Axel and Rayner enjoy their victory, well, they try to. Meanwhile, other powers start stirring.
They returned to Ridgehill with little fanfare. The battle had already ended by the time they arrived. It was a resounding victory for the people of Alta and residents of Ridgehill. The Coalition army showed up marching out of the Corpsewood having made a deal with the Elves that he and Rayner knew to be fairies. Also, one of the country’s leaders used the invasion to rally enough political support from the regional governors to become head of state. The first thing on his to-do list was mobilizing an army. This army joined with the militia.
The Inimi, being outnumbered and attacked from all sides, retreated. Causalities were minimal; the leader of the Inimi army had executed a brilliant retreat leaving their goblin allies behind to distract the enemy while the rest escaped. Sucks to be a goblin.
Kevia told Axel people would forget their deeds in time, and he wanted them to, but it jarred him to see it happen. The handsome guard at the gate who had seen them off didn’t even recognize them.
All the attention shifted to another hero, Evans. He and his men were hunting worms the goblins were using to attack towns by surprise when they came into possession of the Inimi battle plans. After sending the plans to Ridgehill he found out where the goblins bred the worms and killed them all. The attack would have been much worse if not for his actions. He took all the praise with steely stoicism.
He and Evans now drank together, chatting in the brothel he and Rayner called home. “You have been busy while I have been gone. When you said you wanted to step up, I did not think you meant stopping an invasion,” Axel teased.
“You jest. Though it was your advice that allowed us to prevail.” Seeing Axel’s confusion Evans clarified. “Not needing combat skills to fight. I chose to worship a love god.”
“Sounds like a fine choice.” He gave the man a lewd grin.
“It bestows a blessing that rejects those I am not romantically interested in. I use it in a fashion that makes monsters want to run from me or I use it to feel the presence of enemies.”
“You use it like an intimidation or sensory skill.” Axel was impressed.
“It is not perfect; it is a blessing from a minor god after all.”
“Hey man whatever works.”
They talked for a little while longer until Evans left to check on his party. Evans now led the outer town guard who would hunt threats for Ridgehill.
The madam joined Axel after Evans departed. “Can we talk?”
“Have a seat, you own the place.”
“I would like for you to give me the unfiltered version of events after you left on your quest for Fred Copper.”
“Why would I do that?” He would rather avoid talking of Fred Copper whose wife he used as a human shield. Worse, he left it to the villagers to send her and her daughter back to Ridgehill. He and Rayner agreed to refuse payment for the quest as an apology.
“It’s part of your contract, third page. Nothing is written in fine print. If I am to supply useful information to you, I need information as well or else I will be searching blind.”
He could not deny the truth of this, so he told her everything, leaving out the detail about he and Rayner being from another world.
“That is quite the tale young man. Do you not know how to keep a quest simple?”
“Guess not. It comes with traveling with a heroic friend.”
“Oh, I think you have plenty of heroism in you as well.”
“Look where it has gotten me, alone in a brothel, while my buddy had an orgy.”
“That experience can be offered if only you asked. For some reason, you have avoided our establishment's services.”
“Not in the mood I guess.” He took another drink of devil’s water.
“I have seen this before. It is more common than you think. What you want is a relationship that is more organic. Rayner’s sexual encounters happened during his journey; it was natural. Here it is just sex.”
“I never had a problem with that before.”
“You have never continuously fought in life or death battles before,” Grace pointed out.
He didn’t want to think about this anymore. “You came to talk about information, right?”
Grace let him change the subject. “Yes, I looked into other people with high levels like yours. What I found is that it gives one the ability to manipulate mana.”
“Plenty of people already do that.”
“Yes, and it is controlled by what class a person has. For most people, they just have a skill and feed mana into it, and that is only if the skill doesn’t do so automatically.”
“Skill creation.” But he and Rayner had been doing that from the start and Rayner did not have a high level. “I have seen people do something similar at low levels.”
“Again, this information is hard to get. The high-level worshipers guard it jealously. But I think with most skills if one pushes its limits, the skill breaks. It can only change so much without being a new skill…” She paused, waiting for him to fill in the blanks.
“But with mana manipulation, I could successfully create a new skill or push a current one beyond its limits,” Axel said, finishing her point. “Thank you, this is useful information.” Grace gave him her notes on her findings.
With soldiers from the new army and the militia camped around the town, business would be good for the madam. Later in his room, a girl waited for him ready to offer her services. Like he told the madam, he was not in the mood. He wondered where the first girl he met was, he had to thank her for the advice she gave him. He just hoped he could get some sleep tonight, true peaceful sleep.
Rayner skipped drinks with Axel. Instead, he went to check up on the refugees, specifically Tessa. He half expected the shacks to have become proper homes, but that was naive. This part of the town was as poor and desperate as ever. At least Tessa looked well.
Tessa greeted him with a demure smile. “I heard that you went to save a farmer’s daughter.”
“I did. The quest went a little sideways.” She did not understand his phrase. “It did not go as planned.”
“Sorry to hear that…would you like to talk about it.”
That was the real reason he was here. Not to make sure a passing acquittance was safe. He felt guilty because he knew she understood this as well. He could not bring himself to apologize.
“I would like that, thanks.”
He told her everything they had been through leaving some details out, unable to reveal everything about himself, but what he did tell her made him feel better somehow. Axel was having problems of his own, and he could not dump his issues on him now. Instead, he saddled a poor refugee mother with his problems.
Her kids interrupted his brooding. They were so loud, they could have given that dragon a run for its money in terms of volume. After playing with the kids who seemed to like him, he left the mother to tend to her children.
He stopped by the weapons shop to thank Dian for the weapon. It was good advice, giving him the hammer with the pick got him out of a bind quite a few times and Dian had more advice for him.
“This is about to break; it should have broken already.” Dian decided this with a quick glance at Rayner’s weapon.
“It looks fine to me,” he said, taking it back from Dian and inspecting the hammer himself.
“That’s just how it looks on the outside. The smith made it well. On the inside, the durability is going down. If your friend used his knife the same way, it should have broken already.”
“I have been pretty rough on it.” And by rough, he meant using it to bludgeon dragons to death.
“What you need is a weapon made for skill use. Something that can handle mana flow.”
“So, people with skills don’t use weapons like this?”
Dian thought for a moment on how best to answer him. “I see what’s confusing you. The skills you have used work through the hammer, other people’s skills would work on the hammer.”
“Oh, that makes sense.” It did not make sense. Another thing to put on his to-do list.
With three armies camped around the city, he had a hard time finding any monsters. He knew he should not go out alone but this was something Axel could not see. Eventually, he found a large spider in a tree, skittering along its branches to avoid a drill bird. Killing them was easy…and fun.
He spent the rest of the night with Rampage active, beating every monster he could find into bloody paste. Nausea built up in his stomach but not enough for him to stop; he abandoned thought, giving in to the bloodlust, and smiled.
For 20 years the goblin Vix had been trapped in the miasma. Two decades as a mindless slave to the misty purple mana. Vix was not one to pay back a favor. In fact, he hated owing others to the point he would rather kill them. Somehow it felt wrong to kill the two humans who had saved him.
Even worse was the state of the goblin world since he left. The stupid elders had got them worshipping some no-good gods and working for the humans and every other creature that threatened them or offered protection. It was in a goblin’s base instincts to submit to those stronger than itself. Vix had figured out long ago such deals never worked in their favor. If they failed in the tasks given to them, and they often did, they were punished. If they ran, they were punished. If they succeeded, still they were punished as their so-called benefactors were unwilling to share the spoils.
Yet the shaman elders, lords, and hobgoblins submitted again to powerful masters. He should have known. That was why they sent him on the mission into the miasma. Vix’s shaman told him the route would be safe; instead, it was a trap. His entire raiding party ended up dead or enslaved. Attacking human lands was a bad idea in the first place, humans always brought trouble. Even weak countries like Alta could chase them off if they had to.
Nobody believed in his vision of building a proper goblin society, with rules that went beyond who got to eat first and who got breeding rights. If they were strong, the humans would have to work with them. They could make the small villages pay tribute. Vix realized talking about it would do nothing. First, there would have to be bloodshed.
After all the time he spent in the miasma all the goblins who knew him were dead; he could use that to his advantage. The goblins had joined the Inimi army in many attacks against Alta and failed. Their masters would punish them. He could take advantage of this to rise in rank among his fellow goblins. For now, he had to see how strong he was or how weak. He had handled those humans with ease. They were inexperienced in combat but had plenty of potential.
Unlike a human who looked at tattoos on their palms, monsters like him didn’t need it; he focused on himself until he could see the words in his mind.
He’d gained many innate skills; his skills were a part of him. It must have been the result of living in the miasma for so long. Monsters gained levels faster than humans, still, level 10 was high for a goblin, and his mana amount must be because of the miasma as well. Most of his mana must lean toward his speed unless he had the talent to be a shaman.
Vix barged into the prayer room of the shamans. “I am Vix!” he declared.
The shamans were leading a prayer to one of the Inimi gods, goblin lords and hobgoblins kneeling behind them. The shamans and lords ignored him while the other goblins turned to look at the commotion he’d made. The hobgoblins moved to get rid of the small fry.
Good, he needed to make a statement. Not wasting any time, he used Short Step to close the distance between him and the closest hobgoblin. The fool was too shocked to react. Vix opened its throat with his knife. The other hobgoblin was faster to react, bringing its club down where Vix stood. Vix jumped toward him and when the hobgoblin swung its club at the airborne Vix, he used Hop Step, jumping on the air, and stabbing the hobgoblin in the eye.
“I am Vix!” Now the big shots were paying attention.
The goblin lords drew their swords. Using Double Step Vix appeared in front of the first lord with his first step, then as the Lord brought down his sword on Vix he used the second step to appear in the middle of the shamans. Vix made quick bloody work of them. He had enough mana to use his skills for quite some time, but the lords were agile enough to react to him. He was counting on goblin nature to prevail.
When the other lords moved forward to attack, they found themselves mobbed by the other goblins. Vix counted on this knowing that because of the recent failures the weak goblins feared punishment. A good way to avoid punishment is to kill the punishers. The goblins were already at their breaking point and he gave them a needed push.
After the goblins finished stabbing their former masters to death, they turned to him. Vix waited, saying nothing.
“You are Vix! You are Vix!” The chants rang through the cave.
General Kent had sent three armies into the small country of Alta and all of them had failed. No, not only failed, the armies had been destroyed. He would have to answer for this and if he had to answer for these failures, he would punish those under him for theirs.
He may lose his position as General of the 1st eastern army group. He would rather lose his life, for without power he would be dead regardless. His enemies would pounce, his allies would abandon him if they had not already. He demanded an explanation by the troops on the ground, those who had not died that is.
“General Kent Valentine, I am here to report the status of the 3rd army.”
“Lieutenant General Bannan Geraldo, I am hoping for a satisfactory explanation. I am not pleased and our gods are restive.”
The man hid his nervousness well but sweat still lined his brow. “Sir, we ran into complications. At every step of the way our plans went wrong.”
“That is the way of war, yet it rarely leads to the defeat of three armies.” Kent failed to keep his voice down.
“Sir, I cannot speak for the other two armies. The worms we bred to attack the town had been killed by a force of unknown Worshipers. The dragon meant to back us up never appeared and three other armies met us on the battlefield. Lieutenant General Clovis failed to reinforce us because the Coalition defeated his army.”
He already had a report on what happened with the incompetent Clovis. He had the battle in the palm of his hand, then instead of securing his victory, he let his soldiers loot the undefeated city. He would not miss that fool, who only had his position due to old family connections.
“If everyone had to rely on Clovis to win battles, we would accomplish nothing. Still, you had many other advantages. I had bandits operating in both the Alis and Alea regions, some led by Coalition traitors.”
“Sir, I am aware but—”
“Also,” he raised his voice above the man. “I had planted many dragons knowing it would be a prime breeding ground. The enemy army would have to go through them too.”
Bannan had nothing to say. Kent had not ordered the lieutenant here just to yell at him. The situation was just too much. Zombies devoured one army, another defeated due to stupidity. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
“Bannan, are you able to regroup?”
“Something is going on with our goblin allies—”
“The ones you used to cover your retreat.”
Bannan winced at the rebuke. “Yes sir, those goblins. They have been rebelling. A goblin has been attacking their leaders and forming a power base. His name his Vix and his goal is to break off all alliances with humans and other monsters. All attempts to negotiate have failed.”
“They probably grew tired of being used as fodder.”
Realizing the conversation was not going his way and figuring that this was just an excuse to pin the blame on him, Bannan changed pace. “Sir, give me another chance! I have a plan.”
“Do you now?” For the first time since the conversation started, Kent grew interested.
“Much rivalry exists in the Coalition forces…like ours. Many of them believe they should not be lending aid to those who do not submit to their gods first or at least become a client state. We can use that.” Kent signaled for him to continue. “Now that the country has an army of its own and a militia force, we can set all of them against each other.”
“Turning it into a quagmire. If we can’t win nobody else will either.” Did he really want to dump more resources into that country? Yes, he had to save face. “You have my blessing. Take what you need. Do not fail me again.”
“Yes sir, thank you, sir, I won’t sir.”
Bannan left him to scheme. Now all he had to do is convince his superiors not to replace him.
Leyla Lewitz enjoyed victory when earned. She and her legion had won two great battles at Grayhaven and Ridgehill, at least that’s how the higher-ups spun it. They got lucky, that’s what really happened. An unknown force had attacked the Inimi encampment giving them enough time to regroup the Dwarves and counter-attack. It was the same with the Ridgehill battle, two whole armies showed up to lend aid. Others had won her battles, and she received credit for it.
Command had recalled her from the war to have honors and accolades heaped upon her. That is why she stood in the richly decorated hall of the great church. She kept her armor on instead of the required ceremonial garb, keeping it dirty where usually it would be sparkling. Leyla was sending a message, the war wasn’t over, and none should pretend that it was.
The high priest gave her a disapproving frown. “Commander Leyla against all odds crushed three armies of the evil Inimi! For her service, she receives this medal.” He attached the medal on her breastplate. She didn’t recognize it; a smith must have created it just for the occasion.
The audience of politicians, merchants, priests, soldiers, and even commoners clapped and cheered for a victory that wasn’t hers.
Later in her room, she drank devil’s water by herself. The electric candy drink was the best thing Alta had to offer. One of her knights, Vera, entered the room. “You skipped the after party.” She placed herself beside her.
“Knock before entering.”
“I did, you did not answer.”
“Then you should not have come in,” she did not mean to be rude but she wanted to be alone.
Vera traced her hand along her arms but Leyla pushed her away. “What is bothering you?”
“Is it me or us?” Vera’s lower lip trembled.
Damn, Vera didn’t deserve this it was not what she meant at all. “Nothing has changed between us; it is the state of the war that troubles me.”
Vera stared at her a moment, making sure she was being truthful about their relationship. “We won a great victory, the war is going well.”
“No, it is not, we are losing and not because our forces are lacking. While we have great military capability, too much of the army is lacking in character.”
Vera shifted on the couch. This was a topic she would rather not talk about. “Leyla, you should not talk about this.”
“It is because nobody talks of this that the problem persists. Two traitors were among our legion. The crimes they committed were unspeakable, yet we need to speak them.”
“The traitors are dead.”
“Not by our hands. If others take justice upon our soldiers into their own hands, we could have a rebellion.” They had no clue who killed the fire mage Asha, or the bandit Knight Gorin. They were not people a random Worshiper could defeat.
“I don’t want to bring your mood down any more but we do have a rebellion in the far west.”
“I knew it! This is because we tried to force our faith on them.”
“We provide protection, they should provide worship as thanks.”
Leyla cared for Vera but on this, they will never see eye to eye. Conversion at the point of the sword never works for long. Even the Inimi realized this, they were fine with having the people submit.
“I don’t like these rewards, but I will use my new gained influence to do this occupation right. This country will see the benefits of being in the coalition.” Alta’s new king would make a great ally or cause problems.
“Maybe don’t call it an occupation?” Vera helpfully added.
Leyla ignored Vera’s last comment.
Vera had not stopped trailing her fingers along her body. It had got her in the mood again. Grabbing the girl for a deep kiss, she began removing their clothes.
Next time victory would be hers; she would show everyone there was a better way to lead: her way.
Agents of the cult typically didn’t waste resources on small countries. However, accurate intelligence required they have at least one agent on the ground so Sheena got stuck with this dead-end post. However, things had changed recently in big ways.
First and most importantly, the Necromancer Yazid died in house arrest. The organization still had use for him and her superiors would not be pleased. Yet keeping him alive was not her responsibility, watching him was. They had only recently informed her of his existence, everyone else in the world thought he had already died.
Second, the god of Corpsewood had also died. Gods faded away and died more than most people knew, but this death was strange, this death was through assassination. Someone murdered a god, the result being the fairies also stopped disguising themselves as elves, renewing their relationship with the dwarves.
Third, and most importantly, the formation of a dungeon started and failed. She had sent furious reports of its growth but her superiors ignored her, insisting the miasma would dissipate naturally; how ridiculous.
What truly confused her was that she received no orders to further investigate these incidents. Instead, the mission changed from observation to active collection. Alta had a king for the first time in centuries. He called himself a prime minister, a simple head of state. He was playing his cards deftly; his people would reject a king but accept a steward of the country.
Sheena waited in an alley for her contact in the prime minister’s court. A courtesan, a fancy name for a whore. She had nothing against those who used sex for advantage, it was half of her job. But why did people feel the need to dress it up?
“The sun rises down,” the courtesan said. It was the code to prove it was her.
“The moon sets up,” she replied. Gods this was silly, but it was also protocol.
The woman revealed herself. Her clothes were of a fine cut fitting her figure perfectly. She should have worn something more modest for this meeting.
“What do you have to report, number 8?”
Sheena named her spies numbers to fool them into thinking she cultivated more spies than she truly had to let them know they were replaceable. Too many spies got self-important. Sheena did not mind spies using their position to advance their own interests if it didn’t conflict with her own.
She did things differently than other agents by not throwing away assets when they were no longer useful or inconvenient. Keeping old assets was how she recruited. All potential spies feared being disposed of. Sheena was able to bring old assets to testify to her legitimacy. It gave her an edge and soothed the remainder of her conscience somewhat.
“The king, the prime minister, is a mystery. He comes from no major house, in fact, people assumed his noble family no longer existed. The truth was that his family withdrew from politics selling almost everything, their lands, titles, and positions.”
“Odd behavior indeed. What of his personality?”
“Smart as a whip, without being condescending. He is well liked, even by his enemies. I saw him tell a lord to his face they would never be friends, but he hoped they could keep their conflict civil.”
“Do you believe his enemies want him dead?”
“No, they are jealous of his position but they do not covet it.”
It made sense. Past leaders of the country did not last long, having gained their positions by being pawns of larger nations. And Alta had few lords to help enforce their rule to start with.
Sheena renewed her questioning. “Weakness?”
“Naturally. Have you formed a relationship?”
“No,” number 8 said, disappointed. “He does not keep a mistress, choosing to rotate between several women. I have gotten close to one of his generals instead.”
“The general of the army camped outside Ridgehill.”
“Yes.” Number 8 paused for a moment. “What is our goal for this king?”
Spies did this sometimes, they wanted to know the bigger picture, to influence events, to be super spies. Sheena had no answer for what the cult wanted with the king.
“That is need-to-know for now. Focus your charms on the general, become someone he wants to show off to his friends. Alta has not had a real army in decades. If this general is skilled, he may become close to the king. This will be your path to the king's court.”
Sensing the meeting was over, the woman left. Sheena would stay in Yorkwick. Something else was going on while this war was being waged and she would find out what and who was responsible.