When they removed the bandage from Ryoka’s leg, the other adventurers flinched back. All except for Ceria and Calruz, that was.
Ryoka stared down into the bloody, ripped mess of skin and once again was profoundly grateful for the numbing magic they’d put on her leg. Gerial looked pale as he gathered up the bandages. They were soaked with blood and grime, but they were still valuable.
Ceria reassured the others. She fished out a red potion and uncorked the bottle.
“That’s what happens when you move bone around. But now the leg can be healed properly since the bone is repaired. Let’s heal—”
Calruz caught her arm, and for a second, Ryoka wondered if this was revenge for getting punched. She wasn’t in too much pain compared to before.
She could actually tell her bone was intact, not, you know, shredding her flesh with every passing moment. But the distinction was crippling delirium compared to an open, shredded leg—
“Give me the potion. What’s the hold up? Come on—”
Ryoka hissed through gritted teeth, but Calruz was eying the bloody, messy wound. Surprisingly, not much pus or other nasty fluids; the [Healer] had cleaned it and put on what they claimed would stop an infection.
“We must clean the wound first. A healing potion can accelerate an infection—”
“Dead gods, he’s right.”
Ceria lowered her arm and cursed, and Gerial bit his lip.
“That would not be…a good outcome.”
Ryoka looked from face to face.
“Infection? What? Healing potions accelerate infections?”
“That’s one of the reasons why adventurers can’t heal everything. That and poison stops healing from working properly. Hey, Pisces—Pisces!”
The [Necromancer] turned from counting his gold coins a ways off.
“Does this building have anyone in it? Can we get some hot water? Or just water? We could boil our canteen water I guess.”
“We have cooking supplies. Calruz has them in his bag of holding.”
“I could inquire within, but the owner is out.”
“Who runs an inn with just one person? Nevermind. Uh—thanks.”
The half-Elf was awkward with the [Necromancer]. He sniffed and glanced at Ryoka archly. Ceria’s past with him, whatever it was, made the two stiff and grudgingly respectful. At best.
“The Minotaur is correct, Springwalker. Clean the wound. Too bad you never took that alchemy class, eh?”
He smiled—and Ceria’s face froze up. Her eyes flashed.
“Go to Rhir, Pisces.”
His smile disappeared instantly. Ryoka thought he’d meant it as a joke or…whatever the case, the [Necromancer] reddened and stepped back. He whirled away as the Horns fell silent—then stopped.
“Vinegar. Or soap. Hot soap and water.”
Calruz looked up, and Ryoka, biting her lip hard, glanced up. Pisces sneered at them.
“Wash the wound. I know soap is not what you put on a wound—it doesn’t matter if you’ll heal it. Wash any grit straight out. Do hurry, though. The longer the wound is exposed, the sooner it will fester.”
He was right. Ryoka’s own germ knowledge made her clench her teeth—and the Minotaur already had a kettle going over a magical flame that the [Mage] Sostrom was producing with his staff.
“We’ll have to dump it over the wound. Ryoka Griffin, do you need something to clench with your teeth?”
“Do it. I’ll be fine. This—this is payback, isn’t it?”
“I assure you, it’s merely practicality.”
They had the kettle boiling quickly with the magical fire. Gerial gave Ryoka an arm to grip, but she clenched one hand.
“I’ll be fine. Just pour it on—fast.”
“Don’t burn her leg off. Just get that slime—grab my arm, Ryoka.”
Geria was remonstrating with Calruz. The Runner refused to.
“Yes—argh! Fuck you! I’ll kill you! You motherf—”
Ryoka’s screaming made Pisces glance back, even as he walked off across the Floodplains hills. Ryoka doubled over as the adventurers held her still, and Calruz spoke.
Carefully, the half-Elf poured the healing potion over Ryoka’s leg. It was a stronger, more expensive potion, so the effects began instantly once the liquid hit her flesh.
The scalding agony faded, and Ryoka let go of Gerial’s shoulder. She watched with nauseous interest as the flesh and sinew began to re-knit, shifting around like a bunch of worms. At this point, most of the Horns of Hammerad had to look away, but she kept watching. It was her body after all.
After about a minute, the top layer of skin began to close. Ryoka saw her flesh flow together to become smooth and whole. It was the most satisfying sight she’d ever seen.
Ceria tapped the bottle for the last drops of healing potion to fall out and then tucked it away in her belt.
“Looks good. I’m going to dispel the magic now. Ryoka, how does it feel?”
Ryoka shrugged. She was red-faced, mostly because of her reaction. She glanced at Gerial.
He winced; she must have really grabbed his shoulder. Ryoka turned back to Ceria.
“I can’t feel anything. But it looks good. Go ahead.”
Ceria nodded and grabbed the wand at her belt. She murmured a few words, and Ryoka listened for magical tongues, some deep magic—but all she heard was a disappointing normal voice.
“[Dispel Magic]. Alright, I’m ready to put the spell back. Ryoka? How’s it feel?”
All of the adventurers crowded close, alternating between staring at Ryoka’s face and her leg.
For a few seconds, Ryoka’s face was blank. Then, slowly, she stood up. She rested her full weight on both legs and then on her bad leg. She took one step and then two. Then—
“How’s it feel—”
Calruz nudged Gerial and cut the other man off. He watched as Ryoka took another step and then stretched her leg out. She gingerly tested her leg by taking a few forceful steps. Then she hopped up and down.
Ryoka spun on one leg. Then she jumped and kicked out with it before landing and doing a pivot-kick that cut the air. The adventurers blinked, impressed.
Hop, spin, kick, jump. Ryoka leapt about the grass like a monkey, or a martial artist if you wanted to be flattering. She did a cartwheel and then a spinning back kick. At this point, Gerial and the other adventurers were gaping openly, and that was before Ryoka started doing back handsprings and front flips.
“I take it you’re feeling better, Ryoka?”
The young woman stopped and grinned at Ceria. She flicked some sweat off her forehead.
“I’m great. Better than great.”
This time, Calruz was the one who was lost for words. Gerial had plenty, though. He stared openly at Ryoka.
“How did—I’ve never seen anyone do that.”
The other adventurers nodded in agreement, but one of the mages shook his head.
“I have. Tumblers and performers have those kinds of Skills. Do you have the [Performer] class, Miss Ryoka?”
She looked at him, mildly insulted.
“No, I’ve just got skill. You should see me do parkour or tricking.”
“It’s a type of running. Or—I guess you could call it a type of martial arts.”
Again, Ryoka had lost her audience.
“I’ve heard of that.”
Ceria nodded and smiled at Ryoka.
“You are full of surprises, aren’t you? And your leg doesn’t hurt? You don’t feel any twinges or pain?”
“Pisces did his work well, then. I thought he would. He might be an idiot, but he’s a competent one.”
Gerial cleared his throat.
“I’m glad. Well, uh, what should we do now? It’s been a long trip, and there’s the inn or Liscor…Ryoka, did you want to, uh, do anything?”
The Horns of Hammerad stared at Ryoka. She was practically vibrating with energy, unable to sit still.
“I’m going to run back.”
“I’ve gotta run. Sorry but—”
Gerial and the other Horns of Hammerad exchanged glances. The male [Warrior] nodded and grinned at her.
“We understand. I’ve broken bones before, too.”
Ryoka nodded. She was already looking at the wide, open plains. But then she looked back and hesitated.
“I don’t want to get in your way. I can probably find my way back on my own if you want to stay—”
This time, it was Calruz who interrupted. The Minotaur snorted.
“We’ll follow in the wagon and pick you up when you slow down. There’s over a hundred miles between here and Celum. Even I—you couldn’t run that far.”
She gave him a grin. Even now, with the best intentions in the world—his comment made something flare up in her chest. She put her hands on her hips.
He blinked at her, and Ryoka hesitated. Wait, wait, don’t—she tried again.
“Um, thanks anyways, though. But if you need to rest—I know you were up all night.”
“We’ll give the horses a stamina potion, don’t worry.”
The [Driver] was still waiting by the wagon. The half-Elf rolled her eyes and smiled at Ryoka.
“If you’re going to run, stick to the road. Monsters around here are fairly dangerous. Stay away from the big rocks. They’re actually giant monsters in disguise.”
All of the other Horns of Hammerad eyed Ceria askance. But Ryoka just nodded. Her entire body was coiled like a spring. But again, she paused before running.
“Thank you. I really mean it.”
“Enough words. Run already!”
Ryoka nodded at the adventurers. She gave them a rare, full smile, and at least a few hearts in the Horns of Hammerad skipped a beat. Then she took off.
Calruz must have had the idea to run with Ryoka, at least for a while, because he took off with her. He got ten steps before she’d left him completely behind. Ceria whistled softly as she saw Ryoka blaze through the grasslands.
“Let’s see if our [Wagon Driver] wants a break and get on the road if you want to follow her, Gerial. It looks like she’ll go at least forty miles before she runs out of steam.”
Gerial nodded and began ordering the Horns around, although they already knew what to do. Calruz stomped back, looking half-pleased, half-disgruntled.
“Fast. But that’s why she is worthy.”
Ceria eyed him while Gerial deliberately began fiddling with a blue potion he’d pulled from his pack.
“It’s worth repaying our debt to her, but it’s too bad we can’t stay in Liscor, Calruz. You know those new ruins are nearby. It might be worth getting the drop on the other adventuring teams and exploring it first.”
He shook his head.
“Not without a full-fighting party. There’s a reason none of the cowards around here have dared breach the upper levels yet. If we come back, it will be after we know what monsters have been sighted there and our wounded have recovered.”
“Practical, I suppose. I’m just surprised to hear that coming from you, Calruz.”
Calruz eyed Ceria irritably.
“Why? Because I am a Minotaur?”
Her gaze didn’t waver.
“No, because you’re you.”
He snorted and grinned. The Minotaur was one of the Beriad, whatever that meant, and he sometimes showed his talents. Such as now as he eyed Liscor in the distance.
“I’m no fool, and the Horns of Hammerad aren’t Gold-ranked. Not yet. A proper strike force will take setting up. Let alone the provisioning. We will wait. Now, let us follow the quick Ryoka Griffin.”
The female [Mage] groaned as she climbed into the wagon.
“Another day and night of riding. Too bad we couldn’t stay at the inn.”
Calruz eyed the currently empty inn and shook his head.
“Bah, it doesn’t look that inviting anyways. It’s got holes in the roof, and if the [Necromancer]’s a customer, I shudder to think what the rest of the guests are like. Let’s go!”
The Horns of Hammerad set out, travelling down the central slope and for several miles until they found the main road. They kept going for an hour before Gerial raised his head and sniffed from the driver’s seat.
“…Does anyone smell smoke?”
Ryoka ran. She ran through the grass and kicked off the ground. With every step, she felt like she was being reborn. And she was running fast, perhaps faster than she’d ever run before. Her wings were back.
She crested a hill, stormed down it in half a second, and then hit the flat ground before another crest made her dig into the soft grass. The bumpy landscape of the area was perfect for muscle training, if she’d been so inclined. But as it was, Ryoka was just enjoying the feeling of running again.
She kept to the main road. Even with all the passion in her soul, Ryoka wasn’t about to risk running into whatever monsters Ceria had mentioned. She eyed the large, immobile rocks as she ran and wondered what was living underneath them.
At this time of day, the road was actually crowded with a few travellers. Ryoka either hadn’t seen them in her delirious ride to Liscor, or it had been too late at night/early in the morning. But now she saw merchants riding in armed caravans, farmers sitting on wagons, and even the lone traveller. Some were Human. Most were not.
Giant lizards. Hairy dog-people. Ryoka would have stopped and stared—or discreetly observed them—but the fire of running was burning her from the inside out. She ran at a good distance from the road as she flashed by the travellers. In turn, they stared at the Human running by them with undisguised curiosity and amazement.
Merchants, traders, travellers, peddlers, caravan guards, farmers, and the occasional group of adventurers all travelled the road to Liscor. Oh, and one more group.
Ryoka blitzed by a party of Gnolls, who sniffed and turned their heads almost too late to see her go by when she saw the group of armed Drakes. They reacted to her presence by reaching for their weapons, but when they saw it was just a lone Human, they relaxed. All except for one, that was.
Her legs and body were still fine, but Ryoka was thinking of slowing down to conserve energy when she saw the blur move out of the group of guards and chase after her. She heard the whoops and cheers of the Drakes and realized one of them was trying to race her. Ryoka looked over her shoulder.
A green blur was charging after her. It was one of the guardsmen, a big Drake with a spear on his back. Another one of the bonehead types who thought they could outrun her just to show off to their friends. She increased her pace. And…so did he.
He was fast. Ryoka sensed him behind her, and then he was right next to her. She gaped as he appeared by her side, giving her a smug grin. He was huge, and he was carrying a weapon and wearing armor, but he still was nearly as fast as she was. Nearly.
Her feet dug into the soft grass. Ryoka increased the tempo of her legs and went into overdrive. The Drake blinked as she accelerated. He tried to speed up, and for a few seconds, he managed to keep pace. But Ryoka had wings on her feet, and this was her first run in nearly a week. He might as well have tried to catch the wind.
“Hey! Wait! No fair! Let me take off my armor! And my boots!”
He began to shout, panting, and she laughed at him without slowing down.
How fast was she going? Ryoka saw the travellers on the road blur and then disappear with each step. She was in a completely different world of her own now, and even the insanely fast Drake couldn’t keep up. This was her world, a world few people would ever know.
For a second, Ryoka wished her iPhone were working so she could listen to some music or record herself running for one of the compilation videos on Youtube. But then she left those thoughts behind. She ran.
The guardsman fell behind. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t keep up with her. Ryoka turned her head and flashed him a smile for a good race. He desperately pumped his arms and his legs, but his weird speed was no match for her. And his posture was terrible.
Wait. Was he wearing armor? And carrying a spear?
She heard him call out after her, but Ryoka had hit the zone, and she couldn’t be stopped. She ran on and smiled into the breeze. The feeling was back. She was back.
She was free.
Relc gave up running when the female Human was over a hundred feet ahead of him. Disgusted, he ground to a stop, tearing up the grass with the force of his momentum. A nearby caravan of Human traders stared in amazement at him, but that was only because they were far too late to admire the runner still sprinting in the distance.
Frustrated, the Drake pulled his spear out and stabbed the ground. This was a first. He’d never—well, seldom ever been outrun. And never by a Human. He stared at Ryoka’s tiny back with a hint of admiration in his eyes.
Then he turned and began trudging back to the group of guards he’d left. They were several miles away. Relc grumbled about the inconvenience, conveniently forgetting he’d been the one to challenge Ryoka to a race. He took one more glance into the distance, but couldn’t see Ryoka’s figure anymore.
“Humans. Huh. I wonder if Erin knows her?”
Somewhere around the same time, Erin Solstice wasn’t shopping. Nor was she in Liscor. In fact, she’d left the city several hours ago. Right now, she was lost.
Not completely lost. She knew where Liscor was—roughly. She could follow the mountain range to get to it and therefore back to her inn. So she wasn’t lost in the grand scale of things.
But on a closer, localized level, she was very lost. In fact, Erin would go as far as to say she was completely lost.
She’d left The Wandering Inn behind with her supplies and then…
It was like stepping into a maze, but instead of the walls being vertical, they were all horizontal. Erin frowned. Did that make sense?
The hills and valleys of the grasslands were nearly indistinguishable from the flat ground at a distance, and the uniform long grass made things worse. Erin had to navigate using what little landmarks she could see by.
For instance, there were helpful rocks in the distance…except they occasionally moved around, and getting close to one was a bad idea. Oh, and the grass changed from green to yellow to orange and even purple in lovely patterns!
…Too bad that changed every day. So yes, Erin had little to navigate by other than the mountains and the few objects tall enough to be seen from every hilltop. This place really wasn’t that diverse in local fauna; most of it seemed hidden by the tall grass.
There were patches of red and white flowers that Erin saw now and then in this area, but she had a bad feeling about them. A little bell seemed to go off every time she bent down to pick one up in her head.
At least, it was probably that. It could just be a random bad feeling, but that was pretty much the same thing when you got down to it. Either way, Erin had decided not to try and smell the pretty flowers.
She looked around as she walked through the grasslands. This was amazing. In more than one sense. For one thing, she’d just spotted a road a few miles to the left. A road. She had no idea Liscor even had a road!
Well, that probably wasn’t that big a surprise. But Erin had just realized how narrow her little world had been. She’d practically lived only in her inn and occasionally in Liscor without exploring any other direction. And why?
Oh yeah, because of the monsters. Well…there weren’t any she could see. Erin wasn’t too far away from the main road, and Selys had said that was the safest area. She’d made Erin promise to stay close to the area the Watch patrolled.
But now, Erin had found a forest, and she was going to explore it. Because it was a forest. Literally the only trees Erin had found aside from the blue fruit trees. But these looked like proper trees…except they were missing all their leaves. Long, oddly wide branches criss-crossed some vaguely fir-like trees, which had a lot of dark blue-green leaves scattered at the base of the forest in a wide area.
Sturdy, in short, but they’d already lost their leaves. This could have something to do with the season. Apparently, it was around fall, closing in on winter. Erin hadn’t believed it, but Selys had assured her it was true. Apparently, the mountains made it so that the seasons didn’t hit the area around Liscor as hard or something because it wasn’t that chilly.
“Or maybe this is like Florida or California. No snow, no searing heat. That’d be nice. No, wait, Florida’s got muggy mosquitoes and crocodiles. Michigan rules. Yep, yep.”
Erin muttered to herself as she approached the dry-looking trees. It was a lovely forest and not too far away from her inn. Only…forty minutes if she walked straight? Okay, that was a good distance, but only because Erin was on foot.
Hm. The brown wood of the trees was definitely brighter in color than the ones back in her home. They actually looked closer in color to how trees were drawn, not how they actually looked with all the dark bark, moss, and whatnot. Erin wanted to go closer, but then a bell went off in her head.
The [Dangersense]. It had been dinging whenever Erin thought about going close to the flowers, but now it clearly and definitely rang out in her mind. From a little dinging bell to, say…a fire alarm. That level of difference. It was like a bad feeling in her gut—except in her head. And it told Erin that she did not want to get closer to the trees.
Erin quickly stepped back. Something was wrong with the forest. But what? They were just trees. But was something living in the forest? In the trees?
Cautiously, Erin reached into the bag she was carrying with her. She’d brought a small rucksack loaded with a few essentials for a day-long exploration. It hadn’t been too expensive, and she had wanted to be prepared. It wasn’t as if she were completely reckless like Selys and Krshia clearly thought she was.
Erin rummaged with one hand as she kept an eye on the forest. It was hard to feel around in her bag without looking, especially because she wanted to keep a certain item in there from breaking. Where was it…?
She’d brought a flint and steel and tinder, which she actually knew how to use in case she needed to make a torch. Not that she planned on exploring any caves, but it seemed like a practical choice. There were also bandages, but Erin didn’t want them. Her hand rummaged through the rucksack blindly.
She also had a long knife in a leather sheath she’d bought from the Adventurer’s Guild. They sold a number of items for adventurers behind their counter, and once Selys realized Erin wasn’t going to be dissuaded, she’d insisted Erin take one.
And a healing potion, of course. It was expensive—nearly a gold coin even for a weak potion, but Erin would have bought one regardless of the price. She’d learned her lesson.
Something smooth. That was the hand mirror. Apparently, this was an adventurer’s tool to check for injuries like poison barbs or in case of basilisk attacks. Whether or not basilisks actually existed…Erin had figured she could use a mirror anyways.
She’d bought it because she really wanted one, but the thought of a grizzled warrior checking out his appearance was also pretty funny.
Erin had laughed, but then Selys had told her about how some bugs could sink into an adventurer’s skin and lay eggs that would hatch and eat them from inside out. That had been disgusting and made Erin feel like a jerk for laughing. But it still hadn’t stopped her from exploring, especially after Selys admitted those insects didn’t live anywhere near Liscor.
Selys didn’t seem to get it. Come to that, Krshia didn’t really get it either. The Gnoll seemed to think Erin was trying to avenge Klbkch. She’d offered to come along to ‘hunt’ with Erin, but Erin had refused.
None of them really understood. They thought Erin was crazy, and she probably was, but her reason made sense to Erin. This was something she had to do.
Erin broke off and shook her head. What was she doing? Erin stared blankly at the object she’d pulled out of her pack. Oh, right.
She was holding a rock. In fairness, it was a nice rock. Rough around the edges, true, but a prime specimen of a rock nonetheless. Erin could hold this rock and know it was definitely made of stone. It was nicely heavy too, and it was her prime defense against anything.
Erin hefted it and squinted at the tree. Hm. She backed up until she was around fifty feet away. That seemed safe enough. Then she lifted the rock, took aim, and threw.
Erin had never played baseball as a kid. It was a boy’s game, at least where she’d grown up, and they were all jerks when it came to letting girls have a turn. But she’d played catch now and then, and there were plenty of baseball games on TV that she would occasionally watch. In short, Erin had a pretty good idea of how fast a baseball could be thrown.
The rock she tossed had about the same velocity as a fastball. Not a major-league fastball, the kind that could dent metal or kill people but—actually, this was a rock. It could totally kill people, even at Erin’s slower velocity.
And it had perfect accuracy. Erin watched the rock she’d thrown strike one the trees dead center, hard enough to dent the bark. Another Skill. [Unerring Throw]. With it, Erin literally couldn’t miss.
The rock fell to the ground. Erin watched the tree. The branches were shaking from the impact, but nothing else happened. Maybe there wasn’t anything living in the trees after all. Or maybe it was hiding or only lived in certain trees or somewhere deeper in the forest. Or maybe—
Waitaminute. Erin froze. The branches were still quivering long after the impact. Why were they doing that? But the tree seemed to flex and—
Her body was diving, so Erin didn’t see what happened at first—just the roar of sound like a thousand popcorn kernels exploding. Popcorn kernels the size of car tires with the sound of a car backfiring, maybe. And the tree erupted into…
Fireworks. Each branch and twig on the upper section of the tree instantly and spontaneously exploded outwards like a shrapnel bomb going off. Acorns, pieces of bark, and small bits of the branch fired outwards, thousands of bullets.
Erin dove to the ground as the deadly wooden hail rained around her. She was lucky. The explosion was far enough away that most of what hit her had lost its momentum. She felt bits of wood showering her as she covered her head with her hand. A few sharp impacts struck her clothing—but Erin was mostly just terrified.
Only when she was quite, quite sure everything had stopped did Erin look up.
The tree was completely denuded of bark and most of its smaller branches. It stood among its fellows, the pale yellow-green-white of its trunk showing. Around it in a hundred meter radius, bits of the tree lay on the grass.
Shakily, Erin got to her feet. She felt something trickling down her face and touched at her cheek. Something—an acorn—had cut a shallow gash down her left cheek. She looked at the blood on her fingertips and tried not to throw up.
It was only after she’d put at least a mile between her and the exploding trees that Erin stopped to call herself twenty kinds of stupid. Then she decided never to ever go near anything tree-related again without a flamethrower. Monsters were one thing, but this—
Erin sighed and sat down on a small hill. Well, that was probably why no one explored around this area. Exploding trees. Unless you were wearing armor—and even if you were—those things were deadly. She imagined what would happen if Rags and her Goblin friends tried to gather firewood from the trees and shuddered.
Curiously, her near-death experience left Erin ravenous. She opened her rucksack and fished around cautiously inside until she pulled something squishy out. She unwrapped the wax paper and revealed a slightly squashed sandwich. Apparently, Drakes weren’t the biggest bread-fans in the world—and neither were Gnolls.
Oh, they respected the stuff enough to make sandwiches, but Erin had learned that they were closer to carnivores than Humans. But their sandwiches still tasted great. This particular sandwich had mustard, or something sweet that tasted vaguely like it, cheese, and a lot of meat. Erin devoured it and then wished she hadn’t eaten so quickly. She clutched at her stomach, and then she saw the spider.
It was a large spider. It had a bright yellow pattern on its back, almost like a melted skull or face, yellow and brown. The back carapace was twice as wide as a tennis racket, and huge legs crawled the spider forwards as its black eyes, dozens of bulbs staring blankly ahead, let it scuttle through the grass while seeing in every direction. A large—no, huge spider. And it had—
“Oh god. Is that armor?”
Maybe it wasn’t armor. Maybe it was. But the yellow and black pattern on the spider’s back made the thick layer of…carapace look even more sinister than it was. It looked like a blown up house-spider with plated armor, especially in the way the plating covered the giant spider’s legs and the top of its body. Erin was pretty sure it was armor.
The spider clicked its mandibles together as it approached Erin. She froze up, but then grabbed her rucksack and scrambled away. The spider scuttled faster, and Erin backed up even faster.
She turned and ran. That was, until Erin’s [Dangersense] went off like alarm bells. She stopped in place. What was—
It was nearly too late. Erin was just about to take another step when she noticed the odd way the ground seemed flimsy in front of her feet. She took a look behind her—the armored spider was still a ways away. She kicked at the ground, and it collapsed.
A huge pit opened up in front of Erin. The fake earth—in fact, some kind of green amalgam of dead grass and sticks—fell down, and Erin stared down into the face of hell. A nest full of spiders. And eggs.
They were everywhere, tiny spiders, big spiders, and eggs. So many white egg sacs that lay on the ground and walls of the massive cavern like obscene fungi. And as the trap ground fell in, they all surged into frantic motion. A writhing horde of legs skritched together as they swarmed the bits of dirt right below Erin.
Spiders began scurrying all over the huge nest, scurrying all over each other as they searched for the prey that had fallen into their nest. Their pincers opened and closed, revealing fleshy…insides, biting at the air hungrily. Meanwhile, the prey standing at the edge of the nest backed away in horror.
It was only when she heard the scuttling of the other armored spider that Erin remembered it was behind her. She turned, screamed, and ran around the edge of the pit. It followed her, but interestingly, the other spiders in the cavern below didn’t. They were still mindlessly swarming around the ground, protecting the eggs and searching for something to eat. But the large one was still hunting her.
She ran. It followed. Slowly, quietly. Even after Erin had run several hundred meters, she could turn around and still see it approaching. And then she realized it wasn’t going to stop. It was a premonition. The spider was going to follow her until she stopped.
So Erin slowed from her run to a walk. She turned around and took the rucksack off her back. Erin reached inside and pulled out two things: a rock and a small jar stoppered up extremely thoroughly. She placed the jar at her feet in the grass and hefted the rock.
It was stupid to go exploring. Selys had told her that a hundred times. Krshia had said the same thing, but she’d suggested coming along with Erin with a few more Gnolls. Erin had shot down both ideas. She had to do this alone.
Maybe it was going to kill her, but Erin had woken up screaming and crying every night since Klbkch died. So she didn’t run. She picked up the rock and aimed at the spider.
Its head was black, and Erin couldn’t make out any features. Just the bulbous eyes, like a fungoid growth—no pupils and, somehow, even less like a person’s face than the Antinium’s multi-faceted eyes. She expected the spider to have large jaws or something, but the pincers were small. It was still oversized and horrific.
“I’d say stop, but you don’t understand me, do you? Last chance!”
The [Innkeeper] shouted just in case the spider could hear her. It slowed…slightly, and she wavered, but the spider then began to scuttle even faster. Erin waited another second, then hurled the rock at its head.
The stone smashed into the spider’s head and crushed one eye. Greenish blood oozed from the broken orbs as Erin recoiled. The spider reeled back and emitted a high-pitched noise that Erin could only half-hear. For a second, she thought it had worked and the spider would run. But then the spider ducked low to the ground and advanced.
Its remaining eyes stared blankly at her as green ooze ran down its face. Now Erin knew spiders bled. But the armor covering the spider’s head hadn’t even cracked from the rock. Erin stared at the spider. It was coming.
Huge. Nearly half as tall as she was—albeit long on the ground. Every instinct in Erin was telling her to run. But she didn’t. If she ran, it would follow her.
If she ran far enough, maybe she’d be able to get to the city before she ran out of energy. Maybe she’d run right into another pit trap. But either way, someone would have to kill the spider. If not her, then a guardsman. Relc or Pisces. Or even Rags. Someone would have to fight in the end, and someone might die.
So Erin didn’t run. She held her ground and stared at the spider. It would kill her or she would kill it. She knew that would be the case, and she didn’t run. Because that was the reason she was out here.
To never see someone die protecting her. To never hold them in her arms and hear their last words. To never cry and feel guilt without end.
To never be weak again.
So instead of running, Erin picked up the glass jar she’d placed in the grass. She threw it at the charging spider.
The jar broke, and the green liquid covered the armored spider. This time, however, it wasn’t the impact that mattered.
The spider slowed as the green liquid covered it and instantly began to smoke. This time, its screech was longer, more protracted.
Acid. Acid from the Acid Flies. It ate away at the spider, and Erin saw smoke rising from its armor. The acid bit into the spider’s armor, but again, it wasn’t enough. The spider curled up on the grass as smoke rose from its armor and clawed frantically at its ‘face’. But then the smoking eventually stopped and the spider got up.
Of all the—Erin had been sure that the acid from the flies would have dissolved her flesh in a moment. But it occurred to her—belatedly—that of all the species endemic to this area, spiders would be the one species resistant to their natural prey—flies!
Too late to regret not taking two jars. Erin waited. She’d blinded the creature, but now she was fighting a half-blind spider covered in acid that ate away flesh. It approached, and she saw the yellow and black plated exoskeleton was pitted with the green of the Acid Flies. But it wasn’t enough.
Erin reached into her pack and drew out the knife. She threw it, and the blade spun through the air and bounced off the spider’s head. Useless. Erin emptied the rucksack and wrapped it around one hand. She walked forward slowly.
Her ears were pounding. Blood and her crashing heartbeat drowned out everything else. The spider hesitated as Erin walked towards it. It touched the ground delicately with one foreleg and tried to circle. Erin didn’t. She walked towards it. Her eyes stared at a monster scarier than anything else she’d ever seen in her world. But she didn’t run.
Erin stopped a few feet away from the spider. Her pulse was electric; her stomach was missing. She looked down upon it, and the spider hesitated. Erin spoke to it.
“I’ve held a dying friend and known pain. Try and kill me. You can’t eat a broken heart.”
She raised her fists.
“Come on. I’ll bury you deep.”
A wind blew down from over the mountains. It was a strong wind, but tired. After hundreds of miles, the gale that had blasted across the sea was no more than a whisper. But it was enough. It carried smoke and burning on the wind.
The female adventurer stopped and looked to the north. The wind blew the dreadlocks of her hair, and she brushed at her eye. The smoke was irritating, but she had learned long ago to see even in sandstorms.
She had never been here, not along the High Passes. She had often seen the mountain range, but hither-to this day, she had never been allowed to walk this far north on Izril’s land. It would have taken an army to bring her this far, before. She would have been an enemy, and reaching this spot would have meant a triumph, half a continent taken by force of arms.
…These days, no one contested her simply because of her reputation and because all wars had ended long ago. These days, she searched for something unique, and even the geography of places she had not been did not excite her.
She had seen every wonder, ridden across great nations, fought in the greatest wars of this generation, and seen millions bend knee, if not to her, then to the man she rode behind. Smoke, this mildly unique geography, held little intrinsic interest to her anymore.
Still, it was curious because she’d heard no one lived out in the wilds. Perhaps a [Hunter]? She had all the time in the world, so the adventurer walked towards the smoke. She didn’t bother drawing the large sword resting along her back in a huge sheath. She couldn’t carry it at her side because the blade was too long.
She had no need of it yet. Her confidence was not unfounded either.
The woman wore armor made out of some dark metal. Not dark in the sense of jet-black iron or the lightless color of obsidian—just dark, orange-brown metal. From afar, it almost looked like rust, but the armor wasn’t rusty. In fact, it was fairly clean—it was just the metal that gave off that impression.
It had never been broken. Not by magic or force of arms, and she had worn it for decades. It was like the adventurer’s second skin, and it did not impede her movement as she strode towards the smoke. But she stopped as she saw the spider.
It was crawling up from a hole in the side of a hill. Burning wood had been placed around the gap, but the spider was determined. It shoved its way past the fire, screeching horribly and smoking. When it saw the female adventurer, it reacted instantly. The spider lunged.
The adventurer drew her sword and cut twice. The spider fell to the ground, legs and abdomen severed. Yellow pus oozed from its backside as the adventurer studied it.
“Kingslayer Spiders? No—Shield Spiders.”
She left the Shield Spider where it lay. The adventurer continued onwards, and upon reaching the top of the hill, she saw the main source of the black fumes.
A large pit was giving off black smoke. Orange sparks and a terrible red glow lit the edges of the pit like a gateway to some abyssal plane. But that wasn’t what drew the adventurer’s eye.
A girl was sitting by herself at the edge of the smoking pit. She stared into it, ignoring the small campfire on her right. She was hugging her knees as she stared down. She did not see or hear the second spider crawling up behind her.
It lunged. The adventurer gripped her sword, but the girl at the edge of the pit moved like lightning. She rolled sideways even as the Shield Spider launched itself at her back. The momentum carried the spider over the ledge and into the smoking hole. The adventurer heard an agonized shriek from the spider as the girl went back to sit at the edge of the hole.
Cautiously, the adventurer approached. Not out of fear for herself, but she was studying the girl with a great deal of confusion. Her eye narrowed as she appraised the girl. And she was a girl, especially to the adventurer.
As she moved closer, the girl looked up at her. She was Human. She didn’t stand up, but merely angled the thing at her feet more precisely.
A small mirror lay in the grass in front of the girl, reflecting the landscape behind her. It was propped up on a small backpack, or what remained of one. In truth, it was more like a pile of cloth scraps.
The adventurer eyed the girl. She seemed unharmed. But she also didn’t appear inclined to chat. So the adventurer cleared her throat.
The girl didn’t glance up. She hugged her knees and stared down into the smoke. Curious, the adventurer drew closer. Her hand wasn’t gripping her sword, but neither was she unwary.
Now that she was only a few feet away, she could feel the heat radiating out of the pit. It was intense, but it was a fire in its final stages. Clearly, the fire had been going for quite some time, but again, that wasn’t what drew the adventurer’s attention. No, it was the many shapes that lay curled up at the bottom of the fiery pit.
They lay in droves, their armored carcasses smoking and burning horribly in the flames that danced around the edge of the hole in the ground. Some had tried to climb. They hung, dangling, their legs still planted in the dirt walls where they had perished.
“A nest. I have heard they are a hazard around here to travellers.”
“Yeah. It’d be bad if you fell in without seeing it first.”
The adventurer blinked her eye at the girl.
“Did you do this? By yourself?”
“May I ask how?”
The Human girl paused. She rocked back and forth for a while before responding.
“I closed off all the entrances with dried grass and wood. Then I started tossing burning branches into the pit.”
“Where did you get the wood?”
“There’s a forest over there. Bunch of trees and lots of dead wood.”
The adventurer glanced over in the direction the girl was pointing. She nodded.
“Krakk trees. They do burn well, but you were lucky none of them exploded. They do that quite often, and the shrapnel is deadly.”
“They did explode.”
The adventurer raised an eyebrow. She looked at the girl with one eye and then opened several more to study her more fully.
“I threw rocks at the trees until they exploded. Then I picked up the branches. It’s not dangerous if you make them explode first.”
“I see. Clever.”
One of the adventurer’s eyes glanced over to her right. At the corpse of the spider battered to death.
“Did you do that as well?”
“Few could best a Shield Spider with their bare hands.”
The girl shrugged again. She clutched at her arms unconsciously.
“It wasn’t hard. I flipped it and started stomping.”
“You have a Skill. [Lesser Strength]. Even so, I see you were injured.”
The girl—no, the adventurer saw her name was Erin Solstice—rubbed at her arms. The adventurer could see patches of regrown skin, almost invisible to any eyes but hers, covering her forearms.
“Yeah. I had a healing potion.”
“If you’d been bit, the potion would have done you little good. Shield Spiders have a decently strong venom.”
“Lucky I wasn’t, then.”
More silence. The adventurer was slightly surprised. She was used to silence, especially on longer journeys, but she was also used to conversation when she met people. At the very least, she expected questions about her appearance, but the girl had only glanced at her once. She was still staring into the burning pit.
“Shield Spiders are considered to be a Silver-rank threat. A nest of them though…I wouldn’t be surprised if a team of Gold-rank adventurers were dispatched to handle it.”
“Okay. Thanks for telling me.”
It was odd. Even in her journey north to this part—even on her dry continent she called home—the adventurer was used to people staring at her or reacting in some way to her appearance or her famous name. But the young woman just stared into the fiery pit. Quiet. The woman cleared her throat.
“You are a Level 11 [Innkeeper]. I am surprised you were able to accomplish such a feat. Few would be so brave, even ten levels higher. And you are no adventurer.”
That provoked a response. Two hazel eyes swung up and narrowed slightly, blinking in the smoke.
“How do you know that about me?”
“I see it.”
Erin stared into the pit for a while. She rocked back and forth.
“I wanted to see if I could fight. And the spiders—they were going to follow me.”
“Shield Spiders are notorious for tracking and killing prey across dozens of miles. You were wise not to run.”
“I guess. But I wanted to fight. To see if I could.”
The adventurer sat next to Erin. She felt the heat but was not bothered by it. Her eye stung, though.
“And? What have you learned?”
Erin was silent. She stared into the burning tunnels. Amid the crackling flames, she could hear the spiders screaming.
“…That I’m good at killing things.”
The adventurer was silent. Erin rocked. Back and forth. Back and forth.
“It’s strange. Up until this point, I never realized I was a murderer.”
The adventurer raised her eyebrow.
“Murderer? That’s an interesting word. I would not use it to describe you.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
The adventurer spoke as if she were reciting law, with pure confidence.
“Murder is the sin of taking lives that matter. We who fight such monsters are exterminators. Killers, perhaps; murderers, no. A murderer should not be suffered.”
Her eye narrowed, and Erin stared at it, then at her hands.
“I’m not like you. I’m no adventurer. And I don’t want to be. That’s what I learned.”
“Oh? Then why fight? [Innkeepers] don’t level from fighting monsters.”
Erin laughed shortly and without mirth.
“You guys all say the same thing. It’s always about leveling with you. That’s not what I meant. I—I’m a killer. But I don’t want to be. And I don’t want to be a warrior, either.”
The adventurer leaned back on her hands. She studied Erin with her eye. This was a far more fascinating conversation than hundreds she’d had in the last months.
“Then why fight? Why not run?”
“So I can defend myself. So I don’t get people killed for trying to protect me.”
“Ah. But you have done more than that. This nest was a threat to many. You eliminated it. You spoke truly: you do have a talent for fighting.”
Erin stared into the pit.
“I don’t want to be a killer. So I guess I’m stuck as an innkeeper.”
The adventurer didn’t follow her logic and shrugged her armored shoulders.
“You have talent in killing things. You might be a good adventurer, especially since you wiped out a nest by yourself. Why are you ashamed of—”
The adventurer broke off as Erin laughed harshly.
“Killing? That’s a terrible thing to be good at. No.”
She turned—and saw a toothy smile from the woman. A sharp one—for she had sharp teeth. Disappointed as well, for she disagreed.
“A talent for war is never wasted. What a shame you don’t see it that way.”
She stared at the adventurer, and the adventurer felt another mild surprise. There were few who could meet her gaze for long without flinching.
The woman closed one eye in a slow blink and inclined her head.
“My apologies. I didn’t want to offend you.”
“Too bad. This—this isn’t something to be proud of.”
Erin pointed down into the burning pit. She gestured at the spiders and the white egg sacks slowly burning away. The adventurer could still hear faint shrieks coming from inside the resilient webbing.
“I killed them.”
Erin whispered it.
“I killed them all. And they—they scream when they die.”
“They would have killed you.”
Erin stared as one of the egg sacs below opened up. Small spiders frantically clawed their way out of the webbing and shrieked as they found themselves in the burning pit. They scuttled down across the embers, burning, dying.
“Spawn. They are as dangerous as adults in numbers.”
The female adventurer shrugged. She felt like she was talking with a Djinni—this felt like a game of words and riddles, but this was just a burnt young woman.
“You might call them that.”
Erin looked down into the pit. She was silent for a minute. The spiders were running about, but the heat from the fire was less. They were dying, but dying slow. She saw one spider caught in the egg sac, frantically trying to escape.
“If you like, I can end them now—”
The adventurer turned to Erin to offer. She blinked as Erin leapt into the burning pit.
The smoke obscured Erin from visual sight for a few seconds, but the adventurer could still see her moving around in the pit. She saw Erin fighting through the flames, reaching for something. Then she was dashing towards the edge of the pit.
The girl scrabbled at the dirt and managed to get a foothold. But she was hindered by her burden. She managed to pull herself up to the ledge but couldn’t get any higher up. The adventurer stared down until she heard Erin speak.
“Are you going to pull me up?”
The adventurer reached down and effortlessly pulled Erin out. The girl was burned, but not badly from the few moments she was in the pit. She opened her left hand and showed the adventurer what she held.
A baby spider struggled and bit furiously at Erin’s fingers. She’d captured it from the top, so it couldn’t really get at her, but its sharp legs still scrabbled at her fingers.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“Dunno. I could raise it.”
“I wouldn’t. It would bite and consume you first chance it got. Shield Spiders cannot be tamed. Unless you had the [Beastmaster] class, this child will eventually take your life.”
“Yeah, probably. This was a stupid idea.”
Erin stared down at the spider in her hands. It was trying to bite her.
“…Sorry. Really, I am.”
She held it for another second until the spider’s legs cut open more of her fingers. Then she hurled it back down into the pit. The adventurer studied her. A tear rolled down Erin’s sooty face as she watched the baby spider burn.
“What a curious Human you are.”
“…Is that your way of saying I’m an idiot?”
“Not at all. But I have met many Humans. Many Humans and many races, but never one as curious as you. Many bolder or grander or more dangerous—but never one so oddly as this.”
“Thanks. I’ve never met anyone like you.”
The woman inclined her head. Then, she blinked one huge eye and the other four in rapid succession.
“I am part Gazer. It is in my ancestry. You may call me by the name others not of my race give me. Gazi.”
“Oh? I’m Erin Solstice. A…an [Innkeeper].”
“Yes, I saw.”
Gazi held out her hand. After a moment, Erin took it. It was odd for her to shake Gazi’s hand. For one thing, she had odd arms with another segment to them. But her skin was soft and smooth, even if it were reddish-brown. Really, even her hair looked pretty normal, black lengths tied into dreadlocks. It was only her face that really set her apart.
One huge eye stared out at Erin over a mouth filled with sharp teeth. Gazi had no nose. And around her central eye, four smaller eyes opened and studied her with interest. They were not the most unsettling eyes, though each one had a pupil unlike a Human’s. Long and even wobbling, not a perfect circle but an oval, long and lengthwise. The whites of her eyes were closer to a yellow, very faint.
Her gauntleted hand had four digits too, three fingers and a thumb, which she held out to the young woman.
“I am pleased to meet you, Innkeeper Solstice. I am an adventurer wandering through these lands.”
“Nice to meet you. Again. I’ve got an inn nearby. Would you…do you want something to eat?”
Another odd offer, but this one made Gazi smile. She nodded and stood in one fluid motion. Her central eye swiveled right, left, up, and down—even backwards into her head, but she fixed the other four on Erin.
“That would be most welcome.”
“Okay. Okay then. Follow me.”
Erin picked up the mirror on the ground. She left her sliced up rucksack behind and began walking away from the burning pit. She was…still dazed, but she pointed in the direction of Liscor.
Gazi stared down into the pit and back at Erin. She coughed, again, with mild amusement at the [Innkeeper] and gestured at the embers.
“Don’t you want to claim the bounty on the Shield Spiders before you go? Their carcasses will not burn up in the flames.”
Erin paused. She turned around.
“…There’s a bounty on Shield Spiders?”
Gazi Pathseeker searched her face for a sign of lies—but saw only genuine confusion. Confusion to something everyone knew—so the half-Gazer laughed. Softly, and her huge eye fixed on something creeping up over the hill behind them.
A Rock Crab was slowly climbing the hill, pincers raised. The half-Gazer stared at it through the back of her head and the hill and the crab’s shell, and the monster froze. It held still and sunk under the stone armor it hid behind as the half-Gazer talked to Erin Solstice.
The Rock Crab stayed there, as the two conferred, and didn’t move. It didn’t stop shaking until long, long after the two were gone.
Shield Spiders by Enuryn