself into combat without reservation, Vincent obtained his class by accident when he was wandering around the Blighted King’s palace and picking up items that didn’t belong to him. Now he employs his skills to help his friends from his world sneak up on monsters and ‘acquire’ items they might need.

Vuliel Drae – A Silver-rank team currently based in Liscor. Vuliel Drae is attempting to explore Liscor’s dungeon. They have had extraordinary success once already, having recovered a Gold-rank weapon after venturing into the dungeon. This success was due in large part to a ‘mysterious swordswoman’ who guided them through the dungeon and saved them from a number of deadly traps. Vuliel Drae is not a particularly powerful Silver-rank team and their best attribute is their blind luck, of which they have a lot.

 

W

Wailant Strongheart – A Human [Farmer] and Garia Strongheart’s father. He was once a successful [Pirate] and retains his fighting ability and powerful build, but he lives happily on a farm with his wife, having given up the dangers of the sea for farming. He is strong enough to defend his farm by himself and often worries about his daughter, who he considers strong but untrained. He has a soft spot for the rabbits that eat his crops and sometimes feeds them on the sly. Until his wife finds out. He has mixed feelings about rabbit stew for this reason, which is a common dish in the Strongheart household.

Wais Rabbits – A magical breed of rabbit known for its ability to cast spells and teleport. Wais Rabbits are generally peaceful, but they remain one of the more dangerous rabbits to hunt, given their ability to fight back. Foxes, wolves, hawks, and other animals have learned to avoid attacking this breed of rabbit.

Wales – A Human city in Izril, it has no relationship to the country of Wales from Erin’s world. It is located two hours away from Celum and is relatively boring, except for one amusing event involving a runaway herd of pigs that will not be recounted here.

Walled Cities – Six Walled Cities exist on the southern half of Liscor, remnants of an age when Drakes and Dragons coexisted. These massive cities boast walls of at least three hundred feet in height and are nearly impervious to siege. They are the most prosperous and influential of the Drake Cities, and each is known for a different quality which defines it, whether economically, militarily, or culturally.

Welca Vis – A Human [Knight] and a member of the Knights of the Petal, Lady Bethal’s personal elite fighting force. She is one of the youngest members of her order and hails from a noble family. However, her inexperience combined with her tendency to lose her cool in combat marks her as the youngest and possibly weakest of the Rose Knights, much to her displeasure.

Welsca Crimsonscale – Drake. One of Ilvriss’ aides, she was most notably thrown across a bathhouse by Ryoka, face-first into a pool of hot water. She has never gone back to the bathhouse due to the embarrassment.

Wernel Reinhart – One of the Reinhart family, he has an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Damia Reinhart. Ew.

Wesle – A Human [Actor] and former [Guardsman], he found the stage calling him when Erin introduced it in Celum. Now he stars in theatrical productions alongside his co-star, Jasi. He has a fuzzy lip that does not merit the dignity of being called a mustache.

White Leeches – Even worse than black leeches.

Wights – An advanced form of undead, their touch is paralysis. These undead lack the raw physical ability of Ghouls and are more easily dispatched. Unfortunately, Wights make up for that issue with increased intelligence and often hide before ambushing their prey. They are considered a goldmine by [Alchemists] specializing in poisons.

Wil – A Human [Strategist] and one of Niers Astoragon’s students. He has a pen pal in Zeres, and he often corresponds with his friend, passing on lessons from Niers or trading rumors and gossip. Both he and his pen pal trade information in the hopes of furthering their respective ambitions, playing games of politics as well as strategy.

Wiskeria – A Human [Witch] and a low-level [General] recently appointed by Laken to lead his armies. She is an intelligent young woman who wears spectacles and was once a member of the Celestial Trackers until her group’s leader, Odveig, revealed herself as a spy of Lady Magnolia Reinhart. Now she is a citizen of the Unseen Empire and looks forward to a personal home that Laken has promised her, complete with her own garden of fungi and other alchemical ingredients.

Wistram Academy – The home of [Mages], Wistram sits on an isle in the middle of the ocean, protected by magics that create a bubble of calm around the citadel. The academy is vast, owing to the dimensional magics enchanting the structure and Wistram is known to produce spellcasters of unrivalled ability. However, the upper floors of Wistram are sealed due to the last will of Archmage Zelkyr and while the isle is maintained by the Golems who serve the [Mages], they also keep the mages of Wistram from reaching the higher levels of the academy unless they pass a trial by combat. No mage has ever managed to do so, or at least, done so and returned.

Wraiths – Like ghosts, but usually deformed and bestial. These spirits have forgotten much of whom they were in life and are summoned by [Necromancers] or magical phenomena to haunt the living. Nearly impossible to kill without magic, they attack from blind spots with chilling weapons or claws.

Wrymvr – Known as Wrymvr the Deathless, he is one of the Centenium. Not much is known about him, but his body is extremely tough and he is far larger than most Antinium. He can also fly, spit acid, and sing. He rarely sings.

Wurms – Not to be confused with worms. These ones are a lot bigger, a lot tougher, and bite. They live in squirming cells a few feet underground. Think about that the next time you lie on the grass.

Wuvren – A Human [Lady] of Izril, one of Magnolia’s personal friends and a member of her circle of noble allies. She dislikes her name, which her parents decided on when they were told by a [Soothsayer] that she would be a boy. She dislikes all kinds of fortune tellers as a result.

Wyverns – A nasty, predatory monster that hunts in Southern Izril. These distant relatives of Dragons are far less intelligent and smaller than their kin, but still pose a dangerous threat. They dive out of clouds and land on their prey and can carry off entire cows or people to devour in their nests.

 

X

Xalandrass – A Naga [Merchant] who specializes in selling arms and artifacts to companies on the battlefield in Baleros. He takes no sides in general, seeking the highest-profit margin by aiding anyone with enough coin, but has been shaken by recent events. After losing much of his merchandise he has decided to take up conventional trading across the continent, which, it has to be said, isn’t much safer than sitting on a warzone. Especially during trade wars, which are actual wars.

Xrn – The Small Queen of the Antinium. One of the original Centenium, she is perhaps the only Antinium magic-user in existence. Her body is azure and her eyes change color with her emotions, a byproduct of her creation and magical ability. She is able to create spells at will based on magics she already knows, and is extremely powerful. She has recently discovered the joys of gluten and eats too much bread with cheese.

 

Y

Yellow Shamblers – Often incorrectly assumed to be zombies. These are in fact a type of parasitic plant that has possessed a corpse or still-living body by invading its nervous system. They aren’t that dangerous unless the spores infect you, as the plants have a poor grasp of most of their host’s bodies and stumble or crawl towards their prey, giving them their name.

Yellow Splatters – The first Antinium [Sergeant] of the Free Antinium. He is a strong fighter but an inexperienced leader and often despairs at the deaths of his fellow Soldiers. He has a fondness for small spiders after being read a certain book by a certain [Innkeeper]. Large spiders he crushes with his foot.

Yerranola – A Selphid and one of Niers’ students, she tries to find the freshest bodies of Lizardfolk she can to inhabit, believing their corpses boost her mental capacities. This is in spite of her habit of eating the brains of each corpse she inhabits.

Ylawes Byres – The elder brother of Yvlon Byres, a male [Knight] and the leader of the Silver Swords. He is a powerful Gold-rank warrior and widely respected in the north as a hero of the people. Often pointed out as an almost stereotypical example of a knight in shining armor, he champions the innocent. Sometimes whether they like it or not.

Yvlon Byres – The former leader of the Silver Swords, this Human [Wounded Warrior] lost her entire party in the disastrous expedition into Liscor’s crypt-dungeon. She joined the Horns of Hammerad and was later wounded when fighting against a fire elemental. Part of her armor was fused with her arms, making her bones brittle. Nevertheless, she continues to adventure with her companions, having found a team with them. She is something of an older sister to Ksmvr, a unique experience for Yvlon, who is the second-youngest in her family, and to Ksmvr, who has never had family.

 

Z

Zalthia Werskiv – Human. Known as the Firebringer, she is a member of the Tripartite Law company, a three-person mercenary company in Baleros. She is exceptionally good at flying, casting fire spells, and not talking.

Zanthia – A Human [Lady] of Izril, one of Magnolia’s personal friends and a member of her circle of noble allies. She’s tough, old, and once spanked a young Lord Tyrion Veltras for being a noisy upstart. Neither one has forgetten the incident.

Zara Walker – An otherworlder Human, her alias is strider_479. She is a [Ranger] and hails from Australia. While she dislikes living in the wild, she survived a nasty encounter with several varieties of poisonous insects on her first adventure, mainly because she didn’t sit on their nest like the rest of her party.

Zel Shivertail – The famous hero of the First and Second Antinium Wars, known as the Tidebreaker. The highest-level Drake [General] in the world. He enjoys pancakes and relaxing when he’s not fighting. Recently slain by Az’kerash, his death was attributed to the Goblin Lord, Reiss.

Zelkyr – A Drake Archmage of Wistram who lived around 200 years ago. He is considered deceased, although his Golem creations still protect the academy in his death. He was a famous mage in life, and even damaged one of the Walled Cities of his homeland. It is a little known fact that this was not due to a dispute with the city itself, but rather the byproduct of a drunken bet.

Zevara – The Watch Captain of Izril. She is in charge of security and often finds herself vexed by Erin Solstice’s accidental troublemaking. She has a crush on Olesm and can breathe fire, although the effort taxes her greatly. She enjoys staring at cats, although she is highly allergic to them.

Zombies – Slow, strong, and generally rotting, they’re considered a Bronze-rank threat and a naturally-occurring nuisance. They rise from untended graveyards and in places of death. They’re not that dangerous unless they run. Or explode. Or carry the plague. Or there are thousands of them. Also, they smell bad.

 


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5.28

Erin stood in her wrecked inn and looked around. Broken chairs, upended tables, spilled drinks and food marked what had been a very nice setup. She stared aimlessly at a chair lying on the ground with only one remaining leg and then spotted an unconscious Drake lying behind it. She stared around at the comatose bodies, the broken wood, and shook her head.

She knew it was traditional. In stories, that was. She knew it was normal for drunk people to be violent. Sometimes. But, and here was the thing…not everyone who drank got violent. In fact, the aggressive drunks quickly learned that there were some fights you shouldn’t pick. Especially in an inn with Hobgoblin bouncers. And in a world where healing potions cured all wounds but didn’t regrow teeth…being a jerk was a dangerous proposition.

“But here we are.”

Erin kicked at a mug and watched it skitter across the floor. Someone groaned. Erin ignored the sound. Right, so bar fights were traditional. And this wasn’t even the worst aftermath Erin had had to clean up. Just this month the inn had been full of dead moths for crying out loud! Alcohol stains were a lot more pleasant to wipe away than moth blood.

Still, she didn’t have to like it. And she really didn’t. Erin wondered how much it would cost to replace all her tables and chairs again. She mentally added up the damages of broken plates, mugs, bent silverware, and so on until someone interrupted her train of thought.

“So who won?”

“Huh?”

She looked back over her shoulder. Relc was clumsily scribbling on a piece of parchment as he stood amidst the debris. Relc and five other [Guardsmen]—and three [Guardswomen]—had come after the fight had ended. They were now tossing people through the door to Liscor where the rain would wake up the unhappy unconscious Drakes, or forcing their Human counterparts to wait until the door could take them to Celum.

Almost all of the injured guests were Human or Drake and it was telling that Relc was one of only three Drakes that Zevara had sent to clean things up. The Gnolls had stayed out of the fighting by and large and had left peacefully once the fight had ended.

“Well?”

Relc clumsily dipped his quill in the inkpot he held in one huge clawed fist as he stared at Erin. She stared back.

“Who won?”

“Yeah. There’s gotta be a winner in a fight like this, right? I’m so annoyed I missed it!”

The Drake looked around enviously, noting how many unconscious bodies were still there. Erin’s inn had been able to hold several dozen people comfortably within its walls before she obtained the [Grand Theatre] Skill and the room had been packed when the fight broke out. In fact, some people still hadn’t quite realized it was over. Relc spotted a Drake getting to his feet. The drunk Drake looked around, spotted a Human, and lurched towards Erin. Relc turned, punched the Drake off his feet and grinned in satisfaction before turning back to Erin.

“Come on, Erin. Don’t leave me hanging. This is for the report!”

“Well…”

Erin had to think back on the night’s events. Her gaze slid sideways towards the door as it opened. Oh. Griffon Hunt was leaving. They didn’t have a scratch on them. Whereas the Halfseekers had retired to their room with bruises, and both Gemhammer and the Horns of Hammerad had stumbled away looking for healing potions after they’d been woken up.

“I guess if you had to say anyone won, it was Wall Lord Ilvriss and his lot.”

“Really?”

Erin nodded.

“He was the one who started the fight. And he kept it going. He took out Headscratcher, Badarrow, Pisces, Ylawes…all with his bare hands!”

“Claws.”

“Yeah. But he didn’t use his claws. I knew he was good because he was a Wall Lord and all, but he was good. The adventurers aren’t good with fighting with their hands. And all his cronies beat down anyone who attacked him. But still; he was knocking everyone around while I tried to get people to safety.”

What a mess that had been. Erin vaguely recalled punching Ilvriss in the stomach before Ceria and Yvlon had charged him to rescue her. Then it had been trying to restore order with her friends and employees while the main fighting burnt itself out. Erin scowled.

“We did a good job, but even four Hobgoblins had trouble keeping everything contained! In the end everything stopped once eighty percent of the people were knocked out.”

“Yeah, that generally happens in a fight. But what about the Wall Lord guy? I can’t imagine he’d stop fighting just because everyone else was down. I’d have tried to take out everyone standing and then run for it before the Watch showed up.”

Erin glanced sideways at Relc.

“Aren’t you…”

He stared at her expectantly. She decided not to ask and continued.

“Well, he was winning right up until he wasn’t. Mrsha was running around and she nearly got hurt. So then Moore got mad. He grabbed a table and started hitting people with it! Gently. I think Ilvriss tried to stop him—Moore picked him up and threw him across the room. That’s the wall he hit.”

Erin pointed at one of her walls. Relc peered at it. There wasn’t any visible damage thanks to another of Erin’s Skills, but there was a suspicious stain halfway up the wall, as if someone had thrown up a bit when they’d been hurled full-force into the wall. He grinned.

“Awesome.”

The young woman glared at him. Relc raised his claws innocently.

“What? It is! That is one of the coolest bar fights I’ve heard of in a while! And it started because they didn’t like your play?”

“Yup. They didn’t like it. Not one bit.”

Erin sighed. This entire affair had begun over Juliet and Romeo, a slightly updated take on the Shakespearian classic. Unfortunately, one of the updates had been casting a Drake as Juliet and a Human as Romeo. Both Wesle and Jasi had managed to escape the bar fight without many injuries, but the Players of Celum were understandably upset. Erin looked helplessly at Relc.

“Tell me I’m not going to have to replace all of my broken stuff? Please?”

“Nah, you’re cool.”

Relc finished scribbling on the piece of parchment, blew on it, and then tucked it into his leather armor. He waved a claw around carelessly as more people started waking up. It was just past dawn.

“Standard procedure is for us to compensate you for all your broken stuff. Fine the perpetrators all something or toss them in jail if they can’t pay. But since Wall Lord Ilvriss started the fight, we’ll probably just charge him.”

“Just like that?”

“He’s rich. And it’s easier that way.”

Relc shrugged nonchalantly. He spotted Ilvriss getting up—the Wall Lord had used a healing potion and so he looked furious but no worse for the wear. The Drake was having the rest of his retainers pick up the unconscious ones or kick the rest awake as Relc called out to him.

“Hey Wall Lord! We’ll tally the damages and send you a bill for it later, okay?”

Ilvriss looked up. He glared at Erin and shouted back, making most of the unconscious patrons groan and wake up.

“Do what you want! As for, you, Human—”

He jabbed a claw at Erin.

“That play is a disgrace! I demand it be changed!”

“No! Go away, you jerk!”

Erin shook a fist angrily at Ilvriss. She pointed back to her trashed stage.

“That was an innocent love story! What’s wrong with a Human loving a Drake?”

Ilvriss didn’t even deign to respond. His tail curled in contempt as he turned away.

“No self-respecting Drake in Liscor will visit your inn until that bile is taken off the stage! Out of my way!”

He stormed through the door to Liscor, glaring death at Numbtongue who was watching him and the other Drakes. The Hob had a table leg gripped in one hand. Erin shouted at Ilvriss’ back as he walked out into the night and rain.

“Yeah, go ahead and boycott my inn! It won’t be the first time!”

She turned back towards Relc and tried to shrug dismissively.

“He’ll come back after a week or something. No big deal.”

Relc looked skeptical as he glanced around the inn.

“I dunno about that. Drakes like Ilvriss get really touchy about stuff like that play. More than even getting insulted. You might lose a lot of Drake customers. Some Gnolls maybe.”

“So? I can manage. I’ve been a pariah before.”

Erin sighed. She felt tired, cranky, and she wanted to sleep. She gave Relc a pleading look.

“Look, is there anything else?”

He grinned.

“Nope! Looks open and shut to me. We’ll toss the rest of our people out and you can let the poor Humans go to Celum. Oh, and Erin?”

She turned, already heading over to Headscratcher so he could help expedite the cleanup process. She looked at him expectantly and Relc smiled again.

“Next time you put on that play, mind inviting me first? I’d love to bring a few of my buddies. Uh, but don’t tell Embria.”

Erin gave him a blank look. Then she turned and walked away. As she passed by an unconscious Human she kicked him in the side. Sort of gently.

 

—-

 

The next day Griffon Hunt and the Pride of Kelia returned to The Wandering Inn for a standing breakfast. There were some tables, but since Mrsha and Lyonette occupied one with the Halfseekers, the Goblins had the second, and there weren’t enough chairs for the third, they elected to stand.

“We should have eaten somewhere else.”

Revi grumbled until Typhenous cast a spell that created a rotating disc of shimmering air for the others to put their bowls and cups onto. The Gold-rank adventurers ate in silence, eying the Pride of Kelia as the nine Gnolls munched on fatty bacon and sniffed the air.

“Still planning on entering the dungeon?”

Nailren looked up and grinned toothily at Revi, ignoring her acerbic tone of voice.

“A bar fight will not stop our team, Miss Revi. We await Gemhammer’s decision, but we will enter the dungeon today regardless of whether we will be joined. We invite you as well, if you wish it.”

“Bah.”

Revi turned away and scowled at Halrac. He shook his head and Nailren nodded. The adventurers looked up and saw Erin hurry over with a plate of hot bacon.

“Sorry! Ow! Sorry! This is hot off the stove! Don’t grab for it, Mrsha! Anyone want seconds?”

Hands were raised across the inn. Erin came over to Griffon Hunt and placed a rasher of bacon on Halrac’s plate. The [Scout] grunted his thanks.

“So…I hear that Gemhammer’s resting up, but they’ll be coming to the inn around lunch and then going to the dungeon after they eat my horrible magic food. What are you guys doing?”

The [Innkeeper] slid into the conversation with all the grace of a bloated wyvern. Typhenous smiled and accepted a single slice of greasy bacon to go with his bread as he replied.

“Ah, thank you Miss Solstice. I believe we will continue our job. That is, untrapping the dungeon’s main entrance with the Halfseekers. If they’re recovered?”

He glanced at the three non-Humans. Jelaqua waved a claw, grinning.

“We’re good! Moore’s the only one who got hurt and that was only after the Drakes rushed him. I’d be more worried about the Silver Swords!”

“My brother’s fine.”

Yvlon spoke quietly from her seat. She kept adjusting the gauntlets on her arms, tapping at them and grimacing. By her side, Ceria was sharpening her dagger on a whetstone while Ksmvr ate. Pisces was reading from a spellbook. They looked like normal on the surface, but the [Necromancer]’s leg was jiggling and Ksmvr was gobbling his food a bit too fast.

“We’re planning on entering the dungeon too. Today, I mean.”

Ceria met Nailren’s eyes. The Gnoll nodded at her.

“Interesting. We would welcome a joint expedition. Unless you plan on entering through the trapped area?”

Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers frowned, but Ceria shook her head. She cast her head sideways and glanced at Pisces who stopped reading.

“We shall be using a different entrance.”

“A what?

All the adventurers stared at Pisces. He sniffed smugly, clearly enjoying the situation. Revi leaned over and hissed at Halrac as Erin hurried into the kitchen, muttering about buying chairs in bulk from Celum.

Another way in? How in the name of quilting did someone find—you don’t think they’ve got a leg up on us, do you?”

Halrac shook his head, his eyes flicking from Pisces’ face to Ceria’s nervous motions.

“If they have another entrance it doesn’t matter. We’re all entering the dungeon from different areas and no one knows where our objective is. They’ll be uncertain of their backs and that’s more dangerous than our route.”

“But we’re still untrapping—”

Revi broke off as the door opened. Watch Captain Zevara strode in—not from the magic door, but from the regular entrance that now led across the water. She shook water off her boots onto the rug as Erin poked her head out of the kitchen.

“Uh oh. Here comes trouble.”

“Not yet, Human.”

Zevara looked tired but resigned as she met Erin in the inn, looking around. The first thing she handed Erin was a bag of coins—payment for her broken furniture. Erin’s eyes went round.

“Wow, you’re sure? But I’m not a part of Liscor! Am I?”

The Watch Captain shrugged.

“You are not. But the fight was started by citizens of the city and Wall Lord Ilvriss. And Drake law is clear—we compensate business owners for damage.”

Erin eyed the Watch Captain.

“What about Krshia?”

The Drake looked blank.

“What about her? We compensated her for her shop and goods. As much as we could after appraising the magical items the thief—er, Miss Lyonette’s seized possessions. We don’t pay out of the city’s funds.”

“But what about the—”

Erin hesitated. She bit her tongue as Zevara peered at her suspiciously.

“Well, thanks! I guess Ilvriss has a lot of money.”

“He is a Wall Lord. What about Miss Krshia?”

“Nothing! So, why are you here, Watch Captain? Just to give me money?”

The Drake grunted, folding her arms and peering at Erin. After a while she gave up and shrugged.

“No, I am also investigating the cause of last night’s disturbance. This play. I’ve received a petition with a thousand signatures on it already. Can you arrange a viewing for me? Or recreate the offending scene?”

Erin sucked in her lips.

“Maybe. Let me see if I can find Wesle. If not…well, I’m no [Actor] but I could give it a shot.”

As it happened, Erin was able to send Lyonette into the city and locate Wesle within ten minutes thanks to Mrsha’s nose. By the time breakfast was over and the Halfseekers were conferring with Griffon Hunt, they saw Zevara watching Erin and Wesle acting out the controversial scene in question. The Watch Captain watched as Erin waved down at Wesle with a handkerchief and shook her head. Then the [Innkeeper] and [Actor] turned anxiously to Zevara. She looked at both of them and sighed.

“It’s not offensive.”

Both Humans sighed in relief. Watch Captain Zevara swished her tail as she studied Erin.

“This was played by a Drake, wasn’t it? Not offensive. Or rather, it’s not something I’d arrest anyone over. You can continue putting the play on. Just don’t expect many Drake visitors. Particularly the male ones. And consider staying out of the city for a day or two. There’s an uproar about the content of the play already.”

“Those jerks!”

Erin scowled, but Zevara had already turned her attention to the two Gold-rank teams. The Halfseekers were getting ready to go and Griffon Hunt was already at the door. The Watch Captain stared at the fiery golden breastplate Jelaqua was carefully putting on.

“So Miss Selys really did lease the Heartflame Breastplate.”

“That’s right.”

Jelaqua turned, her pale body illuminated by the magical glow of the artifact. Every head in the room turned towards her. Zevara stared and then coughed.

“I’m told your group is entering the dungeon today? As is a pair of Silver-rank teams and the Horns of Hammerad?”

She stared at the other adventurers who looked wary. Jelaqua nodded carefully.

“That’s right. Do you have a problem with that?”

Zevara hesitated before grimacing and shaking her head.

“I’ve consulted with the Adventurer’s Guild and Guildmistress Tekshia has declined to intervene. I will do the same on a few conditions.”

She turned her head and stared around the room, finding each team leader’s eyes, save for the absent Silver Swords and Gemhammer.

“I don’t care if you lot live or die down in the dungeon. That’s not my role. But the defense of the city is my role, and that means that if you wake up anything in the dungeon, I will hold you accountable for whatever comes out. This is classified information, but a Silver-rank team was responsible for the attack on Liscor.”

Zevara waited for a response, but even the Pride of Kelia didn’t react. Revi rolled her eyes.

“We know. We told you.”

The Watch Captain silenced her with a withering look. She turned up her glare a few notches.

“You have a responsibility as adventurers. I want a [Message] spell sent to the local Mage’s Guild the instant you find anything…extremely dangerous. Something that could threaten Liscor. I don’t care about treasure or adventuring secrets—if there’s something down there like the moths I expect to hear about it.”

She stared around and then grudgingly nodded.

“Please.”

With that, she turned and strode out of the room. Erin looked around as Wesle walked back through the door to Celum. She smiled anxiously.

“So that was nice. You’re all going in then, huh?”

“We’re going right now. Good luck to you.”

Halrac nodded at the other adventurers. The Pride of Kelia came over to shake his hand. Typhenous touched staffs with a Gnoll wearing beads and feathers. A [Shaman]? The Halfseekers did likewise and Jelaqua grabbed Ceria’s hand.

“You stay behind the Silver Swords. They’re good. I’ve seen them in action. It’s never wrong to retreat.”

Ceria nodded, trying not to let her hands shake. To everyone’s surprise, Revi hugged the half-Elf fiercely and then did the same to Nailren.

“Don’t you dare die, you idiotic rookies. I hate having to learn new names.”

She left them at that. Griffon Hunt lined up next to the door to Liscor and the Halfseekers stepped over to join them. Moore looked at the small doorway with dismay and ducked his head.

“Everyone set?”

Halrac glanced over. The others nodded. Erin cleared her throat as she set the door to Liscor.

“I’m going with you.”

The room went silent. Ksmvr choked on his bacon and Ceria nearly fell out of her chair. Erin looked around.

“Just to the entrance. I want to see. I’ll be back to see off the others.”

“Oh come on.”

Revi grumbled, but Halrac studied Erin’s face. She met his eyes and he nodded briefly.

“Come, then.”

Then he opened the door and stepped out into the rain.

 

—-

 

The rain fell over Liscor. Unending. A torrent. It seemed some days as though it would never stop. But it would. It had been part of Liscor’s history since the city had been founded. And though the residents quickly grew accustomed to the gray skies, the never-ending background roar, the flooded waters, they never quite forgot the memory of clear skies. Of the sun.

And they were on the streets. Moving from building to building in clumps, or just giving up and letting the rain soak them. The Drakes and Gnolls of Liscor walked in a miserable fugue until they saw the fire.

It walked down the street. A burning, catching the eye. Light. Heat. A Drake walked forwards, her breastplate gleaming as her body burned. The Heartflame Breastplate shone as the Selphid walked down the street. But she was not alone.

A half-Giant walked by her side, his back stooped, a giant staff in his hands. He towered above the tallest Gnolls, made the fiercest warriors think twice about their strength. And in his shadow a Drowned Man dressed in black flickered between shadows. His hands never left the enchanted daggers at his side. One Human hand, one crustacean claw.

Next to them walked a man with a scowl on his face. An unfriendly Human, but one that attracted as many looks as the Heartflame Breastplate. Because his face was a hero’s. His bow did not shine but the arrows stowed in his quiver were magical. He walked silent through the rain. By his side strode a Stitch-Girl, tugging at the strings holding together her body. Next to her strode an old Human, white bearded, his eyes shining with magic.

Six adventurers. They walked out of a door at the western gates, headed straight through the center of the city without pause. The streets cleared before them. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It was simply instinct. The citizens of Liscor watched the Gold-rank adventurers pass and felt the rain intensify as they passed. And they felt a chill. Of excitement? Or fear? It was impossible to say, but the passing of the adventurers struck a chord in those who saw them.

And behind them tripped a young woman, almost unnoticed by the crowds. She followed the adventurers to the northern gates—to the battlements and down a ladder, actually. There was another rope bridge leading north across the waters. The young woman stepped cautiously onto the bridge, watching her feet sink into the waters. Then she looked out at the distant plume of earth visible amid the flooded plains. She followed the adventurers as they headed across the bridge, looking around carefully for dangerous maritime life.

“Whoop, whoop. Whoa.”

Erin unsteadily walked across the bridge as it shifted slightly underwater. The footing was surprisingly firm given the downpour, but the dark skies and the way the bridge would sometimes move underfoot was unnerving. After a while, Revi glanced behind her and muttered to her companions.

“Why do we have to put up with her?”

The Halfseekers ignored her. So did Revi’s team at first. Her complaining was something they had gotten used to. But Halrac turned his head back to answer as they drew closer to the mound of earth guarded by a platoon of [Guardsmen] from Liscor.

“Because she’s helped us before. And because she sells us magical food cheap.”

“Ah. Right.”

Revi grimaced and tugged at her tongue as if she wanted to pull it out. Erin wondered if she actually could. Stitch-People did weird things. The Scale Soup she’d served the adventurers was certainly effective—according to Moore it was like a lesser [Barkskin] spell. But it was also about as appealing as eating a bunch of fish scales mixed with glue, which, it had to be said, were major components of the actual soup. Now her stitch-flesh was tough enough to withstand cuts from an unenchanted dagger. But it was still unpleasant.

“So that’s the entrance to the dungeon?”

Erin called out as she followed Griffon Hunt. Ramparts made out of dirt and stone had been constructed at the end of the water bridge. And in behind them, a large gaping tunnel lead down into the earth. Drakes and Gnolls stood on the battlements, staring into the depths or peeking back at the approaching adventurers.

“That’s right. The Antinium dug up the ground around the entrance. It hasn’t begun to leak yet.”

Jelaqua called over her shoulder. Erin stared at the drenched fortifications ahead. She remembered the entrance sitting out in the open, surrounded by adventurers and [Merchants] eager to explore it.

Now the dungeon was a small dirt fort surrounded by water, abandoned by all but a few groups of adventurers. There was no sense of curiosity or excitement surrounding it anymore. It sat wetly in the pouring rain, the dark opening waiting. In that, Erin thought she liked the dungeon more now. It looked like what it was. A trap.

“Well, here we are. I don’t think you want to come further. You can go back now.”

Revi looked pointedly at Erin as the others began climbing the ramp leading up to the dungeon. The [Innkeeper] looked at the Stitch-Girl.

“You be careful, okay? If you’re in trouble send a [Message].”

“As if you could do anything about it.”

The [Summoner]’s harsh words were betrayed by the way she let Erin hug her. She patted Erin awkwardly on the shoulder and headed into the dungeon.

“Better not hug me. I’m on fire.”

Jelaqua grinned at Erin. She nodded and the girl tried to smile. Moore was next. Erin grabbed his hand. Typhenous let Erin hug him and Halrac merely nodded. Erin looked around and frowned.

“Seborn?”

Here.

She jumped. The Drowned Man stood behind Erin. The Human half of his face looked unreadable as ever. Erin looked at Seborn and tried to smile.

“So you’re going in. Are you nervous?”

We’ve done this dozens of times before. Don’t worry about us.

“So I should worry about the others? Will they be okay?”

Seborn paused as he checked his daggers. The others were talking with the [Guardsmen] on the ramparts.

No one’s ever not nervous. But I think we’re determined to make progress today.

“Because of what the others said?”

The Drowned Man half-smiled. It was a strange look, watching half his face twist while the other half remained still.

Let’s just say that they reminded us we’re not alone. It’s not pleasant, being called a coward.

“They didn’t say—”

They didn’t need to. And they’re right, in a way.

“Really?”

Erin had never heard Seborn talk this much. It was a sign of nerves. The Drowned Man nodded as he drew an enchanted dagger that sent a fiery spark into the waters.

We could be more aggressive. It’s true. What the Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer are doing is dangerous. Exceptionally so. But it’s not more than what we did when we were Silver-rank.”

“You did stuff like that?”

An obvious question. But Erin just wanted to let Seborn talk. He nodded.

“Silver-rank teams risk their lives to reach the level of Gold-rank adventurers. We’re more cautious with our lives because we have that much more to lose. It is cowardly, but it’s why we get to keep on living. Sometimes though, we have to remember to be bold. That’s what makes us Gold-rank. Not cowardice.

“And Named Adventures? What makes them?”

Seborn paused. He looked at Erin and his gaze was…sad.

They’re the ones who never stopped diving into the abyss. Some of them are heroes. Most are just insane.

He turned.

Thank you for coming. I think the others appreciate it more than they’ll say. We’ve done this dozens of times, but adventurers are superstitious too.

“Hey.”

Erin stopped him as Seborn went for the entrance. He turned and she held out a hand.

“Come back safe.”

He blinked at her. He shifted his dagger but she waggled her hand. Slowly, the Drowned Man held out his claw hand. With exquisite care he closed the crab-like hand over Erin’s. She shook it, feeling the cold, hard shell under her skin. Seborn looked at her and then smiled.

We truly were thankful to meet you. Keep a table open. I still like seafood, you know.

Then he turned and walked up the ramp. Erin watched him go. The first group entered the dungeon. The second departed at lunch.

 

—-

 

“We’re good. Thanks, Miss Solstice.”

“You’re sure?”

“We’ve got boats. We’ve got rocks to sink with—hell, we could probably do it with what we’re carrying. If we get chewed up on the way down that’s that. But we bought a potion of water breathing and we’ll share it between us so we can get back up if we miss our target.”

“Indeed. Thank you for the soup.”

“I dunno if you should thank me. It’s awful, I know.”

“I’ve never found a potion that tasted great.”

Earlia smiled as she balanced in the rocking boat. Her team was already sitting and there were two more boats. Both were crewed by Drakes hired from Liscor. They were going to head straight for the rift.

“Like Zevara said, send a [Message] if you’re in trouble. You can use that spell, right?”

“Our [Gem Mage] can. Not sure about the Pride’s [Shaman] but we’ll stick together. This is just testing the waters. Maybe more if we get rolling. Alright, we’ve got to go before the boats fill up.”

Earlia nodded to Erin and headed to her boat. Nailren smiled at her.

“Do not be so anxious. Not for our sakes. We are acquaintances, yes? You barely know us.”

“I want to get to know you more. Come back, okay?”

“If we can, we will.”

The Gnoll’s eyes were calm but he gripped Erin’s hand tighter than he had before as he stepped towards the boats. She saw them cast off into the waters.

There were no waves. Only the churning rain. So the boats moved fairly quickly despite the load as the Drake [Rowers] carried the adventurers across the Floodplains. They attracted less attention. They did not shine. But a good number of Liscor’s population were on the walls. They cast fishing lines into the water or sat on the battlements as a social thing beneath temporary canopies. They watched the adventurers head to the rift in silence.

Silence and trepidation. The two teams looked so few in number and the waters swallowed their vessels the further away they got. They floated out further on the waters, where things lurked in the depths. The sky, the mountains around Liscor were tall. But how far down did the waters go? Uncertainty filled the hearts of many. But there were still some, children and adults both who stared at the Silver-rank teams with admiration as well as fear.

They dropped into the water as Erin watched. First one, and then in groups of three. Vanishing below without a trace. The boat Drakes watched the ripples fade and then rowed away. They would come back if the adventurers sent a request via spell. If they were contacted.

And then there was nothing. Erin went back into her inn and felt trepidation. She looked at the last group, at Ksmvr helping check Yvlon’s armor, at Pisces trying to fight Mrsha for her wand and then giving up despite Ceria’s scolding, at Ylawes rubbing his head and Dawil joking with Falene and her not joking back.

“Are you sure?”

“It’s time.”

Ceria hugged Erin, and then Lyonette, and then Mrsha. The Gnoll clung to her, not wanting to let go. She howled as the Horns of Hammerad walked outside. Not to go to Liscor, but to a pair of waiting boats. These ones had no Drakes attached—they’d been leased for the day. Yvlon was next. She held Erin’s hands, smiling.

“We’ll make it. This time is different.”

“I know. I know.”

Erin squeezed gently, trying not to look at Yvlon’s arms. Beneath their gauntlets they looked normal. But metal had become part of her flesh. And that had been in Albez. What would happen…?

“I will defend my team with my life. But I will not die and abandon them.”

Ksmvr nodded at Erin. She hugged him.

“That’s good. Just be careful, okay?”

“Caution is not always a valid strategy.”

She laughed. Next came Ylawes, Dawil, Falene. She didn’t know them as well so they didn’t try to hug her or shake her hand. But they smiled at her.

“We’ll take care of them, Miss Solstice.”

For once Falene’s touch of superiority was comforting. Erin looked at Ylawes.

“Be a good brother, okay?”

“I will try.”

He saluted her. Dawil thrust him aside.

I’ll take a hug, thanks. It’s nice to be shorter! Humans are at a comfortable level for my head!”

He laughed raucously as Ylawes covered his face and Falene looked disgusted. Dawil’s head was at breast-height. The Dwarf meant it as a joke, but Erin hugged him fiercely anyways.

“You silly Dwarf! Come back and I’ll give you another hug.”

“Ah, lass. I’ve no intention of biting it in this dungeon. Dwarves prefer to die in stone. Which this dungeon has, mind you. But there’s too much water for my tastes. Keep a keg ready when we get back!”

And that was that. The Silver Swords walked out. Pisces was the last one. He stood, looking paler than usual. He smiled at Erin.

“Well Miss Solstice? Will you wish me well?”

“Of course I will.”

Erin hugged him. Pisces looked surprised.

“It feels like we met long ago. But it was not too long that I was threatening you for food, wasn’t it?”

“It does feel like that! And I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal of all this! Just come back, okay?”

Erin sniffed into Pisces’ robes. The [Necromancer] squeezed her ever so hesitantly and then stepped back.

“That you care matters. And this is the first time we are entering the dungeon. I…I will promise you this. It will not be the last.”

He turned and then hesitated. Pisces seemed to fight with himself for a moment and then turned back.

“We will be well.”

He left with that. No smug comments, no arrogance. Erin knew he really was worried. She sniffed as the Horns cast off with the Silver Swords following.

No one watched them go. A few people saw them head out but when they headed away from the dungeon’s rift, they assumed the adventurers weren’t bound for the dungeon. There were more boats cautiously fishing with nets and hooks in the water. The two teams passed all of them by. They headed north, past the city and then towards a hill partially submerged in rain. The adventurers disappeared into the crypt, a spot almost forgotten. The horrors of Skinner were long vanquished. What reason had they to be there? Only Erin knew. She watched as they went. Then she turned.

Lyonette was holding Mrsha as the Gnoll sniffed. Drassi was staring out into the rain anxiously. Behind them, the five Redfang Goblins looked restless. They straightened as Erin looked at them.

“Do you want to go in there too?”

They didn’t respond. But Headscratcher met Erin’s eyes for a second and then looked away. She nodded.

“Wait.”

That was all they could do. So Erin sat at her table. Then she got up and pointed.

“I’m going out. Lyonette, wait there. I’ll be back. I need to set something up. Drassi, how would you like to be paid to sit and talk with people for an entire day?”

“Ooh, what did you have in mind?”

Erin opened the door to Liscor. She stepped out into the rain and strode through the streets. She was waiting. And in the dungeon three teams stepped into the darkness. And the darkness was waiting.

 

—-

 

Three groups entered the dungeon. The first halted at a door tagged with glowing chalk. They formed up, Seborn and Halrac in front. The Drowned Man had a dagger in his hands. Halrac had an arrow glowing with frost drawn.

“Let’s begin.”

Behind the two trap experts stood Typhenous and Jelaqua. Revi and Moore brought up the rear. Seborn held up a hand as he inspected the door. They’d come through this door countless times but he still checked it. Not just for traps; for signs someone had opened it.

Hay’s still there.

He plucked a piece of straw out of the doorjamb. Halrac nodded. He held up three fingers and counted down. Seborn waited and then yanked the door open. Both adventurers looked into the room. Halrac trained his bow on the first thing he saw until he recognized it.

“Metal pillar. We’ve been here.”

He nodded at a mark made on the far wall. Seborn squinted at it.

Recheck.

“Of course.”

Both [Scout] and [Rogue] used their Skills to check the room for changes. But there was no discernible difference so Halrac motioned.

“The pillar’s a blade trap. Stay to the edges. We disarmed it without you but you never know.”

Seborn nodded and Jelaqua relayed the quiet words to Moore and Revi.

We can get Moore to hit it on the way back out if we have time.

“Does that…help?”

He might be able to grow plants over the thing if he can make a gap. Or just break the mechanisms.

The adventurers made their way through the room. Again, Halrac and Seborn checked the door. This time they didn’t speak as they made their way to the next corridor. The first room was done. The next one would be random as well. Such was the nature of this dungeon; each room was selected from a group of trapped rooms and so the layout was different every time. It was meant to frustrate anyone trying to enter the dungeon safely.

However, there was a flaw to that kind of dungeon making. With time and patience, a good team could neutralize every trapped room and proceed freely regardless of which room they got. The next room was similarly neutralized; Seborn recognized the narrow corridor.

Pit trap. Metalbite Slimes. We took out the pressure plate.

“Understood.”

The two moved ahead. They spoke little, but their conversation alone hinted at the good relationship they had. They proceeded through the fourth room and fifth, each time running into a cleared trap.

“This is a record for us. You?”

We made it this far before. Took out a trap that tried to boil us alive.

“You mean burn.”

Nope. Doubt we’ll get lucky again.

The [Rogue] pushed open the door and nodded.

“Thought not. Look at that.”

This room was almost insultingly safe looking. A bed had been placed in the center of the room, a lovely-looking king-sized bed. It looked enchanted, which was probably the reason it had held up so long. Halrac grunted.

“They’re not even trying. What is—”

A hand blocked his view. Instantly Halrac jerked back. Seborn averted his gaze.

Some kind of spell on the bedposts.

“Clever.”

Halrac had barely looked at the bed but he felt something sting his sensitive eyes. He drew back and Seborn shielded him from the doorway.

“Everything alright?”

Jelaqua looked at the two. Halrac relayed news of what lay ahead. Typhenous stroked his beard.

“Rune trap magic, most likely. I can try to dispel it—”

“Don’t bother. It’s not the only trap. They want us to try and get close to the bed. I’m sure it’ll do something. Turn out to be an illusionary golem or something. We’ll take it out from afar.”

“Ah. Let me know if you need a spell.”

Halrac looked back at Seborn. The Drowned Man was fishing at his belt.

“We could use a [Sticky Webs] spell. Or do you think it’s too risky?”

I was going to try activating the spell by hitting the post with something cutting. See what we’re up against. We can always block off the doorway.

“You’ve got something that will work? I could shoot it.”

“Too risky. Might activate and damage your eyes. I’ll hit it blind. I’ve got these bags of flour from that [Alchemist]. I’ll fill the room and make a—”

“Dust explosion. I know.”

Halrac nodded. He was familiar with the idea. Back in his village he’d once seen a mill go up due to that very thing. It had been their only mill, in fact. They never built another one. Lost in thought, he waited, averting his eyes from the room beyond. There must have been a compulsion spell mixed in there too because he wanted to walk in there and lie on the bed. He did not.

Seborn busied himself, preparing the bags of densely packed powder. After a while Halrac spoke absently.

“It’s called straw, actually. Hay is feed. Dried grass, legumes. Straw is dead stalks.”

The Drowned Man looked up briefly.

Really? I didn’t know that. We don’t get much straw at sea. What’s the difference between a hay bale and a straw one?

“You don’t feed straw to animals.”

Halrac said nothing more. He waited as Seborn tossed the bags of flour over his shoulder. They fountained up, filling the room with fine particles. Typhenous sneezed as everyone moved back. Then Seborn pulled out a tightly stoppered flask.

Ready?

The [Scout] nodded. He braced himself as Seborn lobbed the vial into the room. Then he slammed the door shut. Everyone waited. They heard a sound of something breaking, then a thump. Halrac waited behind the door calmly. The magical doorway held, but when he opened the door the room was in flames. There was something thrashing around in the center. Halrac took one look.

“Mimic. Looks like the wards are covered or obscured.”

“Let me cast a spell first.”

Typhenous stepped forwards. Halrac waited until the mage threw long ropes of sticky webs into the fire and then nodded at Seborn. He stepped out, aimed at the mimic and began loosing arrows. Typhenous threw a ball that ate part of the elongated mimic away and made it scream.

So far, so good.

 

—-

 

“Watch it!”

One of the adventurers from Gemhammer snapped a warning. The Gnoll from the Pride of Kelia froze. The Human pointed.

“Loose stone. Take another handhold.”

The Gnoll nodded. The descent continued as the adventurers shook water that fell to the dungeon floor below. They weren’t far up, only fifteen feet or so from the place where water met dungeon. But a fall from that height was still dangerous.

“Good catch.”

Nailren was descending with Earlia. The Gnolls were less burdened and moved faster, but Gemhammer was moving well too. Earlia slowly climbed downwards, grunting, taking care not to let the water slip her up.

“Let us go first. We’ve got shields and your people can get up and down faster.”

The Gnoll grunted in agreement. He growled softly and the Gnolls below him paused to let the Humans go past. Curiously, Nailren stared at the Humans. Gemhammer chose their grips carefully. They were not good climbers compared to the Gnolls, but they seemed oddly certain.

“Strange.”

“Not strange. They have Skills related to mining. We were all once [Miners] before we found out we could kill monsters with hammers and pickaxes.”

Earlia was about ten feet from the ground, next to an overhang that would expose her to the rest of the dungeon. She looked up. Nailren nodded and sniffed. He growled and made a gesture with his paws. He showed Earlia two fingers, then three.

“Shit.”

She didn’t say anything more. She looked at the other adventurers that had paused with her at the overhang. Then she nodded. Earlia grabbed the next handhold and moved down. She slipped, cursed, and then dropped.

“Shields up!”

She screamed an order as the rest of Gemhammer dropped. The adventurers swore as they landed but three grabbed heavy shields and pulled them up. Just in time. Crude arrows shattered on the shields and one struck one of the adventurers in the arm. She cried out but the chainmail had absorbed the blow.

“Attack! Drop and take cover behind the Humans!”

Nailren roared as the rest of the Pride of Kelia scrambled down the cliff. He dropped, ignoring the pain of landing and rolled behind an adventurer with a shield. He saw Earlia dive as she tried to bring her shield up. Arrows were flying everywhere. One missed her head.

“Loose!”

There were shapes in the darkness. Snarling. The Raskghar loosed arrows, unpleasantly surprised that they had been anticipated again. They attacked quietly, sniffing. The Gnolls growled as they smelled an ancient scent. They drew their bows and began to loose arrows, eliciting quiet howls.

“Gemhammer!”

Earlia kept her voice to a low snap. She grabbed her shield and raised it, hunkering behind it. The Humans formed a wall of their bodies and shields for the Gnolls.

“Hold the line! When the warriors come up, I want Timgal, Fea, and Blaik on me! The rest keep your shields up!”

The Gnolls kept loosing arrows and the Raskghar moved back. One began to beat the walls in a quick rhythm with a stone mace. The sound echoed down the corridor.

“Calling for reinforcements.”

Nairlen’s voice was tight as he aimed and loosed. He snarled as his [Double Shot] made a Raskghar fall with two arrows in his chest. Earlia snarled herself.

“It was an ambush! Just like the [Innkeeper] said! Hold tight! We’re getting through this!”

The adventurers and Raskghar fought, the sounds echoing but not too far. Both sides kept quiet for fear of what they might attract. But they were already being watched. And as more shapes moved out of the darkness, the adventurers realized there were a lot of Raskghar. And then the brutal ancient cousins of Gnolls moved in for the attack.

 

—–
“So this is the secret entrance you were talking about.”

Falene shook her head as she stared down the dark shaft of stone leading down that Pisces and Olesm had found. She peered into the darkness and looked back.

“I assume you checked for traps?”

“We did. Conduct your own investigation if you are so concerned.”

Pisces snapped back. He stepped to the edge as Falene whispered a spell. Behind him Ceria looked on with Ylawes.

“Incredible. A third entrance to the dungeon and this one connects to the crypts. One wonders how extensive this dungeon is.”

Ylawes stared into the pit, looking troubled. Dawil was more practical. He grunted as he squatted down over the edge, not bothered by the drop.

“That’s far down. What’s the plan for getting down there? Jump and [Featherfall]? Or rope?”

“It’s dangerous to leave an exit for monsters to get out of.”

“More dangerous than cutting off our escape route?”

Ceria countered, looking at Ylawes. He shrugged.

“I’d be more comfortable letting Falene toss a rope back up when we need to go. She can do it with [Telekinesis].”

“What if she’s dead? Or hurt?”

The [Knight] paused.

“She won’t be.”

Ceria exchanged a glance with Yvlon. The female warrior looked troubled.

“And if she is?”

Ylawes frowned, but in the end agreed to put down a rope for a quick exit. He waited until Ksmvr had declared it secure with Dawil’s approval before nodding.

“You take that rope down. We’ll go in first.”

“What?”

“I insist. We’re a Gold-rank team and prepared to deal with whatever is down there.”

“There should be just bones. Isn’t that right, Pisces?”

The [Necromancer] sniffed.

“There are bones. It is a burial chamber for the Raskghar. I scouted it with a Shield Spider before and one is down there now.”

Everyone stared at him. Pisces raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, come now. Did you expect us to enter a dungeon without proper scouting?”

He looked pointedly at the Silver Swords. Falene narrowed her eyes slightly. Ylawes looked put out.

“So you intend to scout with…undead?”

“Far better than living beings. Unless one of you has a class specializing in trap detection? How were you planning on exploring the dungeon?”

Falene raised her eyebrows.

“I am quite capable of detecting magic.”

“And floor traps?”

Pisces didn’t wait for a response. He looked at Ceria and Yvlon.

“Once we arrive below I intend to reanimate at least eight of the skeletons. They will form an advance guard and scout ahead. I can also fashion a Bone Horror.”

“One of those things?”

Ylawes looked appalled. Ceria just exchanged a glance with Yvlon. The blonde woman nodded. Her mouth compressed to a tight line but she did nod.

“Do it, Pisces.”

The [Necromancer] smiled briefly and began climbing down the rope. Caught off-guard, the Silver Swords watched him climb down and then saw Ksmvr hurry after him. Ylawes gripped his sword hilt, frustrated.

“Incredible. Are you actually serious about this, Yvlon?”

“You knew he was a [Necromancer], Ylawes. What’s the point in having a teammate with that ability if we don’t use it to survive? His undead have saved our lives more than once.”

“Still.”

The Horns of Hammerad descended one at a time while the Silver Swords took a more direct method. They jumped and slowly floated down. Ceria rolled her eyes as Falene drifted past her, Dawil grumbling about his stomach. When they were in the burial chamber they saw Pisces had already gotten to work. Six Raskghar were standing and two more were striding out of the entrance.

“Feh.”

Dawil wrinkled his nose but Pisces ignored him. He pointed.

“There is a trap ahead. It destroyed my Shield Spider the first time. I suggest we proceed carefully down the corridor checking for traps. There may be more that are only attuned to the living.”

“Indeed. I will inspect the trap, then.”

Falene strode forwards but Pisces held an arm out. Affronted, she stared at him. He looked pointedly at Ylawes.

“Should not a warrior go first? In case of ambush? Perhaps Sir Ylawes and Dawil?”

Ceria nodded in agreement. Ylawes looked irate at being ordered, but he stepped forwards with Dawil. He held his shield up as the Dwarf gripped his hammer.

“Alright! Let’s explore this damn dungeon already!”

Dawil’s voice boomed down the corridor. Ceria nearly bit her tongue.

“Shut up! Do you want to attract attention?”

“What? Oh. Sorry.”

The Dwarf mitigated his voice a bit. Ylawes strode forwards, his eyes searching every direction. Ceria stared as Falene followed after them. Pisces blew out his cheeks and Yvlon paused as Ksmvr brought up the rear.

“Hey Ceria. You don’t think—”

“I think so. Rot, rot, rot. How did we not think of this?”

“They never said!”

“Said what?”

Ksmvr was watching the rear as he had volunteered to do. He glanced at Ceria and Yvlon as they conferred. Pisces was watching the two with a frown on his face. The Antinium glanced at his teammates and shook his head. He had a bow in his hand and the enchanted dagger in the other.

“I never understand what is going on.”

 

—-

 

Earlia didn’t know when she began shouting. She flung a bag filled with spreading vines ahead and watched the Tripvine Bag engulf a charging Raskghar. The huge not-Gnoll tripped as it tried to leap at her with club in hand. The club was crude stone and wood, but the monster was huge! A head taller than a Gnoll and a third again as wide! Its head was too small, and its claws could lay open her skin as it thrashed wildly.

No time to hesitate. No time to be afraid. Earlia charged with a shout.

“Cover me!”

She rushed the Raskghar. It was fighting to get free. It struggled up as she raised the warhammer and saw the metal head falling. It raised an arm. Too slow. Too late. The blow cracked the arm and the thing howled.

Again! Earlia’s arms strained as she lifted the warhammer. She brought it down hard. This time the blow cracked the Raskghar’s head. It made a horrible gurgling sound and slumped. The Tripvines continued to spread as Earlia staggered back. Something hit her chest—an arrow, breaking on her chainmail.

“Captain!”

A hand yanked her backwards. Earlia fell back behind the group of her people holding shields. She felt at her chest. The chainmail had held. If it had been a better bow, or if the arrow tips had been made of anything but crude stone—

“More coming!”

The Raskghar were assaulting their position. The Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer were entrenched, exchanging shots while the [Warriors] held their ground. But they were outnumbered and frankly, outmatched. The Raskghar were terrifyingly huge and strong. Earlia wasn’t sure if she’d have been able to beat the one in front of her in a fair fight. But there was still a way to victory.

“Hit them with a Pepperspray Potion!”

She roared at one of her teammates. The man fumbled for a potion and the charging forms visibly hesitated. They retreated, howling, as the man lifted the potion. Earlia grinned savagely.

Yes, that was it! The Raskghar didn’t have potions or alchemical equipment. And they didn’t have levels. One of the Gnolls behind her snatched at the air. Nailren lifted the arrow he’d caught and put it to his bowstring and sent it back into the darkness. There was another howl.

“How’re we doing?”

Earlia shouted at him. Nailren’s ears switched as he sniffed the air.

“Many are here! Many more—coming! They are howling for support!”

“Damn! They really want us dead!”

The Human woman cursed, glancing around. They knew they’d be walking into an ambush, but the innkeeper, Erin, had told her that the Goblins had fought off only a handful of Raskghar. Had they lied? Or had the monsters doubled their watch?

“Captain! More coming from the left!”

A wail came from Fea. The girl was the youngest and her finger trembled as she pointed around her shield. Earlia saw a group of eight Raskghar approaching.

“Dead gods. Get me another Tripvine bag! Or one of our explosives! Hurry!”

She saw the adventurers fumbling as the Gnolls began showering the Raskghar with arrows. But the huge hulking creatures were tough! They charged, howling, impervious to arrows. Earlia shouted and Gemhammer rushed forwards. Their warriors met the Raskghar in a melee of blows.

“[Hammer Blow]!”

Earlia used her Skill too early to crush a Rasgkhar’s guard and break the screaming monster’s ribs. The Raskghar were everywhere, hurling Blaik to the ground, fighting with the Gnolls who’d drawn their own weapons. And there was another group coming back on the right! Earlia’s heart beat faster and faster as she swung, keeping the Raskghar off Blaik. Too many!

Then she saw a flicker. Something raced out of the shadows and stabbed through a Raskghar about to leap at her. A masked woman pirouetted and slashed another Raskghar across the back. Earlia gaped.

“Who the hell are you?

She received no answer. The adventurers closed ranks as the Raskghar howled. Several seemed to recognize the masked woman and beat more frantically on the walls. Gemhammer launched a desperate counterattack with the Pride of Kelia as the masked swordswoman cut and danced gracefully through the battle. She was good! But the fight wasn’t over yet. More were coming.

A lot more. Earlia knew they could beat them if the Raskghar bunched up. They had potions! Alchemy weapons! Spells! She was about to shout at the [Gem Mage] in their company to break a topaz and blast the Raskghar when she saw something move in the darkness.

“What is—”

Something moved. A giant Raskghar roared as he charged forwards. He was wearing armor. Not crude hide armor, not corroded metal or bone. Real armor. It shone and Earlia knew it was enchanted. And then she saw the Raskghar with the bow. He raised it but she couldn’t see an arrow. He made a gesture as if loosing something and she didn’t see the arrow. But something struck her in the chest. It went right through her chainmail. She staggered and saw nothing. And she fell as more Raskghar charged. And behind them were Goblins.

Lots of Goblins.

 

—-

 

“Room eight. Think it’ll be another trap?”

Unless we have to go through all of them, there has to be an end to it. We know there are monsters, even if we’ve only seen the ones in traps.

“Right. Get ready.”

This time Halrac and Seborn stood well back from the door. Their clothing was ruffled. The last trap had been activated, but the razorblades of wind had nearly cut both men. They were on guard as they swung the door open to reveal—

“A path down.”

Halrac stared at the ramp heading down into the darkness. His internal sense of danger that was separate from his [Dangersense] immediately rang an alarm. Behind hm Jelaqua slowly breathed out.

“Looks like it’s my turn. Change formations. Unless you think it’s a trap?”

I’ve got nothing. Halrac?

“No. How do you want to do this?”

Jelaqua pursed her lips. She stared down into the darkness. Halrac’s eyes could see further but even his sight had a limit. There was a larger room below. This might be another trapped room, but his instincts told him they were in another part of the dungeon. They’d done it. The seven layers of randomly generated rooms at an end. Which meant that anything could be beyond.

“Let me and Seborn do it. I’ve got the armor and Seborn’s quick.”

Halrac wanted to argue but he didn’t. That made sense. You sent a [Warrior] forwards when you thought you might run into monsters, with a [Rogue] or [Scout] or [Treasure Hunter] or whatever you had following close behind. He elected to move back to the rear of the group since his bow was useful at all ranges. Moore stayed with him as Revi and Typhenous took the middle.

That was the other thing. You watched the rear as well. Halrac had the group pause at this new juncture to go over tactics.

“First sign of major trouble and we retreat to the doorway. Delaying spells?”

“[Sticky Webs] for me and Revi uses her Face-Eater Moth or Corusdeer summons. Moore, do you have a barrier spell?”

“I could grow vines similar to a Tripvine Bag. It isn’t the most useful spell, though.”

“Huh. You don’t have another one?”

Moore shook his head.

“Not my specialty. Typhenous?”

“I know [Force Barrier]. Should I use it?”

“That spell is horrible. Barrier spells aren’t good at sealing off large spots. Not if something’s coming at us fast! Just web and let Moore use [Thorn Spray] or something.”

Revi objected and the other adventurers nodded. Halrac checked his belongings. He had his own prepared weapons and potions. He nodded at Jelaqua and Seborn.

“Then we leave it to you.”

“Right. Let’s go. Seborn, tell me if I’m tripping on anything.”

Jelaqua stepped forwards, Seborn right behind her. She did not stride forwards but rather walked cautiously, at a slow pace so Seborn could check for traps. If he so much as spoke or tapped her she immediately froze. Halrac was reassured to see that—it was a sign of Jelaqua’s seniority. She did not rush forwards in a panic, and neither was she afraid to press on. The group moved down slowly into the room when they saw—

“Statues.”

Revi breathed the word as the adventurers stopped. They’d come to a large, winding corridor full of stone statues. Between them were scattered pedestals with gleaming necklaces. Only there were a few odd discrepancies. Halrac saw three instantly.

“Hold.”

The adventurers paused as he pointed out what he’d seen in the murk.

“Some of the pedestals are missing the necklaces.”

“You’re right. Hey, has someone come down here before? Or is that part of the trap? We’re assuming those statues are going to come to life, right?”

“Without a doubt.”

Typhenous peered over his staff at the pedestals. It did indeed seem like someone had been here before. Halrac confirmed this by pointing out the other two things he’d seen.

“Look there. The wall is caved in. It’s been resealed with rocks and dirt. But there was someone here. And I think I know how. Goblins.”

He pointed to a small pile of bones next to one of the statues. It was hard to see, but he thought the statue’s fingers still had blood on the tips. Jelaqua muttered an oath.

“Great. Goblins. Well, we knew they were down there. Wonder if they took all the loot.”

“If they did the statues scared them off. I’m sure some of them are enchanted to attack if we get close.”

“What’s the plan then? Hit one and draw back? I can try to bash them up but my flail is not enchanted and they could be pretty hard.”

“They don’t look like good Golems. Why don’t we change up our formation? How about—”

The corridor full of stone statues was still as the adventurers conferred. The deadly stone golems frozen in place did not move. They awaited their victims. When something finally triggered the spell to activate them, the stone statues moved at once. They surged to deadly attention—

“Hiyah!

Jelaqua’s flail smashed the first one in the face, cracking the crude stone and sending fractures down the body. She immediately whirled and struck another of the statues that had come to life. The humanoid things reached for her but she was already moving back. Her flail whirled, striking repeatedly as a flaming, spectral Corusdeer slammed into another statue.

“[Sticky Webs]. Ah, what a lovely spell.”

More of the Golems found themselves caught in a barrier as Typhenous poured on the webbing. Behind him Halrac calmly shot one statue with an arrow using his [Piercing Shot] Skill and watched it crumble. He waited as the other adventurers fought. Behind Jelaqua, Seborn flicked out of shadows, cutting at the golems and chipping away their bodies and jumping away. The adventurers weren’t doing much damage and the Golems were pushing out of the web. One punched Jelaqua in the chest and his fist cracked. The Selphid grinned.

“I didn’t feel that! This armor is good! Hey Moore, your turn.”

The stone statue raised another fist and a giant hand engulfed its arm. Moore lifted the statue up with a groan and hurled it into its fellows. The adventurers heard a crack and then the half-Giant waded forwards. He brought his quarterstaff down like an avalanche on a statue’s head, swung a vine and thorn-covered fist into a second, and backed up by Jelaqua and Revi’s Corusdeer, began smashing the rest.

It was a brisk fight. It might have been a bad one but for Moore. The stone statues were relentless, but the half-Giant had the strength to break each one to pieces while the others covered him. By the time the last statue lay in pieces on the ground, Moore was sweating, and dusty. Jelaqua offered him two stamina potions which the half-Giant gulped down.

“Amazing work, Moore.”

“That was impressive.”

Typhenous blinked around at the statues. Moore had crushed the one nearest him by swinging the thing into the dungeons’ wall repeatedly until it broke. Typhenous looked back at Halrac.

“Well, it seems these traps are getting simpler. Or am I simply becoming more naïve in my old age?”

Halrac shook his head.

“As traps went that wasn’t bad. It would have been a bad fight if we’d picked it alone. Only Revi’s summons and your spells would have done any work.”

“And I suspect most adventurers armed with a warhammer aren’t as adept at fighting eight stone golems at once. Ah, yes. I see your point. But we have emerged victorious and to the victors go the spoils. I don’t suppose there’s even a chance these ones are safe, are they?”

“Don’t touch them.”

Typhenous nodded. The remaining pedestals did indeed hold wonderfully beautiful necklaces and jewelry, but all six Gold-rank adventurers would have rather gone back and fought twice as many stone golems as touch them. They were too inviting.

“I’m positive they’re cursed. How do you want to transport them? Should we?”

Typhenous peered at a necklace set with a huge diamond and tsked unhappily. Halrac reached for his belt.

“I’ve an empty bag of holding. Push it in here. Unless Revi can use her summons?”

“Stuff that idea! I don’t want to lose one to a cursed artifact!”

In the end, Halrac nudged each cursed ornament into his bag of holding, after Typhenous and Moore had decided  they weren’t going to explode on being handled, of course. The adventurers took a rest in the destroyed corridor and nodded to each other then. Jelaqua grinned.

“Now isn’t this a welcome surprise? Actual progress! And look at that entrance! I wonder if we could excavate it, maybe find a real shortcut into the dungeon? Because we know exactly where we are now. What do you think?”

“Maybe don’t give monsters an alternate route in.”

“True. In that case we need to shore up the wall. Damn. That’s a lot of work. A project for today, you think? We’ve already explored two more sets of rooms which I’m sure will be full with traps the next go around. And we have treasure! If we can get it disenchanted those jewels and the gold will go for something.”

“True.”

Both teams knew they’d done a good day’s work. They’d earned money—deferred, true, but a good amount with the cursed loot which might not be cursed if they were extremely lucky—and gotten to a new part of the dungeon. A wise team would do just what Jelaqua had said and resume untrapping the dungeon before proceeding. However…

It was Seborn who gave voice to their thoughts. The [Rogue] lifted a flask of water and drained half of it.

Let’s go a bit farther. See what else we can find. We’re all in good shape.

The other adventurers looked at each other. No one said it. But they were all thinking of what Seborn had told Erin. The other Silver-rank teams. The unspoken accusation.

Cowards. The Halfseekers looked at each other. Griffon Hunt turned to Halrac. He nodded.

“Another room.”

The adventurers got up and headed down the corridor in higher spirits. They came to an opening to their left, inside of which was a huge, circular room. It was vast, a half-dome with an extraordinarily flat floor. While the walls and ceiling of the domed room looked weathered by time, the floor was perfect.

Too perfect. And while there was a door on the far side, the adventurers weren’t about to try crossing the floor to get to it.

“This is clearly a product of bad dungeon making. Look at the walls and ceiling! They might have fooled adventurers centuries ago, but whoever enchanted the floor didn’t think to account for the decay of stone and moss and lichen and so forth.”

Typhenous shook his head sadly as he peered at the floor. Halrac nodded. He stared at the door on the far side.

“What kind of trap are we looking at here, Seborn? Classic pit trap?”

Something to do with the floor. Want to see what happens?

The Halfseekers enjoyed setting off traps. Griffon Hunt did not, but Halrac respected the idea. A trap could be deadly, but not knowing what it did could be just as deadly. He nodded.

“Everyone stands up the corridor. We trigger it and get ready to run. Agreed?”

Let’s do it.

Seborn waited until the others pulled back, and then found a good chunk of the stone statues. He lifted it, nodded at Halrac, and hurled the stone into the center of the room. It bounced off the suspicious floor and tumbled a bit. Halrac watched it with narrowed eyes.

“No good. Looks like the trigger’s something else. Revi?”

“I don’t want to lose a summon!”

“You only lose your ancestral spirits permanently. What about the Corusdeer?”

“I won’t be able to call on it for a week if the spirit is destroyed!”

“Good enough. Summon it.”

Revi cursed but did as Halrac asked. The [Scout] leaned back as the flaming spirit cantered down the hallway. Seborn, to whom fire and dryness were doubly unwelcome, moved further back. The Corusdeer walked slowly into the center of the dome as Revi crouched by them, controlling it and frowning. The summoned creature pawed at the ground and nudged the stone.

“Nothing. Do you think it’s a trap that reacts to living things?”

“Could be. Or it could be that the trap’s activated by the door. Can you—?”

“Got it.”

The Corusdeer walked over to the door. It lowered its head and butted the door a few times. Halrac waited, his breath held in his chest. The Corusdeer awkwardly scraped its antlers against the door, and then Revi made it bow its head. The handle was a lever and the tall deer’s horns pushed against it gently. Halrac heard a click—

And the floor disappeared. Halrac jerked back as the Corusdeer plummeted, its fiery body falling into the depths. That wasn’t surprising. He’d expected something like that. What was surprising, what made Halrac shiver and Seborn curse and Revi panic was what they saw below.

The half-dome was a huge room. Large enough to hold Erin’s entire [Grand Theatre] and then some. It was also a pit trap. And it went down a long way. But that wasn’t dangerous. Not to a good Gold-rank team or even a decent Silver-rank one. And the dungeon architects had to know that. So they had put something else in there. Something that looked up and sensed the prey above them as the Corusdeer fell into their nest.

Halrac had the best vision. He was standing closest to the newly revealed pit. And the Corusdeer was still falling. He saw it fall down, down, and down past huge webs, past gigantic scuttling shapes that turned and looked up. Halrac stared down a mile of darkness as the Corusdeer fell past a Shield Spider the size of a house, past a giant spider twice as large as Erin’s inn, past thousands, tens of thousands of smaller Shield Spiders, down, until it landed on a web. Instantly, hundreds of smaller shapes smothered the blazing deer, tore it apart. Halrac stared at the spiders as they all looked up. Straight at him. And then they began to scuttle upwards in a silent rush.

“It’s a lair!

Revi screamed. Seborn tossed a bottle down and Halrac saw the explosion kick off a dozen spiders from the walls. There were several thousand for everyone that fell. He had an arrow in his hands. He was loosing it before he could think. He shouted desperately.

“It’s a lair! A monster lair! It’s part of the damn dungeon!”

“What? What?

Jelaqua charged down the corridor with Typhenous and Moore. Halrac was too busy loosing arrows and retreating to explain. But it was all clear. The huge, spiraling pit. The traps which were easy—a bit too easy. And the monsters who’d been given time, thousands of years in fact, to reproduce. To grow to unnatural sizes.

The Shield Spiders were here. The Face-Eater Moths had probably been in another trap like this one. And now they were coming out. Halrac’s arrow took the first giant spider that crawled out of the pit and sent it falling back down. A horde followed. And after that came tens of thousands more.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.27

There were about two hundred varieties of fish in the waters outside of her inn. Erin had been told at least a quarter of them were objectionable in some way, so she stared hard at the dead Quillfish’s insides.

“It doesn’t look poisonous. And my [Dangersense] isn’t going off. My [Advanced Cooking] says I can cook it—what do you think, Mrsha?”

She held up the Gnoll and let Mrsha eagerly sniff the fish, which had been carefully descaled and dequilled by Erin. She’d been wearing gloves. Now the fish was in fillet form. Mrsha sniffed it a few seconds longer and then gave Erin the nod.

Having passed three of her tests, Erin decided the Quillfish was safe to eat. So she cut the fillet into smaller pieces and found a lemon. She squeezed it, rubbed it into the fillet, and then found flour and put a pan on the stove. The fire was already going and Erin had put enough fuel in the stove to last her a while.

“Pass me an egg, Mrsha?”

Erin mixed the flour up with a bit of dried breadcrumbs and a tiny bit of powdery cheese. Then she pressed the fillets into the mixture. She took the egg Mrsha handed her, cracked it into a bowl, added some water, and then dipped the fillet in the egg before returning it to the flour. Soon she had a coating on each fillet and her pan was hot.

“Oil—thanks, Mrsha. Stay back from the pan, you might get hit by oil spatters!”

The [Innkeeper] ushered Mrsha back as the Gnoll greedily watched her place the first fillet on the pan. The fish pieces browned quickly and soon Erin had many little fried pieces of fish. They were mostly circular and looked sort of like potato chips. They were meant to be bite-sized and the result pleased Erin. She absently smacked Mrsha’s paw as the Gnoll reached for one.

“Not yet. It needs the finishing touch.”

So saying, Erin reached for a dark brown bottle of sauce filled with little seeds and dried spices. Erin tasted a bit. Her eyebrows shot up in approval.

“Mm. Gnolls make good sauces. This one’s spicy. Want some, Mrsha?”

She fed the Gnoll a spoonful of the spicy fish sauce, watching Mrsha lick her chops and then poured it over the fish pieces. Lightly—she could always add more. Erin thought for a moment and then found her mayonnaise. The condiment was hard to make, but she felt it had a place here.

“Chives? Where are…oh, there they are.”

Erin found a bunch of fresh chives sitting out in the open, ignoring all health codes or refrigeration standards. She checked them carefully before she began chopping them up.

“It’s not that they get bad, but now some of my veggies start growing! And bugs still love eating them. You tell me if you see any of them crawling in here, okay, Mrsha?”

The Gnoll nodded and snatched her paw back from the fish flakes as Erin turned her head. She watched as Erin mixed the chives into the yellow mayonnaise, her tail beating impatiently. When Erin added the bowl of chived mayonnaise to her plate Mrsha gave her a look that said quite clearly that she would die without food in the next moment.

“Fine. Here. You may have one piece.”

Erin let Mrsha carefully select the biggest flake and dip it in the mayonnaise. The two sauces mixed as Mrsha chewed the flake carefully. The Gnoll closed her eyes as she chewed and Erin waited. Mrsha’s tail started beating faster and a smile appeared on her face. Erin smiled too.

“That’s a good endorsement.”

With that, she took the food out of the kitchen and into the common room. Mrsha jumped off the kitchen counter to follow her.

“Experimental fish flakes are ready! Anyone want a bite? On the house!”

She approached two of her early-morning guests. They were sitting apart from each other, but both looked up at Erin’s voice. Selys, tail swishing idly, and Ylawes, sitting with perfect posture in his seat.

“What’s that, Miss Solstice?”

“Breaded fish…flakes. Fresh from outside! They look like flakes. It’s a snack. Or dinner if I find a bigger fish to cut up. Want a try?”

Erin offered the plate to him. Ylawes hesitated and she wondered if breaded fish were not a thing he’d ever tried before. But Selys clearly had and Mrsha’s leaping up on the table to peer greedily at the platter convinced him. He took a piece and bit into it. Erin watched him chew and swallow before the [Knight] smiled at her.

“Ah. That is delicious. May I?”

“Sure. Selys, you want in on this?”

“Sure. Hey Mrsha, do you want to eat with me?”

Selys smiled at Mrsha as the Gnoll realized she’d get a helping too. They began eating at Ylawes’ table. The [Knight] glanced sideways at Selys and then helped himself to another fish flake.

“Did you say this was freshly caught?”

“Yup. Bird shot it this morning. He says there aren’t enough birds so he practices on the fish when he’s bored.”

“He can’t swim. How did he fetch them?”

“Oh, I had one of the Goblins go pick it up. Actually, this fish isn’t the one I got. A bunch of Quillfish were nibbling at the one Bird shot so Headscratcher grabbed them all. With his bare hands.”

“Ah, the Goblins.”

Ylawes paused in eating. He looked around, but the Goblins weren’t here. Neither were most of Erin’s guests. It was a bit too early for that; both he and Selys had arrived at the early morning shift, before Erin’s usual crowd showed up. The Goblins were, in fact, busy sparring outside of Erin’s inn. If she listened she could sometimes hear a thud when one of them hit each other particularly hard.

As for her adventurers, neither the Halfseekers nor the Horns of Hammerad liked getting up early. Back when Griffon Hunt had been around they would come down early, but the other teams liked sleeping in.

You got to know your guests. Erin knew she had about thirty minutes before the adventurers would come down so she settled down at the table. She bit into her fish flake and smiled as the hot oil and spices made her mouth water.

“Yum. Spicy, though. Hey, try dipping it in the mayonnaise, Selys.”

“Mm. This is good too. But I like spices.”

“Drakes love spices. But I’ve gotta think about my Gnoll and Human customers. You want a drink, Ylawes?”

The armored man had gotten a hot pepper seed and was flushing slightly. He nodded.

“I would be grateful.”

Erin found a tankard and filled it with milk behind the bar. She passed it to him and Ylawes drank quickly. Selys looked around.

“No Lyonette today? Is she still having…issues?”

Erin smiled.

“The opposite, actually. She’s doing well. I sent her into Liscor to do shopping while we wait to test her Skill again.”

“Oh? She got a new Skill?”

“Yeah. Would you believe it? She leveled again. She won’t tell me what level she is now, but get this—she got a rare Skill! [Flawless Attempt]!”

Ylawes looked up with interest as he dipped a fish flake in mayonnaise. Mrsha looked up as well, her mouth stuffed. Selys frowned.

“That is rare. I’ve never heard of that variation before. I’ve heard of the flawless line of Skills of course—[Flawless Strike], [Flawless Dodge], uh—”

“[Flawless Defence]. That’s a [Knight] or [Warrior]’s Skill.”

Selys nodded gratefully at Ylawes.

“Exactly. They’re good Skills. You can perform a perfect attack once every few hours. But attempt? What does that do?”

“We’re not sure. Lyonette says it’s not like the others. She can’t do things perfectly, but she does it…to the best of her abilities? She made Mrsha an omelette with it this morning.”

Both Drake and Human immediately glanced sideways at Mrsha. She looked up, her face smeared with sauce. Erin handed her a napkin which Mrsha ignored. The Gnoll started licking her fur instead.

“Doesn’t sound too impressive.”

“You’d think so, but this was a great omelette. One of the best! It wasn’t perfect, but it was close! I think that’s what the Skill does. Anything Lyonette can do she does at her best. But we have to wait for it to recharge or something.”

“Right. You can’t use active Skills right away. There’s always a cool down. But that’s a nice Skill.”

Erin grinned.

“Isn’t it? We’ve been brainstorming how to use it best. The thing is, Lyonette doesn’t need to use it for most things. I can cook and I have [Advanced Cooking] so there’s really no point in her using it there. I was sort of hoping she’d use it to play chess with me.”

“Of course, you would.”

Selys rolled her eyes. Ylawes chewed his actual breakfast, a half-finished omelette and took another sip from his cup. Erin shrugged.

“What? She said it would be interesting and my magic chessboard’s been inactive recently. Besides, new opponents are always fun. I hardly get to play as much with all the plays going on every day.”

“I heard about that. A bunch of Drakes I know are talking about visiting tonight. Something about you putting on a new play?”

“Right. We put on the Triumph of Liscor and Othello, but now the Players of Celum want to really draw in an audience so they’re going to put on Juliet and Romeo for our audience tonight. I think it’ll be a hit!”

“I haven’t seen that one. I think. I saw the one with the angry Human who kills his [King].”

Hamlet. Or maybe you’re thinking of Macbeth? There’s a lot of killing of [Kings] in Shakespeare’s stuff.”

“Well, I’ll watch the one tonight if I have time. But I’m really here just to talk to your Goblins. It’s my day off but Grandmother insisted so here I am.”

Selys twitched her tail as she reached for a fish flake and discovered only crumbs. Ylawes brushed at his clean-shaven face with his handkerchief and glanced at Erin.

“Have they been causing trouble? Your ah, security?”

Erin glanced at him.

“Not a problem. Why?”

The [Knight] glanced at Mrsha and then cleared his throat.

“No reason in particular. Forgive me, Miss Solstice. As an adventurer I worry. Hobgoblins are a far cry from regular Goblins, and ordinary Goblins are dangerous enough. I can’t help but feel as though the ones in your inn are similar to a group I met in Esthelm. Those were dangerous fighters. Although, they were honorable in their own way.”

He broke off, musing to himself. Erin paused as Selys rubbed Mrsha’s tummy. The Gnoll was happily stuffed and content to let the Drake comb through her fur with one claw.

“Well, you can listen to Selys lecture them about becoming adventurers.”

Ylawes nearly spat his drink out.

Becoming—are you serious?”

“Mhm. Selys got her grandmother to approve the paperwork. They’ll be a Bronze-rank team. They won’t go into Liscor obviously, but this way they can earn money killing monsters.”

The [Knight] stared at Erin, aghast. He shifted his gaze to Selys and the Drake gave him a nod and a rueful grin.

“You are serious. Silver and steel. Miss Solstice, I must protest. Goblins are not—

“Adventurer material? Funny, I bet people say the same thing about Antinium. And guess who’s on your sister’s team?”

Erin sat back at the table as Ylawes frowned. She glanced at her stairs. Yvlon was probably still upstairs. She always came down with her hair combed and her armor on. That was dedication.

“You’re here to see Yvlon, right?”

Ylawes frowned, caught off-guard by the change in conversation. He hesitated and then nodded.

“I’d like to talk with her, yes. I can’t help but feel she’s been avoiding me of late.”

“Gee, I wonder why.”

Erin rolled her eyes. Ylawes frowned.

Is she?”

For a second Erin wished she had a mug to polish. That was a very [Innkeepery] thing to do, she felt. She shrugged as she poked Mrsha’s stomach and made the Gnoll giggle silently.

“She’s your sister. You tell me.”

“Would that I could. But I’ve never been able to understand my sister’s mind. I would be grateful if you could advise me.”

Erin paused, frowning.

“I’m just an [Innkeeper]. I shouldn’t have to tell you. Although I could give you psychiatric help. The doctor is in!”

She grinned, struck by a nostalgic thought. Ylawes just looked blank.

“Pysc—what?”

“Advice. For five copper coins.”

Erin didn’t really expect Ylawes to bite. She was just teasing him and indulging herself. But when the [Knight] reached for his belt pouch and produced the coins, Erin had to find a mug to shake them in. Selys and Ylawes watched, although the Drake knew enough to know Erin was just being weird.

“Alright, I’ve had enough fun. You want advice, Ylawes? When your sister comes down the stairs, don’t ask her to come back to your home or tell her your family misses her. In fact, don’t tell her what to do. Just say hi and have a nice chat.”

“I wasn’t going to—”

Ylawes broke off, and Erin nodded knowingly.

“See? That’s honesty. Which is good! You were going to ask her if she wanted to return home, weren’t you? She’d hate that. That’s why she doesn’t want to talk to you. That, and she resents you being here.”

“She resents me being here? Why?”

This time both Selys and Erin sighed as one. Mrsha copied them happily. Ylawes looked at them, confused. Erin looked at him, exasperated and amused.

“Why do you think? You’re her big older brother, coming to tell her what to do and ‘protect’ her when she’s a grown woman! Plus, you’re the thing she wants to be. A [Knight], a Gold-rank adventurer…all the things she failed to become. I just bet she always got compared to you growing up, didn’t she?”

“She did. I never gave it any thought. But how could you know that?

Ylawes looked stunned, which greatly pleased Erin. She gave him her most mysterious smile.

“Let’s just say I had a feeling. Do you trust me now?”

The [Knight] had to nod. Selys gave Erin an admiring look.

“You’re pretty good at this advice thing, Erin. Is it because of your class? Or a Skill?”

“Nah. I mean, maybe it is but this kind of story was really common back in my—uh country. In any…country, I bet. But you’re right, I am good at this! Hey, maybe I should open up a side business!”

“Before you do that—”

Ylawes coughed and all three females turned their gaze back to him. Mrsha, Selys, and Erin—three races, alike in their exasperation for a brother’s lack of understanding. Well, maybe not Mrsha. She was just pretending. But she was having fun, which was the key. Ylawes stroked his chin, frowning.

“You say Yvlon’s trying to get out of my…shadow. But then why did she agree to let me help her explore the dungeon? And why hasn’t her team entered the dungeon yet? I know they’re prepared. But every time I ask Miss Springwalker I get only evasive answers. That was why I came to talk to them today, actually.”

Erin’s smiled faded a bit. She took a deep breath.

“Hoo boy. Um…that’s a different reason altogether.”

“Would you explain it? My teammates are growing tired of waiting. As am I.”

Again Ylawes reached for his belt pouch but Erin stopped him. She chewed her lip and threw a quick glance up the stairs. No one was coming down yet.

“Alright, but this is secret.”

“You want me to leave?”

“Not that secret, Selys. It’s just—okay, here’s why. Ylawes, I know Calruz might be alive in the dungeon. Even though the odds are like a thousand to one.”

“Quite. The idea of someone surviving down there is remote. But there is a possibility, which makes it imperative to act now. I cannot understand why the Horns hesitate.”

Erin toyed with the empty platter.

“Maybe because of the past. If I told you that Ceria casts [Silence] on her and Yvlon’s room every night, would you understand?”

“Not in the slightest. Why would that be all important?”

Ylawes looked mystified. Erin sighed. Again she looked towards the empty stairs and then lowered her voice.

“It’s because Ceria wakes up screaming every other night. And Yvlon too. Pisces tells me they did it while they were exploring Albez, too.”

“Screaming? Why—”

“Because of the dungeons, Ylawes.”

The [Knight] paused. His furrowed brows unknit and he sat back. He closed his eyes.

“Of course.”

Selys looked at the two Humans and then stroked Mrsha’s head. She shook her own sadly.

“Nightmares about the crypt?”

Erin nodded.

“They still remember it. Obviously. Both of them lost their entire team—Yvlon was in charge. And they fought Skinner and Ceria was trapped for days inside a coffin with nothing to eat. I think Olesm has nightmares too, but he doesn’t talk about them.”

“I can’t imagine he wouldn’t. Even the best adventures have to deal with trauma. We’re told to prescribe sleeping potions and get them to good [Healers], but most never go.”

Selys looked sadly at her claws. Lines appeared around Ylawes’ eyes as he grimaced.

“I should have recalled. Yvlon didn’t talk long about it, but of course—of course she remembers. And fears going into the dungeon again.”

He shook his head bitterly.

“If that’s the case, I should go in with my team and tell her—“

No.

Erin cut him off forcefully. Ylawes stared at her. She frowned, vexed.

“Haven’t you been listening? The worst thing you could do is bring that up. Leave them be, Ylawes. Let them enter the dungeon when they’re ready. It won’t be long.”

“But if they fear it—”

“Ceria won’t abandon Calruz. She’s going to enter the dungeon.”

“And if she waits longer?”

Erin shrugged.

“Then the Halfseekers or Griffon Hunt will get in there. They’ve been untrapping the dungeon’s entrance for nearly a month now. Either way, someone will find Calruz if he’s alive. But telling them not to enter, telling them you’ll handle it? Don’t do that. How would you react if someone said that to you?”

Ylawes was silent. Caught, perhaps, with the novel idea of introspection. At last he raised his head.

“I see. Thank you for your advice, Miss Solstice. The best course would be to handle matters…differently.”

She eyed him.

“Planning on entering the dungeon without telling Yvlon?”

The golden-haired adventurer jumped. Erin sighed again. He really was easy to read. Like an open book with big letters and pictures.

“I won’t stop you. If Calruz is alive, someone has to save him. Just promise me—”

She broke off as she heard a creak from the stairs. Everyone looked up as Ksmvr marched down the stairs.

“We are arriving at breakfast approximately two minutes later than average, Captain Ceria.”

“Thanks, Ksmvr.”

A dark brown Antinium descended the stairs, followed by a bleary half-Elf, a yawning [Necromancer], and a woman with gold hair and bright metal armor. Behind them, Moore edged down behind the pale-scaled Jelaqua and Seborn appeared at the foot of the stairs, scratching at the crustacean half of his face with his claw. The Horns of Hammerad were up, as were the Halfseekers. Jelaqua sniffed the air happily and wagged her tail.

“Hey, what’s that smell? Isn’t it great to have a working nose? Well, nose holes. Hey, if it isn’t Ylawes.”

“Brother.”

Yvlon nodded cautiously at Ylawes. Erin shot him a quick glance, but the [Knight] only smiled.

“Good morning, Yv. I was just stopping for the morning. Erin treated me to her latest creation. I won’t be stopping long.”

A look of relief flashed by Yvlon’s face and Erin mentally raised Ylawes’ subtlety score a few points in her mind. She hurried towards the kitchen as the adventurers took seats nearby and saw the door open. Lyonette stumbled into the inn, drenched. Mrsha ran over to her and Erin saw a bee take wing. The young woman was holding several bulky bags filled with food and supplies.

“Lyonette! Good timing! Need a towel?”

The [Barmaid] already had one, courtesy of the towel rack and Mrsha. She wiped her face, smiling happily. And then the front door opened and the Redfang Goblins, wet, sweaty and bruised, trooped in. They paused when they saw the crowd. Erin made a face. Her inn had a habit of getting busy real fast. She counted heads.

“Alright, who wants fish flakes and who wants omelette? Hands?”

Everyone looked at her. They exchanged glances. Jelaqua leaned forwards, excitedly.

“What’s a fish flake?”

 

—-

 

The rest of the Silver Swords and Griffon Hunt appeared for breakfast not ten minutes later. They trooped into the inn. Neither team of Gold-rank adventurers was wet—the three [Mages], Revi, Typhenous, and Falene had seen to that. They were just in time to try Erin’s new fish flake snack and get some regular food of their own. The inn was noisy with conversation  as the adventurers began a strategy meeting for the umpteenth time. Selys listened with one earhole as she sat in front of the Redfang Goblins.

“So. I’m uh, a [Receptionist] for the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor. Erin asked me to talk to you. Well, my grandmother did. She’s the [Guildmistress] and we—we need to make a few things clear.”

She was trying not to babble. But Selys had somehow forgotten how scary five Hobs could be, especially when they were sitting right in front of her. She wished Erin was here. Or Mrsha. But Erin was busy cooking and the traitorous Gnoll had left to go play tag with Apista, which mainly involved her leaping from table to table as the bee flew away. Selys cleared her throat again.

“Erin proposed this, not me. But I agreed to it. The thing is, you’re Goblins.”

The Goblins stared at Selys. They exchanged glances as if this was news. Selys went on.

“And you’re…good fighters. In fact, you went into the dungeon. And came back with treasure. That’s phenomenal. Really. So—and Erin proposed this—we thought you’d be able to earn the city money. And yourselves money. Fighting monsters. As adventurers. We’re going to make you a Bronze-rank team.”

The Redfang Warriors’ jaws dropped. Selys, who had been nervously expecting their reaction, blinked in gratified surprise. The Hobgoblins stared at her and one of them—Numbtongue?—croaked.

“Us? Adventurers?”

“That’s right. We’ll grant you the rank and let you turn in bounties. Uh, by proxy. But you’ll be paid for certified monster kills and turning in useful parts—you could even do a request. If anyone agrees to work with you, that is.”

The Redfang Goblins exchanged glances. They looked dumbstruck. Adventurers. It seemed to matter greatly to them for reasons Selys didn’t understand.

“Does this sound like something you’d want?”

Instantly all five Goblins nodded energetically. Erin, who’d been hurrying to their table with a plate of fish flakes, beamed.

“Did they say yes? Selys, you should have waited! Congrats, guys! I thought it would be a cool thing to do!”

The Goblins stared at her, and then at Selys. The Drake nodded, feeling less nervous than before.

“It is good, Erin. They’ll be able to earn money and they’ll be sanctioned—even if I doubt Watch Captain Zevara would ever open the gates for them. But they can still earn money. They just have to know the rules. There are things adventures have to do. For instance, there is a yearly fee as well as an entrance fee which Erin paid on your behalf—”

The Goblins shifted their attention to Erin. She smiled at them as she sat. The Goblins looked back at the [Receptionist] sitting across from her. Adventurers? Like Garen Redfang? They were agog. They listened with rapt attention as Selys went over their obligations, many of which Erin had never known about.

Adventurers were bound by more than just a varied interest in treasure. There were many small rules that varied between Adventurer’s Guilds, but a few common ones united adventurers universally. They were subject to the Guild’s authority and while that usually depended on the [Guildmaster] for enforcement, it also depended on the city they worked from.

“In times of crisis any city with an Adventurer’s Guild can demand for you to aid in its defense. You can refuse, but you stand to lose your rank and even be expelled from the Guild, especially if your reasons for refusing are bad. Generally if the request is reasonable and you don’t believe you’ll be in mortal peril, you’re required to lend your assistance. And the city is also required to compensate you for your time and effort.”

“Like with the moths, right?”

“That’s a good example, Erin. Also, a city collects a fee on any artifacts recovered within its jurisdiction. As does the Adventurer’s Guild. I think that’s why Grandmother agreed to making you adventurers, really. Next time you recover treasure or anything from the dungeon, you’ll have to pay a small tax on that to the guild.”

The Goblins exchanged a glance. One of them looked worriedly towards a table. There were three mages sitting around it. Typhenous, Pisces, and Falene. All three were inspecting the artifacts the Redfang Warriors had recovered.

A white bundle of cloth. A bell made of two types of metal. And a necklace with a glowing symbol etched on the black stone. All three mages were taking extreme care not to touch any of the artifacts directly and that went double for the bell. Selys noticed their anxious looks.

“Don’t worry. Those don’t count. But if you get items next time—did I mention you could earn money through bounties?”

The glowing red eyes swung back towards her. Selys nodded carefully.

“There’s bounties on all kinds of monsters. Sometimes because they’re a nuisance—you can earn money by turning in dead Quillfish, although it’s not much.”

“Just give them to me and I’ll make food. That’s more profitable.”

“Right. But there’s stuff that’s worth a lot more! Shield Spider shells for instance. An unbroken shell is worth a lot so the Guild will pay you for any you recover. You can earn money from killing the new Raskghar—the city’s put a bounty on them—killing Lurkersnatch Fish, turning in enchanted armor which is good for melting down, and so on. There’s all kinds of stuff you can earn money from collecting! Even low-level monsters can be worth a lot. There are slime cores, Dropbat teeth, Corusdeer horns—”

“Goblin’s ears.”

Numbtongue spoke softly. Selys gulped. Erin sat up.

“That’s right. Only no one’s attacking you. It would be a crime to attack another Bronze-rank team. Isn’t that right, Selys?”

The Drake nodded.

“They would have to identify themselves. But yes, it is illegal to attack an adventurer. So…”

She looked at the Hobgoblins. They stared at each other and made a few gestures she could’t explain. Then they stood up. Selys scooted her chair back as the Hobgoblins looked at her. Headscratcher spoke.

“We do it. We be adven—”

He stumbled over the word. He was a lot less fluent than Numbtongue.

Adventurers.

The word was almost reverential. Selys nodded and saw some heads staring her way. Revi shook her head slowly.

“So much for standards.”

Erin glared at her. The Stitch-Woman didn’t so much as blink. The Redfang Goblins stared at her, and then seemed to put her out of their minds. They looked at each other and patted each other on the shoulders. Then their heads turned as Pisces pushed his chair back from the table. He looked around importantly.

“I am positive that the necklace is cursed.”

All the side conversations in the inn went quiet. Ceria looked up as she chewed on her second plate of fish flakes, extra spicy.

“You sure, Pisces?”

“Positive. The enchantment is simply too suspicious. The intent of casting, the gripping spell that would keep it from being removed—I can categorically state that it is cursed.”

“What an astute observation. Which I had made ten minutes ago.”

Falene smiled cattily at Pisces. He flushed and narrowed his eyes.

“You brought up the speculation. I am making a definitive statement.”

“I note the difference. The real question is, are the other two cursed? Or do they exude harmful effects?”

“That is uncertain. And I am getting a headache trying to puzzle it out. Neither artifact is straightforward—the cloth is certainly not spelled as a simple protective garb, if it is clothing at all.”

Typhenous rubbed at his eyes, frowning into his white beard. Pisces looked around, annoyed.

“Well, we have identified one of the possible dangers. It is entirely likely the other two are beneficial—the dungeon makers would have had to hide their treasures somewhere.”

“Assuming they didn’t make everything cursed.”

Revi muttered under her breath. Jelaqua nodded.

“Identifying the scary artifacts is good, kids, but even if you’re fairly certain the other ones aren’t trapped, who’s going to test them out? Any volunteers? I can replace my body and I wouldn’t do it if you paid me. This needs a real [Enchanter].”

All eyes swung towards the Redfang Goblins. They stared at the artifacts. Rabbiteater picked at his nose. Instantly, all eyes swung away in disgust. Erin sighed. It looked like there would be more trouble still. She wondered if she should see about making food in preparation for tonight—there would be a crowd from Liscor for the play! Then she glanced over her shoulder and swore.

“Damnit—Lyonette! When did we last check the door?”

“Oh no!”

Lyonette rushed over to the magic doorway. She checked it—the bright green mana stone told her it was attuned to Celum. The [Builders] still hadn’t finished the bridge to Liscor so the only means of getting to the city was via the doorway. But that meant that if they didn’t check it, no one could get through via Celum or Liscor.

Normally they had Ishkr or Drassi or one of the new helpers change the door every ten minutes. It was a royal pain, but they’d gotten a system working. Unfortunately the help only arrived at lunchtime and until then Erin and Lyonette had left people hanging. Lyonette fumbled with the little bowl beside the door.

“We’re late for our daily check in with Pallass!”

“Don’t worry. Venim just gives us a list of people going through and it’s normally no one. He’ll just be mad is all, but I bet a [Guardsman] will have it if we ask—”

Erin broke off as Lyonette put the yellow mana stone on the door and opened it. She heard the voices.

“—do you think we must wait? Should we perhaps keep one of us here while the others—”

The door opened, bringing in sunshine, a cool breeze without a trace of rain, and an open street. Erin saw through the doorway to Pallass a group of furry people, armed with bows and light leather and hide armor, clustered in front of the doorway. They looked up and gaped as the door opened.”

“By the tribes!”

“At last!”

One of them exclaimed. They stepped forwards as Lyonette backed up. Erin stared as the Gnolls clustered in front of the doorway.

“Oh wow.”

“Greetings! Are you in charge of the doorway? We are requesting entrance to Liscor. We have paid for transport, yes? The [Mage] will—what is the phrase? Supply the door with mana?”

A Gnoll with light grey fur called cautiously to Lyonette. She looked at Erin for instructions. Erin hesitated.

“Uh—sure! Come on in! Yeah! Just…step through!”

Cautiously, the Gnolls did. They came through in single-file, looking around, sniffing the air. Not just one or two of them. Not just three or four. Nine armed Gnolls came through, their pelts in every color from the light grey of their leader to a Gnoll with russet red fur and dark black stripes across his chest and ears. They all had bows of differing style—Erin identified some as composite bows from her crash-course in bows from Krshia, while other Gnolls had different versions. They also carried shortswords, clubs, and in one case, a nasty looking barbed spear. When all the Gnolls were through Erin saw a Drake [Mage] step back.

“Everyone through?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

The Drake nodded abruptly and walked away. Lyonette hesitated by the door and then closed it. Erin stared at the Gnolls.

“Uh.”

They regarded her with curious brown eyes. Even the shortest of them was taller than Erin by a good bit. They were lean and muscled and as they looked at the other silent adventurers, Erin got a definite sense that they weren’t here for a social visit. She knew from the way they stayed together, even the way they deferred to the grey Gnoll. These were adventurers.

And they clearly recognized the others. Some of the nine Gnolls pointed surreptitiously at Halrac and another looked straight at Ylawes.

“That is him, yes? The one who fell?”

The other adventurers exchanged glances as the Gnolls looked around as if they were spectators at some kind of show. Erin still had a lot of questions, but she put on her best smile.

“Hi there!”

All the Gnolls immediately looked at her. Erin waved at Lyonette covertly and the young woman started.

“Sorry about the delay. Really sorry. We were a bit busy and uh, forgot to check the door. Welcome to my inn! My name is Erin Solstice. I’m the [Innkeeper]. Can I get you something to drink? Something to eat? Where are you all from? You’re adventurers, aren’t you?”

The Gnoll in charge blinked down at Erin. He looked younger than some of his companions, but Erin guessed he was around her age. Younger? He bared his teeth and then seemed to realize that wasn’t socially polite in Human culture. He changed his smile to a more restrained, toothless one.

“Greetings, Miss Solstice. I am Nailren of the Fletchsing Tribe. We are adventurers. I am leader of my team—The Pride of Kelia. We thank you for  your hospitality and allowing us use of your door.”

“Oh! It’s no problem. Sorry again for waiting. Wow, you’re a Gnollish adventurer team? I’ve never met an all-Gnoll team before!”

Nailren grinned proudly.

“No? Ah, it is not common in Liscor I suppose. But Gnoll adventurers are a common sight further south. We came north to tackle Liscor’s dungeon. We would be grateful to speak of it to you, yes? And to reach Liscor. We understand this inn is not part of the city and it is raining. Is there a route or boat we may hire?”

“Boat? We have something better! A magic door! But hold on—before you go to the Adventurer’s Guild why not stay for breakfast? Er—brunch?”

Erin tried to usher the Gnolls to a seat. They looked at Nailren and one of them, a female Gnoll with yellowish fur and a feather behind one ear, muttered.

“Look at the teams, Nailren! And this inn was the one in the moving pictures, yes?”

“Yes. That is, we would be honored to stay. Please, may we put our gear somewhere for a moment? We are armed for travel. I would not want to offend.”

“Oh no, I’m not offended! Please put them anywhere! Uh—how about that wall? Don’t mind the bee. That’s Apista. Lyonette, let’s get some drinks for our guests! Everyone else, move back!”

Shooing the other adventurers back, Erin scrambled to get food and drinks ready. Gnolls! They sat after putting their gear away. The other adventurers hadn’t yet spoken but as Erin and Lyonette rushed into the kitchen Jelaqua moved forwards.

“Adventurers from the south? Good to meet you. My name’s Jelaqua Ivirith! I lead the Halfseekers—don’t mind the smell. It’s a new dead body I’m using.”

She grinned at them, showing her teeth. One of the Gnolls sniffed her and audibly murmured.

“Selphid.”

Nailren didn’t miss a beat. He stood up and shook Jelaqua’s clawed hand, baring his teeth in a welcoming Gnoll smile.

“I am honored to meet a Gold-rank adventurer! And one of recent fame! May I ask who else is gathered here?”

The Gnolls in his team murmured agreement, looking at the other teams appreciatively. The  adventurers preened a bit at that and began coming forwards to introduce themselves. As the ice broke, the mood instantly warmed and Erin saw them standing around the table, asking exactly how far the Gnolls had travelled, what their team specialized in, and so on. She saw Mrsha pad forwards, her tail wagging as she stood up on two legs to see the new Gnoll team.

For a second the Gnolls didn’t see her, but one sniffed and looked down. His gaze focused on Mrsha and his eyes widened. The Gnoll leapt up from the table with a shout.

“White fur!”

The other Gnolls looked around. They stood up instantly, staring at Mrsha. She fell onto all fours and her ears and tail went down. Instantly she ran backwards and hid behind Moore. Erin stopped, hands filled with her plate full of fish flakes. Nailren was growling at the Gnoll who’d shouted.

“Hush, Bekr! It is a child!”

“But the fur—”

Nailren turned, saw Erin staring and reached back to cuff his teammate on the shoulder.

“Shush!”

“That’s Mrsha.”

Erin put the plate carefully on the table. She saw some of the Gnolls sniff as the scent of the hot fish flakes reached their noses, but they didn’t take their eyes off of Mrsha. Erin folded her arms.

“She’s a survivor of the Stone Spears tribe. They were attacked by the Goblin Lord. She lives here. Is that a problem?”

“No.”

Nailren replied instantly and authoritatively, although some of his teammates seemed less than sure. He glanced around, growled quietly, and they all sat down. Nailren lowered his head to Erin.

“My deepest apologies Miss Solstice. We are not as…traditional as our tribes. We do not bear hostility or fear towards those with white fur, but it is a surprise.”

“I understand. But Mrsha is friendly. Isn’t that right, Mrsha?”

Erin tried to coax Mrsha out from behind Moore’s back, but the Gnoll child was scared now and refused to budge. Nailren looked at his companions and then growled something softly. Erin had no idea what he said, but he seemed to repeat himself after a second.

Another Gnoll, the female with the feather and yellow fur, echoed the growl and Mrsha slowly came out from behind Moore. She approached slowly as everyone watched and her tail wagged a bit. She stood up and waved a paw at them. Nailren looked confused. He glanced at Erin and she realized the second miscommunication.

“Mrsha can’t speak.”

“Ah.”

That second piece of information did its round across the Gnoll faces. Nailren looked at his companions and shook his head.

“Forgiveness. Again. We are glad to see a Gnoll child, especially after travelling the Drake cities. Please ignore our rudeness.”

He glanced at the others and then quite obviously changed the subject.

“Is this Deki paste that I smell? On fried fish it seems? But what is the yellow-white things? And why do the fishes smell of flour and bread?”

Erin smiled, relieved, as Lyonette gathered Mrsha into her arms and Moore sat back so the Gnoll could watch with him.

“These are fish flakes! Here—try some.”

Crisis averted, the Gnolls sat and the other adventurers found themselves hungry for a snack after breakfast. Erin rushed back into the kitchen and paused.

“Oh damn, I forgot. Lyonette? Check if anyone’s in Celum. Octavia might be starving to death. Again!”

The [Barmaid] put down Mrsha and stood up. Eager to help, Mrsha raced to the door and removed the yellow stone herself. As the others watched she put another mana stone on the door and swung it open. Instantly, Erin heard another voice, a woman’s, speaking loudly and with great irritation.

“For the last time Miss [Alchemist], we are not buying one of your potions. We already bought something out of courtesy. No, we don’t need another healing potion. Or a stamina potion. Or a mana potion. We have plenty! Please take that bottle away before I shove it up—”

There were more people standing in Octavia’s shop. A woman was arguing with the Stitch-Girl, poking her finger at Octavia who was giving her a desperate smile and holding a glowing yellow potion. The adventurer was flanked by five teammates, all Human, and as they turned they stared.

“Dead gods!”

One of them exclaimed. Erin saw the woman arguing with Octavia shift and the weapon on her back, a sledgehammer of all things, caught the light. Her companions were decked out with other fighting gear including ropes slung across shoulders, crossbows, swords, and even a net! They were adventurers too. And they stared into Erin’s inn.

“It really is a magic doorway! Look at that, Earlia!”

“I see that! Hallo there! Is this inn open?”

Earlia, the woman with the sledgehammer, called at Mrsha, who was the one she could see. Mrsha immediately ran for it and hid behind Moore again. Erin hurried into view.

“Hello! Hello! We’re in! Come on through! Anyone want food? I’m Erin!”

The adventurers stared at her and then Earlia grinned.

“Alright then! Pile on through you lot!”

They hurried into the inn with a bit too much eagerness. Erin saw Octavia sigh and peered at her suspiciously. The [Alchemist] waved and then the door closed. Suddenly the inn was full of people! Erin saw the adventurers gaping at the huge space behind her and was acutely grateful for her [Grand Theatre] Skill.

“Sit anywhere you like! Put your stuff anywhere you like! Hi, I’m Erin. This is my inn. I’m terribly sorry for the delay—you’re the second band of adventurers who’ve come through this morning! These are all other adventurers—want food?”

“Dead gods, what a lot of teams! Is this some kind of inn that caters to adventurers?”

Earlia stared around at the other teams. She shifted her warhammer and then caught sight of one of the Redfang Goblins standing at the back of the inn. She immediately changed grips.

“Hobs!”

Her teammates instantly grabbed for their weapons. Erin waved her hands frantically.

“Wait, wait, wait!

She needn’t have shouted. As soon as Earlia had exclaimed she was shouting at her teammates.

“Hold! Hold, damn it all! They’re not attacking!”

She’d made the obvious conclusion that if the Hobs were in the inn with the adventurers, they couldn’t exactly be rogue monsters. Still, half of her teammates refused to put down their weapons. Erin saw some of the Gnolls shifting uneasily too. She waved her hands for everyone’s attention.

“Excuse me! We have an important rule in this inn! Please read that!”

She pointed to the sign she’d put on the wall right by the doorway. The adventurers read it.

“No killing Goblins?”

They exchanged incredulous looks, but Earlia nodded as if she’d expected it. She whistled softly as she glanced at Erin and then looked around the giant common room.

“So the rumors are true after all.”

“Rumors?”

The adventuress nodded. She stowed her warhammer against a wall and held out a hand. Erin shook it, feeling her rough calluses. Earlia gave her a cocksure grin.

“Sorry about that, Miss. Yes, the rumors! I didn’t believe it myself—though we’d have to travel for another four days to get to Liscor! But we heard all manner of talk the closer we got to Celum. People say there’s a crazy inn just outside of Liscor with Hobgoblin security and a magic doorway. They say the inn’s guarded by Hobs and Hollowstone Deceivers, and that the innkeeper can melt folks with her eyes!”

“They do?”

Erin was flattered. Earlia laughed.

“Not just that! We heard for a fact that the inn’s got more than a few tricks up its sleeve. This place fought off hundreds of moths during the Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor! It’s famous! Uh, what’s the name of it?”

“The Wandering Inn!”

She didn’t know whether to be indignant or happy. Erin propped her hands on her hips.

“And I’m Erin! Erin Solstice! I told you that. Do people talk about me?”

Rumors had already spread about the attack on Liscor? That made sense—Wistram had broadcast the images of the battle across the world. But to Erin’s great disappointment Earlia bit her lip.

“Uh—no. We heard there’s a crazy Human living here—that you?”

“That’s me! They don’t even mention my name? What about me during the battle? What about the city?”

The adventurers were seated now and Lyonette was running from the kitchen to the common room. They were out of fish flakes so she brought out Erin’s other snacky foods. Earlia grabbed some bread and soft cheese and bit into it as she spoke, talking around her mouthful.

“Not much, honestly! Everyone’s talking about the battle for Liscor, but only how intense it was. We heard all about it as we were headed this way. Second-hand. Apparently there are recordings, but no one had a scrying orb to show us so we got it out of a [Mage] who’d seen most of it.”

“Recordings of the battle?”

Erin saw a stir among the adventurers. It was Nailren who nodded and replied.

“Pallass is selling the recollection. It is an expensive thing. A playback of events. Apparently Wistram has created many minor magical artifacts that replay the battle in its entirety. They call them…what was the word? Movies, yes? We paid to see the battle. The price was dear, but worthwhile, yes?”

Movies?

Erin’s jaw dropped. Pisces glanced at her face and his eyes narrowed. The other team of Humans looked envious.

“You saw it? I heard it was a hell of a fight! Of course, some adventurers lived it. Real badasses helped hold the line I heard! Took down a moth as tall as the walls of the city themselves!”

At her words some of the aforementioned badass adventurers turned red. Earlia glanced at them. Her eyes widened.

“Five Houses! Look you lot!”

She pointed straight at Moore. The half-Giant blinked. Earlia’s jaw dropped. Her eyes found Seborn and then, swung to Jelaqua as she identified the Selphid. She got to her feet in amazement.

“You must be the Halfseekers! And are you the Silver Swords?”

She’d spotted Ylawes, Falene, and Dawil as well. The adventurers nodded or bowed or in Moore’s case, waved a gigantic hand. Earlia’s team exclaimed and all stood up. They wanted to shake hands but a loud sound interrupted them.

“There’s another famous team here as well, you know.”

Revi and Typhenous looked disgruntled at not being identified. The Stitch-Woman folded her arms and Earlia’s team of Humans exchanged looks. The young woman stared at Revi and Typhenous and then looked at Halrac. His answering scowl made her eyes flicker.

“Halrac the Grim? Griffon Hunt?”

They nodded and Earlia’s team was star struck all over again. One of them exclaimed as they turned to shake hands.

“I heard you were a team of four!”

“We were.”

And like that, the good mood in the inn went out. Erin looked at Halrac sadly and guiltily and then clapped her hands. Everyone turned towards her.

“Alright, let’s get this sorted so I’m not confused! We have Goblins! Yes! We have Mrsha! Wave, Mrsha. She’s cute. I’m Erin! This is Lyonette! And we have six adventuring teams in here so far! Griffon Hunt! The Halfseekers! The Silver Swords! The Horns of Hammerad! The Pride of Kelia and…

Erin looked expectantly at Earlia. The adventurer stood up.

“Sorry you all! Should have done that sooner. We’re Gemhammer! A Silver-rank team from the north! The name’s Earlia—I’m the Captain.”

“And we are a Silver-rank team from the south. I failed to mention that. I am Nailren, leader of my team.”

Nailren spoke, bowing slightly. The new adventurers looked around, surprised.

Three Gold-rank teams here? That’s a sight you wouldn’t see that often in Invrisil! Sorry we didn’t recognize you. It’s just that the Halfseekers are a lot more noticeable.”

Earlia turned towards Griffon Hunt, all of whom shrugged moodily. Nailren looked at the other teams and bowed slightly to Jelaqua.

“The Halfseekers are known in the south of Izril as well. We were impressed by the battling of all three of your teams. Truly courageous. Sir Halrac’s defeat of the giant moth by himself was astounding, as was the Silver Sword’s prowess. But the Horns of Hammerad also astounded, truly.”

At that, Earlia glanced towards the Horns, who were sitting back, slightly overshadowed by their illustrious colleagues. She offered them an apologetic smile.

“Horns of Hammerad? I’m afraid we haven’t even heard of your team. We’re from far up north, past Invrisil. We’ve been on the road for the last month, ever since we heard about the dungeon!”

“They were part of the fighting against the moths. One of them actually cast the weather spell that ended the battle.”

“You did? Incredible! We heard about that? Are you a [Weather Mage]?”

Earlia looked at Pisces, and then Ceria. Both demurred and then Earlia spotted Ksmvr.

“An Antinium?

“I am Ksmvr. Hello.”

Erin looked around desperately. There was no end to the explanations! She looked at Lyonette and pointed.

“Break out the whiskey, Lyonette. I think we need a few drinks so everyone can get to know one another.”

That idea was received well by all parties, except by the newcomers, strangely enough. Earlia raised a hand.

“Oh, not for us. We can’t drink now.”

“Neither we.”

Nailren nodded. He was looking out the window at the pouring rain and sniffing. He coughed politely and looked to Erin.

“As much as we would delight in talking, we cannot drink or eat overlong. We are bound for the dungeon as quickly as possible. And we would greatly appreciate directions.”

“Same here.”

Earlia nodded and shifted her grip on her warhammer. The other adventurers stared at them. Revi was the first to speak up.

“Are you serious?”

 

—-

 

“A Gold-rank dungeon. When was the last time one of those has been discovered? A century ago? Two?”

Earlia shook her head wonderingly. She hadn’t heard the latest news about the dungeon, that Tekshia had proclaimed it suitable for teams of Gold-rank or higher. Neither had The Pride of Kelia. They sat at their tables as Ylawes, Jelaqua, and Revi delivered the bad news in turns. Earlia shook her head.

“I can see why, though. Isn’t the dungeon underwater at the moment? It’d be a hell of a thing for a Bronze-rank team to enter. And the moths that came out—that’s Gold-rank for sure.”

“Exactly. So sorry that the Adventurer’s Guild hasn’t spread the word. But that’s the way it is. You can probably find some work dealing with the fish or something, but I’m afraid you’ve come all this way for nothing.”

Revi gave both teams a sweet, fake smile of regret. Earlia eyed her and looked at Nailren. The Silver-rank Gnoll Captain was looking at his team. He bowed his head, his ears twitching slightly.

“A danger indeed. We have heard rumors about the dungeon. Treasure obtained, monster hordes…it is a threat worthy of the rank.”

“Yeah.”

Earlia sighed. Then she slapped her knees and stood up.

“Alright, let’s go in. Nailren, want to cooperate until we get into the dungeon? Word is it’s a labyrinth so we can split up easily.”

The Gnoll grinned as he stood with his team.

“You read my mind, yes? We can at least hire a boat together. Shall we?”

They strode for the doors. The Gold-rank teams scrambled to stop them.

“Wait, wait! Didn’t you hear? This is a Gold-rank dungeon!”

Revi looked outraged. Earlia stared at her and then frowned.

“So?”

So? So it’s dangerous you moronic—”

Revi was muffled by Ylawes as he moved to block her. The [Knight] smiled apologetically.

“I’m sorry Miss Earlia, but the dungeon is truly dangerous. A Silver-rank team should not enter it. Even we Gold-rank teams hesitate to venture further in unwary. The Halfseekers have been cooperating with Griffon Hunt to enter via one entrance for two months and they have still encountered many, many setbacks. It would not be right for us to let another team enter when so many have perished or unleashed horrors by mistake.”

Earlia heard Ylawes out, nodding and looking concerned. Then she shrugged.

“Thanks, but we didn’t come this way to turn back now. Gold-rank or not, we’re entering this dungeon.”

She tried to brush past Ylawes. He moved to block her. Earlia frowned and put a hand on her warhammer’s hilt.

“Hey. Stop joking around here.”

“We’re not.”

Jelaqua answered for the others. She folded her arms, her tail curling up around one leg.

“I know you came all this way, but you kids are in over your heads. We can’t let you enter the dungeon. And the Adventurer’s Guild and the city will back us.”

“Really?”

The Human and Gnoll adventurers looked at each other. Earlia stood straighter to confer with Nailren.

“Might be best to head in right now if the Adventurer’s Guild and the city’s going to cause a fuss.”

“Are you insane?

Revi burst out. Earlia gave her an impatient look.

“Maybe? Move aside, Gold-ranks. We’re going in. My team and I did not ride for a month straight just to turn back now.”

“What about caution for your lives?”

Ylawes folded his arms. Earlia snorted.

“Caution is for Gold-rank teams, old man. We’ll never succeed if we hide and run from every challenge. Or have you forgotten what makes us adventurers?”

She jabbed a thumb at her chest.

“We know the dungeon’s above our pay grade. But that doesn’t mean we can’t handle it with luck and Skill. We’ll go in, get our measure of the place, and go out. We might get killed, we might not. But if we don’t try, who’ll conquer it? You lot? No thanks. There’s treasure down there and we mean to have it.”

“Exactly. We have come for the dungeon. It is wrong of you to try and stop us. If it is death we seek, let us find it and fight it with tooth and claw.”

Nailren growled and his team growled with him. The Gold-rank adventurers looked at each other uncertainly. Earlia tried to step around Ylawes and this time ran straight into Dawil.

“Hold on, Human. You may not know this, but the last group of adventurers set off the attack on Liscor.”

The others looked at him askance, but Dawil went on, never taking his eyes off of Earlia.

“They had no idea what they were doing, bumbling about. How’ll you lot account for the dead if you screw up?”

He looked up challengingly at Earlia and Erin held her breath. But the young woman didn’t so much as blink. She bent down and grinned toothily at Dawil.

“We’ll figure that out when it happens, Dwarf. But if we were good at planning ahead we wouldn’t be adventurers.”

Her team laughed at that, and cheered, lifting their weapons. Earlia looked around and raised her voice.

“We’re going in. Danger or not. We’re adventurers. Not Gold-rank. Not yet. And we’re not running from a challenge.”

Nailren nodded. His ears slowly flattened and he drew his bow.

“It is perhaps best we met you so we could say it to your faces first, no? We will not abide by your rules. We will enter ourselves. And if you would stop us, then try.

The Silver-rank adventurers raised their weapons. The Gold-rank ones, the ones blocking the way, put a hand on theirs but looked uneasy about a fight. Earlia looked around and called out.

“You! Horns of Hammerad! Are you with us?”

The Horns of Hammerad jumped. Ceria looked at the Humans and Gnolls.

“Who? Us?”

“That’s right! We’re going in. Are you being held back by these Gold-rank teams too? Join us! We could fight down there together or join forces for reconnaissance!”

Ceria looked uncertainly at her team. Erin saw her hesitate, bite a lip. The [Innkeeper] watched as Ceria looked at the two Silver-rank teams, shining with confidence and bravado and hesitated. Ceria’s heart pounded. Her hands, flesh and skeletal, shook. Her mouth went dry.

Terror. Skinner dragged himself down the hallways, the armor of flesh on his body gaping at her. The undead charged forwards as Skinner’s red eyes shone at her. Ceria saw Gerial stride forwards, saw the hand descend. Calruz’s scream etched itself in her ears. The coffin’s stone lid was hard as she pressed her hands against it, trying not to scream.

“I—”

“We’re not letting you through. Any of you.”

Ylawes drew his sword and grabbed his shield. Earlia unslung her warhammer. The adventurers in the inn braced. Erin saw Moore glance at Jelaqua who nodded slightly and Falene stand up, grasping her staff. She saw Revi raise a wand and be yanked backwards by Halrac who said something to Typhenous. But all of that was a blur because Erin was running forwards. She leapt in front of Ylawes and Earlia.

Stop!

Her shout echoed in the inn and the pressure that went with it stayed all hands. Every eye fixed on Erin as she stood in front of the adventures. She turned around slowly and the pressure that had gripped everyone but Mrsha, Lyonette, and Apista faded.

“Wait one second. Put away your weapons. Listen.

She looked at Earlia and Nailren. The two adventurer Captains stared at her with wide eyes. Erin took a deep breath.

“Look. You’ve just got here so let me lay this on you. Liscor is flooded. To get anywhere you need my magic door or a boat. And there are two entrances to the dungeon. One through the main entrance which is aboveground. But there’s tons of magical traps. It’s not been cleared yet. The other way’s through the underwater rift, which is what you’re suggesting. You’d need a boat to get out there, and you’d need to hold your breath just to sink all the way down. There are evil fish in the water. And if you get into the dungeon itself, the odds are you will be ambushed in the first five seconds.”

Earlia glanced at her team. She shook her head impatiently.

“Thanks Miss Innkeeper, but you can’t—”

Wait.

Erin’s command halted Earlia’s tongue. The [Innkeeper] took a deep breath and went on.

“The ambushers are Raskghar, the distant ancestors of Gnolls. They’re big, really strong, but can’t level. They can see in the dark and use poison-tipped arrows to shoot you from afar when you enter. That’s how a lot of teams have gotten killed or maybe captured.”

Nailren snarled softly.

“We know the Raskghar. It is one of the reasons why we came. To do battle against our ancient, traitorous brethren. They do not scare us.”

“Yeah? Well, watch out for them when you enter. Get a shield. And maybe try my patented, special magic food. Lyonette?”

Erin turned. Lyonette nearly tripped as she ran forwards with a bowl of what looked like blackened rocks mixed with limes. Erin offered it to Earlia and Nailren, who sniffed it dubiously.

“Free sample. Try it. It tastes awful.”

“Why would we want to try that?”

“Because it makes you stronger? Or how about my scale soup? I have another one that makes you warm even if you’re naked in the snow. I have magic food. It won’t last forever, but it’ll even the odds.”

Earlia hesitated and looked at Nailren. She lowered her warhammer a bit.

“That’s…useful. Are you telling us you’ll sell us the food?”

“And I’ll get you a boat and escort. I know where the dungeon is.”

What? Erin, you can’t be serious!”

Jelaqua was outraged. The Selphid strode forwards.

“You’re planning on letting this lot enter?”

“Absolutely. And I’m going to need a copy of that map. Which I will buy from you and which other people can buy from me. If you need potions, Octavia can get you extras. And I’d get more because Raskghar are the least of your worries down there! There’s Flesh Worms, undead, giant metal armor dudes, this thing that collects heads—Selys will write up a list.”

“I will?”

Erin ignored Selys. She locked gazes with Earlia and Nailren, looking from face to face.

“It’ll all be here tomorrow. Information, transport, everything. You can find an inn in Liscor or Celum. I’ll keep my door open. Find an inn, get settled, and if you need to, talk with the Adventurer’s Guild. But regardless, come back here and I’ll help you get into the dungeon.”

“Erin!”

She spun and glared at Jelaqua.

What?

Jelaqua looked furious. She pointed at the Silver-ranked adventurers.

“You’re going to get those kids killed! This is insane, even for you. If you let them go in—”

“If I don’t they’ll find another way. Or are you planning on beating them up and locking them up?”

Erin challenged the Selphid. Jelaqua opened her mouth furiously and tried to come up with a response.

“We—”

She hesitated and looked at Ylawes and Halrac uncertainly. The [Knight] was scrubbing a hand through his hair, looking frustrated. Halrac folded his arms.

“Erin’s right.”

“Halrac! You too?”

The [Scout] nodded. Erin gave him a grateful look. She turned and faced the others.

“You can’t stop Silver-ranked teams from going in. That’s what being an adventurer is all about, right? However, I can help. This inn will be more than a place for people to rest. If adventurers are going into the dungeon, I’ll try and make sure they come back out.”

“You are insane.”

Revi poked a finger at Erin. She glared back.

“Oh yeah? You do something then! Go ahead and stop them. I’ll try and stitch you back together once the fight is over, but no promises! I’m bad with needles.”

The Stitch-Girl looked around helplessly, mouth open in outrage. But Erin knew she was right. Both The Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer were ready to fight. And they were right, in a way. Erin didn’t quite look at the Horns of Hammerad.

“Playing it safe is all very well, but if they want to enter the dungeon responsibly, that’s their call. All I can do is help. That’s why I’m an [Innkeeper], not an adventurer. With that said—”

She swung back to both teams and looked at them.

“Tomorrow. You don’t rush this. You get some sleep, figure out where you’re sleeping, and come back when you’re ready. You can try going now but I guarantee you that my magic stuff and maps and so on will help. Got it?”

Earlia and Nailren looked at her. It was the Human who lowered her sledgehammer first.

“You’re as crazy as they say. I like you! We’ll do it your way, Miss Erin. You wouldn’t happen to have any rooms for us, would you?”

Erin gave her a wide, relieved smile.

“Sorry. My Hobgoblins took all but two. I have a basement open if you can’t find any inns in Liscor, though. But I’m sure Celum has space.”

 

—-

 

Later, Erin found herself carefully writing on a piece of parchment with a quill and ink. It wasn’t easy. She had cramped handwriting and she had trouble getting it to look good, since it was meant to be read from afar. At last she gave up, had a smart idea, and went to get Lyonette.

“Why don’t you do it with your [Flawless Attempt]?”

That made everything incredibly easy. Erin watched with envy as Lyonette wrote huge words on the parchment, even managing to add a rough sketch in charcoal. When it was done, Erin plastered the parchment to the wall of her inn by the magic doorway. She paused.

“We might need a bulletin board. This works for now, though.”

Lyonette went to stand by her. She looked up and read the words she’d so carefully inscripted on the parchment.

 

Wanted. Information on the sightings of the Minotaur known as Calruz. He has one arm, possibly wields a battleaxe and is bad-tempered sometimes. Credible information provided under [Detect Truth] spell will be rewarded with 50 gold coins.

 

“Do you think it’ll work?”

“If adventurers are going down into the dungeon? Why not? This way they’ll all keep an eye out, even if they’re not actively looking. And I’m going to make sure they all come through my inn before they enter.”

Erin folded her arms and frowned with determination. Her ears still rang from her shouting match with Revi. But she knew she was right. The dungeon was a threat. It had to be entered. And adventurers would keep going in. And if they were going to go in, they might as well go in prepared.

The Gold-rank teams were smart. They were cautious. They planned ahead. But they were also sort of elitist. They wanted to keep the map, the information about the dungeon, and the right to enter to themselves. Erin understood that, but she knew it wasn’t practical. And if something wasn’t practical, what was the point? She nodded at Lyonette.

“Think the bridge is ready?”

“I think so. The Gnoll in charge told me it was nearly done.”

“Good! Then let’s check it out.”

Erin left the inn and stepped out into the rain. Still raining? Yup. Her cozy, well-lit inn was at odds with the downpour outside. Erin thought she might get more business if she let people from Liscor go to Celum or Pallass for a holiday in the sun. She stared down her hill to where the water met the land.

There was a bridge there. It was simple, made of wooden planks tied onto rope with two rope handrails. The bridge sat on the water and it stretched to a tall pole jutting out of the water. A hill, or the top of one. The [Builders] had anchored the bridge there and stretched it to another hill. Thus, the bridge zigzagged from the top of hill to hill until it reached the city.

“Weird. But they said it’s good, right?”

“It should be.”

Lyonette watched as Erin walked down the hill, slipping a bit with all the wetness, and reached the bridge. As Erin stepped onto the first plank she saw it sink into the water. Instantly, cold water filled the bottom of her indoor slippers.

“Gah! Cold!”

Still, Erin didn’t pull back. She took another step, further onto the bridge, letting it hold her weight. The bridge sunk a tiny bit as she stepped onto the wooden boards, but it was remarkably stable. Erin wiggled her toes and smiled.

“It’s so cool! It’s underwater but not! This is great!”

“It’s also dangerous.”

Lyonette observed as she stared across the bridge as it networked from hill to hill and then finally reached Liscor’s walls. From there one had to climb a ladder up to the battlements. She frowned at the rain-thrashed waters.

“Anything could still pop out. If you’re an Antinium or unprepared for a fight, it could be risky. I won’t let Mrsha go on the bridge and I think I’d prefer to use the magic door too.”

Erin nodded.

“Definitely. But this is a way for other people to get here. Look! I think we already have visitors!”

She pointed. In the distance, Drakes were headed across the bridge. Drakes and Gnolls and a few Humans. Lots of them. Dozens already and Erin suspected there would be more to come. Behind her, she could hear the inn humming with life. The Players of Celum had already set up and they were getting ready for The Triumph of Liscor performed by their second-string cast, before they put on Juliet and Romeo for the first time in her inn for Liscor’s crowd.

“Lyonette, I feel like we’re actually successful, don’t you?”

“If your inn becomes a hub for adventurers on top of a place where plays happen every night, I don’t see how it wouldn’t be.”

Lyonette smiled at Erin. The [Innkeeper] grinned back. She looked speculatively back at the inn and shivered as the rain drenched her.

“Think it’ll work?”

“What, the plan with the adventurers?”

“No. Yes. I mean, the plan to get them to overcome their fear.”

There was a reason Ylawes had stopped objecting. Erin sighed as she looked back up to the inn. Lyonette shook her head.

“I don’t know, Erin. They’ve been through so much. Do they have to do it? Wouldn’t it be kinder to let them—”

“What? Stay here? Keep talking about doing it and never go in? Calruz might be alive, Lyonette. If this is anything like a story—he is. It might be dangerous. They might die.”

Erin gulped as her throat suddenly closed. The thought of her friends dying made her want to cry. But she didn’t. She wiped rain out of her eyes instead and took a deep breath.

“But that’s what makes them adventurers.

 

—-

 

The Drake stood on the balcony, dressed in rich, elegant clothing fit for a noblewoman. She looked down and spoke, her chin raised, her manner refined.

“If they do see thee they will murder thee.”

Below her, concealed in the bushes, a Human man looked up. His clothes were no less fine, but the colors muted. He had snuck here uninvited and his life was in as much jeopardy as she said. But he responded with brash confidence.

“Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords. Look thou but sweet, and I am proof against their enmity.”

His words made the Drake smile unwillingly. She opened a fan to conceal her expression and replied. Pisces didn’t have to hear her to know what she’d said. He’d watched Juliet and Romeo performed countless times in Celum. Wesle and Jasi had refined their craft since then, and they embodied the [Lord] and [Lady] they were supposed to be.

“A fine performance, wouldn’t you say?”

He glanced sideways at the others sitting at his table. Ceria looked up moodily from her beef casserole. She hadn’t set into it yet, which was uncharacteristic of the half-Elf; by her side, Yvlon’s plate was equally untouched. Ksmvr was shoveling down his food like there was no tomorrow.

“What? The play? There’s certainly enough people for it.”

She glanced around the room. Erin’s [Grand Theatre] Skill afforded her a room three times as big as a normal inn, already large. It was nearly packed by Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans. Celum’s theater-loving crowd had filled some seats, but Liscor’s citizenry had finally heard of the wonders of the stage and they had come to see what all the fuss was about. So far, they hadn’t been disappointed.

“A standing ovation for The Triumph of Liscor. Subpar writing, an unctuous display of patriotism—from Humans to Drakes, I note—only redeemed by the star of the cast. Me. What would be the appropriate response to a true work of art? Wild orgies in the streets?”

Yvlon snorted and then glared. Pisces smiled, pleased at himself. Ceria grinned unwillingly and then looked morose again. Ksmvr looked up.

“What are—”

“Later, Ksmvr.”

The Horns of Hammerad sat as they looked around the room. The Wandering Inn had risen fast, hadn’t it? From an empty house it was now a full one, and populated by movers and shakers and dancers as it were. Wall Lord Ilvriss was there, sitting with a group of Drakes. So were three Gold-rank teams, and now, three Silver-rank ones as well. The Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer had come back to eat and see the play and they were entranced. Ceria couldn’t take her eyes off them for different reasons. She played with her fork, spreading her cheese around the plate listlessly.

“Do you think they’re right, Pisces?”

He looked at her, distracted by the play.

“Hm? Ah, well, they are certainly forthright.”

“Confident to the point of suicide, perhaps.”

Yvlon frowned, looking at the Human team. She touched her arm unconsciously and Ceria glanced at her.

“Yeah. Yeah. The Gold-rankers certainly seem to think so. It’s just that they’re…well, they’re our level, aren’t they? Silver-rank. And they’re good too, according to what Selys managed to dig up on them.”

“Good isn’t enough for this dungeon.”

The armored [Wounded Warrior] spoke through tight lips. Ceria hesitated.

“Maybe. But they’re still willing to risk it. And here we are. We haven’t gone into the dungeon. It’s been a long time since Pisces told us that Calruz might be alive. So are we—I mean, am I—a coward?”

She choked on the words. Pisces looked up. Ksmvr stopped noshing and Yvlon turned.

“Ceria—”

“I’m the team leader. I was part of Calruz’ team! He was my leader. I should be telling us to go in now, but every time I want to, I freeze up. I know we have to move. I know, but—”

Ceria gestured at her hands. Pisces saw her skeletal hand, holding her fork. It was shaking so badly she could barely hold on. She tried to hold her hand with her other one, but they were both shaking. Ceria shook her head, tears springing to her eyes.

“I’m a coward! I shouldn’t be Captain. But I—I know what’s down there. I know. Things like Skinner. Maybe worse. I’m afraid, but I can’t back down! And you all need a leader! I shouldn’t be a Captain. I—”

“It’s my fault too.”

Yvlon grabbed Ceria’s arm. The half-Elf looked at her. Yvlon looked pained.

“I’m afraid too. I haven’t said anything. I agreed with you—because I lost too much too. I should have asked if we wanted to go in, really wanted to risk our lives. But I was afraid of looking cowardly. I was afraid of disappointing my brother. It’s not just you, Ceria. It’s…I’m scared.”

“I know. It’s not fair to ask you to go in. Not for Calruz. Not when we could die. When it’s so likely.”

Ceria looked at Yvlon, then at Pisces. He met her gaze and then fiddled with his utensils. Ksmvr looked around.

“But you are our Captain, Captain Springwalker. How else should we move, if not by your will?”

“Oh, Ksmvr. I can’t ask you to die for me. And this—I’m not worthy to do it.”

The half-Elf closed her eyes. She sat still as the play went on in the background. Pisces was still for a while, his eyes flicking to the play behind Ceria, and then he sighed.

“And yet, we follow you.”

Ceria looked up. Pisces pushed his plate back and looked at her, looked at Yvlon.

“You are afraid. You fear for our lives, rightly so. You have declined to enter the dungeon. Of course I was aware of this.”

“I was not.”

Ksmvr raised a hand. Everyone looked at him. Pisces cleared his throat.

“Friend Ksmvr. Now you are aware. By her own admission, Ceria calls herself a coward. Unfit for duty. Does that change your opinion of her? Of your position in the group?”

The Antinium cocked his head, thinking. He shook it.

“Never. If Captain Ceria and Yvlon fear to enter, command me. I will go in alone and find this Minotaur. I am part of the team. If my Captain fears, I will be fearless. If there is death, I will fight it.”

He looked around proudly and saw the pain in Ceria and Yvlon’s eyes. Ksmvr hesitated.

“What? You gave me purpose. You gave me a place. How could I offer you anything less?”

“Ksmvr.”

Ceria closed her eyes and Yvlon reached out to grab his hand. Pisces sniffed.

“Well spoken. For my part, I do not intend to die. But neither do I intend to leave this group. I have waited. The other teams prepare. Ceria, Yvlon. If you fear to enter the dungeon, say so. I will not think twice at walking away. But if you do not—”

Pisces’ eyes glittered.

“Then say so and we will follow you into that hell.”

“Even if we die?”

The [Necromancer]’s eyes shone in the dim lighting.

“I do not plan on dying. If you intend to order us to our deaths then by all means step down. But tell me there is a chance of victory and I will seize it. Point us to glory, Ceria. Did we not enter Albez ourselves? Are we adventurers or cowards? If we are the latter, why have we risked our lives and fought together? If we are the former, why are you afraid?

A shock ran through the other three adventurers. The Horns of Hammerad looked up. Ceria felt strength return to her shaking hands. She made a fist and looked Pisces in the eye. There was a shining light there, a burning passion. She had seen it once before, in a younger man’s eyes. She felt her limbs stop shaking. She opened her mouth and heard a voice from the stage.

“If that thy bent of love be honourable, thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow.”

Jasi bent to stage-whisper to Wesle. The Drake gave the Human a smile full of young, reckless love. Ceria heard a sigh from the Humans and nothing from the Drakes. And then a voice.

“A Drake marrying a Human? Outrageous!”

A shout broke through the sacred silence of the play. Wall Lord Ilvriss leapt to his feet, bursting with outrage. He tried to rush the stage. Two Hobgoblins ran to stop him.

“This play is a disgrace!”

“Disgusting!”

The Drakes in the audience were getting to their feet. Their beatific smiles were replaced by pure hostility as they hurled drinks and food at the shocked actors. The Humans in the crowd were stunned—until that shock turned to anger.

“What’s wrong with that? Let the girl marry him!”

“It’s not like we like your scaly faces either! Get lost you tailed freaks!”

The audience turned on each other. Shouting about the sanctity of Drake species turned into threats. The Drakes and Humans shook fists and claws and thrashed tails, and then began to hurl things at each other. From their seat the Horns of Hammerad didn’t see who threw the first punch, but as soon as it started a brawl broke out.

Drakes leapt onto tables and kicked Humans to the ground while Humans grabbed chairs, mugs, anything they could get their hands on. The five Hobgoblins began hitting Humans and Drakes alike but the angry mob was too far gone and they turned on the Goblins as well.

“Dead gods.”

Ceria was shocked by the sudden turn of events. She saw Erin trying to restore order—right until someone hurled their plate of spaghetti in her face. On the stage the Players of Celum defended themselves as Drakes rushed at them. Ceria got to her feet and saw the adventurers in the room get mixed up in the fighting too.

Jelaqua was already defending herself from angry Drakes who were using this moment to object in no uncertain terms to her using a Drake’s body. Moore was a target purely based on his size. Ylawes had gotten into a brawl by trying to break it up. Griffon Hunt was standing against the walls as was The Pride of Kelia, but Gemhammer was already on their feet. Earlia punched a Drake, laughing as her friends upended their table for cover from the flying projectiles.

“Whoa. This inn is great!”

The Horns tended to disagree. They were sitting at a far wall, but the fighting was spreading fast. Yvlon spotted Ishkr pulling Drassi back to the kitchen while he tried to shield himself with a platter.

“What a mess!”

There were multiple sides. Drakes, Humans, the Gnolls who seemed keen to either escape or fight indiscriminately, and Erin’s faction. They were badly outnumbered, however. Yvlon saw Headscratcher vault over a table and kick Ilvriss in the chest. The Wall Lord roared, punched the Hobgoblin, and then was struck on the back of the head by an angry [Actor].

Ilvriss turned, decked the Human with a single blow and then grabbed a chair. Headscratcher was borne to the ground by a trio of Humans, but they all staggered as a piece of firewood cracked into their backs. Erin lowered her hands and strode forwards. The Horns could hear her shouting angrily.

“I just bought those. Can I go for one month without my inn being wrecked? One month?

The Hobgoblins rushed to protect her as Erin expertly poked a man in the eyes and kneed him in the groin. [Bar Fighting] at its best. Ceria shook her head.

“We’ve got to get in there.”

“You’re sure?”

Yvlon and Pisces looked at her. Ceria hesitated. She looked at the other two. She wasn’t talking just about the fight. She smiled ruefully.

“Yeah. I’m sure. Glory? Wealth? Power? I want all those things. I’ll be honest. This thing scares the crap out of me. We lost once. But we have a friend who might be in there. This is about more than pride, more than fear. This is personal. Let’s go kick some teeth in.”

Ceria shook as she spoke. But she was right. She looked at her friends helplessly. She was afraid—until she saw their faces. Pisces smiled and Yvlon grinned ruefully. They nodded and Ceria felt warm inside. Ksmvr stood straight and nodded.

“Well said! I will be the first to fight!”

“Wait, what? Ksmvr! I was talking about—”

The Antinium didn’t hear her. He charged into the melee, received a [Minotaur Punch] from Erin and spun once before a pair of burly Drakes smashed him to the ground.

“Cat guts! I’m going to get him!”

“Get Lyonette too!”

Ceria saw a frightened Gnoll running through the feet, being pursued by Lyonette. A Drake woman tried to attack the [Barmaid] and received a flawless counter in return. Lyonette ran after Mrsha as Apista flew overhead, bravely stinging everything and anyone she could find. Yvlon nodded.

“I’ll get Ksmvr! You get Mrsha and the others!”

“Got it!”

No one had drawn blades yet although there were a lot of pieces of wood and jagged glass being waved around. Ceria knew that bearing steel would make the brawl a lot deadlier. Still, that didn’t mean she was going in weaponless. She made a club of ice with one hand and charged with Yvlon with a shout.

Pisces stayed back. He ducked a thrown tankard and observed the chaos at his table. He sighed. Good art had been ruined once more. Well, it was to be expected. He watched his teammates enter the fighting and rolled his eyes. But he couldn’t help but contain a smile. He muttered to himself, so softly no one else would hear.

“It’s about time.”

Then he grinned, disappeared with an [Invisibility] spell, and entered the fray. Twelve seconds later Ilvriss kicked him over a table. The Wall Lord shifted one of the rings on his clawed hand and grunted.

“Damn [Mages].”

He turned and Erin punched him in the stomach.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.26 L

In the depths of the Hive, Pawn heard her approach. Her footsteps were soft and she walked slowly. He didn’t move.

Pawn was curled up into a ball as if he were sleeping. Only, he wasn’t. He was just like this now. The curl wasn’t just physical, it was in his heart.

He’d hurt Lyonette. Made her angry at him. She probably never wanted to see him again. He’d made her cry. Again.

He’d just been trying to help. What had he done wrong? He just wanted to give her back her class. She was a [Princess]. Had been a [Princess]. Why didn’t she want her class back? Why, why, why—

And now Erin was here. Pawn listened as she walked towards him. Close now. He shivered but didn’t move. He didn’t want her here. She might be able to move him.

He wanted her here. Pawn felt his thoughts jumbling in his head. He told himself not to move. Not moving was easy. No matter what she did he wouldn’t move. He stubbornly thought that as Erin paused.

What was she doing? He could feel her eyes on him. He could even hear her breathing quietly, the only sound in the deserted barracks. Pawn tensed as she walked—

Around him? Erin didn’t immediately approach. She walked around Pawn in a slow circle. Inspecting him. He didn’t raise his head. He was curled up. He wouldn’t move. Pawn anticipated Erin speaking so much that when she finally did say something, it was a shock.

“Hey Pawn.”

That voice. Pawn shivered but refused to uncurl. That voice haunted him. It was unforgettable. He remembered her. She had asked him that fateful question. She had given him purpose, given him identity. No, not given—she had helped him find it.

What about just you? What’s your name?

A kind face, staring into his. A soft hand, placing chess pieces. Tears flowing as she placed chess pieces. A song. From such memories had she defined Pawn’s world. He could picture her perfectly in his head, bending over him. Erin spoke softly.

“Pawn?”

He wouldn’t move. Pawn stayed put. If he did that long enough, Erin would go away. Even she would go. And then he would be alone until he died. That was okay. He felt Erin shuffle closer. Her voice was very soft.

“Hey. Hey Pawn.”

Still, the Worker didn’t move. Erin was right by his earhole now. He felt her breath on his carapace. Pawn held himself still with all of his strength. Don’t move. No matter what she said. No matter if she touched him. Don’t move an inch. He heard Erin softly draw in breath. And then—

“Get up!

Pawn jerked. He couldn’t help it. Erin’s voice blasted through his body like a physical thing. The entire barracks rang with sound. Pawn half-uncurled and looked up.

Erin stared back at him. There she was, Human, smiling slightly, her hair tied back today. It was longer than it had been when she first met him. But everything else was the same. Pawn met her eyes for one heart-stopping second. Then he tried to curl back up.

“Oh no you don’t.”

Erin instantly grabbed him. But for all her strength, Pawn was an Antinium, a Worker. He could curl up and hug himself so tightly even a Soldier couldn’t pull him apart without breaking his body first. Erin grunted as he curled up, her hands slipping futilely on his body. Pawn curled up into a ball again and Erin had to step back. He couldn’t tell what she was doing, but he heard her muttering to herself. Then Erin seemed to come up with an idea?

“Oh yeah, what about this?”

She pushed Pawn over. Curled up as he was, he just fell onto his side. Then Erin pushed him again. Pawn felt himself rolling across the ground! His back shell made it easy for him to turn over again and again. Erin rolled him like a ball.

“Feel like getting up? Huh?”

Pawn didn’t respond, though he felt dizzy. After a few seconds Erin gave up.

“How about this?”

She sat on him. Pawn didn’t do anything. Erin tried to tickle him. Pawn had no nerves on most parts of his body. Exasperated, Erin eventually tried poking Pawn in the side but he refused to move. She couldn’t make him. He felt a certain satisfaction in that.

Six minutes after entering the barracks, Erin gave up. She sat down in front of Pawn and sighed.

“Alright, that’s enough playing around. Pawn, it’s time to get up.”

The Worker didn’t move. But he did feel…hurt. Annoyed, perhaps. Playing around? He wasn’t playing. He wasn’t having fun. What was Erin going to do? She couldn’t make him move. She squatted by him and spoke directly to Pawn.

“Pawn, you have to move.”

He refused to. Erin breathed out slowly.

“How long are you planning on curling up like this? Until you get hungry? You haven’t eaten in a day! Until you die? Are you planning on dying and making everyone sad?”

That was exactly what he was planning. Only, hearing it from Erin made Pawn realize that she would be sad if he died. And that—hurt. It made him feel guilty. He wavered. Erin went on.

“Anand is worried about you. So is Bird. He wanted to give you an egg. Belgrade is worried, and I’m sure Garry would be if I ever saw him. Klbkch is being sort of a jerk, but he’s worried too. And all of your Soldiers and Workers are very worried. Are you going to ignore all of them?”

No. Yes. Pawn tried to think. He didn’t want to uncurl. But he didn’t want to make them all sad. If they’d just leave him alone for a few days. A week! Then he might be able to uncurl. But if they were sad—Pawn wavered.

He wanted to uncurl, but he was afraid to. He’d made so many mistakes. It was so easy just to hide here. Erin studied pawn for a second and then she sighed again.

“Pawn, I love you like the son I don’t plan on having, but you can’t just sit here. People need you. All the Soldiers and Workers in your unit have stopped eating.”

She didn’t see Pawn move. The Worker stayed folded up, all four arms wrapped around himself. But then the Worker spoke.

“They have?”

His voice was muffled, quiet. Sad. But it was a voice. Erin nodded.

“All of them. It’s a hunger strike. They refuse to eat, refuse to take orders—it’s so bad that Klbkch immediately came to me. He’s sure and I’m sure that so long as you don’t move, your people will starve themselves to death. Understand?”

Pawn did. And that cut deepest of all. The Painted Soldiers were starving themselves? Yellow Splatters was? Purple Smile? Now he knew he had to move, had to uncurl. But he couldn’t. He was afraid. He spoke to Erin in a small voice.

“Must I?”

Erin paused. She sat cross-legged in front of him. Thoughtfully, she sat with her hands resting on the packed earth floor.

“Honestly? No. You could sit here forever. It’s your choice, Pawn. But some of your people haven’t eaten in a long time. Every second you stay like that, they won’t eat. They won’t move. I know you’re too kind to let that happen.”

She was right. She was always right. Pawn tried to hold himself still. But something inside him responded to Erin’s words. Slowly, one bit at a time, Pawn raised his head. His arms unfolded. He looked up and saw Erin smiling at him.

“There’s that handsome face. Mandibles. Whatever. Good job, Pawn.”

She reached out and slowly patted him on the shoulder. Pawn stared at her. He whispered.

“I am lost, Erin. I don’t know what to do.”

“I know. It must have been bad if you curled up like that. I should have gone after you instead of letting you leave. Want to talk about it?”

Silently, the Worker nodded. He hugged his knees as he sat with Erin. She waited for him to speak. It was so…reassuring to look at her. After a while, Pawn felt like the words were ready to come out.

“I hurt Lyonette.”

“Yep.”

“…Is she alright now?”

Erin shrugged.

“I gave her the day off. She went to Celum for a while with Mrsha. Today she was good. Upset, but she wanted to do her job. And I think she’s not angry at you. Much. But she is still upset about what you said.”

“That is good. Good. Not what I said. But good that she is better. I didn’t mean to—it was not my intention. Does she know that?”

Pawn looked down. He felt very small. Erin watched him for a while.

“I didn’t ask. I’m sure she understands you wanted to help. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? You tried to help her and she didn’t want it.”

Pawn nodded mechanically. He looked up at Erin, hesitated.

“Do you know what we were talking about?”

“I heard the shouted bits. And I got the rest from context.”

Erin smiled slightly. She looked pensive for a moment and then glanced at Pawn.

“I know she’s a [Princess]. That’s what it was all about, right? Did something happen to her class?”

“Yes. She lost it. I was trying to help her get it back. I didn’t think it was right that she lost it. But when I tried to pray—I—”

Pawn broke off, shaking his head.

“She lost it? Really? She didn’t tell me that!”

Both of Erin’s brows shot up. Pawn looked at her, surprised.

“You did not know? She didn’t tell you?”

The young woman shook her head.

“She told me she lost something. Not what. And I know she was a princess, but I don’t know if she ever told me herself. Ryoka definitely told me…um, I forget.”

Frowning, Erin tilted her head. After a while she gave up and shrugged.

“It doesn’t matter, I guess. Lyonette didn’t need to tell me anything. She told you, though. And you were worried, weren’t you? You tried to help her get it back.”

“Yes. And now she hates me. Because I did not respect her wishes.”

The Worker grabbed his knees and rocked back and forth. Erin watched him, concerned. She stopped Pawn with one hand and patted his knee gently.

“Hmm. I don’t know if she hates you. I think you went too far.”

Pawn looked at her, feeling a shred of hope.

“Really?”

Erin nodded.

“I know you don’t understand being social, Pawn. Lyonette understands that too. I think she feels bad about shouting at you. But—how can I explain this? You did do something bad. Just a tiny bit.”

She paused, biting her lip softly and trying to find the best words. Pawn waited. He ached. At last, Erin went on.

“We want to be talked to. We want to be cared about. But sometimes we also need to be alone. Some days we don’t want to talk to our friends. And that’s especially true of when we need to be alone.”

“But she was sad. I tried to help.”

Again, Erin nodded.

“And that was great. Really. Sometimes when you’re sad, you need to hug someone. But sometimes, some people just want to be alone. And that’s fine too. I think Lyonette liked you coming the first time. But after that? After you kept trying to check up on her? And change her? Pray for her to make her get her class back? That was too much.”

“But her class—”

“She lost it. It’s gone, Pawn. If she wanted to get it back, I think she would have asked. But she didn’t ask, did she?”

Pawn didn’t answer. Erin scooted a bit closer. Her hand was warm on his knee.

“Sometimes you can’t solve other people’s problems even if you want to. Sometimes people have to go through their struggles alone.”

A sad look stole over Erin’s face for a moment. Pawn looked up at her and opened his mandibles hesitantly.

“But why?”

“Why? Because you can’t solve everything for other people.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t, Pawn. It just isn’t possible. It’s their problem, not yours.”

Part of Pawn rebelled at what Erin said. He looked at her angrily.

“But that is not right! If someone is hurting, surely they must be helped. Is not leaving them alone worse? It is not right!”

Erin nodded.

“It’s not good, I agree. But you can’t make someone happy. And trying to force your help on someone makes it worse, Pawn.”

“But—”

This was not what he had wanted to hear. Pawn opened and closed his mandibles, softly clicking, trying to say something in response. But he couldn’t. Erin was right. He had gone too far. And he had made Lyonette angry. It was just that he still wanted to help. Erin stared at him, waiting. At last, Pawn asked another question.

“What is a ‘ball’?”

“What?”

Erin blinked. Pawn hunched his shoulders sulkily.

“I want to know. Lyonette told me about it. A ball is for dancing? [Princesses] do it?”

“Um—well, not just them, but yeah. Balls are for dancing. People dress up and dance in a big open room. It’s a fancy thing.”

“Have you ever done it?”

“Nope. Why, did Lyonette miss dancing?”

“A bit. She said she is not a [Princess] here. She has nothing of her old life. But she was a [Princess]. I thought I could give it back. I thought—”

Erin cut Pawn off gently.

“You can’t make her. You can talk to her. I think she’d be happy to talk to you. But not if you’re trying to get her to do something. If you go back tomorrow and say sorry, I think she’ll forgive you. But you can’t keep…its not good to dwell on her problems. She’ll be fine. Okay, Pawn?”

Pawn looked at the ground. He opened and closed his mandibles softly. Erin waited.

“Pawn?”

“Okay.”

He said it in a small voice. Not because he agreed. Just to make Erin stop asking. He knew she was trying to help. He knew she was probably right.

He’d tried to help Lyonette. Too much. That was what she was telling him. But part of Pawn, a small part, rebelled against what Erin was saying.  It wasn’t that. It wasn’t just losing her class. He thought there had to be something more. He’d wanted to—

Pawn didn’t know. He didn’t feel better. He’d hoped that was what Erin could do. Make him feel better. Make everything alright. But she hadn’t. She’d only made him feel—guilty. Awake again. Conscious of his duties, of the people who were hurting.

His Soldiers. His Workers. His…people. Pawn felt a terrible weight settle on his shoulders.

“I have made everyone upset. I do not know if I can be forgiven.”

Erin’s smile lit up part of  Pawn’s heart.

“Of course you can be, silly. Everyone’s upset, but they’re worried. Even mean old Klbkch.”

Pawn nodded a few times. He looked up, hesitantly.

“Will you come with me?”

“Of course.”

Erin watched Pawn slowly stand up. She smiled and hugged him. He let her. She smelled like a bit of rain, fried food, her inn—and humanity. As she let him go she smiled again.

How wonderful. How beautiful. Pawn followed her as she led him out of the barracks. He felt quiet inside. The grief was still there, but subdued for a moment. The guilt and pain—he could live with. She had helped.

But she was wrong. Pawn felt that too. Erin was wonderful, kind. She made him feel better. But for the first time, Pawn thought she didn’t quite understand what he was feeling. There had to be something else.

But what?

 

—-

 

Pawn sat in the barracks. He was not curled up anymore. Neither was he alone. The Painted Soldiers stood around him, or sat. The Workers did likewise, hidden behind their giant kin. They were silent, but it was not the silence of before.

Klbkch was gone. Erin had helped there greatly. She’d taken him away before he could discipline Pawn. As for Anand, he had gone back to let Belgrade and Garry know everything was well. That left Pawn with his Soldiers and Workers.

Slowly, Pawn raised a piece of dried meat to his mandibles. He tore off a piece and chewed. The Painted Soldiers and Workers watched. They slowly ate as well.

Food. It was so good and yet it didn’t fill Pawn up with delight as it used to. It was just good. His body wanted it more than Pawn’s mind. But he ate steadily, knowing the others were doing likewise. They savored their meals—it was a rare treat. A break to their day-long fast. A breakfast. Was what why it was called that?

Pawn looked around. Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile sat with him. Pawn looked at them. The two [Sergeants] watched him as they chewed. There was no judgment in them. Just expectancy. After a while, Pawn looked down at his hands.

“I’m sorry.”

The Antinium stirred. Pawn looked around.

“I am so very sorry. I did not mean to worry anyone. I did not mean to leave you alone. But I—I was distracted. I should not have been.”

They waited, watching him. Pawn looked from face to face. Yes, he had abandoned them. His gaze strayed to the pile of things he’d bought, useless and untouched. Of course they’d been hurt. What were objects? Meaningless. Pawn lowered his head.

“I should not have. But I was busy. I was trying to—it was because of Lyonette. Not because of her, but because I wanted to help her. Because she is my friend. And I wanted to make her feel better. Because I have no other friends.”

The Soldiers and Workers stared at him. Pawn turned the piece of dried meat over in his hands. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he knew he owed the others an explanation. So he began to talk. It hurt for the first few seconds. And then it felt like the words were leaking out of him, exiting the wound inside of his chest.

“I have learned much of this world. Much, and yet there is still more. Always more. I know of buying and selling, of combat, of laws and food and many things. But I had no friends. Not until Lyonette.”

Pawn looked around.

“Erin is not my friend. She cannot be. She is not Anand’s friend, or mine, or Belgrade’s or Bird’s or Garry’s. Or any of the others who died. She helped make us Individual. But she is not our friend. She is to we Workers what the sun is to grass. She made us who we are. She is more than a Human, more than an [Innkeeper]. More than…how can I put it?”

The Worker looked around blankly, seeing the uncomprehending looks in the eyes of the others. How could he explain what Erin was in a way they would understand? Pawn stared up at the dark ceiling overhead and then had it.

“She is the sky.”

The Painted Soldiers shifted. They looked up and then down at Pawn. Yellow Splatters nodded. The sky. Pawn nodded as well. They could understand that.

“So she is not a friend. She must be more. And I have no friends within the Hive. Workers, Individuals such as Anand and Belgrade, Soldiers…we cannot be called friends. We find friends. But we have ever been family.”

Another pause. Pawn’s word echoed in the barracks. Family. It was a foreign word, but perhaps the closest thing to what they were. Pawn went on after a while.

“So I had no friends. None. Erin’s friends were not mine. They were kind, but I did not know them. I only knew her. And you. If there was any…friend I had in this world, it would be her. Surely.”

Lyonette. Pawn looked up.

“She was there when Erin was gone. She had food. She helped me learn to lead the Soldiers. She talked to me when I was alone. She is my friend. The only one I have.”

Pawn told the others about how they had met. He told them about Lyonette, ushering him in to the abandoned inn, giving him honey, food for the other Soldiers. The Antinium listened, hungrily devouring the story while they ate. And Pawn felt better too.

It felt good to speak. It felt good to be honest and open about his problems. But Pawn also felt terrible. Here he was talking about his problems when he’d neglected his duties. When he’d abandoned the others who followed him! Klbkch was right. He was a disgrace.

“I should not have abandoned you. But I wanted to help her. She was a [Princess]. She lost something important, I think. She was crying. I wanted to help. But Erin told me I cannot help.”

Bitterly, Pawn looked down at his hands. He couldn’t help her. Erin had told him that. She had been clear. But he wanted to help. The Painted Soldiers looked at each other, and then at their [Sergeants]. Yellow Splatters looked at Purple Smile. The other Soldier scratched his head with one hand. And then he shrugged.

What could they say? What could they do? Pawn knew his struggle was as alien to the Antinium as laughter. Or tears. And he knew now, he realized that his understanding of Lyonette had been flawed too.

He knew nothing of her past. Nothing about her, except that she was kind now and had once been a thief. He didn’t know what she had been before she came to Liscor. What had she been [Princess] of? Didn’t princesses have kingdoms? Where was her home? Why had she left?

“What can I do? How can I apologize? But I know nothing of her. I still want to help, but should I just do nothing?”

Pawn didn’t know. He wanted to still do something. But he had no idea. The other Antinium looked at each other. They did not speak. But they shared opinion, thought, desire, putting their minds to the problem like a single entity. And it was Purple Smile who had an idea.

He tapped Pawn on the shoulder. Pawn looked up. The Soldier gestured with all four hands. He pointed up, and then two of his four arms rose. He made little spades out of his hands and put them behind his head. Then, with his other two hands he placed them flat on an invisible surface in the air. He opened his mandibles and raised them in a smile.

Pawn stared at him. He stared at the hands behind the Soldier’s head. The flat hands on…what? A counter? He stared at the hands behind the head again. They almost looked like ears. Wait. Pawn opened his mandibles in surprise.

“Her? You think I should talk to her?

Purple Smile nodded. Pawn stared at him. Then he got up. Purple Smile pointed and Pawn nodded. The Soldier led the way out of the barracks and Pawn followed him. The other Antinium milled about. They did not follow; they didn’t have permission to leave the Hive. And it was raining. But they waited. They didn’t play games. They sat or stood and looked towards the entrance of the barracks.

It was the same as before, only not. This time they were waiting and it felt better than when Pawn had not been paying attention. Because now they were paying attention to him. There was an expectancy in the air. Anticipation. The Antinium had never felt it. For once, they were waiting to see what happened next.

 

—-

 

She was at work in the rain when the two Antinium approached. Well, not in the rain. The stall’s slanted roof gave protection, but the blowing winds occasionally showered her with droplets. It was not fun, standing out in the open street. But business was business and it wasn’t like she had a shop.

Sometimes Krshia regretted that. How hard would it have been to buy a shop? She could have saved up and bought a nice little place to do business. But then she would be behind a closed door. She wouldn’t be out in the street where she could call to passersby, gossip, establish a network of clients that was based as much in trust of her good name as it was friendship.

That was how Krshia had earned money these last ten years. By being out in the open, dealing and selling in goods with people. It wasn’t just inventory or quality. Shopkeepers like Lism would never understand that.

Still, it was miserable being out in the rain. Krshia hunched her shoulders. She couldn’t put anything out on display, either. The few people who hurried down the street would either stop at her stall or didn’t have time to chat. They just bought what they needed and ran back indoors. Krshia hated the rain. But she still felt like she might hate having a shop more. Gnolls were outdoor people.

It was a slow day. Despite herself, Krshia kept glancing at the sky, wondering if it was time to pack up. Maybe she could rent a space for the next few weeks until it was clear? Or why not erect a covering over the entire street? Yes, why not? You could build a roof from house to house, a temporary one. Then all the shoppers would be more inclined to stay and talk. You could have the outdoor vendors sell all their food here, make a sanctuary from the rain!

“Doable, yes? But who would do it? I? It would be a hassle, and coin. Why not have the city do it? Only, they would not, no. This is what the Merchant’s Guild should do, yes? Only, they are not as interested in street vendors’ woes. Despite the fact that we are many. This is a Drake city and Drakes rule. But Gnolls have our own groups. Why not? I could petition myself, yes? And if I did it right—”

Her musing was cut off as she spotted a pair of shapes headed towards her through the rain. Krshia didn’t need a Skill to know she had customers. She straightened up and put a smile on her face. A smile which instantly turned into a puzzled frown as she sniffed and noticed exactly what was coming towards her.

“Antinium? In the rain? I thought Klbkch was the only one who left his Hive. Who—ah, Pawn.”

She saw the smaller Worker walk into view. Rain was pouring off of Pawn’s body. It was soaking the Soldier who stood next to him. Krshia eyed the purple paint and nodded.

“Purple Smile and Pawn, yes? Greetings! It is rare to see you above. Have you a need?”

“Hello Miss Krshia.”

Pawn waved at the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] and was rewarded with a toothy grin. He glanced at Purple Smile. The Soldier waved as well.

“I did not know that you knew Purple Smile, Miss Krshia.”

“Hmm. He used to pass by my shop with his patrol. And buy small things for his Soldiers and Workers. Food. I grew to remember him. And you I have not seen for a long time. Are you well, Pawn? Do you need more paint? Food? Supplies, perhaps?”

Krshia grew hopeful as she motioned the two Antinium closer so they could stand under the eaves of her shop. The Antinium were infrequent customers, but by the tribes they were good ones! They bought in bulk and didn’t haggle over prices. And they did all the picking up and delivering themselves. She was disappointed when Pawn shook his head.

“No, I—I do not have business for you, Miss Krshia. Revalantor Klbkch has removed my budget temporarily.”

“That is terrible news! What is the cause of your misfortune?”

Pawn looked down at the street as water ran across the flagstones.

“I neglected my duties. I have made many people upset. Revalantor Klbkch, Miss Erin, my fellow Antinium, and…Lyonette.”

Krshia frowned. Trouble among the Antinium? What could Pawn have done? She shifted, eying Pawn. She had not ever truly talked to any of the new Antinium, but she knew Pawn and he seemed earnest. Simple in a good way.

“That is bad news, yes? But I do not see why you come to my shop. What is my role to play here?”

Pawn shrugged. He glanced at Purple Smile, who had folded all four arms and was looking around, not paying much attention to the conversation.

“Purple Smile thinks you might be able to help. Miss Erin has already talked to me, but you are trusted.”

“Me? Why?”

Krshia blinked in surprise. Her ears twitched in embarrassment. And pleasure. She had no idea she was trusted among the Antinium. Pawn looked at Purple Smile and the Soldier made a few cursory gestures. He made a walking gesture with two hands, put two hands alongside his head as if he were staring, and opened his mandibles and closed them a few times. It was incomprehensible to Krshia, and Gnolls were good at reading body language. But Pawn clearly understood something because he turned back to her and bobbed his head slightly.

“Purple Smile says that when the Antinium go above, you do not look away or say…things. And when we buy food, yours is always good and not rotten. You are fair and, he thinks, wise. Sometimes you chat with him and he thinks you give good advice.”

There was no way to see Krshia blush, especially in the rain with the fur covering her face, but her tail did wag a bit. The Soldier had noticed all that? She remembered calling out to him and chatting while she helped him purchase food for his patrol, but the fact that he had remembered her was interesting! Strange, too. The Antinium were changing. Krshia cleared her throat and nodded at Purple Smile.

“I am grateful for this, yes? I do not consider myself wise, but if you have a problem, I would hear it. Come, step closer—it is raining too much to hear. Tell me what ails you, Pawn. And—yes, have a snack. I have a bit of cheese if you would like to eat it.”

Of course, the Antinium accepted. Krshia ushered them further into her stall as she found a hunk of cheese leftover from lunch. It was small divided up three ways, but it was tasty and offering food was ritual. Krshia offered Pawn her stool and the Antinium sat awkwardly while she and Purple Smile stood. The story that came out of his mandibles was hard to follow at first, but as Krshia listened and the rain thundered down over her roof, she saw everything clearly.

“…And so Miss Erin told me to leave Lyonette alone. And apologize. I am very sorry. And very guilty.”

Pawn finished his story, looking down at his hands. He had not finished his cheese. Krshia saw him pick at it distractedly. She shook her head, amazed by his story.

“And so that is where the matter rests, yes?”

“Yes. I came to you afterwards. I have not met Lyonette since. There is much I should do in the Hive, but—I do not know what to say. I cannot focus on my work when I have hurt her. I am guilty. I wish I could help. I want to help still. But that is wrong. Do you know what I should do?”

Pawn looked up at the Gnoll woman. Krshia shook her head. She felt something bubbling up inside of her. Oh, what a story! That Antinium could be like this? She felt younger, and remembered her tribe. The Silverfang Tribe—ah, if only her sister, the chieftain, could hear this! It was too much. Krshia had to do it. She threw back her head and began to laugh.

“Miss Krshia?”

The two Antinium in her stall jerked with surprise as Krshia chortled and then roared with laughter. She nearly doubled over as Pawn stood in front of her stall. He looked hurt, insofar as she could read Antinium expressions. Krshia tried to control herself, but it was nearly a minute before she could stop laughing.

“Apologies. I am sorry, Pawn. Truly. But your story was amusing to me, yes? Ah, it is good.”

“Is it? I do not think laughter is an appropriate reaction, Miss Krshia.”

Pawn stood up, his antennae vibrating with hurt. He wanted to go, but Krshia waved him back.

“No, no! I am sorry, yes? But Pawn, your problem is amusing. I cannot help but laugh. And I do have good advice to give you, I think. Better advice than Erin’s.”

“That is surely not possible.”

Reluctantly, Pawn turned back to face Krshia. He looked indignant, more indignant at Krshia calling Erin’s advice bad, in fact. He stared challengingly at Krshia as the Gnoll wiped water off her wet fur. She resisted the urge to shake herself; it was a faux pas even among other Gnolls.

“I do not mean to insult Miss Solstice, Pawn. She gave you good advice, yes? The best she could give. But I think she was wrong. Erin is smart, but she is young. Why not let me give you advice as I see it?”

Pawn tilted his head questioningly.

“What do you mean? Is there something you think I should do that could be different?”

“Oh, everything. Everything!”

Krshia chortled again. She wondered why Erin had not seen it? No—perhaps it was a thing of youth. She leaned forwards and smiled at Pawn. So small! She looked at Purple Smile and saw his mandibles rise slightly. She grinned back and leaned forwards to whisper to Pawn.

“There is a better way to resolve this. The best way, I think! It may go wrong, but such things happen. And if you listen to me…you say Lyonette spoke of balls, yes? Because she is a [Princess]?”

Pawn started.

“I never said—that is a secret!”

“Hmm. Yes. One I know. Do not look shocked! Gnolls hear much. And that is part of my plan. Why don’t you do this?”

The Gnoll spoke and Pawn listened. After a few seconds he began to object.

“That is exactly what Miss Erin said not to do!”

“But it is what I am saying to do. And who is more right? I think I am. But listen and then decide. The first thing you should do after that is…”

The rain fell and Krshia grinned. She was suddenly in a better mood. Today had been exceedingly dull. And wet. And miserable. But this made everything worth it.

 

—-

 

Lyonette was miserable. She mopped a table, cleaning the surface and watching her dull reflection stare back. She didn’t need to keep polishing, really. The new [Barmaids] and [Waiters] were doing great work and it was a slow day anyways. The Players of Celum weren’t in yet and it was raining still, so only a few Gnolls and Drakes had braved the weather to come in. There were more Humans in the inn right now, honestly. And they were being well-tended to by Drassi. So Lyonette had little to do but clean. Still, she felt awful and she needed to talk.

“I shouldn’t have yelled at him. Not at Pawn. He didn’t know what he was doing. I should have just told him to stop!”

She glanced up and reached for a bucket. She dipped the dust rag into it and squeezed. The soapy water wet the cloth and she industriously polished the table again. Erin insisted on using soap with everything. It was important, she said. Lyonette stared at the wet table as she drew the cloth around in wide circles.

“It’s just that it’s my life. I snapped when I heard he was trying to change me. He didn’t ask—he was doing what he thought was right, but I’ve made my peace with it! You know?”

There was no response. Lyonette frowned.

“I liked him coming over, I really did. But he showed up every morning! When I was feeding Mrsha breakfast! And he was just so insistent! If he would have just come later we could have talked. We’re friends, after all! I think. Anyways, why am I feeling guilty? He should apologize. Even if he is sitting and doing nothing. Do you think Erin really helped him? She says he’s okay now, but is he really?”

No one answered. Irritated, Lyonette glanced up.

“Are you even listening?”

“Mhm.”

Sitting across the table, the young man with brown, disheveled hair looked up briefly. Pisces delicately flipped onto the next page of the spellbook. Lyonette glared at him.

“I said, are you listening? Pisces? Hello?”

The [Necromancer] sighed. He looked up from the charred spellbook recovered from the Ruins of Albez and gave Lyonette a bright, completely fake smile.

“Indubitably. How could I not be? Please go on with your riveting dilemma.”

Lyonette debated flicking her wet rag at him. Pisces was not the person she would have chosen to talk to, but he was the only one who was here. She began rubbing at a piece of crusted something on the table.

“Well? What do you think?”

“About what, pray?”

Pisces ducked as Lyonette flicked her rag at him. The water splashed the cover of his spellbook. He looked up reprovingly.

“I am a paying guest.”

“So? I have a problem and you’re not listening!”

Lyonette snapped. Pisces rolled his eyes and closed his book.

“I have been listening. I simply fail to see what your issue is. You had an altercation with Pawn. And now you feel guilty for wounding his feelings, despite the fact that it was he who was causing you inconvenience. Have I appropriately distilled the essence of your agony?”

The [Barmaid] opened her mouth. She hesitated.

“Well—yes. But it’s not that simple.”

“Isn’t it?”

Pisces carefully cleaned one fingernail, flicking the dirt onto the table and ignoring Lyonette’s glares as he spoke.

“Pawn came to you every day, facilitating often meaningless conversation which you enjoyed despite the inconvenience of it at times. His fault was in attempting to help you against your will.”

“Yes!”

“And you wish to repair your relationship with him now.”

“That’s exactly right.”

Lyonette felt relieved. She leaned over the table.

“So what do you think I should do? Go visit him? Wait for him to talk to me? What should I say?”

The [Mage] raised his eyebrows and swept a lock of hair out of his face. Pisces sniffed and smiled superiorly.

I believe that you are rather missing the point.”

“What? How?”

Pisces gave Lyonette an enigmatic smile.

“Consider the events as an impartial observer. I regard your squabble with Pawn as indicative not of his social failings, but another, larger issue at stake. One which you should be aware of.”

“Which is?”

The [Necromancer] rolled his eyes to the ceiling innocently.

“I would hardly like to say. I do wonder if Erin noticed, though. I doubt it.”

“Noticed what?

Pisces only gave Lyonette a smug smile. She resisted the urge to throw the bucket at him. This was why people didn’t like Pisces. She was about to demand answers on pain of pain when she saw the door to Liscor open.

“Welcome! How can I—”

She broke off the instant she saw the Antinium in the doorway. Her first instinct was to think it was Pawn. But it wasn’t. The Antinium was too large. It was a Soldier, one with a purple smile painted across his face.

“Purple Smile?”

Lyonette hurried towards him. Her next thought was that he was leading a patrol and coming here for food, but he was alone. She had never seen a Soldier by himself! She stared at Purple Smile as he looked quizzically at a little towel rack that Erin had installed by the door. He wiped his feet on the rug and waved at Lyonette.

“Hello! Can I help you?”

Purple Smile nodded. He raised all four arms and pointed. At Lyonette. She blinked.

“Me?”

The Soldier nodded. Two of his arms shifted and pointed through the open doorway, into the streets of Liscor. Lyonette stared at him.

“Go into Liscor? Why? What do you need?”

Purple Smile didn’t respond. Of course, he couldn’t. He just pointed at Lyonette’s chest and then gestured with his other hand, beckoning. The third and fourth hands mimed walking.

It really was amazing how he could convey what he wanted with just his hands. Pisces stared in interest as Lyonette looked around.

“I could come but I have work—Erin’s in Liscor, though—what’s this about? Is it something to do with Pawn?”

Purple Smile raised all four hands and shrugged. Lyonette stared at him. She wavered, and then ran over to Drassi.

“Hey Drassi, I need to go out. The Antinium want me. Let Erin know when she gets back?”

“She won’t be back from her outing with Selys for a while. Do you want me to get someone to tell her?”

Drassi looked concerned as she peeked over Lyonette’s shoulder at Purple Smile. Lyonette shook her head.

“No, just let her know. And look after Mrsha?”

The Gnoll was in her room, reading a picture book that Erin had bought for her. It was expensive because of all the illustrated drawings, but the Gnoll had been delighted and engrossed by it. Drassi nodded.

“I can do that. Are you sure, though?”

“I think this has something to do with Pawn. I’m going.”

Lyonette hurried to grab a cloak. She nodded to Purple Smile.

“Are you taking me to Pawn?”

Again, the Soldier shrugged. He held open the door as Lyonette followed him out, and then stepped into the rainy street. Their departure went largely unnoticed in the quiet inn, but Pisces, sitting at his table, had seen everything. He smiled and flicked something under the table. A small, undead Shield Spider scuttled across the inn, unnoticed. It shot out of the door before Purple Smile could close it.

“Lead on.”

Outside, Lyonette followed Purple Smile through the rain. Neither one noticed their little follower. The tiny Shield Spider scurried after Lyonette, moving fast to avoid the water that threatened to sweep it into a sewer drain.

Sitting in the inn, Pisces sat back and closed his eyes. He could sense the Shield Spider moving, just as he could sense his rat-hunter Bone Horrors scouring Liscor’s sewers. He took direct control of the Shield Spider, letting it scurry in the shadows as it followed Lyonette and Purple Smile. They were headed straight for the entrance to Liscor’s Hive. Pisces smiled wider as he heard Lyonette asking Purple Smile anxiously about Pawn. He murmured to himself as he tapped his lips with one finger.

“Well now, this should be interesting.”

 

—-

 

Lyonette strode through dark, claustrophobic dirt hallways. She walked through crowds of Antinium who paused to stare at her. She felt like an intruder. Because she was. No Human had ever been in an Antinium Hive—well entered and survived, that was. This was foreign ground. Alien. But she followed Purple Smile as he led her down into the darkness because she was worried.

About Pawn. Something must have happened if Purple Smile had come for her. Lyonette couldn’t imagine what. Was Pawn hurt? Had Erin not helped him? Or—

Lyonette turned another bend in the dimly lit corridors. There was virtually no light in the Hive. No torches, lanterns or any fire. The only illumination came from some kind of strange glowing mold that the Antinium seemed to cultivate along the walls. It gave off a soft orange radiance, but the darkness was everywhere. Lyonette shivered. She tried not to give into her nerves as Purple Smile led her down a corridor. Then she saw light. She stepped into a brighter hallway, and then saw an opening. She turned and saw the chamber.

It had been a barracks. It probably still was, as the rows of alcoves against the far wall were clearly meant for Soldiers to sleep in. But instead of the cramped, tight chambers where Antinium slept next to each other, someone had hollowed out this room.

And decorated it. On the far wall, in between the sleeping spots meant for Soldiers were painted symbols.

A cup of brown and silver. A paw print in white. A picture of a bee on a plate, clumsily drawn. A smiley face.

Clumsy pieces of art. But all the more precious because they stood out on the plain earthen walls. Lyonette recognized them. They were the same symbols that adorned the Painted Soldiers. But each one was—she covered her mouth.

“I haven’t seen them. Any of them.”

Purple Smile gazed at the painted symbols. Each one was different. Unique. And Lyonette knew, knew that she hadn’t seen any of the Soldiers to whom they belonged. She understood then. That the wall was more than art. It was a memorial to the fallen.

For a second that drew her attention. Then Lyonette stepped further into the barracks and had a shock. She’d thought that it was empty. But the light that burned from two lanterns had only concealed the room’s visitors in the shadows. They stood in rows along the far walls, silent, dark silhouettes.

Antinium. Workers and Soldiers alike, standing to attention. They stared at Lyonette as she stepped into the room. The breath caught in her chest. She was afraid. But she forced the fear down. Hadn’t she seen them eating? Hadn’t she known them? The silence was unnerving, but these were people. She knew that. So she took another step into the room.

And then she saw him. He was standing in between the two lanterns that he had hung from poles planted on the floor. He stood awkwardly in the center of the room. Pawn. Lyonette stared at him. The Worker was looking at her as Purple Smile took a position next to the doorway, next to Yellow Splatters.

“Pawn? What is all this?”

“Thank you for coming here, Lyonette.”

The Worker bowed awkwardly to her. He was standing very straight and the other Antinium were focused as much on him as on her. Lyonette felt her heart pounding, but she didn’t know why. Pawn opened and closed his mandibles a few times.

“I regret calling you here without letting you know why. This is highly unusual. I did not ask Revalantor Klbkch for permission, but I think it had to be done. I hope you will not be angry. I wanted to apologize.”

“Oh. I’m…sorry too. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

Lyonette felt awkward. And terrible. And confused. Was that why Pawn had called her here? Surely not. The Worker was fidgeting. And as Lyonette moved closer, she saw there was something behind him.

“What is that, Pawn?”

He ducked his head and Lyonette caught a flash of something bright. Yellow? The Worker cleared his throat a few times.

“I wanted this to be a surprise. It is an apology and—I hope you will like it.”

He stepped to one side. Lyonette’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth.

“What is—no!

Pawn had moved to reveal a…stand. A piece of wood, shaped to hold something. A dress stand. Meant to hold a dress. And it held one, a long gown of yellow. It was not elegant. It was not rich, or made of silk. But it was a dress. And it was beautiful in its own way. A dress for someone to wear. And Lyoentte understood.

A ball is a formal occasion. It’s where we dress up in fancy clothing and dance in a big open space. Lyonette remembered telling Pawn that. She looked around and saw the newly excavated barracks, the waiting Antinium, the dress. She stared at Pawn as he waited, practically shaking with nerves. And she tried. She truly did. But the hurt in her chest rose and came out.

“Lyonette, I—”

“How could you? How could you?

Pawn broke off as Lyonette strode towards him. The [Barmaid]’s hands balled into fists as she glared at Pawn. He was a Worker and thus shorter, but she was short too and so they were on a level. She stared at him.

“I told you last time that I didn’t want your help! I told you and you do this?

She threw an arm out, indicating the dress, the waiting chamber. This was his idea? He hadn’t listened to her at all!

“I—wait. This isn’t—”

Pawn’s stammered, but Lyonette was too angry to care. Incensed, she shouted in Pawn’s face.

“Why won’t you just let me forget? Why can’t you let me be? Why can’t you just listen to me? Why do you have to do this? How could you? How could—”

She felt tears springing to her eyes again. Lyonette turned away. She felt betrayed! Let down. She saw Pawn look down at his feet. The other Antinium were silent as Lyonette covered her face, trying not to cry.

“I’m sorry.”

Pawn whispered the words. Lyonette didn’t turn back towards him. She spoke, her voice thick with sadness.

“Just let me be. Just drop it. Why can’t you do that? I asked you. I told you—”

The Worker bowed his head behind her.

“I know. I know. I understand it is your wish. I understand that it is not right for me to do this. Erin told me.”

“Then why—”

“It’s just that I can’t.”

Pawn interrupted Lyonette. She turned back to him. The Worker stood, awkward, defiant, speaking softly as the other Antinium looked on.

“Why not?”

The Worker stared at the [Barmaid].

“Because you looked so unhappy that day. It can’t be better to lose your class. You were a [Princess]. It mattered to you. You still aren’t over it.”

“But I am. I am, Pawn. It’s fine this way. Fine.”

Lyonette whispered through bloodless lips. She didn’t know if she believed the words coming out of her mouth. And Pawn—he looked her in the eye and shook his head.

“No. I do not think you are. I do not think it is better. Because doing all of this is easier than seeing you cry. Because it matters to me.”

“But it’s my life. You can’t just interfere with it!”

“Can’t I?”

Pawn tilted his head. Lyonette opened her mouth and he rushed on.

“Erin told me it was not right for me to interfere with other people all the time. I understood that. I know it is wrong. Socially. But I had to try. I had to do it for you.”

“Why, Pawn?”

The Worker was silent.

“Because if it were Erin, it would not matter as much, I think.”

“What?”

Pawn shrugged.

“That is what I feel. If Erin was grieving, I would give her space. As I would for others. If it were Relc who was crying I would be concerned. But I would let him be himself. If it were Mrsha who wept I would help and give her space when needed. If it were anyone else…I could do that. But not you. You are my friend. I cannot leave you alone. Not when you are hurting. Not when you are wrong. I am sorry.”

Lyonette was speechless for a moment. She tried to summon the words, to protest what Pawn was saying.

“Pawn, I know you think you know what’s right. But what if you don’t? I’m happy as a [Barmaid]. I still have that. I don’t need my [Princess] class anymore. I’m just a [Barmaid] now.”

No.

This time the word was authoritative. Pawn looked up. He stared at Lyonette, and there was something fierce in his gaze. Defiant.

“I am an [Acolyte], Lyonette. I pray. I have faith. I believe. I believe in things that may not exist, may never exist. I believe in heaven for the Antinium. I believe in redemption, in the salvation of souls. I believe there is a place after death for my people, that we might make it ourselves. I believe in gods. I believe in gods. But when you tell me you are a simple [Barmaid], I cannot believe in that.”

His voice rang in the chamber. Lyonette was speechless. She tried to form an argument, but Pawn’s voice was too loud. He spoke to her and her alone.

“You are a [Princess]. You showed me how to lead. You wept for your class when you left it. You have not been happy since you lost your class. I see it. I am your friend and I see your grief. You must have it back. It may not be my place to interfere, but it would be just as wrong for me not to. And if you tell me again not to interfere, to go, I will. But I have to tell you directly. Lyonette, I think you are wrong. And I want to help you. Please. Let me.”

Pawn held out his hands. Lyonette stared at them. She looked up at him and didn’t know what to say.

“You really believe I need my class back?”

“I do.”

Pawn took a shuddering breath, and then another. He looked around, helplessly.

“I am sorry. Again. I did this wrong. I should not have said all that so…suddenly. I should have done it after.”

“After?”

Pawn nodded. He scuffed a toe on the floor.

“After the dancing. You see, this ball is to restore your class. Well, not just for that. It is really for something else. Miss Krshia told me it would be most suitable.”

Lyonette started in surprise.

“Krshia did?”

How had the Gnoll thought that any of this was a good idea? Pawn nodded energetically.

“She told me to come here and tell you how I felt. I did that. Only—she said you might be angry, but I should tell you how I felt even if you shouted. She said you would understand.”

“Understand? Understand wh—”

Lyonette stared around at the ball. She stared at the newly-excavated barracks, the dress, at Pawn, helplessly insisting on helping her, and then thought about Krshia. Her eyes widened.

“Oh.”

And suddenly it all made sense. Lyonette blinked. She looked around and stumbled slightly. Her entire world shifted. And suddenly she looked at Pawn and saw something else.

Pawn. A Worker. He had come to the inn every day after learning she was sad. He had tried to cheer her up, tried in his way to make her happy. And when she had shouted at him he had curled up, refused to talk to anyone. And now, even after knowing she didn’t want help, he had tried to cheer her up. Yes, the ball was for her class. But it was also something Lyonette had said she liked. And that meant…

The Worker was babbling on nervously as Lyonette stared at him, stunned.

“Miss Krshia says that Erin got it wrong. I do not think Erin was wrong, but Miss Krshia told me to do this. She told me to tell you how I feel. About you as my friend.”

“Did she?”

Pawn nodded.

“So I did. I am sorry if it makes you angry, but I had to say it.”

He paused.

“It is strange, though.”

“Oh? How so?”

The Worker hesitated and scratched at his head.

“She asked me if I liked you, Miss Krshia, I mean. I said yes. She kept asking how much. And I told her. I like Erin. I owe her my identity and my life and more than I can give. But for some reason I like you more.”

Lyonette opened her mouth and her head went white. Pawn went on, oblivious.

“Erin is very kind. So are you. But I miss talking with you. I miss the days when you and I talked and you gave me advice. When I looked at you crying, I hurt.  I still hurt when you are angry because of me. But when I don’t see you I feel bad. When I think of you I am confused. But all of that feels good, too. Is it not strange?”

He looked at Lyonette. She shut her mouth, opened it again, and had to turn away.

“Oh no. No, no…is that what all of this was? Really?”

“What?”

Lyonette looked at Pawn. Despairingly. About to laugh. She covered her face. Her cheeks felt hot. How had she not seen it? She spoke, her voice muffled by her hands.

“You like me.”

“I do.”

“You…like me.”

“That is what I said.”

“No, Pawn. You like me. Not as a friend. You like me as…in a different way.”

“Which way is that?”

Romantically!

Lyonette burst out. Pawn opened his mandibles wide. Around the room, the watching Antinium froze in shock.

“I do?”

“Yes! Maybe!”

Lyonette was blushing. She looked at Pawn and turned beet red. Of course that was what it was! It wasn’t just concern. He liked her more than Erin? More than Erin? Lyonette didn’t know what to say. Pawn didn’t either. He looked around, confused.

“No one told me. How do you know?”

“I just do! It’s obvious! Krshia must have known. She must have—why didn’t anyone tell me? Why didn’t—”

I believe that you are rather missing the point.

Pisces’ words echoed in Lyonette’s head. She froze. He had noticed. But what he had noticed was different from Krshia. She thought back to what she’d done. Yell at Pawn. Feel guilty for hurting him. When he’d gone to talk to Erin before, she’d been hurt. She’d missed—

“Oh no.”

“What?”

Pawn was vibrating with nerves. But Lyonette was stock-still. She looked at him. She looked at the dress. She wanted to laugh and cry, and felt more afraid than when she’d faced down the swarm of Ashfire Bees. She looked at Pawn and they stood there in silence for a long time. At last, at long last, Lyonette croaked.

“You made this ball for me.”

“Yes. So you could dance and be happy. I bought this dress, too. Miss Krshia helped me pick it out.”

Lyonette looked at the dress. She looked at Pawn. And she giggled as she realized something.

“Wait, dance? By myself?”

“Um. Yes?”

The young woman shook her head.

“You know, a ball isn’t really meant for one person to dance alone, Pawn.”

“It isn’t?”

The Antinium was devastated. He looked around wildly.

“I can fix this! I will get Miss Erin! Or Miss Krshia! Just wait—”

He wanted to run off but Lyonette grabbed his hand. It was so sudden that both [Barmaid] and Worker froze. Then Lyonette spoke.

“Erin isn’t who I want to dance with, Pawn. Neither is Krshia. A ball needs two. So does a waltz. Why don’t I dance with you?”

“Oh.”

Pawn turned to Lyonette. He stared at her hand. She held out her other one.

“Take my hand, Pawn.”

“Your hand?”

He hesitated. Lyonette held it out. Pawn took it. She felt his strange, cool, smooth fingers take hers. The shock of contact made her jump and Pawn’s antennae waved wildly.

“Is this—is this how it works? I have seen Erin dancing.”

“She does it a bit differently. A ball is formal. You have to hold your partner. Here, let me show you.”

Lyonette held her hands up with Pawn. She didn’t know what she was doing. She felt flushed, dizzy. Pisces couldn’t be—Krshia was just—she looked at Pawn. He stared back. Lyonette’s head went empty and she let years of training take over.

“Like this. Raise your arms. Stand closer—and step. When I step forwards, you step back. When you step forwards—yes. Keep your feet together. Like this. See? One, and two, and one, and two—”

“Oh. How fascinating. Is this dancing in a ball?”

“A bit. But you don’t just step back and forth. You turn—yes, like this! And there’s more moves. And there would be music.”

“Music? Oh no. I can get some—”

“No. We can dance without it. If you want to.”

“I think I do.”

Pawn held Lyoentte’s hand as she showed him the moves of the dance. He remembered them all well. She had to adjust for his different body, his less graceful steps. But as they stepped together, Lyonette stopped feeling silly and remembered. Yes, this was what it felt like? She turned and suddenly the barracks opened up in front of her. It was truly large. She spun with Pawn and though there was no music, suddenly she felt caught up.

“What a strange activity. How pleasing. I am glad you did not grow angry. And I am sorry again for upsetting you.”

The Worker babbled as he waltzed with Lyonette. She wanted to laugh again and suppressed the urge. They danced past the dress stand, ignoring the yellow dress. It wasn’t needed.

“I want to say sorry too, Pawn. I didn’t notice how you felt.”

“No. I did not either. Are you sure I like you? Romantically? I thought that was a thing only Drakes, Humans, and Gnolls did.”

“I’m pretty sure. The signs are all there.”

“Oh.”

Pawn thought about this as they spun. Lyonette showed him how to spin with her. She felt too close to him. She hadn’t been this close to anyone but Mrsha. But she didn’t pull away.

“Should I do something about it? I understand that romantic interests lead to death and fighting.”

“Who told you that?”

“Revalantor Klbkch. He says that a third of the disputes he must settle are based in romantic conflict. Will I start attacking you? I could not bear to do that.”

“No, Pawn. That’s not—do you understand what I’ve been telling you?”

“…Maybe?”

“You like me. You like me romantically. Pawn, that means you might love me.”

“Love?”

The Worker slowed as Lyonette walked across the floor with him. He copied her flawlessly, absently. It was as if the dance came to him as naturally as breathing. Of course, it was just following orders. It was effortless for him and Lyonette found herself moving into more advanced positions absently.

“I do not understand love. Is it like liking?”

“Yes. Sort of.”

“And I love you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it inconvenient for you? I would hate for that to be so.”

“No. It’s not. It’s…flattering, really. Mostly. Sometimes it can be awful if someone likes you and you don’t like them back. But not always. And I—I think I like you too, Pawn. Maybe.”

“I see.”

The Worker just stared at Lyonette. She turned beet red.

“Well?”

“That makes me happy. Am I supposed to have another reaction?”

“No! Yes! Aren’t you embarrassed?”

Abruptly, Lyonette stopped the waltz. Pawn stopped too. He let go of her hands and took a step back.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know. This is all so surprising. I only know that I like dancing with you.”

“No, don’t be—”

Lyonette was embarrassed again. She looked at Pawn.

“Pawn, this is a mess. I thought you were obsessed with my class. With helping me.”

“I am.”

“But you like me, don’t you see?”

“That is why I want to help you.”

“But does it mean you want my [Princess] class back?”

“Of course! It defines you. It is who you are.”

“But can’t I be someone without it? That’s what I want.”

Lyonette spread her hands out helplessly. Pawn waited, trying to comprehend and she spoke.

“For so long I’ve been defined only by my class! Only by being a princess! Now I have a job. I’m leveling in other classes! I think part of me, a large part, wanted to lose my class. So I could be someone else.”

“But why do you have to be? Why can you not be a [Princess] and everything else?”

“I—it’s because it’s so huge. And I don’t want it. All the things I could never live up to, all the duties I’m abandoning by being here—it’s too much. Do you understand?”

“No. Is the dance over?”

Pawn looked at Lyonette. She threw up her hands.

“I don’t know!

In the silence Pawn shuffled his feet.

“I enjoyed dancing with you.”

“So did I. We could try again.”

Lyonette reached for Pawn’s hands, but both Antinium and Human turned as they realized they had company. A Soldier stood next to the two. Lyonette stared up at Yellow Splatters. He wasn’t the only one. Every Soldier and Worker in the barracks had abandoned their posts along the walls. They were nearly lined up in front of Lyonette and Pawn.

“Pawn? What do they want?”

“Oh.”

Pawn sounded disappointed. He looked at Yellow Splatters and turned to Lyonette apologetically.

“I am sorry, Lyonette. They want to dance too.”

“With me?”

“No. With me.”

Lyonette gaped. But the Antinium were looking at Pawn. He hesitated and glanced at Lyonette.

“I—”

Someone brushed past him. Pawn and Lyonette saw Purple Smile interpose himself in between Yellow Splatters and the two. He raised two hands and blocked the [Sergeant]. He held up his other two hands and gave Pawn a thumbs up. The Worker nodded gratefully as the other Antinium were shepherded by Purple Smile into their own pairs.

“It seems Purple Smile will take over teaching.”

“Teaching? But they didn’t do anything but watch. How can—”

Lyonette nearly choked on her tongue. As one, the Workers and Soldiers began waltzing in pairs. At first it was only simple moves. Step forwards, step back. Turn. But then they began moving and performing more complex moves. Lyonette watched in amazement as the Antinium performed a minuet, flawless peel off, and then a promenade down the floor. The bulky Soldiers and Workers moved down the floor, passing by Lyonette and Pawn.

“It is a wonderful thing. This form of dancing. It is relaxing. Elegant. Both Workers and Soldiers can do it together. I think it is what we were looking for.”

Pawn looked back at Lyonette. She stared at him.

“This?”

He nodded.

“The Antinium cannot go outside now. Many of us do not know what to do. We have no purpose outside our function. But this? This is not what we were designed for. This is something special that we can do with each other. It is beautiful and we can make it.”

“That’s true.”

Lyonette remembered balls with gold and magic. She remembered rooms packed with the famous, the powerful. She had seen wonderful dancing, seen the Lord of the Dance himself take to the floor. But this was magical in its own way. The dancing Antinium lit something in her. She looked at Pawn.

He was a Worker. The same as so many others. But different. Oh, so different. Lyonette felt it. Did she like him? Did he really like her? She didn’t know, but something in her prompted to hold out her hands.

“Shall we?”

“I would be delighted.”

The two took hands. They stepped out into the pairs of the Antinium. Alone in a room filled with bodies. Together. Lyonette whirled with Pawn holding her.  In that moment as she danced with him they spoke, honestly, close together.

“I’m not a good [Princess], Pawn. I never was.”

“That does not matter to me. I just wanted you to be happy.”

“And I can’t be without my class?”

“I think you could be. But I think you do not have to lose something to be happy.”

“Nothing stays the same, Pawn. Things change.”

“But nothing ever disappears. The past matters.”

“That’s true. But what would I be?”

She felt Pawn’s other two hands pick her up. Lyonette felt her feet leave the ground as he gently lifted her. She felt breathless. The Antinium were made for such a maneuver.  Pawn stared at her.

“You would be a [Princess] in an inn.”

“That’s not enough. I need something else. A [Princess] must have subjects. She must have a kingdom. I have neither.”

“What about me?”

“What about you?”

“I could be your subject. I think I would be a good one. I follow orders.”

Pawn.

Lyonette grabbed his hands and looked seriously into his eyes.

You have subjects. You can’t abandon them.”

“I know. But I cannot leave you alone either. Is that love?”

“I think so.”

Lyonette closed her eyes. She stepped with Pawn, showing him more forms as they moved on. In silence, they danced. Until Pawn spoke.

“Is that why you gave up your class? Because you left them?”

“Who?”

“Your subjects. Your kingdom.”

“My subjects?”

Lyonette froze. She opened her mouth to protest that they weren’t hers and stopped. Wasn’t she a [Princess]? Weren’t they hers? Even a sixth princess had duties. She hesitated.

“I…I never thought of them.”

“I see.”

Distracted, Lyonette looked away. She bit her lip.

“I might not be able to get my class back, Pawn.”

“I think you will. If you want to.”

“Why are you so certain?

“Because I know you. Because I believe in you. Because you are wonderful.”

Lyonette’s head turned back. Pawn stared at her. She looked into his eyes. The dark, multi-faceted eyes of an Antinium. Eyes without pupils. But not without soul. And when Lyonette looked into them, she saw something that frightened her. Because in Pawn’s gaze there was nothing else in the entire world but her. For a moment she was the center of the universe.

“You really do like me, don’t you?”

“I am afraid I do. Is it bad after all?”

“No. I think it’s nice.”

The two fell silent after that. Lyonette watched the room spin around her. There was no music. She wore only a [Barmaid]’s outfit. Her partner was an Antinium, naked save for a loincloth. But in this moment, it felt like she was dancing back in a ballroom back home. She whirled and Pawn held her hand as she spun. Lyonette felt tears springing to her eyes.

“I’ll try. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“And Pawn?”

“Yes, Lyonette?”

“Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure.”

 

—-

 

She didn’t know how long she danced. Long enough for her feet to tire. Long enough to hurt. But only after they were done. Lyonette curtsied and Pawn imitated her until she told him he should bow. Then Lyonette straightened and looked around.

The Antinium had stopped with them. They looked at Lyonette and Pawn. Some of them still held hands. Lyonette realized she was still holding Pawn’s. She let go and then wished for a second that she hadn’t.

The ball was over. Pawn looked around and noticed Purple Smile standing back. He’d danced less than the others, content to watch. The Soldier was crunching on something. He must have found a bug roaming around, a rare treat.

“Do you feel better now, Lyonette?”

She turned to him and smiled.

“I think I do. But I have to go now, Pawn. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay. I enjoyed the dancing.”

Lyonette waited, but Pawn didn’t seem to have anything else to say. She nodded at last and turned away. He watched her go. Lyonette looked at Purple Smile and the Soldier beckoned. Silently, he led her back out of the Hive. Lyonette walked, trying to make sense of her emotions.

She walked out of the Hive. It was already dark. The rain poured down, drenching Lyonette. She didn’t pay it any mind. She walked into the inn.

“Lyonette? Are you okay? Is Pawn okay?”

Erin hovered around Lyonette. The [Barmaid] looked at her.

“Pawn? He’s fine. I think. I—I’m going to sleep early.”

“Okay. Are you sure you’re—”

Lyonette walked up the stairs. She sensed someone following her and saw Mrsha padding along. The Gnoll sniffed her and Apista buzzed around Lyonette. The young woman managed a smile.

“I’m fine. Thank you, Mrsha, Apista. I just had a talk with Pawn. A dance, actually.”

She went into her room. Lyonette sat and saw the rain coming down through the windowpane. She blinked a few times.

“Was that all?”

She patted her breast, felt her face. She didn’t feel so different. She’d danced with Pawn for hours! She’d looked into his eyes. But she had a bad feeling. Well, not a bad one.

It was just that she wasn’t swept away. She wasn’t head-over-heels in love. And that was bad because Lyonette felt she should be. But she didn’t feel the rush of emotions she’d felt with her obsessions in youth. She didn’t feel…besmitten.

And that hurt. Because Lyonette felt she should be. Pawn was so honest, so earnest! So…new. And he was Antinium. She couldn’t answer his feelings honestly.

That was what Lyonette told herself. She kept telling herself that, as Mrsha tried to get her to play and Apista crawled over her head. She wasn’t in love. And that presented a whole new set of problems. For that matter, what about her class? Pawn had reminded her that she had duties. He had told her he believed in her.

But—Lyonette’s mind drifted back to the dance. She closed her eyes and felt herself whirling in the cool, stale air far underground. She didn’t love Pawn. But she remembered him looking at her.

A dress in yellow, a room full of dancing Antinium. Lyonette told herself it wasn’t love. But she couldn’t forget it either. It was something else. And as she sat in her room and Mrsha curled up next to her, Lyonette wondered.

“Will it happen?”

She put her head back on her pillow, willing herself to sleep. It couldn’t happen. It shouldn’t. But part of her hoped. Why had she lost her class to begin with? Because she had no subjects? No kingdom? Hadn’t she just left it behind?

A [Princess] in an inn. Surely there was something else. Surely there was something more. Lyonette’s head felt foggy. She was falling asleep. She tried to imagine it. But all she could see was a Worker’s face as they danced together in the lantern light. It wasn’t love. But if it wasn’t that, what could it be?

 

[Class Conditions: Princess met.]

[Class – Princess restored.]

[Skill – Detect Poison restored.]

[Skill – Royal Tax restored.]

 

[Princess → Worldly Princess Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Warrior removed.]

[Class Consolidation: Barmaid removed.]

[Class Consolidation: Beast Tamer removed.]

[Class Consolidation: Tactician removed.]

[Class Consolidation: Carer removed.]

 

[Worldly Princess Level 11!]

[Skill – Basic Crafting obtained!]

[Skill – Weapon Proficiency: Sword obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Negotiator obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Leadership obtained!]

[Skill – Flawless Attempt obtained!]

 

“Oh!”

In the darkness a young woman sat up. She looked around and touched her face.

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

Then she lay back down. Lyonette felt like she should shout. Or celebrate. But she just felt a bit empty. It was almost like all of what she’d gone through didn’t matter. She frowned up at the ceiling.

“Huh.”

It wasn’t what she expected at all.

 

—-

 

The next day, Lyonette avoided Erin’s questions about what had happened. She fed Mrsha and Apista breakfast, dutifully helped serve the guests, and felt nothing different at all. It was disappointing. Her new Skill, [Flawless Attempt] was in her mind, but Lyonette didn’t feel like using it. She just…waited. She didn’t know for what. Until when, a few hours past morning, the door opened and Pawn poked his head through.

“Am I too early?”

Lyonette turned and blinked at him. And then she did feel something. Lyonette’s face turned bright crimson. Pawn stared at her.

“Lyonette?”

“Come over here.”

She hurried him over to a table before Erin could poke her head out of the kitchen. Lyonette sat at a table with Pawn. He peered at her anxiously.

“Are you okay, Lyonette? I mean—”

He caught himself.

“I should not ask that. Correct?”

“No, I’m well. Better than well, actually. I…got my class back.”

“You did?”

Pawn half-rose out of his seat. Lyonette grabbed him.

“Sit, please.”

He did. Lyonette breathed in and out until she could control herself. Then she looked at Pawn.

“I guess it worked. The ball, I mean.”

“I am relieved. I had hoped that was so, but I was not sure. Are you…happy now?”

“Happy? I don’t know. I think I’m more surprised than anything else. Classes shouldn’t disappear and come back like that. I don’t know why it happened.”

“I don’t know either. But I am glad for you. Truly.”

Pawn fidgeted in his seat. Lyonette looked at him.

“What is it?”

“I was…thinking about yesterday. A lot, actually. I realize now that Miss Krshia may be right. And you too, of course. I may indeed be in love with you.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I realize this may be inconvenient for you. So I will try not to be. In love, that is. I will remove myself and go back to my duties now you are well.”

Pawn awkwardly nodded his head. Lyonette stared at him.

“No.”

“No?”

Why didn’t he get it? Lyonette hesitated, and then reached across the table and grabbed Pawn’s arm.

“Pawn, you don’t give up when you’re in love. Not like that.”

“But it may be inconvenient for you.”

“But I like you, Pawn. As a friend. And if you love me, how could you just give up and not see me?”

The Worker tilted his head.

“Is that not love? Giving up for someone else?”

Lyonette was speechless. She let go of Pawn and sat back. Eventually, she spoke.

“Maybe. But love is more than that. Much more, Pawn.”

“Will you tell me what it is?”

“Love is…coming back every day. To see me. Even if I’m not crying. Even if I have my class back.”

“I see. What else is it?”

“It’s…a lot of things. And I don’t know if I love you! I like you.”

“I see. And I do not know if I love you. The Antinium have never loved, I think. How might we be able to tell the difference between like and love?”

Lyonette stared at Pawn. He looked so matter-of-fact. She laughed, abruptly, and then held out her hand.

“Maybe like this. Take my hand, Pawn.”

“Are we dancing again?”

The Worker took Lyonette’s hand uncertainly. She held it, and then stood up. As Pawn watched she edged around the table to sit by his side. He shifted, looking at her and his hand.

“How strange. What an odd sensation. Is something supposed to happen?”

“Maybe. But holding hands is sort of the point.”

Lyonette gently squeezed Pawn’s hand in hers. His hand was smooth. Foreign. Cool. But there was something familiar about it. She closed her eyes and remembered dancing. And next to her, Pawn shivered.

“When do you let go?”

“When you want to, I suppose. Do you want to?”

“No.”

“Okay then.”

The Human girl looked at Pawn and then looked away. He looked away as well. Both felt awkward. Embarrassed. They sat there like that, looking away. Lyonette felt her cheeks turning red. She couldn’t see Pawn’s face change and was disappointed—until she saw how violently his antennae were twitching. She felt so awkward and yet she didn’t let go of his hand. She didn’t want to.

Pawn stared at Lyonette and looked around. The inn was the same. Lyonette was the same. He was the same. But he couldn’t help but feel different. He looked at their hands, at Lyonette.

“Is love like this all the time, Lyonette?”

“Like what?”

She looked at him, her face flushed. Pawn searched for the words. Then he spoke.

“Something new.”

She paused. And then she smiled.

“Maybe. It might not be love, you know. I’m still not sure myself. But it could be. Would you like to find out?”

Pawn nodded.

“Yes, please.”

They looked at each other and then away. And they didn’t stop holding hands. Lyonette sat in The Wandering Inn. A [Princess] in an inn. And she smiled. The class had nothing to do with her smile. She and Pawn sat there.

Together.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.23 G

Lady Bethal stared at the Goblins as the night tore itself to pieces. Screams and drumming horse beats broke the silence in the distance. War horns blew, shattering the calm, making her heart pound every time one blared. But she didn’t move. She held her position on her horse, soothing it. Her poor mare was terrified and exhausted in equal parts and she might have bolted if Bethal weren’t holding her in place. Lady Bethal stroked her side reassuringly and looked up.

At crimson eyes. The Goblins watched her every move, the tips of their crossbow bolts aimed unerringly at her. There had to be at least a hundred and twenty, formed into groups of thirty, all of them standing or kneeling in ranks ten Goblins deep. They surrounded her from three sides so that if they fired they wouldn’t hit each other.

Two [Knights] in pink armor held their position in front of her, shielding Bethal with their bodies. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia held their weapons at the ready, their faces set. They didn’t move.

Next to Bethal, Thomast kept his rapier lowered but she could feel him shifting, readying for action. Ahead of him a group of Hobs held their ground, watching the Humans, their eyes flicking. They didn’t look around as another horn blew, startling the horses again. Bethal saw the Goblins shift. But they refused to move. And the Humans didn’t attack.

It was a stalemate. Thomast could kill some of the Goblins with crossbows before they could fire. He could probably knock down a bolt or two with his rapier himself. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia would shield Bethal with their bodies and her [Aura of Thorns] Skill was powerful—but not enough to stop a crossbow bolt at close range.

Lady Bethal had a Ring of Sufferance on one finger, but even if she survived the first volley, even if Thomast and her [Knights] took out every Goblin assigned to watch them, they wouldn’t be able to escape without the Goblins first raising an alarm. And they would be hunted.

Against the hundreds of Carn Wolves and riders, their odds of escape would be perilously slim on foot. And it would be on foot; the horses wouldn’t survive ten miles with the Goblins trying to hamstring them every chance they got.

So they stayed put, as the majority of the Goblins raced away and distant horns began echoing through the woods. Minutes passed and no one spoke. Bethal felt her heart pounding. She couldn’t make it calm. She had faced death before. But this—this was at the heart of her fears.

Goblins. Their eyes made her shudder so she looked at Thomast to calm herself. He was here. He would protect her. And if he could not—she would not run. That was all there was to it.

But it didn’t come to that. Bethal was listening to her mare relieve herself on the ground and the Goblins were wrinkling their noses when another Goblin burst out of the trees. Instantly, both Humans and Goblins tensed. But the Goblin just shouted something and the other Goblins turned. They stared. Then, as one, they abandoned their formation and ran.

“What on earth?”

Lady Bethal watched, surprised, as the Goblins holding crossbows turned and ran. Only thirty of them held their ground, aiming at the Humans. But now they were backing away, clearly intending just to scare the Humans. Two Hobs stayed with them, holding their ground, raising their axes threateningly.

They were running. What was happening? Lady Bethal turned her head, expecting a trap. But the Goblins were already vanishing into the forest. By her side she sensed Thomast move. She didn’t have to hear him to know what he was thinking.

Now would be the time to strike. Her [Chevalier], shifted his grip and Lady Bethal bit her lip.

“No.”

Her soft voice made the Goblins start. One of them accidentally pulled his trigger and fired straight at Bethal’s chest.

The bolt shot towards her. Bethal blinked. She didn’t have time to think of dodging—it was streaking towards her and then Sir Nil was there. The bolt shattered on his shield and the Goblins froze.

“Wastes!”

Dame Truvia lowered her spear, shouting in outrage. But Bethal’s voice stopped her and the Goblins shifting their aim.

“Stop! Don’t attack.”

She pointed and Truvia held her ground. The Goblins backed up a step, uncertainly aiming at her. Bethal turned to Thomast.

“They’ve left.”

That was apparent, but someone had to say it. Thomast never would. He nodded, watching the two Hobs. They stared at him with grim resignation, knowing they couldn’t beat him. Still, they held their ground, barking orders and making the smaller Goblins aim back at Bethal.

“Something’s attacked the Goblins. Not all those war horns sounded like Goblin signals. If there was a time to make an escape—”

“No. I want to see Sir Kerrig. If he is alive…”

Sir Nils started.

“You want to ride into that? Lady Bethal—”

“If there was a time to find him, it would be now, wouldn’t it? Say, you Goblins!”

The Goblins jerked as Bethal waved at them. They stared at her. Bethal raised her voice.

“I agree with your Chieftain’s demands. We will be your prisoners! Take us back to your camp!”

The Goblins stared. They looked at each other, and then at the two Hobs leading them. They were a pair, male and female. The Hobs glanced at each other and the female one grunted. She shouted in the common tongue, making Bethal blink in surprise. More than just their Chieftain could speak?

“Drop weapons!”

“No.”

Thomast calmly replied, edging his horse forwards. The Hobs raised their weapons. The male growled.

“Prisoners! Drop weapons!”

“No. We’ll keep our weapons.”

Sir Nil rode forwards and the Goblins instantly backed up again. There were thirty of them and two Hobs. One of the [Knights] could rout them alone and Thomast could do it with one arm. Bethal’s ‘surrender’ was meaningless and all the Goblins knew it. All they could do was shoot her and then be slaughtered. The female Hob eyed Bethal and then pointed.

“Sheathe weapons.”

The three armed Humans hesitated. They looked at Bethal and she nodded. The Hob waited until the rapier and sword were at Sir Nil and Thomast’s sides and Truvia had lowered her spear. She hesitated and then nodded. The Goblins lowered their crossbows.

“Draw sword and we all kill you.”

“Very well.”

Bethal inclined her head graciously, trying not to let her nerves show. Believe they’re reasonable. She had no reason to expect it of Goblins! But the Chieftain had spoken rather than slaughter her at once. She’d negotiated—and Sir Kerrig might be alive.

“Follow.”

The Hob grunted and led the Goblins into the forest without a backward glance. Bethal was sure that they were ready to turn, shoot, and then run if Thomast so much as sneezed. She nodded to her escort and they hesitantly followed her into the tree line.

“We should go instead, milady. Let Lord Thomast and I go ahead while Sir Nil remains on the road with you.”

“No, Dame Truvia. We go together. I hardly think this is a ruse. The Goblins had us right where they wanted us. Something’s attacked them.”

“And will whatever attacked them attack us?”

“If it does, we will deal accordingly. But I want to find Sir Kerrig. I thought he was dead, truly.”

“It would be like him to survive. And Lady Welca lives too? If she’s escaped, why haven’t we had word? Unless it was recent—”

“Quiet.”

Thomast’s voice stilled the urgent discussion between Bethal and her [Knights]. He rode ahead as the forest became sparser and Bethal saw ghostly mage-light illuminating the forest. She inhaled sharply as she rode into the Goblin’s camp. Or what was left.

“Oh my.”

Broken tents, scattered fire. Smoke in the air and a foul, acrid stench that reminded Bethal of an [Alchemist]’s shop. Blood, too, heavy in the air. Faint cries—howling from the Carn Wolves. Shuffling feet, but too little sound. The forest floor was dark, trampled. And the bodies lay everywhere. Hundreds. Possibly a thousand.

The camp of the Flooded Waters tribe was destroyed. Goblin bodies lay everywhere, being searched for life by the living. It had been a slaughter. Lady Bethal looked at the still forms of Goblins, some covered in blood, others apparently unharmed but dead all the same.

The Goblins who’d been watching Bethal’s group stood in their camp, frozen by the sight. Bethal saw the pair of Hobs stare around and then raise their voices, shouting something in their guttural tongue. The other Goblins looked around and then ran, their discipline breaking, running into the chaos, shouting. Bethal looked around, confused.

“Wait. What about us?”

The Goblins had forgotten all about the four Humans on their horses. They combed through the wreckage, many of them picking up shapes, shaking them, and then letting them drop. Bethal blinked, her eyes stinging, and heard Dame Truvia utter a warning.

“There’s poison in the air! Lady Bethal, back!”

She was raising a ring that glowed with black light. Bethal looked around. She could see nothing, but she instantly rode back as Truvia covered her mouth with a handkerchief and checked her ring.

“It seems—weak. My ring isn’t detecting more than a low-level miasma in the air. But what happened here?”

“An attack. It must have been. Poison, arrows, and the ground is churned. I see hoof prints.”

Sir Nil had dismounted to check the ground. He coughed and looked around. Bethal felt her eyes stinging—perhaps the poison? She fanned at her face and froze.

“Is that…a child?”

A small Goblin was wandering past the warriors, shouting in a high-pitched voice. She had to be a child. There was no other word for her. The small Chieftain that Bethal had met had been small, even for a Goblin. But this Goblin was no bigger than a toddler. She had none of the knowing look that had been in the Chieftain’s eyes.

Bethal stared. She had never seen a Goblin child before. She expected the—the thing to look evil or to have fangs or some feature, but the child just looked lost. It kept shouting something. A word. And it was crying as it searched the bodies.

Lady Bethal Walchaís drew back and her horse retreated a step. The Goblin child ignored her completely and utterly. It ran over to a downed Goblin and tried to turn the body over. It gave up and bent down to look at the face and then turned away. It looked around, searching, shouting the same word and Bethal saw liquid dripping from its bright, crimson eyes. The [Lady] froze as the Goblin child stared past her, like a deer caught by a [Hunter].

“Tears?”

She had never seen a Goblin cry. She hadn’t known they could. Bethal watched the child turn. In that moment she learned two things. Goblins wept tears just like any other species. The same color, the same look. And secondly, she learned that a Goblin could weep. Bethal stayed put, her heart pounding. Impossible. Impossible. But the truth defied her to her face. Goblins could weep. She had never seen the like.

When the Goblin King rode upon First Landing with his hordes there were no tears. Only screams of rage as his armies hurled themselves upon the walls and pushed through the gaps in the broken masonry. There were no children, only warriors. Bethal could remember the blood, the eyes of the Goblins as she hid among the dead—

“Sir Kerrig!”

A voice broke Bethal’s reverie. The Goblin voices calling out silenced at Dame Truvia’s call. They turned and Lady Bethal saw a Human face among the sea of Goblins. Sir Kerrig was bending over a silent form, doing something. He turned and his face went pale. He broke into a run and Bethal urged her horse forwards a step—

“Stop! Stop!

Goblins flooded the ground, waving crossbows, aiming at both her and Sir Kerrig. Dame Truvia froze, raising her spear and Thomast appeared by Bethal’s side. But the Goblins weren’t attacking. They shouted at Bethal, pointing.

“Stop! No horse!”

They were pointing at something on the ground. Bethal looked down and realized Goblin bodies were strewn in front of her. She had nearly ridden through them. She hadn’t noticed. She backed up on her horse as the Goblins shouted at her, waving their arms.

“I’m stopping. I’ve stopped.”

They formed a wall, forcing the Humans back. There was nothing Bethal could do but back up and let Sir Kerrig come to her. The Goblins had remembered their unwanted prisoners and after an argument, a group of Goblins took up a position, aiming bows and crossbows at the Humans again. But the rest immediately flooded back into the camp. Confused, the four Humans met Sir Kerrig and Lady Bethal dismounted to clasp his hands.

“Sir Kerrig! We’d assumed you were dead! How are you alive? Dead gods man, are you injured? Let’s get you to safety as quickly as we can!”

Sir Nil clasped Sir Kerrig’s arm, urging him to mount his stallion. Sir Kerrig shook his head. He looked bewildered and there was blood on his hands. Not his own.

“Lady Bethal! Sir Thomast! How did you come to be here? Did you have a part in the—it’s dangerous to be here! If the Redfang Goblins catch sight of you they’ll attack! They’re out for blood.”

“Redfang? What are you talking about? Sir Kerrig, where is Lady Welca? Are you unharmed? What is going on?

“Let him speak, Sir Nil!”

Lady Bethal spoke sharply and Sir Nil bowed his head instantly. Sir Kerrig coughed and Bethal noticed a rasp in his voice. She immediately motioned and Dame Truvia offered him a high-grade healing potion. Sir Kerrig took a sip and his voice cleared of the rasp.

“Thank you. There was poison in the air. Some kind of mist or alchemist’s brew. I have no idea. As for what happened—I helped Lady Welca to escape not a day ago. I thought she would have reached some kind of civilization by now, but we had passed through the wilderness for the last few days. Perhaps she’s still riding—I had remained with the Goblins until the camp was attacked! Their Chieftain, Rags, rode forth with a good portion of the warriors. Shortly afterwards a group of [Riders] struck the camp, hundreds of them. They doused the campfires and torches and another force began sending a poison gas through the camp and shooting every Goblin that moved!”

Lady Bethal listened to Sir Kerrig’s description of the attackers and his sojourn as the Goblin’s captives, watching the camp as she did. The Goblins were in chaos, but as time passed someone began restoring order. Patrols of Goblins began combing through the wounded and dead methodically, calling out when they found a living Goblin. They also gathered up the trampled supplies and ushering other Goblins back into the center of the camp.

“They’re on the march. The army that attacked them retreated, but I’ve no notion of where they’re based or what their numbers are.”

Sir Kerrig finished and coughed again. His eyes were watering and he poured a tiny amount of the healing potion into his hand to splash at his eyes. Dame Truvia looked at him with concern.

“The poison smoke you described. You were caught in it?”

“Briefly. I immediately escaped when I noticed, but it was powerful enough to kill anyone trapped inside long enough. Most of the Goblins escaped, but they’re unable to breathe or see at the moment.”

“These attackers. Did you see their insignia?”

The [Knight] shook his head in reply to Sir Thomast’s question.

“No, and I have no idea where they came from. I thought perhaps Heldeim, a city to the east of here, but that would be unlikely. They have a small garrison. More to the point, they’re inexperienced, lacking a high-leveled officer of any kind. Hardly able to execute this kind of attack.”

He hesitated, wiping liquid out of his eyes.

“I did hear them shouting some kind of war cry. It was ‘Emperor Laken and the Unseen Empire’. But I’ve no notion…”

He broke off as Bethal gasped and the others shifted. He looked questioningly at Bethal.

“You know them?”

“We just visited them. It’s a small village and the surrounding area. There’s an [Emperor] there. Thomast, you don’t think…?”

Bethal looked at her husband. He nodded.

“Emperor Laken introduced us to his [General]. You remember her? She was a [Witch]. They know how to use poisons.”

“A night-time ambush using poison? Hardly befitting of an [Emperor]!”

Dame Truvia frowned. Sir Nil glanced around.

“Ideal for a larger force, however. Sir Kerrig described only a few hundred [Riders] and mounted [Archers] and warriors. They’ve slain several times their number, at least.”

“It was the absence of their Chieftain that presented the opportunity. Had she been here—”

Sir Kerrig was speaking urgently, pointing to the Goblins. Now they had formed into units again. Bethal saw they were coming towards her and shifted uneasily.

“Sir Kerrig—”

Hobs and mounted Goblins riding Carn Wolves approached them. They formed a semi-circle between the Humans and the camp, staring at Sir Kerrig and then Lady Bethal’s escort. They had weapons, but they stared at the Humans blankly. Sir Kerrig looked wary and Thomast and the two [Knights] moved in front of Bethal again, but she didn’t see hostility in the Goblin’s eyes.

“Why aren’t they angry?”

The Goblins were staring at them. Just staring with a blank, empty gaze. They were aware of the Human’s threat, but it was like they were just going through the motions. Behind them, the Goblins searched their dead, the same empty look in their eyes.

“I think they’re mourning.”

Sir Kerrig’s reply made all of the Humans glance at him sharply. Lady Bethal opened her mouth to say that was impossible, but she stopped as she saw the Goblin child again. It—she—wasn’t the only Goblin child, but somehow Bethal recognized her. The Goblins checking for the living had passed her section of the camp, but the Goblin child had found who she was looking for. She sat next to a bloody body with two arrows sticking out of its chest. Sat and wept, her eyes overflowing.

The Goblins around the child ignored her, going about their tasks. Not once did they glance at Lady Bethal and her shining [Knights], at Sir Thomast. They had to remember. They had to know how dangerous the Humans were. But they were not the ones who’d committed this slaughter. They were not important. So they worked mechanically, eyes empty, moving like puppets. Ignoring the Humans.

And slowly, it dawned on Lady Bethal that her small company didn’t matter to the tribe of Goblins right now. Not at all. They were a footnote unless they chose to attack. It was as if the Goblins were truly grieving. But they didn’t show it. They didn’t cry. They moved, packing up their camp, preparing to march.

They left the dead where they were. More Goblins moved into groups, loading up wagons, calling their fellows away. At last, it seemed as though someone noticed Bethal’s group and decided it had to be addressed. She saw a wave of Hobs and Goblins with crossbows returning and a fat Goblin leading them. Not Rags.

“Humans.”

He said one word, his voice raw, rasping. Bethal saw that the Goblins behind him were already marching. On the fat Hob’s left stood a [Mage] with electricity crackling around his fingertips. To his right rode a Goblin with a scar across his face on a Carn Wolf. He glared at Sir Thomast in hatred.

“Where is your Chieftain?”

“Hurt.”

“I see.”

Lady Bethal waited. The fat Hob just looked at her. She expected him to reiterate her Chieftain’s demands and was preparing to negotiate. She’d promised them wealth hadn’t she? If it came to it, could she get Sir Kerrig—

“Go away.”

Bethal paused. The Hob pointed. He was holding a battleaxe that shone with a fiery enchantment. Sir Kerrig’s battleaxe! And was the scarred Goblin holding Welca’s sword? Bethal looked at him uncertainly.

“Excuse me?”

“Leave. No prisoners. Take Human with you.”

The Hob pointed at Sir Kerrig. Then he turned and began to walk away.

“Wait!”

Grudgingly, the Hob turned back. Lady Bethal looked at him, confused.

“You’re letting Sir Kerrig return to us? Without a ransom?”

“Yes. That is what I said.”

The Hob glared at her. Bethal waited. But there was nothing more. The Hob looked around and issued an order. Some of the Goblins broke away and streamed towards the marching tribe.

“You won’t attack us?”

“No point. Humans too hard to kill.”

“And you’re not worried about what we might do?”

The Hob glanced at Dame Truvia.

“Try it.”

“Truvia! Enough. We had nothing to do with this attack.”

Bethal informed the Hob. She had no idea why she said it. They were Goblins. But the Hob nodded.

“We know. You killed Goblins before. Not now. So go.”

More silence. Bethal sensed Thomast shift. He looked at her and nudged his head. They should go. She knew he was right. But she wanted to—Bethal’s eyes flicked back to the Goblin child. Now she was looking at Bethal. Staring. For some reason Bethal felt guilty. Guilty?

“This was a—harsh tactic. Poison. Not honorable. But surely your tribe expected this. Surely you knew you were being hunted.”

Why was she trying to excuse this? Bethal saw the Goblin’s eyes flash as one. The Hob raised his head and met her eyes. There was no fury there. But a trace of anger flickered past the empty expression.

“We did not attack these Humans.”

“But you attacked Humans before. Sir Kerrig told me. You routed an army not a day ago. This conflict—”

The Hob cut her off.

“We destroyed a Human army. Hunting Goblins. We kill Humans who attack.”

“But—”

“There is a difference. We are not the Goblin Lord army. We are not raiding Goblins. We are not the same. There is a difference.

There was. Only, Bethal had not ever made the distinction before. This was a tribe and they were not the same as the Goblin Lord’s army. So they told her. She felt ashamed.

“We will leave, then. I apologize for my error.”

The Hob nodded. He looked at her, waiting. He knew she had more to say. So he waited. Bethal looked around the camp. Goblins were streaming away. The child was still sitting there.

“Won’t you bury your dead?”

“No. No burial. Leave.”

“I see.”

Alien. Incomprehensible. How could they not care for their dead? The crimson eyes watched her. Bethal pointed. The Hob turned as she pointed at the crying Goblin child. She hadn’t budged, though Goblins were urging her to get up and leave.

“Why is only she crying?”

The Hob looked at the child and shook his head.

“Tears are a waste of water.”

He turned and walked away. The Goblins behind him hesitated, and then streamed after him. They marched, many of them still wounded, some coughing, eyes streaming. Bethal saw the Hob stump over to the Goblin child and say something. An order. The child shook its head, eyes and nose streaming. The Hob repeated the order.

“I will stay. Someone has to witness this.”

“What?”

Bethal didn’t hear Sir Kerrig’s argument with the others. She watched as the Hob bent and pointed. He touched the body, shook his head. Pointed. The child shook her head. She clung to the body as the Hob reached for her.

“Here.”

Shielding their bodies so the Goblins couldn’t see, Dame Truvia pressed her enchanted dagger into Sir Kerrig’s hands. He slipped it into his clothes and nodded. Bethal saw the Hob pulling, saw the child hold on with all its strength. Clinging, clinging—the Goblin child held the body as the Hob pulled her up and then separated the two. Then she did wail, once. She beat the Hob as he carried her away.

He let her hit him and walked without looking back. He shed not one tear, but he bled as the Goblin child bit his hand. Bled, but didn’t stop. Bethal watched them go until they disappeared between the trees. She glanced down at Sir Kerrig, who was preparing to run after the Goblins.

“I did not know they could weep.”

“Neither did I, milady.”

“Follow them, Sir Kerrig. If you wish it. I will return to my estates. I—”

Lady Bethal never finished the sentence. She eventually turned and rode away as Sir Kerrig jogged after the Goblins. They were marching already, moving swiftly through the forest. Injured. Many wounded. But they still numbered thousands.

If they had wished it, they could have slaughtered Lady Bethal and her escort despite the cost. They could have overwhelmed the [Knights], brought down Thomast by sheer numbers and slaughtered Bethal. They could have. But they hadn’t. They had every right to fury. And perhaps it was there. But their despair, their grief was stronger. It was all consuming. So the Goblins left the [Lady] behind and walked.

They did not cry. They marched, blood dripping in the place of tears. Tears were a waste of water. The Goblins marched away as the night turned to day. They left their dead behind. They left family. They left friends. They left their loved ones, their hearts, and their blood. And they did not weep. Except on the inside.

 

—-

 

After a while the blood stopped. The child stopped biting him. Her teeth had left cuts in his hand and she’d torn the flesh as if she was tearing flesh from raw meat. Pyrite ignored the pain. He carried her as she wept, striding past the lines of Goblins. The child was young. So young she hadn’t learned that crying was a waste of water, dangerous sound. He would have told her to stop, but there was no point. The enemy had come and gone. So Pyrite walked.

“Sorry.”

She clung to his shoulder. He bled. The blood ran down his hand, stinging. It dripped into the soil. It was such a meaningless thing. Pyrite remembered the body he’d torn her from.

“Sorry.”

He marched to a wagon with Goblin children and tried to make her let go. She clung to him then, not wanting to. But he made her. He was strong as she was weak, for all she tried to lace her fingers together, grip him tightly. He put her with the older Goblin watching the children.

“Sorry.”

Nothing else to say. Nothing else to do. Pyrite looked down at the child and then ahead. The trees were thinning. He strode past her as the muffled crying grew fainter behind him. Pyrite reached another wagon and looked into it.

“Chieftain.”

Rags lay in the center of the wagon, covered with a blanket, her face pale. She was unconscious. They hadn’t been able to wake her and she’d lost so much blood. Too much for even a healing potion to properly heal. Pyrite walked next to the cart until he remembered he should be doing something.

“You. How many sentries? Where warriors?”

The Hob he pointed at looked blankly at Pyrite. He walked over and poked another Goblin who barely responded. Pyrite shook his head. He had to think. Rags was unconscious. That meant Pyrite had to take charge. He turned to another Goblin.

“Sentries ride ahead. Get Redscar. Put pikes here and here. Move!”

He had to push the Goblins, sending them racing ahead and behind to move the tribe into position. Just in time. Not ten minutes later, Pyrite heard a howl and saw a flash of movement. He saw a group of Humans burst out of the trees. They rode towards a group of Goblins who looked up and stared at them.

Just stared. Pyrite saw the Humans. He knew what they were going to do. But he failed to react. He saw a rider in armor cut down a Goblin and then he woke up. Pyrite saw the Goblins raising their weapons weakly. The Humans trampled them. No. Pyrite inhaled. He shouted at the Goblins who were just staring.

“Humans! Move! Attack!”

Goblins turned and stared at him. Pyrite bellowed. The numbing emptiness in his chest filled. His blood began to surge. Humans. Their leader wheeled, his sword red. They raced down the line, away from Pyrite. He pointed at them.

Humans!

He roared the word and the Goblins looked up. Their exhausted heads rose. Their eyes opened wide. Wider. Pyrite pointed and Goblins ran. He heard one scream, an angry, bitter cry. The others took it up. The warriors streamed towards the fleeing Humans. Pyrite wanted to run, but he held his ground. Wait. He shouted at other Goblins who were abandoning their positions.

“Stay! Wait for order!”

They held. Reluctantly, they held. Pyrite heard another howl to the south and this time he was ready. He roared and Redfang warriors streamed towards the attacked site and within minutes he heard a Goblin horn call. All clear. The Humans were gone. They’d attacked and fled.

So this was how it would be. Pyrite closed his eyes. They were already striking again. It made sense. He was exhausted. He was wounded and his tribe was barely able to function. He saw Redscar riding towards him. The Redfang leader was furious. He pointed in the direction of the fleeing Humans.

“Attack! We ride!”

“No! Guard tribe!”

Pyrite snapped at him. He was too tired to convey all of what he understood—that the Humans were baiting them, trying to get the Goblins to chase them, to lure them into a trap. Redscar growled, but he assented after a moment of hesitation. Pyrite looked around.

“Where Noears? Poisonbite?”

The answers came too slowly for his tastes. But they did come. Poisonbite was hurt and among the wounded. Noears was at the back. Pyrite grunted.

“Noears go back. Redfangs spread out! Crossbows ready. Not spread out. Keep moving!”

Redscar growled and nodded. He took the front and Pyrite reorganized the rearguard. The Goblins marched for two hours as the sun lightened. Pyrite had no idea where they were going. They needed to find somewhere to rest, somewhere defensible. But sending scouts out now would be a bad idea.

The Humans hit them as they were leaving the forest. They rode into the tree line, at least a hundred of them and began loosing arrows as soon as the sentries called the alarm. Pyrite growled as he saw they were attacking a spot with heavy pikes and wolves—and few archers! He saw Redfang warriors racing after them and the Humans retreating. Several mounted Goblins disappeared into the trees and Pyrite called the rest of them back.

“No follow. Get crossbows!”

Goblins with crossbows scrambled to the front. Pyrite heard wolves howling in pain and then silence in the trees. The Redfang riders didn’t return. But the Humans did. They rode out of the trees and loosed another volley, shouting triumphantly.

Were there more of them this time? Pyrite kept a wary eye on his flanks and rear as the units of Goblins wielding crossbows returned fire. That surprised the Humans—they’d clearly expected more Goblins to chase. Instead, several horses went down and some riders fell, screaming. At this distance both sides were too far away for accuracy; the clumped-up Goblins suffered more than the Humans. But the Humans did fall.

After the second volley, the archers among the trees vanished. The Goblins waited and Pyrite sent a group of Redfang Warriors to investigate. They found tracks, but the Humans had fled. Pyrite ordered them not to follow to Redscar’s disgust and posted twice as many sentries, twice as far out.

 

—-

 

They had to rest. Pyrite knew it, but he was dithering over leaving the tree line. Beyond the forest was a hilly landscape, open, but terribly exposed if the Humans launched another night attack. He followed the forest until the next wave of attacks. This time it wasn’t a full-fledged assault. Pyrite heard a howl as the Goblins tried to sleep and jerked awake. Redscar raced towards him, shouting.

“Sentries gone!”

Half of the sentries Pyrite had sent out to the west had been ambushed, their locations found and the Goblins feathered with arrows before they could raise the alarm. Only the last group had raised any alarm.

“Heard horn call. Too late. Fleeing Humans. Ordered not to pursue.”

Redscar growled as Pyrite tried to wake up and think. Redscar pointed.

“Humans leave tracks! Can follow!”

“Is trap.”

Pyrite repeated himself stubbornly. He knew it was true. Redscar knew it was true. But the Goblin had a different idea about it.

“Let us spring!”

He wanted to take two hundred wolf riders and hunt the Humans. Pyrite shook his head.

“No.”

Redscar growled. Pyrite glared at him. After a second Pyrite nodded.

“Put sentries back. Closer. Split riders. Ready to reinforce any moment.”

He held Redscar’s gaze until the other Goblin nodded. Pyrite was second in charge. With Rags unconscious he led. But neither Goblins spoke what both knew. The Humans would be back, sentries or not.

 

—-

 

They had to leave the forest. Pyrite marched the tribe into the hilly plains, watching the sun setting and searching for a spot, any spot where they could put their backs against a wall. He found nothing. He marched the tribe on until nightfall, watching the hills grow closer in the distance. Maybe if they dug ditches? Or camped on the hills?

They never made it that far. Pyrite noticed only when he had to ask why the tribe was lagging behind twice. He strode back and saw the Goblins at the back were gasping for air.

“Can’t breathe, Pyrite.”

Quietstab pointed to a Goblin who was trying to inhale. His lungs were making a terrible rasping sound. Pyrite stared at the Goblin in dismay.

“Bad?”

“Can’t fight. Can’t run. Can’t see. Some. Got rest. Or potion.”

They didn’t have enough potions. And there were hundreds, no, thousands of Goblins who’d inhaled the poisonous gas. Maybe a third of the tribe! Pyrite turned to Poisonbite who was making the same horrible sound.

“How long heal?”

She gasped for air. Her eyes were weeping and she was keeping them closed. She had to try twice before she gestured weakly with her claws. Two claws. Four. She shook them weakly.

Two days or four days. And then—a pause. The fingers clenched slightly. Or two weeks. Pyrite looked at Quietstab. He checked the landscape. Open ground. They should have stayed in the forest. Rags would have stayed. Pyrite had no choice now, though. He pointed.

“Make camp! Get Redscar and others!”

The council of war was brief. Pyrite gathered Redscar, Noears, Quietstab, and any of the Hobs who knew how to fight. He divided them up and posted them around the camp. The trouble was that with so many wounded Goblins, it was impossible to encircle the entire camp and not be spread too thin. Pyrite tried to figure out if they could construct defenses. Ditches? He looked at the exhausted Goblins who hadn’t slept since the day before yesterday and shook his head.

Pyrite ordered the Goblin warriors able to fight to sleep in shifts until the attack came. He kept torches lit and burnt as much fuel as he dared. Because the Humans would surely come again. When they did it was in darkness.

“Horses!”

This time the scream came near Pyrite’s position. He pushed himself up, grabbed his battleaxe and ran. He saw horses flashing in the chaos and more shooting arrows behind. He roared, cut down a Human on horseback, saw another dragged off his horse and watched the rest run. They were good at running! If the Redfangs could follow—

No. Too risky! Pyrite cursed as he watched the Humans leave.

This time the attack was bloody on both sides. The Humans pulled back after a single charge, leaving behind two dozen dead or wounded. But they’d cut down far too many Goblins. They’d attacked where there were no pikes or crossbows ready. How? Pyrite had no idea. The sentries had been hit first, but they had been alive right until the attack and the surviving warriors swore they hadn’t so much as seen a Human. Did they have a high-level [Scout]? Some kind of invisibility spell? A scrying spell?

They weren’t even that high-level. Pyrite whirled as he heard a howl. He saw Redfang riders streaming past him and saw a Goblin shouting and pointing after the Humans fleeing into the darkness.

“Redfangs! Follow!”

Stop.

Redscar roared as he tried to ride past Pyrite. The Hob charged at him, forcing the Carn Wolf to halt its dash. Pyrite tore Redscar from the saddle and felt two things happen at once. A painful, familiar cold sting in his right arm and a pair of jaws clamping over his hand.  Redscar shoved his sword into Pyrite’s arm as his Carn Wolf bit. Pyrite made a fist and forced the wolf’s jaws open.

Release!

Redscar snapped and his Carn Wolf let go. The Goblin kept his blade pressed into Pyrite’s arm, though. Pyrite roared at him in frustration. Redscar roared back. Around them the Flooded Waters tribe froze, watching the two Goblins in fear. Only then did Pyrite realize what was happening. He was fighting with Redscar! What was the point? He let go of the smaller Goblin slowly and felt the freezing blade’s tip withdraw from his arm.

The two Goblins stared at each other, breathing hard. At last, Pyrite jerked his head.

“Sixty riders. A hundred warriors. No you.”

“Yes.”

Redscar sheathed his blade and called. Instantly sixty of his Redfang warriors charged into the darkness. Pyrite turned.

“Pikes and crossbows! Twenty Hobs!”

Goblin warriors raced forwards at his command. Pyrite pointed and they followed the Redfang warriors. The mounted Goblins were already racing across the plains. They rode after the Humans, howling with rage. Sixty mounted elites and a hundred Goblins on foot, enough to tear apart a force twice their size and harry the riders before retreating in turn.

Pyrite felt the blood running down his arm and rubbed at the wound. Redscar eyed the frozen skin and blood, but Pyrite didn’t reach for a potion. He pointed back to the camp.

“Reform defenses. Humans might attack. Other side.”

Redscar nodded. He whistled and his Redfang warriors followed him back into camp. Pyrite trudged back to his sleeping spot, but he was awake now. He waited as the Goblins who’d been sleeping tried to get some rest. But no one could. They were all listening as hard as they could. They’d been hit by what, a hundred and forty riders? They’d sent more than that after them.

Surely they’d catch their enemy. If they were outnumbered they’d retreat. Redscar would race to their aid the instant they heard anything. Pyrite would let him. If they could bloody the Humans, force them to defend…the instant they heard anything Pyrite would move. He’d defend from the other side because of course that was when the Humans would attack. He waited, listening. Waited, waited…

Three passed then ten minutes. Then half an hour. The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe waited. They listened for howling, stragglers—anything. They heard nothing. Pyrite thought he heard a distant war horn—once. Then nothing. After that, Redscar did not try to follow the Humans, though the camp was attacked once more that night. Always with perfect accuracy, always in the weakest point, the flawed sections of the camp’s defenses that Pyrite himself hadn’t spotted.

 

—-

 

We’re winning each encounter. They’re moving each day, but they haven’t sent any more patrols. Heading towards a city—Lancrel. Orders to keep pursuing?

I tap my fingers together. I don’t have to hear Wiskeria’s reports to know what’s happening. My mind is with her mobile attack force almost all the time. With the Goblins too. I can tell how many have fallen. Hundreds from the raiding. But not enough. There are still thousands, for all they’re still poisoned.

“Your Majesty?”

Nesor’s face isn’t that pale today. He’s gotten used to sending and receiving [Message] spells and he’s faster and has stopped stuttering as much. I turn to Lady Rie.

“Lancrel. Where is it on the map?”

“Here, your Majesty.”

She finds me the place on the map instantly. I touch the spot and try to line it up in my head. Yes, the Goblins are headed that way. Aimlessly, it looks like.

“That’s not one of our cities, is it, Rie?”

“No, your Majesty. Lancrel has refused all messengers and did not reply to your levy. We have appraised them of the Goblin threat, but they declined to send aid. Their walls and gates are thick; I believe they think they’re well-defended.”

“Especially with Wiskeria harrying the Goblins.”

I appraise Lancrel in my mind. A small city. It might hold as many as ten thousand people at most. I don’t bother to count.

“Ten thousand is a small number? They could outnumber Riverfarm three times over.”

“Emperor?”

“Nothing. Lancrel outnumbers the Goblins, and their walls are…probably six meters? How much is that in feet? Twenty? I doubt the Goblins will head towards it. Nesor, tell Wiskeria to keep raiding.”

“Yes, sire.”

I sense Rie standing by my side. I focus my attention on another group moving towards them.

“Nesor. Tell Wiskeria her first group of reinforcements is headed her away. Two kilom—I mean, one mile and a bit south of her. Tell her to find them. They have…some horse, but mainly [Archers] and [Warriors].”

“Yes, sire!”

“They’ll be in position by evening.”

I hear Rie fumble with some figures. She’s changing the map in front of me to reflect what I’m describing. I nod.

“Wiskeria can keep harrying them, but the infantry can’t launch rapid attacks. She can set up a trap and commit all of her mounted soldiers to attacking. No full assaults. The main army will finish them.”

I can sense Durene marching with the bulk of the levied soldiers. [Soldiers] marching in ranks, levied from multiple cities. More cavalry, archers, thousands of them. I add the numbers up again. They’ll outnumber the Goblin army. Barely. Barely, but it’s enough if it’s Goblins. We did it last time. But Durene’s marching and I’m stuck here. I grit my teeth.

“Harry them, Nesor. Tell Wiskeria to harry them. They’ve shifted almost all their crossbows to their west side. Almost undefended towards east, about a hundred paces north of where Beniar hit them two hours ago. I count two groups of pikes spaced out ten meters…scheiße. I mean, thirty feet apart. Tell Beniar that if he approaches northeast, he can slip past them. There are five sentries. If he sends a group of ten, he could take them out and loose some arrows—”

 

—-

 

Sleep. Attack. Wake. Attack. The next day was filled with marching and sporadic, deadly raids by the Humans. Always in bad spots. Never in any of the traps. Hidden Goblins lying down with crossbows, Goblins pretending to be napping, Noears hiding in a tent, none of it worked. The Humans knew exactly what Pyrite was doing. Somehow. They’d actually aimed at Noears when he’d been in hiding. They could tell he was a [Mage], where he’d hidden—

How? Noears had suggested magic, but that was too convenient. Redscar was of the opinion some kind of fantastic [Hunter] or [Scout] was spying on them from some incredible distance. It wasn’t anyone nearby. In desperation, Pyrite had sent out the Redfang warriors en masse, hunting for a Human spy. They’d found nothing. No Human [Scouts] for ten miles in any direction. They were sure. So it was something else.

Pyrite didn’t know what, exactly. But he’d come to one definitive conclusion.

“They know where we are. Always.”

“How?”

Quietstab looked around as if the Humans could see them. Pyrite shrugged.

“Don’t know. But can see. Can’t follow.”

“Trap?”

“Trap.”

If the enemy knew exactly where you were and what you were doing at all times, sending out a force to attack them meant they would be surrounded and killed. The only safety was in overwhelming numbers. The Humans were still outnumbered by the Goblins. That was what Pyrite took comfort in. For all of five hours. Then he heard the frantic horns blowing and heard a scream.

“Humans coming!”

Another raid! Pyrite grabbed his battleaxe. He ran towards the shouting and froze. He could see the riders loosing arrows and charging again, but just as quick he was intercepted by Redscar himself. The Goblin was sweating. He pointed southwest.

“Human army approaching!”

“Humans here!”

Pyrite pointed towards the fighting ahead. Pyrite shook his head.

“Big army. Big army.

An army? Pyrite looked up at Redscar, his heart beating even faster.

“How many?”

“Thousands. Days away. Sent [Scouts]. One survived.”

For a second the Hob’s ears rang. He looked up. Redscar looked grim as he shifted his grip on his sword. Pyrite looked around in desperation. Southwest? Redscar had sent—

No, no time for arguing. Pyrite knew now. He had to move! Keep ahead of the army! Half the tribe still couldn’t breathe. Rags was still unconscious, being carried, her face deathly pale. They had to move.

But the Humans on horses—Pyrite heard more screaming and looked up. There. He saw two of the Humans. One, the Human all in armor who led the raiding. The other he’d spotted. A Human woman with a pointed hat. A spellcaster throwing fire. They were tearing up the Goblins in front of him. No one else could reinforce them! If they did, the Humans would just attack the unguarded spots. Pyrite roared. He pointed at Redscar.

“Guard rear! Quietstab, follow!”

He charged towards the gap in his lines. Goblins surged to follow him. Gasping. Wounded. They were so tired. They just needed a chance to rest. Two more days. They were breathing better. But the poison—

She was the one behind it. Pointed hat. [Witch]. Pyrite was sure of it. He roared as he charged past Goblins, cutting down a Human on horseback. Blood splashed his chest and Pyrite howled. If it was this they could win! If it was a fight the tribe had Hobs, had warriors, had strategy! But they were hurt! They weren’t able to use their strength! Their Chieftain was asleep.

But she would wake up. Pyrite felt a Human slice his back, but it was a shallow cut. He spun and saw Quietstab hamstring the horse. Rider and horse went down and Pyrite heard the Humans shouting.

“Retreat! Let the archers cut them down!”

Flee. The Human in armor was too far away. Pyrite saw the [Archers] on horses loosing another volley. They had to be chased off. Goblins with crossbows were coming. They just had to buy time.

Strong. This tribe was strong. Pyrite looked around and saw Goblins fighting, coughing, some blind, others exhausted. They just had to rest. Everything would be alright when Rags woke up. If it was a fight, a proper fight—

He had to hold on. Pyrite charged at the Humans loosing arrows, preventing the Goblins from organizing their ranks. Give them a target. Pyrite shouted as he ran. The arrows flew past them. One struck his shoulder as Pyrite covered his face. All he had to do was hold on. Another struck his stomach, and another. Something struck his shoulder and burned. Pyrite screamed and kept running.

Believe. All he had to do was—five arrows struck Pyrite’s chest and he slowed. His blood spattered the ground.

Like tears.

 

—-

 

When the waters rose, the Flooded Waters tribe ate well. It was dangerous of course, but Rags remembered the rain with fondness. Goblins loved fish. They could hunt fish easily so long as they watched out for predators. All you had to do was find a big school of fish and surround it.

It didn’t matter if they were fast or small. When there were so many you could attack it from every side, find the stragglers, the slow ones. And then you took them. If you were quick enough you could have an armful of fish and your belly would be full. If they couldn’t fight back it was so easy. All you had to do was surround them with some other members of the tribe and then you could eat and eat. Rags had never known what it was like to be a fish.

And then she opened her eyes and the fish were Goblins.

The world swam in front of Rags’ vision. She looked up and saw a blank piece of canvas stretched over her head. A tent? No—she felt rough wood under her back and sat up. She realized she wasn’t in a tent. She was in a wagon.

Someone was crying. It was a high-pitched sound. An unfamiliar sound. Rags hadn’t heard crying in…it wasn’t a Goblin thing to do. But someone was crying and it was a Goblin who wept. Rags was sure of it.

She sat up and felt at the canvas covering the wagon and her. Only, halfway up Rags was seized by a horrible coughing fit. She coughed and pain coursed through her body. Her lungs were on fire! And her eyes burned. She scratched weakly at the canvas and heard a gasp. Someone wrestled with the covering and then there was light.

Rags sat up slowly, her eyes watering, coughing, and saw a hand offer something to her. Blindly, she reached out and drank. It wasn’t a healing potion, but the tepid, stale water did the same job. She stopped coughing and looked into the eyes of a small Goblin. A child.

To be fair, Rags was a small Goblin. This one was a proper child, not adult even by Goblin standards. She stared at Rags and she noticed the child had redder eyes than usual. She’d been crying.

Stop that.

Rags growled at the child and coughed. The small Goblin scampered back as Rags got up. Her body ached. Her chest felt terribly, terribly weak where she’d been cut. But she was alive. And she felt it. Her tribe needed her. So Rags rose. She stood up in the wagon and gasped. Coughed. But then stood tall.

Like nibbling fish. Like Goblins slowly tearing apart a school of fish. Like slow death, like a thousand stinging ants. Like blood dripping from a wound.

She felt her tribe’s anguish, even if she didn’t know why. Rags took a step, stumbled. A pair of hands steadied her. She looked at the small Goblin. Had she been crying because Rags was unconscious? No—it was more. Death. Rags could remember that.

Let go.

She felt the hands retreat and took another step. And another. Rags made her way over to the wagon’s edge and looked around. She could hear…silence. A lack of noise where noise should be. The tribe had stopped. There should be working Goblins, chattering, movement. And she shouldn’t have been covered in a wagon. This was bad. Rags made to leap off the wagons’ back and paused. She looked back at the child and saw two huge eyes staring back at her. Someone had to tell her.

“Crying is waste of water.”

The Goblin child stared at Rags and shrank slightly. The Chieftain of the Flooded Water tribe held her gaze and then smiled briefly.

“Unless it wakes Chieftain. Then it good.”

She leapt from the wagon, landed hard on the ground and got up. Staggering and then feeling her leg muscles work at last, Rags walked. The small Goblin child leapt off the cart after her. First it was one Goblin.

There was a Hob standing guard next to the wagon. He was healthy, but tired. His arm was bandaged and though he had no wheezing cough, his breathing was still labored. He was dozing on watch, which is why he’d missed Rags waking. She walked up to him and kicked him. He jerked upright, swung at her with his quarterstaff and stopped.

Chieftain?

She glared at him.

“Where is Pyrite?”

He looked around wildly and pointed uncertainly. Rags strode past him.

“Follow.”

The Hob saw the Goblin child follow Rags. He slapped himself, grinned as he realized he wasn’t dreaming, and followed, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. And then there were two.

Rags walked through her camp. It was her camp, but it was not her camp. It was all wrong. The fires were too close together. No—there weren’t many fires lit. The Goblins were lying too close! What if they were sick? What if there was an attack? What if they needed to pee? Too many were coughing, and it looked like many hadn’t eaten. Food was low. Water was low. And the wounded—

Too many wounded. Rags stumbled forwards, remembering what had happened. The attack! Poison. The coughing. Pieces came together. She saw Goblins look up, glance at her, away, and then do a double-take. They got up. Rags waved at them, croaking.

“Pyrite!”

They pointed. Rags quickened her pace. She didn’t tell the wounded to follow her, but they did anyways. They got up and the other Goblins saw the motion. They looked at each other and poked each other. They didn’t see Rags, short as she was, but they knew. And then there were handfuls.

The center of the camp was too full. But the perimeter was too sparse. Rags saw Goblins dug into hasty fortifications in the earth. They were in the plains! When had they gotten here? The Goblins on duty were too divided. Rags frowned. Why were they spread out? It was as if the camp was expecting an attack from any direction at any moment. But that wasn’t how you defended. You put your best soldiers where the enemy would attack, not weaken yourself by spreading yourself out. What had happened?

Pyrite!

She snapped the word and the Goblin soldiers looked up. They gaped and rose. Some pointed. Rags shouted at the ones who tried to abandon their positions.

“Stay!”

They did. But the shouting, the familiar voice made heads turn. The Goblins in earshot looked around. They stood up, craning to see. And they spoke.

“Chieftain.”

“Chieftain?”

It was an uncertain word, a tremulous question. Hope, and its cousin, fear, wavering for fear of the truth. But the word was repeated. It spread as more Goblins rose, defying exhaustion to see. And then they were many.

“Chieftain is awake.”

“Chieftain Rags.”

“Chieftain.”

They rose and followed. And then Rags was followed by hundreds. And the tribe took notice. Word began to spread from Goblin to Goblin. Rags was awake. And she was headed for Pyrite. Every hand began to point the way before she asked. The broken network of Goblin communication restored itself for one purpose. And as Rags walked her tribe formed itself around her. Around their Chieftain.

When they reached the sitting Goblin they were thousands. Rags stopped as the Goblins showed her to the Hob sitting on the ground. He was drinking from a half-empty bottle as Goblins fussed about him. Blood covered the ground around him. His battleaxe was covered with gore. And they had plucked too many splintered arrows and arrowheads from his flesh to count. Pyrite looked up and smiled around the blood.

“Good sleep?”

Rags stopped in front of him and looked down. Pyrite drank from the healing potion and sighed. She stared. He was bleeding. She couldn’t tell from where. He was covered in blood. He’d taken sword wounds, tearing mace blows, arrows to his chest, his sides, his back, cuts from daggers, burns from fire. And he’d stood among it all. The fat on his body was torn. His blood ran with it. Slowly.

He’d taken so many wounds that the healing potion was failing to recover all of them. Rags saw a gash on his stomach oozing fat slowly knit together and then—stop. She looked around, head spinning.

“Healing potion.”

“Out.”

Pyrite tossed the empty bottle to the ground. Again he tried to stand. This time he did. Rags looked at him. Pyrite swayed, frowned, and regained his balance. He bled. But he stood. And when he glanced at Rags, it was expectantly. He wanted orders. He said not a word about his wounds. Rags looked into his eyes.

“Show me.”

And the Hob smiled for the first time in days. He nodded and turned, his ravaged body as light as a feather. He said the words he’d waited so long to say.

“Yes, Chieftain.”

 

—-

 

By night they rode. By day they came. With arrow and sword. With fire and spell. Warriors of the Unseen Empire. From every direction, with traps and quick, lightning-fast attacks. And though they were fought off each time they exacted a price. Hundreds of dead. Hundreds. Rags saw the missing faces. Day after day the Humans had come. And for three days Pyrite had fought them off.

Three days. Three days he’d kept them marching while a third of the tribe was unable to do more than move, struggling for breath.

“Enemy not that smart. Weak leader. But Humans on horse can see at night. And they know where we are. Always.”

Pyrite stood with a crude map of the landscape drawn for Rags. She watched his chest rise and fall. He still bled, but his wounds were bandaged. They’d given him food—dry oats meant for fodder. There had been no time to forage so the tribe was hungry.

“How find?”

“Don’t know, Chieftain.”

Noears grinned at her. His head was bandaged and he looked exhausted, but he couldn’t stop grinning. At her. He gestured around.

“No spell. Can’t sense.”

“Tracker? Scout?”

“No.”

Redscar folded his arms. The Goblin warrior hadn’t shown his elation on seeing her, but he’d arrived as fast as the others. Rags had heard of his disastrous attempts to pursue the Humans. She understood. But—she turned back to Pyrite.

“How? Know?”

“No, Chieftain.”

Pyrite shrugged. He pointed back at the crude map, drawing her attention.

“City nearby. Big. Got walls. Lots of Humans.”

They’d come to a city, fleeing the Human’s advancing army. Pyrite pointed to the Human army, grimacing. Rags grimaced too. Thousands of Humans, approaching slowly on foot. Not the mounted raiders, but far more of them. They’d be able to finish off Rags’ weakened tribe. So Pyrite had taken the tribe away—right into a Human city.

“Not moving. Not yet.”

Poisonbite wheezed as she squatted next to the others. Her lungs were better, but she still had trouble breathing. Rags shifted her attention to her. Poisonbite was wounded, even if it wasn’t a visible wound. Over a third of her tribe was wounded. Vulnerable. The Humans had been chewing apart the warriors as they struggled to defend their helpless tribe from every direction.

“Mistake to leave forest. No cover.”

That came from Quietstab. There was no recrimination as he glanced at Pyrite. Both Hobs nodded, as did the other Goblins. It was a statement of fact. Rags chewed her lip, agreeing. If they’d stayed in the forest they could have built another fortress. Maybe. Or would the Humans have used poison again on a stationary target?

It didn’t matter. She focused on the map.

“Humans on horses. From city?”

“No.”

That voice came from no Goblin. They all looked at Sir Kerrig. He was squatting with them. Rags stared at the [Knight]. He looked up at her and nodded respectfully.

“The raiding Humans are part of the Unseen Emperor. Under the command of one Laken Godart. An [Emperor].”

Sir Kerrig waited for the Goblin’s response. They just stared at him. He coughed, slightly surprised, and went on.

“Goblins attacked his empire once before. The Great Chieftain’s forces, or so I believe. He may suspect you’re part of that force. Or a raiding army sent by the Goblin Lord.”

“Not.”

Rags said that firmly and all the Goblins nodded. Sir Kerrig hesitated.

“I don’t believe the difference would occur to Emperor Laken. Nevertheless, I can tell you that the city—it is called Lancrel, incidentally—is not part of his domain.”

Rags absorbed this information and promptly discarded the details about the name. She stared at Sir Kerrig. Then she turned to Pyrite.

“Why he here?”

“Human [Lady] come. She go. He stay.”

Pyrite shrugged, seeming to enjoy the motion despite how it opened up the wound in his shoulder. Rags glanced at Sir Kerrig. He met her gaze levelly.

“I wished to observe your tribe, Chieftain Rags.”

“Observe this?

She gestured angrily around at the injured Goblins. Sir Kerrig paused. He looked at some of the injured Goblins. Rags had heard that he’d helped tend to the injured. She didn’t care. At last the [Knight] responded.

“What would you have me say? I witnessed you destroy a Human army. Just or not, Laken Godart’s attacks are in retaliation for Goblin raids on his lands. He is protecting his people with preemptive strikes. He regards this as a war.”

“Against Tremborag. Against Goblin Lord. Not us.

“He cannot tell the difference, Chieftain Rags.”

“So tell him. Why not stop? Go shout at Humans!”

Incensed, Rags glared at Sir Kerrig. He’d come back here? To do what? Watch? As if it was his choice? Sir Kerrig spoke defensively.

“I am an observer. I cannot speak for your intentions. If I requested peace and your tribe attacked innocents, the blood would be on my hands!”

Rags just stared at the [Knight]. He looked apologetic.

“Chieftain, if you can give me an assurance that your tribe would truly stop fighting, I could attempt—”

She leaned forwards and spat. Sir Kerrig jerked and wiped at his face. Rags turned away.

“Coward.”

She ignored the [Knight] and looked back at Pyrite. He was glancing at Sir Kerrig, half-smiling. So wounded. She saw what he was doing. Could she have done better? Perhaps—she would never know. But now she was awake, Rags understood. An enemy that knew where you were. An [Emperor] with an army pursuing them on horse and a larger one following behind. A city full of Humans.  A stupid, silly Human [Knight]. The pieces fell together and she sighed.

“Humans.”

Her tribe looked at her. Not just her officers, not just the red-faced Sir Kerrig, but all of them. Goblins stood around her meeting spot, waiting. Watching her. Watching their Chieftain. She had led them into this land. She had attacked the first Human army. She had fallen and left them for three days. So they waited, judging her, waiting for her to bring them hope.

Rags closed her eyes. So many dead. The poison. The black riders in the night. All of it. Why? Because—because some [Emperor] thought they were the wrong Goblins? Her heart hurt. Her chest burned. But this was fitting. This was right. This was—

“This is the way Goblins die.”

Her tribe looked at her. Rags stared up at the blue skies. In Liscor, it would be raining. She spoke, still smelling the poison in the air, still seeing the arrows falling. How dare he.

“Running, fighting, protecting, friend and friend. Humans hunt us, monsters to the end. Not people, not anything worth anything. Again, they come, for Goblin children, for Goblin Kings. Forever, forever. All the same in the end.”

She rose. Her officers stood with her. Rags looked around. An [Emperor]? Protecting his people? Replying in kind. How silly. Rags looked at the map. The Humans could be anywhere. They could attack from any direction, at her weak spots. What did you do about that? She jabbed her finger at her answer and the Goblins stared at her.

“The city.”

 

—-

 

General Wiskeria of the Unseen Empire was brewing tea in a pot when the [Mage] responsible for receiving [Message] spells, Allais Vermot, ran towards her.

“They’re moving straight for Lancrel!”

What?

Wiskeria nearly dropped the ball of dried herbs she was dipping into the kettle. She stood up as Beniar raced over. The former Silver-rank adventurer and now [Captain] and [Cataphract] listened to Allais’ report.

“They’re headed straight to Lancrel as fast as they can.”

“Do they think we’re based out of the city? Or are they trying to take it?”

Wiskeria shook the wet tea bag as she took the kettle off the fire. Beniar’s eyes shone.

“They must be insane! If they try for a siege we’ll hammer them against Lancrel’s walls! Wis, this is our chance!”

The [Witch] frowned and not least because Beniar had called her ‘Wis’.

“Hold on. The main army is still a day or two away at best. We don’t have more than eight hundred soldiers here. The Goblins still number over seven thousand!”

“So? Lancrel can hold its walls and we’ll hit the Goblins while they’re stationary. If they commit—we don’t need the rest of the reinforcements! We can smash them against the walls right here and now!”

It was tempting, Wiskeria had to admit. Lancrel had refused to field its army in response to the Goblin threat. By attacking the city, the Goblins were adding another enemy. She nodded after thinking it over. There was really one thing they could do.

“Move out! Beniar, keep your cavalry back. I want them to start attacking the city before we strike. We’ll pin them there!”

Beniar grinned and Wiskeria sighed as she ran for the horses. She hoped it would all go according to plan. In the worst case the Goblins would dig into the nearby landscape as they constructed siege towers or rams. They could prove difficult to uproot if they remained still, rather than kept moving. Of course, by then the army would get there…

It was all a matter of time. Within the hour she and the entire camp of mobile horses were racing towards Lancrel. By the time they reached the city the Goblins were already closing in on the walls.

 

—-

 

“Goblin army approaching!”

Lancrel had seen the Flooded Water tribe coming miles away. And they were warned. By the time the Goblins approached the walls from the east, the majority of the garrison was deployed and waiting. They laughed as they saw the Goblins approaching, though the size of the army was slightly concerning. However, as the Watch Captain reassured his men, there was nothing to worry about.

“There’s twenty feet of wall between us and those damn green freaks! Twenty feet! Keep the ladders off—if they have any—and we’ll slaughter twenty for every one that even makes it on the walls!”

His men laughed, reassured. They watched the Goblins stream towards them. They had wolves, some of them! Huge, loping monsters, three times as big as normal. That too was concerning. But again, the walls were there. It wasn’t as if the Goblins had brought siege towers.

“Hold your ground, men! We’ll push this Goblin Lord back, without this so-called [Emperor]’s help!”

The Watch Captain was still laughing as the first rank of Goblins entered bow-shot range. Instantly some of the [Archers] on the walls fired, their shots going astray. The running Goblins paused and their mounted wolf riders pointed. The Watch Captain nodded.

“See that? They’re going to pull back, send their ladders first. Hold your shots you idiots! Focus on the Goblins with ladders—”

He bit back his words because the ranks of Goblins broke into a run. Straight towards the walls. The Watch Captain looked around wildly.

“Ladders! Aim for the Goblins holding ladders!”

Confused, the Humans looked around. Where were the Goblins with ladders? They weren’t carrying any?

“Watch Captain! Those Hobs have a ram?”

“A what?”

The Watch Captain spotted a few Hobs with a smaller version of a ram. He pointed.

“Aha! Not even ladders! On my mark, bring those Hobs down! Loo—

Those around him felt a kick and heard the roar after the impact had tossed them off their feet. The unlucky Humans who’d been knocked off the walls fell screaming. The ones around the Watch Captain who’d landed on the battlements looked around. They didn’t see their Watch Captain, only a smoldering corpse. They looked back down and lightning flashed upwards again, straight from the fingers of a cackling Goblin with no ears.

Goblin [Mage]!

“Bring it down!”

Panicked shouts came from the walls. The [Archers] began shooting wildly, aiming at the Goblin who’d thrown lightning. He ducked behind a Goblin with a huge wooden shield. And then the Goblins behind him raised something. The Humans blinked. Were those crossbows?

They saw the bolts fly up. The first volley took many of the [Guardsmen] and [Soldiers] off-guard. They fell back, screaming, as the bolts shattered flesh and bone. The Goblins reloaded as the defenders of Lancrel took cover. The Goblins were dangerous! But they still had the high ground and reinforcements. They could hold on the walls so long as the Goblins didn’t—

“Throw!”

A voice shouted the word. The Humans looked around. Throw? Who had shouted that. One of them looked over the walls, ducking as an arrow grazed his helmet. He saw something strange below. A pair of Hobs, cupping hands. And a small Goblin with a glowing blue blade, running at them. The Goblin leapt and his foot landed in the Hob’s cupped hands. They heaved and he flew up, twenty feet into the air. The Human [Soldier] gaped as a hand grabbed onto the ledge in front of him.

“Dead g—”

He raised his sword and Redscar’s enchanted blade went through his helmet. The Goblin reached up and used the dead Human’s body to haul himself onto the battlements. He grinned as, across the wall, more Redfang warriors were launched up by the Hobs.

The defenders of Lancrel gaped at Redscar as he looked around, his enchanted sword raised. It was bloody. A Human jabbed at Redscar with a spear. He sidestepped the thrust contemptuously and swung. His sword sheared through the thick haft of the spear. The Human backed up as Redfang turned. The second swing beheaded him.

“Kill the Goblin!”

Lancrel’s soldiers rushed at Redscar. But too many were armed with bows! The Goblin ducked between the bigger Humans, stabbing in the confined press of bodies. He heard screams and ducked as a sword flashed towards his head. He turned, cut down a Human, and kicked another one as the Human overbalanced from a swing.

The screaming Human toppled over the battlements. Redscar turned, grinning, his face alight with fury as more Goblins flew up to grab the walls. He spun, laughing, and the Humans backed away from the shorter Goblin with the enchanted sword. At last! This was a real battle!

 

—-

 

“Goblins on walls!”

“Good!”

Rags saw more Goblins flying upwards, propelled by the Hobs assigned to throwing duty. It was a completely stupid idea. Only regular Goblins were light enough for a trick like this and only Hobs were strong enough. But Pyrite had inspired her with his games of throwing Goblins into the lake. More to the point, it had worked because Lancrel’s defenders were being suppressed by the rain of arrows, bolts, and slings her army was throwing up at them. And Noear’s lightning. Rags pointed and sent a fiery arrow straight into the face of a Human woman with a bow. The defenders of the wall were well and truly occupied. So she turned and bellowed.

Hobs!

A group of Hobs answered her call. They thrust their way forwards, holding the smaller rams they’d made on the march. They charged towards the doors as Goblins made way. Hobs. She heard Humans on the walls shouting in alarm. They’d probably never seen more than one or two Hobs. But she had hundreds in her tribe. And the ones who began pounding on the gates were fresh.

This was the Flooded Water tribe’s fighting force. The wounded and sick Goblins clustered against the walls while the Human defenders were distracted by the climbing Goblins. They had probably two thousand warriors they could send. Rags knew the Human city probably held as many as ten thousand Humans. But how many would man the walls? How many could fight? A Human with a few levels in [Warrior] was not the same as a Redfang Warrior. Or a Hob.

And she’d sent her best. Rags watched as the Hobs she’d sent to the gates roared and struck the gates again with their hand-held ram as the rest rammed the door with their shoulders. The impact made the wood crack and splinter. They drew back and struck again as one. Again! Again! Ag—

The gates broke with a thunderous crash inwards and the Hobs roared and heaved. The Humans trying to hold it shut went flying and the Hobs charged in with hundreds of Goblins at their back. Redfang warriors, groups of Goblins with pikes—they smashed into the stunned defenders. The twenty-foot long pikes pierced through the defender’s shields and armor before the Hobs came in swinging. At their head was Pyrite. He roared as he cleaved through a Human’s shield and pointed. Goblins swarmed after him.

Impossible! Rags could practically hear the Humans shrieking the word. She grinned viciously. This was her tribe! This was their might! Then she turned her attention to the Goblins outside the walls.

Most of them were coughing, exhausted, barely able to move after their mad dash to the walls. Many, thousands, weren’t even warriors. Women and children huddled right next to the imposing stone walls, right in range of bowshot and where a vat of boiling oil or water could hit them. But the defenders were fighting Rags’ warriors! Lancrel was at their mercy.

Which meant that the Humans closing on their rear now had a clean shot at all of Rags’ weakest warriors and noncombatants. Rags looked over her shoulder.

There they were. Right on time. She saw Human riders streaming across the plain. Six hundred…eight hundred? A good force to harry. Not to charge an entire tribe. But Lancrel was being overrun. Rags could hear and see the Goblins pressing forwards. She’d committed nearly every Hob and all of her Redfang warriors to the push! Of course it was falling fast. But therein lay the weakness.

Rags tried to imagine what the enemy commander was thinking. Well. The foolish tribe may have gained the city, but now they’re trapped. They’ve sent their warriors ahead, all of them. You could ride them down from behind and slaughter them. They’d barely be able to put up a fight. They can’t breathe. They can’t see. Rags felt the burning in her chest and knew that was true. She watched as the Humans made a quick decision.

They charged. She saw the riders with spears, swords, and axes taking the lead while the ones with bows followed. They’d hit her from behind and pin her tribe against the walls! Packed as tightly as they were, it would be a slaughter. The Hobs wouldn’t be able to return until half of the tribe was dead! All the Humans had to do was strike before Rags could get her tribe inside the walls. She could see the Humans accelerate. Rags nodded to herself.

There was no good way to beat an enemy who knew what you were doing at all times. Not out in the open. Traps wouldn’t work. But what about something you knew was going to happen? She narrowed her eyes. The enemy commander was good at spying. But strategy?

The first line of riders was two hundred paces away from the walls when Rags gave the order.

“Crossbows.”

Every Goblin, child and elderly, sick and wounded, turned. They raised the crossbows they’d been given. The Humans on horseback wavered as they saw the wall of Goblins turn into ranks of waiting archers. Rags pointed.

Now!

The wounded Goblins aimed and fired. The first volley of bolts took scores of riders from their saddles, toppling screaming horses. Stones from slings and the weaker stone crossbows landed among the Humans, denting helmets, shattering bone. A few of Rags’ wounded Hobs shot with their bows, taking down Humans with precise shots.

“Reload.”

Rags reached down and pulled at her crossbow, laboriously cocking it. She slapped another bolt into the slot and aimed. Where was the armored Human. Didn’t matter. She focused on a Human with a spear charging at them. Rags sighed, coughed.

“Fire.”

The second wave of bolts cut down more riders. The Humans tried to keep charging, but the falling horses and Humans tripped up the ones behind. They pulled back as whoever was in charge realized they wouldn’t get the walls. There were thousands of Goblins and Rags had hundreds of crossbows firing at once. The force of eight hundred wasn’t enough! The riders circled as Rags continued to order the Goblins to reload and fire, marking targets.

Suddenly, the walls behind them weren’t a trap, but a shield. The Humans on horseback couldn’t circle the lines of Goblin crossbows and Wiskeria’s archers found themselves outnumbered by the volleys of bolts that rained onto their position. They retreated, breaking, falling, racing back.

What now? They had to keep Lancrel from falling! Another gate! They could enter from another gate! The defenders raced to the southern gates to reinforce Lancrel only to find they were too late. The gates were open and Humans were racing out.

“Into the city. Crossbows on walls. Get pikes in gate.”

Rags pointed as her tribe streamed further and further into the city. Humans fled from them by the thousands, wailing, fleeing the Hob’s advance. Rags rode through the city as her Redfang riders spread out, seeking out the Humans who’d continued to fight.

Whomever this [Emperor] was, he didn’t understand war like she did. Count on a city to defend itself? Against a weaker, smaller tribe, perhaps. But Human cities weren’t like Drake cities. They had no enchantments on their walls. Their populace didn’t fight to the death. And their walls were too short.

And worse, yes, worst, the Humans of Lancrel had failed to understand how fast the Goblins could take down a gate made of wood. They could have fought the Redfang warriors off on the walls in time. They could have held. But wooden gates? Rags shook her head as she saw Humans streaming out the other exits of the city. The Humans on horseback wouldn’t gain entry from any of the other ways in, if they’d been stupid enough to try. Lancrel’s citizens were pressed against the gates, screaming, shoving to get out. The Goblins were inclined to let them. They were tired.

 

—-

 

“Incredible.”

Quietstab shook his head and stared from his position atop the battlements. He turned to Pyrite, awestruck.

“Took city. Without siege!”

Pyrite grunted. He was feeling a lot better. His belly was full—they’d ransacked Lancrel’s stores and found lots of food. And healing potions. He stood on the walls, watching the Humans slowly marching away from their city. Lancrel’s refugees had immediately turned to the Humans on horseback and the Humans had no choice but to try and guard them—and watch the city. More had arrived on foot. A good two thousand, but they were keeping well back, wary of a Goblin attack.

They had no idea that there was little chance of that. The exhausted Goblins had almost all collapsed after eating their fill. The only ones on the walls were just there to look threatening; the Redfangs were the only group still active enough to keep searching the city for supplies. Pyrite leaned against the battlements as he replied to Quietstab.

“Bad city defense. Other tribes take cities. Mountain City tribe did.”

He was referring to the city they’d taken with Gold-rank adventurers. That had taken more planning, but it had happened. Quietstab nodded.

“But Tremborag leads. Great Chieftain. This time our Chieftain leads.”

“True.”

Pyrite thought about that. Rags led. She’d woken up. And just like that, things had changed. He felt—relieved. Ashamed. He hadn’t thought of this. But she’d woken up and like that she’d saved them.

“Can rest here. Hold walls against twice as many Humans.”

“Mm.”

Pyrite wondered about that. The Humans would come. There were thousands more coming and probably even more that would be angry about the city. They’d bought time, that was all. His ears perked up as he heard a grumbling complaint. Both he and Quietstab turned and saw Rags coming up the stairs.

“Chieftain?”

She had a bag in her hands. Quietstab made way for her and Pyrite eyed the bag. It was full of Rags’ possessions. He hadn’t ever seen inside, but it wasn’t filled with much.

“Chieftain. Want food?”

He offered her a handful of dried nuts he’d been snacking on. She glared at him.

“No. Help me up.”

She pointed and Pyrite lifted her up. Rags perched on top of the battlements, dangerously close to the edge. She didn’t care. She stared at the Human army camped far outside of range of the walls. They were watching the Goblins.

“Lots of Humans. Will attack if leave.”

“Attack them, Chieftain?”

“No. Will run. Probably. More coming.”

Rags grumbled to herself. She opened her cloth bag and glared into it. Then she hurled it at Pyrite.

“Where is? Search. Small red stone. Scary.”

Bemused, he opened the bag and rummaged through it. He found a battered chess piece, the ruby he’d given her, some battered pieces of parchment and then—

Pyrite inhaled sharply. Rags looked up.

“Give.”

She took the object Pyrite handed to her. Quietstab peered, interested, and then stopped as Rags looked at him.

“Quietstab. Get Redscar. Get Redfangs. Mounted ones.”

She glanced at the Humans in the distance. Pyrite watched her gaze, no longer complacent. Quietstab nodded, glancing at the thing she held.

“How many Redfang?”

“All.”

The Hob blinked. Rags glanced at him and he ran. Pyrite looked at Rags.

“Chieftain? What is that for?”

He pointed. Rags held the red stone up. It was shiny. A ruby gemstone. But the way it made him feel—she turned it and Pyrite’s stomach lurched. He looked at her face and his stomach lurched for different reasons.

“Bad things.”

Rags looked up. Behind her, in the city, Pyrite could see Redscar riding towards them. Rags looked at him.

“Not done yet. Pyrite.”

She pointed to the Humans beyond. Pyrite looked at her.

“What next?”

 

—-

 

“They’re coming out of the city!”

“Are you serious?”

This time Wiskeria didn’t wait for a reply. She shouted and every [Soldier] under her command leapt to their feet. The Goblins were attacking? She wavered between attack and retreat. How many? She paused as she saw—

“The wolf riders?”

They streamed out of the city, hundreds of them. But only hundreds. They formed into a wedge and raced out of the city, following a pair of short Goblins who rode forwards. Beniar growled.

“They’re making a break for it! Wis, we have to—”

“I know. Intercept! Everyone, towards the Goblins!”

Wiskeria raised her voice and thousands of Humans raced towards the Goblins. The Darksky Riders lead by Beniar raced forwards. Their numbers were reduced, but all they had to do was hold the Goblins there! An easy task. Wiskeria could tear the Goblins apart. Maybe then the disaster of Lancrel could be mitigated.

“Charge!”

She saw Beniar heading straight for the pair of Goblins. One small. The other held the enchanted blade. She saw the small one raise something in its hands. And then—

Something changed. Wiskeria felt her heart stop in her chest. Her beating, wonderful heart stopped dead. For a second. She stumbled and around her [Soldiers] cried out and halted.

The red eye pulsed as the Goblin held it over her head. In its depths something stirred. It looked at Wiskeria. It knew her name. Something called to her. It crawled in her head. It had a name. It was flesh. Putrefaction. It screamed and she screamed. Skinner! She turned and fled, she—

“No!”

Wiskeria shouted, breaking herself free of the [Fear] spell. She turned and saw the soldiers stumbling backwards and then recovering as she had. They shuddered as the gem struck fear into their hearts, but at her urging they kept running. However, it was too late. The [Fear] spell had done its work. Not on the Humans, but on Beniar and the riders.

Humans could withstand the spell. For them it was only fear. But animals were different. The charge of the Darksky Riders broke for the second time that day as Wiskeria watched. Half of the horses turned or reared, some throwing their riders to the ground. Beniar’s advance halted in its tracks as the Carn Wolves raced past them.

If they’d been faster by a few seconds. If the [Fear] spell hadn’t been used. The Goblin lowered the stone as it ceased to shine and tucked it into her pack. Wiskeria watched helplessly as the Carn Wolves outraced the horses, heading into the forests. She saw Beniar turn and whirled.

Alais! Send a spell to Laken! I need to know where they’re going! Now!”

 

—-

 

So this is how it ended. Dreamily, Rags rode with the wind blowing across her body. The Redfang warriors whooped, exhilarated to finally run, triumphant over their small victory over the Humans. Redscar drew his wolf over to Rags and pointed as they slowed.

“What is?”

She offered him the now inactive [Fear] gemstone. It wasn’t that useful, certainly not against Goblins. And it ran out of magic. But it was good for a distraction when she’d remembered it. Redscar eyed it appreciatively and then handed it back.

“What now?”

“Slow.”

They halted miles from the city, having outdistanced their Human pursuers for the moment. Rags turned her Carn Wolf, seeing the eyes of all the Redfang warriors on her. Curiously. She knew she was not their real leader. They had abandoned Garen for her. But they were still Redfang. Still his.

And yet. She looked at Redscar. He paused. The other Goblin had been exuberant since the battle for Lancrel. His fury against the Humans had been quenched in part. But Pyrite had told her what he’d done.

“Chased Humans.”

“When Chieftain was asleep.”

“Pyrite ordered not to.”

Redscar shifted, avoiding her gaze.

“Redfangs know how to fight.”

“So does Pyrite.”

Silence. The Redfang warriors looked away. Rags could sense their good moods fading. They did not want to see their leader be dressed down. She sensed their resentment. But Redscar eventually looked up.

“Angry. At Humans.”

Rags nodded. Anger. It was such a strange feeling. She had woken, feeling her tribe torn. She had seen the empty look in the eyes of her Goblins, heard their grief. But anger? It was in Redscar. But three days of fighting had left only embers.

“Anger. Rage. Orders is still orders.”

A pause. Redscar lowered his head.

“True.”

Rags turned her head. Redfang warriors looked at her or stared at their wolves. Some challengingly. Others unashamed. Some regretful. Anger. Fury. She reached in her chest.

“They killed us.”

The Goblins looked at her. Rags looked around. Fewer faces. Fewer wolves. The Redfangs had survived the fighting more than most by virtue of their superior levels and skill. But they had lost numbers too. Rags could see it when she looked around her tribe.

“They poisoned us.”

Like rats. Rags’ grip tightened on her Carn Wolf’s fur and it whined. She let go. She looked at Redscar and then around at the Redfang warriors.

Who is Chieftain? Who is leader for Redfangs?

They looked at each other. Redscar called out, his voice loud.

“You, Chieftain!”

Rags nodded. It had to be said.

Follow orders. Follow my orders.

She gave them. The Redfang warriors looked confused. Then, as they realized what she wanted, they sat in their saddles. Their eyes burned. Rags pointed. In the distance Humans were pursuing them on horseback. Too few. Too slow.

“Go. Go and show them.”

She pointed west. The Redfang’s heads turned as one. Rags pointed east. They looked. She pointed north and south and shouted.

“They attacked us! They killed us! So show them same! Show them pain! Show them hate. Show them Goblins.”

She kicked her Carn Wolf and rode past the Redfang warriors. They raised their weapons, shouting. The wolves began to howl.

“Burn the villages and towns and fields. No mercy. No Humans spared.”

Redscar’s eyes shone as he pointed. Redfang warriors roared. Rags reached inside her chest. There it was. Something darker than anger, thicker than fury. She reached for it and a black tingling ran through her veins.

“Kill them. Ride. Burn the playthings—

She broke off, touched a hand to her head. The Redfang warriors waited. Rags looked up. She saw the Humans racing towards them. She saw Erin’s face, plastered on the corpses. And then she saw the dead, lying on the ground in the darkness. She turned and the blackness inside her spoke for her.

 

—-

 

“Emperor Laken? General Wiskeria is asking you for an update. She is in pursuit of the Goblins riding wolves.”

My hands are sweaty. I’m shaking. Reeling, rather. Lancrel has fallen. The Goblin took it in less than an hour. It’s fine, though. They can be defeated. Just so long as the army reaches them—I need to send trebuchets. But this force—I follow it with my mind.

“I see them. They’re headed south. They’ve stopped. Wait—wait. What are they—”

Something’s happening. I see the small Goblin raise her hand in my head. The Goblins roar. And then—they move. But not in one direction.

“Oh no.”

The image of the wolves splinters in my mind, the solid mass of Goblins breaking up into groups of ten, of two, riding in every direction. They race across the ground, not one mass, but splitting up, into smaller groups. Smaller and smaller. In every direction.

“No, no. This can’t be happening.”

“Emperor Laken? General Wiskeria is requesting a location. Emperor Laken? Your Majesty?”

I raise my head, sightless, my hands clenched. Nesor’s sweaty face stares back at me. Lady Rie pauses.

“Where are the wolf riders headed? Emperor Laken?”

Everywhere.

 

—-

 

Rags rode. The wind felt hot in her face. She was alone. Behind her, Redfang warriors broke up. Riding in every direction, howling. They split up, the single mass of them fracturing. Rags rode alone for the moment. Her head felt light. Something black rose in her chest, as if she could spit it out.

It was so simple. So very simple. Pyrite didn’t see it because he was kind. Redscar didn’t see it because he was a warrior. But she saw it because she was Rags. Because she thought like her opponent. Erin had taught her that.

If you could see everything, if you could see every move your opponent made, what was the way to counter that? A trap? No. You couldn’t trap something like that. But you could overwhelm it. Give it a hundred targets.

They’d found a map of the region in Lancrel. It burned in her head. Villages, cities, towns. Farmers and their fields. All neatly written down. Targets.

Burn the villages. Destroy the mills. Cut them down as they flee. Set fire to forests. Raid their homes. Hurt them. Vengeance.

Across the landscape Redfang warriors rode, howling. They didn’t ride against the pursuing warriors. They rode into villages with flaming torches. They descended on fields, on Humans sleeping or heading to bed. They rode with no goal in mind.

Only hatred. Only fury. It was in her. After the brilliance was done, after the battle and saving her tribe, something else was in Rags. Not a Chieftain’s desires. Not a leader’s thoughts. Something dark. And primal. It was in her heart and she’d opened the door.

No more. They slaughtered her tribe. They used poison. They killed children, those who couldn’t fight. Rags heard the thoughts flash through her head. Excuses. It wasn’t howling anymore. It was a scream. The scream of wind. Of Goblins bringing death. A scream in her mind. She whispered as the screaming grew louder.

“They started it.”

No one replied. No one told her it was wrong. No one had to. But it didn’t matter. Ahead of Rags she could see a farm. A village attached to Lancrel, maybe. It didn’t matter.

It was everything that mattered. The Goblin rode alone as the air grew hot around her. Fire burned in her hands. She saw the dark building rise in front of her and remembered an inn. The two buildings were nothing the same. But they were exactly the same. Rags raised her hand and shot fire onto the roof. She blasted in the windows with flaming arrows. She wiped at her eyes then she drew her sword. Rags heard the screaming, going on and on.

It was coming from her.

 

—-

 

One last thing. As the Redfang warriors rode, as Pyrite took charge of the tribe in the city of Lancrel, as an [Emperor] shouted desperate orders too slowly, too late, as [Message] spells moved too slowly to catch the wolves that rode through the night, a [Lady] paused on the open road far north of it all.

She’d ridden far outside of the Unseen Empire and now she stood at the edge of the campfire. A man stood with her, his hand on his rapier. Always watchful, always wary. But the [Lady] paid no notice to the darkness. She spoke into the magical earring she held.

“Do you remember how we met, Magnolia?”

“I don’t care to recall. Is it germane to the conversation?”

The voice that spoke back was crisp, impatient. Bethal shifted.

“No. Perhaps. Yes. I had cause to remember it a while ago. Do you recall?”

“I should hardly forget. You nearly killed me.”

“After you slapped me and told me to run or be cut down with my family. I never thanked you for doing that.”

“Of course not.”

Bethal paused. She glanced over her shoulder. The fire was inviting. Her personal tent waiting. Her two [Knights] traded places for sentry duty. Bethal sighed.

“I’m done killing Goblins for a while.”

A pause.

“I see.”

“Don’t ask for my Knights of the Petal either. You may keep them at Invrisil if you need them. But I want sixteen to meet me.”

“Are you taking a role in this conflict with the [Emperor]?”

“I don’t know.”

“Bethal. I need you closer to home. Tyrion is moving.”

“At last.”

“The Goblin Lord is approaching the mountain. He’s slowed. Gathering more Goblins. But when they meet—”

“Yes, yes. And Tyrion will do what, exactly? Why is he delayed?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you can guess.”

More silence from the other end. Bethal sighed into the earring.

“Which side will win, Magnolia? This Goblin tribe or the [Emperor]? The Great Chieftain, Tremborag, or this Goblin Lord? Which do we want to win? And where will Tyrion fit into all this? Will you tell me or leave me guessing?”

“I should hope at least some of those answers would be obvious.”

“Not anymore. I thought I knew good and evil, Magnolia. But all this? This? This is madness.”

Bethal looked around. Distantly, far distant, she thought she could see sparks of light growing against the dark horizon. She wondered if someone was starting a fire. But at that distance—Magnolia’s voice was calm.

“Not madness, Bethal. This is what has always been. Goblins or Humans. It is always the same.”

“What is?”

“War.”

Bethal closed her eyes. She was still for a very long moment as Thomast put his hand on her shoulder. At last she whispered.

“I don’t think it’s the same. Magnolia. I think it hurts differently each time.”

Without waiting for a response she dropped the earring and turned to hug her husband. And in the distance, the fires grew brighter. And brighter. And darker.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.22 G

He sat in the dark house, waiting. His breathing was slow, deliberate. His heart beat a touch faster than necessary, but that was all. Everything he had put in motion was coming together and his role was almost exclusively that of a watcher. He had only one task to play.

Still, he was angry. Laken spoke into the silence.

“She lied to me.”

“Sire?”

Someone stirred. A young man, Nesor, sat across from him. The young [Mage] was sweaty, pale-faced. He had wanted to stand, but he’d been so nervous that Laken had made him sit. Nesor could not be allowed to faint. That would ruin everything. Laken turned his head, but not to address the young man. His sightless gaze stretched far into the distance, tracking something Nesor couldn’t understand from where he sat.

“She lied to me. I understand why, but…no. There’s nothing I can do about it. The plan won’t change.”

Laken’s words were bitter, cold. There was no room for doubt or hesitation, not now. Part of him was afraid, but the rest remembered hate. So he sat as Nesor shivered. The young [Mage] kept glancing at Laken and then away. Why? He was only younger than Laken by a few years. He should have more backbone. But he would serve.

They were moving. Laken saw it all unfold in his head. Like a movie, or what he’d always imagined it to be. He sighed.

“You fools.”

“Sire?”

“Wait.”

Nesor sat back uneasily. Laken sat, his chin resting on his hand. He waited, sensing it all coming together. Cold. He felt quite cold. Only it wasn’t his skin, it was in his heart. He waited, for bloodshed, for the right moment. Funny. He had never felt this way before, in his world.

He had thought he knew anger, knew what it was like to despise someone. But this was different. For the first time Laken knew what it was like to hate. He knew what it was like to have enemies. His teeth ground together. He uttered one word, restlessly.

“Wait.”

 

—-

 

The tribe had stopped for a break in the trees after a long day of marching when Poisonbite decided to speak to Rags. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision; she’d been contemplating it all day, really. And now, with evening drawing on, there would be little time before it was dark. Rags was a solitary eater and preferred to have her food alone; if there was any time before she slept to talk to her, it would be now.

The fading sunlight played off of metal as Poisonbite walked out of her all-female unit of Goblin warriors. She made her way across the busy camp, grunting as some Goblins waved at her or made suggestive motions for her to eat with them. Some wanted her company, others were more interested in her. A Redfang warrior looked hopeful until Poisonbite passed right by him without so much as a second glance. His companions hooted and laughed at him.

Redfang. To Poisonbite, they were a separate entity, even within Rags’ tribe. They didn’t precisely bother her, but she was always conscious of the difference between their elite group and her warriors. Poisonbite’s raiders had been good within Tremborag’s mountain, but the Redfangs were the best around without a doubt. That irked her, because she regarded Garen’s former tribe as a male fighting force, while hers was made of female Goblins and Hobs.

True, the Redfang elites took in any Goblin regardless of gender if they could fight. But their Chieftain, Garen, had placed his trust in male Goblins more than female ones and his thinking had influenced his tribe. Less than a quarter of all Redfang warriors were female and none of them were leaders. That annoyed Poisonbite, not least because Redscar hadn’t changed anything after he’d replaced Garen.

He was a fantastic warrior, she had to admit. Better than her. And he listened to her and respected her opinion when she gave it, which was good. But she wished fiercely that her raiders would one day be the equal of the Redfangs.

Someday. Poisonbite ignored the other Goblins, male and female, vying for her attention. Friendship aside, sex was not on her mind. Have too much of it and you’d stop being a warrior and instead be a mother. Everyone knew that. And Poisonbite couldn’t stand the idea of not fighting. There was too much to do! Especially now.

It was growing dark and the Goblins of the Flooded Water tribe were gathered around campfires. They could see well in the dark, but even they hated pitch-blackness. Poisonbite smelled cooking and quickened her pace.

She had something on her arm. Both arms, actually. It was a new addition to her armor. She looked down at the bracers on her arm. They were made of bark, of all things. Bark, padded old cloth, and bits of leather. She kept feeling at it, patting the bracer, touching the rough bark and the crude straps the [Hammerer] had made for her.

It was a strange thing. Poisonbite had received it a few hours after she’d woken up. It was one of the first pieces of scrap armor to be made in the tribe and it had been made for her. It was the how it had been made that had mystified her.

[Hammerers] were crude Goblin-versions of [Blacksmiths] who could repair dents and resize some armor, but they couldn’t make new armor this quickly or this well. And yet, all of the Goblin armorers in the tribe had been seized by creative genius upon waking and begun turning out crude armor made from scraps of metal, thick pieces of bark, leather, twine, and anything else they’d found. A good deal of the tribe was receiving new scrap armor to complement their existing armor.

The reason for this sudden boon wasn’t hard to figure out. It was Rags. It had to be. Word had quickly spread that she’d earned another Skill that affected her entire tribe: [Scavenger Armor].

It was no secret. Poisonbite understood keeping some Skills secret, especially in Tremborag’s tribe where infighting was how Goblins lived. But in a regular Goblin tribe? A Chieftain’s Skills were vitally important so every Goblin usually kept track of what their Chieftain’s level and best Skills were.

This was a good Skill. No one was denying that. But it was Rags’ reaction that prompted Poisonbite to approach her fire. Rags was sitting and staring moodily at the flames. Her eyes were shadowed. She’d been quiet and grumpy all day, on a day when her mood should have been happy. No one had asked her why. So Poisonbite took a risk and sidled over to the fire.

“Chieftain?”

Rags looked up. She seized up Poisonbite’s wary stance, her new bracers, and her expression in one glance and understood what the other Goblin wanted. She nodded grudgingly and Poisonbite took a seat.

“Armor. Good?”

Rags eyed Poisonbite’s new bracers. The Goblin [Warrior] chewed her lip and shrugged. She replied as any good war leader would, giving Rags her unbiased opinion.

“Is good. Armor is not like metal but…”

She tapped her chest, shifting her outer layer of clothes to reveal a flash of steel. Rags nodded. Poisonbite indicated one of her prized possessions, the chainmail she wore at all times, proof of her rank. It had saved her life eight times already and had only three holes, one under the armpit, a small tear along the lower back, and a series of torn links near her neck where it had saved her from a farmer’s woodcutting axe.

What she meant was that her new bracers were good, but hardly strong as real worked metal. They wouldn’t stop a powerful blow and they’d break quickly. It was cheap armor, but better than nothing, which was good. For a Goblin, free armor was an amazing gift. It would save lives in the long run, make the tribe that much stronger.

And yet, Rags’ expression remained dour. The smaller Goblin shuffled her feet, irritably swatting at a bug that was biting her arm. Poisonbite heard her mutter a Human curse and decided to ask.

“What?”

She pointed at Rags’ eyes. Goblins had no whites of their eyes like Humans, and their crimson eyes were naturally red, but it was still obvious that Rags had slept poorly. The Chieftain muttered to herself, not wanting to answer, but then she gave in.

“Nightmare.”

Poisonbite shrugged. Oh. That was it? She was almost a bit disappointed. She considered the fire for a moment and asked out of curiosity.

“What?”

This time there was a longer pause.

“Dead Humans.”

Rags stared into the fire. Poisonbite paused in surprise. Then she laughed.

“Dead Humans?”

She laughed and slapped her legs, but Rags’ response was a silent glare. Poisonbite quieted down, realizing she was serious. The older Goblin’s forehead wrinkled.

“Why?”

Nightmares she could understand, but all of her terrors had living things in them. Humans with burning torches, monsters snuffling around her as she hid—but dead Humans? If it was the undead she would understand, but Goblins were specific. Dead Humans. Why would that of all things make Rags unhappy?

Then something hit Poisonbite like a bolt of Noears’ lightning. She sat up and eyed the young Goblin. Was Rags interested in…? She looked around and found the Human in a moment. Even with thousands of Goblins around him, she could pick Sir Kerrig out by the way Goblins moved around him. Some cautiously, others curious. He didn’t belong and the tribe eddied around him. Poisonbite pointed.

“Him? Want?”

“No!”

Rags’ immediate denial made Poisonbite sigh in relief. That would have complicated things greatly. Rags chewed her lip, glaring at Poisonbite, who shrank a bit, realizing she might be prying too far. But Rags only muttered to herself again and then spoke.

“Killed many Humans.”

Poisonbite scratched a bug bite on the back of her left ear.

“So? Killing Frostfeeder Tribe.”

The Humans had been running down the Goblins, slaughtering them. Over half the tribe had died and the remainder were now part of Rags’ tribe. They’d babbled about Humans hunting them mercilessly over the last week, finding all their hiding spots. They’d been exhausted, worn down—the appearance of the Flooded Water tribe had been nothing short of a miracle for them. Poisonbite considered that any Humans hunting Goblins should die painfully, perhaps from a thrust from one of her poisoned daggers. But Rags thought differently.

“Humans will think dangerous.”

“So? Run or kill. Or hide.”

Poisonbite’s dismissive tone made Rags look up. She growled and Poisonbite swallowed hard.

“We are not Humans. We can be better.”

“How?”

The question went unanswered. Rags just stared moodily into the fire. After a while, Poisonbite got up and edged away from the fire. She was done. Food was coming and she had no desire to provoke her moody Chieftain any further. Rags was strange. Smart, but strange. She walked back, intending to get food with her warriors, but then she saw a ripple pass through the tribe.

Goblins sprang to their feet. Some grabbed weapons, and others rushed to put on armor. No one had blown a horn, but they’d spotted other Goblins doing the same. And those Goblins had spotted other Goblins, and so Poisonbite knew something was wrong. Her pulse became electric though she didn’t know why until a few seconds later.

“Chieftain!”

She turned and called the instant she saw a Redfang warrior riding his Carn Wolf through the camp. Rags looked up—she hadn’t noticed the reaction of her tribe—and immediately sprang to her feet. She ran towards the Redfang warrior as more Goblin officers ran over, having already sensed the change in the atmosphere.

“What?”

Chieftain. Humans riding north. On road. Four.

The Redfang scout spoke in quick Goblin, gesturing south. Poisonbite frowned. He’d spotted Humans heading up the road? Who cared? Rags’ official policy wasn’t to waylay travelers unless they were carrying something really important, and the way the Redfang warrior had dashed into camp had suggested an attack! She opened her mouth to curse at the warrior, but Rags held up a hand.

“Why matter?”

She glared at the Redfang warrior, but he didn’t shrink as his Carn Wolf huffed and sniffed the ground. Poisonbite stayed well clear of the massive wolf; she didn’t trust the gigantic Carn Wolves. Rags just pushed the giant muzzle out of her face as the wolf sniffed her. The Redfang warrior pulled his wolf back a pace as he struggled for words.

There was no Goblin word for what he wanted. So he spoke a Human one instead, one laden with as much feeling as he could convey. He pointed.

Her.

The Goblins around Rags went still. Rags stared up at the Redfang warrior, frowning. Poisonbite froze. There was only a limited number of ‘hers’ it could be. And the first that sprang to mind was—

She stood on a distant hilltop, fanning herself lightly as the armored pink [Knights] advanced. They cut down the charging Goblins, not slowed by the jabbing pikes or blades that bounced uselessly off their armor.

Poisonbite saw a Hob go down, a sword buried in her chest and slashed at the [Knight] in front of her. Her daggers didn’t scratch his armor and she saw the [Lady] turn and point as more of her warriors strode down the hill, killing, as Goblins screamed and died—

“Lady Bethal Walchaís.”

Someone muttered. Poisonbite turned and saw Pyrite. He’d been speaking with the Human, Sir Kerrig. One of the pink knights. He looked at Rags. She had frozen. All the Goblins were tense. Rags looked back at the Redfang warrior.

“Four? Her? Sure?”

He nodded three times, impatiently. There was no way he would have forgotten. How could any Goblin forget so soon? He pointed again.

“Four. Two…[Knights], Chieftain. One her. Other…him.”

The one with the rapier, the one who’d dueled Greydath of Blades. The tension around Rags skyrocketed even higher. Poisonbite reached for her daggers and felt sweat running down her claws. Four? They could beat four, couldn’t they? But was it a good idea? What if there were more? But if it was four—

“More Humans? Any?”

Rags demanded, but the scout just shook his head. No other Humans coming down the road. They were alone. Rags gnawed her lip. She flicked her eyes to Pyrite, to Redscar who was glaring, and then to the Human sitting on his wagon. Sir Kerrig was looking their way although he had no idea what was happening. Poisonbite saw Rags study the [Knight]’s stupid, confused face, and then saw Rags nod. The Chieftain turned and spoke sharply.

“Five—eight pikes. Noears, Poisonbite raiders, eighty Hobs. Six…six crossbows. And all Redfang warriors. Riders surround. Hurry!”

Poisonbite felt her heart leap. They were going to attack! She grinned fiercely and ran as Rags’ words instantly created chaos in the camp. Organized chaos. Units of Goblins raced into formation as the Redfang Warriors took into the trees, silent, racing to encircle the road. Rags whistled and her personal Carn Wolf bounded over, abandoning its meal. Rags climbed up and Pyrite appeared with his enchanted battleaxe. Poisonbite raced back, her best [Warriors] and five of her Hobs in tow. Rags pointed and the Goblins streamed after her as Goblins with the long wooden pikes and Hobs streamed towards her. Rags raised her voice as she rode through them all.

“No attack! Not until I say.”

No attack? Poisonbite stared at Rags’ back then pumped her arms and legs, racing after the small Goblin. What did she intend to do? Lady Bethal was here! It was a chance for vengeance! But—

‘We can be better.’ That was what Rags had said. What did she mean? Did she have a plan? Poisonbite ran, confused, following her Chieftain. What was Rags going to do? Just as importantly, what were the Humans going to do? If they attacked—Poisonbite’s grip tightened on her daggers.

There were only four this time. Let them attack. She could always use new armor.

 

—-

 

“Something’s happening.”

“Sire? Should I—”

Wait. On my command, Nesor. Not a moment before. Wait—wait—”
—-

 

“Movement in the trees!”

Lady Bethal Walchaís was dozing slightly, riding through the forest and waiting until Sir Thomast decided they should make camp when the voice of one of her Rose Knights split the silence. Her head jerked up and she saw the [Knight] ahead of her, Sir Nil Moxae, unsheathe his blade. His companion, Dame Truvia Cartiil, turned, raising her spear as her mount started. Bethal looked around.

“Movement? From what?”

“I will ride ahead. Dame Truvia, with me?”

“Let’s ride!”

The two [Knights] galloped forwards, abandoning their mistress for a moment. Lady Bethal wasn’t afraid though—the man riding next to her was all the protection she needed. Usually. Thomast’s rapier was already drawn and she could see he was preparing to leap from his saddle if need be. He fought better on foot.

“Do you think it’s an ambush? Were we followed?”

“Impossible to say.”

Her husband turned his mount warily, keeping his eyes on the trees. Bethal couldn’t see anything in the growing darkness, but the enchanted lanterns she and her company carried could only reach so far into the trees. She heard a howl suddenly and jumped; her mare flicked its ears skittishly, but it was too well-trained to rear or bolt.

“Wolves?”

“Perhaps.”

Sir Thomast looked left and right. He frowned and turned.

“Keep your aura up.”

“Of course.”

Lady Bethal had activated her Skill the moment Sir Nil had spoken. The air around her felt barbed and while her mare was safe, anyone touching her against her will would cut themselves on something as sharp as steel. Still, Lady Bethal drew closer to Thomast, looking around uneasily.

Goblins!

A cry came from ahead of the two, startling Bethal. She saw both of her Rose Knights riding back, furiously spurring their mounts faster. Dame Truvia pointed into the trees as another howl echoed—this time from their rear.

“Goblins, milady! A score of them in the woods, all riding Carn Wolves!”

“Carn Wolves? But those are—”

“The same Goblins we faced a week ago! They must have driven south! We had no word of them—”

“There are more approaching on foot! We’re surrounded. Sir Thomast, your orders?”

Both [Knights] looked to Thomast rather than Bethal. The [Chevalier] looked around.

“They’re already to our rear?”

“A score of them, sir. The ones on foot are coming from ahead and to the right.”

“We ride back. Bethal, follow me!”

Sir Thomast turned his mount and Bethal did likewise. She kicked her mare in the flanks and the horse shot forwards. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia raced ahead, but they got no further than a hundred yards when they cried out.

“Pull back!”

Lady Bethal jerked her reins and her horse screamed and nearly reared. Sir Thomast stopped his mount and Sir Nil shouted.

‘There are two dozen mounted Goblins ahead of us! More circling!”

“We’re surrounded.”

Lady Bethal looked around. The trees were full of movement now. Sir Thomast glanced at her. Sir Nil turned, his sword and shield raised.

“We can cut through. If Sir Thomast can ward Lady Bethal—”

“Lady Walchaís’ mount isn’t armored. She’ll be dehorsed before we cut through!”

Sir Nil bit back an oath, looking back at Bethal. It was true; neither she nor Sir Thomast was riding a warhorse and neither mount had any barding. He looked around desperately.

“Lady Bethal, let us draw them off. We’ll ride left and attack them from the side. Perhaps then—”

“Don’t be foolish, Sir Nil. They’ve already marked all of us. Goblins won’t abandon one target for another. We break through together or not at all.”

Lady Bethal cut him off calmly. She looked around. Sir Thomast was studying the moving forest around them. She turned to him.

“We were so busy trying to throw off anyone that might pursue us that we forgot to worry about them. The Goblins, I mean. It’s such a silly error, isn’t it, Thomast?”

He didn’t immediately reply. Lady Bethal turned around in her saddle. Her horse was nervous now; it could sense the approaching Goblins. Bethal tried to sound jovial, though her heart was racing. Goblins­—

“I wonder, was that why Emperor Laken was so concerned about which way we were going? Did he know, I wonder? We shouldn’t have lied to him. But I thought—”

“Bethal.”

Thomast’s voice made her grow quiet. He looked around and she realized the howling had stopped. Lady Truvia shifted.

“Sir Thomast, if we’re to break out—”

“We were already encircled. We defend my wife. Prepare to dismount and fight among the trees if need be.”

“Yes sir.”

“The Goblins will pursue us unless we make it clear it isn’t worth the effort. I will aim for their Chieftain; you shield her from all attacks.”

“Thomast—”

He turned, his rapier shining in the darkness. Thomast’s eyes were filled with worry. He reached out and gripped her arm. It was so unlike him that Bethal nearly gasped. A sign of the true danger. He looked at her.

“Stay with me.”

“Always.”

There was no time for anything more. Bethal saw the first Goblin riding a Carn Wolf bound out of the trees. Sir Nil turned to face him, uttering a challenge. More mounted Goblins appeared out of the darkness, more and more. From the front, from behind—all sides. Goblins carrying terribly long pikes, more aiming crossbows directly at the four Humans. Hobs, dozens upon dozens of Hobs, striding along.

And then Bethal saw her. A small Goblin, barely larger than a child, riding a large wolf and carrying a black crossbow. She aimed it directly at Bethal’s heart as Sir Thomast and the two [Knights] surrounded Bethal on all sides. Bethal felt her breath catch. Was this how she died at last? Goblins killed her family. Her father, her mother, her sisters—had they finally caught up to her?

She was afraid—

 

—-

 

“Now!”

“Sire?”

“Cast the spell, Nesor! Tell her to do it now.

 

—-

 

Rags was afraid. She felt her heart pounding. Her sweaty grip on the black crossbow was bad; she adjusted her grip so the recoil wouldn’t send the crossbow spinning from her hands. She aimed at the woman in front of her and felt it in the air.

Danger. It screamed at her. The man with the rapier was staring at her. The two [Knights] flanked their lady. The Goblins holding crossbows aimed at the four. Hobs stood in the darkness as Carn Wolves growled. There were over two hundred Goblins surrounding the four, but Rags still felt alone.

It was her. Lady Bethal. The one who’d led her army of knights against her tribe. Rags could still remember the battle. Her finger tightened on the trigger.

Kill her. The rush of blood in her veins made every moment feel like years. She could feel Redscar on her left, his sword drawn. Pyrite stood on her right, the battleaxe burning.

“So. Sir Kerrig and Welca perished. I hoped they managed to escape. Alas, I underestimated your kind.”

Lady Bethal spoke first. Her lips were pale and she shook, but her finger alone was steady as it pointed at the sword Redscar held. She shifted her finger and Pyrite grunted. Lady Bethal turned her head, keeping her chin high.

“It was truly a shame. I thought the Goblin Lord was the true threat. I thought a tribe could be left alone, no matter how cunning their Chieftain. Ah, but this is fitting.”

She looked at Rags, right at her. Rags felt a shock and her finger twitched. The man standing next to her raised his rapier. He could strike her from this far, cut the air. The Goblins around Rags tensed. If they fired, the [Lady] died. The [Knights] would not. Neither would the [Chevalier]. Rags exhaled slowly. She raised a hand and the Goblins relaxed a fraction.

Lady Bethal had gone still. Now she looked at Rags.

“Well? What are you waiting for? An invitation? You have it!”

Her voice trembled a bit as she snapped. She was afraid. She was afraid of them. Rags saw it in her. The young Goblin fought as her head told her to fire. Vengeance. But her memory showed her the Humans she’d butchered yesterday. And her heart showed her a face.

Erin stared at Rags, her face pale, her hands gripping the reins of her petrified mare. There was nothing similar about Bethal and Erin. Not in face or body. But that look. That look in her eyes. Rags felt her finger squeeze the trigger. Then relax. Slowly, painfully, she lowered the crossbow.

“No fight.”

She said it once, and then louder.

“No fight!”

The Goblins around her started. They looked at her and then at each other, but slowly the crossbows lowered and pointed at the ground. The Humans stared. Lady Bethal stared as Rags urged her wolf forwards a pace. Rags met the [Lady]’s eyes.

“You killed Goblins.”

Bethal blinked at her. This wasn’t what she’d expected. Rags repeated herself again, urgently.

“You killed Goblins. You. But we—not kill you. You are…prisoner. Like other two.”

“What?”

A scoffing, angry sound came from the male [Knight]. But Bethal held up a hand. She stared at Rags.

“Other two? Do you mean Sir Kerrig and Lady Welca? Are they alive?”

“Yes. They prisoner. You. Prisoner.”

Rags didn’t know why she was saying it. But the image of shooting Lady Bethal through the chest, the thought of pulling the trigger—was hard. She hadn’t attacked this time. She’d been riding. She’d killed Goblins, but Rags had killed Humans. Somehow, it made a difference. Rags pointed.

“Drop weapons.”

“Never.”

The [Knights] behind Lady Bethal bristled. Rags scowled.

“Drop. Or shoot.”

“We will cut down every Goblin here should Lady Walchaís fall!”

One of the [Knights] promised darkly, raising her spear. The Goblins tensed. Lady Bethal frowned.

“Lower your spear, Truvia.”

“Lady Bethal! Surrendering would be a death sentence—”

“I know. Let us go, little Goblin Chieftain. We will not surrender. Let us go.”

Bethal urged her mount forwards a step. The man beside her reached out and she held up a hand.

“Thomast.”

He subsided. Rags stared as Bethal approached. Her gaze bored into Rags’ head. There was a pressure about her. A prickling sensation, as if the air around her were the spines of an animal. But more—she felt vast.

“If my people are alive, I will ransom them. And I will ransom myself and my company.”

“Ransom?”

The word was known, but unknown to Rags. Bethal nodded.

“Pay. It need not come to death, Goblin Chieftain. I will give you a fair price for our safe passage and my people’s return, my honor on it. Will you accept that?”

She pushed and Rags felt the urge to agree. But she bit her tongue, gritted her teeth.

“No. Surrender.”

She raised the crossbow and aimed at Bethal. The [Lady] didn’t flinch, though the two [Knights] and her husband tensed. She stared at Rags curiously.

“So small. So fierce! Are you really a Chieftain?”

The question made the Goblins around Rags shudder with anger. What an insult! Bethal looked around, bemused.

“Are you truly the same kind of Goblins as the ones I know?”

The question went unanswered. Now everyone was staring at Lady Bethal. She looked back at Rags.

“I saw the Goblin King. I met one of his Lords. You are different. Prisoners? Do Goblins do such things? Velan the Kind knew no such mercy.”

Velan the Kind. Rags shuddered. She had to take her finger away from the trigger again or risk pulling it. She looked at Bethal. The woman’s gaze wasn’t hostile. She searched Rags’ gaze.

“Peace, little Goblin. Why do you want us as prisoners?”

“Punish. Hostage!”

Rags growled. Bethal nodded.

“Safety. I understand. But know that my people will not rest until I am returned. I killed your people. I will pay the cost of their lives. In magic and gold.”

“Not enough!”

Her voice was too high-pitched. The Goblins shifted. Bethal didn’t blink.

“It is all I can offer. Please, Chieftain of Goblins. If my [Knights] are truly alive, show me. Offer me goodwill and I will return it.”

“They live.”

“Show me. Let me see them. And I will offer you peace. A boon. Protection from other Humans. Safe passage. Whatever you wish.”

Her words were soft, tempting. Desperate. Rags saw that in her as well. Bethal spoke quietly as Rags fought.

“There is nothing to be gained from killing me. The cost would be too high. But if there is a chance—are they truly alive?”

The crossbow was heavy. Rags lowered it slightly.

“Yes.”

“Are they close? Unharmed?”

“Man is. Female ran. She—”

Rags heard a horn blare in the silence. She jerked. The Goblins around her raised their weapons. The mare danced and Lady Bethal turned as the [Knights] and her husband moved forwards. She looked north, back the way Rags and the Goblins had come.

“What was that?”

Rags didn’t know. She heard the horn blow again, frantically. Three short blasts. A distress call! She looked at Bethal, suddenly afraid.

“What you do?”

“Nothing.”

The woman looked taken aback. Rags lifted the crossbow and saw the man’s grip on the rapier shift. Pyrite lifted his axe. Bethal held up a hand.

“I swear it! On my house and name!”

Rags held her gaze. She turned. Redscar was looking back. The horn blew again, and another one blew, desperately. Rags looked at him. Redscar snarled.

“Chieftain. Trouble.”

They had to go. Rags hesitated. She looked back at Lady Bethal. The woman was watching her. Rags pointed.

“Redfangs! Move!”

The wolf riders dashed into the forest, howling. The Goblins on foot shifted. Rags leaned out of her saddle and snapped an order.

“All go back! Fifteen Hob and half crossbows stay!”

The warriors rushed backwards, leaving only a handful of Hobs and a lot of Goblins with crossbows. They kept their weapons trained on Lady Bethal. Rags turned—Pyrite grunted and pointed. She nodded. He ran. She turned to one of the Hobs in charge and lowered her voice.

“Aim at her. If attacked, run.”

The Hob nodded, glancing at the frozen Humans. Rags sat back upright and snapped at her personal escort.

Ride!

She kicked her wolf and it leapt into the forest, following the Goblins running around her. Rags turned her head back and saw Lady Bethal staring at her. For a moment their gazes locked, and then Rags was racing ahead, running. The camp was only a short distance away. What had happened? What—

She burst through the trees and saw shadows flickering through the trees. No light. Just shadows. Flickers of light caught her attention—burning embers from scattered campfires, fallen torches—but no light. She heard Goblins screaming, heard the pounding of hoofbeats—

Hooves? Goblins rode wolves! She turned and saw a Goblin scream as a shadow passed by. A dark shape slashed and Rags saw a sword flash. The Human rode past her, trampling a Goblin. Not one Human. Many Humans! They rode, shouting and cutting down Goblins around her, too fast to track in the near darkness. She heard them screaming.

Laken! Laken and the Unseen Empire!

Riverfarm!

Follow the Captain! This way!

She saw a rider in full steel armor whirl and turn. He cut a Hob across the face as the Goblin ran at him and the riders following him speared the Hob. The armored rider pointed and the Humans on horseback charged forwards again, running over Goblins and Hobs alike.

But that was wrong! Rags gaped. Where were her warriors? They should be in formation, fighting! There couldn’t be more than a few hundred riders here at most! Where was—

“[Light]!”

Rags called a ball of searing white light into being and threw it up. The shimmering orb flew up through the trees and cast the shadows into relief. Rags looked around and saw what she’d failed to see before. There was something in the trees, drifting past her.

Fog? Mists? No. Smoke. It was dark black and green and drifted at head-height through the trees. It was thick and Rags saw it was cutting off over half the camp. The riders streamed away from it, cutting down the Goblins in the clear space. But in the smoke? Where were the others?

Rags saw a group of Goblins stagger out of the smoke. She urged her mount forwards, shouting at them. They were armed! Warriors! She raced towards them and saw them staggering. Falling? Rags stared as, one by one, the band of Goblins collapsed. Half fell, coughing, grasping at their throats. The others weakly tried to raise their weapons, covering their eyes.

Their eyes? Rags saw something leaking from a Goblin’s eyes. He screamed, a rasping, choking cry. He looked to her—and an arrow sprouted from his chest. Rags jerked. She heard a whistling sound and beneath her, her Carn Wolf howled. An arrow had pierced his side! He jerked and Rags heard more arrows thud into the ground. She looked in the direction of the archers, but saw nothing.

They were under attack! Archers, poisonous smoke—and the cavalry. Rags couldn’t see the Redscar warriors, but she could hear howls, spread out in the darkness. How were the Humans seeing? She looked for her warriors, her organized units and saw nothing.

Rally!

Rags screamed the word. She raised her hand and shot another ball of light into the air. Her Carn Wolf howled and she saw more Goblins moving towards her. Some were in the poisonous fog. They stumbled out, blind, coughing. And Rags saw the mounted Humans turn.

Rally! Form line!

She shouted at them, reaching for her sword. The Goblins ran towards her, many falling, and Rags saw something flicker overhead.

Arrows. One flashed by her chest. She jerked and felt something strike her mount in the head. It fell and Rags cried out as her Carn Wolf crashed to the ground. She rolled away and saw the light above her head go out. Someone had ended her spell.

Thunk. Thunkthunkthunkthunkthunk—

Goblin screams. Rags struggled up, looking around wildly. She didn’t see the Goblins. She heard more arrows landing and ran, desperately. Something was ahead. Rags saw the air darken and jerked backwards. The poison! It was drifting across her camp. Had the Humans put it there? Where was Pyrite? Where was—

“Chieftain!”

A voice amid the screaming. Rags turned and saw a Hob running towards her. He had a spear and his eyes were wide. He couldn’t find anyone in the darkness. She gasped to see him.

“Come! Must get light!”

She ran towards him. The Goblin opened his mouth and then turned. He snarled; Rags saw a shape amid the trees. She heard a shout and saw a black rider flash past her. He cut and the Hob in front of her fell, gasping, clutching at the axe stuck in his chest.

“No.”

Rags ran towards him. The Hob grabbed at the axe as the Human on the horse cursed and rode on. He grabbed the axe as Rags stopped. She fumbled at her belt. Healing potion. She had to have—

“Chieftain?”

The Hob’s lungs were filling with blood. He pulled the axe free before she could stop him. She heard a wet, tearing sound, and then silence. She lifted the potion and saw the limp body on the ground.

“Wait.”

She reached for him, but there was nothing there anymore. Rags slowly corked the healing potion and stood back up. She looked around. She could hear more shouting, see more riders moving through the darkness. Arrows were landing. The poison was moving.

“Rally! Rally here!”

Rags screamed the words, searching for Goblins in the darkness. But there was no one around her. It was as if the Humans had brought madness with them. Rags saw Goblins fleeing into the poisonous smoke, running from riding Humans, shooting back wildly at the archers they couldn’t see. It was chaos. She was alone.

Alone. Rags shouted but no one could hear. The poison mist was drifting through the camp, covering staggering Goblins trying to run. Arrows flew around her, cutting down the Goblins emerging from the poison. And in between the poisonous fog were the riders, galloping, scything down her people. Turning, wheeling.

Humans. They were killing her tribe. Where had they come from? They weren’t Bethal’s people. Rags felt—shocked. Something beyond shock then reached her core. Her head rang. She stumbled, looking for her people.

A poison cloud at her back, the riders ahead. Only the dead around her. Rags raised her head and saw them at last. A flicker of light. A group of Humans far away, aiming their bows. And a cauldron—many bubbling pots and Humans fanning the smoke, blowing it their way. They loosed another volley and Rags heard the Goblins scream. Then the black riders raced past her, cutting down a group of Goblins that tried to form a pike formation with a third of their number.

Oh.

They’d ambushed them. Just like they’d done. Somehow, the Humans had known they were there. Rags nodded. That made sense. She looked around. It was the same. They’d come for her tribe, come for her. She hadn’t expected it. But that was what was happening. They had come and were killing everyone.

Rags felt—pain. Pain, and hurt. But nothing else. She looked inside her heart for anger. She looked for rage, reached for it and found nothing. Because, in her soul, in her inner self, nothing in Rags was surprised. She looked around at the blood. At the silent bodies.

Look at them. All of them. The small ones curled up to the adults. By poison, by blade, by arrow. It was all the same.

This was how things were. Again and again, for years and centuries. Forever. This was what they did. Rags slowly reached for the crossbow she’d tied to her back. Slowly, awkwardly, she drew it and looked around.

The riders streamed past, shouting. Rags raised the crossbow and aimed. She pulled the trigger and felt it kick against her arm. One of the dark shadows fell and a horse reared. Rags mechanically felt at the quiver at her side. The horses rode past her, turning, cutting.

Place the bolt. Cock the crossbow. Rags lifted it and turned. Again she pulled the trigger. Another shape fell.

They were turning. One pointed his sword and Rags knew there was no time. She raised her hand and fire flew. It struck a horse and Rags saw the rider flailing as the animal screamed.

This was how it happened. Every time. She saw the Humans charging, heard the cry. She held her ground. Her finger shifted, another rider fell, burning.

A Human in armor was leading them. He rode towards her, his face obscured by a dark steel helmet. Rags pointed at him and the flaming arrow struck his chest. Too weak; he rode through it. He had a sword in his hand. Rags reached for hers.

Sword. Buckler—she fumbled and dropped it. The rider lowered in his saddle. She thought she could see his face through the helmet. She heard a word as he leaned down. She swung and heard the rushing air, felt her blade bite into the horse. And then she heard his voice as he cut her chest.

“So small.”

It was a whisper, lost among the screaming. For a moment, a frozen moment, Rags looked up and saw his eyes. And then the blade cut into her chest. Rags twisted with the impact, her grip loosening on her sword. The horse screamed as her blade was ripped from her hand. She blinked and looked at the blood streaming from her chest. The rider wrenched his sword and the world blurred. Rags stumbled and she saw him kick his stallion. He raced past her. She heard Goblins scream around her as she sank to her knees.

“Oh.”

Rags clutched at her chest. Blood dripped between her claws. She wavered and felt her knees give. She lay down, staring at the sky.

Her chest was wet. She felt tired. Cold. There was nothing in her heart. No fury. Not enough hate to make her reach for the potion at her belt. She should never have expected anything more.

The Humans rode past her, whooping, shouting war cries, cutting down the Goblins that fled. Ignoring her. Another body on the ground. Rags wanted to tell them to stop. She hadn’t started it. She hadn’t killed the lady. She’d tried—

But they’d killed the Human army. The ones chasing Goblins. And these Humans knew. Or did they care? They were cutting down children and Goblins with no weapons, laughing, screaming. The poison cloud drifted over Rags’ head and she felt her lungs burning.

This was what they did. Rags closed her eyes and coughed once. She thought—

 

—-

 

Chieftain!

Pyrite turned and shouted for Rags. He couldn’t see anything in the darkness. The darkness was nearly perfect in the forest. All of the campfires were scattered. The torches had been knocked over and the Humans were riding through the forest, cutting Goblins down!

How could they see? How could they know where each Goblin was? Could they see in the dark? The Hob saw a flash and saw an arrow land close to his foot. He shouted.

“Shields!”

The Goblins around him instantly raised their shields. He heard thudding impacts and then a scream. A Goblin fell in front of him. He looked around wildly.

“Where?”

There was no vision! No order! Black and green smoke was obscuring half the forest. Pyrite had sent a scout into it and the Goblin had begun choking halfway in. Poison of some kind. The riders were dominating the other half—they were bearing down on any group of Goblins. There were only a few hundred of them, but they’d scattered the Goblin’s formations. Pyrite had arrived with a group of pikes, crossbows, and Hobs to find nothing at all.

“Where are Redfang? Where is Rags? Where are warriors?

He shouted desperately. The Goblins around him looked around wildly. Nothing. There was howling from Carn Wolves, but it sounded like it was coming from inside the black smoke. On the other side? Pyrite looked around. Arrows, riders—what was the priority?

He heard a howl from his left and saw a Redfang warrior on a Carn Wolf charging. Alone. He had a bloody blade and was headed towards a cluster of shadows—

No wait. Those were Humans! Pyrite’s vision picked out a dark group with bows and a few flickering fires. A group of Humans, archers! They shot the charging Redfang warrior and his mount dead as Pyrite watched. They had set up in front of three black cauldrons belching smoke.

Cauldrons. Pyrite’s eyes widened. He pointed at the burning vats and shouted.

“Poison! Follow!”

The Goblins around him charged after Pyrite as he ran through the forest. The Humans with bows noticed him running and called an alarm.

“Hob charging! Loose!

Pyrite heard the bows sing and raised his arm, covering his face. He felt something strike him in the chest and roared as the burning pain filled his shoulder. But the arrow had lodged in his fat; another struck him in the belly, another in the arm. Missed his head. Pyrite lowered his hand and saw the Humans in front of him. To the side were the pots. Pyrite lifted his battleaxe and roared. He swung and the Human [Archer] fumbling with her shortsword disappeared. Pyrite felt the impact as his battleaxe sheared through her and roared.

“Back! Back!”

The Humans screamed as Goblins charged past Pyrite. They rammed into them with pikes, impaling the Humans as Pyrite swung again. The [Archers] fled, shouting in panic.

“Fall back to the horses! Retreat!”

“Follow!”

Pyrite bellowed at the Goblins. He saw a Hob kick over a pot and swung at the other two, knocking the cauldrons to the ground and spilling whatever was inside. Smoke shot up as the flames were doused; Pyrite coughed and felt his eyes and throat begin to burn. He staggered away and coughed before shouting an order.

Bad smoke!

The Goblins heard him and avoided the poisonous fumes. They chased the Humans, cutting down half as they scrambled onto their horses tethered nearby. The Humans fled and Pyrite called them back.

“More archers! More pots! Find!”

There had to be. He roared at the Hob who’d kicked over the pots and he and six other Hobs led another group of Goblins back through the forest. Pyrite ran ahead, snapping the shafts of the arrows, bellowing.

“Light! Light!

They needed to see! A Goblin grabbed a piece of wood and tried to stoke the fire the cauldrons had been burning on. He lifted a torch and Pyrite, remembering his axe, swung it into a tree, bellowing.

The tree caught alight as the enchanted axe set it aflame. Goblins rushed forwards with branches and sticks and Pyrite pointed. The riders were still circling the camp.

“Charge!”

The Humans had spotted the Goblin warriors and charged towards them. Pyrite roared and raised his axe. The first Human had a spear. It was leveled at Pyrite’s chest. The Hob charged forwards and then dodged right at the last moment. Into the path of the horse! The startled animal reared, but Pyrite didn’t give it a chance to strike him with its hooves. He swung and felt an impact. The rider and horse fell and Pyrite kicked. The Human took the blow in the chest and fell, gurgling. More riders came at him. Pyrite swung his axe, roaring.

Pikes! Wall!

The Goblins around him remembered their training and set their pikes. The horses ran into the pikes or tried to turn and the riders crashed into the Goblin formation. Hobs and Goblins armed with axes and swords ran between the pikes, and fell on the immobilized riders. Pyrite roared and advanced, his axe cutting down Humans and horses alike.

“Break away! Retreat!”

A panicked voice signaled a second retreat. Pyrite shouted for the Goblins not to pursue. This wasn’t important! They had to find others!

Light!

He roared again, louder. The Goblins snatched up branches. Pyrite saw another group of Humans loosing arrows and ordered another charge. This time the Humans ran before he could close the distance.

“They’re reforming! Get away!”

“General Wiskeria’s ordered the retreat! Move to the rally point!”

“Take down that Hob!”

Someone shouted from the left. Pyrite spun and saw an armored Human bearing down on him with a group of mounted Humans. He swung and the Human cursed, pulling his mount away to avoid Pyrite’s strike. He rode past Pyrite, hacking down a Goblin and Pyrite cut down a Human trying to strike him.

“Captain Beniar! We have—”

A man screamed as Goblins swarmed his saddle. Beniar, the armored Human, turned, but before he could charge again, a snarl made his horse rear. A Carn Wolf leapt out of the darkness, riderless, and Pyrite saw more Redfang warriors stream out of the night. Half were coughing, and their mounts were in similar pain, but they bore down on the riders.

“Pull out! Back to Wiskeria!”

Beniar shouted the order and his horses wheeled. They raced through the forest as the Redfang warriors gave chase. Pyrite saw a shower of arrows flying and two riders fell with their wolves. He shouted.

Stop! Ambush!

The Redfang warriors pulled away as more arrows began cutting them down. The Human [Riders] rode on, shouting, and Pyrite saw the largest group of [Archers] yet. They were shooting down the Goblins that were trying to pursue. Pyrite took a deep breath and bellowed.

Stop!

Every Goblin in earshot turned. They broke off their pursuit and dashed towards him. The Redfang warriors rode over and Pyrite shouted up at one of the leaders.

“Humans with bows! Do not go!”

“Redscar says attack!”

“No! Find Goblins! Find Chieftain! Find Noears and others!”

The Redfang warrior hesitated, and then nodded. He took his riders back, circling the camp, as Pyrite saw the Humans continuing to retreat. He looked around at the Goblins under his command.

“Hobs! Find Chieftain! Find others!”

The Hobs around him nodded and broke up, forming groups out of the smaller Goblins. It wasn’t Rags’ tactics, but traditional Goblin ones. It was all Pyrite could think of; the Humans were running and he had no idea how many Goblins were alive. They needed Rags! Where was she?

Figures emerged from the darkness as Pyrite’s blood cooled a bit and he began to feel the pain from the cuts in his arms and three arrows. He saw lightning crackling, and Noears emerged from the darkness. The Goblin was uninjured, but he was followed by Poisonbite whose eyes were swollen nearly shut. She was wheezing, barely able to breathe.

“Pyrite! Where Chieftain?”

Noears looked around, his hands giving off the smell of burnt air. Pyrite yanked an arrow from his chest with a growl and poured a bit of healing potion on the wound. He shoved the rest at Poisonbite who fumbled for it.

“Don’t know. Search. Need lights!”

“Can light!”

Noears immediately threw a ball of light into the air, illuminating the dark forest. Pyrite nearly hit him—if he could have done that, why didn’t he do it earlier? But the [Mage] clearly hadn’t been thinking of that. And the light attracted more attention.

“Pyrite!”

Redscar rode out of the darkness, his enchanted frost blade covered in blood. He was unharmed, and his Carn Wolf had bloody fangs. He was positively alight with fury. He pointed at Pyrite.

“Where are Humans?”

“Running. That way.”

Pyrite pointed. Redscar snarled.

“Hunt them down! Redfangs!”

He made to ride, but Pyrite caught the wolf and yanked it back.

“No. Find Chieftain!”

The Carn Wolf snarled and tried to bite Pyrite. The Hob punched it. Redscar howled in fury and spat at Pyrite.

“Humans!”

“Find Chieftain!”

Pyrite bellowed at him. Redscar hesitated. Then he turned and raised his war horn and blew two long blasts and two short blasts. After a moment a howl answered him and he turned.

“Smell her! Follow!”

Pyrite ran after him. He ran past Goblin bodies, over one that groaned, past a downed horse, through a burned campfire—so many bodies. He ran through a clearing patch of smoke, eyes burning despite having kept them closed through most of them, and saw Rags.

 

 

She was lying on the ground, her head lying at an angle. Goblins stood around her as Quietstab knelt by her side. He had an empty potion bottle by one side. The ground was covered in blood. Pyrite’s ears rang. He ran forwards, nearly throwing Quietstab aside. He reached for Rags.

“Potion?”

“One. Need more!”

The bottle Quietstab had taken was from Rags’ belt. Pyrite reached for his bottle and realized it was empty. So was Quietstab’s. He turned and roared.

Potion! Now!

Redscar leapt from his wolf’s back and grabbed a bottle. He tossed it to Pyrite and the Hob tore the stopper out. He reached for Rags and carefully lifted her. She was cold.

“Where hurt?”

“Chest. Healed, but—”

Rags wasn’t responding. Pyrite forced her mouth open and poured the healing potion down her throat. Anxiously, he felt at her chest, put his hand over her mouth. Was she…?

He felt the slightest of heartbeats, the faintest of breaths and a cough. She was alive! Barely. Pyrite sat back.

“Alive?”

Redscar looked worried. All of the Goblins were clustering around, their eyes wide. Pyrite hesitated. Rags was still unconscious. She was breathing. That was what mattered. He stood up and forced the Goblins back.

“Give room! Quietstab, guard!”

The Hob nodded. Pyrite looked around. Redscar glanced at Rags and then turned his head.

“Humans attacked.”

“Ambush. Poison and darkness and arrows.”

Pyrite agreed. Redscar snarled. He slashed with his sword, spraying half-frozen droplets of blood.

“We hunt! Redfangs go. Hobs too!”

“No. Chieftain is wounded.”

“Humans are running!”

“Second ambush!”

Pyrite shook his head. He’d seen it. The Humans were pulling back, but they’d been baiting the Goblins into following so they could tear them apart with bows. Redscar snarled.

“Not enough Humans. We go.”

No.

Pyrite grabbed Redscar’s arm. The other Goblin was smaller, far smaller than Pyrite. Redscar froze and looked up at Pyrite.

“Let go.”

His sword raised and Redscar’s eyes narrowed dangerously. But Pyrite refused to let go. His grip tightened. Redscar’s arm groaned and the Goblin stared into Pyrite’s eyes. Pyrite rumbled.

Your duty is to tribe. Obey.

“Chieftain cannot give orders.”

“Chieftain is Chieftain! And I am second! Obey!”

Pyrite felt Redscar’s bones under his hand. The Goblin growled and Pyrite growled right back. The two stood together and then Redscar abruptly nodded. Instantly, Pyrite let go and Redscar snatched his hand away. He sheathed his sword angrily.

“What now?”

There was fury burning in his eyes, but he was obeying. For now. Pyrite looked down at Rags. She looked so small, so weak lying there. She had to be alright. She would wake up. He looked around at the wounded Goblins, the destroyed camp and felt a weight on his shoulders.

“Now? Find wounded? Count living. And make ready. Humans will come back. Lots of them.”

The Goblins looked at him. Redscar growled. They all knew it was true. This was only the start. The Humans had found them. And they would be back.

 

—-

 

“G-general Wiskeria says they’re pulling back. For tonight. The Goblins aren’t pursuing any longer. She says there are too many to attack. Unless you think otherwise. Do you want…want me to send her another [Message], Emperor?”

“No, Nesor. Tell her to pull back and treat her wounded. The plan is a success. Tell her congratulations and to prepare for another message within the hour. Understand?”

I sense Nesor’s pale face nod towards me. The [Mage] closes his eyes and his lips begin to move, forming the words he’s sending via [Message] spell. He’s a poor caster so it takes him laborious minutes to send my words to Wiskeria’s [Mage]. And even longer to hear her reply.

“She says that she understands and is holding. Emperor Laken?”

He looks at me, sweat rolling down his head. I can sense his fatigue, smell his body odor. He’s kept me in constant touch with Wiskeria this last hour and the effort has taxed him. I nod and rise.

“That’s enough. Good work, Nesor. Take a break; I’ll handle things from here.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

He breathes a sigh of relief and slumps in his chair. I look around the dark house. This is Wiskeria’s home, unfurnished in large part. It’s quiet. Dark. I don’t need illumination so I haven’t bothered to light a candle despite the late hour. It must be close to pitch-black for Nesor, but I navigate my way to the door with ease.

“Get some rest. Here.”

“Here? But isn’t this—”

“I may need to speak to Wiskeria again. Sleep here, Nesor. Eat if you need to—but be ready for the morning. I need to speak to the others.”

I pause, thinking. Nesor’s worn out.

Verdammt! I need to send those [Message] spells. Nesor, send a brief [Message] to Wiskeria and see if Lady Bevia’s [Mage] can do it. If not—”

“I can do it, Your Majesty. I think…if I have a mana potion.”

Nesor fumbles weakly at his belt. I nod.

“Good. In that case, I’ll rely on you.”

I pause at the door.

“Excellent work, Nesor. Lady Rie will be proud, I’m sure of it.”

I sense a smile light up Nesor’s face.

“T-thank you, your Majesty.”

He slumps back in his chair and drinks half his mana potion. After I leave. I watch him with my [Emperor] senses for a few minutes as I stride through the village, but he seems fine. I had wondered if he’d be up to the challenge, but he came through. And it worked! My heart is beating too fast, and I feel blood thundering through my veins, though I haven’t done anything. All I could do was watch.

But I felt like I was there. I saw Beniar and my Blacksky Riders sweeping through the Goblin camp. I saw Wiskeria’s brew do its work, blinding and suffocating the Goblins while her [Archers] shot Goblins from afar. Damn that Hob and those mounted Goblins. If they hadn’t attacked, we might have—

No, focus. This is enough. I have to make the next part count. I stride towards a familiar person in Riverfarm, wrenching my attention away from the Goblins. I can still sense them, on my lands, regrouping, salvaging their ruined camp. They’re still there, many of them. Thousands. But less now. A good number less.

“Prost?”

The man turns and I sense he’s holding a torch.

“Emperor Laken? Is everything…?”

“Fine. The plan’s worked, Mister Prost. Have you called the others?”

“Yes, your Majesty. They’re all there. Some are complaining, but only to each other.”

“They’ll shut up as soon as I tell them. Come.”

I nod and Prost pushes open the double doors to my meeting hall. The audience chamber is cramped with all the [Lords] and [Ladies] present, but they turn as one and give me room to stride towards my throne. I sense Durene in the crowd, and Lady Rie. Both hurry towards me.

“Laken, what’s going on?”

“Your Majesty? Mister Prost summoned us all here—disturbing several nobles from their beds! May I ask what—”

“Silence, Lady Rie.”

I turn my head and she falls still. I reach out and grab Durene’s hand.

“I’ll explain everything in a moment, Durene. Just wait. Gamel?”

The young man stands by my throne, standing at attention.

“Yes, sire?”

“Announce me.”

“At once.”

I hear Gamel take a deep breath, and then shout, surprising the nobles of Izril.

“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril! His Majesty, ruler of the Unseen Empire, Protector of Riverfarm and Durene’s Cottage! Emperor Laken Godart!”

I take my seat on the throne and hear a susurration throughout the room. The nobles wince, their ears ringing and stare at me as I sit on my throne. I sense some of them hesitate. I know what they’re thinking. Why are they here? Are they supposed to kneel? Why have I called them? I put their fears and speculations to rest as I raise my voice.

It’s soft after Gamel’s shouting, but I make sure it carries throughout the room. Calm. Loud voice but not too loud. Controlled. I turn my closed eyes from face to face, noting their reactions. They can’t meet my eyes, closed or not.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I bid you welcome. I am sorry for waking you at this late hour, but I have news of grave importance. As you may know, I have sworn to defend the roads and lands around Riverfarm. Yesterday, it came to my attention that another force had entered my domain.”

I hear a murmur and sense the nobles grow apprehensive in front of me. I raise my voice, continuing.

“It is my regret that I must inform you all now that an army of Goblins had entered my domain. A portion of the Goblin Lord’s army is currently camped approximately forty two miles north of here. They number about eight thousand strong.”

What?

I hear gasps, and then a cry of horror from the nobles. A [Lady] swoons and her husband catches her. Shocked voices, a loud exclamation, and then Sir Tourant’s voice.

“Emperor Laken! Your Majesty! Are you certain of this?”

I turn my head towards him.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, Lord Tourant. The Goblin Lord has sent nearly eight thousand Goblins by my count. Two days ago, they entered the furthest reaches of my protected lands, laying waste to a local army from the city of Filc in a pitched battle. They came further south after that, marching directly towards my domain. Towards Riverfarm.”

I hear a groan from my audience, and then a sharp voice.

“I take it that you are not informing us merely so that we might evacuate in time, Emperor Laken? Or else you would have informed us yesterday.”

I nod towards the woman standing in the back.

“Correct, Lady Bevia. I have not been idle upon learning of this threat. I immediately consulted with my [General], Lady Wiskeria, and formed a plan to combat the Goblin Lord’s army.”

“Why were we not informed of this?”

I turn, seeking out Lord Melbore in the crowd.

“To prevent a panic, Lord Melbore. If I were to raise the alarm too early, the Goblins would have been alerted that their presence had been discovered. And thus my army would have failed to ambush the Goblins. As it did not an hour ago.”

That gets them. The nobles are in an uproar. Again, Lady Bevia’s voice cracks through the chaos like a whip.

“Emperor Laken, please do not spare us the details. What has happened?”

I incline my head a fraction as the voices calm, waiting for my response.

“In a word, Lady Bevia? Success. I sent a mobile force of [Riders] and [Archers] to attack the Goblins in their camp. Around six hundred soldiers all told, many levied from nearby cities and towns. They proceeded to strike the Goblins in the heart of the night, killing at least a thousand of their warriors before retreating.”

Again, uproar. Again, I wait for the voices to subside. Lord Tourant is the one to question me this time.

“A force of six hundred slew a thousand Goblins? How? How many casualties were there?”

“Less than a hundred.”

“A hundred? How? Were they all asleep?”

A smile.

“Hardly, Lord Tourant. My force triumphed by virtue of superior tactics. My [General] and [Captain], Lady Wiskeria and Sir Beniar, were able to divide the Goblins under the plan I devised with them.”

This time I don’t elaborate and the intrigued murmur goes on for a second. I can see Lady Rie glancing at me. Perhaps she noticed some of my preparations.

The plan was a simple one. Use poisonous gas to cripple the Goblins and [Blacksky Riders] to  strike at night. With more [Archers] to lend them support, they could easily take down the Goblin army.

The key was really in Wiskeria’s brew. She knew how to make a poisonous smoke—a byproduct of another concoction, really—which would suffocate and burn the eyes and make breathing almost impossible. It would cripple any Goblin who inhaled the smoke. All she needed were enough ingredients and hands to brew the mixtures and fan the smoke into the camp. Hellebore leaves, charcoal, a white, parasitic root that grows around old trees…she had me looking for ingredients for hours, but I found enough for the plan to work.

After that, it was just a matter of coordinating. With Nesor and one of Lady Bevia’s [Mages] I could tell Wiskeria exactly where the Goblins were and when to strike. Lady Bethal’s presence only helped the situation by drawing off a good portion of the Goblins. The rest went like clockwork.

Mostly. The Goblins fought back, but I don’t focus on that. The nobles of Izril are clamoring to know what I’ll do next.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please. I am aware that the Goblin Lord’s army is still a great danger. They have been wounded, but their host is still far vaster than my army can defeat. Alone, that is. I intend to levy every city in the region and cooperate with every Human settlement. As it is, the Goblins are still far north of Riverfarm and I assure you, they will be stopped.”

Dismayed, the nobles begin arguing among themselves.

“A thousand dead? But that would leave seven thousand remaining! Can any city stop that?”

“If we can head down the eastern road—we might outdistance them—”

“You want to travel with Goblins about? Madness!”

“Please!”

I raise a hand.

“I have no intention of keeping you here, but I fear that Riverfarm may be the only safe place. If you wish to take your chances, I will attempt to escort you, but my army will soon march to reinforce General Wiskeria.”

“How do you intend to combat such a large force, Emperor Laken?”

“With cooperation, Lady Bevia. The Human cities nearest to the Goblin Lord’s army have standing garrisons of their own; I intend to coordinate with them to push back the Goblins.”

With my levied army I would be outnumbered. But as Lady Rie pointed out, there are a number of cities who don’t like me to the north. Cities that can either bar up their gates and hide from the Goblin Lord or join me and fight. Either way, the Goblin Lord’s forces will be chipped away.

Ruthless. I lean forwards on my throne.

“As we speak, [Messages] are being sent to every city in the region to communicate what I have told you, ladies and gentlemen. We have defeated the Goblins once before and we shall do so again. And now, I am afraid I must coordinate with the other settlements who no doubt have questions of their own.”

I rise from my throne and hear a babble of voices as the distressed nobles press forwards. I raise my hand and they pause.

“Lady Rie will handle any questions you might have. I would welcome any assistance you might be able to bring to bear on this matter, but I must consult with my [General]. I bid you all good night.”

Before they can object, I stride through them towards the door. I sense Lady Rie being mobbed behind me, and Gamel and Prost screen my exit. In a moment I’m outside and in the chill night air, alone. For a second. Then I hear the doors open, hear a babble of shocked voices, and a voice.

“Laken?”

“Durene.”

I embrace her, feeling her rough skin. Durene hugs me, but I can tell she’s shocked.

“Was all that true, Laken? You didn’t tell me!”

“I’m sorry Durene. I wanted to, truly. But I couldn’t let anyone know what was happening or they might run off. And you’re a terrible actor. Not even Mister Prost knew—until tonight. Only Wiskeria, Beniar, and the soldiers knew.”

“I understand that. But the Goblins! Are there really thousands of them?”

I pause and cast my mind north. They’re already marching. Wiskeria told me the effects of the gas would last for days. Hopefully she can press the advantage. I nod, grimly.

“There are. But we did a lot of damage, Durene. Wiskeria and Beniar will harry them and I’m sending the army north tomorrow at dawn.”

“I’m going with them, of course. Right?”

I hesitate. I want to say no. Because I’m not going. Wiskeria and Beniar both insisted and I had to agree. It makes no sense, not if I can use a [Mage] to tell them exactly what they need to know. I’m a liability in battle for all I can influence the Goblins. But Durene—I squeeze her hands.

“You don’t have to.”

“I do! If there are Goblins and everyone’s fighting, I have to fight. I’m a [Paladin], Laken.”

“I know. I know.”

I take a few deep breaths. I knew that Durene would say that. Which is why I sent Wiskeria and Beniar first. Now the Goblin Lord’s army is wounded. And by the time Durene gets there…

“The main army will march towards the Goblins and meet up with Wiskeria. She’ll wear them down as much as she can until then. I’ll have every city send as many soldiers as I can. Hundreds—I can levy at least a hundred warriors from the smallest towns alone. You’ll outnumber the Goblins—barely, I think. Wiskeria will make sure only to pick battles we can win easily. So don’t get hurt, okay?”

“I won’t!”

Durene sounds fierce as she hugs me. I hug her back, hearing the commotion in the meeting hall get louder. I hear a muffled laugh from her.

“They’re angry. Did you have to tell them like this?”

“Oh yes. Because now they’re stuck here. And all the cities have to deal with the Goblins. Not just us. We’re not going to be alone in this fight, Durene. We’ll win, I promise.”

I hug her tightly, taking warmth from her body heat. I whisper to her as I feel Wiskeria and Beniar setting up camp, sense Humans tending to the wounded, the nobles surrounding Rie in the meeting hall, shouting—

And the Goblins to the north. Marching, moving fast, many still coughing, blinded by the fog. They leave behind their dead, not bothering to bury them. Dead Goblins. I count them. Small ones, big ones, it makes no difference. They’ll all die. I won’t let them touch Riverfarm.

Not again. Not ever again. I’ll slaughter them all with traps and poison, whatever I have to use. I’ll crush them.

I swear it.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.21 E

Day 98

 

“Trebuchet is ready!”

“All clear?”

“…All clear!”

“Right! Three, two, one—”

Rael saw the wooden beam rise into the air and stop. Behind it, a long sling of rope curved up behind it, and the young man saw a large stone fly out of the sling. It was such a smooth, casual motion that it took him a second to remember that the stone now flying high into the air weighed over a hundred pounds.

The massive stone defied gravity for a few seconds, and Rael had to turn his neck and stare with the other Human nobles as it flew across the open ground. Four hundred feet, five hundred feet—when it landed it was a speck in the distance. The plume of dirt fountaining up into the air signaling the impact wasn’t audible—the trebuchet had sent the stone at least seven hundred feet away!

Rael’s jaw dropped. Immediately he heard a whoop and then cheering. Peasants streamed past him, shouting with glee as a rider on horseback rode towards the place where the stone had landed, measuring out the distance. When the distance was shouted back, the nobles around Rael murmured. Gasping would have been too uncouth.

“It went that far? How?”

One of the younger nobles standing next to Rael couldn’t contain her disbelief. Lady Haviet fanned herself lightly while craning on the tips of her toes to see the trebuchet surrounded by the excited people.

“Magic, of course. It has to be. There’s no way they could throw something that heavy without a spell!”

Lord Andres looked excited as he pointed at the stone in the distance. His words made the other nobles murmur, but it was Lord Pattin who shook his head.

“It’s not magic, Andres. I didn’t detect anything from it when we inspected it a minute ago. Did you, Lady Cimeca?”

The young [Lady] shook her head, not taking her eyes off the trebuchet. Pattin nodded as he regarded the war machine speculatively. It was being loaded with another stone, a huge chunk of granite that looked recently cut.

“I’ve heard of these things. Siege weapons. War machines. But they’re supposed to be incredibly rare and difficult to manufacture! Pallass makes siege weapons, but the Drakes don’t sell to Humans. There’s a group in Chandrar that’s known for their weapons and Baleros uses some, but—”

Pattin broke off and bowed politely as an older [Lord] approached. Rael bowed as well, tilting his head towards Lord Tourant. The older man looked interested.

“What was that I heard you saying, Lord Pattin? This is like the weapons the Drake cities make? Truly?”

He looked at the trebuchet and Rael saw the half-Troll girl helping to lift another massive stone into the sling. He eyed her, noticing how her slightly cracked grey skin was covered with sweat. Part of Rael wanted to look away. She was monstrous, and yet she was Emperor Laken’s consort. And there was something…impressive…about the way she held her end of the stone while three men had to lift their side.

“I’ve never laid eyes on one myself and I’ve only seen a few sketches, but the similarities are remarkable, Lord Tourant. This is like a catapult, clearly, but the range and power are completely different.”

“Fascinating. And you’re sure of this?”

“Fairly sure, Lord Tourant.”

Pattin answered politely. Lord Tourant glanced around.

“Good, good. Thank you, young man. Excuse me.”

He walked backwards out of the small gathering of the younger nobles. Rael eyed him cautiously. Tourant was a fiery man and as Oswalt’s father, he had taken it upon himself to punish Rael, Oswalt, and the others when they caused trouble on his lands. But today Tourant was too busy to recall past misadventures. He strode over to the crowd of nobles and Rael heard him speaking loudly.

“Your Majesty, this is an accomplishment! Am I to understand that this design is similar to the devices manufactured by the Walled Cities? A truly wonderful feat!”

Rael’s jaw dropped again. Not a second after he’d gotten the information from Pattin and he was using it to look like he knew everything! Andres laughed and gave Pattin a gentle cuff on the shoulder.

“Not bad, eh, Pattin? Maybe Tourant will come running back to you for more advice! Assuming you’re right!”

The young [Lord] smiled politely, not looking at all offended. He nodded to Oswalt.

“Your father seems quite interested in these devices, Oswalt.”

The young man he was addressing jumped and looked around. The glassy look on Oswalt’s face turned to confusion, and then he realized Pattin was talking to him. Oswalt shrugged self-consciously.

“My father? He’s just trying to get ahead of the others. You don’t need to answer him, Pattin. Just because he knew your father doesn’t mean he should take credit for…”

He trailed off. One of his hands reached up reflexively towards his ear and then Oswalt lowered it. Rael tried not to look at his friend’s ear; a chunk was missing and though the rest had been healed, the missing flesh would never be restored.

Last night. Rael shuddered as memory swam at the back of his mind. He pushed it back and saw the nobles around him doing the same. Cimeca, Andres, Ellia, Haviet…they all shared that moment of recollection, except for Pattin. He’d stayed out of sight during the—the festivities, Rael recalled.

Cimeca broke the uncomfortable silence.

“Pattin, you should talk with Emperor Laken. I’m sure your knowledge would impress his Majesty, and the others.”

“I hardly know much…”

Pattin demurred, but Cimeca gently pushed him towards the group of talking adults. They were surrounding a young man who stood at the center of attention. His eyes were closed and he was smiling, turning his head from speaker to speaker and nodding occasionally. He began talking as the young nobles approached and everyone fell silent to hear him speak.

Laken Godart did not shout, but his words carried and he made people fall silent to hear him, rather than raise his voice. He pointed unerringly to the loaded trebuchet, though it was behind him and his eyes remained closed.

“Yes indeed, Lord Tourant. That does seem similar to a siege weapon from a Walled City. I have never visited Pallass of course, but the design of a trebuchet is universal…assuming you know how to make one.”

The [Lords] and [Ladies] surrounding him exchanged quick glances and Rael could see his aunt, Lady Bevia Veniford, narrowing her eyes. Even a small sentence like this was important. He could practically see her thinking and Rael had learned enough from his aunt to understand what she was thinking.

So, this [Emperor] Laken had never been to Pallass? How did he know how to make a trebuchet? No, wait, he’d said he’d never visited Pallass, which implied he might have visited another Walled City. When every word could be checked with truth spells, subtleties like this were essential.

Oblivious to the racing minds around him, Emperor Laken smiled.

“I’m impressed you know of trebuchets, Lord Tourant. Only a handful of people were familiar with the concept, and that included seasoned adventurers in my Empire. Are they truly so rare in this region?”

“Well, I…I suppose I’ve heard of them in passing.”

Lord Tourant spluttered and turned evasive as Rael smirked. The older man tugged at his mustache and pointed at Pattin.

“Lord Pattin’s heard of them. The same as a Walled City, didn’t you say, Pattin?”

Every head turned towards Pattin. Not at all worried about being put on the spot, he nodded.

“They appear to be very similar to the ones described defending the Walled Cities. But from what I understand, the design is easy to replicate. Is that the case, your Majesty?”

“If you understand the basics, yes.”

Emperor Laken turned his head to smile at Pattin. He had no gaze to tell what he was thinking, but he seemed to smile deeper at Pattin. After a moment he went on.

“These are only a few rough prototypes. I hope to create a market for engineering devices of all kinds. Naturally a…Walled City would dominate the market, but within a year or two I believe Riverfarm would be able to compete in the marketplace for quality, if not quantity.”

What?

The exclamation went around the circle of nobles. Laken only laughed lightly.

“Is it such a stretch of the imagination, Lord Tourant? I did not choose to showcase these trebuchets simply as entertainment. Indeed, I’m confident my people can begin mass-producing trebuchets within another month. After more testing is done for safety and efficiency purposes, obviously.”

“But that would be incredible! No one in Izril exports anything like this! You’re telling me—I mean to say that you’re able to create these things at will, Emperor Laken? Your Majesty? Have you an [Engineer]?”

Laken tilted his head thoughtfully as Lord Tourant tried to press him without giving offense. He shrugged.

“I have two [Engineers] already, Lord Tourant.”

Two—

“Of course it was difficult for them to construct the first trebuchet, but copying a design is much simpler than creating one from scratch. Naturally such devices would not be cheap and a small team would need to be trained for its use, but it would be one of a few engineered devices I plan to sell—to a select list of clients, of course.”

This time there was silence. Lord Tourant opened his mouth, hesitated, and found himself unable to ask the obvious question. Select clients? More such devices?

“Your Majesty, are you intending to create a market for engineered devices in northern Izril?”

Lady Bevia peered closely at Laken. He smiled.

“It’s a thought, isn’t it? Unless you disagree, Lady Bevia?”

The old [Lady] tapped her lips thoughtfully with one painted fingernail.

“No…but Pallass has long been known to host the greatest [Craftsmen] and other artisans on the continent. Our port cities import new goods, but the Drakes have had a monopoly on innovation for centuries. Surely you don’t intend to challenge a Walled City?”

Rael held his breath, wondering if the Emperor would take offense. But Bevia’s question only provoked an amused chuckle from Laken.

“Why not? Humans are at least capable of what Drakes and other species are. Perhaps more. This device is one small step. But I am sure that humanity has much, much further to go.”

The nobles stared at him. More. Laken turned to his trebuchet, a device that bordered on magic with a proud smile. But that wasn’t what kept Rael’s eyes on him. No.

It wasn’t just pride. It was confidence, certainty that made Rael’s heart beat faster for a moment. Emperor Laken just smiled as he turned to the trebuchet.

Humans can be more. In a world where Humans fell behind other races’ superior qualities—the strength of Minotaurs, the willpower of Drakes, the speed of Garuda, the adaptability of Lizardfolk—they had won by being more well-rounded, more prolific than other races. But Laken spoke about humanity’s potential.

A blind man with a vision. It drew people to him, Rael included. Laken turned back to them and Rael heard the young woman standing next to the trebuchet calling an all clear. She pulled a rope and the machine hurled another boulder far into the distance. The cheering as it landed and applause was deafening. Laken just smiled once more, a mysterious, welcoming smile.

“Believe me, this is only the start. A trebuchet is a piece of technology, an achievement that requires no magic or class to operate. Once built it is capable of being used by anyone. Man, woman, child…so long as they understand how it works. Ah, and I see the second one is loaded. Would any of you like to try aiming and firing it, by any chance?”

He looked around and Rael found himself shouting to be the first to try.

 

—-

 

It’s funny, but I think the most surprising part of today’s demonstration was when one of the young [Lords] asked if the trebuchet could throw him. Lord Andres, I think it was. That was slightly startling, but what got me was that everyone thought it was a completely natural suggestion.

I had to explain to the excited nobles, patiently, that it didn’t matter if someone cast a [Featherfall] spell on Andres. The whiplash of being thrown by the arm of the trebuchet might kill him before he had to worry about landing. I’m not about to risk a [Lord] dying on my lands, thanks.

I guess it’s a natural thought to have. If you’re an idiot. Lord Andres strikes me as one of the rash, more impulsive young nobles. They’re not all insane, though. I’ve noticed some of them who seem quite interesting. That Lord Pattin for one. And they’re all a lot less rowdy than they were yesterday. I suppose I have the fey to thank for that.

Hi, I’m Laken Godart. [Emperor] of the Unseen Empire, etc. Last night I hosted a banquet with actual faeries from another world, and today I’m showing off my trebuchets. It happens.

“So you can throw a smaller weight even further. Dead gods, this thing can shoot as far as three longbows! What a wonder!”

I’m standing at the heart of an excited group of nobles from Izril. Mostly men—the women have retired to the shade to watch the trebuchets firing. Those that aren’t getting a chance to aim it and fire it themselves. It’s rather like a carnival attraction, with people lined up, wanting a chance to point it and loose a stone.

We’re using smaller projectiles for this demonstration on a scaled-down model of the trebuchet that Tessia and my people have built. That way we don’t have to cart the gigantic hundred-pound stones back and forth. The trebuchet’s arm keeps swinging up in my mind and then being pulled back to the ground as the excited [Engineers], [Builders], and [Tinkerers] swarm over it.

The attraction has pulled in hundreds of villagers and they’re being rotated in by Prost to get a look before going back to work. The trebuchets are amazing, I have to admit. But I don’t get a chance to admire them; I’m already starting my sales pitch. I smile calmly at the excited [Lord] talking to me and sigh as if I’m a bit disappointed.

“It’s quite an accomplishment. But I’d hardly call it a wonder, Lord Melbore.”

“What? But if you can strike a target a thousand feet away—”

Lord Melbore is a heavy man, standing in front of me. I can sense him in my mind—and smell him too. He’s sweating in the morning sun. I cut him off with a knowing smile as the nobles around me edge forwards to listen.

“A device like this can hurl a stone capable of destroying a city wall—an unenchanted city wall, if it’s not burned or destroyed by the enemy first. It has quite an impressive range, but it’s hardly useful in a mobile battle, is it? And for all the stone is large, I’d imagine it could easily miss groups of running soldiers.”

“True.”

Tourant nods and I hear a few other disappointed murmurs of agreement. The [Lords] here might be lesser nobility of the realm, but they’ve all probably seen actual battle. They have to defend their lands, and that instills a level of practicality in each of them. I nod, letting them know I’ve considered the problem.

“Adaptability is key, gentlemen. If a trebuchet were only useful for this one purpose, it would be a poor defense indeed. However…Mister Helm! Miss Tessia! Would you prepare one of the special rounds for our guests to watch?”

I raise my voice and turn. Mister Helm, the [Blacksmith] of Windrest and Tessia, the young woman that Gamel is besotted with, immediately bow and rush towards the larger trebuchet. Entranced, the [Lords] follow them like curious sheep. I watch, knowing exactly what will happen.

The open fields in front of the trebuchets are clear and no one is allowed to head out into them or near the trebuchets while they’re firing. But now everyone is told to step back and as Tessia loads the special ammunition I see Mister Helm rechecking the sling and frame of the trebuchet.

Good. I’ve gone over the need for safety with the engineering team assigned to testing and building the trebuchets again and again. The last thing I want is someone dying while making one of these things. I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time, but it won’t be today or tomorrow if I can help it.

“Trebuchet clear?”

“Trebuchet’s clear!”

“Alright then! Three, two, one!”

Tessia’s the one to pull the rope. She’s a lot younger than Mister Helm, but she’s one of two [Engineers] and she was not only the first to acquire the class, but she’s the highest-leveled of the two. It was quite amazing to see how she took to the trebuchets—Tessia, a young woman who had lived on a farm all her life and found her vocation making weapons of war.

Because that’s what this trebuchet is. I watch the arm go up in my head. I can’t see it of course, but I can sense the sling lifting its payload into the air. I can sense the small objects before they’re flung across the field and spray into the ground and a few of the trees, cracking and making loud thuds. Few of the stones made it much further than one or two hundred feet away, but the spread of the volley makes the nobles jump.

“What in the name of Dragons…?”

The nobles are staring ahead, trying to figure out what was thrown. I stroll over and interrupt them before they can badger Tessia or Helm. They’re still nobles after all, and they look down upon anyone but Lady Rie and I. So I look down on them, just to make things fair.

“Stones, Lord Tourant. Hand-sized stones, packed up and thrown at speed. With enough trebuchets firing at once, you could take down a charging army—assuming you were able to move and load them quickly enough, of course.”

It’s a simple concept. The trebuchet can be loaded with a heavy stone to knock down a wall, or smaller stones to shred an enemy army. I’m sure armor would protect some people, but a stone hurled that fast and far? It would be devastating. And it makes the trebuchets I’m showing off that much more valuable. As a defense for my empire, and as an attraction for the nobles visiting me. I clear my throat as the [Lords] begin arguing how well that would work against an army.

“Let us resume our demonstrations. Unless anyone wishes to retire? No? Well, I believe there are refreshments available in the shade. I would be happy to discuss a few aspects of the construction and usage of the trebuchets there. If anyone will join me? Ah, Lady Bevia. And Lady Bethal. How kind of you.”

I step to one side as the men jostle each other, wanting a chance to fire the larger catapult. Two women sweep towards me. Lady Bevia, the older of the two Venifords and Lady Bethal Walchaís, followed as always by her silent husband, Lord Thomast.

“Emperor Laken, thank you so much for the entertaining diversion!”

Lady Bethal’s voice is high and light and she gently places her hands in mine as she laughs. I smile back, although I can still feel a bit of a prickling aura around her, just barely there but visible. Behind her, Thomast bows, as silent as a rock. But I can tell he’s watching me.

“Indeed. I had wondered how you might top the banquet of last night, but I find myself underestimating you yet again, your Majesty. Truly a magnificent demonstration. I only fear I will have to drag away my nephew.”

Lady Bevia’s voice is welcoming and warm as well. I smile at both women and keep my guard up. Of all the nobles present, these two strike me as the sharpest—and most dangerous.

“You are too kind Lady Bethal, Lady Bevia. I’m delighted you chose to stay another day. I had hoped this showcase would please you, but do let me know if you’d wish to rest or seek other entertainment. There is a limit to how long one can be interested in throwing stones, I fear.”

“Nonsense!”

Lady Bethal laughs as she half-turns to look at the trebuchets.

“A diversion? To abandon this? You do yourself and your people too little credit, Emperor Laken. I have seen magic shows and curiosities from other lands, but this is truly fascinating. It’s a thing of wood and yet it throws stones as if they’re light as feathers! How amazing. I don’t suppose you’ve settled on a price? Or may I make a bid for the first six of them you care to sell?”

I try not to blink in surprise.

“I must confess I hadn’t given it much thought yet, Lady Bethal. These trebuchets are still being tested and my team is working to perfect them.”

They’re capable of being fired, but accuracy, maximum range, and putting them on wheels are all challenges I’ve given the team of villagers I’ve assigned to the issue. Not that they mind working around the clock; the engineering team loves to fire the trebuchets as much as the crowd and they’d work long into the night if I let them.

It’s all trial and error with them, but the fact that they could roll out two fully functioning trebuchets by the time the nobles arrived makes me feel I should reward them. It feels like only a few days ago that they were still trying to figure out what wood to use. To deflect Bethal’s interest I turn to her husband.

“Lord Thomast, would you care to try one?”

“You are too kind, Your Majesty. But I will be content to watch.”

Drat. The man bows his head slightly but seems determined not to let his wife be alone for a second. And why not? I nearly died of poison at my own banquet yesterday. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of safety. Lady Bethal seems completely at ease, but I have a feeling that her cheerfulness is sometimes feigned. Perhaps not now, though. She claps her hands together.

“Thomast is a bore, your Majesty. He never tries new things. On the other hand, I would love to try firing a trebuchet again. I nearly hit the tree I was aiming at, didn’t I, Thomast?”

“You did.”

I cover a smile. A good actor, perhaps. But I can’t imagine she and Thomast are pretending to be husband and wife. They’re too clearly fond of each other. I have a thought and beckon—Gamel is by my side in an instant.

“Yes, your Majesty?”

He’s been watching me all day, which is uncomfortable, but suits his duties. I think he’s worried about me being assassinated too—Lady Rie, Mister Prost, Durene, and Wiskeria were all adamant that I have at least one person by my side in the midst of the nobility. Never mind that I could spot a knife coming. Although I didn’t spot the poison…they have a point.

Now at least I can get rid of him for a second. I turn my head and whisper a request into his ear and he’s gone in a flash. I make polite conversation with Bethal and Bevia before Gamel hurries back to me with two objects being carried between two men.

“What’s this?”

Lady Bethal turns and claps her hands as she sees two smaller trebuchets being placed on the ground in front of her. I’d nearly forgotten about them, but the prototypes are just as functional as the real thing. I sense Bethal circling around the miniature trebuchets and poking at the sling, exclaiming with genuine interest.

“Oh! They’re like children’s toys! How delightful!”

I cough as Lady Bethal hovers around the smaller prototype.

“Children’s toys that can knock a hole in the wall of a house, Lady Bethal. Please don’t fire it into the crowd. But if you would like to perfect your aim, I’m sure Tessia could show you how to calibrate the trebuchet yourself.”

“Would you? Oh, how kind!”

Bethal is drawn away as Tessia comes over. In a moment she’s hurling smaller stones at a tree with commendable accuracy. Bethal laughs, waving at her husband.

“How marvelous! This is so much fun, Thomast! Go on, give it a try!”

He walks over, leaving me alone with Lady Bevia. She smiles at me and I’m reminded of a grandmother speaking to a grandson.

“You have no end to your surprises, do you, Emperor Laken?”

“I try to please, Lady Bevia.”

“May I ask where all these designs come from? Or perhaps your strange court? I hate to press you directly, but you have been adroitly evading answering anything about your past.”

I pause. My strange court. Bevia glances at me, and I sense her gaze like a physical thing.

“It is quite strange. No one speaks of last night and I barely recall what happened in its entirety. Those strange, wild folk, the things I recall…would you care to explain any of it, your Majesty?”

What can I say? I shrug my shoulders, lightly, remembering.

Green. Laughter, the brilliant folk dancing and singing, and then laughing and buzzing. The bright frost in her eyes.

A memory. That’s what last night was. Forever ago, despite it not having been more than twenty four hours since the fae danced among us. But the next day people woke, some with scars, many with memories both bright and troubling and no one spoke about it. It was as if what had happened was long ago, and even Oswalt, one of the injured lordlings, treated his injuries as if they had just…been.

Acceptance. There was no regret, no fury at recalling. It had happened. It had been done. It was in the past and they had lived through it. None of the [Lords] and [Ladies] spoke of what they had witnessed, although many looked at me differently. But blame, guilt…none of that was in the way they spoke.

Faerie magic. I shiver as I think of it. There’s something terrifying about that, more than there would be if we just forgot. It speaks to me of bargains with the fae, of promises that can’t be broken.

What is, is. What has been agreed cannot be turned back. More than ever I wonder just how much I risked. But the reward is the respect of the nobility. As for Lady Bevia…

“I could not tell you even if I tried, Lady Bevia.”

She regards me for a long while.

“I suppose you could not, at that. Some things even [Emperors] may not explain. But you are strange, your Majesty. You have so many secrets and you have given us precious few answers.”

The memory of last night fades between us even before Bevia is finished speaking. On firmer ground I keep my voice light, put a tiny smile on my face.

“Have I? I do apologize. I mean only to entertain, not drag down the conversation with boring details about my past.”

I turn my head innocently and Bevia laughs quietly.

“Oh, what a charming young man! One capable of subtlety and deceit—your Majesty, you are an enigma! Where do you hail from? Why did you decide to settle in Riverfarm? Would you do me the great courtesy of hinting at one of these questions? For an old lady’s sake.”

Clever old women are to be feared. I waver and nearly give in. There’s something so charming about Lady Bevia that makes me want to answer her, at least in part. But before I can reply, a voice speaks.

“Oh Bevia, you mustn’t press his Majesty to answer anything about his past! He is an [Emperor] after all—monarchs are entitled to their secrets!”

I hear a bright voice and a sigh from Bevia. A woman approaches the two of us, her voice smooth, her dress shifting as she strides quickly across the grass to our position. I feel the urge to confess fading and smile at the woman in gratitude.

“Thank you, Lady Rie.”

She glides past me and I nod to her politely. Bevia mutters what sounds like an insult before she greets Lady Rie warmly. I could almost swear I heard ‘don’t get in the way’, but my ears must be playing tricks on me because Lady Rie greets her warmly and Bevia is just as delighted to meet her.

Knives under the table. I back away as Rie takes my place in the line of fire, laughing and speaking sweet nothings. There’s a lot I have yet to say to Lady Rie, but I’m grateful for her presence today. She takes Bevia off my hands and I back up. Normally I’d stay and learn from her, but something’s just crossed my mind. I frown and turn my head. What is…?

“Laken?”

Durene is walking towards me, sweating but happy. I wave to her distractedly. There’s something in my mind. I cast my thoughts across my empire and barely sense Durene being intercepted by a group of villagers begging for her help in the village. What is it?

There’s something at the corner of my mind. A thought. A…presence. Many presences. I frown, and then my eyes widen.

Scheiße!

My exclamation makes several heads turn, but no one speaks German so I pretend I stepped on a rock. Hardly [Emperor]-like, but it makes my reaction. I don’t turn around or give any other reaction—now Bevia and Bethal are both watching me, along with some other nobles. The beauty of being blind and having the ability to ‘see’ in every direction is that I can control my reactions. So I calmly turn my head towards the young man hovering a few feet away from me.

“Gamel?”

“Yes, sire?”

“Get me Wiskeria, Beniar, and…no, only those two.”

“Yes sir!”

He straightens at once, sounding alarmed. I hold up a hand, speaking with a slight smile on my face for those watching.

“Don’t run. But do it quick. And don’t make it obvious what you’re doing. If anyone asks, especially Lady Rie, make an excuse.”

“Yes, sire.”

Gamel turns and hurries off. It’s believable enough that I don’t worry as I turn my mind back to the shadows lurking far in the distance. And to Lady Rie. Should I tell her? She’s with Lady Bevia. Should I tell them?

No—no need to cause drama. And how would I explain knowing, anyways? Some things should be kept secret. How much do I trust the nobles here? Not a lot, despite them being impressed with me. How much do I trust Lady Rie? Well…a bit. But only as far as Durene can throw her. Not as far as a trebuchet could.

I back away from the nobles gathering around the trebuchets, pretending that I need to pee. No, no need to alarm anyone that doesn’t need alarming. Wiskeria is on the outskirts of the village and Gamel has already found Beniar. I’ll walk and meet them. I nod to myself, my mind racing as I count. It’s not bad news. Okay, it is horrible, terrifying news, but it’s not the end of the world. And we’ve planned for this, Wiskeria and I.

Calm. Be calm. I breathe in and out slowly, lowering my heart rate. I have people with skillsets devoted best to one activity. Lady Rie is a negotiator, a diplomat. She can do her job. She doesn’t need to know everything. I nod to Wiskeria and Beniar as both stroll over and try to think of the best spot where I can retire with them. What excuse should I use?

“Emperor Laken?”

They’re hurrying towards me, Beniar on horseback. I wave at them and make them slow. Act natural. Be calm. A leader is calm and leads from appearance as much as anything else. No one else needs to know what I tell them, so I hurry them into Wiskeria’s cottage. And begin to make plans.

 

—-

 

Plans. It was already evening by the time Wiskeria strode through the village. She’d been in her home for the last few hours, speaking with Beniar, Prost, and Laken when he wasn’t busy attending to the nobles who wanted his attention. Thankfully the crowd was still occupied with the trebuchets. Laken had expressed incredulity at how long the nobles were fixated on them, but it made sense to everyone else.

A trebuchet was a wonder of mechanical engineering, something as unique as any spell. He treated it like something normal, but Wiskeria knew she could have lived for decades and died before ever seeing such a device. They’d fascinated her when she’d seen the first big one firing. Now they reassured her. Even if they weren’t part of the plan.

She was headed towards her people, her army. They trained and patrolled when they weren’t actually fighting and they stayed out of the village to avoid getting in the way of the builders. Wiskeria needed to do a thousand things, so the only thing that kept her from running was Laken’s order to pretend nothing was wrong. Still, Wiskeria wanted to run.

She was hurrying, her heart pounding with anxiety and determination. Not fear or at least, not much; she had a plan and she trusted her [Emperor].

Her [Emperor]. What a thought! But he had proven himself ten times over, and this latest crisis just showed Wiskeria how right she was to place her trust in him. What would have happened if he hadn’t been there to warn them all days in advance? What would have happened if…? She shook her head.

Wiskeria was hurrying, but she slowed as she saw the woman in the black-and-white frilled dress walking towards her. Sacra’s face was calm, austere, the perfect image of a [Maid]. But there was still a trace of Odveig in her, brash and confident. Seeing her was a shock that put her duties out of Wiskeria’s mind for a moment. The [Witch] slowed and adjusted her pointed hat. Sacra paused as well and the [Witch] and [Maid] regarded each other in the dirt street.

“Wiskeria. I’m glad to see you’re doing well.”

“Odveig.”

“Sacra, please. That is my true name, although I understand that you might be confused after knowing me for so long.”

The [Maid] smiled. Wiskeria did not.

“There’s not much to understand. A traitor and a spy is a traitor and a spy, no matter how well you think you knew her.”

Sacra’s smile didn’t vanish, but it did fade a fraction.

“A traitor? I admit that I deceived you, Wiskeria. But I never intended to cause you or my team harm. I saved you from Emperor Laken’s suspicion as you recall.”

“He was only suspicious of me because you were spying on him.”

“True.”

Sacra shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. Wiskeria stared. Odveig would have blustered or cracked a joke. She didn’t have half the calm aplomb that this strange [Maid] did. And yet she shifted her stance the same way. Her face was the same. Wiskeria gritted her teeth.

“Tell me, was it all fake? All of our close encounters, the way we stood by each other? Was all that just an act?”

“Would you like me to say it was?”

The [Maid] raised an eyebrow. Wiskeria waited, folding her arms. Sacra sighed.

“Wis, I—”

“My name is Wiskeria.

“Very well. General Wiskeria, I was your friend. And I was your team leader. And I was a spy. I can be all these things at once. I regret fleeing, but I had a mission that transcended friendship. And I have duties that carry me back here.”

Wiskeria thought about tossing fire at Sacra’s face and seeing if her uniform caught on fire. But she held back. Sacra was probably far deadlier than Odveig had ever been.

“Rather tactless to send the same spy that was uncovered, isn’t it? Is Magnolia Reinhart that crude?”

“Not at all. She’s being honest. If she wanted to alarm Emperor Laken, she’d send someone whom he had no idea of. He knows I am a spy, so he won’t waste time with subtleties. There are at least three people watching my every move.”

Three? Wiskeria had heard Laken ordering two people to shadow Sacra. The [Witch] turned [General] filed that information away. Sacra regarded her a moment and then bowed.

“I’d love to talk more, but I’m afraid I have pressing business, Wiskeria. As do you, it seems.”

“What are you doing?”

Wiskeria’s hostile tone had no effect on Sacra.

“I must meet with Emperor Laken. Lady Reinhart has considered his reception of the nobility and his little demonstration of this morning and sent a response.”

She held up a letter. Wiskeria opened her mouth to ask what was in it, hesitated, and turned. She’d wasted too much time and Laken’s name had reminded her of what she had to do.

“I wish you the best of it. Not that I think his Majesty will receive you warmly.”

“I did request an audience. And his feelings towards me are largely irrelevant. I’m sure I will speak to you later, Wiskeria. Until then.”

Sacra walked calmly past Wiskeria. The [Witch] stared after her, angry, wanting to say so much more, and then tugged her hat’s brim lower on her head.

“Later? Not if we’re all dead.”

Then she strode off, her robes swirling around her. And the Emperor of the Unseen Empire received Sacra on his throne.

 

—-

 

Of all the people I don’t feel like meeting at the moment, Sacra is probably highest on that list. But I could hardly ignore her request once I got it, so I give her an audience in the meeting hall on my wooden throne. I shift uncomfortably, feeling the smooth, carved eyeball on my armrest with one hand as I scan Sacra in my mind’s eye. She’s a [Maid] from head to toe, without any accessories save for a ring on her finger. No hidden daggers, no concealed weapons I can sense…I still don’t relax. Once the formalities are over I cut straight to the point.

“I hope Wiskeria didn’t treat you with any hostility?”

“Not at all. She was quite polite.”

Sacra smiles, not at all unsettled by my knowledge of their meeting. I’ve been following her around in my head when I haven’t been distracted and she’s done nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I have every reason to suspect her and so I’ve put two watchers on her at all times.

I’m also wary of her being alone with me, which is why Durene is standing next to my throne and Gamel and Prost are standing at the meeting hall’s doors. If it came to a fight, I worry that Sacra might beat Durene like last time, weapons or not. But I don’t think it’ll come to that. And if they need to raise an alarm, I’m sure Lady Rie will raise it.

She’s standing just outside the meeting hall. I refused to let her join in. Not because I think she’ll steer me the wrong way. I think she might do it by accident. Lady Magnolia manipulated both her and me with ease with a simple letter. I’d hate to know what Sacra could do.

“I’m glad Wiskeria didn’t offer you any offense. Although I can’t say I would reproach her for holding a grudge either. It is slightly unpleasant to look at someone you thought you trusted.”

Sacra’s face doesn’t change one whit. She just gives me a small, meaningless smile, the kind any [Maid] would give a disliked employer.

“I do apologize. But Lady Reinhart thought it would be best that someone you knew deliver her words personally, and I was the best choice. You are, of course, free to eject me from your empire, but Lady Reinhart values courtesy in her friends. Her enemies are free to be as crude as they wish, for as long as they live.”

Was that a threat? Durene makes an ominous sound, but I pat her hand.

“I don’t appreciate the warning, Sacra. Why is it that you wanted to see me?”

Without missing a beat, Sacra replies.

“Lady Reinhart has observed your reception of the small group of nobles through me, Emperor Laken. She is quite impressed with your guests…as well as today’s demonstration of your trebuchets.”

How does she know about the fae and the trebuchets? Sacra was not invited to either gathering. Still, I’m not surprised.

“I’m glad she’s so invested, particularly considering that she forced all of this on me.”

“She does apologize for the inconvenience, your Majesty. But trust is a commodity in short supply, particularly of late. Lady Reinhart bids me to inform you that she is impressed with your empire and would like to offer you peace.”

I raise one eyebrow.

“Peace? Don’t I have peace already?”

This time it’s Sacra who interjects a bit of strife into her tone.

“Emperor Laken, please be serious. You know that there is no peace—not between you and Lady Reinhart at least. She has surveyed your lands, tested you, and sent me to observe your qualities as a leader. She has been rightfully wary of you.”

“Why? Why am I so dangerous?”

It feels like everyone’s warned me of Magnolia Reinhart. She’s a cunning monster, a threat, a ruthless tyrant…Ryoka, Lady Rie, everyone’s afraid of her. But what did I ever do to bother her? Start a small empire? From what I understand, Magnolia Reinhart has a hundred times as much land as I do. But it’s Sacra’s response that puts it into clarity.

“Because you are an [Emperor].

“Ah.”

Sacra stares at me. I sit back in my throne. My throne, where three months ago I was living in Durene’s cottage. Now I sit in my growing village, with trebuchets being built and nobles following me around, trying to curry favor. I can sort of see her point.

“Well, I suppose that would be alarming to a [Lady], particularly one of Magnolia Reinhart’s power.”

“Indeed. But she is prepared to put aside her wariness and offer you peace, Emperor Laken.”

“Peace. You keep saying that word, but what would that entail?”

Sacra spreads her hands.

“An immediate cessation of hostilities. No aggressive or hostile actions towards you or anyone in your domain without formal notification. Recognition of your sovereign rights. Support for your growing empire in the form of connections, trade, political support…”

That sounds good. Good, if a little vague. But I could see Magnolia Reinhart’s acknowledgement helping me deal with other cities, cementing my influence. I lean back in my throne as Durene shifts from foot to foot.

“And what would all of this cost me?”

Sacra smiles, confirming my suspicions. She holds up a finger.

“One request. For the next four months, you will refuse to sell your trebuchets or any other weapons of war to any other party in Izril. You will not gift them, or let the secrets of their manufacture be spread.”

I blink.

“She wants that?

“Yes, your Majesty. It is a simple request. Afterwards you would be free to pursue whatever business interests you please.”

I frown. Why would four months matter? I eye Sacra, wondering if she’ll answer and don’t bother with that question. Instead I ask the more pressing one.

“Assuming I did agree, what guarantee would I have that Lady Reinhart would keep her word? A contract? Paper and ink are poor reassurance, I feel.”

The [Maid] standing in front of me gives me a slight frown, as if I’ve asked a truly stupid question.

“Lady Reinhart would hardly trust this to a verbal agreement, Emperor Laken. She proposes signing a binding contract, enforced by magic. It is quite common among the nobility when trust or a grave matter is at stake. It would of course be authenticated by a third party—Wistram, for example.”

“I see.”

Crap, I should have known that was how things would work. I keep my face straight as I think of all this. No selling trebuchets for four months? It has to be too good to be true. I could still build them, refine them, market them to others…why wait for months? What does she get? I mull over the possibilities until I realize Sacra is taking something out of her pocket.

“Hey!”

Durene sees the motion and lurches forwards. Sacra withdraws a small letter and raises her hands.

“I mean no harm. I have a letter from my mistress, transcribed, of course. It is not dangerous in any way.”

“I’ll give it to him.”

Durene snatches the letter from Sacra and sniffs it suspiciously. She clearly doesn’t have any idea of whether or not it’s poisoned and looks helplessly towards me before licking the paper gingerly. I cover my face and try not to laugh as Sacra gives Durene the first genuine look of surprise I think she’s made so far. After a second in which Durene blushes fiercely, she hands me the letter. I lift it and sigh.

“Your mistress does know I can’t read, doesn’t she?”

“She does. But some things are best conveyed formally. I have memorized the contents by heart. If you would allow me?”

Sacra waits until I nod and then begins to speak. I feel Durene peering over my shoulder and hear her trying to read the letter. She’s still on the first sentence by the time Sacra finished. The letter is short and Sacra delivers the stunning missive without changing her tone of voice.

 

To His Majesty, Emperor Laken,

Thank you so very much for entertaining my dear friend Bethal and the other nobles which I so rudely foisted on you the other day. Sacra tells me you handled their reception wonderfully, if slightly unconventionally, and it has put my mind at ease. You have shown tact, deliberation, and restraint and for that I deem you to be a rare exception to your class, a delight.

After some consideration, I have decided that I am quite content to suffer your presence on my continent, your Majesty. And I foresee the potential benefits of a relationship with your empire. But my goodwill towards your empire only goes hand-in-hand with my demands. Sacra has given you my request and I trust you will agree to it, as this agreement would be wholly beneficial towards you and your empire. Keep your damn trebuchets out of sight.

–Magnolia Reinhart

 

The silence after Sacra finishes makes me wonder whether I should clean out my ears theatrically, or just sit in silence for a while and wait for someone to laugh. But I do neither. I can sense Gamel and Prost giving each other nervous looks, but Sacra waits, as patient and as still as a statue. Her eyes are on me. At last I raise my head.

“And she wants my response?”

Sacra smiles politely.

“By the time I depart with the other nobility. By all means, take your time to consider Lady Reinhart’s proposal, Emperor Laken. But be sure of your answer by the time I leave.”

Her eyes never waver as she curtsies. I keep my face blank and remain as still as possible. This time I’m sure that was a threat.

 

Day 99

 

What the hell does Magnolia Reinhart want? Apparently that question is one for the ages because my impromptu council of diplomacy all agrees that few people ever know what the Deadly Flower of the North truly wants. Magnolia Reinhart can be as straightforward as a poisoned arrow to the chest, or as twisted as a garlic braid. That’s Durene’s analogy, by the way. I had no idea you twisted garlic braids. How do you twist garlic, anyways? Isn’t it a bulb? Or is garlic different in this world?

Prost, Rie, and Durene don’t ever answer me on that. What they do do is argue for over an hour over why Magnolia would want me not to sell my trebuchets—their speculation ranging from her desire to corner the market herself, to a suspicion that she doesn’t want nobles killing each other and besieging cities until she’s ready for it to happen—without any real consensus. They agree her outlined terms are good, generous even. They’re only wary of signing any deal with Magnolia Reinhart. Especially Lady Rie.

“The problem isn’t whether signing it would be better or worse for your empire, your Majesty. The problem is whether or not not signing it would be worse, and which option Magnolia Reinhart wants you to pick!”

The [Lady] paces back and forth as I massage my head and try and understand what she just said.

“It sounds like she was fairly clear about what she wanted, Lady Rie.”

“Anything that woman says cannot be trusted!”

Lady Rie grumbles as I sigh and walk around the table in Mister Prost’s home. His house has become something of a planning room for us and I feel bad for invading so often. Maybe I should make this the official meeting room and give him another house. A bigger one. But there are memories here too. Death, the snow, life…

And here we are, talking about [Ladies] and deals involving magic treaties and empires. I smile and run my hands over something on the table. A map. I can’t tell what’s on it, but I can sense the markers that Lady Rie has carefully put on there for my convenience.

“Interesting map. What do the flags represent on some of the cities?”

“Ah. Those would be the cities allied to you, Emperor Laken.”

“Allied to me? I don’t know if that’s accurate.”

“They offer you goods for protection, respond to your requests for reinforcements, and send emissaries to you, your Majesty. What else would we call them? Allies? Or perhaps vassals is more accurate?”

I grimace.

“Good point. Alright then, where’s Riverfarm? Where are we?”

“You’re touching our flag, your Majesty.”

I pause and feel the tallest flag.

“Oh.”

The map slowly appears before me. In my mind I can sense my empire, but the map is different. It skips all the geography and lays the cities, towns, and villages out for me in the plainest of terms. Riverfarm is here, bordered by a forest and river and close to a small mountain.

It’s shielded in one sense, isolated in another. But now it’s growing, connecting to nearby settlements, most of which are ‘mine’. They’re under my protection, within my sphere of influence. But as my fingers move east and north they run into small, round objects.

“And the stones? What do these represent?”

“Those are the cities and towns that are firmly against you, Emperor Laken. They refuse to acknowledge your claim to Riverfarm or trade with us.”

“Huh.”

I remember getting some hostile letters, but I hadn’t realized there were a number of cities that actively boycotted me. I run my hands over the cities—most far from Riverfarm on the map—and recall what Sacra said.

“Maybe they just don’t trust an [Emperor] who appeared out of nowhere.”

“Perhaps. But they might well be influenced by the other nobles to oppose you. Not just Reinhart—it would be just like her to work through fools like Lord Tourant rather than having to intercede herself.”

“Wait, Tourant has a hand in this?”

I frown, confused. Lady Rie sighs.

“Among others. His touch is particularly tactless; he is an old friend of the [Mayor] of Elkhan—here, your Majesty.”

She takes my hand and places it gently on a village. I hear Durene mutter something and Rie lets go. I feel the hard stone underneath my fingers.

“Okay, but what does that give him?”

“Any number of things. Refusing to allow trade caravans through if they’re carrying your goods, refusing to buy or sell…It’s meant to pressure your economy, your Majesty. Perhaps offer friendly lords like Tourant a better deal. That goes for military assistance as well. If you didn’t have your Skill and General Wiskeria’s army, it might be cause for alarm.”

Wiskeria. I nod carefully, searching for her with my mind. Ah, yes, there.

“Well, if they want to avoid us they can suffer the consequences. For now, I’m more interested in our ability to mobilize our allies. Say trouble arises, Lady Rie. Can we contact all of these settlements via [Message] spell swiftly?”

Lady Rie pauses for a moment.

“All of the larger cities, yes, your Majesty. The smaller towns…perhaps not. It depends on whether they have a [Mage] capable of receiving the spell. Most do, but others must be reached via Runner or messenger.”

“Good. In that case we’ll regard all these allies as my assets. And if we sign a treaty with Magnolia Reinhart and trade comes down the main roads…”

I trace my hands east and north, thinking. It would be valuable.  And if her name makes some of these uncooperative cities open their gates…I keep thinking as Lady Rie talks with Prost about the pros and cons of interacting with a huge city like Invrisil.

“You may be able to secure enough trade and deals with nobles as it is, your Majesty. Lady Reinhart does not control every noble of Izril.”

Lady Rie sounds hopeful. I nod thoughtfully.

“True. Something to bear in mind. And of course, that’s what I have to do next, isn’t it?”

I straighten and turn. Lady Rie sounds relieved.

“Yes, your Majesty. We could debate Lady Reinhart’s…offer later. But for now I believe every adult [Lord] and [Lady] wishes to speak with you—privately. As do a few of the younger ones. Shall we entertain them in the meeting hall?”

I sigh. This is what I’ve been dreading.

“I suppose we shall.”

 

—-

 

I meet them one-by-one or sometimes in pairs in my ‘throne’ room. They sit in chairs while I sit on my throne. It’s awkward, looking down on them and they seem to feel it too. But keeping them off-guard matters, and Lady Rie is there to ensure that she and I get the best deal for Riverfarm.

Not that I know what that is. I do know how to act, just not what I want. So when Lord Tourant comes in hinting about profitable trade deals, or Lady Fel hints that she might be interested in a trebuchet or two ‘for a friend’ and ‘as a matter of discretion’, I play my game.

An [Emperor]’s game. It’s quite simple. They hope to get something from me and dangle bait, offering me things both precious and petty. I respond by offering bigger bait for them.

“Why yes, Lord Tourant, I could see an exclusive trade agreement doing very well between our estates. If it’s an issue of gold, I might be persuaded to buy your entire harvest of—what was it you said you sold? Cotton? Yes, there’s certainly a need and I’d offer you, say, market price—but that is a large commitment to get into right away, wouldn’t you say? Oh, would you like another cup of wine?”

“Lady Fel, a gift of a trebuchet or two would hardly be fitting. Why not eight? For a friend—well of course this is all hypothetical, but I trust my people to produce them quickly and I feel that a gift would be appropriate for—what? Of course all eight! A gift of one or two would be miserly, wouldn’t it?”

It’s fun listening to people choke on their own saliva and greed. And promising gold for raw iron is entertaining as well. I don’t have gold. At least, not enough to pay for a tenth of what I’m proposing. But what I have now isn’t the point. It’s what I’m offering. It’s the image I’m creating. And as each [Lord] and [Lady] staggers out of my throne room, envisioning riches and having nothing more than the most tenuous of promises, my perceived wealth and power grows.

And that’s the point. I didn’t need for Lady Rie to explain that. I think she’s a bit intimidated at how easy it is for me, actually. But this is easy, in some respects. Flattery and using people against each other isn’t hard. Not like laying out a village is.

One of the final [Lords] I have to talk to is Lord Melbore. I clap my arm around his shoulders and sense him tense up, but I’m jovial, welcoming. And I forestall whatever he wants with a simple question.

“Tell me, Lord Melbore, where do you see your estates in a year’s time. In five years?”

“Me, your Majesty? Well, I—I would be quite interested in a deal with your empire. I’m told you’re generous to your friends, and between you and me, the market can be a cruel mistress. If I could persuade you to buy from me exclusively, I could see my estate booming in five years. I could double production as well if I had—”

I cut the man off as I shake my head.

“No, no. Grander.”

“Excuse me, your Majesty?”

I sigh.

“Think grander, Lord Melbore. I’m told your lands produce high-quality goods! Food, lumber, a modest business in fletching—but is that all you want to see out of your lands?”

“Well, I suppose I could see myself expanding—”

I cut him off again.

“Lord Melbore, I am an [Emperor]. When I came to Riverfarm, it was a small village. It still is, for all that it’s tripled in size. I look at your lands and see—well, I don’t see—unused potential. Don’t dream of doubling your profits in ten years. Dream of cornering the market, of becoming a byword, a staple in cities like Invrisil. How much money can you make? What do you have to offer? What could you do with an investment? Tell me, what could you do with an ally? A…patron?”

Perhaps I lay it on too thick. Perhaps some of them are intelligent enough to see that I’m offering them a cloud with nothing to back it up. But I can hear the gears whirring away in Melbore’s head and by the time he hurries out of my throne room promising me that he would be far better than Lord Tourant at getting me what I need, I know that my job is done. But I keep my guard up, because vague promises are easy to combat. It’s people who know exactly what they have and what they want that become trouble.

“Four thousand gold pieces for a trebuchet.”

“I can’t offer you one just yet, Lady Bethal.”

“Eight thousand.”

“It’s not a matter of gold.”

“Mm. Sixteen—”

“Lady Magnolia has an interest in them.”

Oh! Magnolia wants them? Why didn’t you say so to begin with? I’m hardly going to bother starting a bidding war with her—why don’t I order the ones after hers? I’d like ten—”

“Lady Bethal, I don’t know when they’ll be ready or what the cost may be—”

“I could offer you horses too, if you want. How does a hundred head of horse sound? Six hundred? I have so many! It’s quite interesting you know—if you have the right Skills it’s quite hard to fail at a business venture. Harder if you have a husband like Thomast. He’s very good with numbers.”

“Lady Bethal, please. I’d be happy to work out a deal, but not at this time.”

The lady peers at me.

“Are you sure? I’d hate to think I was missing out on the opportunity ahead of time. Couldn’t I reserve just a teensy trebuchet?”

“I assure you, when I am at liberty to sell them, yours will be the first name I think of Lady Bethal. I promise you, I am simply not able to accept your money—”

I glance over at Lady Rie, who’s giving me complex signals to take the money now! and sigh louder.

“—at this time. I’m sure I will send you a [Message] spell shortly. Very shortly, if Lady Rie has anything to do with it.”

“Well…I suppose I have no choice. In that case, I would simply like to extend you my warmest gratitude for your hospitality, Emperor Laken. You see, Thomast and I will be departing within the hour and while we would love to stay another night in your lovely, restful beds…we simply must go.”

The sudden change of topic nearly gives me whiplash.

“You’re going? So soon? I was under the impression you were travelling with the other nobles, Lady Bethal.”

She laughs lightly.

“I was! But Thomast convinced me it might not be in my best interests, so we will take our leave before they do. Honestly, he fusses so much about the company we keep…but yes, we will be going.”

“I see. May I send you an escort to my borders, at least?”

Another laugh. I just cannot read Lady Bethal’s voice or her posture—but for an instant I sense the thorny aura around her grow stronger. Caution?

“I fear I must decline. We’ll be moving swiftly, Emperor Laken. And I have two of my Knights of the Petal with me, and Thomast. No [Brigand] has ever troubled me.”

I consider this. It could be bad if she goes now. I have to ask.

“Then may I at least know the direction you intend to travel? As a precaution, you understand. I would hate for you to come to any injury on my lands and my patrols could at least ride ahead of you.”

Bethal considers my request and shrugs slightly.

“Mm. Very well. We’re headed west, I believe. We’ll be travelling by way of Yaist, perhaps staying the night there. After that…? Who can say?”

I think about that. West? Well then…I nod and smile politely.

“In that case, I can only give you my sincerest regrets for the dangers posed to your person while you stayed in my domain, Lady Bethal. And to you, Sir Thomast. I hope that you will remember me with fondness and that we may speak more in the future.”

Bethal laughs lightly.

“Oh, you are so polite for an [Emperor]! I am truly honored, your Majesty. Neither Thomast nor I take any offense. Although…would you consider selling us the tiny trebuchet? As a souvenir?”

No.

 

—-

 

Last but not least is Lady Bevia, and here I have to deviate from my meaningless platitudes because she has something I need.

“Lady Bevia? Might I trouble you for a small favor?”

“Of course, your Majesty.”

I smile and lean over the edge of my throne to Lady Bevia as she sips some tea. Lord Rael is not with her; he’s getting in more practice shots with the trebuchet. I understand it’s a competition now, and there’s over two hundred gold pieces riding on whomever can hit the targets placed first. At least the nobles are enjoying themselves.

“I understand you have a [Mage] among your escort that is capable of sending and receiving [Message] spells, Lady Bevia. Might I trouble you to borrow her for a small task?”

The old woman pauses and takes another sip from her teacup.

“That is a rather simple request, your Majesty. May I ask what this little errand might be?”

I smile.

“Of course, Lady Bevia. And I would be delighted to tell you—afterwards, that is. I trust your discretion of course, but I fear I cannot tell you ahead of time what I am planning.”

“Really?”

Bevia knows I’m blind so her eyes narrow just a fraction before she stops herself. She taps her ring finger gently against her cup.

“How long would I need to place my [Mage] in your care, Emperor Laken?”

“Two days at most. I would consider myself in your debt, Lady Bevia.”

“Hmm.”

She ponders my request for a moment and then nods.

“So be it. Take my [Mage], by all means. But will I receive a token of trust in the same vein, Emperor Laken?”

I lean back, relieved. That was essential. I nod at Lady Rie and she hurries out, frowning. She doesn’t know what the [Mage] is for, but Wiskeria does. I smile at Lady Bevia, ready to pay for my favor.

“What would you like, Lady Bevia?”

“Nothing taxing. Perhaps a few facts, Emperor Laken. How did you learn to make those trebuchets, for instance? How do they work, exactly? Could anyone make them?”

Again, I feel a push at my mind, but this time I’m forewarned by Lady Rie and push back. I smile at the old woman as the charm effect fades from my mind.

“I can hardly give away the secrets of trebuchets like party favors, Lady Bevia. But I do have some intriguing treats that may be of interest to you.”

“Oh? What new delights will you tempt with today, your Majesty?”

I laugh.

“Nothing so scandalous. But there are a number of treats from my homeland that I have succeeded in recreating here. Many more I’d like to attempt, but my [Cooks] and [Bakers] can only do so much with my poor understanding. Still, I consider these quite passable. Tell me, have you ever had a Franzbrötchen? Don’t be alarmed. How should I put this—a cinnamon roll?”

I clap my hands and I see Lady Bevia’s eyes go wide with interest. Gamel walks forwards, the sweet treat on one of Lady Rie’s ornamental plates. I knew I could find a good use for those fancy things. And of course, there’s nothing quite like sweets for a bit of diplomacy. Especially if you know how to make cookies and no one else does. I smile and lean back in my chair.

It turns out Lady Bevia has a sweet tooth.

 

—-

 

“You have the mage?”

“She’s ready. So is Beniar. I’m about to head out myself.”

Wiskeria nods to me. She’s saddling her horse, and all we’re waiting on are a few other riders loading their horses. Their saddlebags are stuffed, and Wiskeria’s own mount is similarly laden.

“You got everything you needed? Already?”

The [Witch] smiles and pats her restless mare on the sides.

“There’s enough hellebore if you know where to look. Your Majesty’s unique Skills also help greatly in that respect. We can send out pack horses and a small team to gather what’s needed. We should be able to collect all of my ingredients within the day and be ready by sunset.”

“You don’t need me to find any more?”

“No, your Majesty. We’ll be ready tomorrow at any time.”

I sigh in relief.

Gott sei Dank.

“What?”

“Nothing. Sorry, Wiskeria. If I had to scan every single plant within ten miles of here and check if it was the exact one you needed one more time…”

She smiles at me and adjusts her hat.

“I apologize. But it was an emergency and your…talents are extraordinarily useful.”

“Don’t I know it. Well then, I’ll send word the instant something changes. But if not, contact me as soon as you’re ready and I’ll coordinate the rest with you tomorrow.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Wiskeria nods to me and climbs onto her horse. She gently kicks her mount and the other riders stream out of the village after her. I watch her go, feeling anxious, practically trembling with excitement and nerves, but sure, sure that there’s nothing I can do. I’m too far away and everything is in motion now. All I can do is wait and watch.

For the right moment.

 

Day 100

 

I think the nobles are wearing out their welcome. They’re certainly running out of things to do as three straight days of trebuchet testing is enough for the most enthusiastic of them. Well, maybe not Lady Bethal. And I’m certain that if I actually let the young men throw themselves there’d be a lot more interest. But after eating all of my confectionaries that my hard-working [Bakers] struggled to make, the nobles are finally suggesting returning to their estates.

Lady Bethal’s departure prompted the idea, but no one’s quite ready to pack up just yet. The nobles seem fascinated by the speed at which Riverfarm is developing—I think I saw some of the nobles placing bets on how many houses my people could put up by sunset. And they also seem anxious to get a better deal than everyone else, so they’re hanging about for at least one more day. Which is good, because everything is happening today.

Entertain nobles at breakfast, endure meetings and private audiences until midday, lunch with Durene in private…everyone can tell something is up. At least, Prost, Durene, Gamel, and Lady Rie can. They knew me too well. But they’re all too loyal to ask, except for Lady Rie who keeps hinting that she might need to know if something’s afoot. She’d noticed Wiskeria and Beniar are both gone with part of the army, but she doesn’t know why.

I intend to keep it that way. And I do manage to distract myself with a moment of inspiration just past lunch. I was mulling over Magnolia’s proposal, thinking about what I’ll tell Sacra. I can sign her stupid parchment at any time—that just takes a second. But will I? I’m on the verge of tossing a coin and asking Durene which side landed face up.

And that’s when I had my brilliant idea. It came while I was watching Tessia try to explain to a group of new volunteers for the engineering team how the trebuchets worked. She was trying to explain the idea of gravity to her audience, something I’d had to patiently explain to her. And that was when it hit me.

Of course!

It’s all so clear. All my tentative trade agreements and the proposals crystalize around my new idea, my new understanding of what the Unseen Empire should be. I lean over and poke the young woman snoozing next to me. Durene yelps and sits up with a start. She and I were sitting under a tree in the shade and she was resting after hauling trees around all morning.

“Durene! I figured it out!”

“Wha? What? What’s happening, Laken?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“No, it’s fine. I’m awake, see? What did you figure out? Tell me?”

“It was an idea I had. Remember how we’re trying to figure out what we can offer all these nobles? Aside from the trebuchets Magnolia Reinhart doesn’t want us to sell, that is?”

“Yeah. You and Prost and Rie talked about it all day yesterday.”

“I know. You didn’t have to listen, you know. I kept telling you that you could sleep.”

“I wanted to be with you. What did you figure out?”

“Well…I think I’ve got it.”

“Okay. Tell me.”

“Just a second! I want to see if you get it.”

I grin teasingly and hear Durene groan.

“Just tell me, Laken! I can’t guess—I’m not smart like you!”

“You’re very smart, Durene. You just don’t like to admit it. Come on. Humor me.”

“Fine. What do I have to do?”

“Just think. What does Riverfarm have that we can sell, Durene? I’m not talking about basic trade goods like pigs, normal crops, and so on. That earns most villages and towns enough to survive. What I’m talking about is how Riverfarm, how this entire empire can make a profit. What do we have? Any ideas?”

Durene scrunches up her face, sighing and picking at the crumbs in the basket, muttering to herself.

“I don’t know. Crops? You were talking with Wiskeria about poisonous plants and all kinds of alchemical stuff you could sell just the other day. We could grow fields of that. Not that I want to pick poisonous plants by hand. You know she thinks nettles will sell really well? Nettles!”

I cover a smile. A [Witch]’s sense of value is definitely different than a farm girl’s.

“That’s true. We’re trying to cultivate some crops that [Alchemists] will buy up, but we have to feed ourselves first, Durene. Mister Prost will expand the fields as fast as he can, but that’s a long-term investment. What else do we have?”

She scratches at her head.

“Um…land?”

I laugh. Durene fidgets, embarassed.

“I told you I don’t know!”

“No, no! I’m laughing because you’re right, Durene! That’s true! The surrounding area isn’t nearly as developed as some places further north. But Izril is vast, Durene. And unused land is cheap, so long as you can protect it.”

“So it wasn’t right.”

“But it was a good idea. Come on, you can do it. What else do we have?”

“A…military? You can protect roads and charge people money because it’s so safe!”

I nod seriously. Durene is going through all the ideas I had. She’s not slow at all and I’m not as smart as people think I am, not by half. But I do have an advantage…

“That’s right. Assuming we could protect all our land, we would see more trade and people headed towards us. But that relies on us having a truly powerful army and ours is growing—”

I break off and grimace. I have the ability to levy soldiers, but the core of my army, my people are a few dozen [Riders] and a group of infantry who have seen only a handful of battles. My adventurers make up the best part of that force and they’re few in number. And yet—I turn my thoughts northwards.

I can levy a force. I can call on towns and cities and have them send me a few [Riders] each, a handful of [Archers], maybe some [Warriors], and that’s without there being a crisis. I can form an army—but I will need a bigger one. But perhaps for now…

“Laken?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry, Durene.”

I realize I’ve stopped talking and clear my throat.

“You’re really close. But what’s the last thing we have, Durene? The last big thing?”

“Trebuchets?”

“No…but you’re really close. It’s related to them.”

“Um—um—is it—oh! Our [Engineers]! You can get Tessia and the others to build bridges and mills and all kinds of things!”

Durene’s face lights up and I give her a small hug.

“Almost right!”

“What? I got it wrong?”

“Not wrong…but I don’t just mean the [Engineers], Durene. I mean what they do. Engineering.

There are some crackers at the bottom of the lunch basket. Durene slowly reaches down and takes one. She crunches it down.

“Okay. You—I mean, we have [Engineers]. But our big secret is engineering.”

“That’s right.”

I wait, triumphant and hear a munching sound as Durene cautiously eats another cracker. She thinks for a while longer.

“…Isn’t that the same thing?”

“What? No!”

“It sort of sounds like it. What’s the difference?”

Crestfallen, I try to explain.

“Durene, do you ever wonder why people in this world suddenly get good at something? Like how someone who can barely cook can suddenly make all the basic recipes?”

The half-Troll girls thinks about this as she searches for another cracker.

“Mmm. Nope.”

“Really? It’s not weird how they can suddenly know how to cook, or fight?”

“No! They get a Skill, what’s weird about that?”

I shake my head. I guess it does feel natural to someone in this world.

“That’s not normal. What if you tried to learn something without a Skill, Durene? Why is it fair that someone has to learn all the steps in a recipe to make bread while someone else can just get a Skill and…make it?”

“It’s fair because they have the Skill. Sometimes people don’t get it so I guess they have to learn, but a Skill makes things easy, Laken!”

“Yes, but maybe it makes things too easy.”

“I don’t get what you’re saying at all.”

I run my hands through my hair, dislodging a leaf.

“Look at it this way. When I was telling people how to make trebuchets, I knew how they were made, but not all the details. We were experimenting all the time to figure out how to get them to fire without breaking, how to make sure the sling was the right length—”

“Oh yeah! Remember when it threw that stone straight up? That was so scary!”

I nod.

“Right. We had to experiment, to test our results. But do you recall what happened the next day? Tessia became an [Engineer] and got a Skill. And then she knew the sling needed to be adjusted and the length shortened slightly. But she couldn’t explain why. She had an image of how the trebuchet was firing in her head, Durene!”

“Oh, like you do!”

“Exactly. And that’s the problem.”

“Huh?”

Durene’s forehead wrinkles. I throw up my hands.

“It was too easy! All of our hard work, all of our calculations—it didn’t matter! Tessia got a Skill and she could finish the trebuchet!”

“Which is good!”

“No! It’s terrible! It means—it means we don’t learn anything! So what if Tessia can make a trebuchet? If only she can do it, what’s the point?”

Durene stares at me like I’m crazy. I lower my hands and try to tell her the big secret I hit on, the secret that ties in to something Ryoka told me once. This world doesn’t change. Technologies stay the same, civilizations rise, but then fall and what they create doesn’t last. The world doesn’t change as a whole. Why? Because of the system that governs this world. The system of classes that’s holding people back.

Instinct over knowledge. That’s what runs this world, what allows people to cook, build, create, and repair the things around them. Grace without skill. People act using their Skills and never learn how things work. They have a [Basic Cooking] Skill that lets them cook pasta—when they could learn to do the same by memorizing a recipe!

That’s the problem. And all of the grand things in this world, the buildings, armor, even things like candles, are a result of Skills, of individuals with levels. And when those individuals die, that knowledge is lost.

Some things are based off of actual science, like arch bridges or windmills. But too often, the [Builder] or [Engineer] constructing the bridge doesn’t bother with actual mathematics. They just feel where the keystone in a bridge should be placed, or rely on their Skills to tell whether something they’re building will or won’t work. And that means that too often, people won’t try new things.

Why should they? Their Skills can do everything they need, or someone else’s Skills can. Why write down the schematics for a trebuchet and calculate firing distances and weight and the carrying capacity of wood when an [Engineer] can figure it all out by themselves?

That’s the flaw the people of this world share. They can redesign or perfect, but not innovate. Without a fundamental education, new ideas can spread at a snail’s pace or worse, be lost. This is what Ryoka was talking about. This is why technology hasn’t evolved over thousands of years.

I try to explain all of this to Durene, but she struggles to understand it. Of course. She comes from a world where all this is natural. But I come from a world where learning is passed down, where people can’t get Skills so they either teach each other how to do things or don’t do it at all. And that’s what my big idea is.

“Teach them math, Durene. Teach them how to count, how to read and write. Make blueprints, teach people how to create new things without Skills or classes. Make it so anyone can learn to build a trebuchet and gain a class. If I can do that, then I won’t have one or two talented [Engineers]. I’ll have a hundred. A thousand.”

Durene’s eyes go wide as she imagines it. Riverfarm, exporting talent, hiring out our people to build bridges, construct and build across Izril.

“Wow. But wait—if everyone knows how to do things, what’s the point of getting the class to begin with?”

I laugh.

“There’s always a need for Skills, Durene! It makes things easier—that’s great! But we can’t rely on them. And if I can make gaining a rare class like [Engineer] a certainty, then I’ll have a monopoly on talent. That’s how Riverfarm will succeed. Not with one [Cataphract], but with a hundred. I need to figure out how to make people gain the classes I want. And to do that…”

It’s a little line in the middle of conversation as I stroll into the village with Durene by my side. An aside to the [Lords] and [Ladies] who come to me asking how these ‘cookies’ are made, horribly mangling the German names for sweets. I drop it into the conversation when there’s a lull.

“If you have too many hands, consider sending them here. I believe Lord Tourant was complaining about overcrowding? Well, we have no shortage of tasks to be done, and I would consider it a personal favor.”

The [Lords] and [Ladies] blink in surprise, but at once they’re willing to offer me some young folk, send a few families, half a village that doesn’t really contribute to their estate, to make the journey down the very safe roads. I thank them, smiling, and they brighten up, as if giving me free workers and people would take a load off of their shoulders.

“Of course I could spare a few people, your Majesty. Of course they’re free citizens, but between you and me, they’d jump at the prospect of greener pastures. You might have to take them in hand, but I’m sure there are one or two hard workers among the dregs…”

“I would consider it a favor myself, your Majesty! Too many families in one of my villages. As if they can’t limit themselves to two children at most! And they complain about a lack of jobs—well, they can find work in a city if they’re so hungry for coin!”

“You are too kind, Lord Tourant. By all means, let them know there’s work to be had here, Lady Fel.”

I smile and shake hands and when they draw back to descend on another tray of hot cookies, I shake my head. It’s too easy, sometimes. How did that saying go?

‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…’

“What’s that, sire?”

I turn. Gamel is standing behind me, offering me a hot cookie. I nearly laugh, but then I take it and break it in half.

“Oh, nothing, Gamel. Just something I heard once. A lesson, really. A nation needs people to thrive. And talent, raw talent is worth cultivating. Here. Take this.”

I offer him half the cookie. Gamel backs away.

“I couldn’t, your Majesty!”

“I insist. Just don’t let the nobles catch you eating it. They might try to take it from you. Where’s Durene? Does she have one?”

I turn, taking another cookie from the plate as Gamel surreptitiously devours the sweet treat. Durene is hovering around the crowd of grabbing nobles, clearly wanting one. I smile and she turns and beams with delight. She’s never had a treat like this before; sugar is expensive and this is the first time I’ve recreated a food from home. I smile and laugh and make light conversation with the nobility and dance them along on a string. And all the while I wait.

Wiskeria is ready. Beniar is in position. The plan is set.

And it’s nearly time to surprise everyone.

 


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