5.44

They ran. The Gnolls of Liscor fled the Raskghar camp as Snatcher fought the Raskghar. Mrsha could hear Ceria shouting, hear the screams and snarls. But it was the howl that filled her. The Gnolls howled as they ran into the tunnels, fleeing. Some of the Raskghar gave chase, but the Gnolls ran. They ran into monsters, into traps, dead ends. Fleeing, howling, dying.

Free. Mrsha felt Elirr gasping, heard his lungs struggling as he ran with her in his arms. The Gnoll ran down a corridor. Neither he nor Mrsha knew where they were going. Neither one cared. She was a child, a cub from a plains tribe and he was a City Gnoll, far older. She had white fur. His was dark grey. But it didn’t matter. Right here, right now, they were both Gnolls. Mrsha howled and heard Elirr howl as well. The other Gnolls howled, sounding their locations.

Danger ahead. The Gnoll who cried out howled her death. Elirr hesitated and then ran left, down another tunnel. More Gnolls howled, calling out. The Raskghar were chasing them! And Mrsha heard the sounds of pursuit behind her.

They couldn’t catch her. Better that she be eaten by a monster than be caught and sacrificed. Better to step on a trap. Better—Mrsha held her wand tightly. She didn’t want to die. But at least she wouldn’t be alone. That was a terrible thing.

“Where—”

Elirr’s voice was cracked. He stopped as he came to another intersection. He and Mrsha stared ahead. Three passageways, one leading up, the other two going left and right. Something moved in the right passageway. Elirr ran left. Behind him there was a howl. But it wasn’t a Raskghar. Mrsha moved, shifting her head. She saw a shape bounding towards them, recognized the scent, the form.

Nokha. First of the awakened. Elirr gasped as Mrsha grabbed him tighter. He turned his head and ran faster. It wasn’t just Nokha—three other Raskghar were following. And by the sounds of it, at least a dozen more Raskghar were behind them. So many! They were all coming for her, Mrsha knew.

“I can’t—”

Elirr’s lungs strained as he stumbled. He ran down a corridor, leapt over a patch of dungeon that smelled of fire to Mrsha, and then froze. Something was coming down the tunnel. Elirr hesitated—

A howl rang out ahead of them. Elirr and Mrsha looked and saw a group of Gnolls. They froze when they saw the two.

“We grew lost! That way. Is it—”

Run! The Raskghar follow!”

Elirr bellowed. The Gnolls whirled. There were at least sixteen of them. A few of the younger ones howled a warning; the rest just ran. And the Raskghar slowly caught up.

They were healthy, strong. The Gnolls had been confined for days and starved. Without the head start, the Gnolls would have already been caught. But it was only a matter of time.

Nokha was fastest. She bounded towards Elirr and Mrsha, snarling. The Gnolls howled and then one fell back. He was younger, and smelled of glue. A [Fletcher]? Mrsha saw him look back, and then brace himself.

Run!

He howled as he charged Nokha and the Raskghar. The other Gnolls howled as he bought them time. Mrsha saw the young Gnoll charge the Raskghar, swinging a fist. Nokha leapt and bore him to the ground. She subdued him with two brutal blows and the other Raskghar hauled the Gnoll up. Quick as a flash, the Raskghar were chasing again.

Seconds. The Gnolls looked back and at each other. They might have been City Gnolls, but some had grown up outside of Liscor. They could tell how fast the Raskghar were moving.

“Keep moving!”

Elirr’s voice was strained. His heart was beating too fast. Mrsha could feel his chest heaving. The other Gnolls ran. They heard howls around them. The surviving Gnolls were congregating towards them. But fewer howls. The Raskghar chased. Mrsha stared back at Nokha. The female Raskghar bared her teeth. She was looking at Mrsha.

We are whole.

Even if she died, let it not be like that. Mrsha struggled. Elirr growled at her to keep still, but Mrsha had her wand out. She waved it. Grass shot up, a twisting little catch of grass. A snare, like the ones the Stone Spears tribe had used. She saw Nokha’s eyes widen. The snare caught the Raskghar’s foot—and she surged forwards. The grass was strong, but the Raskghar was stronger. She ran on, on all fours now.

Monsters ahead!

A Gnoll called out in despair. Mrsha felt Elirr’s breath catch. She smelled it too. A foreign scent ahead. Blood. But something familiar. The Gnolls hesitated.

“Let it be monsters, then! Run! Run! Better them than the Raskghar!”

One of the Gnolls shouted. They ran ahead. Mrsha saw a confusing sight ahead of them. It looked like dozens of monsters! Other Gnolls were howling panic and danger in ahead of them. But suddenly the notes changed. Mrsha heard the tone of the howl change. One of the howls echoed back to her.

Friend! And then Mrsha identified the scent. She saw one of the monsters look at her. It was tall. It had red eyes, a sword. Green skin. And it—he, was Headscratcher. The Hobgoblin looked up as he and the five Redfang Warriors led a group of at least a forty Cave Goblins. Several of the other Gnolls were wavering.

The Gnolls around Elirr froze when they saw the Goblins. But one of the Hobs—Numbtongue, threw up his hand before they could flee.

“Wait! Friends! Wandering Inn! Come!”

That was enough for the Gnolls. They ran past the Goblins, some nearly collapsing with relief. Elirr coughed and wheezed at Numbtongue.

“Behind us! Raskghar!”

“Run.”

The Hobs pointed. The Cave Goblins were already fleeing, screaming in terror. The Gnolls joined the rush. Mrsha saw the Hobs holding their ground. They stood in a line. Headscratcher. Rabbiteater. Shorthilt. Badarrow. Numbtongue. They looked…different.

Taller. Rabbiteater had a red cloak which swirled around his shoulders. It wasn’t cloth. It looked like liquid. And it smelled like blood. The Raskghar paused as they saw the Hobs.

“We have to—”

Elirr stumbled. Mrsha heard a Gnoll cry out in alarm, and then felt herself slipping. Elirr half-collapsed as another adult caught him. His face was twisted with pain.

“Too much! Someone help me!”

The Gnoll cried out and another younger Gnoll came. They helped Elirr, urging him to keep running. He moved mechanically—he’d pushed himself too hard to sprint while carrying Mrsha. The Gnoll tried to limp after the Gnolls, but they were moving too fast! The Cave Goblins were running ahead of them, and she couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth—

“The child!”

Someone shouted. Mrsha felt a pair of paws scoop her up. Another Gnoll grabbed Mrsha and they fled once more. Mrsha twisted. She saw the Hobs eying the Raskghar. The two sides froze. Five Hobs. Four Raskghar, including Nokha. Then thirteen. Then seventeen.

“They can’t hold them.”

One of the Gnolls gasped. She looked back as the Hobs spread out. Numbtongue had a guitar in his hand. His claws struck lightning. Badarrow loosed an arrow. Rabbiteater whirled his cloak as the Raskghar hesitated. They outnumbered the Hobs, but they were—nervous. They had never seen Hobgoblins before. Nokha growled, sniffing at the Redfang Warriors. She glanced at Mrsha and tensed.

Shorthilt’s sword shone. Headscratcher pointed.

Redfang!

The Hobs charged. The Raskghar didn’t expect that. The sounds of battle echoed behind Mrsha. She heard snarls of pain, a Goblin’s voice raised in song. The Gnolls ran.

“Where?”

“Follow—the Goblins!”

The Gnolls fled onwards. Mrsha could hear the Hobs fighting. They were standing back-to-back, trying to block the corridor. But there were so many Raskghar. She saw Headscratcher roaring. He smashed into a Raskghar, picked up the huge beast and threw the Raskghar into the other warriors. Then he turned and Nokha leapt. She slammed into Headscratcher. And she had a sword too.

The Hob was strong. He punched Nokha, making her reel back. He slashed left-right, but she was quick too. She parried the blows, their swords ringing. She moved like lightning. As Headscratcher cut down with a two-handed slash she stepped back. Her sword traced an arc. She slashed open Headscratcher’s side.

Blood flew. Mrsha heard Numbtongue cry out. Headscratcher stumbled. Blood ran from his side. He looked at the gaping wound. Then he bared his teeth. Nokha was grinning in triumph when Headscratcher’s blade cut her across the chest. She leapt back. Headscratcher advanced, screaming fury. His eyes blazed as he turned, cutting at the Raskghar who stepped back. They stared at him. Headscratcher didn’t seem to notice the blood. He whirled, stumbled—then fell. The other four Hobs closed around them.

Redfang.

This time the shout sounded different. Mrsha, held in the Gnoll’s arms as the Hobs grew more and more distant, saw them standing around Headscratcher. Rabbiteater had a potion in his hands as the other three tried to keep the Raskghar at bay. But there were so many. And Nokha had cut Shorthilt.

“Keep running.”

Erill had seen it too. He shook himself free of the other two Gnolls, ran on his own two feet. Mrsha kept staring. The Hobs were falling back. But now it was only a matter of time. They were going to die. To buy them time.

Goblins. Monsters. But they had done it for the Gnolls. Mrsha remembered what Erin had said. She stared at Headscratcher as he pushed himself up. They were running now, trying to retreat. The Raskghar pursued them.

It was no good. Mrsha looked around in despair. The Raskghar would cut the Hobs down, and then catch up. They still didn’t have enough time.

Time. Mrsha stared at the Redfang Warriors. Then she looked at the Gnoll carrying her. The female Gnoll was panting with effort. Mrsha closed her eyes. Then she moved her injured legs. She leapt.

 

—-

 

So this was it. Shorthilt parried Nokha’s glowing sword as it curved towards his neck. Because he had to. The Raskghar was too fast to let him dodge. But the cost—the Hob grunted as the impact nearly knocked the blade out of his grip. He saw the enchanted blade the awakened Raskghar carried bite into his steel sword. He cursed, stepped back.

Back.

Someone grabbed him. Shorthilt stepped back as Rabbiteater threw his cloak around them. Nokha’s sword lanced into the blood cloak, slowing slightly. The blade hissed and steam erupted from where she’d struck the cloak. The Raskghar backed up, eying the cloak as Shorthilt and Rabbiteater stumbled backwards. The other Raskghar advanced, keeping their shields up as Badarrow loosed another arrow.

Too many. The Raskghar were overwhelming. There were…fourteen of them now. A fair fight if the Hobs had the high ground or the advantage of surprise. Or the bell. But they had closed too quickly. And the female—

Shorthilt locked eyes with Nokha. She grinned at him, her blade making her eyes shine in the darkness. He straightened, and Rabbiteater patted his shoulder. For a second, the Hobs locked eyes and nodded at each other.

Five of them stood in a line. Headscratcher, barely able to stand. Rabbiteater, crimson cloak held up as a shield. Shorthilt and Numbtongue, guarding Badarrow. They waited as the Raskghar advanced slowly. Another minute. One more minute. Then the Gnolls might make it. Then they could escape. Shorthilt hoped they would. Then they could tell Erin—

For a second the Hob allowed himself to close his eyes. They snapped open as he heard something. A howl. It was high and echoing. It came from the side. He glanced back behind him with the Raskghar. And saw her.

Mrsha sat behind them. The White Gnoll sat on her haunches, staring at the Hobs. The Raskghar. Both sides paused when they saw her. Nokha’s eyes locked onto the white Gnoll. Mrsha stared at Headscratcher, at Rabbiteater, at the Hobs. Then she threw her head back and howled. The sound was mournful, long. Shorthilt had never heard Mrsha make a sound like that. He had never known she could.

Mrsha got onto all fours. She ran with something in her mouth. Her wand. She limped at first, and then ran. She dashed past the Hobs, past the Raskghar. Both tried to grab for her. But Mrsha was too quick. She leapt and dove, as if she were playing in the inn. She ran past the Raskghar and down the corridor, then left. The Raskghar turned. They stared at the Hobs, and then Nokha barked an order. They turned and ran after Mrsha.

Stop them!

Headscratcher bellowed. The Hobs advanced, but several Raskghar turned. They held the Hobs back as Nokha and eight of the Raskghar fled. And the Hobs could hear more howls. Raskghar. They were coming.

“Retreat! Back! Back!

Numbtongue was the one who said it. He grabbed Shorthilt as the Hob tried to cut past a Raskghar with a shield. Shorthilt hesitated. But Numbtongue was right. He turned, cursing in Goblin, and grabbed Rabbiteater. The three had to pull Headscratcher back despite his weakness. The Hob cursed and screamed at the Raskghar, who weren’t advancing. The beast-people stared as the Hobs began to fall back.

Alive. But more than one Hob wept tears of frustration. They stared back as they began to run, following the Cave Goblins and Gnolls. They heard a voice in the dungeon. A howl. It was desperate, tired. It came from a white Gnoll who ran as the Raskghar pursued her. Trying to buy the others time to flee. The howl echoed in the Redfang Warrior’s ears. A note of warning. Exhaustion.

But not despair. And the Gnolls paused. They looked back and howled. Dozens of voices echoed through the dungeon. They listened. The Hobs listened as they ran. They waited for an answer. But they never heard it. So they bowed their heads and ran. This time there were no pursuers.

 

—-

 

She had looked into Skinner’s eyes. She had known fear then. Ceria Springwalker had fled from him as her friends died around her. She still remembered the terror. The helpless paralysis. The despair. Now she looked at another monster just as terrible. Perhaps worse.

Snatcher. Facestealer. One of the guardians of Liscor’s dungeon. His claws were long. He carried a bloody bag of heads on sticks. He had no head. Or eyes that Ceria could see. His eye sockets were hollowed pits. And if Skinner was fear, he was helplessness. As he moved into the Raskghar camp, Ceria fell. She heard the Raskghar and Cave Goblins falling around her like puppets with their strings cut. They lay on the ground as Facestealer walked forwards.

Slowly. Carefully. The giant monster walked around Cave Goblins and Raskghar alike. Ceria didn’t understand what was happening at first. She felt like something had sapped her of strength. She tried to move—and couldn’t.

Spell. It had to be. Ceria could see Snatcher moving. He was heading towards the Gnoll cages at the back of the camp. Towards the Gnoll who’d howled. Towards Mrsha.

Gh—

Ceria’s lips barely moved. She tried to get up. Her arms shook on the ground. But they barely moved! What was it? She hadn’t seen the monster cast a spell. Was it an aura? Not a spell?

No. Ceria could feel something restricting her body. Something—it was magic. It had to be. She knew that because she could move. All of the others, Raskghar, Cave Goblins, Calruz, Gnolls—they were all still as corpses. But Ceria could see her arms tensing slightly as she tried to move.

Half-Elf. Descendants of magic. Ceria pushed mana into her arms. She saw ice begin to form at her fingertips, and then frost race down her arm. Not again. Not this time. She felt her arms move. She called more magic to her.

The ground froze. The ice spread around Ceria’s hands. She drew on everything she had as Facestealer walked as if he was taking a stroll. She felt her ring—the Everfreeze Ring emitting cold on her finger. She pulled from it.

And the ice grew. It pushed her hands up. Ceria shook as she stood. But she did stand. And the ice covered her legs, locking them in place. Ceria turned. She lifted her arm.

Facestealer was peering at Mrsha. It was a monster to inspire nightmares. But Ceria had already faced her nightmares in Liscor’s crypt. This time—she raised her voice.

“Back away from Mrsha, Snatcher. And look this way.”

Facestealer turned. Ceria fired an [Ice Spike]. Straight between its hollowed eye sockets. The javelin of ice flew straight as an arrow. It hit Facestealer’s head. And broke.

Ceria wavered. Then she raised her skeletal hand and loosed another [Ice Spike]. It struck Snatcher in the center of his chest. Again, it broke without leaving so much as a scratch.

Snatcher didn’t react. He stared at her. He seemed almost confused, as if he couldn’t believe Ceria was attacking him. The half-Elf panted with the effort of keeping her arm raised. She concentrated. She had to stop him! How? How—

His body was dark brown. Hide of some kind. But it looked lumpy. And in parts, the hide was missing, revealing a yellow interior. Bone? Or skin? Ceria focused on that. She shifted her aim as Snatcher began to shuffle towards her casually.

“Take this!”

This time she fired five [Ice Spikes], one from each finger. It was a bad shot. Four of her [Ice Spikes] missed her target, striking Facestealer’s body harmlessly. But the last hit one of the yellow patches on his body. The tip of her spear of ice struck and dug in ever so slightly. Ceria saw black liquid run from the wound. And like that, the paralysis inhibiting her vanished.

And Facestealer paused. He had no neck so he couldn’t look down. But Ceria felt a wave of terrible fury coming from it. It looked at her. Then Snatcher raised its oversized arms and charged Ceria without a word, incredibly fast. She backed up and screamed.

Run!

She saw the Gnolls stirring in their cages. Ceria raised her hand but Snatcher was fast. It swung at her and Ceria dove. She felt something pass over her head. She rolled, conjured a wall of ice. Before it had finished rising something smashed straight through it. Ceria scrambled back.

“Run!”

Snatcher stood over her. It swung one arm and Ceria saw it pass inches from her face. She raised a trembling hand, and then someone smashed into Facestealer from the side. Calruz. The Minotaur could barely stand. He hit Snatcher with a roar, not having bothered to draw his axe. Snatcher held still as the Minotaur struck him, at least three hundred pounds of weight behind his charge.

Snatcher’s body didn’t move so much as a centimeter. Calruz bounced off and stumbled back. He stared at Snatcher and the headless monster stared back. Calruz backed up, fumbling for his axe.

“Fight off Snatcher! To me!”

The other Raskghar and Cave Goblins were rising, some half-collapsing. Facestealer turned around as if surveying the situation. It swung its arms and Ceria felt her body deaden. Half of the camp fell back again, limp. But the effect was weaker.

Surround it!

Calruz bellowed. He had his axe in his hand. He raised it and shakily slashed at Facestealer. The blow was slow, weak. The axe head bounced off of Facestealer’s front. It stared at Calruz and then turned. Back to Ceria.

“[Ice Wall]! [Ice Wall]!

Ceria pointed and formed a double-layered wall of ice, at least five feet thick. Snatcher walked forwards. He paused at the wall and drew his torso-head back. He brought it forwards and smashed through the wall. Then he swung at Ceria.

This time she couldn’t dodge. Ceria jumped backwards as the claw came hurtling towards her. She felt the impact—something compressed her side and then—and then she was weightless. Ceria gaped, half-turned as she felt herself flying—

And then she struck the ceiling of the Raskghar’s camp. And fell. Twenty feet. Ceria landed on the ground and heard something scream. She’d landed on something. A Raskghar. She would have screamed too, but pain overwhelmed every part of her.

She felt something moving under her. Ceria gaped, and then reached for a healing potion. She had to—had to—

The bottle smashed as she squeezed it tight. She ignored the glass biting into her hand, let it pour over her body. Her torn flesh began to knit. She felt the pain lessening. Then she managed to scream.

Another potion. Ceria had two. She grabbed the other and drank it. Her bones were cracking. She rolled as the Raskghar screamed and pushed her off. Ceria stood—and saw chaos.

The Raskghar and Cave Goblins surrounded Snatcher. It was turning, slashing with its claws. Every time it did, Raskghar and Cave Goblins died. One swipe sent three Raskghar flying and caved in another’s head. Facestealer grabbed—and three Cave Goblins were headless. And the weapons of the Raskghar and Cave Goblins did nothing to it! They bounced off Snatcher’s hide. And as it turned, some of them collapsed.

Paralysis. Ceria couldn’t feel it from here. She pointed her finger shakily at Snatcher, saw Calruz bellowing.

Keep it in place! Archers! Fire! Enchanted weapons, to the front!

Raskghar tried to obey him. Ceria saw them shooting arrows, but half of them were too weak to move. The arrows landed short of their target or struck the Raskghar and Cave Goblins around Facestealer. He turned and swept his hand. Six Raskghar and Cave Goblins died, bodies broken like twigs. He turned—

And another [Ice Spike] struck him on his yellowed weak spot. Snatcher didn’t react, but he turned. Ceria pointed at him, trembling.

Calruz! Back me up!

“Protect Ceria! Form a shield wall!”

The Minotaur rushed forwards. The Raskghar and Goblins tried to block Snatcher’s advance. He walked through them, swinging his arms, slaughtering them. Ceria aimed for his yellowed flesh, but this time the monster blocked the [Ice Spike]. She was backing up when an arrow struck Snatcher from behind, striking his yellowed flesh.

The monster turned. A group of Raskghar with bows was taking aim at him from the far wall. They were shaky, but far enough from him that they could use their arms. They loosed a hail of arrows which bounced off his skin. But a few struck his exposed flesh. Facestealer began striding towards them, and then turned as Ceria landed another shot from behind. He turned towards her, and the Raskghar shot again.

Turn, shoot, turn, shoot. Ceria almost wanted to laugh. But it would have been hysterical laughter—Snatcher was almost comical in how he moved! He went after whomever had wounded him last! Then her laughter caught in her throat as he turned and beheaded a Raskghar. He stared at the shocked face and carefully opened his sack. Ignoring both her spells and the Raskghar’s arrows, he put the head in the sack. Then he turned around. He seemed to realize he was being struck. He turned to Ceria and she felt a chill. Facestealer stared at her for ten long seconds as Raskghar and Cave Goblins battered him from all sides. Then he turned.

Raskghar collapsed around him. Facesnatcher strode towards one of the entrances. He stopped there, turned, stared at Ceria, and then vanished into the darkness. He left a trail of black liquid. It might have been blood.

And then it was over. Ceria stared at the empty spot where Snatcher had been. She was waiting for him to reappear, but he didn’t. She realized that the Raskghar camp was completely still. All the Raskghar and Cave Goblins were staring at the same spot.

“Was…was that it?”

The Raskghar and Cave Goblins jumped and stared at Ceria. She couldn’t take her eyes off that spot. He’d just left. As if he hadn’t felt like being here. And he’d stared at her. As if memorizing her face. She shuddered, then heard Calruz’s voice.

“Raskghar—Raskghar, seal that entrance! Tend to the wounded. Someone—open the supply of healing potions. Double—no, triple the sentries!”

His voice roused the Raskghar. They began to move shakily. Calruz turned. His eyes widened.

“Where did the Gnolls go?”

Ceria whirled. She’d almost forgotten! She saw the Gnoll cages had been forced open. The Gnolls were gone!

Some of them. A few were lying on the ground, pinned by Raskghar. Most were still in shackles. But many of the Gnolls had removed their shackles! And Mrsha! She’d gotten away too! Ceria dared to hope. But then she saw Calruz striding towards her.

Liar!

The Minotaur looked as shaken as Ceria, but that didn’t stop him from seizing the front of her robes. Ceria held still as Calruz roared at her. The Minotaur pointed furiously towards the cages.

“You told me she was mute!

“She is!”

She howled!

“She can do that! She can’t speak!”

Liar! Traitor! You deceived me!

Calruz roared in Ceria’s face, covering her with spittle. His grip tightened and Ceria braced herself.

“I didn’t know that thing was going to appear! I told you the truth, Calruz! Mrsha can only howl. Or make sounds. She can’t speak!”

“That’s not what mute means!”

“Yes it is! Don’t yell at me because you don’t know the meaning of the word!”

Calruz’s eyes were wide and furious. They were turning red—but then he paused. A curious, affronted look replaced the enraged expression on his face.

“I know the meaning of the word mute. It means unable to make sounds. You are incorrect, Ceria.”

“No, it doesn’t. It means ‘unable to speak’. There’s a big difference, you giant idiot.”

“How do you know that?”

“I read it in a book. Okay, Pisces read it in a book and told me.”

The Minotaur and half-Elf stared at each other. The exchange was furious, tense. But familiar. After a second, Calruz let go of Ceria slowly. They stared at each other. Ceria was breathing hard. She pointed at the splatter of black liquid where Facestealer had been.

“That wasn’t my fault. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. That was Snatcher, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. He sometimes approaches Raskghar camps. They can usually deceive him into leaving by pretending to be statues. Usually.”

“I didn’t know. And I didn’t lie to you. Knowingly.”

Calruz hesitated.

“That is…true.”

“I could have run. I saved your life.”

The Minotaur paused. He looked at Ceria and nodded slowly.

“Yes. You did.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Calruz turned. He looked around his camp and exhaled. Slowly.

“The Gnolls fled. They’ll die in the dungeon. You there! Send a team to retrieve them!”

He pointed at a Raskghar who looked confused. The Raskghar growled. Calruz frowned.

“Already? Who? Nokha? She abandoned the camp when—”

The Raskghar backed up as Calruz snorted in anger. Ceria stared at him anxiously.

“Well? Did the Gnolls escape?”

“Nokha led a team after them the instant they fled. She will not let them run.”

Ceria prayed he was wrong. Calruz stomped away. She saw him begin organizing his camp, directing the Cave Goblins and Raskghar to physically seal the entrance that Snatcher had left by. The mood in the camp was tense, afraid. And angry. The Raskghar forced the remaining Gnolls, barely twenty now, back into the cages, beating them as if to punish them for Mrsha.

“Calruz! Stop them!”

The Minotaur looked over and shouted a word in the Raskghar’s language. The beast-people turned away sullenly and the Gnolls lay in the cages. Ceria expected them to be devastated by the failed escape attempt, but to her surprise—and the Raskghar’s—she heard laughter. The Raskghar turned, disbelieving, as one of the Gnolls sat up.

“You…are cursed.”

The female Gnoll had a bloody lip and her eye looked…wrong, as if it weren’t moving properly. Still, she grinned at the Raskghar as they snarled at her. She lifted her shackled hands, pointed. At Mrsha’s empty cage.

“You captured her. But she is your doom. White fur. Doombringer. You are doomed! Your tribe will end! That is fate! She brought it on you! Mrsha, the child of omens! You—”

A Raskghar bounded over and kicked the Gnoll in the chest. She curled up, choking, until Calruz himself threw the Raskghar back. Then both Gnolls and Raskghar were silent.

It was nearly twenty minutes before Nokha’s team returned. When they did, the Raskghar howled and gathered anxiously at the entrance to their camp, hearing them coming. Ceria ran forwards, heart beating in fear. She heard Calruz roar, saw the Raskghar make grudging way for him—

And then she saw Mrsha. The Gnoll cub was hanging limp in Nokha’s arm. She still held Ceria’s wand. The awakened Raskghar looked displeased. She growled as she walked into the camp. She had Mrsha, and the Raskghar behind her looked wounded. Had they fought monsters? Or had the Gnolls managed to fight them off? Where were the others?

“Is that the only one you managed to catch?”

Calruz’s voice was disbelieving. He strode towards Nokha, hand opening and closing as she slung Mrsha into one of the Gnoll cages with the others. Nokha turned. Her expression was furious.

“Others fled! This one ran other way! We caught! Would have caught others, but strange monsters stopped us! Goblins but not Goblins!”

“What? What? You were stopped? By who?”

Ceria listened with disbelief and bated breath as Nokha described their encounter with the Redfang Hobs. When Calruz realized what Nokha had to be describing he snorted dismissively.

“Fool! Those are Hobs! They are Goblin.”

“No! Goblins are small! Not large! They do not fight Raskghar! They obey!”

Nokha lashed out at the nearest Cave Goblin scurrying around her in fury. The Goblins shrank back as the Raskghar growled at them. Calruz shook his head.

“Hobgoblins are standard aboveground. This must have been a group that wandered into the dungeon. Somehow. They’re intelligent. Good fighters, for scum. You should have overwhelmed the five!”

“They were strong. And little white one ran other way. So we chased.”

Nokha’s ears flattened in displeasure. Calruz snorted. He cast his eyes towards the eastern entrance to the camp and Ceria saw more Raskghar dragging or carrying limp Gnolls.

“One Gnoll versus dozens? Think, fool! At least the others caught more than a single Gnoll child.”

“This one is special. White fur. Cast magic! Will sacrifice now. Get others later.”

The awakened Raskghar bared her teeth as she pointed at Mrsha. The other Gnolls were shielding her from sight protectively. Calruz’s eyes narrowed.

“That is not your decision. I am Chieftain and I say if we sacrifice any Gnoll! Understand?”

He locked eyes with Nokha. The air grew tense again and the Raskghar around Nokha grew still. The eighteen awakened Raskghar stared at her. Three had died to Snatcher. Nokha glanced around, her expression savage. Then she seemed to note the dead Raskghar and Goblins. Snatcher had barely fought save to defend himself and still a score of corpses lay on the ground. She glanced at Calruz and inclined her head ever so slightly.

“Yes.”

There was no ‘Chieftain’, or any other sign of acknowledgment. Nokha turned and stalked towards the Raskghar who weren’t working. Calruz stared at her back. His hand clenched in anger and his brows drew together, but he seemed to think twice about calling her back. He turned to look at Ceria.

“Use a potion if you need to. And find one for your belt.”

He stomped off to shout at the Cave Goblins and Raskghar laboring at the entrance. Ceria watched him go and then looked around. The air in the camp was tense. Snatcher’s attack might not have been Calruz’s fault, but the Raskghar were shaken. And they were already chafing at his restrictions. They kept staring at the remaining Gnolls. And the awakened Raskghar, led by Nokha?

They were looking at Calruz. Not fearfully, but with a calculating look in their gazes that made Ceria shiver. She stared at the remaining Gnolls in cages and at Calruz. The Minotaur looked around. He could sense it too. He adjusted the axe strapped to his back and stood taller.

Get to work!

The Raskghar obeyed. But it was only a matter of time. Ceria was certain now. She looked around, and then backed up to the cages. The Gnolls looked up at Ceria.

“Is she…?”

“Hurt. But not critically.”

“I’ll get you a healing potion. For all of you. If I can.”

The Gnolls nodded. Ceria hesitated, and then bent. Pretending to inspect Mrsha, she concentrated. A little fiery bug crawled out from her hands. It fluttered upwards, vanished, carrying a message for Pisces.

 

Gnolls escaped. Mrsha here. Raskghar rebel soon. Hurry.

 

The Gnolls stared at the fiery bug as it disappeared. They looked at Ceria. She gave them a slight nod and straightened. None of the Goblins and Raskghar around her had noticed. But then she turned and saw one of them staring at her.

Nokha. The Raskghar had snuck up on her from the side! She stared at the Gnolls and Ceria. At Ceria’s hands.

She’d seen the spell! Ceria felt a chill of fear, but the Raskghar didn’t immediately shout what Ceria had done. Instead, she locked gazes with Ceria and smiled. The half-Elf met her gaze. She glanced at Calruz’s back. She gave Nokha a frozen smile.

“Just try it.”

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice paced back and forth in her inn. She had a plan. It was a good one, or at least, it was simple. The best plans were simple. Except that they weren’t in chess. Chess was an ever-moving game of attack and defense and opportunity. You had to think a hundred moves ahead of your opponent. That was why computers were so good. But her plan had only one moving part. She couldn’t adjust it. It worked or it wouldn’t.

It would work. But first, Erin had to know where the Raskghar camp was. And for that, the Redfang Warriors had to return. It had been four hours. The magic door to the Goblin’s cave was open. Only a few people were in Erin’s inn. Pisces had gone out with Yvlon and Ksmvr to bring back the Gold-rank adventurers. Erin hoped she wouldn’t have to tell them her plan wouldn’t work today.

“Lyonette, have you eaten anything today?”

“No.”

“You should.”

“Okay.”

The [Princess] sat at a table and didn’t move. Erin looked at her. Lyonette stared past Erin. Apista buzzed around her anxiously.

“Have you fed Apista?”

Lyonette blinked. She looked at the Ashfire Bee and a bit of life entered her eyes.

“No. I—”

She half got up and had to put her hands on the table. Erin looked around.

“Drassi.”

“On it! I’ll get honey for Apista, and what do you want, Lyonette?”

The young woman hesitated. She sat back down.

“I don’t want—”

“Water and a bit of meat and cheese, maybe. Crackers? Yeah, crackers and meat and cheese. Just have a few bites, Lyonette.”

Erin tried to encourage the young woman. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had breakfast. Maybe not? Well, she was in better shape than Lyonette. Erin stared back towards the Goblin cave. Then she heard a shout from outside her inn and whirled.

Erin! Get out here!

That was Yvlon’s voice! Erin hesitated, grabbed the knife and one of Octavia’s potions she’d put on the table and raced outside. The rain pounded her face. She blinked, nearly cut herself as she went to wipe her face, and then saw the boats. The Gold-rank adventurers had returned! And they had brought—

Headscratcher! Rabbiteater!

Two of the Hobs looked up. Headscratcher tried to rise, but Rabbiteater forced him down. The boat rocked as he leapt out of it and began swimming to shore. The adventurers rowed towards Erin’s inn. But another group was heading straight for Liscor. And in them—

“They found the Gnolls! There was an escape! Erin, we need stamina potions!”

What?

Erin stared in disbelief. Yes, some of the boats had Gnolls in them! They huddled together, staring around. The Gold-ranks were escorting them to Liscor and a cry went up from the walls. Erin saw more boats headed her way. The Horns and Halfseekers rowing boats with Gnolls in them. And Cave Goblins. And the Redfangs. Erin stared at all of the Gnolls, looking for a flash of white. But there wasn’t any.

“Mrsha? Where’s Mrsha?”

The adventurers looked at each other. Yvlon stood up in her boat.

“They think she’s captured. Erin! We need stamina potions! Now!

For a second the [Innkeeper] wavered, but then she realized Yvlon was right. She turned and ran into her inn as Rabbiteater ran up the slope.

Drassi get me all our stamina potions! Some of the Gnolls are back!”

“What?”

The Drake turned. Lyonette shot up, knocking her plate of food aside.

“Is Mrsha—”

“Potions! Now!”

Erin met word with action. She grabbed her crate of potions and ran out with it. The adventurers were still rowing towards her boat.

Catch!

Erin threw a potion through the air. The glowing potion flew straight at Pisces who ducked. Yvlon fielded the bottle and yanked the cork out. Erin didn’t know why they needed stamina potions, but when she saw the Gnolls lying weakly in the boats she understood. The adventurers had enough healing potions to cover them, but they hadn’t brought many stamina potions. And the Gnolls looked half-dead.

“Get them in here! Drassi, get me food! Lyonette—”

The young woman ran past Erin. She splashed into the water.

“Mrsha! Is she okay? Where is she?”

The Gnolls in the boat were rousing themselves. Some looked at Lyonette and shook their heads, but one, an older, grey-haired Gnoll with red stripes, spoke weakly.

“She ran back. She distracted the Raskghar. To save us. She freed us too. She is alive, we think. But maybe—”

Lyonette stared in horror at the Gnoll. The adventurers ran their boats aground and leapt out. They helped the Gnolls out as Erin saw the people on Liscor’s walls trying to do the same for the Gnolls there.

In the end, all the boats had to come to Erin’s inn. The Gnolls had exhausted the last of their energy fleeing from the Raskghar and now, in safety, could barely move even with the stamina potions. Erin changed the door from her cave to Liscor and had to step back as the Watch and Gnoll families flooded into her inn. She opened her pantry and soon the Gnolls were eating small portions.

“Not too much. You’ll injure yourselves. Eat only small bits. And we must check you for broken bones and other injuries. The healing potions will not heal everything. They may make some things worse, but the adventurers have taken care not to heal wounds incorrectly.”

A Drake [Healer] was cautioning the Gnolls as they sat at Erin’s tables. They ate slowly, some surrounded by their loved ones. Many were in tears as they ate simple foods. A few spoke to Zevara and the others, recounting what they’d seen and heard.

“It was the child who saved us. She used a—a—”

Erill glanced at the Drakes and hesitated.

“She used her voice! The Raskghar thought her mute, but she howled and brought the monster down on them. We fled in the confusion, but Mrsha, she ran back when it became clear the Hobs would fall. She bought us all time to flee.”

“Mrsha. Oh, Mrsha.”

Lyonette buried her head in her hands, weeping. Erin stared at the Hobs. They were intact, although Headscratcher was still weak. They all looked like they’d healed wounds recently. None of them could meet her eyes.

“You say these awakened Raskghar were smarter? And stronger?”

“They were leaders among the others. Terrifying. The ritual—it must be stopped. And the Minotaur is insane. I saw him beat the half-Elf when she tried to stop him. But I think—I think neither will be alive much longer. The awakened are too intelligent. They will dispose of both if they are not stopped.”

The Horns and other adventurers exchanged uneasy looks. Zevara just nodded. Another Gnoll spoke up.

“We remember where they’ve gone. But I am sure—the Raskghar keep their camps watched. And there are so many. They will surely move their camp tonight.”

“And if we attack them, they’ll just fight us off. We don’t have enough bodies!”

Keldrass pounded a scaly fist into his other clawed hand. Zevara glanced at him and shook her head.

“The fact that any of you were able to escape is a miracle. Mister Elirr, I know you and the others must be exhausted. But if you’ll speak to our [Strategist], I’d be deeply grateful. Rest assured we’ll try to save the others if at all possible.”

Again, she glanced at the Gold-rank adventurers who looked away. Some of them shook their heads. Elirr bowed his.

“We owe Mrsha a debt we cannot repay. To think we blamed her—and the Goblins! They saved us.”

“Yes. Them.”

Zevara met Erin’s gaze. She shook her head.

“We’ll get a full accounting of this later. For now, let’s bring you back to the city. The Council will want your statements and then we’ll issue an announcement. Solstice, we’ll settle the costs later. Is that fine?”

“What? Yes. Go on.”

Erin nodded. She was talking with Numbtongue. The Hob’s head was bowed.

“We tried. But there were many. And the female one—”

“I understand. You weren’t supposed to fight them. It’s okay, Numbtongue.”

The Hob looked up wretchedly.

“But Mrsha—”

Erin grabbed the Hob’s shoulder, squeezing hard.

“We still have a chance. Did you find the Raskghar camp?”

“Yes. But it is…what is the word? Fortified. The adventurers will not take it. And there are many Raskghar.”

“I know. But you know where it is, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then come with me. Drassi! Change the door as soon as I’m through. Then let us back when everyone’s in Liscor!”

Erin pushed past the crowd and headed to her magic door. She slapped the red mana stone on, opened the door, and strode through. She heard an exclamation behind her and an oath from Zevara and slammed the door. She looked around.

“Pebblesnatch! Where’s Pebblesnatch?”

The Cave Goblins looked up. They stared at Numbtongue and raced over. Erin looked around wildly and saw a familiar face. Pebblesnatch and a bunch of smaller Goblins looked up from Erin’s magic chessboard. They’d constructed a very tall tower out of the ghostly chess pieces. They scrambled back guiltily as Erin marched over.

“It’s okay. Pebblesnatch, I need your help. Will you listen? Numbtongue, can you translate?”

The Hob nodded. The Cave Goblins could understand Erin well enough, probably thanks to Calruz, but the Hob translated with word and gesture so Erin was certain that Pebblesnatch understood every word she said. She crouched next to the Cave Goblin.

“The Raskghar are bad. They kidnapped Gnolls. And they’re mean to you and the other Cave Goblins. The adventurers have been fighting them. So have the Redfangs. But the Raskghar have some of my friends. Two people very important to me. I want them back.”

Pebblesnatch stared up at Erin with round eyes. She glanced at Numbtongue and at Erin. She nodded hesitantly, but then gave Erin a Goblin shrug. Numbtongue didn’t have to translate. Erin smiled ruefully.

“Yeah, that’s bad, but what can you do about it? Well, there is something. The Redfangs found the Raskghar camp. And I have a plan to get back my friends. But I need your help. It might be dangerous, but not too much. And it will save my friends. Will you do it, Pebblesnatch?”

The small Goblin looked alarmed. She looked at Numbtongue. The Hob stared at Erin. The young woman looked from Numbtongue to Pebblesnatch.

“I won’t ask her to steal a key or anything. It’s very safe. So long as you can get her there. Can you?”

“We can.”

Numbtongue nodded at once. Pebblesnatch began to quiver. She looked at Erin and the [Innkeeper] could tell that Pebblesnatch was afraid to see a Raskghar again. Erin reached out and touched Pebblesnatch’s hands.

“I know it must be terrifying. But you’re the only one I can ask. The Hobs can’t do it. And you—well, your name is actually important. Pebblesnatch. It’s part of how I came up with my plan, actually.”

All the Goblins looked astonished at that. Pebblesnatch touched her chest. Erin nodded.

“It’s true. And I know this is a lot. I know it’s scary. But I need your help. You’re the only one who can do it. So will you?”

The small Goblin stared up at Erin. She hesitated. She looked at Numbtongue and the Hob nodded. But the Cave Goblin was still afraid. She met Erin’s eyes. The young woman stared into hers.

“Please?”

Pebblesnatch wavered. Then, slowly, she nodded. Erin smiled.

“Thank you. It’s very simple. All you have to do is take these—and do exactly what I say.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled something out. Pebblesnatch’s eyes went round and the other Cave Goblins gasped. Numbtongue stared at Erin, and his eyes lit up in sudden comprehension.

“Ah. Good plan.”

Erin turned and smiled at him.

“I know, right? I thought of it myself. Now, I need Pebblesnatch to go now, but we need to time this exactly right. So here’s what we’re going to do…”

 

—-

 

“Keep all the camps on alert. Snatcher may strike at them. I want the watches doubled, but no patrols. They’re dead if they run into him. Go!”

Calruz was giving commands like normal. The Raskghar he was addressing bowed its head and moved with speed. Like normal. But the mood in the camp was on edge.

It was strange for Ceria to think of ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ after only having been in the Raskghar camp a few days. But she could tell that the Raskghar were growing discontent.  Calruz would have called it insubordinate. Ceria just thought they were finally confident enough not to need him any longer. And the source of that confidence were the awakened.

They were intelligent. They would keep being intelligent when the moons fell. Of that Ceria and Calruz were now sure. The other Raskghar seemed nervous about the absence of the full moon, only one more day away. But the awakened? They moved about without fear, followed by a pack of lesser Raskghar who ran to fulfill their every whim. And Nokha led them all.

It was like two tribes, now, really. Calruz strode about, giving orders, but the awakened did the same. And while they moved when he looked at them and told them what to do, there was an air of…expectancy. As if they were waiting to strike.

But they kept watching Calruz for now. Because he was still important. Ceria saw Nokha listening, pretending to be listening at attention as Calruz dealt with an issue that had reared its head in one of the smaller camps.

“How many sick? And what are the symptoms?”

The Raskghar growled. Calruz frowned and made Nokha translate.

“Hotness. Shaking. Throwing up. Blood in…leavings. And lumps. Yellow pus.”

Nokha gestured and Ceria made a face. Calruz wrinkled his bull’s nose.

“And the cause? Did they not cook their food again? What monsters did they eat?”

“No, Chieftain. They say it was adventurers. A few Raskghar were wounded by…arrows? And spells. They thought it minor, but the wounds grew worse. Now many are sick.”

Calruz cursed. He looked at Ceria.

“Poison.”

“Or plague.”

Ceria felt a bit sick. She knew some adventurers used those tactics, but it was cruel, even against Raskghar. And dangerous. She’d heard stories of adventurers who’d used poison against rats and killed thousands in major cities, or spread disease for hundreds of miles by accident. The Adventurer’s Guild was very strict about that sort of thing. Calruz frowned.

“Quarantine the camp. That means no one goes in or out. Not Cave Goblins, not Raskghar. No one touches the sick. Burn the bodies.”

The Raskghar didn’t like that. They tried to argue until Calruz cuffed the scout across the face. He glanced at Ceria as the Raskghar whined and Nokha barked at him sharply.

“Anything else, Springwalker?”

Ceria had to think.

“No healing potions. That can help with some diseases, but it might spread the plague faster. And…wash with hot water? There’s not much we can do without seeing what it is. And I’m not going to inspect it in person.”

The Minotaur nodded grimly.

“True. If we had an [Alchemist] or [Healer], we might try something. But we don’t. Quarantine the camp. Do as Ceria says. The surviving Raskghar and Cave Goblins will remain in place for…”

He glanced at Ceria. She shrugged.

“Four days after getting better? And don’t bring them here.”

Calruz nodded.

“Four days. They’ll patrol with healthy Raskghar or Cave Goblins to make sure they’re well.”

The Raskghar whined unhappily, but Nokha snapped and he went. Calruz growled under his breath.

“Adventurers. Damn them. I need to make sure they haven’t infected any other camps. Where are my other scouts?”

He looked around and stomped towards some Raskghar who were eating by a fire. Ceria and Nokha were left. The half-Elf eyed the Raskghar. The awakened smiled.

“You know things about adventuring. Like Chieftain.”

“Yup. More than you do.”

Ceria smiled and Nokha bared her teeth.

“True. We need Chieftain. He is smart. Knows much.”

“Even if he won’t let you kill the Gnolls? Even if you’re smart when the moon isn’t full?”

Ceria saw Nokha’s grin waver. The Raskghar looked concerned. She glanced swiftly at Calruz and back at Ceria. The half-Elf kept her smiling mask up.

That’s right. We know.

But far from being nervous, Nokha instead just smiled again.

“Yes. We still need. Someone who knows what we do not. Very important. Chieftain is valuable. Important. But won’t let us sacrifice Gnolls. Too bad.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll have to live with it. Unless you want to take his place? But oh wait, then you don’t have Calruz. Shame about that, especially if you run into something like infected Raskghar, huh?”

The half-Elf smiled mockingly. Nokha nodded. She drew closer suddenly.

“Yes. Very bad. If Chieftain was only one. Good thing we have two.”

She grabbed Ceria’s arm suddenly. The half-Elf tensed. She raised a fist, but too slow. Nokha leaned forwards—

And licked Ceria.

The action was so surprising that Ceria forgot to hit Nokha. She spluttered and tried to back up, but Nokha licked her across her face. Her tongue was rough and wet. Ceria twisted out of her grip. She wiped at her face.

“What in the name of tree crap was—”

She backed up and saw Nokha smiling at her. The Raskghar stood back, smiling. Ceria stared at her, and then remembered something about animals. They liked to mark their territory, didn’t they? Was that—

“Unacceptable!”

Calruz had seen the entire thing. He stormed over and Nokha backed up. The Minotaur snarled at her, much like a Raskghar himself and she backed up.

“Forgiveness, Chieftain.”

“Back to your work!”

Calruz roared at her. His fist clenched, but Nokha moved out of range before he could strike. She sauntered back to the other Raskghar, who had of course been watching. Ceria scrubbed at the saliva, blushing. That had felt like more than just a challenge against Calruz. It had been an attack on multiple levels. She was his companion, and that had felt like an oddly sexual jab from Nokha against Calruz as well. She glanced sideways at Calruz to see what he thought.

The Minotaur was clearly furious. He stared at Ceria, clenching his hand, and spoke through gritted teeth.

“Why did she do that?”

“She was telling me that she only needed one of us for our knowledge. She’s not afraid of you, Calruz.”

The Minotaur breathed heavily.

“No. She’s growing bolder. I should crush her. But if I do, the Raskghar might revolt. I need her to challenge me. That is their custom. This is—provocation. The next time she does that, blast her with magic.”

“I was going to, but she’s quick!”

“Do it faster next time. This is an affront on my honor. On my reputation! I have to make a reply, demonstrate—”

Calruz broke off, muttering to himself. Ceria eyed him and sidled away a step.

“Lick me and I’ll punch you.”

The Minotaur glanced at Ceria. Then he snorted. Ceria laughed and Calruz joined in. The Raskghar looked back at them, and Nokha’s smile vanished for a moment in annoyed confusion. The two adventurers laughed louder, and Ceria felt a bit of madness herself take over. Every day it felt like the old Calruz again. And not. Here they were, fighting to keep him Chieftain of a Raskghar camp. And being licked! She laughed and laughed.

And knew it would be over soon.

 

—-

 

Evening fell on Liscor. Not that you could tell in the rain. Relc Grasstongue grumbled as he stood on the walls.

“When’s it going to stop? Next week? The week after next? It should end soon, right? It has to! There’s not enough water in the sky for all this. And why do I have to stand guard duty right now? For the sixth straight day? I wanna patrol, but no…I’m too high-level to patrol in a nice warm tavern for an hour or two. Captain Z makes me stand here because I’m the highest-level [Guardsman] in the city. Which is true. I’m awesome. But still.”

His griping went unheard by the other [Guardspeople] who were actually patrolling the walls. It was a slippery, wet beat and Relc was standing beneath a temporary awning out of the rain. Occasionally one of them would shoot him a dirty glance or make a comment, but they generally left Relc alone. Because if a monster or Raskghar attacked, he’d be the first one into the fight and everyone knew it.

Still, that didn’t meant they had to stand near him. Relc stood alone, leaning on the battlements and yawning while scratching his tail until a pair of crisp footfalls made him look around. He blinked and waved as a Drake with red scales marched towards him. Wing Commander Embria’s armor was polished and she walked swiftly with her enchanted spear in hand. A helmet was on her head and her posture was perfect. Relc waved at her as he leaned on his spear and the wall.

“Hey kid. What’s up?”

Embria stopped in front of Relc. She turned to face him and stared down at Relc, which was a trick since he was taller than she was. Her voice was cold.

“Senior Guardsman Relc.”

“What?”

Senior Guardsman Relc.

A note in Embria’s voice made Relc pause. Embria stared at him without a trace of affection.

“We are on duty. You will address me by my rank.”

The Drake paused. He looked at Embria and then straightened and gave her a grudging salute. He looked past her head as he spoke.

“Yes. Wing Commander Embria.”

His voice was hurt. Embria colored, making her red scales turn a darker shade. She nodded and Relc went back to leaning on the battlements, not looking at her. Embria looked around quickly and hissed.

“Stand up straight! You’re on duty!”

Relc looked back at Embria, clearly upset. His tail swept the wet stones beneath his feet as he replied.

“I’m not in the army anymore. The Watch doesn’t make us keep perfect posture except when we’re talking to Captain Z.”

Embria hissed at her father, keeping an eye out for passing [Guardsman] or her [Soldiers]. A few had been assigned to man the walls at regular intervals.

“You’re a former [Sergeant]! You should remember how to stand at least!”

“My former commander never made me stand at attention. He was cool.”

Relc folded his arms, looking peeved. Embria hesitated.

“Wing Commander Weillmet? He’s dead.”

“What? No.”

The big Drake froze. He stared at Embria.

“When?”

The Wing Commander had to think. She shook her head.

“About a year ago. During a holding action at Shivering Straits. His flank was exposed—a division from Oteslia’s Second Infantry overwhelmed his position.”

“Damn. I didn’t know.”

Relc turned away. He stared at the water surrounding Liscor in silence. Embria stared at his back. Her tail moved restlessly.

“You didn’t hear? The army sends back regular reports—”

“I don’t read them. Too many names I recognize and a lot I don’t. Plus, it’s always about where we’re fighting next, who’s paying us. It’s always the same stuff.”

“I’m…sorry. Wing Commander Weillmet was a good officer. I served with him for a few months. He taught me a few spear techniques.”

“Yeah. He always was good with the spear. Nearly as good as I was, but he was a better leader than a soldier. Man…so why are you up here, Wing Commander?”

Embria colored again. She stepped up and stood next to Relc. After a moment she relaxed her posture a tiny bit.

“I…wanted to talk with you.”

“You can find me at my home. I’m on duty. Can’t casually chat and all that.”

“You’ve been pulling double shifts all week.”

“That’s Captain Z’s fault, not mine. I just follow orders.”

Embria bit her tongue. She stared at Relc’s side. The Drake was staring into the waters, his expression bleak. After a moment, Embria went on.

“It’s about the Human.”

“Erin?”

“Yes. I have…questions. You know I’m here for more than just defense of the city, don’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah. Making sure we’re not getting eaten by the Antinium, prodding the Council in the tails, all that. How’s that going?”

Embria ignored the question.

“One of the things I was instructed to look into were the Antinium. I know what you think—but they’re acting oddly. And the other Hives have been…irregular of late. When Xrn, the Small Queen was sighted in Liscor, the High Command was alarmed.”

“Oh, so that’s why they sent you? Not because of the Goblin Lord running about?”

“It was one of their concerns. Father, you know this is an issue. And the Small Queen and the Slayer—”

“Klbkch.”

“—They both went to her inn. The Human’s.”

“Erin’s. They have names, you know.”

“Why?”

Relc paused. He stared across Liscor’s lake and then responded slowly.

“Well, you know, back in the old days, I guess people were tired of saying ‘hey you’, all the time. So they invented this thing called names, and most people—”

Embria stomped on Relc’s tail. He bit back a shout and whirled. She glared at him.

“Don’t evade the question!”

“I don’t know, okay? Erin’s special! Klb likes her and that blue Antinium likes her too, I guess! She plays chess with Workers!”

“But why? Why do you and everyone else listen to her?”

Embria raked her claws across the spines on the back of her neck, clearly frustrated. She gripped her spear and twirled it.

“Every time something happens, not only does Watch Captain Zevara listen to her, but Wall Lord Ilvriss—a Wall Lord—listens to her! And your [Strategist]! And everyone else! They listen to her opinion even when she says the most idiotic things! And apparently Zel Shivertail himself stayed at her inn! Why?”

“Because she’s Erin.”

This time Relc pulled his tail out of the way of Embria’s foot. He cradled it protectively as she stared at him.

“I don’t know, kid. All I know is that Erin has something. But I have no idea what that is. She likes Goblins, she plays a mean game of chess apparently…and she’s just different. But I can’t say why. I just go to her inn because I like the food. And because she called me a Dragon.”

The Wing Commander snorted and turned away. Relc stared at her back for a while, and then let go of his tail. It curled up a bit, and then he sidled a bit closer to her. He leaned on the battlements.

“You know, I think it’s because people like her. They didn’t at first, but Erin grows on you. Like a mushroom.”

“And what? They don’t like me? Is that why I have to request to join every planning session and why Watch Captain Zevara keeps forgetting to notify me of important events?”

“Yeah. Probably.”

Embria clenched her claws into fists.

“I came here to defend Liscor!”

“Too late. And the army’s never here. And you came in the wrong way, kid. You strode in and expected to take command. That’s not how it works.”

Embria sagged. She leaned on the battlements, looking dispirited.

“I know. I just—I’m trying to do my job, Dad. Why is it so hard?

Relc eyed Embria in alarm. His tail hesitated, and then nearly went over to touch Embria’s. At the last moment it stopped. He cleared his throat and looked around uncertainly.

“I think it’s because people don’t know you. But I’m sure they’d like you. I mean, you’re my kid. So why don’t we go and say hi to some people? Get your face out there? Buy some people some drinks?”

The young female Drake stared into the lake. Then she turned her head.

“That was your best idea?”

“Yeah.”

“I see.”

The two stood there for a while. Then Embria raised her head. She turned it and stared. Relc looked around as well. Both Drakes heard a loud, familiar voice.

“Yeah, I know it’s off limits! I need to speak with whoever’s up there! Is it Captain Zevara? No? Where is she? Okay, who’s up there? I know it’s someone important? Olesm? Embria? Okay, well then let me talk to her! Excuse me! Excuse me!

They saw Erin push her way up the steps. The Gnoll [Guardsman] tried to stop her, but not very hard. He stepped to one side as Erin spotted Embria and Relc.

“Great! You’re on my list! Hi, Embria right?”

What are you doing up here?

Embria barked at Erin. The young woman paused. Embria grabbed her spear and pointed it at Erin.

“Are you insane? We are under martial law! Access to the ramparts is forbidden! I could execute you here and now!”

“Yeah, yeah. Look, I need to talk to you. Now.”

To the female Drake’s shock, Erin reached out and pushed the spearhead away from her chest. She advanced and Embria stared at her.

“I’ve got a plan. Relc, can you tell Zevara I need to speak with her? And Klbkch! I definitely need Klbkch. Get them to meet me in the inn in like, five minutes. Be there or be square. Got it?”

Relc covered a laugh as Embria spluttered.

“You can’t just order a Watch Captain—I’m a Wing Commander! What are you talking about? A plan?”

“That’s right. And you should be there. Bring a few [Captains] so they can listen if you want. I’m getting Ilvriss and Olesm now. Relc?”

“On it! Is this plan going to be awesome?”

“So awesome. Or we die.”

Erin gave Relc a thumbs up. He grinned. Erin turned to go, but Embria’s spear shot out.

“Hold it.”

Both Erin and Relc looked at Embria. The Wing Commander looked beyond peeved. She stared at Erin, anger written all over her face.

“This is insane! Da—Senior Guardsman Relc, get back to your post! You, Human. Why should we listen to you or follow your orders?”

“Why?”

“That’s right. You’re no [Leader]. You run an inn! What gives you the right to order anyone about?”

Erin gave Embria the blankest look the Drake had ever seen on someone who wasn’t a corpse. She thought for a second, and then shrugged.

“You don’t have to follow my orders. I just thought you’d want to be part of my plan. I don’t need you. I could use your help, but you need me more than I need you. So…see you maybe?”

The Wing Commander gaped at Erin. The young woman went to push aside her spear, but it didn’t budge. Relc coughed. He lifted the spear up and Erin ducked under it.

“Five minutes! Or ten! I can’t run that fast. All the Gold-ranks are going to be there! I’ll tell everyone my plan, then we have to hurry and get ready! Find Zevara and Klbkch!”

She ran down the battlements. The Gnoll [Guardsman] stared at Embria and then decided he needed to follow Erin. Relc and his daughter stood together. Embria looked at Relc. He grinned.

“See that? That’s why. You coming?”

 

—-

 

“Yes, I don’t think Pallass can commit any more adventurers. It’s not a question of cost—they’re not willing to empty their city and they’ve sent two thirds of their Gold-ranks to Liscor already. They do have a Named Adventurer, but they can’t force him to comply. Yes, I’ve tried to approach him directly. But I’m banned from entering the city as you know—”

Ilvriss was speaking into his personal scrying orb to someone in Salazsar. He and Olesm sat in the meeting room usually used by the Council in their infrequent meetings. Now it was a war room complete with a map of the dungeon. Olesm was poring over the transcripts of the Gnoll prisoner’s accounts of the dungeon. He was trying to piece together an image of the Raskghar camps. And he was succeeding, much to his chagrin.

“Too many Raskghar. If we fill the corridors like this and this—we can’t complete the encirclement. But without more adventurers, we can’t hold these positions. Especially against the awakened. If they can beat a Hob—what’s Headscratcher’s level?”

Olesm was muttering to himself as he did calculations. Each time he studied the numbers of the Raskghar his heart sank. Just too many to take on with all the Gold-ranks. If they were defending it was doable. But the objective was to free prisoners and the Raskghar could run or encircle the Gold-ranks. They had to do something other than a full-scale assault. Use subterfuge. Unfortunately, even the best Gold-ranks like Seborn had flatly refused to try and infiltrate the Raskghar camp.

“We must do something. Some of the Gnolls are free, but the rest will be sacrificed. Can you hire a Courier to send an artifact—yes, it’s worth the risk! No, the Heartflame Breastplate can’t solve this issue! The Selphid wearing it can fight a hundred Raskghar in it, and there are thousands in the dungeon! I don’t care about the cost! Give me a solution! Salazsar has—”

Ilvriss was arguing passionately with his fellow Salaszarian Wall Lords and Ladies. He had really committed all he could to the dungeon. Olesm had to admire that. But his fellow nobility from Salazsar were removed from Liscor’s situation. Ilvriss had been talking with them for the last hour and gotten nowhere. But Olesm had hopes. If he could get Salaszar to send some of their elites or adventurers of their own—or just one of the artifacts that the Walled Cities held in their vaults, maybe—

Hey! Let me in!

The Wall Lord glanced up with Olesm.  They both heard the shout from below. Olesm closed his eyes. He recognized that voice.

“Hey Ilvriss! Hey! I know you’re up there! Your guards won’t let me in! Move aside! I need to talk with you!”

Olesm looked at Ilvriss. The Drake covered the scrying orb with one claw and motioned him towards the window. The [Strategist] looked outside. Sure enough, there was Erin. A pair of Drakes were trying to usher her away, but she was shouting up at the windows.

“I have a plan! I need you to come to my inn! Now! It’s about the Gnolls!”

Ilvriss paused. He looked at Olesm. The [Strategist] gave him a weak grin and shrug, but part of him stirred. Erin couldn’t have a plan. He had no plan and he was a [Strategist] now! But she played chess. And it was Erin…

“Hold on. I need to address this. Stay near the orb. We haven’t finished our discussion.”

Ilvriss snapped into the scrying orb and placed it on the table. He stalked over to the window and unlatched it. He shouted down at Erin as the two Drakes began to haul her back.

“Hold! Solstice, what are you talking about?”

Erin fought free of the Drakes and waved her arms up at Ilvriss.

“I have a plan! It involves you and Olesm and Zevara and Embria! They’re all coming to my inn! I think!”

Ilvriss glanced swiftly at Olesm. The [Strategist] whispered.

“I haven’t heard anything from Captain Zevara. But Erin probably talked to her just before this.”

The Wall Lord nodded. He called down at Erin.

“You can’t have a plan.”

“What? Why not?”

Ilvriss glared at Erin.

“There is no way you can resolve this situation. I’m sorry, but there isn’t. Not in this case. The Raskghar are a threat, not a stain on your inn’s floors you can wipe away. This is not something you can make a difference with, Solstice.”

“I can with your help! Believe me!”

“She is quite good at strategy, Wall Lord.”

Ilvriss glanced at Olesm with irritation.

“Good at strategy doesn’t change facts, Swifttail! There are thousands of Raskghar! We’ve been racking our brains trying to figure out how to assist the Gold-ranks. What can she do that we can’t?”

“Hey! I heard that!”

In the streets, Erin raised a fist and shook it at Ilvriss. The volume of her shouting rose.

“You think I can’t help? I can’t fight, but I can think! And my plan needs you, Ilvriss! It needs you, and Klbkch, and Zevara—it needs everyone! Only I can pull it off. Because I’m me!

The Drakes hesitated. Olesm stared down at Erin. He put down his papers and grabbed an ink pot, some fresh parchment and a quill. Ilvriss stared at him.

“What are you doing?”

“Going to her inn.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. Stay here. Swifttail! I command you!”

Ilvriss reached out. Olesm turned. He had a hand on the doorknob.

“Apologies, Wall Lord, but I believe Erin.”

“But she’s just—”

“Erin. She killed Skinner. And I believe she’s the best chess player in this world. Better than Niers Astoragon. She saved me from Liscor’s crypt. I’m going.”

Olesm threw the door open. He disappeared out it. Ilvriss turned back to the window. He stared down at Erin as Olesm hurried past her.

“You can’t do anything. If you could—what can you do that we cannot?”

The young woman stared up at him. Her voice echoed from the houses. The rain fell, but Erin shouted over the roar.

I am Erin Solstice! I’m the craziest Human you know! And I have a plan! I can save the Gnolls! I can save Ceria! I can save Mrsha! Look me in the eye and tell me I can’t!

She met Ilvriss’ gaze. The Wall Lord stared down at her. Then he turned. He strode down the steps and out the door. He folded his arms as he met Erin in the rain.

“Let’s hear it.”

She grinned. Erin was wet and sweaty. She was dirty from falling once. But her eyes were alight. And Ilvriss dared to hope.

“I’ll give you the cliff notes as we run to the inn. Come on!”

She ran with Ilvriss following her and cursing at his adjutants to keep up. By the time they got to the inn, Relc, Klbkch, Zevara, and Embria were there. So was Pisces, Yvlon, Klbkch, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords, and every Gold-rank captain. They stared as Erin ran inside. She turned to face them.

“I have a plan. It’s very simple. Ready? Here it is.”

She spoke. They listened for five minutes. Then they argued, and then agreed. Zevara, Embria, Ilvriss, and Klbkch raced out of the inn. The Gold-rank Captains were hot on her heels. They ran into the city. Erin stood in her suddenly empty inn. She turned and looked at those remaining. Lyonette was staring at Erin with hope. Olesm was smacking himself on the forehead. Relc just grinned. Erin smiled at them all.

“Let’s do this thing. Come on, we need to get ready. Get those tables out of the way! Move, move, move! Time is running out!”

 

—-

 

It was early nightfall when the Raskghar finished restoring order to their camp. The dead Raskghar and Goblins were removed or processed into food. Two of the exits were fortified, sealed off in case Snatcher returned. Calruz had the Raskghar on high-alert. And the Cave Goblins were busy at work.

It always amazed Ceria how many there were. And how subservient they were. The Raskghar seemed to have a limitless supply of bodies—Cave Goblins were always moving in and out of the camp, bringing water, supplies from other spots, or fixing stuff up. Perfoming tasks the Raskghar wouldn’t. She saw a group of Goblins butchering a dead Raskghar, carefully removing the bones to be placed with the dead. And another group was constructing mobile barricades.

“We might be able to drag them into place if Snatcher returns. Or block the adventurers. We have a supply of metal and wood—but it’s limited. We have more metal than wood, actually. The Goblins occasionally go above to forage for wood, but Liscor is limited in that as well. Hide works best for most structures.”

Calruz grimaced as he pointed out the old and often moldy wood the Cave Goblins were lugging into place. They had crude nails and hammer and were creating metal sheets. Ceria saw the Raskghar supervising the task. They didn’t do any of the work themselves, but they made the Goblins work faster with calculated blows. She saw one small Goblin flinch as a Raskghar swung at her. She redoubled her pace, bringing nails to the Goblins making a large sheet of metal that could be used to block the tunnel entrance.

“It won’t stop Snatcher. You saw how strong he was.”

“Not if he fights. But you saw him. It. That thing only looked for heads. And it barely paid any notice to anything else, even when it was being attacked.”

“Because we did nothing to it! If it wanted to, I bet it could kill half your camp by itself. And you want to move locations with it hanging about?”

Calruz snorted.

“Of course. The adventurers could have our location. We move again! We’ll take care on the trip, that’s all.”

He glanced around. Ceria folded her arms. The other Raksghar looked at each other. Some shook their heads. Nokha and a few of the awakened growled. She prefuctorily dipped her head.

“Dangerous, Chieftain. Would be better if we had more awakened. Stronger.”

“No. We keep the Gnolls as prisoners. Under watch. And I’ll question the small one now. I want to know how they got out.”

Nokha growled.

“Little white one used magic.”

“Impossible. Gnolls can’t—”

Ceria began to object, then remembered what Calvaron had told her once. She bit her lip and stared at Mrsha. Calruz raised his eyebrows.

“They can’t use magic, correct?”

Before Ceria could reply, Nokha jumped in.

“Can. This one is special. White fur. Must sacrifice. Tonight!”

“I said no.”

Calruz bared his teeth. Nokha’s hackles rose. She looked at her companions. Ceria saw the other Raskghar look up. The Goblins froze as they dragged the sheet of metal towards one of the walls, ready to be shoved into position. There were five entrances to the Raskghar camp. Two had been sealed, and now three metal barricades were in place. The Cave Goblins crept around them, reinforcing the solid slabs of metal. Watching the Raskghar.

They could sense it too. Calruz stared at Nokha.

“Are you questioning your Chieftain?”

The awakened Raskghar hesitated. She looked at the others and then looked back.

“Yes.”

“I see.”

Calruz’s voice was calm, but a dangerous light had entered his eyes. Ceria looked from Nokha to the other Raskghar and backed up a step. They moved back as well. Calruz stood taller. He was still bigger than Nokha, but she was huge. The one-armed Minotaur and awakened Raskghar faced each other. Their voices grew louder. Now everyone was listening.

“I am in command. And I say that the ritual is performed when I desire. I will reward those I see fit.”

“When? Ritual makes Raskghar powerful now. And white one is special. Raskghar will sacrifice her. Grow even stronger. I will sacrifice her.”

Nokha licked her lips. Calruz stared down at her.

“You? And what would you do with all that power?”

“Lead Raskghar better. Grow. Sacrifice. Grow. Hunt more Gnolls. Grow. That is the purpose of the Raskghar.”

“Your purpose is what I decide it is.”

Calruz’s voice was cold. His eyes glinted as he looked around. The other Raskghar were silent, but they were watching Nokha. The Minotaur reached behind his back. He drew his axe and Nokha backed up a step. Calruz looked around, his axe’s head glowing in the faint light.

“I am your Chieftain. I, and no one else! You do not tell me what the Raskghar’s purpose is! I am in command! If you go against me, you are challenging me! My authority! Are you doing that Nokha? Because if it is a challenge, there is only one answer.”

He held his axe up. Nokha bared her teeth.

“You are weak. Chieftain. You are soft! You do not understand Raskghar. You are weak. One armed. And you trust her.

She pointed at Ceria. The half-Elf’s breath caught. Calruz turned his head. Raskghar were moving. The awakened moved behind Nokha. Calruz looked around. No one had come to stand behind him. He bared his teeth in a terrible grin.

“It seems I should. Ceria, to me.”

Ceria moved forwards a bit. Nokha laughed. She looked from Ceria to Calruz. The awakened were at her back. Eighteen versus two. Calruz muttered to Ceria.

“Keep the others back. I’ll kill Nokha and put an end to their challenge.”

“Oh, thanks. Sure you don’t want me to take on the entire tribe?”

Ceria eyed the awakened. They were spreading out. But she could raise a wall of ice, box herself and Calruz and Nokha in. If they were fast. She tapped Calruz on the arm, drew a circle in his fur. He nodded. He’d clear the area with his axe while she worked. Nokha noticed the motion and bared her teeth.

“You trust her. But she is traitor. You said so yourself.”

“Not as traitorous as you, apparently.”

Calruz stared at Nokha. His eyes were turning red. The muscles in his arm bulged as he lifted his axe. Ceria braced herself. She knew he had Skills she hadn’t seen. And judging from the way the awakened Raskghar eyed him, they knew some of them. The tension grew deadly. But Nokha still wasn’t done. She looked at Ceria and the half-Elf saw her grin grow wide.

“But she told them everything. With a spell.”

A deathly silence fell over the room. Ceria gulped. She saw Calruz freeze. And then, slowly, the Minotaur turned towards her. And when he stared at her, his eyes were red. And oh, so very mad.

 

—-

 

Mrsha saw it all. The end. Her body hurt so much. Her head spun. But she was not alone. The Gnolls held her. The remaining ones sat together, waiting. They watched the standoff between Calruz and the awakened.

Around the room, the Raskghar were standing, forming a large, rough circle. They watched Calruz, their Chieftain, face off against Nokha and her awakened. Behind them the Cave Goblins scurried to and fro. They were watching too. They kept their heads low, not daring to make a sound. Mrsha saw the Goblins working on the large metal sheets propped up against the walls. Others were building more cages. She saw a tiny Goblin run past them with a few nails and a piece of unshaped metal. She began hammering it into one of the metal sheets. The sound was background noise, though. The center of the room was silent. Calruz had just turned to Ceria.

“What spell?”

“Fire. A bit of little magic. It flies up and vanishes.”

Nokha grinned. Her awakened were spreading out around Calruz and Ceria. They didn’t have their weapons in hand, but they were tensed.  But the Minotaur wasn’t looking at them. He stared at Ceria.

“A spell. A fiery—you told me you didn’t know [Message].”

“I don’t. I told you that.”

Ceria backed up. Mrsha could see her grinning desperately, holding up her hands. Calruz turned. His grip on his axe shifted.

“But you know other spells. Spells from Wistram. Didn’t you tell me once that you knew a spell to talk with an old friend? With him? The [Necromancer]?”

“Uh—no?”

Calruz looked like he was growing larger. Mrsha felt the madness rolling off him. She stared at him, at Nokha. If he won she wouldn’t go free. If Nokha won—they’d die tonight. Mrsha wished she had Ceria’s wand, but it had been taken. She wished Ceria had her wand.

“Look, Calruz. Nokha’s making all this up. She’s trying to divide us! We have to work together!”

Ceria’s smile was frozen as she tried to desperately talk down Calruz. But now the Minotaur was focused on her.

“The attack. You swore to me that it wasn’t your fault. But you were lying. Did you send them another message after that? Have you told them about the city? Did you tell them about the secrets?”

For a second Ceria wavered. She hadn’t expected that question.

“No—what? I would never—”

“Liar.”

Calruz let go of his axe. He reached out and grabbed Ceria’s arm. She tried to twist away.

“Calruz, listen—I never did anything to hurt you. The Raskghar are going to attack you! Remember?”

“I trusted you. I called you my friend. I told you my secrets. Even when you tried to kill me, I trusted you. And this is how you repay me? With treachery? With this?

Ceria’s smile was still on her face. She twisted. Calruz stared at her. His voice grew louder.

“Betrayal! I am surrounded by it! Betrayal! Treachery! You will be first, then the Raskghar!”

He let go of Ceria. Then his arm swung. He backhanded her. The blow spun the half-Elf. Ceria heard a crack. It sounded like bone breaking. Ceria’s head jerked. Her head snapped back. She fell. Mrsha made a tiny sound. No.

Ceria lay on the ground. Her face was shattered. Mrsha saw a piece of skin lying on the ground. The half-Elf jerked, looked up. Calruz stared at her.

Ceria’s face was broken. But something wasn’t right. There was no blood. And her smile was still there. But—crooked. Ceria’s smile was frozen on her face. Frozen on her face. No. It was her face. And as Ceria rose, the mask of ice broke. And beneath it she was scowling.

“I’m getting tired of being hit in the face.”

Calruz stared at Ceria. The mask of ice fell to pieces, colored water landing on the ground and melting. The Raskghar stared. Mrsha stared. Even she hadn’t smelled the mask! Had Ceria made it out of her sweat?

And now the half-Elf’s body was changing. Frost vapor poured from her arms, her hands. It formed a layer of ice over her robes, her skin. Her skeletal hand. Ceria’s voice was cold as a glacier.

“Frost armor. Illphres always said her masks were tougher than steel. You want to hit me Calruz, give it your best shot. But watch out for spikes.”

The Minotaur stared at his hand. It was bleeding. Ceria’s ice mask had torn his skin. He looked at Ceria. She grinned at him.

“Yeah, I cast a spell. So what? You kidnapped me. You kidnapped the Gnolls. What was I supposed to do? But guess what? Right here, right now, I’m not your enemy. They are.”

She pointed with a gauntlet made of ice. The awakened stared at Ceria. They smelled wary. Mrsha saw them look at Nokha. The female Raskghar bared her teeth. She had a hand on her sword.

“Your treachery is unforgivable.”

“Probably. But you have bigger problems.”

Ceria shrugged. She stared at Calruz and narrowed her eyes. The Minotaur looked at the other awakened. He stared at her uncertainly.

“Give me one reason why I could trust you.”

The room was silent. The Raskghar waited. Mrsha waited. The Cave Goblins moved and watched. Ceria looked around. She closed her eyes, then spoke.

“Death before dishonor. I’ve lied. I’ve betrayed you. But I haven’t compromised my honor.”

Calruz froze. Ceria pointed at him. The half-Elf stared at the Minotaur.

“What do you have to give them, Calruz? Glory? I don’t have that. But I do have honor. So if you’re coming, come. The Horns of Hammerad don’t run.”

She spread her arms. The Raskghar tensed. Calruz stared at Ceria. He looked at his axe. He bent and lifted it. He and Ceria charged. The Raskghar leapt forwards. Ceria ran at Calruz, her frost armor covering her body. He raised his axe and swung. She ducked.

[Whirlwind Cleave]!

The Minotaur roared. He swung his axe and the glowing green edge extended. His arm flashed and he spun. Three of the Raskghar jumping at him were caught by the enchanted axe. Calruz cut through them all. Blood splattered Ceria’s armor. She rose and shot an [Ice Spike]. A Raskghar howled in pain as it pierced his shoulder. Ceria conjured a wall of ice, blocking two more. She and Calruz stood back-to-back. Nokha and the other awakened snarled.

“Horns of Hammerad!”

Calruz roared. Ceria laughed.

“Horns! Forward!”

They spun, taking on the Raskghar, blade and spell. Mrsha saw the lesser Raskghar watching. The awakened advanced slowly, spreading out. The Gnolls clung to the bars, watching, hoping.

And the Cave Goblins backed away. They saw the fighting between Chieftain and awakened. They scurried towards the exits of the Raskghar camp. They disappeared past the metal sheets lying against the walls. Mrsha saw them streaming out, breaking into a dead run. None of the Raskghar noticed. Their eyes were on the battle. But Mrsha caught something as the Goblins moved and stirred the stale dungeon air into a breeze. It blew at her and she smelled something.

Oil. Salt. A warm room and a young woman. The scent of floorboards, of a crackling fire. A place where good food was always there and where she was safe. A loving mother.

Home.

And then Mrsha saw the Goblin who was the source of the scent. She was standing by one of the metal sheets. She had a hammer in hand. She’d pounded something into the sheet. A piece of unshaped metal. A round, crude little thing. On the flat piece of metal it was an irregularity. Excess. But as Mrsha stared at it she noticed something. The round bit of metal was at the right spot. If you looked at it just right, it looked almost like a door—

And then Pebblesnatch reached into her pocket. She pulled something out. A shimmering stone that glowed bright purple. It shone with magic. The stone was small, slightly rounded. A mana stone to be precise. But if you wanted to, you could call it a pebble. And she placed it on the door.

And Mrsha howled. The fighting Raskghar froze. Calruz turned his head as he swung his axe with a snarl. Ceria turned, her finger raised, tracking Nokha. The awakened Raskghar growled in fury. She looked at Mrsha and stopped. Because the Gnoll was pointing.

Every head turned. Raskghar. Gnoll. Minotaur. And Ceria’s. The others frowned as they saw Pebblesnatch standing by the sheet of metal with the crude bit of metal attached. They stared at the glowing mana stone. Ceria’s eyes widened. Nokha stared at her and barked an order, pointing at Pebblesnatch. But it was too late.

The Cave Goblin grabbed the doorknob and heaved on it. The piece of metal the Cave Goblins had built was thick. It was propped up against the wall, just a sheet of metal. There was nothing but dungeon stone behind it. But as Pebblesnatch dragged the door open, light shone through. The Raskghar flinched back, snarling in confusion. They shaded their eyes, and then stared.

There was a room on the other side of the door. A room filled with warm light. Rich, hardwood floorboards filled the common room of the Wandering Inn. A merry fire burned in the fireplace. The air smelled of good food, and the inn was warm and pleasant. But in that moment, what everyone’s eye was really drawn to were the people.

They stood in ranks. Gold-rank adventurers, lined up. The Horns of Hammerad minus one, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, the Wings of Pallass, the Flamewardens. Every Gold-rank team in the city and Silver-rank ones behind. And behind them were the Watch. Ranks of Drakes and Gnolls stood side-by-side with armored [Soldiers] led by Embria. Relc and Klbkch stood behind Zevara. Ilvriss and Olesm stood to one side with the Wall Lord’s personal retinue. Ilvriss’ sword was bared.

And behind them were the Antinium. The Painted Soldiers stood in ranks, led by Pawn, Anand, and Belgrade. Bird sat on a table, bow in hand. The adventurers, guardsmen, soldiers, and Antinium stared at the Raskghar in silence. The Raskghar were frozen.

And then a young woman stepped into view. Erin Solstice stood in the doorway, a broad smile on her face. She had a frying pan in one hand. She waved at the Raskghar with the other. She spoke in the silence.

“Hey. Welcome to my inn.”

The Raskghar stared at her in horror. Erin’s smile widened. Then she stepped out of the way. Jelaqua Ivirith strode forwards. She pointed, her golden-red armor burning with magical fire.

Charge!

She leapt through the door, her two-handed flail already swinging. The adventurers roared and surged through the door. Jelaqua bore down on the nearest Raskghar, her flail smashing into the beast-woman’s head. The Gold-rank adventurers charged past her, throwing spells and loosing arrows. Bevussa flew over the heads of the others, slashing at the Raskghar from overhead.

Silver Swords!

Ylawes ran forwards with Dawil and Falene at his back. He crashed into a Raskghar, ramming the stunned beast man with his shield. Dawil swung his hammer into the Raskghar’s side and Falene blasted another with a shower of fire arrows.

The Raskghar broke out of their stupefaction. They howled and tried to fight. But the wave of Gold-rank adventurers overwhelmed the first row of Raskghar, and the second. The Raskghar found themselves engaged in a melee as the [Warriors] pressed them from the front. The [Mages] and [Archers] held the back around the door. They poured through as the awakened Raskghar howled in alarm. Calruz spun, shouting orders as he and the other Raskghar tried to stem the onslaught.

There were over a hundred adventurers. But there were at least ten, no, maybe twenty Raskghar for each adventurer. The Raskghar formed a line, rushing forwards. The adventurers held their ground, shouting. Mrsha scrambled to see as the Gnolls howled. Where were the others? But the door was blank. Erin’s inn had vanished. Vanished?

And then Mrsha saw the light.

 

—-

 

The last adventurer charged through. Erin slammed the door. She ripped the purple mana stone off and grabbed another one from the tray beside the door. She heard Zevara and Embria shouting as she fumbled with the dark brown mana stone.

Guardsman! Follow Wing Commander Embria’s soldiers!

Captains! Prepare the charge!

A row of Drakes in colored armor marched forwards. They stood in front of the door as Erin slapped the mana stone into place. The [Captains] shouted, their voices overlapping.

“[Daring Charge]!”

“[Shieldwall Formation!]”

“[First Strikes]!”

“[Bravehearts]!”

Wing Commander Embria raised her spear. Erin reached for the door handle and yanked open the door. The Raskghar’s camp appeared in front of them. But from a different angle. The Raskghar were all clustered on the other side of the room and the Gold-rank adventurers were facing the doorway. They turned in disbelief as the light from the inn poured towards their backs.

Now! [Blades of Glory]! Charge!

She raced through the doorway towards the Raskghar. The Drake [Captains] were next. Then the [Sergeants]. Then the [Soldiers]. The 4th Company of Liscor’s finest crashed into the Raskghar like a wave from behind.

“Men! After me!”

Zevara ran through next, Relc and Klbkch hot on their heels. The [Guardsman] of Liscor followed, screaming war cries. Their blades glowed and they threw themselves at the larger Raskghar without hesitation. Erin saw Ilvriss run through with his retinue of personal Drakes. The Wall Lord pointed his sword and shouted.

“To me! Cut them down! Leave none of these monsters alive!”

Olesm ran with him, sword held aloft. Erin waited until the last Drake was out the door and then slammed her door again. This time she heard the Antinium move forwards.

“Soldiers, prepare yourself. We enter combat.”

Anand’s voice rang out as the Painted Soldiers tensed in front of the door. The two [Tacticians] stood to one side, as did Pawn. Yellow Splatter’s fists were raised. He and Purple Smile waited as Erin nearly dropped the black mana stone. She slapped it on the door and looked at the Antinium.

“Ready?”

Belgrade and Anand nodded.

“We have already applied our Skills. Proceed!”

Erin threw open the door. Again, the Raskghar camp appeared in front of her. Again, the perspective was different.

Three metal sheets. Each one had been placed at one of the entrances to the Raskghar camp. Each one at a different spot. Erin didn’t know how Pebblesnatch had managed it, but the logic had been simple. Why attack from one spot if you could attack from three?

Chess.

The instant the door opened Yellow Splatters thundered through. He spoke not a word. And neither did the other Soldiers. They charged silently.

A wall of black bodies smashed into the Raskghar from the side. They were so preoccupied with the Watch and Embria’s Soldiers and the adventurers that they didn’t hear the Antinium. Their only warning was the sight of Yellow Splatters running towards the nearest Raskghar. The beast man turned, eyes wide, and brought up his shield. Yellow Splatter’s fist punched through it and then the Antinium knocked the Raskghar to the ground. He pounded the Raskghar with all four fists as the Antinium streamed forwards, a tide of them—

“We go in too. Pawn, stay with us.”

Belgrade and Anand strode forwards. Pawn walked after them, swinging his censer. Erin wanted to stop them, but the Antinium walked behind the lines of Soldiers. And then it was just Erin. She looked around. Her inn was empty. Her chairs and tables were piled up at the dais in the back. Even so, her inn had been packed. Now there was only her, Bird, Lyonette, and Apista left. Erin stared at Bird. He had his bow out and was aiming it.

“Do I have permission to shoot, Miss Erin?”

“Yes.”

Erin stepped back from the door. Bird nodded. He knelt and drew an arrow. He took aim and loosed in a fraction of a second. His arrow shot past a group of fighting Soldiers, so close to one that it nearly grazed the Soldier’s eye. The Soldier didn’t flinch. The Raskghar that Bird’s arrow struck did. Bird drew another arrow and loosed it. And another. And another. His four hands moved so fast Erin couldn’t keep track. He loosed one arrow and then used his other hands to loose another. The arrows flew in a steady stream, as if Bird didn’t have to aim.

And he didn’t, in a sense. The Raskghar were everywhere. And there were so many of them! More than all the people fighting. But they were boxed in from three sides. And their opponents had been waiting for this moment.

Guardsman. Soldiers. Adventurers. Antinium. One side alone couldn’t beat the Raskghar. The adventurers couldn’t take the fight to them in the dungeon. The Antinium couldn’t bypass the traps. The soldiers and guardsman couldn’t abandon Liscor. People like Ilvriss could fight, but couldn’t handle the dungeon’s confines. But a fight? In a fight it was different.

Erin stared through the door. The Raskghar were disorganized, afraid. They had never expected their enemy to commit so much to one assault. If Liscor’s defenders died here, the city was lost. But that was the thing about strategy. You went all in. And this was all Erin had.

“Bird, I’m changing the door back to the adventurer’s side. They need support.”

“Yes, Erin. The pretty bird lady should not die.”

Erin slammed the door. Bird leaned out of the way as she plucked the mana stone off and slapped the purple one into place. She opened the door and Bird began loosing arrows. The Raskghar howled. Some of them pointed at Erin’s door. She gritted her teeth.

“Yeah, come on. Try getting in here. Bird, you get ready to move back if they rush us. Lyonette?”

Erin looked around. She looked for the [Princess]. Lyonette was staring into the door. She had a sword in her hands. Erin stared at her. Apista buzzed up in front of Erin’s face.

“Lyonette? What are you—”

 

—-

 

Chaos. The battle in the Raskghar’s camp was utter chaos. The three sides tried to hem the Raskghar in, but there were so many! The organized battle line began to fracture in places. But the Gold-ranks pressed ahead. The Silver Swords fought back-to-back. The Flamewardens incinerated patches of Raskghar while Bevussa’s team flew above. But they weren’t the tip of the spear breaking into Raskghar lines.

There. You. Are!

Jelaqua howled as she spotted the Raskghar in enchanted armor. The Raskghar turned and she crashed into him. The Selphid battered on his helmet with her flail as he struck her armor with his axe. The two cleared a space as they swung at each other. Raskghar tried to come to the armored Raskghar’s aid, but arrows cut them down. Halrac advanced, loosing arrows at point-blank range.

“Halrac! You’re in too far!”

Revi shouted at the [Scout] as he covered Jelaqua from behind. Her summoned warriors were clearing the left flank for the adventurers. Her giant Face-Eater Moth was causing havoc among the Raskghar and Typhenous was blowing apart their ranks with spells. But Halrac was surrounded. The Raskghar charged at the archers.

Halrac loosed an enchanted arrow, blowing two Raskghar apart, and then turned as one with an axe bore down on him. He dropped his bow, and drew his shortsword. He stabbed the Raskghar through the hide armor on its chest and turned. He cut at the Raskghar charging him from the right, dodging backwards, blade flashing. The Raskghar howled in dismay.

Duck!

The [Scout] flung himself down. He grabbed his bow and rolled, sheathing his shortsword as an adventurer heaved a trip vine bag at the Raskghar. It exploded, wrapping them in vines as Halrac leapt back. Jelaqua and the armored Raskghar fought on, heedless of the vines. Halrac turned, raising his bow, and an awakened Raskghar charged him. The first arrow Halrac loosed froze the Raskghar’s shield arm and raised buckler, but the awakened Raskghar just hurled the shield down. It charged Halrac, stone axe swinging. Halrac reached for his sword, narrowing his eyes—

And a hand grabbed the awakened. It twisted as Moore lifted it. The half-Giant roared at the Raskghar.

Where is Mrsha?

The Raskghar bit and clawed at Moore. In response, the giant threw the Raskghar into a clump of the others. The awakened Raskghar’s body cracked as it landed among the other Raskghar. They fell down, screaming in pain and then looked up as Moore swung his staff. The half-Giant punched and Raskghar disappeared. His body rose above the others as he threw Raskghar to the ground.

Mrsha!

Raskghar tried to fight him. But a shadow moved behind Moore. Seborn stabbed a Raskghar in the back, leapt, rolled, and cut another one before vanishing again. To his right, Relc grappled with an awakened Raskghar.

“Gah! You’re pretty strong!”

The former [Sergeant] grunted, his muscles straining as he fought with the Raskghar for possession of his spear. The awakened Raskghar’s eyes widened in disbelief as Relc forced the spear tip towards its chest. It backed up, arms straining—

And Klbkch’s blades pierced its chest. The Antinium twisted his swords and the Raskghar collapsed. Klbkch withdrew his blades and looked at Relc. The Drake blinked at him.

“I had him.”

“Evidently.”

Klbkch turned, blades flashing. Relc grinned and spun his spear. The Raskghar backed away as the two charged forwards.

Hold the line! Let the [Mages] cut them down! Hold!”

Zevara fought in her section as the Watch strove to keep the Raskghar pinned. While the Senior Guardsmen moved independently, the rest of the Watch fought shoulder-to-shoulder, not budging an inch. Zevara spat fire and cut with her sword. She saw the Raskghar charging on her left and ran to reinforce that spot. But before she got there she heard a voice.

On the left!

Embria charged with the [Soldiers] under her command. The [Captains] effortlessly cleaved into the Raskghar as the lower-level [Soldiers] rushed to follow. Embria whirled her spear, stabbed a Raskghar through the throat, and cut another across the face. She turned and saluted Zevara. The Watch Captain returned the salute.

“Salazsar! To me!”

Ilvriss stood on another part of the front lines. The Wall Lord fought with his small retinue of Drakes, not budging an inch. The Raskghar fell back in front of him—the Wall Lord’s fury was a physical thing, pressing at them, beating down like invisible fists. He turned and pointed.

There! Someone stop those Raskghar!

A group was headed towards Erin’s open door. The Antinium charged to intercept. Purple Smiles swayed as he jabbed, punching and fighting two Raskghar with his four arms at once. The other Soldiers overwhelmed the group of Raskghar with their bodies, throwing themselves on the Raskghar with a fury even the beast people couldn’t match. But some of the Raskghar escaped. They ran for Erin’s inn, ignoring Bird’s arrows that pierced their hides. One charged at Erin, howling—

And she slammed the door in his face. The warrior collided with the stone wall full-force. He lay there, stunned, until one of the Gold-rank adventurers stabbed him in the back. Light flashed from the other side of the room as Erin opened her door behind the Watch.

The battle was going one way. The Raskghar fell back, howling in fear as they were pressed from every side. They were strong. Cunning! Larger than their opponents! But these other races had magic. They blew apart the Raskghar from afar, and when they were injured they pulled back and used healing potions. The Raskghar, for all their numbers, didn’t have nearly as many healing potions. They had artifacts, but not enough.

And the Cave Goblins were gone. It was only Raskghar who fell and died. The awakened tried to rally them, but the Raskgahr were breaking. Nokha, snarling, turned, and howled for her bretheren. But she heard only three answering howls in the chaos. The awakened were dying! She felt fear run through her and looked around.

They had to flee. This battle was lost. But before they could go, they had to take the special one.

Mrsha. The fighting had kept clear of the cages. Nokha cut with her enchanted sword, killing the [Soldier] who was rushing at her and bounded through the fighting. She leapt towards Mrsha’s cage. The Gnolls inside cried out as Nokha tore the bars open. One tried to tackle her—she ran him through.

Mrsha fought as Nokha reached into the cage. But the Raskghar ignored her biting. She bared her teeth and turned. Flee! She looked towards the exits and then saw someone standing in front of her.

“Put her down.”

Lyonette held a sword in her hands. Nokha stared at her and grinned. She lashed out, her glowing sword cutting at Lyonette’s head. Mrsha screamed. And Lyonette parried.

It was a perfect moment. All the weight behind Nokha’s thrust vanished. Her blade missed Lyonette and the young woman stabbed. Nokha felt a burst of pain radiating from one shoulder. She turned, wrenching the blade out of her shoulder. She swung again, knocking Lyonette’s blade away. The sword tore loose from Lyonette’s hand and went flying. The young woman stared up as Nokha lifted her sword.

Bee attack! Go Apista!

Nokha heard the voice, but it made no sense. She turned her head and Apista jammed her stinger into Nokha’s cheek. The Raskghar howled and tried to tear the Ashfire Bee off. Apista flew up as Lyonette scrambled for her sword. The Raskghar whirled. Enough! She turned, eyes blazing—

And saw Moore. The half-Giant’s arms bled, but the thorns and vines covering his body were bloodier still. With Raskghar blood. Nokha’s ears flattened. She sliced at his arm, cutting deep—

Moore picked her up, broke the arm holding Mrsha like a twig, and threw Nokha. She slammed into a far wall, screaming, and vanished in the melee. Moore bent. Mrsha stared up at him. The half-Giant rasped.

“Mrsha. Are you alright?”

She nodded. Moore’s bloody face turned into a smile. He sat with a groan, bleeding. The Gnoll heard pounding footsteps.

Mrsha!

And then Lyonette was holding her. The [Princess] clutched the Gnoll and Mrsha clung to her chest. The two stood like that for a moment as the fighting continued around them. And then Seborn appeared.

“To the door! Now!”

They turned. Erin was standing at the door. She waved at them and threw her frying pan. It clocked a Raskghar bearing down on them. Erin waved them into the inn and then saw a Raskghar coming from behind. Bird looked for an arrow.

“I am out of arrows. Oh dear.”

“Out of the way! [Minotaur Punch]!”

The Raskghar’s head snapped back. It snarled—and Erin slammed the door in its face again. She yanked the mana stone off and turned. Lyonette was holding Mrsha. Erin smiled. Then she saw Moore collapse. Seborn yanked a potion off his belt as the half-giant lay on the floor.

“Tend to Moore! This isn’t over yet! Bird, get more arrows!”

“I will find more. Are any shops open?”

Erin ignored him. She yanked open the door. The Raskghar were beginning to break. But now she had only one question left.

Ceria? Where’s Ceria?

 

—-

 

Calruz stood in the center of the Raskghar ranks. He shouted, ordering them forwards. They struggled to obey. But the adventurers cut them down. They were using [Fireballs], blasting the Raskghar apart. Calruz roared in fury. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be! If the Raskghar could pull back, if they could fight in choke points—

But something in him knew the truth. It was too late. They’d been taken by surprise. It was over. The Raskghar began to break, fleeing for the three exits, some trying to remove the barricades they’d painstakingly erected. Their morale was broken. Some fought on, but too many were fleeing.

“So this is it.”

The Minotaur stared around. His axe was heavy in his hand. He turned, staring at the three sides as they closed in. Despair made Calruz close his eyes. He had been so close! So close—

But some part of him was glad. It was a whisper, but it rejoiced. At last. Let this be an end. Calruz turned. Which side should he throw himself on? The people of Liscor, outraged over the Raskghar’s crimes? The adventurers, conquering the dungeon? The Antinium, the faceless, numberless foe? Each one was fitting. But before he could decide, a voice called his name.

Calruz!

He turned. Ceria stood behind him. Her armor of ice was cracked. Blood ran down her head. But she was alive. He was glad of that. But then three others moved to join her. Calruz paused.

An Antinium stood in front of Ceria, wearing a cloak, holding a dagger and shortsword and magical buckler in his three hands. Next to him stood Yvlon Byres, her armor bloody, gripping a sword with both hands. Beside Ceria stood Pisces, holding a rapier in one hand, his other hand glowing with magic. A creature of bone loomed behind him, a horrific spider of jagged edges. Calruz stared.

“This is it, Calruz. You lose.”

Ceria looked tired. Her hand trembled with exhaustion as it pointed at Calruz’s chest. But her eyes were steady. The Minotaur stared at her.

“So this is your new team. They aren’t worthy. Not of the Horns of Hammerad.”

“That is quite debatable—”

“Shut up, Pisces.”

Ceria turned her head to address the [Necromancer]. When she looked back at Calruz, she was smiling slightly.

“So you say. But here we are. The Horns died in the crypt, Calruz. All but you and I. But here we are.”

“True.”

Calruz felt his heart beating as he stared at the four Horns of Hammerad. He looked around, laughed, and raised his axe.

“Fitting! Then let’s make an end of it! Come! Show me what the Horns can do! Grant me death! For honor! For glory!

He charged. The Horns spread out. Calruz’s first swing was blocked by the Antinium. His buckler emitted a field of energy that blocked the swing. The Antinium swung with his dagger and shortsword. Calruz knocked away both blades. He turned and Yvlon swung her sword.

The impact nearly threw Calruz back as he blocked. The sword was enchanted! He struck her, and Yvlon’s arms buckled as she blocked the blow with her sword. But her arms did not falter. They did not break. She swung her sword and Calruz stumbled back—

And an [Ice Spike] struck his chest. The tip broke off in Calruz’s skin. His toughened hide resisted the force of the blow, but Calruz turned towards Ceria. And Pisces stabbed him from behind.

The tip of his rapier penetrated Calruz’s back. But like the spell, it didn’t go through Calruz’s flesh. The Minotaur turned, swinging his axe and Pisces blurred out of the way. Yvlon blocked another swing and stumbled back. The Bone Horror slashed Calruz across the chest. He roared.

[Hammer Blow]!

He cleaved through the thing’s head. It fell, lifeless. Ceria raised a wall of ice as Calruz rushed her. His axe smashed through the thick ice. Calruz turned. Yvlon was trying to flank him. The [Necromancer] was blasting him with electricity. Where was—

Ksmvr stabbed Calruz in the leg with his dagger. The Flamecoat Dagger sparked. And Calruz’s flesh ignited. The Minotaur screamed, his entire body aflame. He swung wildly and Yvlon’s blade cut a wide gash down his front. Pisces hit Calruz with a blast of air that knocked the Minotaur back. He tried to see. But the flames—

Cold. Something struck Calruz. It smothered the flames, put him out. Calruz groaned, pain wracking his body. He looked at what had hit him.

Snow. He looked up. Ceria Springwalker smiled at him. She lifted her skeletal finger and pointed at Calruz’s forehead. The Minotaur met her gaze. And smiled. He dropped his axe—

And the [Ice Spice] struck him between the eyes. The Minotaur fell. Ceria walked towards him. She knelt, her eyes filled with tears. Calruz stared up, his eyes wide and blank. Ceria bent.

“Stupid Minotaur. You always did have a hard head.”

Blood ran down Calruz’s head. The Minotaur laughed weakly.

“I suppose I did.”

He stared up at Ceria and reached out. She caught his hand.

“It’s over.”

“Thank you.”

 

—-

 

In the end, they stood and counted the dead. Of the Raskghar, there were too many to number. Of the attackers, well…

Erin watched as Halrac knelt and closed a Gnoll’s eyes. Nailren bowed his head, weeping. The Watch stood around their fallen, as did Embria’s [Soldiers]. The Antinium stared down at the broken bodies of their own. The symbols of the fallen soldiers would appear on the Hive’s walls.

The dead. Was it selfish that Erin had only known a few of them? Her friends had lived. It had been the low-level ones, the brave adventurers and guards who had volunteered to fight the Raskghar that had paid the price.

And yet, the mood wasn’t depressed. It wasn’t joyous either. It was…relieved. The Raskghar had fled. But only a few hundred. Their camps were still there, and perhaps some of the awakened lived. But this attack had shattered them. They would not menace Liscor again.

“It’s over.”

Zevara leaned on her sword panting and coughing exhaustedly. Keldrass was doing the same. He offered her a jar and Zevara eyed it before lifting it up. The air blowing from the magical artifact dried the blood on her face until she held it to her mouth and breathed from it. When she lowered it, she was breathing easier.

“We have lost good Drakes and Gnolls this day. And Humans as well. But this was a victory. A triumph.”

Ilvriss stood straight, although he looked as tired as anyone else. He bore a scratch on one cheek and he had buried two of his followers. But his gaze was clear.

“We saved the people of Liscor. We crushed the Raskghar in their homes. Was it worth the price? I think it was.”

“Not to mention the captured artifacts.”

Embria pointed at the dead Raskghar. The armored Raskghar that Jelaqua had finally killed, the Raskghar with the invisible bow—and far more. They had fallen with their brethren, and the adventurers had dragged their bodies out. Ilvriss nodded tiredly as the Gold-ranks looked at each other.

“We will take custody of the artifacts. We can divide it later according to each group’s contributions. And I will pay the full bounty for the freed Gnolls. Although—”

He brightened up a bit.

“—I suppose that Liscor’s involvement will mean that a portion of the bounty is rendered null.”

“Actually Wall Lord, I think that Liscor would like to claim whatever portion of the bounty possible. If only to provide the Watch pay for exceptional service and compensate the dead.”

Zevara cleared her throat, clearly embarrassed. Ilvriss sighed.

“Of course. But later. We will leave the dead here, I take it. Let the monsters have the Raskghar. We’ll destroy the doors—”

“And the prisoner?”

Everyone fell silent. Erin looked over at Anand. He and six Soldiers stood around Calruz. The Minotaur knelt, shackled, his head bowed. He did not look up, though his body was badly burned and he bled from two wounds. Zevara hissed.

“Take him to the Watch’s prison. We’ll begin the trial as soon as we can figure out all that he’s done.”

Ilvriss nodded coldly. Embria looked at her [Soldiers] and the Antinium made way. The Drakes yanked Calruz to his feet and forced him through the magic doorway. A few of the adventurers stirred. Erin saw Ksmvr, Pisces, and Yvlon look at Ceria. But the half-Elf just shook her head. Her eyes were pained as she watched Calruz go.

“He has to pay for what he’s done. Madness or not. I’ll…be there to testify.”

The other adventurers looked at the Horns. Ilvriss turned and nodded.

“We will look forwards to a full report. But later. For now—”

He wobbled and caught himself. The Wall Lord looked around. At Antinium, Drakes, Gnolls, a Selphid, Humans…for once there was no scorn in Ilvriss’ eyes as he met Erin’s.

“This was a victory. We accomplished it working together. Perhaps…no, let us say no more than that. All races came together in Liscor’s hour of need. Dwarf. Human. Drake. Gnoll. Selphid. Drowned Man. Half-Giant. Garuda.”

“And Goblin.”

Ilvriss looked at Erin. The young woman looked around. The exhausted warriors looked at her. Erin raised her voice.

“And Goblins. You may not like it. You don’t have to change your mind. But this was all thanks to Goblins. They fought for this. And it was a Goblin who opened the way.”

She pointed to Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin was staring at a dead Raskghar. She touched her former master and then looked up. She flinched as all the eyes found her. Erin nodded.

“You all fought. I’ll never forget that. But give the Goblins their due. They helped. And that is the truth. And the truth does not change. All of you saved the people I love. And Goblins.”

Ilvriss looked at Zevara and Embria. He wavered, then nodded curtly.

“So be it. And Goblins. And now—and now I think it is time. People of Liscor. Let us return home.”

And they did. The tired adventurers, the Watch, the soldiers and Antinium left the dungeon. The Raskghar camp lay abandoned. The dead remained where they had fallen. In time, monsters crept along. They devoured. And a lone figure walked, collecting heads. A skeleton danced around, giddy, laughing without a voice. But that was the dungeon.

Erin walked back into her inn and saw off every last person, thanking each one she could. She saw Lyonette go upstairs, still holding Mrsha and refusing to let go. She looked at Ceria and saw the half-Elf had changed. But she spoke little of it. She watched as all her friends went to their beds, and then slowly walked into her kitchen. She lay down on the floor in her nest of blankets and sighed. She closed her eyes.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 36!]

[Skill – Natural Allies: Goblins obtained!]

 

[Inn – Local Landmark: Liscor obtained!]

 

“Ah.”

Erin smiled for just a moment. Then she fell asleep in truth. And in a cave not far from her inn, a group of five Goblins stood in silence. They stared into the dungeon and then looked at each other. The Cave Goblins watched. The Raskghar were dead. But it was not their new masters that stood in front of them now. The Redfang Goblins turned, their red eyes flashing, and the Cave Goblins watched. They listened, and the ones below looked up. They felt it.

Something new.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.32 G

They appeared as dawn broke on the second day of the fighting. At first no one noticed. Goblins in black armor raced up the slopes, pouring into tunnels abandoned by Tremborag’s forces. They clashed further into the mountain as larger Hobs and Goblins wearing magical gear began entering at key points. The Goblin Lord was sending his officers into battle and the bloodshed was reaching an intensity far surpassing that of yesterday.

However, that fever pitch only applied to one side of the mountain. The Goblin Lord had elected to guard his camps rather than spread his forces across all sides of the mountain where he would surely be attacked. Thus, while the southern side was under direct siege and the eastern and western flanks were the site of ambush and flanking actions, the rear was silent. That was not to say it was unguarded.

The Goblins on duty weren’t Tremborag’s finest warriors, but nor were they his most incompetent. They stayed still, rotating out regularly in their hiding places, keeping guard in case the Goblin Lord’s forces tried sneaking around back. They’d already killed two such parties at different spots and the Goblins on duty weren’t worried. It would take a dedicated push to overwhelm their trapped tunnels and it seemed like the Goblin Lord didn’t care to take more tunnels than he had. So the Goblins weren’t quite as vigilant as they should have been. Then again, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been.

One of the tunnels located higher up the mountain was trapped with a collapsing tunnel. Unlike the other choke points or ambush sites, this trap was simple. If one of the six Goblin sentries hidden in an alcove at the back saw anything approaching, they would pull a rope and collapse several tons of rock and dirt on the intruders. The fact that six Goblins were still posted here was a sign of Garen’s watchfulness.

Currently, the sentries were taking turns guarding and napping. Four Goblins had to stay up while the other two got to sleep. It was a good system and it allowed the Goblins to remain still without getting annoyed at the wait. Aside from the occasional snore and sound of someone being kicked, they were silent.

The sentry closest to the tunnel could see the light beginning to grow outside. Dawn was coming and he was looking forwards to being relieved soon so he could eat. Of course, he might be called on to fight, but between eating and possibly dying or not eating, he was willing to take the risk. He’d been stationed here for eight hours and he was yawning when he saw something move.

Instantly, the Goblin grabbed his spear. The other Goblins looked up, alert. They peeked out of their alcove, staring for movement. They saw nothing. Only darkness, which to their eyes wasn’t that dark at all. The hungry sentry quickly relaxed as his mind identified the movement. It hadn’t been large enough to have been any kind of person. Rather, a rodent of some kind had entered the tunnel.

Sure enough, he saw something scurry across the ground. A little white mouse! It looked completely oblivious to the danger. The Goblin sentry licked his lips and lowered his spear. It wouldn’t be hard to grab the little thing and it would be a good snack, if he could eat it before his friends noticed. He edged forwards. The mouse scurried a few feet closer. The Goblin waited, tense, focused. One more foot…

The shadows behind the Goblin moved. A hand shot out and a black blade, invisible in the darkness, sliced across the Goblin’s neck. The Goblin choked. Surprised, his friends looked up. They saw a figure appear out of the shadows. They tried to scream, but the black dagger was faster.

The little white mouse scurried forwards until it came to the hiding place of the Goblins. It paused there, whiskers twitching, as it sniffed the air. Six figures lay in the small alcove. Two had died in their sleep. The other four had died almost instantly. The killer who had blended so perfectly with the shadows turned as she wiped her knife blade. She bent and made the first sound, offering her hand to the little mouse.

“Come on, Keri. Shh.”

The little mouse scurried up her sleeve. The Human woman smiled as she tucked Keri into her belt pouch. Then she took two steps and vanished into the shadows. She made no sound as she moved ahead. The [Rogue] listened carefully as she approached a point where her tunnel opened up into a larger one. She froze a few feet from a torch lit ahead of her and reached for Keri’s belt pouch again.

“It’s us, Minerva.”

Someone spoke ahead of her. Minerva froze, and then stepped into the light. She spotted nine other figures, most dressed in black, some in dark green or grey. She nodded at the man who’d spoken. He was holding a shortbow and crouching over a pair of dead Hobs. Each had an arrow through the eye.

“You’re late.”

His voice was low and reproving. Minerva shrugged.

“I cleared my tunnel.”

“With your pet mouse again? Too slow.”

“It gets the job done. Anyone run into difficulties?”

“None. They had a patrol and I think the two Hobs were about to check on things, but we heard them coming.”

The man nodded to the downed Hobs. Minerva nodded. She glanced around. One of the other figures was kneeling and fumbling with what looked like glowing chalk and a glowing blue mana stone. His grumbling was quiet, no more than a gnat’s buzzing. Still, all of the shadowy infiltrators heard him perfectly.

“Fecking rune inscriptions. Why can’t those idiotic [Mages] figure out a better way to draw this? Using a piece of parchment? Do they know how hard it is to draw on broken ground with chalk that breaks with every second—ah. Got it.”

He straightened and nodded at the others. Minerva saw him place the mana stone in the center of the diagram. To her eyes it looked like a circle with far too many wavy lines moving slowly towards the center in a dizzying pattern. But as the mana stone was placed she saw her leader, Jackal, lower his shortbow and pull a scroll out. He had a quill ready and wrote on the parchment. A short message, barely more than a word. Then he rolled the scroll up and tapped it twice on his palm. It glowed brightly, and then vanished.

“Sloppy. Mages have no idea how much that light travels.”

The grumbler had an opinion on the magic scroll too. Minerva agreed, but she kept her mouth shut as she stood in place. She didn’t have to wait long. The circle on the ground began to glow brightly and the mana stone shone with pure blue light. The nine others stood back and shielded their eyes, preserving their night vision. Minerva heard a low pop and then voices.

“Ah. Here we are. Someone send a [Message] spell back to the others and let them know we’ve arrived safely, would you?”

A half-Elf with bright silver eyes and a few grey hairs looked around. He didn’t appear as old as some of his companions—one was a woman with a classic witch’s hat who looked positively ancient—but he gave Minerva the same impression as her grandfather had. He was carrying a wand whose tip was set with a fiery gem carved to match the wood. His robes shimmered with an odd, pulsating pattern. He, like his companions, practically shone in the darkness.

Mages. They looked to Jackal. The [Ranger] grimaced.

“Can you cancel all those light spells? This is a stealth mission for the moment!”

“We’ll stay well behind you. But some of us need light to see.”

“Fine. Then we’ll take the attack group north. We’ve scouted ahead a small ways. We’ll launch the attack in seven minutes as planned. We’re on time.”

Jackal had a map. As the others crowded around he went over it. Minerva had already memorized it, but she looked anyways. The map was old, positively decrepit, but it was a good guide of what Dwarfhalls Rest had looked like in ages past.

“Remember your orders. Keep an eye out for Goblins in black armor and do not engage if possible. Defend yourselves if need be, but our goal is to cause havoc and retreat at the first sign of danger.”

The old [Witch] made a laughing, snorting sound.

“You don’t have to tell us that, boy. We’re not getting paid enough to die here.”

“Then keep an eye out for this Great Chieftain or his lieutenants. As soon we finish securing the area we’ll move in our warriors. So ward spells first. We’ll detrap if you hold here.”

“Easy.”

One of the [Mages] was already looking towards the tunnel and muttering a spell. Jackal looked towards Minerva.

“While we do that, we’re sending another group on a scouting mission.”

The old half-Elf raised his eyebrows.

“No one spoke to me about that.”

“This isn’t part of our job. Five of us are going to look for prisoners. There’s a team that vanished here on reconnaissance a week ago. Keening Hunt.”

One of the [Mages] nodded.

“I’ve heard of them. You think they’re alive?”

Jackal didn’t immediately reply.

“If they are, we’ll find them.”

“If they are alive, they might not want to be.”

The old [Witch] tilted her pointed hat. Jackal looked at her.

“I have a pass that grants me a personal audience with the Healer of Tenbault. If they’re alive, they’ll be made whole.”

“Ah. Well, best of luck. We’ll hold things here.”

The [Witch] grinned, showing a few missing teeth. Jackal stood. Minerva and four others followed Jackal into the shadows as the [Mages] began casting ward spells, arguing quietly. The other four infiltrators slipped backwards, removing the traps they’d found on their way in. The [Mages] waited patiently in their now secure entryway, until they heard fast footsteps and the jingle of metal on metal. The [Witch] grinned and raised a gnarled staff.

“Alright. Enough waiting. We’re on a time limit, aren’t we? Let’s cause some trouble, children.”

She strode down the tunnel as the first of the Gold-rank [Warriors] and less stealthy classes raced into the tunnel. The [Witch] walked down the corridor until she saw a patrol of Goblins heading her way, to check on the defenders here. They stared as she grinned and raised her staff.

“[Grand Fireball]!”

The explosion filled the tunnel with a roar of heat and flame. The Goblins vanished. The [Witch] cackled and the half-Elf with silver eyes sighed. Then he strode past her, wand raised. The adventurers behind him advanced as the alarm spread throughout the mountain.

 

—-

 

“Humans? Why are they here?”

Reiss stared at Snapjaw as he stood over the rough map of Tremborag’s fortress. The Hobgoblin female shook her head.

“Dunno, Lord. But Humans are here! Throwing big spells!”

The Goblin Lord growled. Of all the times! He glanced at Osthia. The Drake was listening intently.

“How many?”

“Small number. Less than…thirty. All here. This here.”

Snapjaw struggled with the common tongue as she pointed to a spot far north of the fighting between Reiss and Tremborag’s forces. Reiss stared grimly at the spot.

“Gold-rank?”

The answering silence was all he needed to hear. Reiss stared at the occupied spot.

“How many dead Goblins?”

“Us? Few. Tremborag? Lots!”

Surprised, Reiss looked up. Snapjaw grinned.

“Adventurers aiming at his Goblins! Not many ours go there. Now big trouble for others!”

That was true. As Reiss studied the map he saw exactly how advantageous the spot was for his forces. They didn’t have to go near the Humans and Tremborag had another front to fight on. Still, the presence of so many Gold-rank adventurers made him uneasy. And the next report that came in from a breathless [Scout] made him warier still.

“Humans marching! Thousands! Thousands of thousands!”

 

—-

 

Tremborag roared, throwing his scout across the banquet hall. Garen saw the little Goblin crash into a table and go still. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain didn’t care. He turned, roaring.

“An army? Now of all times?”

The news that came to both the Goblin Lord and Tremborag’s forces was like a physical blow. An army of Humans had been spotted marching towards the mountain. Fast.

“Many Humans coming this way. On horses! Many on foot behind. Moving fast!

One of Garen’s remaining Redfang Warriors explained the situation, watching Tremborag warily. Garen peered at the map, growling as his warrior traced a huge wave of Humans coming south. Tremborag growled as well.

“Humans! Mounted on horses? And on foot?”

“Rushing. They must be using Skills to move their army here, Great Chieftain. They’ve left their slower forces behind. They’ll be here by nightfall.”

Ulvama’s voice was soft. Sultry. She stood by Tremborag, stroking his arm, trying to soothe him. But Tremborag was enraged. He turned towards Ulvama and she stepped back quickly.

“An army. Coming for the Goblin Lord at last? Or I? They already crawl into my mountain!”

“Gold-rank teams. Good ones.”

Garen had already heard the reports. [Mages], blasting any Goblins who approached down the tunnels, [Warriors] and [Rogues] pushing down other ones. He gritted his teeth, trying to figure out how to take down so many. If his tribe had been here—!

“We are surrounded, Great Chieftain.”

Ulvama tried not to look worried, but she and the other Goblins were clearly uneasy. Tremborag glared at her. Then, surprisingly, he laughed.

“Is my Chief [Shaman] afraid? Do you fear Humans more than the Goblin Lord, Ulvama?”

She didn’t immediately reply. Tremborag bent, staring at her with a giant grin.

“We are surrounded. But it is not just we. The Goblin Lord sees the Humans coming. And they come for him as well as I. But he is in the open. And I have my mountain!”

He turned to Garen. And now Tremborag’s eyes narrowed with calculation.

“We hold the mountain. If the Humans come, the Goblin Lord must fight or run. Is that not so, Redfang?”

Garen nodded. He was trying to imagine what Rags would say in this situation. Lacking her insight, he had to go with his gut, and he knew what Tremborag was thinking.

“Goblin Lord fights now and takes mountain. Or gives up and runs.”

“And the Humans have to choose between trying to besiege this mountain or chasing him. And then we will be fighting Humans in my domain. Easier than Goblins, perhaps.”

Tremborag grinned. Garen nodded too, but he was less certain. He stared at the map. Humans. Coming now. It made sense in one way—they had both Goblin sides occupied. But he felt uneasy, and not just because of the sudden attack. He felt like something else was coming, like a dagger in the night. He turned. Tremborag looked at him.

“Where are you going?”

Garen turned his head back as he drew his sword.

“Getting ready. You should too. Goblin Lord not running yet.”

“No. He will come here first.”

Tremborag smiled once more. He bared all his teeth and raised his voice.

“He will come into the mountain, rather than flee. So come, tribe! We go hunting for the Goblin Lord’s head.”

He roared and his Goblins roared with him. They streamed into the mountain as the waves of black Goblins began pouring in from every tunnel. And among them strode a Goblin with black eyes, surrounded by the undead and Hobs. He pointed and shot death from his fingertips. Tremborag roared as he tore into the Goblin Lord’s soldiers and Garen and his warriors entered the battle. Now they were on a time limit. At the same time, the Human adventurers who’d occupied the northern tunnels stopped advancing and fortified their position. They were waiting.

 

—-

 

Day 105

 

I have never seen lightning. But I have heard thunder. To me it is terrifying. A sound that comes during rain. Only, there is no flash of light to alert me. No hint. Just the boom of sound, sometimes terrifyingly close. I’ve often wondered what lightning must look like. A…fork of electricity hitting the ground? From the sky? I used to wonder.

Now I think I understand. Lightning is a flash of light. Something searing. A bolt of electricity from the heavens, extremely hot, striking out of nowhere. I feel one shoot through my body now, a bolt of pure energy. And the thunder is my racing heartbeat.

It’s too late to stop anything. Too late for anything but regrets. All the pieces are in motion. My army is clashing with the Goblins somewhere out of my range of—vision. I can still sense the two trebuchets, sense Tessia and her team rushing to reload the slings, wind back the arm. But what they are firing at, how the battle is going, I have no idea. All I can focus on is the small band rushing ever closer to my position.

“He warned me of this. I suppose I grew overconfident. Until I came here I didn’t know what seeing was like. So I forgot to watch my back. But I was warned. I wonder how he knew so much.”

“Your Majesty?”

I hear a nervous voice. I am sitting in my throne room, and my advisors are gathered around me. Two out of four, rather. Beniar and Wiskeria are fighting. Prost and Rie stand with me, as does Gamel. It is deathly silent here. They’re all watching me. But I have nothing to tell them about the battle. I’m thinking about treachery.

I was warned. I should have been more vigilant. Odveig, or rather, Sacra was one thing. But I was told by a…friend that spies would be the least of my trials. And they were right.

Someone knocked out Nesor. Someone sent a [Message] from Riverfarm ordering Wiskeria to attack. Or perhaps they didn’t need to be in Riverfarm? Only now do I realize how easy it is to fake a [Message] spell.

I should have established a password. I should have watched the nobles, put a guard on Nesor. But again, it is far too late for regrets. All my focus is turned towards Sir Kerrig, riding towards me.

Too late for peace? Perhaps. But I want to know what he has to say. As I focus on him another part of the landscape vanishes into oblivion. My vision of my lands is breaking, piece by piece. And only now do I see the pattern.

“Clever.”

“What is? Emperor Laken?”

I don’t reply to Lady Rie. She sounds anxious. Prost and Gamel just watch me. Slowly, I stand. Thunder becomes my heartbeat.

“Sir Kerrig will reach the village in minutes. Prost, Gamel, Rie, with me. We have time so we might as well put on a show.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The two men fall in behind me as I stride from the throne. Lady Rie hesitates only a moment before following.

“Ah, your Majesty. How fortunate we could meet.”

A voice greets me the instant I leave the meeting hall. I turn my head, but I already know who stands there. Lady Bevia. I do not smile towards her as I’ve done before. She’s gathered the other nobles with her. And their retainers. She can sense it too. Or perhaps she knows something I don’t?

“Lady Bevia. Join me if you wish.”

I stride past her. Towards the eastern side of the village. I walk past rows of houses, many unfinished. But if I compare it to what Riverfarm looked like a month ago—we’ve done so much. I can tell my people are watching me, some following. They fear. I haven’t been a good leader of late. Making strategic decisions, managing my lands, all that is part of it. But the other part is being an [Emperor]. So I walk with my back held high.

Somewhere overhead, Frostwing is circling. Bismarck snuffles in the forest, hunting for snacks. I call them as I walk towards the gates. And now I hear hoof beats.

Close. I stop and wait, sensing a group of six riding towards me. The horses are lathered with sweat—they’ve changed them twice. One of the horses has lost a shoe. The riders look tired from the frantic ride. But here they are. I sense a man dressed in worn clothing in front.

Sir Kerrig. Perhaps he’s a handsome man. Perhaps he’s everything a [Knight] should be. Wiskeria seemed to think he was genuine. But in my mind he is just a man. Well-built, clearly muscled, but lacking anything else about him. He has no armor. He has a sword, borrowed from one of the soldiers. And as he draws his horse up and dismounts, I can sense him looking at me.

Behind me the villagers watch as Sir Kerrig hesitantly approaches. He glances past me at the waiting nobility, at Lady Rie and Mister Prost, at Gamel hovering warily at my side. What he thinks I can’t fathom. Slowly, Sir Kerrig bows deeply to me.

“Your Majesty. I beg forgiveness for my rude appearance and the unseemly nature of my request. I am Sir Kerrig Louis, a [Knight] sworn to the service of Lady Bethal Walchaís. I humbly beg a private audience—”

“You are too late.”

My voice is loud in my ears. Sir Kerrig breaks off, confused.

“Your Majesty?”

“You are too late, Sir Kerrig. A battle has begun between my army and the Goblins.”

A murmur sweeps through the people behind me. Anxious. Many did not know. I sense Sir Kerrig pale.

“But I was assured by your General—Emperor Laken, I beg you to reconsider! If there is a chance yet—”

“Be silent.”

The man shuts up. I stare towards the east more for the look for the thing than anything else. Now how would you say this? Old English?

“I am wroth with you, Sir Kerrig. Not just you. I have spies and saboteurs in my empire, it seems. Those who plot against me. Though I do not know what I have done to wrong them. They will be found and hunted. As for you—I am furious towards you, Sir Kerrig.”

I hear him gulp. He’s wise enough not to open his mouth, though. I wait a beat. Yes. I’m sure.

“Goblins. Peace. None of that bothers me. I wanted to listen to you. I held back because I wished to know what you had to say. But I should not have listened.”

“Sire?”

Now. I turn my head towards Sir Kerrig and open my eyes. I don’t know what he sees. I’m told my eyes are different than…normal. A blind man’s eyes stare at him until I cannot help but blink. So I close my eyes.

“Tell me you did not conspire with the Goblins, Sir Kerrig. Swear to me here, on your honor as a [Knight].”

“Your Majesty! I would never do such a thing! I came here to broker peace, but treachery would go against everything I believe in!”

Sir Kerrig’s voice is genuine. I nod.

“I believe you. But that does not change the fact—”

I break off and turn my head east again. At first I thought it was just more sabotage. It was hard to spot a pattern. But the closer he got, the closer Sir Kerrig came, the more obvious it was. A marker falling here. A group of Goblins racing to hack another down. Another blank spot in my mind.

It’s like a spider web of oblivion around the Goblins. But the pattern changes towards Riveffarm. I sense a…path. Heading towards me. And another marker falls ten miles north. I know.

“Your Majesty?”

I turn my head back to Sir Kerrig. I smile at him, wearily. Thunder.

“You were followed, Sir Kerrig. The Goblins followed you here.”

I hear a sharp gasp from behind me. A scream. Someone faints. A noble. In the silence, before shock can become anything else, I turn.

“Mister Prost? Lady Rie? Raise the alarm. I want palisades built in every spot we can find. Arm every villager with weapons. The Goblins are coming.”

I turn and walk back into the village. Sir Kerrig stares at my back as people begin running. I ignore it all. In the distance I can sense the battle raging. And I pray, though there are no gods in this world.

“Don’t die, Durene. Be safe.”

 

—-

 

Tyrion saw the [Message] flash into the scroll at his side. The [Lord] didn’t bother to stop riding—he transferred the reins to one hand and rode as his horse surged beneath him. The landscape blurred as he and his escort rode across the ground impossibly fast. Tyrion’s brow creased as he read the message once, and then twice. Then he tossed it over his shoulder.

A hand caught it. The man riding behind Tyrion inspected the scroll and Tyrion Veltras turned his head.

“We are moving too slowly. Advance to a gallop! Anyone unable to keep up will be left behind. Now. [Wildwind Ride]!”

The man behind him raised his fist.

“[Quick Gallop]!”

The lines of riders behind the two sped up as if pushed from behind. The riders sped down the road, hurrying onwards. They had to be on time. Tyrion pushed ahead, demanding more speed from his warhorse. They could not afford to make a mistake. Not now.

 

—-

 

Pyrite stood on the walls as the Humans marched towards him. The flurry of movement, the rush to prepare slowed before his eyes into a steady march. He nodded. That was basic. Running all the way towards the city would tire soldiers needlessly. Even a hundred foot dash mattered when a life-or-death fight stood at the end of it.

The way the army moved, the unsubtle way in which the infantry advanced with archers behind and the cavalry forming two wings on either wide, all of it told Pyrite that the army and leader was new. Raw. Inexperienced. For all that they were deadly. He remembered them attacking again and again. Dangerous. He didn’t underestimate Humans.

Around him, Pyrite could hear war horns bellowing. Goblins rushed to the walls with crossbows while more formed into their units of pikes or infantry. All without him needing to bellow orders. That was a testament to Rags’ skill. Pyrite slowly lifted his battleaxe and walked down the broken steps, taking care not to trip on rubble and break something. That would be…silly.

His nerves were humming, but Pyrite’s chest was surprisingly cold. The Humans roared as they advanced, beating drums, shouting a name.

La-ken! La-ken!

Pyrite could hear them screaming other words.

“The Unseen Emperor!”

“Riverfarm!”

“Death to the Goblin scum!”

That last one was funny. It was hard to get a group to shout that. Pyrite shook his head. A good chant should be simple. Easy to grasp and repeat. Cadence mattered.

Cadence. What a nice word. It sounded to Pyrite like the measured gait of a horse. He stared blankly up at the blue sky for a moment as he paused before the gates. He could tell that hundreds, thousands of Goblins were looking at him. They were expecting his leadership. The problem was…Pyrite wasn’t angry.

Not at the moment. He just felt tired. Tired, upset—but not angry. And he needed to be. Pyrite understood what the Humans would do if they entered the city. So he dragged his gaze away from the sky and focused.

“Pikes.”

The Goblins at the gates straightened. They were ready to fend off waves of Humans. Pyrite looked around. Poisonbite and Quietstab were running towards him. They would do.

“Quietstab. Walls. You shoot Humans. Aim for archers. Poisonbite, sides. Keep Humans from entering city.”

Quietstab nodded. Poisonbite took one look around in disbelief.

“City has big holes in walls! By myself?”

Pyrite nodded absently. Poisonbite opened her mouth to shout and he looked at her. Something must have been on his face, because she waited for him to speak.

“You guard holes. Take some pikes. Your raiders. Guard. We go out.”

“Out?”

The Goblin stared at Pyrite. He nodded. He raised his voice.

“Pikes! Outside city! Hobs! Follow! Redfangs! Here!

The Goblins didn’t hesitate. They were trained and more importantly, they respected him. They rushed out of the city, shouting, as Hobs followed them. Pyrite saw a group of Goblins with red stripes on their cheeks and arms approach.

“Pyrite?”

One of them, a female Redfang, glanced up at him warily. Pyrite nodded.

“Special job. You follow. Rest go fight.”

They listened and then ran past Pyrite as he strode past the gates. The Goblins were all clustered in front of the city. The Human army had slowed its advance, clearly surprised. Pyrite was not. He pointed and shouted.

Big walls are back-shield! Move there!

The Goblins understood. Instantly, they backed up, until their backs were to the walls of the shattered city. Pyrite nodded. Yes, this made sense. Defending a city with big holes in its walls was hard. Especially since a lot of the weapons the Goblins used would be cumbersome on the battlements. The Humans had reach and the numbers to flood the gaps. But fighting with their backs to the walls would prevent the Goblins from being surrounded. And the Goblins with crossbows now had a massive height advantage over the Humans with bows.

The Humans were coming. Pyrite stared at the rows of pikes. The Humans had nothing like them. Long, twenty plus staves of wood, sharpened to a point and capped with metal tips. Oh, the Humans had spears and shorter pikes of their own, but Rags had drilled her Goblins to use these extreme versions in combat.

They hadn’t done much good against the Humans before. The nighttime raids, the way the Humans had picked apart his defenses—all of that had driven Pyrite to despair. But as Rags had pointed out, that wasn’t how the pikes were meant to be used. And back then his tribe had been suffering from the poison gas. Most hadn’t been able to breathe.

They could breathe now. Pyrite strode towards the front of the army. He passed by rows of Goblins. They looked at him. Some waved. Pyrite nodded to them, grunting. He wished he had something to chew. But he’d choke on that.

“Hobs.”

There was a line of a hundred Hobs waiting just behind the front row of pike Goblins. They turned as Pyrite walked past them. They were all veterans of battle. They all came from different tribes. They grinned as Pyrite passed. A Hobgoblin with feathers behind both ears sharpened her iron axe. Another, gaunt and thin, squatted with two spears in hand. He stood as Pyrite passed and spoke a word.

Goldstone.

He was from Pyrite’s tribe. Another Goblin with a crude piercing in her ear grinned at him. She had brighter red eyes than most. Yet another Hob reached out and Pyrite touched fists gently. The Hob grinned, exposing a missing gap in his teeth.

Friends. Pyrite knew some by name. Others had no names but he knew their face, the way they ate. Pyrite strode to the head of the unit of Hobs and stared at the Human army. Closer now. They were slowing and he could hear someone shouting orders, trying to time their charge.

Now would be the time. Pyrite looked up at the sky, and then around. A sea of green faces and red eyes stared at him. There was fear there. Trust too. Pyrite knew this was the moment. But he was still not angry. Not yet. So he looked up and searched the lines of Humans until—

Ah. There. He saw a familiar Human among the rest. One of the riders were covered in steel armor. So was his warhorse. He was gesturing excitedly. Pyrite remembered him riding through the camp, cutting down Goblins, shouting at his soldiers to slaughter them in the dark. The Chieftain felt something jump in his chest.

Then he saw the Human woman in the pointed hat. He remembered her too. He remembered poison, a dark cloud stealing over the camp. He remembered the sound of Goblins choking, the burning in the air. He remembered the dead. He remembered a grieving child.

That was enough. Pyrite lifted his battleaxe. It didn’t feel so heavy now. He let the feeling build in his chest. Helplessness. Fury. Anger. Grief. He had told Sir Kerrig, told Welca Vis that his tribe didn’t fight Humans. But that wasn’t true. Mostly they’d run. But sometimes you fought. Sometimes it was fight or die. Sometimes it mattered. Pyrite took a deep breath and roared.

There was no word. The sound froze the Humans. It tore through the air, a bellow, a blast of sound louder than the drums, the thump of a trebuchet firing. It was the sound of rage. Pyrite roared again and saw the Humans flinch. He pointed his battleaxe. His voice was raw as he bellowed.

Charge!

The Goblins did. The stunned Humans were over a hundred feet away. It was bad to run so far. But it was worse to stand and watch something coming at you. The nerve of the front row broke. They charged, ignoring their officer’s calls to wait for the signal.

Pyrite was not in the first wave. He heard the Goblins screaming, a high-pitched sound mixed with the roars of the Hobs. He saw the pikes reach the Human lines, saw the Humans trying to slow, raise shields. Too late. The front row of pike Goblins speared the Humans and then the second wave ran past the pikes and attacked the survivors.

“Dead gods!”

The scream came from Human lines. The pike charge was deadly. Across the battlefield the front rank of the Human army collided with the Goblins and disappeared. Then the second wave of Goblins rolled in, fighting with the thrusting pikes.

Hobs!

Pyrite roared as he charged forwards. The Goblins in front of him heard the sound and moved, some dropping their pikes to get out of the way. The Human soldiers rushed into the gap, and then saw Pyrite leading a hundred of the biggest Hobs straight at them.

Most Humans had not seen a Hob before. They laughed at the idea of a Goblin as big as they were. They screamed as Pyrite charged. The Hob lifted his battleaxe and swung it at the first Humans holding a tower shield. He felt the enchanted axe slice through the wooden shield and felt resistance. He bellowed as he swung through and saw the Human go flying in two pieces.

“Forwards!”

The battleaxe wasn’t like his old axe. When Pyrite swung it, he had to put every inch of force he possessed into the swing. No one could stand around him. With each swing, Pyrite cut down Humans, the enchanted axe burning through flesh, setting Humans ablaze. He struck the earth and watched flames burst from the axe head, scaring the Humans.

Forwards. Behind and around Pyrite the Hobs charged the Humans overwhelming them. The Hob with feathers behind her ears grabbed a shield and pulled it aside before cleaving a skull in. The Hob with two spears charged, throwing one before impaling someone else on the second. The lines of Humans wavered as Pyrite led his group forwards.

But that was one spot on the battle. Pyrite stopped after advancing fifteen paces and stared around. Where was—

There. The Human in armor was circling. He hadn’t been part of the clash of infantry. His cavalry were aiming for the Goblin’s weak spot. And he had found it! An unguarded right flank. The pike Goblins were pressing forwards, forgetting to watch their right in their excitement. And in the Humans came. They charged forwards, whooping, holding their shields up as the Goblins on the walls pelted them with arrows, trying to slow them. Too late. They hit the Goblins from the side.

 

—-

 

“We’ve got them! Those damn pikes don’t mean a thing if they aren’t pointed our way! Hit them and cut in!”

Beniar shouted as he charged into the group of Goblins. He looked down at the first Goblin and was rewarded with a green face staring up at him in horror. His blade slashed down—

And the Goblin blocked it. Beniar felt his blade bounce off a buckler. As the momentum carried him forwards, Beniar half-turned his head to stare back. He saw the Goblin stagger with the blow, and then turn. And grin. And then Beniar has to twist in his saddle or be impaled on an enchanted spear aimed for his belly.

“What the—”

The charge of his cavalry had stopped. The Goblins were fighting back! Some had been killed in the first charge, but the rest were dodging and parrying and blocking strikes from above and cutting back with skill. Beniar felt his stomach lurch. These weren’t ordinary Goblins! And then he saw the red stripes painted on the Goblin with the spear that was trying to unhorse him.

Redfang Goblins. They abandoned their pikes and disguises and drew their weapons. Beniar’s cavalry found themselves surrounded by veterans. They shouted in panic, trying to wheel, but the Redfang Warriors darted past them, hamstringing horses and swarming the individual riders.

Fall back! Retreat!”

The [Captain] howled the words and tried to turn. But the Redfangs refused to let his force go, and then Beniar saw another group headed towards them. Not Humans. Goblins mounted on Carn Wolves. Beniar fought desperately to break free, slashing a Redfang Warrior across the head and cutting down another. He and his [Riders] raced away as the Carn Wolves chased them. They had to pull back towards the safety of their army, which meant that the mounted Redfangs were free to attack with no one to chase them.

 

—-

 

Pyrite heard a howl as the Redfangs mounted on Carn Wolves rode past him. They charged into the Humans’ flank from the right. Pyrite pointed and bellowed.

Squish!

Instantly he and his Hobs charged towards the same spot. The Humans were crushed between both forces and broke, screaming. Pyrite pointed and the Redfang [Raid Leader] nodded. She whistled and her warriors broke away. They rode back to another spot on the battlefield where the Goblins were struggling to fight the Humans.

Across the battlefield, Pyrite could sense the Human [General] struggling to keep up. He bared his teeth, feeling the blood on his chest and arms cooling. It wasn’t so easy, was it? Not in a fair fight. An ambush was one thing, but this? This was strategy! This was tactics! And his tribe was better than the Humans. He turned, ready to slash across the Humans now their right flank was gone. That was when he saw her.

Among the Humans there was little variation in height. They were tall and they were short, but compared to the Goblins and Hobs they were uniform. Except for one. A tall, grey-skinned…warrior was fighting on the left flank. And she was the tallest person Pyrite had seen save for Tremborag himself.

Her skin was grey, like stone. It had cracks in it, as if her body were still part earth. But though her shoulders were broad and she wore thick leather armor, she was clearly female. A crude metal helmet guarded her face and she carried a massive wooden club and a shield that looked like it had been a door once. Even Goblins would agree that her equipment looked patchwork. But when she swung her club—

Pyrite saw a Hob try to guard against the swing. He saw the Hob raise a round shield, saw the club smash into the shield, deform the metal, crush the Hob’s head. The next swing battered the dead Hob aside as if he were a leaf. The warrior with the club turned and swung at a series of pikes rushing towards her. The blow shattered the thick wood and tore the pikes from the Goblin’s hands. The second swing scattered Goblins, breaking their line.

Humans rushed past the grey-skinned female as she took a breath. She raised her shield and blocked a flurry of crossbow bolts aimed at her. One passed by her shield and struck her in the shoulder. She staggered, but the bolt fell from her shoulder. It hadn’t managed to puncture her skin.

Pyrite stared. What was that strange warrior? She was no Human. He tried to fit her appearance, but it was only after he heard her bellow and swing again that the image clicked in his head.

Troll. Or rather, half-Troll. She was too small to be a true Troll. But half-Troll or not, she was single-handedly pushing his tribe back! Pyrite saw her swing and kill a group of five Goblins charging her. His eyes narrowed. Pyrite pointed.

“There!”

His Hobs turned. They stormed after Pyrite as he charged across the battlefield towards the half-Troll. She turned as he approached and a warning went up.

“The Chieftain’s coming! Durene, get back!”

She refused to run. Durene, if that was her name, spread her arms and raised her bloody club and shield. Pyrite roared as he charged towards her. They met in a clash as he swung his battleaxe and she swung her club.

His swing was too slow. Pyrite realized it halfway and changed his grip. He lifted his battleaxe instead to catch the club as it came down towards his head. He caught the blow on the steel haft of the battleaxe. He was ready for a crushing blow. He braced and then—

Something struck Pyrite from above. He heard a crack as his arms gave way, and then the force of the blow knocked him off his feet. He hit the ground harder than he could remember in years. Pyrite blinked upwards, dazed. His arm felt—bad. Then he saw the club rising and heard the cheers. Pyrite watched it go up and then fall down. Then he remembered he should dodge.

He rolled and heard another thud. The impact alone made his bones vibrate! Pyrite got up, reached for his battleaxe, and realized it was on the ground. He reached for it and saw a wall of wood coming at him.

Durene charged Pyrite with her shield up. Instinctively Pyrite grabbed it to push her back, but she slammed the shield into his face! Again, Pyrite felt his head go white. He reached up and grabbed the arm as Durene raised her club to strike him. He saw her arm tense—

Hah!

With one twist, Durene flung Pyrite backwards. He crashed into two Hobs who cried out from pain as he landed. Pyrite felt them push at him and got up slowly. He stared at Durene as the Humans around her cheered.

Strong. Far, far too strong. Pyrite had seen Trolls fight. He’d fought a Troll once. Durene wasn’t as strong as a troll. She was stronger. Somehow.

How? Pyrite’s mind raced as he saw Durene adjust her grip and come charging towards him. His mind worked frantically even as his body ran forwards. It had to be a Skill. A strength Skill. Imagine a Troll with [Lesser Strength] or—

Another swing from the club. This one came from the side, right at stomach-level. Pyrite dropped and rolled under it. He heard a grunt of surprise—Durene must not have thought he could move that fast. On the ground, Pyrite stared up. She was turning, arm raised for another killing blow.

Confidence in her eyes. She knew she was strong. She must not have ever met anyone stronger. And she wouldn’t on this battlefield. Pyrite knew he was too weak. He didn’t have his battleaxe. Still. He stared as the club began to fall and stood. As he did he grabbed the half-Troll girl’s inner knee and pulled up.

It wasn’t easy. Durene was as big as Pyrite and heavy. She was braced and poised well. Another Skill? But Pyrite was strong and he had her leg. He just had to pull up and then Durene was standing on one leg. Her club struck his shoulder hard and Pyrite groaned as he felt another crack, but she had bad posture. Durene waved her arms and cursed and Pyrite pulled her leg up a tiny bit more.

Down she went. Durene felt as the Humans and Hobs fell around her. She lost her grip on her shield, dropped her club to break her fall. She surged up as Pyrite stood and checked himself. He nodded as Durene grabbed her club. Then he kicked her in the face.

She didn’t expect that. Pyrite was fat, but his legs were strong and he was good at balancing. Durene staggered back, tried to stand, and tripped as Pyrite stepped on her foot. She shouted something, fell on her back, and then Pyrite stomped on her stomach. He put all of his body into the blow and felt her spasm. Durene curled up into a ball and puked. Pyrite wandered away.

Strong. Very strong. And tough. She nearly killed him. But she wasn’t experienced. Pyrite thought about trying to keep her on the ground but he’d cut his foot open kicking her in the helmet and he was worried she could tear his leg off if she caught it. So he went for his battleaxe. It was lying in the mud, the head burning. A Human tried to stop him and Pyrite casually punched him. When he lifted the battleaxe Durene was on her feet. And she was angry.

She’d grabbed her shield. With her club in hand she roared at Pyrite. There was no words, just rage. Pyrite nodded. He waited. This time he waited until she was swinging. Durene came at him with another vertical smash. Pyrite planted his battleaxe in the ground, aimed the head, and ducked.

The club crashed into the head of the enchanted battleaxe. The blow drove the butt and haft of the battleaxe into the earth, but the weapon didn’t break. It was magical. And the head bit into the club and set the bloody wood aflame. As Durene jerked it back with a shout of surprise and horror, the weakened club broke in her hands. She stared at the handle in horror and saw Pyrite raise his battleaxe. She lifted her shield and he swung.

Durene!

The scream that Pyrite heard came from two places. The half-Troll girl staggered backwards, a hand over her chest. Red blood and smoke dripped from the place where he had cut her. She stared at Pyrite. He raised his axe for another blow and saw the armored rider charging him.

“Face me, Goblin!

Beniar howled as he charged Pyrite. The Hob shifted his stance and swung. Beniar swore as he turned his horse too late. Pyrite cut down the horse and would have killed Beniar if it weren’t for the last-minute change. Beniar fell to the ground but was up in a moment. He faced off against Pyrite with sword and shield in hand as Humans rushed to pull Durene back, screaming for healing potions. Pyrite saw the Human shift. He was wearing good armor. Pyrite saw his hand lower, and then Beniar stabbed towards Pyrite’s chest.

The Hob caught the sword in his hand. Beniar jerked, and stared as the blade pierced Pyrite’s hand but failed to enter his chest. The Hob lifted his battleaxe with his other hand and swung. Beniar raised his shield. The metal crumpled. His armor crumpled. His ribs broke. He collapsed and Pyrite yanked the sword from out of his hand. Pain made his head swim, but he raised his axe again.

“[Fox Fire]!”

Bright flames burnt Pyrite’s face. He roared, trying to smother the magical flames that enveloped his face. But the conflagration didn’t go out. Pyrite’s hands shot towards his belt and he grabbed the little glass bottle there. He smashed it against his head and the soothing healing potion extinguished the magical fire. Howling in pain, Pyrite looked around as he felt his burnt skin healing. He saw a row of Humans in front of him, felt an arrow strike his shoulder and another land in his gut. He saw them pulling Beniar and Durene back and then saw the [Witch].

She was standing, aiming a wand at him not twenty paces away. Rows of Human [Soldiers] separated the two. She opened her mouth for another spell and Pyrite ducked. The bright flames missed his head. Pyrite saw a Human charge him and felt another lancing pain in his side. He growled and a Hob tore the Human’s sword away and slashed across his face with an axe.

“Pyrite!”

Twofeather covered Pyrite as more Hobs rushed forwards. They fought with the Humans as the [Witch] cast more magic. Hobs retreated, burning and howling while the rest fought. Twofeathers urged Pyrite back. He didn’t want to go.

“Pyrite! Danger, danger! You go back!”

She pointed back a few paces, where Goblins were rushing past him. Pyrite growled, but then stepped back. Only when the bloodlust cleared from his head did he realize how close he’d come to death. It felt like the last few moments had taken hours, but in truth bare minutes had passed. He looked around.

The Humans were losing. Across the battlefield the Goblins were pushing them back. It wasn’t a victory everywhere, but the numerical superiority of the Humans had failed before the Goblin’s superior tactics and experience. The Humans couldn’t face the Hobs or the experienced Redfang Warriors. And with both their cavalry leader and Durene out of the picture they were losing hope.

Pyrite saw it all clearly from where he stood. The [Witch] or [General] or whoever she was still held the line, but she had attracted Noears’ attention. From the walls of the city Pyrite saw a flash and then a lightning bolt blasted apart a group of Humans near the [Witch]. She was forced to flee further back as Noears shot more lightning.

It wasn’t victory. Not yet. But Pyrite knew it could be taken. He just had to push further in, cut the Humans in two. Overwhelm them from all sides. He could do it. But for a moment, a brief moment, Pyrite leaned on his battleaxe. He was tired. Hurt. He could smell his blood, burnt skin, and tell he had cracked bones the healing potion had yet to mend. Pyrite stared at the battlefield, at the Humans and Goblins bleeding and dying, and looked up. Absently he thought of a poem.

 

Ah, how red, how red

The living and the dead

Dying here with blue sky

Far overhead.

Painful.

Yet for my people living and dead,

Until my last drop is shed,

I’ll dye my hands this crimson red.

 

Then he came back to himself. Pyrite lifted his battleaxe and roared a word.

Advance!

The Goblins heard him and cheering, rushed forwards. The Humans retreated. Pyrite strode forwards and his gaze turned west. It was a battle here. One he would win. It wasn’t one Rags had expected, but she had prepared him, prepared her tribe for it nonetheless. He hoped she would win her own battle.

“Luck, Chieftain.”

Pyrite murmured. Then he lifted his battleaxe and swung. The Humans fell back, screaming, running before him. It was probably something on his face.

 

—-

 

As the Flooded Waters tribe fought with the Unseen Empire’s army, a separate group of Goblins raced out of the forest. They had been camped around a broken totem, a wooden marker chopped down and then burnt to charcoal. They had been hiding, moving from marker to marker while sending small groups ahead to destroy the ones ahead. But they were close enough to their destination now. They abandoned their cover and raced out of the forest.

Sixty Goblins riding Carn Wolves rode down the dirt road, shouting, urging their mounts to race faster. They abandoned silence and their wolves howled. Fear raced ahead of them. The Goblins were coming. But not to slaughter. Not yet.

Rags had made that clear. She had told Redscar that if he wouldn’t follow her orders he could stay behind. That he was riding with her now at the head of his Redfang warriors meant he was obeying…or pretending to. She glanced at him as she rode up and down in her wolf’s saddle. His face was set, his teeth bared as he raced next to her with his enchanted sword unsheathed.

No. He had been Garen’s second-in-command. He obeyed and because he was a true Goblin, he obeyed even the orders he didn’t like. It would take truly terrible orders for him to rebel as he had once done to Garen. Something that went against both pride and common sense. And this was not a mistake. This was Rags’ plan.

The village was smaller than Rags expected as she rode towards it. Not that she’d expected a village. She’d assumed the [Emperor] would live in a huge palace. Or a castle. At the very least, a city. She hadn’t believed Pyrite when he’d pointed out the village named Riverfarm as the likeliest spot where the Unseen Emperor lived. But Sir Kerrig had gone straight into the village so Rags was certain.

She had also anticipated defenses, but the most the Humans had come up with was a thin line of stakes at the entry points around the village. They must have truly been caught off-guard. Rags saw a group of Humans installing the crude palisades at another entrance to the rows of houses race into the village, calling an alarm. The rest were already gathered at the eastern gate as she slowed. A sea of Human faces stared up at Rags, most white with terror. A few looked calmer, but all were tense. Her eyes flicked from face to face. Now, which one would be the [Emperor]?

“You!”

A voice shouted at Rags in fury. She looked and saw Sir Kerrig. He was breathing hard. He’d raced here on his horse. If Rags hadn’t had her [Fleet Foot] Skill that allowed her to rest her warriors while running to keep up with the Carn Wolves, they might have been just as tired.

The [Knight] was mounted and holding a plain iron sword and shield. He looked angry. Sir Kerrig pointed the tip of his sword towards Rags’ heart as Redscar surveyed the crowd and silently pointed, spacing his warriors out.

“You lied to me.”

Rags stared calmly at Sir Kerrig. She considered his words and then shrugged nonchalantly. It was a Goblin shrug. Sir Kerrig stared at her, face pale with fury.

“Did lie.”

“I trusted you to keep your word. I trusted your honor!”

The small Goblin grinned at Sir Kerrig. She bared her teeth.

“And this is how much I trust Humans.”

With that she turned and ignored Sir Kerrig completely. Which one? She looked for those without as much fear to begin with. She spotted a woman in a [Maid]’s dress staring at her in the crowd. No. She saw an old [Lady] standing at the head of a group of rich nobles. Rags eyed them, but all the male nobles looked ready to pee. No.

Then Rags spotted an odd group. A woman in a rich dress, an older man who looked like a [Farmer]. A young man with a hand protectively over his sword and…Rags felt a jolt. It was him.

It was easy in hindsight. Out of the entire crowd, only the [Emperor] wasn’t looking at her. His head was turned east and his eyes were closed. The Unseen Emperor slowly turned his head and Rags felt a prickling chill run down her skin. He wasn’t looking directly at her. His eyes were closed. But she knew he was looking nonetheless. This was the feeling she’d felt the entire time she was in his lands. The feeling of being watched.

The Humans stared at Rags as Redscar tilted his head and nodded. His Carn Wolves were surrounding the entrance to the village. There were wooden spikes set into the ground and a lot of the villagers were armed, but few had armor. These weren’t soldiers. If Rags ordered the attack it would be a slaughter. The Goblin Chieftain assessed the crowd, eyed Sir Kerrig and nodded to him. Redscar positioned five of his warriors to face off against the [Knight].

Good. All was set. Rags reached for the crossbow at her back. When she drew it, all the Humans tensed. She saw the Human with the sword move in front of the [Emperor]. Rags casually pointed her black crossbow with two hands towards the Unseen Emperor, her elusive foe. She grinned in the silence.

“Time for peace talk?”

 

—-

 

The first time I hear her voice is a shock. At first I can’t believe that this is the Goblin Chieftain. I recognize her of course. Dimly. I have sensed all the Goblins who came onto my land. But while I noticed the fat Goblin with the battleaxe, the one with the enchanted longsword and scar, and so on, I never expected this one to be the Chieftain who has done so much harm.

She’s so small. And when she speaks I know she’s also young. It’s not just her words. All the Goblins apparently sound like non-native speakers. But her voice is so…

A child. A child leading monsters. A child monster. Only—a child and a monster don’t go together. For a moment I’m frozen with shock. But I can’t process the emotions running through me. A crossbow is aimed at my chest and while I’m sure Gamel would throw himself in front of the bolt, it would probably go through him and me. So I stand and brush him aside.

“You are the Chieftain of this Goblin Tribe? The…Flooded Waters tribe?”

The small Goblin looks slightly surprised. She must be wondering how I can see her without eyes. But she nods as if blind men aren’t the strangest thing she’s seen today.

“Am. Am Rags. Chieftain.”

I hear a murmur behind me. I ignore it.

“I am Laken Godart. [Emperor] of these lands.”

“Murderer.”

How casually she says the word. The response it provokes among my people is instantaneous. Half shout in outrage. They might have done more than raise the weapons they hold, but the snarling Carn Wolves made them hold back. I raise a hand for silence.

“Some people would argue that one cannot murder Goblins. Some would say they are not people.”

It’s a calculated risk. I sense the Goblin with the scar on his face recoil, sense the way his hand tightens on the hilt of his sword and the other Goblins tense. But the small Goblin tilts her head thoughtfully.

“Can say that. I say same thing about Humans. There.”

It’s almost funny. For a sick moment I’m tempted to laugh. Then I remember myself and so I laugh anyways. The others stare at me. But they don’t matter. Not right now. In this moment it’s only this small Goblin and I. Rags? We stand alone, talking to each other.

“I thought all Goblins were monsters. You see, a raiding party attacked my empire. They killed my people. They would have killed us all.”

She shrugs.

“Probably.”

“You have nothing to defend their actions?”

A touch of heat enters her voice.

“Why do I need defend? Humans do same to Goblins.”

I nod slowly. Gods. All the pieces are falling together. Listen to her talk! She sounds so—what have I been doing? What have I done? An angry voice shouts out behind me.

“This is absurd! Goblins are not the same as Humans!”

“Lord Tourant, be silent.

I hear the [Lord]’s voice muffle itself and ignore the scuffle behind me. Rags is tilting her head, inspecting me carefully. Without fear. She’s curious.

“Why close eyes? Bad eyes?”

“No. Blind.”

Head tilt. She squints at me. All the while the crossbow never wavers.

“How can see?”

“Skill. Special [Emperor] Skill.”

“Ah.”

She pauses. I wait a beat but she doesn’t ask anything more. I want—if there was a way—but not now. I fear what will come, but I try anyways.

“What you said? About peace treaty? You want talk?”

She scowls. I sense that quite clearly. She points at me with one hand while she keeps the other hand steady, balancing the crossbow on her wolf’s head. It whines softly.

“No talk bad! I can talk like you. You do not talk like I do!”

“Very well. What do you want? Peace? This is hardly peaceful.”

She laughs.

“Is it not? This way is best way! Peace! I point this at you and if you don’t make peace, I shoot you.”

Outrage around me. I smile. There’s something so refreshing about that.

“If you shoot me, my people will kill you. You will not escape these lands alive.”

Rags gives me a long, blank look.

“Right. That why peace works.”

A stalemate. I slowly nod.

“So then. What is your peace, Chieftain Rags?”

She pauses. It hurts to sense how delighted she is to be called Chieftain. My chest burns with pain.

“Peace is simple. You take army away from city. I take my army away from lands. Your army not follow. I go. You let leave.”

Again, Rags’ words provoke an uproar, but not from my people. Rather, it’s the nobles and Lady Rie who react. She whispers urgently into my ears.

“Your majesty, she can’t be serious! If we let a Goblin tribe roam free your reputation—”

“Prost.”

He pulls Lady Rie back, ignoring her outrage. I tap my chin with a finger.

“And your proof that you won’t turn back and continue raiding my lands?”

Another shrug. It seems very Goblin.

“No proof. You send army if I come back. We fight again.”

“That’s not good enough.”

She shifts on her wolf’s back testily.

“Not good enough? Goblins are stinking cowards. We run away! I make peace. Don’t have to. Could kill you now.”

She lifts the crossbow as proof of her bona fides. I sense Gamel tense again. If it comes to it…Bismarck is waiting behind one of the houses. I have close to a thousand of my subjects here. The rest are hiding with those unable to fight. The nobles have their entourage as well. Not enough. Sixty elite Goblins plus their wolves…that’s like a hundred and twenty warriors. It will be a slaughter.

“How would the peace work? I tell my soldiers to go? What will you do?”

Rags bares her teeth. They’re sharp. Small.

“You send message. Tell them to go. Then we go. We stand here one hour. Then I go.”

She wants us to stand here for an hour? It might work. It could work. I want to laugh. I want to tell her to lower the crossbow, to sit, to let me apologize and ask her—but I shake my head.

“It’s a good plan. It might have worked. But I’m sorry, Chieftain Rags. There will be no peace.”

Behind me, Lady Rie inhales sharply. I see Rags waver. For the first time she looks surprised. Uncertain.

“Why not?”

I wait before responding. When I do, my voice is steady. I can say the words now. Pain—pain has already done its work.

“You came too late, Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe. Our armies have already fought. Someone ordered my army to assault your tribe. The battle is lost. Your tribe won.”

A moan rises from the crowd. I feel the horror rise around me, see faces turn to me with terror mounting. Rags stares at me. The crossbow wavers.

“My tribe won?”

I nod. In my head I sense Humans fleeing, drawing back, fighting around the totem. Where is Durene?

“Is winning, rather. They’re retreating. Your tribe is chasing them.”

The Goblin with the red scar leans over to talk urgently to his Chieftain. Rags listens, half shaking her head. Is he suggesting to kill us now that they’ve won? Rags looks back at me and now her voice is very uncertain.

“Tribe won. Is good. Humans wrong to attack. Stupid. Can still…make peace.”

“No.”

I smile at her. She stares at me, just like a child.

“Why not?”

“You slaughtered my people. You killed them. And Durene—I think you’ve taken too much from me, Rags. Your race started this war. I escalated it. For that I am sorry. But too many have died.”

I spread my arms. I can sense them. I can remember. Each person her Goblins slew. Each child burnt in a building, or mother killed while fleeing. Each father or son or daughter who died. It hurts. And I cannot sense Durene.

Rags lifts her crossbow.

“You fight and you die. Your people die.”

“There are thousands of my people here and sixty of you. I have soldiers too.”

“Emperor Laken, your majesty, let us not be hasty here. Surely there is something we can do to avoid conflict.”

To my greatest surprise, someone interrupts Rags’ reply. An old voice. Lady Bevia. She speaks up as the [Mage] next to her urgently whispers. She brushes him aside and treats me and Rags to a charming smile. I can feel myself growing calmer.

“Chieftain Rags, was it? Your Majesty, this young Goblin speaks sense. I would hate to see needless bloodshed—”

The [Mage]. He’s whispering to her. What does she know? Why is she trying to defuse the situation? I turn towards Lady Bevia and sense Rags spotting the same things I have. She shifts her crossbow’s aim for a second.

“No talk! Stop using Skill!”

“I am only trying to—”

“Be silent, Lady Bevia. There is no more room for negotiation. I have made up my mind.”

Around me I sense a vibration in the air. The atmosphere is taut. My people have gone deathly still. They are waiting. Rags hesitates. She lifts her weapon uneasily.

“I have crossbow. You surrender. Now!”

I laugh. There’s a bit of madness there. He was right. An [Emperor] can do many things. But some things—no.

“Surrender? Never.

We stare at each other, the small Goblin and I. Without eyes. For a second I waver. So young. If we had met another way, we might even have understood each other. But my empire bleeds. My people are dead. And when I look at her in my mind’s eye, truly look at her, I don’t think she wants peace either. There’s a monster in both of us. Waiting. So I let it out.

“Take the Goblins. Do not let them escape. Do not rest until they are all dead.”

I hear a howl. I sense Rags jerk, see the red scarred Goblin point at me, Sir Kerrig leaping into motion. I can sense her finger pulling the trigger, sense the crossbow aiming at me. I feel Gamel lunge at me, knock me down. The bolt grazes my left cheek, goes into someone behind me. I hit the ground as people rush around me. And I hear the screams.

 

—-

 

Rags saw the first bolt miss the [Emperor]. The second wasn’t aimed at him. It took the [Mage] she’d seen straight through the neck. He dropped, nearly falling on the old [Lady] who’d spoken. Rags saw the woman stumble backwards, face grey as her warriors surged forwards. Rags pointed and threw fire into the crowd as she struggled to reload.

Where was he? There! He was moving backwards, fleeing into the village! Rags heard a terrifying roar and turned her head to see a giant green bear charging out of the village towards her warriors. Three Redfang Warriors turned to ride at it. The rest were fighting the crowd. Five were dueling Sir Kerrig!

Redscar!

She howled the name as she struggled to reload her crossbow. The Humans were shielding the [Emperor]. She’d never get a clear shot! Redscar looked at her, his sword bathed in blood. Rags pointed.

“Him!”

The [Emperor] turned his head as Redscar charged. The current leader of the Redfangs rode a Carn Wolf larger than all but Garen Redfang. He had raised the wolf cub since he had been born. Now he charged into the Humans with cleavers, pitchforks, and other weapons, ignoring their attempts to unseat him. His Carn Wolf snarled and leapt over the crowd, crushing more where it landed. Its fur resisted the blows around it and Redscar slashed left and right, cutting Humans down. But with each passing second the [Emperor] was drawing further away.

Stop! Stop this madness!”

Sir Kerrig was trying to fight his way to Rags. She ignored him. Her eyes were on Redscar and the Emperor. Laken. He had run a dozen feet down the street. He was headed for one of the houses. If he could get inside he’d barricade himself in with all the other Humans. Redscar was racing at him.

A Human stood in the way. A young man with a sword and padded jerkin. He was inexperienced but he swung well. Redscar leaned back and slashed him across the chest as he passed. The young man fell, bleeding but not dead.

Next, the woman in the dress. She fled to one side. Next an old man, the [Farmer]. He had a sword too and swung clumsily at Redscar. The Carn Wolf rammed into him, knocking him flat.

The [Emperor] was last. He had run down the street but Redscar charged him. Ironically, Laken’s order had sent his subjects racing towards Rags’ warriors in a blind rage. There was no one to save him. Rags waited as Redscar raised his frosted blade. The [Emperor] was turning. He knew he wouldn’t escape. He turned and stared at Redscar. Rags heard him speak.

Stop.

For a moment Redscar did. He froze and his Carn Wolf skidded to a stop. Then Redscar cursed. He leapt off his Carn Wolf and ran at the [Emperor]. Laken ran once more. Rags cursed, but Redscar was a trained warrior. He was still closing on the Human. Closer, closer—

Chieftain!

Rags heard the voice. Her head turned. She saw something flash past her Redfang Warriors, heard the galloping hoofs. She turned, raised her crossbow, and shot. Too slow. Her bolt missed the target.

Redscar was sprinting towards Laken. His sword was ready to slash across his back. He raised it as he reached Laken’s back and turned his head as Rags screamed a warning. He saw the blur approaching on horseback and struck anyways. Too slow.

The galloping figure rode down the village street faster than an arrow could fly. Faster than Rags’ fiery magic. Faster than Redfang’s sword. He rode as if the rest of the world were underwater. A lance was in his hand and he aimed it at Redscar. The Goblin saw it coming and tried to dodge. Again he failed.

The lance pierced Redscar’s shoulder. The momentum of the strike spun the Goblin and Rags saw the rider flick his lance casually. Redscar slowed and she saw a hole in his right shoulder. He stared at it and fell, his sword still held in his left hand. The [Emperor], Laken, looked up. The Redfangs stopped fighting and the villagers of Riverfarm stopped too. They turned their heads and saw him standing there. Larger than life. Exactly on time.

Lord Tyrion Veltras. He removed his helmet and offered Laken a slight, stiff bow. Behind Rags, she heard a clarion horn sound and heard more drumming hooves. She turned and saw a hundred riders in full armor charging straight at her. She screamed an order and her Goblins broke away. Tyrion Veltras pointed and the armored [Knights] and [Lords] charged the Goblins. He turned back to Laken Godart.

“Emperor Laken Godart? I believe we have yet to meet. I am Lord Tyrion Veltras. I have heard of you. I believe we could be of mutual benefit to each other.”

“You?”

Laken stared up at the man. Lord Tyrion was tall, and his hair was black. He had a trimmed goatee and clean-shaven upper lip. His armor glowed slightly in the light and he held himself strictly, almost painfully upright on his horse. There was no smile on his face and his dark blue eyes were cold. Nevertheless there was an urgency to the way he moved, a purpose. Tyrion turned his head, looking east.

“I understand your forces are in full retreat following a clash with this tribe. My escort passed by the conflict less than an hour ago. I instructed the rest of my force to ride into battle as soon as they caught up.”

“The rest of your…?”

Tyrion Veltras nodded. His gaze flicked upwards towards the sun, and then travelled across the breadth of Riverfarm. It took in the fleeing Goblins, the hundred or so armored Humans in pursuit, and the lone Goblin racing towards them. Tyrion watched as Rags flung herself from the saddle towards Redscar. He made no move towards them as his lance tip dripped blood onto the ground. Rags dragged Redscar up as the Goblin’s own Carn Wolf approached, whining. She shouted a command and both Carn Wolves began to run, one carrying the fallen Goblin.

“Lord Matthews?”

Lord Tyrion turned his head and called at one of the men dressed in silver armor. A tall [Lord] with red gold hair rode up.

“Lord Veltras! What can I do for you?”

The scion of the Veltras family calmly nodded towards Rags and Redscar, who were both fleeing towards the other Redfang Warriors.

“Mark both targets. The one with the enchanted sword and the small female with the crossbow. Remember your orders.”

“By your leave, Lord Veltras. Formation on me!”

Lord Matthews called out and a wedge of [Knights] and [Lords] raced after him. Laken stared at the fleeing Goblins and the Humans.

“You came all this way for…how did you know about me? About the Goblins? My army—Durene—”

The [Lord] turned his head slightly. He nodded towards Lady Bevia as she stood at a distance. The older lady curtsied slightly.

“I have my informants. Moreover, I received an extraordinary messenger. Your army will be saved, Emperor. I did not come with a hundred soldiers alone.”

 

—-

 

The cavalry that drew reign in front of the battleground spotted the fleeing Humans and advancing Goblins from a distance. Their mounts were sweaty, exhausted, and the riders looked just as tired. But the commander seemed confident, casual, even. He shaded his eyes as he peered at the Goblins chasing the Humans down.

“That’s the tribe you informed Lord Veltras of, Lady Vis? Do you see your comrade among them?”

Welca Vis gasped for air and wiped sweat out of her eyes. She stared down at the Goblin army and then shifted her gaze to the city.

“I don’t see Sir Kerrig anywhere, Lord Pellmia.”

The [Lord] nodded.

“A pity. But we may still have hope that he is alive within the city at least. Men! Ladies. On my order we will charge the Goblins! Form a wedge on me. [Second Wind]!”

As he spoke, Welca felt energy flood back into her limbs. It was a nervous, temporary rush, but it made even the horses canter as the cavalry moved into place. She lowered the visor of her helm as Lord Pellmia pointed.

“Remember your orders! Scatter the Goblins first and find me the commander of the Human army! On my mark! Charge!

 

—-

 

Pyrite was marching after the Humans, ordering the tribe to harry them when he heard the horns. He turned his head and saw a wall of silver and steel descending a distant hilltop. His blood ran cold. He screamed an order and the Goblins saw the danger. They turned and ran for the city. They ran and ran as the Humans descended on them.  Pyrite stared at the Humans as he ran. Where had they come from? Why were they here?

Where was Rags?

 

—-

 

“Report.”

Lord Tyrion was speaking to a bevy of soldiers, his people. He had dismounted and was at the center of attention. Laken was sitting. His knees had gone out. He saw Tyrion listen to a report coming straight from the fighting around the city. The Goblins were running! They’d retreated back into the city.

Just like that. Just…in an instant. Now Tyrion was speaking to one of the [Mages] who’d rode with him.

“Convey my gratitude to Lord Pellmia. Tell him I will return to appraise the situation shortly. Now, I require a second [Message] to be sent to my aide Telmia. Send the message with the identifying passphrase: Benivald Veltras. Await her counter signal identifying him as the 52nd second-son of the House Veltras. Inform her to begin the operation on my mark.”

The flurry of activity around Tyrion ceased. He glanced up at the position of the sun and waited a beat. All was still. Laken felt the world pausing. Tyrion nodded.

“Mark.”

 

—-

 

In the mountain, the Goblin Lord and Tremborag met for the second time. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain taunted Reiss from above as his Goblins loosed arrows and threw stones down from above. The crisscrossing network of rope and wood bridges were filled with Goblins as the undead and Reiss’ forces fought below, trying to push upwards.

“You will never take my home, False Lord! Not you, nor your armies! You are too late! The Humans come for you! They will never break my home! I outlived the Goblin King and I will live in my fortress until all is dust!”

He roared down at the Goblin Lord. Reiss stared up, his eyes narrowed and shot black bolts of magic upwards. But Tremborag just laughed and backed away from the edge. Reiss knew he was right.

“Lord, lots of Humans are coming! Lots and lots of Humans!

Snapjaw was tugging at Reiss, trying to get him to pull back. Reiss snarled, feeling blood running down from the side of his face. Garen had nearly gotten him in the last ambush. He saw his Goblin fighting with Tremborag’s forces in a narrow gap. They couldn’t push in! They had to retreat! But the Humans—

Redfang!

A roar from the left interrupted him. Garen Redfang rode out of a large tunnel with his Redfang Warriors, cutting again for Reiss. This time Eater of Spears charged at him and the two Hobs fought in a shower of blood. Reiss snarled.

“Pull Eater of Spears back! Garen is aiming for him!”

The Redfang Chieftain was cutting the larger Hob, bleeding him! He locked eyes as Reiss pointed and the Shield Spider he was riding turned. The two Goblins surged towards each other and then looked up. They felt it at the same time.

Danger. The other Goblins with [Dangersense] looked up as well. They stared up and then saw a flash of crimson light. Heat billowed up and Tremborag turned his head. A network of bridges had burst into flame! As the Goblins watched, they saw a group of distant figures perched high overhead.

Humans. One of the [Mages] aimed a wand down and shot a stream of lava at another network of bridges. The Goblins there screamed in agony as they burned and more fled. Too late. The bridge collapsed, sending hundreds of Goblins falling to their deaths.

Humans! Pathetic adventurers! Kill them!”

Tremborag was furious. He pointed and thousands of Goblins swarmed upwards. Too many even for teams of Gold-rank adventurers to handle! The [Mages] instantly threw up magic barriers as the [Warriors] closed ranks.

Garen stared up at the Gold-rank adventurers coldly. They were fools. They’d be forced to retreat and some would die because of that poor decision. Goblins weren’t like monsters. They knew how to fight adventurers. Tremborag himself was racing higher. He would tear a score of the Gold-ranks apart by himself. But then why was his [Dangersense] still active? He frowned and then saw a flash of magic. Someone had used [Lesser Teleport]. He saw a distant figure appear high overhead. A flash of blonde hair, a pale face. Pointed ears. And suddenly, Garen was afraid.

Not just afraid. Petrified. He stared up and again the Goblins stopped. Something was…off. They knew fear. But the sight of the half-Elf standing above them filled them with a fear they couldn’t shake. All Goblins were afraid. They learned to conquer fear or die. But this?

Tremborag had halted too when he saw the half-Elf. She stood with a group of four other companions, all of whom held bows. Only one was a half-Elf like her, and that archer was far younger. But it was the blonde half-Elf Tremborag stared at. His voice, normally a grand echo in the cavernous mountain, shook as he stared up at her.

“You.”

The half-Elf had a bow. It glowed brightly with a fierce, silvery light as she drew an arrow from the quiver at her back. The adventurers around her stepped back. Tremborag pointed up at her. Now his voice was a shout, but it was filled with horror. And dread.

“You. I know your face!”

The half-Elf glanced at him dismissively and then away. Tremborag backed up. The huge Hobgoblin was afraid. He spoke, his voice filling every ear.

“You were there! You shot the arrow! You have come for me! Destroyer! Bringer of doom! You are she! Arcsinger! The one who slew Velan the Kind!”

Garen felt his heart stop. He stared up as Ellia Arcsinger aimed her bow down, searching the faces of Goblins. Tremborag pointed. He screamed a word, the name no Goblin had ever forgotten.

Kingslayer!

And then he fled. Tremborag leapt from his place, falling, crashing onto the ground of a lower tunnel. He disappeared into it. And behind him Goblins screamed. They wailed and threw down their weapons, turning and running in a panic. Tremborag’s Goblins and the Goblin Lord’s forces. There was no thought behind it. They were gripped by madness. Primal fear. The Kingslayer stood above, the one who had killed Velan the Kind. Even the Redfang Warriors ran, their Carn Wolves howling in panic.

“Stand and fight! Stand!”

Garen roared at his tribe. But his knees shook as he stared up at the half-Elf with the silver bow. He saw her eyes flash towards him and he felt true terror grip his heart. He turned, cursing, and ran.

“Lord! Lord, run!

Snapjaw was screaming in Reiss ear. He had leapt from his Shield Spider’s back and was running with the other Goblins. They sheltered him, even in their panic. They knew. He knew. She was searching for him. Reiss took one look back above as Ellia Arcsinger looked down below. He shuddered. And that fear was not only of her.

Tremborag’s mountain was lost. Both the Mountain City tribe and the Goblin Lord’s army fled in the face of the Human army. Not just because of the army. Not just because of the danger. Because of her. Because of the memory they could not erase. They fled in a panic on first sight of her, forgetting everything.

All according to plan.

 

—-

 

“Excellent. Continue as planned and notify me of any developments. I will return by nightfall.”

Lord Tyrion finished speaking through the spell and turned. He walked over to the young man who was sitting in the dirt street. Laken could still remember where the sword had been. Just a hand’s breath away from his chest. It took him a moment when Tyrion bent to realize the man was offering him his hand.

“Your majesty, there is much I would like to discuss.”

It looked like it pained Tyrion to address Laken by his title, but it would have pained him more not to. Laken looked up into his eyes. He did not immediately take Tyrion’s hand.

“I have heard that you are a dangerous man, Lord Tyrion Veltras. A certain [Maid] came by to tell me not to trust you by any means.”

“[Maids] gossip.”

Tyrion could have been remarking on the weather. He spoke coolly, never taking his eyes off of Laken.

“There are many rumors about me. I would advise you to judge the truth of them for yourself. I have no doubt that many of my detractors have valid points. But I am first and foremost a [Lord] of Izril. I protect my people. This Goblin threat has prompted me to action.”

“Took you a while, didn’t it?”

Lord Tyrion paused.

“Indeed. It is the unfortunate nature of the times. One cannot act without understanding the truth about Goblins. And it is with that understanding that I do execute my plans according to necessity, not compassion.”

“Truth? What truth about Goblins?”

The hand was still outstretched. He should have looked silly, waiting for Laken to take his hand, but Tyrion merely looked expectant. He spoke slowly as Laken stared up at him.

“The truth about Goblins, Emperor Laken Godart, is that they do not matter. Not Chieftains or Lords or Kings. Only one thing matters.”

“And that is?”

“People. Humanity. Responsibility to one’s lands. Safeguarding the continent. Uniting against a common foe, be it monsters or any other threat. We are both men of duty. And I would have your help, Emperor Godart. I offer you my hand. Will you take it?”

Laken stared. He opened his eyes and stared into Tyrion’s own. The [Lord] looked back calmly.  After a moment, Laken slowly reached out. The man hauled him up and Laken stood face-to-face with Lord Tyrion Veltras. He slowly nodded.

“Let’s talk.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.31 G

They flooded into the mountain wearing black armor. Black, like bugs. Garen had heard of the Antinium, a race of insects. He imagined they must be like the Goblin Lord’s army—a vast, ravenous host without fear or thought.

But the Goblins that besieged Tremborag’s fortress weren’t insects. They were people. For all they were monsters in the eyes of all. They thought. They bled. And they could be broken, Goblin Lord or not.

The first wave struck two hours after the ambush in the woods. Goblins raced up the rocky slopes of Dwarfhalls Rest. As mountains went it wasn’t the largest by far. Compared to the High Passes it was a foothill among giants. But it was large enough. No citadel was taller, and even the climbing was treacherous. But the Goblins were warriors and spurred on by their leader, they swarmed up the mountainside. The battle began when they located one of the entrances to the mountain.

A dark tunnel mined out of stone, partly invisible against the rock face. The first Goblins in black armor entered the passage, shouting back at their companions. They made it in about twenty feet before they were swarmed from the shadows. Other Goblins, not wearing the signature black armor of Reiss’ troops, dropped on the Goblins from above, shot arrows, and charged out of the shadows with blades in hand. They did not wear metal armor by and large, but their blades were no less deadly.

The battle began as the Goblin Lord’s troops poured into the tunnel, shouting furiously. They bunched up, fighting with Tremborag’s Goblins as both sides fought in the narrow bottleneck. However, the battle had been of the Mountain City tribe’s choosing and so the Goblin Lord’s soldiers found themselves at a disadvantage.

Goblins with bows crouched on hidden ledges in the tunnel and more used higher ground to loose arrows or throw stones at their enemies. The rest, Hobs and normal Goblins alike, fought in an unending torrent of reinforcements. They would fall back if injured, fight on if not. The Goblin Lord’s forces found themselves unable to advance another step.

They could hold this spot forever. With that knowledge in mind, the Goblin Lord’s army quickly set about finding more entries into the mountain. They knew there had to be countless routes in. Goblins would have built themselves bolt holes and secret passages over the years. Sure enough, another entrance was located within minutes and more Goblins poured into the gap.

Again, they ran into a choke point filled with Tremborag’s Goblins. Undeterred, the Goblin Lord’s army fought in the tunnel while more scouted for other entrances. They found another. And another.

By this time the Goblin Lord’s army covered the mountainside like the insects they had reminded Garen of. They were already starting to establish a camp at the base of the mountain and the Goblin Lord’s officers were making their way up the slopes to take command of the fighting. More Goblins were circling around, running to find more secret entrances. That was when Garen struck.

Down he came, out of a hidden spot high above with his Redfang Warriors. They howled as they raced down the rocky slopes. The Carn Wolves easily bounded from rock to rock, remembering their home habitat of the High Passes. The band of the Goblin Lord’s soldiers looked up in time to see Garen Redfang charging down at him and hear the rattling of stones as more Goblins armed with bows raced out of the mountain. They raised their weapons and Garen charged into them atop his Carn Wolf.

Weak!

He roared as he slashed down at the first Goblin. His sword slashed through the sturdy wooden haft of the Goblin’s halberd and into the Goblin’s face. Garen wrenched his sword up, turned, and cut again. He needed no Skills—his enchanted sword cut through the crude black armor with ease. Before him the Goblin Lord’s warriors scattered as the rest of Garen’s warband cut them down.

Garen finished off the sixth Goblin when he heard the warning shout from above. A shower of arrows flew down and glanced off raised shields. The Goblin Lord’s army had seen the fighting and thousands of Goblins were pouring up the mountain. Garen pointed back up.

“Retreat!”

He and the Carn Wolves raced back up the slope, howling in triumph. They retreated into the mountain passage as the rest of Tremborag’s Goblins harried the approaching Goblins and then fell back. Soon, there was fighting in this passage as well, but again the Goblin Lord’s army found themselves stalemated. Garen raced through the mountain’s interior to another one of the secret passages carved out of stone.

Twice more he fell on the Goblin Lord’s army, inflicting many casualties before retreating. After the second time he was forced to abandon his raids—by this point the Goblin Lord’s army had entrenched themselves thoroughly on the mountainside. That was when the siege began in earnest.

 

—-

 

“Snapjaw, take control of west. Eater of Spears, watch top of mountain. No leader enters the mountain. Send only our warriors. Now. Bring me my [Shamans] and [Mages].”

Standing at the base of the mountain, the Goblin Lord named Reiss stared up at the lines of his soldiers moving slowly up the rocky terrain. What appeared to be chaos at first was in fact an organized system. Goblins would divide themselves up into groups, moving towards camps that had been set about each entrance to the mountain. The army was fighting on sixteen different fronts and each one had to receive a constant flow of supplies, reinforcements, and have a spot for the wounded to be brought out.

Not that there were many wounded. Goblins died before they could retreat in the narrow passageways. Reiss stared up at the mountain, listening to a report from one of his Goblins.

“Bad-bad box with Goblin archers! Much raining death and chop death from Goblins! Many Hobs! Many strong-cut death swords!”

“How many [Shamans]? Any special Goblins?”

The smaller Goblin had to think.

“One glow [Shaman]. Other smaller glow. Special Goblins—no. Many Hobs.”

“I see. Go get food. Eat.”

The Goblin nodded and ran towards a spot where food was being passed out to hungry soldiers and Goblins alike. The Goblin Lord’s force wasn’t all soldiers—many of the Goblins around Reiss weren’t armed at all. He had elected to camp on the base of the mountain, rather than ascend any further. Now Reiss stared up at the mountain. His army had covered one face, but the summit and the rest of the mountain had yet to be explored.

“Many holes in mountain. Many ambushes. They have prepared a long time. Do you think it is a bad battle?”

He glanced to one side and saw a stranger among his camp. Osthia Blackwing, the sole prisoner of the Goblin Lord’s forces, glared at him. But she didn’t waste time replying. Her gaze was bitter but calculating as she stared up at the mountain.

“It sounds like this other tribe has fortified the mountain well. Those choke points will be the death of your army—you won’t ever take them by force.”

That had been Reiss’ thought. He nodded slowly, weighing Osthia’s words against the way she moved, her body posture. She was telling the truth.

“But there are many entrances to the mountain.”

“How many?”

Reiss gave Osthia the aimless shrug of a true Goblin.

“Many.”

She eyed him sourly. Her tail lashed a bit.

“That’s a foolish mistake. No Drake fortress would ever have so many entryways.”

“No. But it is a good thing for Goblins. They will ambush from behind. And many ways in means many ways out if they are losing.”

“That’s exactly what I would expect from a Goblin army. Well then, I’m sure there are some places that haven’t been fortified as well. If you attack from ten different spots and gain a foothold, you could push in.”

Reiss nodded.

“Good plan.”

Osthia snorted and turned away. The Drake had lost her armor and her clothes were worn from days on the march. Her wings twitched in their metal manacles as she paced a bit. She glared up at the mountainside.

“You know they’ll ambush you if you don’t surround every passageway, don’t you? And doing that will spread your forces too thin.”

“I know. My lieutenants will begin building defenses soon. We will surround two thirds of the mountain. Leave the back way open with watchers. If they come out, we will kill them there.”

The Drake grunted. It was as much approval as he would get from her. Reiss watched her calmly for another moment.

She wasn’t helping him. She wasn’t—and yet she was willing to talk strategy with him. He could have come up with all the conclusions she’d led him to on his own, but it was good to have another mind to think on these subjects. Reiss knew that Osthia would deny it if he asked her, but she had become more willing to speak to him these last few days.

There was nothing magical about it. He had not coerced her or threatened her or done anything else. It was just that she had been in his camp for so long that she had to talk to someone or go mad. The other Goblins fed her and left her alone by and large. It was the isolation that had turned her into a reluctant advisor. Reiss could understand that. No one wanted to be alone.

A roar from the top of the mountain drew his attention. A Goblin had emerged from a hidden spot and was pointing down at his forces. Reiss narrowed his eyes as he saw the aura of magic around the Goblin. He—no, she was a [Shaman]!

High above, Ulvama, Chief [Shaman] of Tremborag’s tribe cackled and waved a staff. The paint on her bare breasts and mostly uncovered body gleamed as she pointed down at the Goblin Lord’s army. From her staff she shot fire, great masses of it that drifted down and blanketed the grouped-up Goblins. They screamed and fled as the fire baked them in their armor. Behind Ulvama more Goblins streamed out of the mountain. Young Goblins—Hobs and regular warriors. They burned with passion. Ulvama pointed at them. She screamed as she gathered magic to her.

“Go! Kill the weak Goblins! Kill the slave-Goblins! Be wild! Be monsters!

The Goblins roared as she cast a spell on them. The red lights in their eyes brightened and their bodies grew slightly as they raced down the slopes. Propelled into a battle madness by her [Bloodfury] spell, they hurled themselves against the Goblin Lord’s forces until they were all dead. Ulvama retreated back into the mountain, laughing. It was too easy!

“You’re in trouble. That was a high-level [Shaman], wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Reiss watched as the last of the enchanted Goblins were subdued by his forces. Already he had a sense of how the battle was stacked up. On his side he had more numbers than Tremobrag’s forces. He had an army of over a hundred thousand—although a good third of that number was filled with Goblins who wouldn’t fight unless backed into a corner. Children, heavily pregnant Goblins, those who didn’t want to fight, and so on.

On Tremborag’s side were probably forty thousand goblins at most. But they could hold the mountain so long as they held their tunnels. They knew the mountains. They had left traps—collapsing ceilings, spikes that swung out of the darkness—and they could keep withdrawing into their home if defeated on any one front.

It wasn’t a battle Reiss would have taken normally. But two things made him believe he could win. Firstly, if Tremborag and Garen Redfang fell or were captured, the tribe would instantly join his. He didn’t need to slaughter all of the Mountain City tribe—in fact, he wanted them largely intact. They would make his army half again as large. Assuming he could defeat the enemy Chieftains, of course. And to that end—

Reiss felt the magical auras as a group of Goblins approached him. Many were wearing armor like regular soldiers, although some had found robes both magical and mundane. All held some sort of catalyst, although again, the quality varied from a magical stave or wand seized from a Human to a pointy stick with leaves still growing from it. Reiss turned and his [Mages] and [Shamans] bowed to him.

“It is time. Send in the undead.”

 

—-

 

In the mountain, Tremborag was already celebrating. He ate on his dirty throne, laughing, as his warriors not fighting on the front ate and shouted triumphantly. It was an act that boosted the morale of his tribe. Not only could Tremborag feast himself during a siege, he was confident enough not to fight. The Great Chieftain drank deeply from a vessel of wine and turned to Garen Redfang. The Hobgoblin was staring at the indulgent display with contempt. Tremborag waved at him.

“Eat, Redfang! Or are you afraid the Goblin Lord will pop out of the food and slay you?”

He laughed raucously and the Goblins around him laughed too. Garen turned his head and stared silently at Tremborag. He and his faction of Goblins ate lightly, readying themselves for the next battle. Undeterred, Tremborag grinned, exposing all of his teeth.

“The Goblin Lord has not passed through a single tunnel so far. We slaughter his soldiers at each spot! And he will not find an opening into the mountain that is not trapped or watched. What say you? Is this not the battle you wanted?”

“His army is big.”

Garen’s comment made Tremborag laugh all the harder. He slapped one knee, making the fat and flesh jiggle.

“Big? Oh, for a tribe. For a Chieftain! But for a Goblin Lord? His army is weak! Small! Raw. My tribe is greater than his! I have been Chieftain for decades. How long has he been Lord? Half a year? He should never have come to my mountain.”

There was more truth to that boast than not. As armies went, the Goblin Lord’s force was fairly well-equipped and trained. But they didn’t stand out like other forces, or like Garen’s elite warriors who were far superior in individual fights or in equal matches.  On the other hand, Tremborag’s tribe was vast as befitted his title and he had many Hobs and experienced warriors of his own. The Goblin Lord’s forces were made up of many smaller tribes of varying, often mediocre quality—Tremborag’s forces could be said to stand a notch above them in quality.

All of this was true. And yet Garen did not relax. Tremborag lost interest in taunting him and turned back to his food. He was about to call a Goblin female over—why not?—when he heard a distant commotion. He stopped eating and the Goblins around him looked up uncertainty.

The doors flew open and one of Tremborag’s lesser lieutenants rushed into the room. Tremborag rose, annoyed. This Hob should have been overseeing one of the besieged tunnels.

“Great Chieftain! Bad trouble!”

“What is it?”

“Undead! Many-many undead coming! Overwhelming, sneaky death!”

The Hobgoblin looked frantic. Tremborag stared at him and then roared.

“Undead? So what? Kill them! Shoot them with arrows! Chop off their heads!”

“Great Chieftain! Can’t!”

Enraged, Tremborag strode forwards off his dais and snatched the smaller Goblin up. He glared at the Hob as every Goblin around him held their breath and backed away.

“Why not?

The Hob gasped as Tremborag’s massive clawed hand squeezed him. He looked into Tremborag’s furious face and spoke weakly.

“Undead go boom.”

 

—-

 

They walked into the tunnels. Shambling forms. Pallid bodies. All were rotting. The unholy, damned light of undeath shone in their eyes. They moved forwards. Zombies, mainly. A few skeletons. Ghouls in small packs and a handful of the deadly Draug. The Goblin Lord’s living forces moved aside to let them pass. The undead moved into the kill spots and grappled with the Goblins there. They threw themselves relentlessly towards the defenders, ignoring all but the most debilitating of injuries.

If that were all they would have been held back. At cost, but with no more difficulty than the regular soldiers. But mixed among the undead Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, and regular Goblins were…children. Undead Goblins who moved a bit faster than the rest. They snuck closer amid the fighting, directed by far-off [Necromancers] and [Shamans].

And when they were amid the struggling lines of the Goblin defenders or worse, among a group of Tremborag’s Goblins, they would bite at an ankle or strike weakly with their small bodies. Of course, they would be instantly crushed by or speared or hacked apart. And that was when they would explode.

The first few detonations killed dozens of defenders each. Shock and confusion allowed the undead to push forwards. The Mountain City tribe fell back in disarray, not understanding what the sudden explosions had been caused by. They suspected [Mages] and looked for invisible Goblins or ones armed with scrolls or magical items. By the time they realized the small Goblins were the source of the detonations, they had taken heavy losses.

Tremborag stared in disbelief at the steam of wounded Goblins fleeing from the forward tunnels. He saw many were wounded and far more were terrified. Tremborag roared and the Goblins rushing towards him froze. He swung a claw and sent the closest Goblins to him flying with broken bones.

“Cowards! Get back to fighting!

The Goblins looked at their Great Chieftain and wavered. They weighed the odds of dying with incurring their Chieftain’s wrath and slowly turned. Tremborag growled furiously as he heard more detonations echo distantly back into the mountain.

“Exploding undead? This Goblin Lord has a second army. An army of tricks! Cowardly little tricks!”

“Good tricks.”

Tremborag turned, his eyes narrowed. Garen stood behind him. The Hob stared past Tremborag with a frown.

“The entrances are lost. Too small. Too narrow.”

Tremborag knew he was right. The Great Chieftain roared in anger and stomped about, but he had figured out the same thing Garen had. In the narrow tunnels the exploding undead would utterly destroy the defenders as they bunched up. Tremborag snarled but growled an order to one of his Hobs.

“Pull back! We will slaughter them in the open!”

The Hob raced off shouting to do Tremborag’s bidding. Garen looked up at the huge Hobgoblin.

“More fighting. On bridges, in open. Means fighting in tunnels. Harder to hold. More deaths.”

Tremborag was close to lashing out. He held himself back from striking Garen with effort. His voice deepened with fury.

“We will slaughter them in great numbers, then! You will fight, Redfang. You and your Goblins. And I will hunt down the Goblin Lord’s officers. Tomorrow we will go hunting.”

Garen nodded. Tremborag strode back into his throne room and resumed eating with such fury that no Goblin dared to disturb him. In the mountain, the Goblins pulled back. They abandoned the narrow entrances to the mountain and ran into larger tunnels. They were the last stopgap before the center of the mountain which was crisscrossed with bridges and wood scaffolding. The invading Goblins and undead followed them and clashed against the solid barricades that had been set up, screaming as oil and boiling water was poured on them from above.

 

—-

 

Osthia listened to the garbled reports coming into the Goblin Lord’s tent, trying to make sense of it all. The crude language of the Goblins and their partial mastery of the common tongue as well as multiple reports being delivered at once made understanding anything hellishly difficult, but she had learned that part of Goblin communication was body language. Too, she thought she almost understood some of the Goblin’s speech. A few words that were repeated, a phrase here and there—useless, of course, but it helped knowing what was going on.

“They’re fighting in wider spaces. Looks like they’re trapped. Your exploding undead will do less good there.”

“Yes. But they can go through other tunnels. Now the Great Chieftain must defend from me.”

Reiss turned and grinned. Osthia looked at him and tried to find the disgust and hatred in her heart. All she felt was a bit of anger. She’d been his captive too long. She had hated him, tried to kill him after Zel Shivertail had fallen. But she had known it was the Necromancer who had killed him. And Reiss had left his body for the Humans, wept. She wanted to hate him. That would make things simple. Easy. But she couldn’t. So Osthia glanced up at the mountain, aglow with torches.

“What now? Any Drake commander would dig in and find the most advantageous spots to keep slaughtering your troops. How will Goblins fight?”

“Not dig in. Mountain too much stone.”

The Goblin Lord grinned and Osthia realized he’d made a joke. She stared at him stonily. He gave her another shrug.

“Goblin Chieftain cannot ward all tunnels from undead and my soldiers. Now there are spots. I will send in Hobs, strong warriors. Try to find ways towards him.”

“Kill teams.”

“Yes. And he will hunt my officers. Now it is a battle to kill each other’s best warriors. Mages. Special Goblins.”

Osthia nodded. That was another way of fighting. Take out the head of an army, the [Strategists], high-level warriors and so on, and all you had left were fodder. She looked at Reiss and wondered again if she wanted him to win or lose this battle. If he won he would be even stronger. But a Goblin nation—if he conquered a city in Human lands, would that really be the worst? He had promised to set her free if he made his kingdom a reality.

On the other hand, if this Great Chieftain won, what then? The Goblin Lord’s forces would retreat, be forced to raid and build up. And he was the Necromancer’s enemy, or so he claimed. The sooner Osthia could escape and warn her people…

“Will your master join the battle? Or will he reserve his help for when you’re cornered?”

Reiss’ smile twisted into a scowl. He looked at Osthia with his black eyes and then shook his head.

“The further we are from him, the harder it is for him to cast magic. He will not help. And if I go further still—”

Reiss’ eyes travelled back towards the mountain. Osthia stared at it and shivered. An old Dwarven home. It was a powerful refuge. If Reiss occupied it, would this be his Goblin kingdom? Or an outpost? Or would he abandon it? She didn’t know. And as Reiss turned back to issue more orders, Osthia wondered what the Humans were doing. They had to know the battle was going on. Would they wait until both sides were exhausted before moving in? She was afraid that would be a mistake. The Goblins might hate each other, but a common enemy could unite them. Or would they fight each other to the end despite the new threat, like her people?

Overhead the moon rose. As the first day of fighting drew to an end, the siege continued with the undead besieging the mountain while the Goblin Lord’s forces rested. Parts of the army would awaken to night raids and quiet assassinations in the dark. The siege would heat up the next day. Both sides would throw everything into the conflict and it would take only a few lucky strokes for one group to gain a decisive edge over the other.

Ironically, less than a hundred miles away a different siege would be playing out quite differently on the exact same day.

 

—-

 

The stones fell from the sky. Like birds falling from the sky. Only, they weren’t birds. Massive chunks of stone fell on the city filled with Goblins, smashing through the rooftops of buildings, sending the cobblestone street fountaining up in explosions of dirt and shrapnel. The two trebuchets fired a stone every ten minutes at most—the Humans swarming over the trebuchet had to pull back the arm, drag over a boulder and adjust the aim each time. Nevertheless, the stones falling on the city were a terrifying thing for any besieged army to contemplate. The Goblins stood on the battlements and stared.

In wonder. It was less fear and more awe that had children and adult Goblins alike sitting on the battlements, watching the trebuchets reload. Of course, when the stones flew the Goblins scattered out of the likely flight path, calling warnings. But until that brief moment they were more impressed than anything else. Where any other species might have felt fear, Goblins were surprisingly resilient.

The sky had begun throwing stones at them. Okay. It wasn’t pleasant, but to the Goblins it was just another way to die. They were more concerned with whether they’d have to stay in the city while the rocks kept falling. It was easy to dodge the boulders if you had sentries on the walls, but what about if you were asleep? And soon the city walls would be full of holes.

Rags had grasped all of that the instant she’d seen the trebuchets. Her vision of a secure city melted in the face of the Human’s strange devices. But her anguish over her ruined plans had been replaced by an idea. A plan.

Noears!

The small Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe screamed a word as Goblins ran about the city. Pyrite was making his way up the steps of the walls, looking worried. Rags could see Sir Kerrig below as well. The [Knight] was making the smallest Goblins hide in the shadow of the walls. She understood. Of course—taking shelter in the lee of the walls would be the safest spot since the boulders would either hit the wall or go past it. She called out an order and pointed. Goblins began running to reposition themselves.

“Chieftain?”

Pyrite panted a bit as he crested the stairs. He took one look at the trebuchets and said a bad Human word. Rags nodded absently.

“Human thing. Far-crushing death.”

The big Hob said the bad word again. He stared at the trebuchet as it was slowly reloaded. The arm bent back.

“What now, Chieftain? Leave city? Walls will have many holes soon.”

“Mm. Not too soon. Humans have bad aim.”

They had two massive trebuchets. They must have taken ages to drag across the landscape. And for all that they could hurl huge stones, their aim was fairly bad. Rags’ keen eyes picked out the operators on both trebuchets. It looked like a Human female was aiming one of them. That trebuchet seemed more on target. Two of the three stones it had hurled had hit the walls. The other trebuchet had hit a different spot each time. Yes, give them time and the city would slowly be demolished. However—

“Chieftain, you called me?”

A voice made Rags turn. She saw Noears panting harder than Pyrite. He looked warily at the trebuchets. Rags pointed.

“Big falling stone.”

“I saw.”

Noears grimaced, his face expressing a whole host of emotions. Rags nodded. She could see her lieutenants making their way towards her, keeping an eye on the sky. Yes, the trebuchets could do a lot of damage by accident, but it would be hard to hit a specific target. She could work with that.

“Noears, how much mana? How many potions?”

He blinked at her and scrubbed a hand across his bald head.

“Can cast lots of spells, Chieftain. Got four potions.”

He patted his belt where one of them hung. Noears warily eyed the trebuchets in the distance. He shook his head.

“Too far. Get close is dangerous. Use fire and arrows instead?”

He looked hopefully at Rags, assuming she wanted him to get close and zap the trebuchets. Rags shook her head. She pointed up.

“Good aim? Can hit stones?”

Noears blinked. He looked up, and then grinned.

“Can try.

The next boulder flew as Rags was calling for more Goblins. It had a good arc and would have plummeted into the city center. Only, as it neared the walls of the city, Noears pointed up and shouted.

“[Lighting Bolt]!”

A flash of lightining and a boom made every Goblin look up. Stone shards rained down from above, making the Goblins on the walls shield their eyes. The boulder tumbled and fell—not on the city center but hitting one of the walls. Rags shook her head as she heard a scream and saw Goblins fleeing the impact site.

“Shoot better!”

She shouted at Noears. The Goblin [Mage] grunted.

“Hard!”

He took a position on the walls. His lightning bolt spell was powerful, but it could only crack or change the boulder’s trajectory. Rags thought he could protect the city for an hour at best. She nodded to herself.

“Chieftain?”

More Goblins approached. Quietstab, Redscar, a few Hobs, and Poisonbite. The female raid leader coughed a bit, but her breathing sounded much better. Rags looked at her.

“Good breathe?”

“Can fight, Chieftain! Want to destroy big wood thing?”

Poisonbite grabbed one of her daggers and pointed at the trebuchet. Rags shook her head. the Human army was camped all around it and they outnumbered her tribe a good bit.

“No.”

“What then, Chieftain? Sit here not good. Slow crush death.”

Quietstab looked apprehensive, but Rags just sneered at him. She struck an arrogant pose, aware that below, Sir Kerrig was watching her.

“Sit here very good! Sit here all we need! Flooded Waters tribe not afraid of rocks, right?”

“Right.”

The other Goblins chorused uncertainly. Rags pointed at Redscar.

“You get nails.”

She pointed at Quietstab.

“Get wood. Break houses!”

She pointed at Poisonbite.

“Got stones! Big stones. Like boulder.”

Finally, she pointed at Pyrite.

“You get lots of Goblins. Wait for signal.”

They nodded hesitantly. Rags turned to the second group of Goblins she’d called. They weren’t Hobs, save for one. Over two thirds of the Goblins didn’t even carry weapons! But they all had a specific class.

[Tinkerer]. [Builder]. [Hammerer], [Armorer], [Scavenger]. They were a group unique to her tribe. Every Goblin tribe had someone good at repairing armor or making crude spears, but Rags’ tribe had learned to create crossbows. They had built their crude armor thanks to her [Scavenger Armor] Skill. And she had aquired a level or three in the [Tinkerer] class too. Rags pointed at the trebuchet.

“Human thing. Throw big rocks. Want.”

The Goblins stared at the distant trebuchet. They scratched their heads. Not a single one told Rags it was impossible. They just stared. After a second, one frowned.

“Big turn thing.”

The Goblin had identified the fulcrum, or axle the trebuchet was rotating on. She pointed it out to Rags and the others. Another Goblin observed the way the Humans were reloading the catapult and triggering it with ropes. A third stared at the counterweight, watching it swing down. Another watched Noears blow the stone out of the sky because that was fun to see.

It wasn’t as if the trebuchet was that hard to understand. Arm went down, arm went up. Stone goes in sling, stone goes flying. The Goblins may not have ever studied calculus or observed more than basic physics, but they had eyes. And the Humans had helpfully given them two trebuchets as an example. The real problem wasn’t even resources—Rags had already sent her tribe demolishing parts of the city for whatever they needed. The real problem was in copying the trebuchet perfectly.

“How big is arm? How long is rope?”

Rags frowned at the distant trebuchet. That was the thing. She was fairly certain that if the rope was too long or the trebuchet was poorly made it would break. In making the crossbows she’d seen how poor wood or faulty recreations snapped in the user’s faces. So she and her engineering team stared hard at the trebuchet, trying to figure out a way to copy it. They hit upon their idea after three minutes of staring.

Human there. Got helmet.

One of the Goblins pointed at a Human [Soldier] who looked bored as he stood to attention besides the trebuchet. He was watching it move and was standing close. He was perfect. The other Goblins focused on him and one ran to get a Human-sized helmet. Yes, Human heads varied in size, but not greatly. They began piling up helmets and arguing over how tall the Human was. As they did, they stared at the Human and began comparing his head to the length of the trebuchet arm.

Rags saw several Goblins measuring with their claws and then bringing out little bits of string which they marked with their new measuring unit. How many Human heads across was the trebuchet’s arm? How wide was it? She did her own calculations, poking Goblins and arguing with them. For once they argued back.

The engineering team bickered, threw one of their own off the walls in fury, ducked as another stone flew past them, and then swarmed off the battlements. They descended on the ready supplies, poking other Goblins and conveying through hand gestures and short sentences what was needed. The other Goblins listened, scratched their heads, and got to work.

It was incredible. To Sir Kerrig, the trebuchets employed by Laken Godart’s army were nothing short of miraculous in themselves. The Drakes knew how to build siege weapons, but they had classes! An [Engineer] was as valuable as a [Knight] equipped in full plate armor—more, in fact! If he had gone to any group of Humans and told them to copy a trebuchet they would have laughed at him or given up after a few attempts. But Goblins didn’t say ‘that’s impossible’ or ‘I can’t do it’. They just did it or got a whack from their Chieftain.

Of course, not everything was straightforward. Finding the right timber to use for their first trebuchet was hard since they only had beams from houses to work with. The first arm of the trebuchet they cobbled together broke due to the weight they placed on it. Too, the measurements of the arm were off and so the first trebuchet simply collapsed before it could be built.

To fix these problems, Rags sent a group of Hobs out covertly from the city. It was a risky thing, but they managed to get to the forest and down a tree before the Humans sent a patrol at them. Redscar’s Carn Wolves and a host of Goblins with crossbows on the walls convinced the Human army to let the Goblins do…whatever it was they were doing. Who cared so long as most didn’t escape? They moved along the forest’s edge, encircling the city at a distance from the other side.

Indeed, for the most part the Human army’s morale was soaring. They sat at a distance, jeering, as their trebuchets launched more boulders at the walls of the city. There were already holes in the western wall and Noears had run out of mana and been forced to rest. The army was content to lounge about. Why, within a day or two the city would be so full of holes the Goblins would either run or be dead! They were confident. Right up until the saw they first boulder flying towards them.

 

—-

 

To be fair, the first stone wasn’t half as large as the ones that had been flying at the city. And it landed well short of the Humans’ camp. But the fear and shock it caused sent a physical ripple through the besieging force’s lines. It wasn’t just the danger. It wasn’t just the shock of seeing their specially designed, unique trebuchets copied so quickly. It was a basic, simple feeling.

That wasn’t right. That wasn’t fair. Goblins couldn’t create devices! They weren’t smart enough to copy things like that! They couldn’t just replicate something that had taken a team of [Engineers] to build! But as the second and third boulders flew from the city walls, the Humans had to face facts. The Goblins had built a trebuchet of their own.

One. Sir Kerrig could see it being loaded and the arm pulled into place by the team of Goblins as more argued over a second one. It was incredible, but the Goblins worked in perfect synchronization. They had the materials, the manpower, and the motivation. But all of that might have been for naught save for their Chieftain.

There she was, striding past the first trebuchet, snapping at other Goblins and moving the rest. Sir Kerrig stared at Rags. Such a small Goblin! But she was terrifyingly smart. She had organized this tribe, defeated every attack sent against her. She was dangerous. But she could also be reasoned with. That was his hope. There was some goodness, some innate quality that could be redeemed in her. If not her, then certainly in Pyrite. If only he could end this fighting!

Such was Kerrig’s wish. But he had been flatly rejected by Rags once before. That was why he was astounded and not a little bit suspicious when Rags herself strode up to him. And the first thing she said made him warier still.

“Time for peace. You go.”

She pointed at the gates, which had been partially collapsed by a shot from the Humans. Now both sides were flinging stones at each other as fast as they could. Sir Kerrig saw a boulder smash into a wall and send up a spray of stones and stared at Rags in disbelief.

“Now? You must be joking.”

“No. Now is best time for peace.”

She grinned toothily at him. Sir Kerrig frowned at her. He looked over Rags’ shoulder at Pyrite. The Hob was keeping one eye towards the sky as he watched Rags talk.

“Your tribe is willing to offer some assurance of peace?”

“Yes. Those.”

Rags pointed at the second trebuchet being built. Sir Kerrig stared at her. His head began to hurt.

“That is the opposite of what I spoke of. I told you that there must be proof of your goodwill! Proof that you can be trusted!”

The small Goblin stared at Sir Kerrig, tilting her head back and forth. She nodded.

“Trust. We not trust Humans. They attacked us. First.”

She emphasized the word. Behind her, Pyrite nodded. Rags pointed to the trebuchet.

“Humans come here to kill. Bring rock throwing thing. But we have rock throwing thing now too.”

“Trebuchets.”

“Good name. They cannot get rid of us. We cannot leave with them. So trust. They go, we run away. Otherwise we stay and both starve.”

There was a twisted logic to it. But Sir Kerrig felt a fire in his chest as he stared past Rags at Redscar. The Goblin was sitting on a Carn Wolf, clearly enjoying watching the trebuchets firing. He was gesturing at one, asking for a turn aiming it.

“That may be far too late. Your people raided the countryside. You slaughtered innocents! If you had asked me four days ago, my response would have been different. What proof have I now that you won’t immediately strike once you have retreated?”

Rags looked thoughtful. She glanced at Pyrite and he reached for something at his side. He was holding his sack and Sir Kerrig blinked as he pulled out one of his pieces of gold. Rags pointed at it.

“This help?”

“Gold? Are you trying to buy a peace treaty?”

Sir Kerrig didn’t know if he should be outraged or impressed. Rags nodded a few times.

“Good. Buy. Don’t need shiny things. We give for dead. Humans let us go away.”

The [Knight] gritted his teeth hard.

“That does not excuse all the death.”

“No. But enough dead on Human side now. Makes up for Goblins.”

The small Goblin peered at Sir Kerrig. She wasn’t exactly smiling. But her eyes—Sir Kerrig shuddered as he saw the simple calculation in Rags’ gaze. You killed us. We killed you. Now we’re even. Rags pointed at the bag Pyrite was holding again.

“Give to Humans. You take one to big Human leader. General? Emperor? Tell more if go. Humans get shiny things. We keep that.”

She pointed at the Goblin-made trebuchet. Sir Kerrig stared at it.

“You want to keep that?

“No. Keep know how to make. We take and go. Humans let us go.”

“That’s…”

Sir Kerrig tried to find words for how unacceptable the idea of that was. Goblins with the ability to create siege weapons? And this tribe. He looked at Rags and knew what his answer was.

“Chieftain Rags. I am afraid my answer is no. I cannot trust your motives. I cannot trust you. As for the Unseen Emperor—I am certain I would not be able to convince him of anything you have said either.”

He kept his tone level, wondering if Rags would order him killed or stab him herself. The small Goblin’s eyes flashed at his words. She stared at him and then stomped her foot.

“Trust? Trust? Why Humans only ones who need trust? If trust wanted—get mage! Get truth spell! Get [Emperor] to come here and talk! Then I say tribe is leaving, no want fight. And truth is known to all! We did not start fight. We will end it! If trust you want—get way to trust us!”

Her raised voice made the other Goblins look over. Rags glared at Sir Kerrig. He sat back, surprised. A [Mage]? Truth spells? How did she know about those? Then again, nothing about Rags could surprise him anymore. And the thought was…

“You would swear on truth spell that your motives are genuinely peaceful?”

Rags nodded.

“Would swear. Get Humans to stop attack, we go. Tell [Emperor]. We meet. We talk. Safe ground.”

“No [Emperor] would risk himself that way, surely.”

Rags rolled her eyes.

“Then go shout at each other from far away! Any way works! You go. Ask!”

She pointed towards the gates. Sir Kerrig stared at her. Was she serious? He looked at Pyrite. The Hobgoblin was waiting patiently.

“Sir Pyrite. What do you say? Is your tribe’s goal truly peaceful?”

The Hob considered the question and Sir Kerrig watched closely. Pyrite chewed on something, frowned, chewed again, and then nodded. He spoke slowly, deliberately.

“Goblins want to live. Emperor? Humans? Other tribes? All danger. Want peace. Big battle not good idea. You go best way to let all live. So you go. Or is peace not better than war?”

He looked pointedly at Sir Kerrig. The [Knight] slowly nodded. He stood and looked at Rags. The small Goblin watched him carefully. Warily. He nodded to her.

“Chieftain Rags, if your words are sincere, I will attempt to broker peace with Emperor Laken. I cannot guarantee that he will agree. But give me your message to him and I will carry it. I may need a horse.”

Rags nodded. She whistled and shouted a word. A Goblin raced off. Rags looked back at Sir Kerrig.

“Can try for peace. May work, may not. But now is a good time.”

She pointed at the trebuchets again. One fired and the Goblins cheered as the boulder went flying towards the Humans. Rags grinned.

“Peace is best when both sides have big sword.”

Sir Kerrig looked at her and shook his head. He tried to tell her she was wrong, but she was right and wrong at the same time. So young. He wished he could explain it to her, but he doubted she would listen and now was not the time. He prayed he would have the opportunity to tell her what peace really meant. For now he looked towards the Goblin pulling a horse towards him and braced himself. When he rode out of the city it was carrying a white flag and a golden nugget in a pouch by his side.

 

—-

 

Durene’s ears twitched as she heard another thump as a stone thudded into the ground close to where she was walking. She looked back and saw the stone. It had landed and smashed out a small crater a few feet away from the tents that had been set up in the center of the camp. She saw a Human bowman staring at the boulder. It had landed only a few feet away from him. His hands shook as he held the piece of bread he’d been gnawing on.

“Miss Durene! Over here!”

Beniar waved her forwards, urging her closer to the back of the camp. Durene followed him as the former Silver-rank adventurer strode into the large war tent that had been set up. Wiskeria, that was to say, General Wiskeria, was talking with a few low-level [Lieutenants] and [Sergeants]. The allied forces that Laken had levied had sent several officers, but no one was close to Wiskeria’s rank, or even Beniar’s. The Humans straightened and stared at Durene as she ducked to enter the tent. She pretended not to see one of the men gulp nervously, or how he checked his sword belt. She was used to scaring people. And to be fair, she was scarier than normal at the moment.

Durene wore a huge leather jerkin, stitched together to cover her body. She had a gigantic tower shield made from a converted door and a club just as long at her side. Both weapons were crude—Durene had been offered a greatsword and other forms of armor, but the club was actually the best weapon at the moment. She’d broken a greatsword in training and until proper armor could be made for her, this was better. Besides, she’d beaten over a dozen Hobs with the club alone.

“Durene, thank you for coming. Please give me one moment.”

The half-Troll girl nodded and waited, watching Wiskeria discuss the new situation with her officers. Salvia, Gamel’s girlfriend, was here as well. The [Engineer] looked beside herself as Wiskeria spoke to her.

“I don’t know how they did it! Yes, you can make a trebuchet, but that was far, far too quick. They must have copied our design! We have range and power—not to mention accuracy—on them, but I can’t stop them from making more.”

“Can we make more?”

Salvia hesitated.

“We’ve been trying, but few of the [Soldiers] have [Carpenter] classes or so on. And we have to train them to use the trebuchet or else the engineering team will be stuck operating that.”

“That’s a no, then.”

“If we brought everyone from Riverfarm or had more help we could rely on…”

Salvia trailed off helplessly. Wiskeria nodded and tugged the pointed hat lower on her head. She often did that when she was thinking. At last, she looked up.

“Try and aim for those trebuchets. I know they’re hidden. Just…guess. And keep breaking the walls. Everyone else—we have to stay put. If we pull back any further, the Goblins could make a break for it. We’ll set up the sleeping tents and bedrolls out of range, but I want the army to stay put.”

She dismissed Salvia and the others and turned to Durene at last. Beniar growled as he folded his arms.

“Goblins building trebuchets! Those little thieving bastards will steal anything, won’t they?”

“This is the most dangerous tribe I’ve ever encountered. That Chieftain and those wolf riders—I’m almost certain this is the Redfang Tribe we’ve heard about. Only, they belong in the High Passes.”

Wiskeria rubbed at her eyes tiredly. Around Durene and Beniar she slumped a bit. Durene shifted awkwardly.

“How’re you doing, Wiskeria? Do you think the Goblins are going to attack?”

“Not likely. They’re safe in their city. We could attack them, but they’d be fools to attack us. The trebuchets make things more complicated. We could have hoped to bombard them until they had to leave. Instead, they’ll eventually hit our siege weapons or do enough damage to us at the same time. We can either trade shots or—”

“Charge the monsters!”

Beniar made a fist and punched it into his gauntleted hand. He looked excited at the prospect. Wiskeria did not.

“It’s an option. One I’ve informed Laken of. But even if we put another dozen holes in the walls  I wouldn’t be happy with it.”

“Why not? We outnumber the Goblins!”

“And they have the city walls. And they have Hobs, their wolf riders, and at least one [Mage] capable of throwing lightning. They’re dangerous, Beniar.”

“So are we.”

The [Captain] glanced at Durene, nodding confidently. Durene looked back at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was shaking her head. Durene understood the issue, although she didn’t know what the best solution was. She had one real question, though.

“Why am I here, Wiskeria? I’m just a warrior. A [Paladin], yeah, but I’m no good with strategy.”

She was a fighter. It was an odd thought to have, but Durene felt right when she was in the thick of battle. Having people look up to her, being depended on, was a giddy feeling. She trusted Wiskeria to do her job. But it seemed the [General] had summoned her for other reasons. Wiskeria strode over to the tent flaps and closed them firmly.

“I’ve been in touch with Emperor Laken. Via [Message] spell. He’s told me to continue hitting the Goblins. Given the situation he wants to assault the city as soon as possible, rather than risk them making more trebuchets or worse, escaping.”

“Sounds good. When do we go in?”

Wiskeria ignored Beniar. She focused on Durene, meeting her eyes.

“I’ve asked him to wait. And I’d like you to do the same, Durene. I think he’d listen if you asked him to delay for a day or two.”

For a moment Durene was so astonished she couldn’t speak. Wiskeria wanted her to speak to Laken. She stared at Wiskeria and then her brows shot together.

“You want me to talk to Laken?”

“That’s right.”

Durene stirred. She glared at Wiskeria and stood a bit straighter.

“And say what? Not to fight? They’re Goblins, Wiskeria! Look at them! They destroyed the city! Didn’t you see all the homeless people we passed by?”

She pointed furiously, forgetting that Wiskeria had just closed the tent flaps. The memory of the homeless refugees the army had passed was clear in Durene’s mind, though. Wiskeria didn’t reply right away. She tugged on her hat’s brim again.

“I understand your feelings, Durene. But strategically—”

“Laken wants to attack, doesn’t he? He saw how many Goblins there were!”

“Yes he did. But he hasn’t seen this city. His…vision…has been compromised with each lost marker.”

“But he’s still our [Emperor]. Your [Emperor]. Why not trust him?”

Durene glared down at Wiskeria. Her voice was fierce. Durene wanted to grab her club and attack the Goblins. She felt—she had never felt so angry before! Righteous fury gave her strength. But Wiskeria just tugged at her pointed hat and sighed.

“He’s not always right.”

The half-Troll girl hesitated. That was true. But he’d been pretty right so far! She was just about to tell Wiskeria that and ask what else they could do when someone knocked urgently at the tent flap. Durene turned as a [Soldier] pulled the tent flap back.

“General! General Wiskeria!”

“What is it?”

Wiskeria snapped at the [Soldier], clearly displeased about being interrupted without warning. But the young woman who entered was breathless. She pointed back into the center of camp where Durene could see people pointing and gathering.

“General, you have to see this.”

Durene hurried out of the tent with Wiskeria and Beniar following. The half-Troll girl saw clearly over the heads of the people and horses. She saw a lone figure riding out of the city with a flag waving over his head. She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and stared again.

“A Human?”

Wiskeria stared as well. She looked around and found the [Mage] that Lady Bevia had loaned to Laken. She waved at him and raised her voice.

“Send a [Message] to Emperor Laken. He’ll want to know about this.”

 

—-

 

Day 105

 

“You’re serious. A peace offer? That’s seriously what Wiskeria heard?”

“Yes sir.”

Nesor stands in front of me. Again, I sit at Wiskeria’s table. It might as well be our war cottage at the moment. It’s private and we’ve set up all the maps we need. I focus on my mental image of the camp. I can sense a good space around a wooden marker set up right next to Wiskeria’s tent. Heck, I can sense her offering the [Knight]—Sir Kerrig—a cup of tea in her tent. In every direction I see soldiers. A good distance to the left, Tessia is overseeing another boulder being loaded into the trebuchet. But beyond that? Nothing.

In every direction, there’s only blankness. Not blackness, not static. Just emptiness. Every marker in the area has been destroyed and so I only have this one, solitary image of the war camp and the space in front of the city. Of course, I have many more markers set up in the nearby area, but the network is slowly collapsing. The Goblins have sent small teams out and are attempting to destroy each marker, and Wiskeria can’t spare enough men to cover every totem.

I curse as I feel another marker vanish and another part of my empire fade out of my mind. So many holes! If the Goblins wanted to escape, they would only have to run out of the city and take refuge in one of the blank spots. Assuming Wiskeria lost sight of them they could make a break for it.

Would that be so bad? Yes, surely. They’d come back and raid my lands or do damage somewhere else. Or they could circle around, begin harrying Wiskeria’s army.  The Goblins have already done so much damage. Which makes this latest revelation all the harder to accept.

“Peace. Really. This [Knight], Sir Kerrig, has been in the Goblin’s tribe the entire time. And only now does their Chieftain send him to sue for peace?”

“T-that’s what General Wiskeria reports, sir.”

I whistle softly. I can’t believe it. This has got to be a trick.

“Tell me again, Nesor. What exactly did this Sir Kerrig say?”

I hear the [Mage] gulp. Behind him, Lady Rie speaks up.

“Allow me, Emperor Laken.”

I nod and Nesor gratefully steps back. Lady Rie speaks slowly. She’s been here practically every moment she’s not reassuring the nobility. Prost is keeping the village running and Lady Rie—well, she’s helpful.

“This Sir Kerrig rode out of the besieged city carrying a white flag. He was intercepted by General Wiskeria’s soldiers and immediately met with her. He bears a message—this offer of peace—from the leader of this Goblin tribe. The Flooded Waters tribe, apparently. Not one I’ve ever heard of. Not the Redfang tribe that we had assumed they were. At any rate he claims the Goblins can be reasoned with. This tribe is allegedly different. It isn’t part of the Goblin Lord’s forces or the raiding parties sent by this Great Chieftain. It may be that they’re willing to peacefully…negotiate.”

Lady Rie pauses. The silence in the cottage is incredible. Peacefully negotiate. No way. I hear her swallow and go on.

“Your majesty, I don’t know what to believe. This man is a member of the Order of the Petal and General Wiskeria claims he isn’t enchanted, but still.”

“Order of the Petal? Where have I heard that name before?”

“Ah. An order of [Knights] that obeys Lady Bethal.”

“I see. And they’re trustworthy?”

“I have never heard of a member being impugned for lying, Emperor Laken. By Sir Kerrig’s account he was part of a force that attacked this particular tribe and was captured.”

“Lady Bethal never mentioned that to me.”

“I imagine she wouldn’t have wanted to admit that fact. And Sir Kerrig was apparently given up for dead. The idea of a Goblin keeping a hostage alive—or rather, honoring any convention of war—is incredible.”

“And he’s not delusional? Or—enchanted?”

“General Wiskeria says she believes he is genuine, sire.”

I focus on the image of Sir Kerrig in my mind. Yes, I can ‘see’ him, standing in Wiskeria’s tent. He doesn’t look injured and he seems animated enough. He’s…well, he’s in good shape. But everything about what he’s said has turned my mind upside down.

“And Wiskeria wants to hold off the attack because of this.”

“Yes. She’s reiterated her points about the dangers of sieging the city.”

Rie’s voice is cautious. I mutter under my breath, wishing Frostwing were here. Or Bismarck. Both animals have been getting restless without me. But they’d hardly fit in here. At last, I nod.

“Tell Wiskeria to hold off from attacking. Keep bombarding, though. Aim for the Goblin’s trebuchets if you can. How can they make them?”

“Apparently they copied our designs from a distance.”

Mist! Alright. Alright. Tell Wiskeria that I want her to send this Sir Kerrig to Riverfarm. Give him a small escort. Speed is key. Tell her to be ready to attack, though!”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Rie goes to confer with Nesor and I sit back in my seat. A peace treaty? Or rather, peace talks? With a Goblin? How can I take this seriously?

No, that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is what Wiskeria reported first. These Goblins aren’t like the others. They didn’t want to fight. They’re…peaceful? No. How could that be?

Intelligent Goblins? I can believe that. But peace? I think back to the Goblins raiding my village, the slaughter, the way they laughed and cut down my people. No. Goblins in stories have always been dangerous. Untrustworthy.

And yet, this is a world of fantasy. And Durene is half-Troll. By that logic she would be—

That’s Durene. That’s someone who’s never hurt a fly! Okay, she raised pigs for slaughter. But she never killed anyone. And those Goblins—they slaughtered an army from Filk! I saw them attack the army! Unprovoked! They slaughtered the soldiers there.

However…a thought nags at me. Wasn’t that army chasing another group of Goblins? A tribe? I vaguely recall tipping off the city about a tribe of Goblins in their area.

No. No. If that were true, that would mean—

I look up. Well, I don’t ‘look’ at anything, but I raise my head.

“Lady Rie, tell Wiskeria that I want this Sir Kerrig in Riverfarm by the end of today. Gallop the horses and switch out as many as you need. I want to speak with him now.

“Yes, your Majesty.”

I can sense Wiskeria responding to my orders, giving some of her soldiers directions. Sir Kerrig is already moving, riding down the road. He disappears out of my range for a few moments, and then reappears in another region I can still ‘see’ into. Meanwhile, I sit in the cottage, and feel a twisting pain in my stomach. I know it well. If I had to describe it, it would be if I lost my cane and was wandering around a place I didn’t know. That vague, nebulous fear of the unknown.

Uncertainty. And in my mind, the trickle of doubt becomes a nagging worm of fear. I silently urge Sir Kerrig to move faster. He’s at the edge of my vision, racing down the road with a group of six soldiers. And behind him, sneaking into my lands is another group of Goblins. They rush towards the marker with axes in hand and chop at it. Another spot goes dark. I pray I’m not making a mistake. At least I can still see Durene and my army camped around their marker. I will be able to see the battle if it happens.

If it happens. I was about to order Wiskeria to assault the city by the end of the day or tomorrow at the latest. Now I’m not so certain. I pace back and forth in the cottage, waiting. Uncertain.

Afraid.

 

—-

 

There’s nothing I can do for now. Nothing but wait. So I leave Wiskeria’s cottage and go for a walk. It’s hardly restful. The instant I’m out the door I’m besieged by my people.

Ah, my people. They come up to me with greetings, offers to run and get food if I’m hungry, well wishes—all pleasant things, but what they’re really coming to hear is whether or not there’s been a battle. The latest gossip, the facts from my mouth. I understand what they’re feeling but it’s not what I want to deal with, so I let Rie and Prost disperse the crowd.

Of course I understand my people’s anxiety. They’re worried. The confidence of a few days ago, of knowing the Goblins were on the run, is gone. Now they’re biting their nails, same as me. And they look to me for reassurance I can’t give them.

What a mess. Prost hurries up to me and gives me a cursory report.

“More folks are coming in from villages, sire. Families, friends of folk living here—and there’s three messengers screaming to speak to you directly.”

“Let Lady Rie handle it or talk to them yourself, Mister Prost. There’s nothing else I can say right now.”

“Yes, sire.”

I have to be alone. Steady myself. I walk away from Prost, towards the only people I want to be around. Bismarck and Frostwing. My bird has grown to the point where she’s self-sufficient, or at least, able to fly about and poop wherever she wants. And it just so happens that she enjoys perching on Bismarck while the bear lounges about.

“Silly bear.”

I walk up to the Mossbear and pat him affectionately. He snuffles my shirt, and Frostwing shrieks, perhaps sensing my mood. I stroke Frostwing’s head and let some of my tension go with the two animals. Before I know it, a good while has passed. Reluctantly, I pull myself back and check on Sir Kerrig’s progress.

“Damn. He’ll be gone for hours yet! And those Goblins are still taking down my totems!”

A marker behind Sir Kerrig and another a few miles west vanish. The Goblins keep destroying my totems and they take a long time to replace! I should have sent Sir Kerrig back into the city and demanded this Chieftain stop while he came here. Argh. But the city’s still surrounded. I think of that, and then frown.

“Nesor?”

I stride back into Riverfarm’s main street and find Lady Rie overseeing a group of arguing adults. They’re fighting over who gets a house next—a minor dispute fueled by their anxiety. I interrupt them and grab Rie.

“Your [Mage] is with the nobility. Come with me.”

I leave the villagers behind and head to the newest houses that we converted into temporary homes for the nobility when it became clear their stay would be longer than most. The noble’s personal escorts guard the houses, sounding bored as they seem in my mind. They stand straighter as I approach and instantly one of them goes to announce me. I walk into one of the houses and find Lady Bevia Veniford and a small collection of nobles sitting and having tea. That’s not what I mind. What I mind is Nesor, practically sandwiched between two of the younger [Ladies], teacup in hand.

“Why, your Majesty! What a pleasant surprise!”

Lady Bevia rises instantly to greet me. I nod slightly to her as Lady Rie greets Bevia.

“Lady Bevia, it is as always a pleasure to speak with you. I trust you are not too starved of entertainment? I understand your current situation leaves much to be desired.”

She laughs, sounding two decades younger than Lady Rie tells me she is.

“This is far more than I would hope for, given a Goblin army is marauding about the landscape, your Majesty! I am quite content for the moment, as are my peers. We are somewhat starved for information, but we do try to keep up.”

“So I note. I see Nesor has been quite stolen away by the company here.”

The older [Lady] twinkles merrily at me.

“Yes, well, I’m afraid we are simply dying to know what is going on. Do forgive an old lady’s curiosity.”

“Of course. But I’m afraid I’m in need of Nesor’s services once again. Nesor?”

“Yes, your Majesty! P-pardon me, miladies.”

He stands up, sounding relieved, guilty, and regretful at once. I excuse myself quickly from Lady Bevia and get out of the house as fast as I can. Lady Rie is mortified once we have a chance to speak in private.

“I am deeply ashamed, Emperor Laken. I had no notion that Nesor was being sought out like this. This is unacceptable. Please excuse him. Any man—and most women—would be hard-pressed to resist Lady Bevia’s charm.”

“I understand. But that cannot happen again. Nesor knows everything that’s been going on.”

“I will keep an eye on him. Please let me assure you—”

I listen to Rie’s apology, hear Nesor’s stammered plea for forgiveness, and let them go. It’s nothing more than I should have expected, honestly. The nobles have been playing their own game, sending [Message] spells of their own. I sigh and rub at my temples.

“I need a rest.”

“Would you like me to prepare a bed…?”

“No. I’ll nap in Wiskeria’s cottage. Just for an hour or two.”

So saying, I leave Rie and Nesor and lie down in Wiskeria’s bed, which is really my bed since I don’t think she’s used it as much as I have. War cottage indeed. I close my eyes and drift off, hoping that Sir Kerrig will get here by the time I wake. Only, it’s not that which wakes me. At first I think I’m dreaming. But too late, I realize it’s reality and shoot out of bed.

“What the hell is going on now?”

Far, far north of Sir Kerrig who is yet an hour away from Riverfarm at the fastest gallop, I can sense something happening in Wiskeria’s camp. Soldiers are moving. I can sense horses being saddled, see someone blowing a horn. They begin moving as I sense the entire army moving. Horrified, I shout out loud.

What’s happening?

 

—-

 

Wiskeria looked down at the map of the landscape and cursed. She looked up at the [Mage] who’d just interrupted her in her tent and stared at him.

“You’re serious. That’s what he said?”

“I received the [Message] not a minute ago, General.”

The [Mage] rubbed at the shadows around his eyes. Wiskeria wished she could believe he had misinterpreted the [Message], but she had sent two follow-up spells and received the same reply, each time more impatient. Her knuckles went white as she gripped the edge of her table.

“What does he mean, the ‘situation has changed’?”

The mage yawned and then rubbed his eyes again before standing straighter.

“I do not know, General. But the order is immediate. No delays. If you wish I can query a third time—”

“No. He must know something. Okay, now. Now.

Wiskeria’s heart leapt in her chest. She stared at the map of the city and the Goblins. Attack. The last three messages had been explicit. She looked around desperately.

“Shit, shit, shit—sound the horns! Get me Beniar, and prepare to advance on the city! I want to hit it from the east and north and keep the Goblins off my back. Tell Salvia I want her firing throughout the battle! Hit those battlements now—

 

—-

 

They’re attacking. I run out of my cottage and shout for Lady Rie. She approaches as I dash over to her and I sense the people watching. But that doesn’t matter right now.

“Rie! The army is attacking the city!”

“What? But your Majesty, you wished to wait—”

I’m already shaking my head. My mind is spinning.

“I didn’t order that. I sent no [Message].”

Lady Rie paled. I grab her shoulder and shake her roughly.

“Where the hell is Nesor? Get him. Now. And find the [Mage] the nobles have been using and stop them from casting any spells!”

“There may be other [Mages] or even members of the nobility capable of casting the spell, Emperor—”

“I don’t care! Get me Nesor!

I whirl, searching for him. Where the hell is he? Only, he’s gone. I turn in place, but I’m scanning with my mind the entire time and I sense no Nesor anywhere in the village. Anywhere in Riverfarm.

“Nesor? Where the hell has he gone? Where the hell is Nesor?

Lady Rie has no idea. Nesor’s gone. Where she thought he was sitting in her cottage she finds no one. Only signs of a scuffle. And when I finally locate Nesor, unconscious, a lump on one head, dumped behind a stand of trees far outside the village, it’s too late. By the time I grab the other [Mage], order Wiskeria to pull back at once, the army is already advancing on the city. They’re already fighting. And all I can do is watch.

 

—-

 

It was Pyrite who saw the Humans coming. He didn’t expect it. He was rather surprised, to be honest. But when he saw the army coming he didn’t hesitate. He stood and shouted an order. The Goblins looked up, surprised. An attack? But they’d done the peace thing!

It made no sense. But perhaps that was a lesson in itself. Pyrite hefted the battleaxe and stared at the wall of Humans coming at him. He pointed and bellowed orders. Goblins raced to grab pikes and Redscar, Poisonbite, and the other Hobs ran to their units. Pyrite stared at the Humans.

They were shouting as they marched towards the city. Soon they’d be in bow range. Behind them, the trebuchets were still firing. He saw a boulder crash into the wall of the city. He felt the stones shake. He stared at the Humans and felt his blood pumping.

So it would be a battle after all. This is what the Humans thought of Goblin peace? Very well. He lifted the battleaxe and his eyes burned crimson. They had not seen a true battle yet. If they wanted to fight, fine. It was time to show them a Goblin’s war.

 


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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 learned 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 Rhir. 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 capital 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 own 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 Rhir. 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-Gazer, 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 Goblins in their armies with 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 until 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.

Izril – The continent of Drakes and Gnolls and Humans, but no [Kings]. Izril was ruled by Dragons in the far-distant past, but as the age of Dragons passed, the Drakes began to lose their influence over their land. After feuding with the Gnoll tribespeople for thousands of years, both sides were pushed from the northern half of the continent by Humans from Terandria, the Five Families who would become the leaders of the Human settlements.

Ever since then, Izril has remained divided in half with the Drakes and Humans often warring over this ancient grudge. The north half of Izril is mostly Human while the south is populated by Drake cities, Gnoll tribes, and recently, the Antinium Hives. The mountainrange known as the High Passes seperates the two halves, and the mountains are so high that no climber has ever returned from the higher reaches. And it’s still considered more peaceful than three out of the other four continents. Go figure.

 

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 Rhir. 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 War and participated in the Second Antinium War 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 practical.

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 slaughtered 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 start 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 monstrous 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 Spears, 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.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

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.

 


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