Kenjiro’s grandfather had died the year Ken went into university. He had been 88 years old at the time. Ken had fond memories and bitter memories of his grandfather, many having to do with how his father and grandfather used to bring up old arguments when they met.
They came from two different generations. Ken’s father had been born after World War II. His grandfather…had lived through it. He had been fifteen when Japan surrendered. When Ken was little, and when he was growing up, his grandfather would sometimes tell Ken stories of living through those last year of the war, when U.S. planes would drop bombs across Japan.
There was little guilt in his grandfather’s eyes for the war. Japan had fought, and it had lost. America had dropped its bomb to end all bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now there was peace. But there would always be a bit of hatred in Ken’s grandfather. Not just for the bomb, but for the nights he’d spend staring up at the sky as bombs fell.
Ken remembered how his grandfather’s hands shook, recalling the days when fire would rain down from the skies. It had seemed like all of Tokyo was aflame, at times. Now Kenjiro wondered if this is what his grandfather had seen.
Fire. Geneva’s camp was aflame. The mage, Zalthia, the Firebringer, had set it on fire. But that wasn’t all.
Someone was screaming at him. Ken looked around. His head felt empty. His ears were ringing from the explosions. He realized he was standing around aimlessly as Luan charged over to him. He had a mace in his hands. He was bleeding.
“Ken! We’ve got to get out of here! There are soldiers in the camp! They’re killing the wounded!”
Ken stared at Luan. He was in shock. He trotted after Luan as the South African young man cursed and shoved at Ken, getting him towards a patch of trees. Ken stared back at the tents. Everything was on fire. The [Mage] had set fire to every bit of the camp. Nothing would be left; the flames were too strong to fight. She’d hit the operating tent. Why? What harm could Geneva have done? What could Aiko—
He blinked. A part of Ken woke back up.
He looked at Luan. The older young man—no, the man’s face was gray with the horror of what he’d seen, but he was holding his mace, ready to fight. Ken looked around.
“Where’s Aiko? Luan, did you see—”
“I don’t know. She might have been in the tent—hold on, Ken!”
Ken didn’t listen. He raced towards the burning operating tent, halting only when he heard the sounds of fighting. It was coming from the camp, and Luan, running after Ken, stopped when he heard it too.
Ken looked at Luan. The man hesitated.
“Maybe. The airstrike was one thing. Maybe they sent people to make sure we’re all dead? Come on, let’s see. Be ready to run or fight!”
Creeping around blazing tents, flinching from the heat, Ken and Luan finally saw what was going on. A group of warriors was struggling amid the burning wreckage. Dullahans and a lone Lizardman that Ken recognized.
Eight Dullahans were fighting a lone figure in the center of the camp. Each Dullahan was armed with a weapon, and they were fighting in unison. Their movements were precise, and Ken and Luan knew any one of them could have killed both Humans in a moment.
But the enemy they were battling didn’t fall, despite half of his body being burned black and the numerous wounds he had taken. Calectus snarled, his Lizardman’s body twisting and lashing out with his long halberd. A Dullahan with a shield blocked the blade and stumbled back; Ken saw the shield deform from the impact.
Ken whispered. Luan nodded. His face was pale.
“I—I don’t know if jumping in will help or not. They’re moving too fast for me!”
“Do not. They are all too strong.”
Ken tried to grip Luan, in case he ran in. The Dullahans were armored and Luan only had the painted leather armor and crude mace to fight with. He’d die in a second.
“Yeah, but he can’t take them on alone—”
Calectus whirled as a Dullahan launched an arrow. It buried itself in his shoulder, piercing through the chainmail he wore. The Selphid didn’t stagger or fall, though. Instead, he turned and leapt towards the Dullahan who’d loosed the arrow. He swung his halberd and the Dullahan fell as the tip of the halberd sliced through his armor.
Another Dullahan ran at Calectus from behind and two more closed in. Ken saw Luan tense, and tried to grab him. Then he saw Calectus turn and kick one of the Dullahans into the air. He landed eight feet away.
Both Humans froze when they saw that. So did the Dullahans, for a moment. The Dullahan that Calectus had kicked had been wearing iron armor, dark and sturdy. He must have weighed at least two hundred pounds with it on, and Calectus had kicked him like a ragdoll. Ken’s eyes went to the fallen Dullahan and he saw an imprint in the iron armor.
The other two Dullahans backed away. Too slowly. Calectus whirled his halberd, and Ken heard a ripping sound as it cut through air and one of the Dullahan’s heads. The other one fell back fast and Ken heard her shout.
“Selphid is rampaging! Get back!”
The Dullahans immediately spread out, suddenly acting wary of Calectus. Ken didn’t understand. Rampaging? Was Calectus doing something? Then he saw the Selphid tense and bend his knees. He leapt—and kept going higher.
Calectus jumped up as if he were no longer weighed down by his armor or gravity. He leapt six feet into the air and one of his feet crushed a Dullahan’s helmeted head as he landed. He turned—two Dullahans were rushing towards him. Calectus ran one through and grabbed the other’s head. His hand was on the other Dullahan’s face as the Dullahan stabbed him with a dagger. Calectus squeezed—Ken saw his grip close and the Dullahan sagged.
Two left. One turned to run, the other, a female Dullahan with a sword, charged at Calectus. He met her with a roar and cut through armor and flesh with a single strike. He ran after the last Dullahan.
Both were coming towards Ken and Luan. The Humans backed away and the Dullahan saw them, hesitated, and looked over his shoulder. He saw Calectus coming for him and ran at the two young men, holding two hatchets in his hands. He never got to them.
Calectus’s halberd cleaved through the Dullahan’s steel armor and cut the Dullahan in half. Both torso and lower body spun away and Ken felt a splatter of blood hit his chest. He stared down at the stain on his shirt and then at Calectus.
The Lizardman’s dead eyes turned towards Luan and Ken. He shifted the grip on his halberd and Ken backed away. Luan raised his voice, shouting.
“Calectus! It’s us!”
There was a pause in which Ken thought he could see his life reflected by the tip of the Selphid’s halberd, and then Calectus lowered it.
“You two. You’re alive.”
It was a statement, not a question. Calectus sagged and suddenly he stopped being a one-Selphid army of destruction. Ken rushed over to him and stared at Calectus’ wounds. He had arrows in his shoulder and thigh, numerous bloodless cuts all over his body, and a deformed skull. If he were a living Lizardman, he would have long been dead. As it was, Calectus just looked exhausted.
“Are you hurt, Calectus-san? Do you need—”
Ken had no idea what a Selphid would need. A healing potion? Those didn’t work on the dead. Calectus shook his head.
“I have torn this body’s muscles and taken many wounds. I must find another. But later. Where is Geneva?”
“We don’t know. We saw the mage burning the camp and then saw the Dullahans—”
“Assassins. Zalthia was sent by the Centaurs, there’s no question about it. And the Dullahans felt like experienced [Soldiers], not mercenaries for hire. Only one of them ran.”
“You mean…both sides attacked us?”
Ken stared at Calectus. The Selphid nodded shortly.
“There may be more about. Help me find Geneva.”
“And Aiko! She is—Luan, the operating tent!”
Remembering, Ken and Luan both ran for the tent, Calectus following and warily looking around. Ken shouted the moment he saw the tent wasn’t completely engulfed by the flames. He ran towards the smoke, screaming.
The tent was billowing black smoke from the inside. Ken took a breath and rushed towards the opening. He saw fire, felt the heat and saw a dim table—and a body, burning. He ran to it and tried to drag it out.
The flames burned Ken’s hand. He dragged at the body, screaming inside while he tried not to breathe. Someone grabbed him and dragged him out. Ken gasped for air as he cleared the tent. He looked down and saw…
A stranger. A dead Dullahan’s face stared up at him. She wasn’t wearing armor. She was one of the Selphids, only there was no life behind the dead face. Calectus leaned on his halberd.
He shook his head as Ken and Luan looked at him questioningly. The Selphid inside was dead. Only now did Ken feel the pain in his hands and cry out. Luan reached for him.
“We’ve got to get healing potion on your burns.”
Ken shook his head.
“First Aiko. Where is she?”
A voice from behind. Ken whirled, and then stumbled to his feet and ran. He ran around the tent and then saw Aiko. She was kneeling over another body. Another Dullahan. This one was wearing armor and had a sword.
He was dead. There was blood on Aiko’s hands. She looked at Ken, her hands shaking. She was alive. Ken sagged, and then took in the scene a second time. The Dullahan was dead, and Aiko was not. She had killed him.
The knowledge was in Aiko’s eyes, the proof of it on her crimson hands. She looked at Ken, shaking.
Ken stared at the dead Dullahan. A scalpel was in his eye and another one was sticking out of his neck. The young Japanese man was no expert, but it looked like an artery had been sliced. His armor was painted with red.
Luan ran towards her and hugged her, ignoring the blood. Aiko stared at him, and then at Ken.
“I killed him, Ken. I did not mean to, but I was afraid—”
“You—you did the right thing. He would have killed you.”
Ken replied automatically, but he was still staring at the dead Dullahan. He’d never killed anyone. He’d killed undead, as had everyone else, but Aiko had—had she taken him by surprise? Defended herself and gotten lucky?
Calectus interrupted the moment. He snapped at Aiko as he surveyed the area.
“Have you seen Geneva? Do you know where she was?”
Aiko seemed paralyzed, but she snapped out of it as she focused on the question.
“I do not know. I think she was at the edge of camp. Maybe?”
“Spread out and search! If you find anyone, run and shout for me!”
The Selphid ordered the Humans. He was more concerned about Geneva than the others, even the other Selphids. Ken looked at Luan and Aiko. She was shaking and he was holding her, trying to comfort her. Luan looked at Ken.
“Go. Find Geneva. Aiko and I will search in a moment.”
Ken didn’t know what to do. He wanted to speak to Aiko too, but Luan was already urging Aiko to move. They all sensed it. Geneva’s camp was the target of the attacks. It was inconceivable that she wouldn’t have been the first one both the assassins and Zalthia went for.
It wasn’t hard to find her. Ken was the first to spot the lone body in front of the blazing inferno that was all that remained of the Dullahan escort. He ran towards the body, shouting for Luan and Aiko. They ran towards him as he skidded to a stop and stared at Geneva.
She was dead.
There was no way she could be otherwise. Her throat was sliced open, exposing red blackness. Her stomach had been pierced multiple times by a blade. Ken stared down at Geneva and felt hot tears coming to his eyes. He turned away as Luan reached her and cried out. Aiko buried her head in her hands, smearing her face with blood.
She was gone. But then, to Ken’s horror, the eyes of the corpse opened. Geneva’s still body moved, and a hand rose. It covered her throat and Ken saw her open her mouth.
Ken screamed and leapt backwards. Luan stumbled back and Aiko shouted in horror. Geneva was dead. There was no way she could be alive. But the voice that rasped from her throat sounded like her. Geneva’s eyes had opened and they were staring right at Ken. How could she be conscious? How—
Had she become undead? Was this some kind of zombie? Geneva stared at Ken. He looked at her, shaking.
Her eyes flickered. The voice lowered, deepened.
“No. I am Okasha. I am a Selphid sharing Geneva’s body. Her mind is unconscious and she has been wounded badly. I am keeping her body alive. Do you have a healing potion?”
“Calectus might have one. I’ll get him.”
Luan backed away. Ken heard him running and shouting for the Selphid. Ken just kept staring at the thing possessing Geneva’s body. A Selphid? But he thought that Selphids could only inhabit dead bodies. Could they do it with living ones? And if so…
“Geneva is alive?”
Aiko knelt by Geneva—by Okasha—and stared in horror at the wounds in her stomach. She reached for them, hesitated.
“She is wounded. Badly, I think.”
Geneva’s hand stayed clamped to her throat. Her eyes moved down to look at Aiko.
“Her heart has stopped. I am manually pumping blood throughout her body. Her body and mind have gone into shock, but I am maintaining a flow of blood to all parts of her body. I have stopped her external bleeding, but I cannot continue this forever. Please. Help her.”
“I—I cannot. I do not have sutures or a needle. You need a healing potion.”
Aiko was helpless. Ken knelt by her and looked into Geneva’s eyes. He addressed Okasha.
“Can you hold on? Will Geneva-san die or—or bleed?”
He stared into her stomach, at the red wounds. There was…something there. Something vaguely orange, blocking the wounds, just inside of the body. The Selphid? Ken shuddered as it slowly undulated. Geneva’s voice replied, cold and distant.
“Geneva Scala cannot die. I will not let her.”
The wording of that made Ken’s blood freeze. Then he heard a shout. Ken turned his head and saw Calectus charging towards them, Luan following.
He tore a potion from his belt and splashed it on her wounds. The thing that called itself Okasha pointed out each of the injured sites, telling Calectus to wait while she held together parts of Geneva’s internal organs to be healed in turn. Then the stomach wounds closed and Geneva sat up, her throat mended.
She was alive. Just unconscious, as Okasha reported. But she was alive. Only…what was she?
Ken didn’t know. He realized there was a lot he didn’t know, but then Calectus was telling everyone to run into the forest. Ken did, and suddenly he was staring around, seeing the shapes fighting in the valley, hearing the horn calls. Now that the trials of now were over, he realized the entire valley had descended into hell.
The fighting had begun sometime after Zalthia’s airstrike. Only it wasn’t the controlled battle in the valley. Soldiers charged each other on the hills; mages blasted each other and tore apart the tree cover. The fighting was everywhere.
In the moments spent crouched, watching mages send arcs of magic raining down into the forests and hearing Calectus report that the Centaurs and Dullahans were fighting all over the valley now, cutting any hope of escape off, he listened to Okasha explain what she was. What Geneva had lost. Why they were…together.
“A Selphid living in a Human body.”
Calectus nodded. He’d come back with another body after going scouting. This time he was a Dullahan, head firmly locked into place. A female Dullahan, in fact. He—or was it she now?—still had her Halberd, and the deathblow Calectus had given her body was an open gash, gaping at Ken. He looked away, seeing hints of movement from within. The same thing was in Geneva.
“Her spine is broken. A bone on her neck was crushed when a soldier hit her there. Without me bridging the connection, she would have been unable to move.”
Okasha was sitting, looking at Ken and the others. Aiko and Luan were starting at her, almost unable to look away. Okasha was Geneva and wasn’t Geneva at the same time. She spoke with Geneva’s voice and shared her body, but all of her mannerisms, from the way she sat and the way she spoke, were different. It was terrifying, because it took everything Ken thought he knew about her and turned it upside-down.
The knowledge of Okasha came with the strictest of warnings which Calectus impressed on the three Humans. What Okasha had done was beyond blasphemy. Inhabiting a living body was something the ancient Selphids had done once, when they’d created a terrible empire. They had been overthrown, and ever since, any Selphid found to be inhabiting a living body was put to death.
As was its host.
“It is forbidden by every nation in the world. It would mean Geneva’s death and Okasha’s if it were found out. You will not tell anyone about this, or I will kill you. Not your friends, not your lovers—no other Selphids either. No one.”
Luan nodded as Calectus stared at him. Aiko and Ken nodded quickly as well. They were stunned by the revelation, but it wasn’t the most pressing issue right now. The battle going on between both sides was.
“Whatever the reason, the attack on Geneva’s camp seems to have been the start of all-out war. Both companies have abandoned their positions and are attacking with all their forces. It is a bloodbath.”
Calectus had scouted in either direction and found only fighting. There was no chance of running from the battle without meeting the other soldiers. Aiko’s voice was shaky as Luan hugged her with one arm.
“I do not understand. Why are they doing this now?”
“At a guess? Because one side got desperate. This is a mistake. Neither company wished to lose the majority of its forces, so they agreed to fight in the valley’s center until one side withdrew. Now? They will fight until one side is obliterated. The winner will be mostly destroyed as well, however. As will everyone in the valley.”
That included them. Calectus and Okasha were talking about what they could do when Okasha raised a hand.
“Geneva is waking up.”
Okasha got up and walked away from the others. Ken watched her back and saw Geneva jerk suddenly. She stumbled—he thought he could see Okasha stopping her from falling. Then Geneva’s mouth opened and she spoke to herself. A pause. A short sentence, and then Geneva replied to herself. It was creepy, watching her have a conversation with herself and yet not herself. Then Geneva’s head turned and she took in the smoldering remains of her camp.
She collapsed. Her hands shot out, breaking her fall, and Geneva ended up sitting. She stared at the camp in silence. After a while, Ken stood up and made his way over to her.
“We’re both in here, Ken.”
“Oh. Geneva-san…? Geneva?”
Geneva’s voice was hoarse from the healing. But it was her. Ken thought it was. The horror in the [Doctor]’s eyes was too real to be anyone but her. Unless it was Okasha pretending to be her sometimes? No. He had to believe it was her.
“Are you alright, Geneva?”
It was Geneva who looked at Ken, and he flinched away from her gaze. She stared at him, and then at her camp.
“They’re all gone. All the wounded, the soldiers—all of them. Just like that. The goodwill I built up, the lives I tried to save…nothing. It meant nothing.”
He looked at her. There was nothing he could say, so Ken didn’t try. He sat next to Geneva and heard her whispering. Was she talking to Okasha or him? Or neither?
“This was my fault. I thought I could stay neutral, avoid conflict. Instead I became a part of this war. I’ve—failed.”
She stared back at the camp, and then turned her head. Part of the valley had been set ablaze. Struggling soldiers were killing each other in the valley, in the forests. Neither side was falling back. It was to the death this time. The wounded would cry out, and the side that won would deal with them.
“It’s all burning.”
“We must go. It is not safe to hide here, Calectus says. Geneva, I am sorry, but we must run.”
Ken felt wretched saying it to her, but he had seen Centaurs racing through the trees not thirty feet away from where they were hiding. It was only a matter of time before they were found.
Geneva didn’t answer, but Okasha made her stand up. She spoke for Geneva, her voice lower.
“What are our options?”
“Run and fight, or hide and then fight.”
Those were the two conclusions Calectus had come up with. They could head in any direction, preferably away from the valley, but both companies were trying to flank each other and they could head right into a battle group. But if they stayed put, they’d end up meeting soldiers too. And there was no food or shelter here. Either way, it ended with a battle, and Calectus was frank about the odds she’d have against a group of Soldiers.
“I could kill the assassins—but only because I didn’t have to protect anyone. And they weren’t expecting a Selphid. They thought I was alive at first, or they would have aimed for me, not my body. If we run into anything larger than a group of ten, we all die.”
“So that’s it? We choose which way we think is less risky?”
Calectus nodded grimly. She nodded to the camp, checking to make sure her head was on right. Selphids couldn’t take their heads off like Dullahans could. At least, they couldn’t do it and not have the heads begin to rot.
“I had a group of soldiers who could have fought with us, but the airstrike and assassins killed them all. Without another force, there are not enough warriors. Okasha could fight—”
Geneva interrupted. She looked at her hand and shook her head.
“I can’t. I can’t let her, either.”
“Just me, then.”
Ken and Luan looked at each other. They wanted to say they could fight, but only Aiko had ever killed someone. But what could they do otherwise? If they had to fight—
Ken had a thought. He stood up and looked up the valley, towards a hill. He tried to squint to see if there was fighting there, but couldn’t see anything through the trees. Luan saw where he was looking and spoke up.
“That’s right! What about Gravetender’s Fist?”
Everyone looked at Luan. He pointed through the forest, up the valley towards where the neutral ground was. Or had been. Calectus frowned and shifted her grip on her halberd.
“You think you can get them to shelter us?”
Ken, Aiko, and Luan traded looks. Luan nodded to Calectus and Geneva.
“We know them. Quallet’s reasonable…I think. There are a lot of our friends in the company. It’s worth a shot, and better than trying to get out alone, don’t you think?”
Calectus considered the idea, and then nodded.
“They’re the only other side in this mess. If we find them there, we can try to work together. Otherwise…we’ll still be closer to the edges of the fighting.”
It was a tenuous plan, but having agreed to it, Calectus didn’t waste any time. He had everyone get up and creep towards the neutral zone, stopping when they heard fighting in the distance. Calectus frowned, glancing up at the tall, broad-limbed trees and around warily. There was a problem.
“I can fight small groups, but if we run into a patrol, they will call for help. We need someone to scout.”
Luan spoke up, but it was Okasha who volunteered herself and Geneva.
“I’m a [Rogue]. I should do it, with Geneva’s permission.”
“Absolutely not. You’re valuable.”
Calectus snapped at her, but Okasha was insistent.
“I can do it, Calectus.”
“How? If you’re spotted—”
“I have stealth Skills. And I’ll do it from above.”
Everyone looked up as Okasha pointed at the branches. She looked at Calectus, then flicked her glance towards Ken and the others. Ken thought she was worried about them hearing, but the situation must have warranted it, so Okasha spoke.
“I’ll exceed Geneva’s limits. I can leap from tree to tree. I did it with my last body. I can do it with hers. Let me do it, Calectus.”
Luan stared up incredulously at the treetops. The branches were thick and could probably hold someone’s weight, true, but jumping from one to the next would require inhuman strength! Or maybe the athleticism of a trained Olympian, neither of which Geneva had.
However, that wasn’t an issue, as Okasha explained to the Humans.
“We can exceed our limits for a brief period. It is a trick that pushes a body’s muscles and nerves past their physical threshold. Other species can do it in times of dire need, but we have no such limitations of the mind. The cost, however, is that the body we inhabit will degrade and break down far, far more quickly.”
“Yes, and doing that to a living body would be painful—”
Calectus was frowning and objecting, but Geneva interrupted. She looked from Calectus to the trees, to the other Humans.
“Let’s do it. If it means no fighting, I can bear the pain. Okasha, go ahead.”
Geneva’s head nodded and Okasha spoke.
“I will take over. Geneva, this will tear your muscles.”
Geneva’s gritted her teeth.
“I can heal them. Do it.”
Ken stepped back as Geneva’s knees bent and she lowered her posture. There was no sign she was…what had the Dullahans called it? Rampaging? But when Geneva leapt, it was straight up, nearly twice her height. She caught a branch and swung herself onto it, moving with incredible grace. Ken gaped.
“I’ll move ahead. Calectus, wait for my signal.”
She jumped from one of the branches to the next, a standing long jump that catapulted her to the next branch. Ken turned to Luan to ask the Olympian hopeful if he’d ever seen anything like it, and saw Luan’s slack-jawed expression.
“How can she do that?”
Aiko asked Calectus, who was scanning the trees from where Okasha had gone. The Selphid answered without turning her head.
“Humans, Dullahans, Lizardfolk…all of your species can do the same. Have you not ever heard of your kind performing great feats in times of need?”
Ken vaguely recalled a story about a mother who had lifted an entire tree off of her son. Or how a passerby would lift an entire car, thousands of pounds, off someone who was trapped beneath. He had no idea what the term for it was.
Was it really possible for everyone to do that? And if so, what could Selphids do with that kind of ability?
Ken looked at Calectus out of the corner of his eye. He—was now a she, and a she from a different species altogether. A Selphid could take over any dead body, and any living body. They could survive wounds that would kill a living person without injury, tap into strength they didn’t have…
They were frightening. Not only that, Ken had no idea how they thought or behaved as a species. He had only known Calectus and now, Okasha. Ken was glad they were on the same side, at least, for now.
Something flickered in the trees above him. Ken looked up and saw nothing in the shadows. But Calectus had. She pointed and snapped in a low voice.
Adrenaline and fear shot through Ken’s body. He ran, sprinting through the trees, tapping into a speed born of pure fear and proving the Selphids were right. Something moved above him and Ken flinched, but it was Geneva. She ran across a branch as thick as Ken’s waist and then leapt to a tree ahead of him.
Ken saw Geneva leaping from tree to tree like a monkey, moving with the same inhuman strength and speed that Calectus had displayed. She called down at Calectus and the others, directing them away from the fighting. Ken ran, lungs and legs burning, watching Luan run ahead of him and hearing Aiko struggling by his side. Calectus took up the rear, watchful, sometimes falling back to clash with pursuers.
When they broke out into the open and ran for the neutral ground Geneva landed and sprinted across the hundred meter gap in less than ten seconds. Ken tried to breathe and run faster as he heard shouts in the distance. However, if they had been spotted, the group of five was deemed less of a threat and no one came after them.
Geneva had paused in the first few trees of the neutral zone. She was sweating, and as Ken ran towards her and practically collapsed, he saw she was gripping her legs.
Geneva’s face was twisted with pain. Okasha spoke with her voice.
“Try not to move. I am massaging the muscles and removing the…”
“Lactic acid. I can feel everything burning.”
“Torn muscle. I warned you. I am secreting a pain relieving agent, but you must use a healing potion.”
Luan raced into the grove, half-dragging Aiko. She was panting, a ragged note of pain in her voice from the extreme sprint. Calectus was last. An arrow was sticking out of her armor’s shoulder. Ken hadn’t realized they were being shot at.
“Are you alright Geneva, Okasha?”
“Fine. We could use a bit of the healing potion.”
Calectus handed the quarter of a bottle over, cautioning Okasha to be sparing. A few drops and Geneva’s expression of pain eased. She stood up, legs fully recovered from the muscle strain. Calectus shook her head as she studied Geneva.
“The ability to stop bleeding, move a body when critically injured and heal each injury with such precision…this is why it was made forbidden. It is too powerful. Too dangerous. Two souls in one body. Two minds, each with their own set of classes and Skills. An army of such warriors would be unstoppable.”
“Not if the entire world is after you.”
Okasha shook her head and then Geneva took back over. She looked at Ken.
“Are we at the neutral zone?”
“A bit farther, I think. This way!”
Ken took over and the group moved slowly through the forest. He thought they were close to the campground, and then heard a shout. A group of armed soldiers burst out of the trees, shouting. Ken saw Calectus drag Geneva back, leaving Luan, Aiko, and Ken to defend themselves. Luan raised his mace and then Ken heard a shout.
“Hold on! Hold on, you bastards! It’s Ken and the others!”
One of the charging soldiers halted and blocked the path of the others. He was holding an axe, and as he came closer, Ken saw it was Daly.
“Bugger me, you lot are alive!”
He strode over to them as the soldiers halted, although none of them sheathed their weapons. Ken nearly wept at the sight of Daly. He was alive! And now that Ken wasn’t terrified out of his mind, he saw more Humans and familiar Lizardfolk, Dullahan, and Centaur faces amid the soldiers.
Daly strode over and gave Ken a one-armed hug that impressed Ken with sweat, blood, and other body odors. Then he clasped hands with a grinning Luan.
“What happened? All we heard this morning was that the [Doctor]’s camp was attacked, and then it was like the world was ending! Both the Centaurs and the Dullahans started fighting everywhere and we’ve been attacked six times in the last hour!”
The young man from Australia led Ken and the others into the neutral ground while the other soldiers went to hide in the trees again. Daly had certainly seen war now, as had the others. He had a huge cut running down his neck and his collarbone. It had cut his armor in half, but it must not have been that deep, since Daly was still upright.
“The Dullahans are claiming that the Centaurs used [Mages] to burn down the camp, and the Centaurs are saying the Dullahans sent soldiers in to burn the camp and blamed it on them. Which side attacked?”
Daly stared at Ken as he and Luan explained what had happened. The Australian shook his head and spat.
“Lies from both sides. Fucking brilliant, am I right? At least Aiko’s safe too. And hey, who’s this?”
Only now did Daly spot Geneva and Calectus. His eyes widened as Ken told him who they were.
“The [Doctor]? I heard about her. The Last Light. You’d better see the Captain. He’ll want to know she’s here.”
Daly took Geneva, Ken, and the others to Quallet’s tent in the middle of the camp. Only this time, Quallet wasn’t the only person inside. When Daly knocked on the flap and ushered everyone in, Ken saw Quallet was standing with the other surviving neutral parties around a map of the valley.
Quallet was there, as was the female Centaur, the leader of Rot’s Bane. Ken thought her name was Exara. What was a surprise was seeing Xalandrass, the war vendor occupying a corner of the tent while he tended to his wounds. Quallet’s eyes widened on seeing Geneva, but when he’d heard what had happened—and heard Calectus was a Level 36 [Honor Guard]—he immediately made room for them around the map.
“Right now we’re holding position and trying not to be a target. But it’s only a matter of time before they send a big force our way to secure this spot, or messengers with an offer to join either side. I’m hoping for a messenger, but I think our chances are slim either way.”
There were symbols all over the map, glowing, indicating where the fighting was. Ken looked down at a shifting landscape of yellow and blue, engulfing every section of the valley and cutting off any hope for an escape route.
Exara, the female Centaur, gave Calectus a brief appraisal of the forces they had with them.
“They killed Ulvial in the first attack. I’ve taken command of the rest of his company with Quallet…we’ve also joined forces with the war vendor’s group. Their camp was also attacked. I’ll say this for the [Merchant], though—he didn’t hide. He crushed at least six of the soldiers who attacked him with his tail. Broke all their bones just like that.”
She nodded at Xalandrass. Ken approached the Naga as the others clustered around the table and discussed options. Technically Geneva was no commander, but the other captains seemed to think she had a place with them and certainly valued Calectus’ input.
Xalandrass had a potion bottle in his hands and was pouring it slowly over the cuts on his body with eyes closed. He opened his eyes warily and then blinked as he saw Ken.
“Ah, little Ken. I did not expect to see you. Alive.”
The Naga laughed and then grimaced. Xalandrass had a deep cut down part of his serpentine tail, but he was healing that as he spoke with a potion. He’d thrown open his stores and supplied Gravetender’s Fist and the other companies with enchanted weapons and potions. It was one of the reasons why they’d been left alone; they weren’t an easy target. But it was only a matter of time.
He explained this to Ken in a lowered voice as the captains reached the same conclusion with Calectus. Xal’s face was grim as he gave their odds of surviving a flick of the tail.
“If we side with a company, we may have a chance. But what if the company we side with dies, or we are sent into a bloodbath? Or…I suspect we might be stabbed in the back once it is over, regardless. They have violated the terms of war all companies share, by attacking forces on neutral ground. I have had to kill several soldiers myself. It is not…well, it is ironic. And you escaped your attack with her, hm? The [Doctor].”
He grinned at Ken and his tail flicked delicately at Geneva. She was speaking with the others now, grim and horrified, but still determined. She was arguing against them trying to cut their way to safety, with only her convictions and no strategy behind her statements. For her, that was enough.
“So that is what she is like. I understand. It is hard to describe her.”
Xal looked thoughtful as he gazed at Geneva. Ken stared at the Naga, and looked hesitantly at the map.
“Shush. Formalities and flattery are useful when bargaining and flirting, but not now, I think. Say what it is you need to say.”
The Naga flicked his tail up, touching it gently to Ken’s lips. He smiled at Ken. Ken nodded.
“Xalandrass, do you know who attacked Geneva’s camp? There was the Firebringer and Dullahans. Did one side do all of it, or was it both? And why? The soldiers love Geneva. So why…?”
The Naga smiled a touch sadly and shook his head at Ken’s naiveté.
“The soldiers don’t need to know a thing. A single [Strategist] could have ordered the attack, or the leader of either company. And both sides can deny attacking as well. The Centaurs can claim Zalthia was hitting targets of opportunity and failed to recognize Geneva’s camp. The Dullahans sent assassins so they could claim it was a rogue group or mercenaries sent by the other side to frame them. I do suspect it was both, but what does it matter? The deed was done and now we are stuck.”
Back at the table, the argument was getting heated between Geneva and the others. To Ken’s surprise, Luan was joining in the discussion, trying to convince Geneva they needed to fight. But she was insistent and Ken heard her adamant reply as Ken and Xal approached the table.
“There has to be another way. If we fight, we become a target for everyone. I cannot, will not end this all in senseless death.”
“There is no other option. We’ve agreed that staying here is riskier—either we die or they die. I won’t call that senseless!”
Quallet snapped at Geneva, resting his gauntleted hands on the table. She stared back and then flicked her eyes towards the tent. The roar of battle was background noise now, never ceasing.
“There’s a better way. I’ll go ahead of everyone.”
The captains stared at her. So did Ken, Luan, and Calectus. Aiko had left, to wash off the blood of the Dullahan she’d killed. Geneva looked at everyone in turn, resolute.
“The soldiers know me. They know who I am. Maybe if they see me, they’ll stop fighting long enough for us to get through.”
Exara looked troubled, Quallet thoughtful. Calectus was dead against it, and surprisingly, so was Xalandrass. He slithered over to Geneva, smiling at her. She looked warily at him.
“I hate to disregard such courage, my fair [Doctor], but I must tell you that if you do that, you will die. To no good purpose, either.”
“Why? I understand the risks, but if I can get enough soldiers to see me—”
“Ah, but it is not the soldiers you must worry about.”
Xalandrass cut Geneva off. He flicked his tail, indicating both sides on the map.
“This has gone beyond simple infractions of conduct. Both companies have attacked neutral parties. One company might have broken the rules at first—and I would put money on the Dullahans being the ones—but both sides are party to this now. Any witnesses would bring back terrible retribution onto them. So it is in the best interests that no one survives this battle.”
He reached out with his Human-like hands and touched Geneva lightly on the chest.
“You may stop the fighting, but only for a moment. Both sides will want you dead, and will see it happen easily. All it takes is an arrow or spell, from either side. The victor can claim whatever they want, but so long as either group can claim it was an accident, the soldiers will believe it and more importantly, you will be dead. As will we all.”
Geneva stared Xalandrass in the eye, and then nodded.
“I accept that risk. I’m willing to die if you can escape. If I go out, I can at least buy you a few minutes maybe. Enough time for you to get clear of the worst of the fighting…”
Calectus interrupted. She leaned forwards, glaring at Geneva.
“You are my ward, Geneva. I cannot allow you to throw your life away.”
“What choice do we have, Calectus?”
Quallet cleared his throat.
“If we were to put up a white flag—it wouldn’t stop them from attacking, not now, but what if we negotiated? Swore an oath not to reveal what we saw—”
“We’d never get them to go through all the trouble of finding a [Mage] to administer the spell to every one of us in the company.”
Exara argued back. Ken looked at Luan, and silently, they left the tent while the others argued. Ken didn’t know what they should do, but he had no useful insights. Neither did Luan, so they went into the camp and tried to find their friends.
Daly was resting with the others. He had a bandage on his neck wound—not from Geneva, but courtesy of Aiko. When Ken asked about who was alive, he looked away.
“Etretta’s gone, Ken. She saved my life. Cold bitch walked in front of a lightning bolt for me. I didn’t get a chance to tell her—tell her—”
He lowered his head. Luan and Ken stared at him. Daly wiped at his eyes, swore, and told Ken where to find some of the others.
Ken found Quexa among the wounded. She wasn’t wounded now of course. Xal’s potions were keeping everyone healthy. But she was too injured to continue fighting.
One of her legs had been cut off.
“Hey Ken. I thought you were dead.”
Quexa smiled at Ken when she saw him approach. He stared down at her, at a loss for words. She glanced at the healed-over stump of her leg and then away. She smiled. Tried to smile. It was fake, but she chattered away as if it were nothing.
“Oh. They cut off my leg. Well, I say they—it was a Centaur. With an axe. And my tail. I’m more upset about my leg than my tail, I mean, I could live without my tail, but my leg—”
The Lizardgirl’s eyes filled with tears. Ken bent down and hugged her. She sobbed and clung to him.
This was war. Not suppression, hauling dead bodies and fighting the undead. This was war, and they were caught in it. Ken thought they would die, and Luan thought so too. After Quexa had cried herself to sleep, Luan found Ken, looking worried.
“They’re still arguing over what to do. It looks like we’ll try to fight our way through after all, but Ken…”
He shook his head. Ken stared at him anxiously. Luan had been unwaveringly brave and responsible, but now he looked like he was at a loss for what to do.
“It’s a mess, Ken. We have too many groups here to trust one another when we try to break out. That Xal guy, the Naga—he looks like he’ll make a break for it when the fighting starts. And Calectus is only concerned about Geneva. As for Quallet and Exara, how do we know either one won’t split or try to cut a deal with either side?”
Ken didn’t know. He remembered Quallet when he’d asked if the [Captain] had given up the Americans to the Dullahans. And Exara was a Centaur. Did that mean anything?
Someone strode out of the tent, amid the arguing. Ken stood and saw Geneva headed towards them. The [Doctor]’s face was flushed, and she looked angry and helpless.
“They won’t listen. I’ve told them that if we fight, we’ll only make things worse. We’ll become part of the enemy, not neutral! And we need to be neutral. If not—”
She looked at Ken and Luan, and both saw the pain in her eyes. Luan guided Geneva over to the fire. Amazingly, there was food being eaten even with the fighting so close by and occasionally hitting their camp. But people had to keep up their strength. He offered some very dry bread to Geneva as he spoke.
“You’re talking about aid workers, right? Neutral parties?”
Geneva nodded, looking frustrated. Luan nodded too. Ken vaguely understood what they were referring to. There were groups who went into war-torn countries or places where a war was going on. They were on no side and helped victims while trying to remain neutral. It was a good cause and it saved lives. Luan understood, but he did not agree with Geneva.
“Médecins Sans Frontières. I know of them too, Geneva. But what they believe in…it’s admirable, but you can’t expect it to apply to things here.”
“I have to believe it. If not, what’s the point of believing in anything? If no one will believe in the rights of victims, in honoring the attempt to aid people—what can be done? Then the only way to resolve anything will be to kill anyone who disagrees with you.”
Geneva’s hand was white on her cup. Luan opened his mouth, and fell silent. Geneva stared past him, towards the battle between the Centaurs and Dullahans.
“Témoignage. That’s a word in French. It means ‘to bear witness’. That’s what Doctors Without Borders believes in. I thought I could be like them, or at the very least, like the Red Cross. So long as I could help—but there’s no one to bear witness to, and even if all I do is help, I’m still a target.”
There was something in her eyes, in her voice. Ken thought he saw hope dying in Geneva’s eyes as she looked at him and Luan.
“What good is neutrality if there is no one to witness it? What’s the use of honor in war—of morality when one side can throw it all away when no one’s watching?”
Neither young man could reply. Geneva got up without a word and left her full cup. She marched back into the tent and Ken heard her raised voice. After she’d gone, Daly came over. He squatted down, pressing at the bandage Aiko had put on his neck and grimacing.
“I heard what she said. That [Doctor]—Geneva, right? She’s the right sort.”
Ken and Luan nodded. Daly paused.
“Trouble is, she’s wrong about this. There’s no reasoning with those bastards out there. Who cares if we bear witness? What good will it do?”
He lifted Geneva’s cup to his mouth and drank it all down. Then Daly tossed the cup aside and grimaced.
“The world is watching. Isn’t that what they say every time shit happens? Back in our world, I mean. The world is watching. Well, I guess that makes everything alright, don’t it? Sure makes me feel better, and I’m sure the poor bastards getting shot feel better too, knowing that.”
He was right and wrong at the same time. Ken felt that. He thought Geneva was right, but at the same time, he knew Xalandrass and the others were correct as well. He spoke, letting his thoughts out one bubble at a time.
“I think the soldiers do believe in Geneva, Daly-san. Daly. If they saw her, they would stop fighting. However, the leaders of both sides will kill her. And then blame the other side for doing it.”
“Yeah, that’s the issue. I’ve heard soldiers speaking of the Last Light. They think she’s as close to a goddess as anything—although they believe in gods. But what can we do? If we surround her with soldiers, she’s a target just waiting for a [Fireball] spell. How can you stop her from being a target and still tell everyone she’s here?”
Daly shook his head. Ken stared at the cooking fire, and then at the tent. A target. That was the problem. If only both sides knew what was going on, but how could you tell them? Soldiers believed what their commanders told them—who’d listen to someone from the other side, or someone they didn’t know? You had to show everyone the truth, but how could you do that in a war?
At the head of the camp, Ken saw the company banner. The flag of Gravetender’s Fist soared above Quallet’s tent, shining though there was no sun on it. Why was that?
Oh, right. It had a spell on it to shine in the darkness. So that when everyone was working, people would see the flag and know the company was neutral. That was how it worked.
That was how it was supposed to work. The suppression companies were in the middle of the battlefield, a target for all sides, yet not a target.
A target yet not a target. Ken thought he was on the verge of something. He got up and walked over to the flag, studied it.
Luan was on his feet. He approached Ken.
“What are you thinking, mate? Something on your mind?”
Ken took the flag. It glowed in the half-light of the tree’s shadows, a bright light. Something to identify the Gravetender’s Fist company. To keep them safe. They were safe because they were noticed.
He turned to Luan and Daly, the banner in his hands. Ken lifted it, and saw how both young men stared at it. There. Both of them were looking at the same thing. What if you did that for everyone? Was there a way? He remembered something Xalandrass had said he had in his inventory.
“I think I have an idea, friends. I know how Geneva can go out without being a target.”
Daly stared at Ken, and then at the flag.
“Are we going to send a message to one side then? Both?”
Ken shook his head as he handed the flag to Daly, and then strode into the tent. He turned to the two of them, smiling.
“We will tell them Geneva is here. We will tell them we are here.”
Luan stared at Ken. Ken grinned.
This was the last battle, the final engagement. The Centaurs and Dullahans were locked in combat, battalions maneuvering and charging into combat across the entire valley. A unit of Dullahans charged across the broken ground, trying to cut off a retreating group of Centaur [Mages]. Two wings of Centaur [Lancers] fell on the Dullahans, and both sides were swept up as a group of Lizardfolk rushed to the Dullahan’s aid.
There was chaos on the ground and in the skies. Arrows and spells flew through the air, making the mages capable of flight stay on the ground. Soldiers watched out for banners to identify friends from foes, but were ready for an attack even from allies. It was chaos.
In this situation, who could spend time looking for a third party? Anyone who took a step into the battle zone would be a target. But it was that very issue Kenjiro Murata thought he could solve.
He stood on the edge of the neutral ground, staring down into the valley. The shortest route away from the fighting was through an area where the fighting was thickest. The fact that the most soldiers were here didn’t bother him; on the contrary, it was better that he did this here, where there were more to listen.
Xalandrass pressed something into Ken’s hand. It was a lovely ring that might have been made of amazonite or a similar stone, inset with beads of clear glass that shimmered with magic. Ken took it and put it on. He didn’t sense a difference, but Xalandrass had assured him this ring was the most powerful one in his collection.
That meant the loudest. Ken took a breath, and looked around. Geneva stood next to Quallet, Exara, and Xalandrass. Behind them, the collective forces of Gravetender’s Fist, Rot’s Bane, the remains of Untimely Demise, Xalandrass’ guards, Calectus, Luan, and Aiko, were all waiting. They were all staring at him.
Ken had taken too deep a breath. He released it, took another shaky one, and then felt a hand on his back. Geneva stared into Ken’s eyes. Without a word, she nodded.
She trusted him. Ken felt calmer. He took a third breath, and then shouted.
“Ah. Hello? Excuse me!”
The words weren’t thunder. They were more like an earthquake, an avalanche, a blasting thousand-man-band’s worth of noise that cracked over the loudest explosion and roar of the battle below.
Xalandrass’ magical rings to amplify the voice were of the highest quality. Ken’s words made every soldier look up at him as a new target. Instantly, Ken saw archers taking aim, commanders, pointing, so he spoke.
“Please! Do not attack! We are not your enemy!”
A brief hesitation. Ken could see confusion on some faces. Who would fall for a lie like that? Who would be so brazen, so stupid?
Ken would. He motioned quickly and Geneva stepped forwards. Every eye focused on her, and Ken heard some cries of recognition.
“This is Geneva Scala, the [Doctor] known as the Last Light! Her camp was attacked—”
A roar went up. Ken spoke over it.
“By both sides.”
Silence. Ken looked at Quallet. The man was pale-faced, but he remembered what to do and stepped forwards with Exara and Xalandrass. Ken pointed to all of them in turn. He had the battlefield’s attention, for the simple fact that he was loud and the soldiers believed in Geneva.
“This is [Captain] Qualass of Gravetender’s Fist and [Captain] Exara of Rot’s Bane! They are both suppression companies, and this is Xalandrass, a [Merchant]! They are all neutral parties in this conflict!”
By the end of that statement, Ken’s own ears were ringing. He could see Xalandrass wincing, as were the people around him. But Ken’s words had had an effect. Soldiers were staring at the captains and Xalandrass, all groups they knew were neutral in any war. Ken’s next words were simple, direct.
“We are leaving. If you attack, we will fight back. But we will not attack you. Please, do not kill us.”
That was all. He took the ring from his finger and put it in his pocket.
Both sides were staring up at Geneva and the others. The frenzy of movement below had become an oasis of inaction. But it couldn’t last. They had to move.
Ken looked at Quallet, Exara, Xalandrass—none of them seemed able to take the first step. Then Geneva moved. She made a sound like a sigh or a prayer and slowly began to descend into the valley.
The others followed. Quallet slowly walked down, axe at his side, looking warily at the soldiers closest to him. Ken followed, unarmed, heart beating out of his chest. Slowly, the rest of Gravetender’s Fist, the other soldiers, weapons sheathed, walked with him.
A sea of bodies were between them and safety. Ken’s heart felt like it would burst as Geneva slowly walked towards a group of Lizardfolk, bloody, spears held uncertainly. She was just staring at them. They stared at her.
They recognized her. How could they not? They might not have ever seen Geneva’s face themselves, but how many soldiers had they met who could describe the woman who’d saved them? And Ken had said it.
She was the [Doctor]. Would they kill her? She was unarmed. They were all neutral parties. And the soldiers stood, knowing that every single one of them had seen this. Would anyone dare attack them? How could they?
Everyone here was a witness.
Slowly, the ranks of soldiers parted. They stood aside, some stumbling back. Others dragged the wounded away. And the wounded did cry out for Geneva. She looked at them, face pale, and slowly shook her head. There was infinite regret in her eyes, but she didn’t look away. She stared at the people she could not save.
Ken stared at the commanders. They would be the ones to order the attack. Some were shouting, their voices dim and muted in the silence. Others fought towards Geneva, but were held back. One raised a staff glowing with magic and was dragged from his saddle by his men.
They were a quarter of the way across the battlefield when it happened. Ken heard a group of Centaurs galloping, and suddenly the Dullahan’s side was ready to fight. He turned, about to put the ring on and shout, when he saw a group of Centaurs race out of the sea of bodies and slow to a stop. They flanked Geneva on her left, and Ken saw a female Centaur with a bow and a male Centaur he thought he recognized leading them. The female Centaur, a [Captain], shouted.
“Centaurs! You are to refrain from attacking at all costs. Any fool who disobeys I will personally shoot!”
Her voice rang out and the Centaurs around her put an arrow to their bows. Their tips gleamed with magic. Evercut arrows.
The words weren’t just for the people around her. The [Captain] was staring towards the skies, and Ken saw a shape that had been flying down out of a cloud fly back. Zalthia waved at Geneva from above as she reversed direction. Ken’s heart began to beat again. It stopped again when he heard the thump. He turned his head and saw a giant Dullahan, a War Walker with a huge sword advancing on Geneva.
The Centaur group backed up and looked ready to loose, but the War Walker began walking on Geneva’s right. The Dullahan head controlling the massive [Behemoth]’s body was deep and huge, as if his entire frame was a megaphone for his words.
“I am Bastiom. I will cut apart anyone who attacks the [Doctor] or her company.”
More Dullahans joined him. Now there was a stream of bodies, protecting Geneva as she led the small company across the battlefield. Ken stared. He recognized some of the people in the crowd. He had saved the Dullahan who walked on his right, shield raised towards his own side.
They walked on. Ken found himself walking faster, and then he was listening to Geneva. She spoke quietly with Luan, no longer at the head of the group. There was no need. The message was spreading.
“What can we do? They’ll kill each other when we’re gone.”
Luan was looking at both sides, shaking his head as he spoke to Geneva. Ken heard her low reply.
“We bear witness. That’s all we can do.”
They passed from the valley. Up ahead, the groups of soldiers were lessening. They were going to survive. Part of Ken didn’t believe it. Another part…another part wished the same could be true for the soldiers. He hoped that maybe, after they had left, the silence would continue. Perhaps the soldiers would put down their weapons, talk?
It couldn’t happen. Behind him, Ken could see some commanders moving their forces and soldiers bracing and drinking potions. The fighting would continue. This was only a brief interlude. Peace was a pipe dream.
But it was a dream Ken could believe in. And at that moment, he saw the same hope, the same faith, in Luan and Geneva’s eyes.
Luan stared at Geneva. She seemed lost, looking around, staring at her hands. She looked up at him.
“I don’t know what I’ll do after this. I can’t keep going back to the battlefield, but I don’t know…I don’t know what I should do after this.”
The tall South African man blinked at her for a moment, and then smiled. He looked thoughtfully at Geneva, and then at the sky.
“You know, I heard once that aid workers in conflict zones served for…let’s say a month. But after that, they were forced to take a vacation. In order to stay sane, yeah?”
“What’s your point?”
He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned down to speak to her. Ahead, the forest opened up and a trail appeared. Quallet ordered the company to march faster as both Centaurs and Dullahans broke away, heading back towards the battlefield.
“You’ve been through too many battles, Geneva. Rest for a while. There’s good you can do away from the fighting. And we need you.”
She paused. Geneva closed her eyes, looked at Luan, Ken, and at Aiko and the others. She looked at the Humans from her world and then at her hands. Then she nodded.
The word was all it took. Behind them, the young Japanese man known as Kenjiro Murata finally began to believe they would live. Ken stared up at the sky, filled with smoke, but incredibly blue.
Behind him, he heard a shout, and then a thump. He turned, and saw a plume of smoke rising. War. His spirits sank. Quallet had heard and ordered everyone to pick up the pace, now!
They marched on. Ken found himself trailing behind. He couldn’t help but stare up at the sky. He wondered…if there really was a safe place in the world. He couldn’t imagine it, surrounded by death and violence on all sides.
He looked down. Geneva and Luan had slowed to wait for him. Aiko, helping Quexa move, had turned. Daly was waving at him. Ken realized he was standing still, staring as the group marched ahead.
Luan and Geneva walked back. Luan held out a hand and smiled at Ken.
Ken stared at the hand. He stared at Geneva, and saw something on her face. It was faint, awkward, and full of regrets and sadness. But if you got past that, it looked almost like a smile.
He hesitated, and then took Luan’s hand, leaving the war behind. He went marching away, looking for an answer to his question.
A week later, Ken found it. It wasn’t in words, and it didn’t come from a person. It was a slow realization that culminated in a moment where he sat on a white beach, staring out into the ocean.
In the days after they’d fled the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company, Quallet had taken charge. His only goal was to get them away from the fighting in case either company sent a force after them. They did not, whether because they were still locked in combat or thought it would be futile, Ken didn’t know.
But soon, as the danger became further and further away, the group began to splinter and think of their own needs. Exara was the first to leave with her company, and a good deal of the soldiers in Gravetender’s Fist left with their pay—doubled for combat duty—and drifted away at each passing village and town.
But some continued onwards. A good core of Gravetender’s Fist, some of Ulviel’s forces, and Xalandrass went on with the Humans from the other world. The [Merchant] was sick of combat, and he promised that if they travelled with him as protection, he’d take them to a lovely place where they could rest, safe and away from any danger.
Xalandrass was as good as his word, and the protection of a war vendor meant that the weary company could travel east, taking the main roads until they reached one of the island port-towns. This one was a small haven, not troubled by conflict.
It had a beach. And what a beach it was! Ken had never been to Hawaii, one of the Japanese tourist’s must-visit locations, but he’d heard tell of their amazingly scenic beaches. He thought, with no little amount of satisfaction, that Hawaii tourists would have given their left earlobes (and a lot of money) to visit this beach.
It was pristine, untouched by pollution, industrialization, or most other things that had ‘-tion’ in the word. The community of mainly Lizardfolk that lived by the beaches and fished for a living were only too happy to take the gold that Geneva had been bribed with and feasted the Humans and other soldiers when they arrived.
Now, Ken was on the beach, watching people play. He was not in the water. Instead, he was sipping from a very pleasant, fruit drink and watching Luan race across the water in a kayak.
The South African man was at home on the water. He’d found that the Lizardfolk used a similar device to a kayak and within the first hour had set about customizing one of their boats to his specifications. Now he was racing the Lizardfolk, most of whom were only too happy to teach an uppity Human a lesson on watercraft.
They had the shock of their lives. So did the other Humans, and Ken, honestly. He’d watched the Olympics, but he’d skipped over the rowing sections, and it was something else to see an athlete row in real life. Luan’s kayak skimmed across the water, impossibly fast, and Ken saw a group of Humans and other races on the beach, screaming at him as the Lizardfolk wallowed in the water behind him.
“Go! Go you insane bastard!”
Daly was screaming and chasing after a Lizardman who’d bet gold that Luan could never out-row one of his kind. Quexa was laughing and balancing on the simple prosthetic leg that Geneva had helped design, and Aiko was watching Luan, a flower hidden behind her back.
She was going to confess to Luan today. Ken had mixed feelings about that and let his gaze wander back to Luan. He was circling a small outcropping of rocks and coming back, his paddles smoothly cutting through the water. He really was incredible.
Ken was glad he’d been allowed to see Luan row. He looked up as the race concluded, and saw Geneva approaching. The [Doctor] wasn’t smiling, but neither did she look particularly upset. She just had to work on smiling. It had to be surprised out of her, but it was happening more and more of late. She sat next to Ken, and looked at Luan rowing.
“It’s a lovely place, isn’t it? There’s a girl from Ecuador and she tells me the beaches here are better than her home. Daly and the others say Australia has nothing like it either.”
Ken nodded. He felt at the sand, looked at the water, the greenery. It was a tropical paradise in every sense of the word. It made you almost forget about the violence further inland. Almost.
“There are grander places in Baleros, you know. Xal was telling me about it. There’s so much beauty here. Beaches like this one that can stretch for a hundred miles in every direction, open fields that are filled with grass and edible plants…you can almost understand why everyone’s fighting over all of it.”
Ken nodded again. Geneva stared out across the ocean.
“I made a mistake, Ken. I shouldn’t have tried to work and stay neutral on each battlefield. I was just painting a target on my back. Okasha’s right. Things aren’t the same here.”
“I didn’t mean—”
Okasha tried to speak, but Geneva rode over her.
“There is no Geneva Convention here. There’s only me. I can’t rely on the goodwill of another company, or their morality or honor. I know that now.”
She fell silent. Ken thought to himself and spoke slowly.
“I think…it is good you know that. But Geneva, I think you were right to do what you did. I admired you. So did everyone else. If you had not done what you did, we would have died there.”
The two sat in silence for a long time. They saw Luan trudging towards them as the sun began to fall. He was covered in water, and smiling.
Ken stared at Luan, but Aiko wasn’t with him. He opened his mouth, closed it tactfully. Luan saw and smiled. He rubbed at his hair and sat.
“Aiko confessed to me a few minutes ago. I broke her heart. I feel bad about it, Ken, mate, I really do. But I had no choice.”
Did he not like Aiko? Luan smiled ruefully, and looked at his hands.
“Simple. I’m already married.”
Ken stared. Geneva blinked. Luan looked at them and waggled his hands at them. They were dark, but now that Ken looked closely, he could see a band of lighter skin around Luan’s ring finger.
“I don’t wear a ring when I kayak. Or travel and kayak. I might lose it or it could get stolen. I normally leave it at home, in a box on my dresser. Funny, I never thought I’d miss an object that much.”
“Do you have a child?”
Geneva looked at Luan. Ken was still grappling with him being married. Luan nodded. His smile faded.
“One year and five months old. I tried not to think about him, or her. Too busy surviving to worry and get distracted, you know? Now…I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.”
The three sat in silence for a while. Below, the people on the beach began to set up a bonfire and food was soon being devoured below. Ken wondered how much gold Geneva had left. Quallet had contributed his share of funds and Xalandrass had left them with some gold as thanks, but they couldn’t do this forever.
The others must have had the same thought. Aiko returned to the group, red-eyed. She didn’t mention what had gone on, and Luan and Ken and Geneva treated her like normal. They talked of mundane things, of hopes for the future.
“You know, Aiko’s been drawing some pictures. Geneva was working with her on it. Aiko made some manga-like drawings depicting hygiene, how to bandage a wound—you know? Practical stuff for everyone. I think we might be able to sell it as a book or something.”
Luan was telling Ken that as they sat around a fire, nibbling at roasted fish on a stick, seasoned with salt and some kind of hot pepper. Ken nodded.
“Do you know what Captain Quallet is going to do?”
The [Mercenary Captain] had had his fill of leading a suppression company. He’d been drifting around the port, looking grumpy and aimless. Luan grinned.
“I had a thought. We’re all sticking together, us Humans from another world. Why not invite him to lead us as a company?”
The idea surprised Geneva and Aiko, but not Ken. He’d heard Luan speaking with the others about it. Luan nodded.
“We don’t have to fight. We can earn money—but there are advantages to being in a company. It means we pool resources, we support each other. We need that. And who knows? Maybe we can find the others who drifted off on the first day. Maybe some of the Americans made it.”
Ken thought about being a company. Geneva had been speaking about teaching some people to do surgery, or at least tell people how to keep themselves clean and manage disease. People needed a [Doctor] outside of war, even with healing potions. If she could do that, what could everyone else do?
Daly leaned forwards and flicked a bit of bone into the fire. He’d joined them for dinner, although he was usually fussing about Quexa. He’d been looking out for her ever since they’d left the battlefield, and it had been he who’d carved the prosthesis she was using.
That was another thing. Geneva’s knowledge of medical prosthesis was heads and shoulders above the crude stumps and peg legs that people here used. Everything from penicillin to blood transfusions would revolutionize this world, and all she needed was time, coin, and the people with the right skills or Skills to help her. That was what she could do. Ken wasn’t sure what he could do.
He was a Level 18 [Negotiator] now. His leveling had been meteoric that first night he’d slept and it seemed like this was what he wanted to do. Luan was convinced his rowing abilities could be put to use as a [Scout], or a Runner delivering messages. And Daly?
He was a [Warrior]. Not just a [Warrior], but an [Axe Fighter]. He still believed what he’d told Ken. There were times to run and times to fight. Whatever the others did, he and some of the other Humans who’d been in Gravetender’s Fist would be there to protect them. Now he leaned back, chewing and spoke thoughtfully.
“You know, the Red Cross company isn’t a bad name. But it doesn’t have the right ring to it, especially if we’re going to be fighting. That’s why I was thinking Geneva could have her company, and we’ll make our own.”
The others looked at him. Ken’s heart sank.
“But if you are in another company Daly, won’t we separate?”
“Yeah. There’s that. But we’re not Red Cross. We might fight, or take guard jobs. I don’t think Geneva’s willing to call us Red Cross, and I wouldn’t like that either.”
Geneva nodded quietly. Besides Okasha, several other Selphids had appeared one day, and Calectus was still sticking around. They wanted something from her, and Ken sometimes worried what it was.
“But we shouldn’t form different companies. Or if we do—we should all be part of one larger company. We’re on the same side. Ken showed us that. We have to work together. All of us.”
Luan was speaking, and Daly was nodding and spreading his hands wide, not disagreeing, but not having an answer he could give. To Ken’s surprise, Geneva smiled, and because that was rare and special, everyone looked at her.
“You know, I think we have something like that. Back in our world.”
It took Luan a moment to catch on to what she was saying, Aiko five seconds, Daly six, and Ken had to have Aiko whisper the answer to him before his face lit up. The others instantly agreed that it was a good idea. They were talking about having Quallet join to help them out as a paid leader when Daly frowned, looking worried.
“What about Lizardfolk? Dullahans? Centaurs? Selphids? And other races, are we going to let them all in?”
Luan laughed and nudged Daly. The Australian man looked covertly at Quexa and she waved at him and told everyone that he kept staring at her. He laughed and that was that.
Everyone was better than no one. Ken realized their new company would have all kinds of people in it. People like Aiko, who had talents that could be used outside of fighting, people like Geneva, who were useful wherever they went. There would be fighters like Daly who could do what was needed, and peerless people like Luan who had one skill they could do better than anyone else.
And then there was Ken. He’d help them all get along. That was his calling, and that was what made him happy. He liked understanding people, and he believed in people. That wasn’t always easy.
It was now. Ken found a cup and raised it. He’d explained how to toast in Japanese, and now the others raised their cups, shells, or in Daly’s case, tankard, with him. They didn’t shout ‘乾杯’, though. Instead, they looked at each other and smiled.
Luan looked at Ken. Ken grinned and looked at Aiko. She blinked, glanced at Daly, and then looked at Geneva. Two souls looked out from her eyes, and Geneva smiled again.
A little while later, an angry Fraerling paced back and forth on his desk, reading the reports that were written on pages as tall as he was. Niers Astoragon was not in a good mood, and the reason for that was the chessboard behind him.
It was ghostly, the pieces magical. They had been set up in the middle of a game and they had stayed in that same place for…what? Months? Years?
Probably just a month. But that was too much. Niers glanced at a letter with gold-rimmed edges. He studied a map of Izril. He kicked over a tiny cup of wine and grudgingly read the latest report before the wine made the ink illegible.
It was a general report of the newest companies, the recent events in one corner of Baleros. A [Strategist] had to know how the winds were blowing as well as rumor and gossip in order to do his job. Well, some strategists could just wing it and did better ignorant than they did well-informed, but Niers preferred knowledge to idiocy.
He sighed as he studied the outcome of the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company.
“Fools, all of them.”
There was no return for either company. Their reputations were ruined, and they had destroyed themselves fighting over a valley that was practically unusable now. Neither side would back down and so everyone lost. Typical of Centaurs and Dullahans, really.
Something caught his eye as Niers absently paged through the report. This was about a new company that had declared itself. That wasn’t in itself noteworthy; new companies could come and go in the drop of a hat. Three drunken idiots could call themselves a company, so his [Spies] and [Informants] had to sift carefully through all the rumors and declarations to pick out companies that might actually be noteworthy.
There was little special to recommend this one, which was why it was just a few lines in the report. It had a few sub-companies, listed with less than a hundred members in each. That was also normal, but it was the name of the entire overall company that caught Niers’ eye because it was so audacious.
What a name. Who would come up with it, in Baleros of all places? But there it sat, glaring up at Niers. A declaration to the world. A statement of intent, or what the company represented? He had no idea. Niers stared down at the name written in ink.
The United Nations.
That was it. No appellation marking them as a company. No declared ties marking them as a part of a larger company or affiliated with another group. They had a strong connection with a local Naga war vendor…and several of their members were former undead suppression company members. One of them, Quallet Marshhand, was an individual of some skill.
But nothing more.
United. It was a word Niers had dreamed of, had spoken to the other Great Companies of Baleros about. It was a hope for this continent, for a world, that Magnolia had tempted him with. But it was an empty dream.
Yet someone had the same one. Niers glanced at the name and memorized it, just in case. Then he flipped the page and kept reading. He had a job to do. Every now and then, Niers would glance at the chessboard’s pieces that had not moved and look away.
There was something curious about Niers after the report. He was still in a bad mood, but as he filed the report away he had a curious sensation. It was a subtle feeling, but he had trained himself not to ignore his instincts. Something cried out to him as he opened the report and stared down at the name in ink.
Yes, he could feel it. It wasn’t coincidence. It wasn’t chance. This was only the start. And everything he had witnessed, all the little pieces, they were falling into place. Something was happening.
The world was beginning to move again. Behind Niers, on the chessboard, a piece slowly slid forwards and stopped.