Erin woke up to the noise that defined her life.
The sounds of chess.
It was a soft sound, most of the time—one she’d learned in all of its subtleties. Chess sounded different.
The board mattered, for one thing. Erin usually played with wooden pieces—the ones from the DGT electronic chess board manufacturing line. It was the board chess tournaments used because of the sensors and electronic timer wired into the board itself.
It even had a chess computer you could buy to play against. It was high-tech, and Erin didn’t like it.
She loved the sound and feel of stone pieces, like the one she’d bought for her inn and had in her personal collection in her home. Her home in the real world, her world, that was.
How seldom she thought of it. And her parents. It was almost as if…unless she thought, she forgot they had ever been. Was she just blocking them out as a self-defense reflex? It hurt Erin, wondering what they were doing and thinking, looking for her, worrying.
But today was a day for feeling pain. And she indulged her own worry, wishing she could tell them—anything—until the sounds drew her upwards.
The soft clicking of stone on stone roused Erin gently. She sat up and reached for the rag she’d left near her head and blew her nose.
Of course, stone chess sets were a lot more fragile, and it was inevitable that someone would drop a piece sooner or later. That was why she only brought it out if she was playing someone who held the same reverence for chess as she did.
Yes—the rhythm told her other things, too. This was a slower chess game because one player was worse than the other. You could almost feel it. One of the two players was decisive, confident, and skilled enough to back up their abilities. They moved almost as soon as the other player did. But the other one paused and hesitated.
Different sounds for different players. Erin remembered the sound of cheap plastic being slammed down by impatient players, ones who grew angry when they were losing and excited over small gains. Bad players? Young players. Amateurs.
Professional chess players got mad too, but in different ways. Sometimes they got loud, but many went cold and focused everything in a silent battle. You could almost tell when a game was getting good, yes. Not by the noise—
But by the silence.
But in this case, the game wasn’t good. Erin could tell that in the moment she walked out of the kitchen, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
Rags sat in front of a chess board, arms crossed while she stared at the skeleton sitting opposite her. Erin stared too. Toren’s presence threw her, but the chess—the chess was easy to understand.
It was a bad game. A very bad game. Rags had nearly all of her pieces—including her pawns—and Toren’s pieces were scattered.
Contrary to what people thought, a one-sided game wasn’t fun. Winning against an inferior opponent wasn’t fun.
Erin said as much after Rags effortlessly checkmated Toren’s king. Both Goblin and skeleton turned.
“I don’t know how you got him to play, but he clearly doesn’t know how to play.”
Rags shrugged indifferently as Toren sprang to his feet. Erin sighed. Her skeleton was playing chess. At this point, she wasn’t surprised.
Toren sat. Erin pulled a chair over and slumped down on the table, resting her chin on her arms. She stared at Rags. The Goblin was busy rearranging her side, probably in expectation of playing Erin.
The small Goblin looked—battered. Was she hurt? If she was, she didn’t show it.
“How many games did you play?”
Rags paused and thought. She held up both hands with all five fingers splayed out. Then she kicked Toren. The skeleton held out its fingers too, keeping two down.
“Eighteen games? That’s a lot. And how many did he win?”
Rags grinned. Erin snorted, but in some sympathy for the skeleton as it sat there.
“That’s what I thought.”
Then again, there were always a few players who relished beating down amateurs. Especially kids. Erin had been one of the whiz-kids, the child prodigies of chess growing up. She’d known a few kids her age that positively enjoyed bullying adults.
She, uh…Erin had to admit that a younger girl-Erin might have been one of those children at times. But she’d grown out of it. She thought she had.
It was a sign of immaturity. Erin frowned at Rags, and the little Goblin looked away, scowling. How old was she? How old was she in Goblin years?
“You should at least teach him how to play. Here.”
Erin pointed to another chess board, and Toren went to fetch it. Mechanically, she set up her side on both the boards facing her.
“I’ll teach you and get revenge, deal?”
The skeleton said nothing. But it sat obediently opposite Erin as Rags frowned at her board and carefully moved the knight forwards.
“It’s all about positioning, see? I don’t know if you saw me playing chess, but it’s a bit different than everyone thinks.”
Erin casually moved a piece on Rags’ board and then showed Toren.
“See this central area? Most openings or chess strategies revolve around capturing or controlling this spot. And that’s because your pieces need to move to get in position to attack the enemy. It’s not always about just killing other pieces. It’s about proper setup and luring the enemy into traps.”
She played a few moves with Toren, watching and commenting as the skeleton moved.
“Everyone—well, everyone where I come from—knows the basic openings. You have to if you want to play chess. But chess is as much about reading the opponent as it is setting up your board. You trick them, open holes in their defenses. There’s all kinds of ways to do that. Forks, pins, deflection, checks, skewers, batteries…”
She began chattering away, a chess enthusiast unloading on a hapless victim. Toren absorbed it all like a sponge as she played a very light game against him, letting the skeleton learn as it lost.
Rags muttered as she lost her queen. Erin pointed to Toren as he tried to move his king and shook her head.
“I’ll let you take that one back. Try not to move the king so much. You can castle him to move if you have to, but he shouldn’t be the piece you keep moving. That’s usually a bad sign.”
She smiled, nostalgia gripping her. She’d had to learn that the hard way, too.
“I know you want to because he’s so important and you want to keep him safe, but you do that with other pieces. They’re the king’s shield and sword. Yeah, you don’t move the king. Because—”
A flicker of memory. The words came out of Erin automatically.
“The king is smart and uses his head. For if he moves, he’ll soon be dead.”
Rags and Toren stared at Erin. She blinked. That was it. She remembered.
“Oh. Um. That was a little rhyme I made up when I was a kid. It—it’s important.”
It felt that way, but Erin couldn’t remember why. It was just a silly thing she’d made up. But—
“Where was I?”
She stared at the board and found she had a way to checkmate Toren. She showed him it and then glanced at the fuming Rags.
“Why don’t you try again? You’ll probably lose, but—”
Erin stared at Toren. It—he—it was an undead creature. Who knew how fast they could learn? It wasn’t as if he had a bad memory—he didn’t have a brain. Erin was suddenly gripped by curiosity, probably just as Rags had been. She wanted to see Toren play.
Carefully, she showed Toren a few classic openings and played slowly through another game as she crushed Rags again. Then she set up a board for the Goblin and skeleton and sat back.
“Do you get it? Let’s see.”
Rags and Erin waited. After a moment, Toren moved a piece. Rags countered. The game lasted for about sixteen more moves before she checkmated him.
“You don’t get it.”
Toren clattered his jaw. Erin sighed.
“Don’t try taking your rook out so quickly. Remember—capture the center at the start and reinforce. Try again.”
He did. Two games later, Erin had to face facts.
“Great. My undead skeleton sucks at chess.”
It wasn’t that he was bad, it was just—
Okay, he was bad. Erin saw it as she played Rags and Toren at the same time. He was just an amateur.
Which was totally fine. But it was a marked contrast from the Antinium and Rags. The Workers might have been inexperienced, but they were fast learners who memorized openings and counters with ease. And Rags was gifted.
Compared to that, Toren was just normal. Not hopeless—she could see his game had improved from the travesty it had been before her coaching. It was just that he had no spark.
Erin sighed. She took one of Rags’ knights and ignored the little Goblin hissing in anger.
It was a shame. But there was something in her that was still happy. Even if her skeleton sucked, he was still playing chess. Even if she was sitting in another world, in an inn playing against a Goblin, she was still playing chess.
That was good. It made her feel at ease. It was the only thing that made her feel happy, really. Because it was the only thing she was good at. It was the only thing she knew how to do.
Ceria and Gerial walked through the city, talking. They were alone. Alone in a sea of Drakes and Gnolls and the occasional Antinium.
They were outsiders. But then, adventurers were always outsiders. They were used to it.
And perhaps if it had been another week, another place, they would have been laughing, joking, and exploring a new city. But this was different. They walked and talked seriously, ignoring the hostile looks they got from the locals.
It was easy to be swept away in the inn they’d found. It was a soothing place, and far enough away that they could relax. But here, in the city, they were too close. The Ruins were several miles away from the city, but they might as well have been next to the adventurers. Their nerves hummed, and their hearts beat a little faster in anticipation of what was coming.
Ceria nodded. She touched the knife at her belt and felt the hidden wand strapped to her arm.
“Rot, I wish it were tomorrow. No wonder the other adventurers wanted to stay at the inn. I can’t relax at all, here.”
Gerial nodded. He stepped aside politely for a female Drake and ignored her as she flicked her tongue out at him.
“The, ah, local reception isn’t helping either.”
“Well, what do you expect? They don’t exactly like Humans down here, and I’m just another annoying adventurer. But that’s not what I’m talking about. You can feel it, can’t you?”
He could. Gerial was a veteran adventurer, and he sensed the same thing Ceria was tapping into. There was an undercurrent among the adventurers in the city. Fear—as well as expectation.
The Ruins of Liscor were a huge find, possibly the biggest in a decade. Untold and unplundered treasures were just waiting for the taking, the kind of rewards that could elevate any adventuring group into Gold-rank—or higher. But by the same token, the dangers were just as unknown.
“We still don’t know what’s down there. Cervial found someone who was willing to explore and map out the first level, but no one is willing to go any further.”
“And he hasn’t found anyone who’s ventured further?”
“No one who’s gone down too far past the stairs has ever come back.”
Gerial tugged at his belt unconsciously. His hand touched the pommel of his sword and then moved away as a Gnoll guardsman glanced at him.
That was it. That was the fear. Something was down there, and whatever it was, it was deadly. So much so that the treasure-lust of the other adventurers was being kept at bay.
What might be hiding down there? A bagrhaven? A nest of them, perhaps. But something that could kill a team of Silver-ranks without letting any of them live—
A trap? A colony of wurms? Some—some kind of undead army? Or—Gerial’s blood ran cold at the thought—had they dug up the burial site of one of the Old Things?
No. No, there was no sense in thinking of it. But that was the thing. Uncertainty was keeping these adventurers at bay. Once they knew what was down there, those who could take on the threat would band together and deal with it in a heartbeat. Adventurers would swarm over the ruins, stealing, fighting each other, trying to grab as much as possible.
All it took was the first, brave group who would uncover the secrets below and pay with blood. And for once, it was the Horns of Hammerad who would be paying that price.
Gerial blinked and jerked in surprise as the elbow caught him in the side. He glanced down at Ceria and saw she was staring up at him.
“Don’t go panicking on me, now. We’ll be fine, so stop worrying.”
He smiled, but Ceria’s jab had brought him back into reality. Casually, he rubbed at the spot she’d hit, wondering if he’d have a bruise.
“Someone has to worry. As far as our leader is concerned, this is going to be a simple extermination request, nothing more.”
Ceria made a face.
“Calruz is arrogant. But he’s confident and bold, which is why he’s perfect for a vice-Captain like you.”
Gerial felt the statement should have been reversed, but he smiled at the compliment anyways. Then he frowned.
“The [Illumination] spell. How’s it going?”
“My mastery of it is—incomplete. I’ll keep studying, but my best guess is that I’ll be able to cast it once and then I’ll need a mana potion. It’s too exhausting to use multiple times in a row.”
“Once should be enough. Just so we have an area permanently lit to fall back to.”
“We’ve got the formations worked out. Stop—”
“Yes, yes. And supplies are underway. It’s just—”
Ceria patted Gerial on the shoulder.
“I know, believe me. I’m feeling it too. But we’ve planned for as much as we can, and we’ll pull out the instant there’s trouble. Don’t worry.”
He smiled at her. It was reassuring to have someone as old as Ceria in the group with him. She was over sixty years old, and if she hadn’t spent all that time adventuring, he was still glad she was here. In truth, he felt it was she who should be the vice-Captain, but she’d always refused.
Mainly because she didn’t want to do all the logistical work.
Their talk turned to lighter things. Neither Gerial nor Ceria were new to adventuring or the risks of exploring dungeons. Gerial had been an adventurer for eight years—Ceria for fourteen.
“Say we do get gold and gems rather than a magical item. We have the largest shares after the Captains. What would you buy?”
Ceria smiled and eyed a few carved bracelets on display in a Gnoll’s shop. The large Gnoll woman eyed the half-Elf and bared her teeth politely, gesturing in an invitation. Ceria waved her hand, and they continued on.
“If I have enough, I’d like to buy another spell book. All the ones I have I’ve more or less mastered. With enough gold—a few hundred pieces more—I could buy a book with a few Tier 4 spells.”
“Just that? If the reward is all Calruz thinks it could be, you’d have a lot more money than that.”
Ceria raised an eyebrow at Gerial.
“You’ve never bought spell books, have you? Just one costs several hundred gold or thousands, and that’s for low-Tier spells. I’ve been saving up all this time just to buy one with a Tier 4 spell.”
“But if you leveled up your, um, [Mage] class, you’d learn those anyways, right?”
The half-Elf ran a hand through her hair distractedly. It was messy because she didn’t always comb it, and he resisted the urge to offer her his comb.
“Right, but—it’s complicated. There’s no guarantee which spells I’d learn, and besides, I’d need to level up quite a bit. But with a spell book, I could study a spell and learn it in a few months.”
“A few months?”
“A month, a year, two years—so what? If I mastered just one good spell, my Level would increase. And then we could take on stronger monsters.”
Gerial shook his head.
“A good thing I was never born with a talent for magic. I don’t have your patience—or your time.”
“Oh, and then what would you buy?”
“Armor. And a good sword. Or maybe just a magic ring.”
“Not too adventurous, are you?”
Gerial smiled as he shook his head, a warrior talking to a mage.
“A good set of magic armor? I’d be able to fight without worrying about some monster clubbing my helmet in every five seconds.”
“I suppose. It just seems like a waste, that’s all.”
“Every bit counts. If I had good armor, I could worry about other expenses. But that’s the first step.”
Money. It was such a simple thing. But it was the bane of an adventurer’s existence. They earned more than skilled workers, but to keep adventuring, they needed more. The Guild had its own fees for enrollment, armor repairs and healing potions were expensive, and an injury could leave one out of work for months. It was so hard to earn money.
“A good sword.”
Gerial murmured into his mustache.
“If I had that, I could polish my sword skills. Rank up. Start earning a Gold-rank adventurer’s pay…”
“And then perhaps you’d be able to talk to a certain Runner without needing me to push you, hm?”
Gerial turned red.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t. You Human—no, you males. Idiots who fall in love with the first exotic female you see. You and Calruz both.”
Gerial took the ribbing with good humor, although he didn’t point out that the first exotic female he’d ever laid eyes on was Ceria. It would have made the half-Elf blush and then retreat. Or—worse—engage and discuss the matter frankly. He had learned long ago that her heart had been closed long ago to Human men.
Nevertheless, he was quite glad when he spotted a familiar face sitting at an outdoor stall, eating pieces of roasted meat off of a skewer.
The mage looked up and grinned around a mouthful of food as Gerial and Ceria sat to join him. They ordered a skewer of their own as the Drake shopkeeper rotated the sticks of meat over a fire.
“I saw you two had already left. The innkeeper—Miss Solstice was sick, so we all took our leave without breakfast.”
Gerial nodded. He’d had a late breakfast with Ceria, but his appetite returned quickly as he inhaled the scents of roasted animal.
“Have you seen Calruz?”
“Not since last night. Why?”
“He left the inn, and he hasn’t slept since last night, I think. You know what he’s like when he’s irritable.”
Sostrom made a face.
“Let the Watch deal with him. I don’t get paid to restrain him when he causes trouble.”
“If he gets arrested before we enter the Ruins—”
“The city will let him go if we pay a fine. And they’ll be happier to let him fight monsters than cause trouble in jail.”
There was truth in that statement, so Gerial let it go. He twisted around to look towards the gates where the inn lay.
“So. A strange [Innkeeper] we’ve met. I’ve never met stranger, have you?”
The half-Elf frowned.
“…A few that are weird. I heard there’s a former Gold-rank [Innkeeper] up north. Terrible fellow. Sometimes they’re characters, but yes, she beats the lot for originality. But it seems we’ve run across more than one strange girl as of late.”
Gerial accepted a stick of meat and handed over coins for both him and Ceria. He bit into the hot meat and glanced at Ceria.
“What Yvlon said the other day. You’re sure she has no levels?”
“That’s what Cervial said. And Yvlon seemed to know something about her as well.”
“The entire incident was unfortunate.”
“It was her fault.”
“Perhaps, but Yvlon needn’t have challenged her. That wasn’t a fair fight no matter how you look at it.”
That was true. Gerial looked at Sostrom.
“You’re right. I’d forgotten because she won, but since when do the Silver Spears fight civilians?”
“Let alone in armor. Even if it was bravado, Yvlon would have never taken that fight normally. Makes you wonder, don’t it? What Yvlon knew. Or—what her aunt told her.”
Gerial and Ceria exchanged a quick glance. Gerial whistled long and low under his breath.
“There’s a name that tells you how important she is.”
Gerial scratched at his chin as he glanced at the Human [Mage] for clarification.
“Yvlon important? Or Ryoka important?”
“Ryoka. I hear Yvlon doesn’t lean on her family connections or even her brother, who’s also a Gold-rank adventurer. But Ryoka has Lady Reinhart following her every move.”
The Human [Mage] nodded again for emphasis. He scratched at his forehead under his pointy hat. Sostrom was completely bald, and as such, wore his mage’s hat whenever possible.
“That object I repaired, her fist-fighting skill. Her lack of levels…it’s enough to interest me, but why a scion of the Five Families? There’s something else to her, mark my words.”
“I hope she doesn’t do anything rash.”
Ceria snorted into her food. Gerial made a face.
“You know what I mean.”
“Just hope she survives. Once we’re done here, we can ask her more questions.”
“It could be a while if these ruins are as deep as they seem.”
“She’s a big Human. She’ll be fine.”
“Well, since we’re on the topic of secrets…what’s the story behind you and this Pisces character? I thought I saw him last night, but you two hardly shared a word.”
“That was intentional. I get a headache whenever I have to talk to that idiot for too long.”
Ceria sighed, but Sostrom frowned.
“You might make fun of him, but he is a graduate of Wistram when all is said and done. And that display with healing Ryoka’s leg was nothing short of phenomenal. I certainly wouldn’t want to test myself against him.”
Gerial blinked at Sostrom. While Sostrom was the lower-level and self-trained [Mage] in the Horns of Hammerad compared to Ceria, Gerial had still grown to appreciate his ability. He couldn’t cast [Fireball], but he had a lot of good tricks and Ceria respected him. That was high praise.
“This Pisces is that good of a mage?”
Sostrom nodded seriously.
“I sensed it. He has quite a few levels on me, I suspect. Perhaps the same as our Ceria?”
Both men looked over. Ceria scowled and shrugged.
“Maybe. But he’s still an idiot.”
“An idiot from Wistram.”
“He’s not…well, technically he’s a graduate. But some mages wouldn’t consider him one.”
“Wait. You said—”
The half-Elf looked unusually defensive. She began speaking faster, hunching her shoulders, and Gerial knew she rarely talked about her past—her upbringing, yes. Not Wistram.
“He was expelled. But you’re right. He was always at the head of his class whenever he showed up. If he had the money, he could have advanced quite highly. But he dropped out about the same time I, uh, ran out of funds.”
“And he was expelled for his experiments. Yes, I recall. But does he have any combat aptitude? We could hire him for the expedition.”
Ceria glanced incredulously up at Gerial.
“I wouldn’t trust that idiot with my back.”
“Aren’t you being a little too harsh?”
“But what’s his level? A mage living alone like he is has to have some skills. And a [Necromancer] would be perfect if there’s a large amount of undead in the ruins. Come on, Ceria, at least tell us his classes.”
Ceria made a face.
“I—oh, alright. As far as I can remember, he has the most levels in the [Necromancer] class, but he knows quite a few mundane spells too. He might be Level 20+ just as a pure [Mage] if you want to rank him. And he knows at least one Tier 4 spell. He was always good at—”
All three adventurers turned. Gerial and Sostrom blinked as they stared into one very large eye and a slight smile. Ceria dropped her half-eaten skewer of meat.
Gazi Pathseeker smiled politely at the three adventurers and bowed her head slightly.
“Greetings. I hope I’m not interrupting?”
There was a brief moment of assessment that Gerial and Sostrom went through. Their eyes noted the quality of Gazi’s armor. Unlike pedestrians, the brown and rust-red color of her equipment didn’t fool their eyes. Her armor was clearly high-quality, and her sword made the two adventurers look twice.
That would have already told them she was Gold-rank or higher. But Gazi wore no armband or markings to indicate her rank. That either meant she was unaffiliated with the Guild or—
Gerial cleared his throat and stood up from his seat. He tried not to stammer.
“Um, pardon me. But you wouldn’t happen to be…?”
“I am Gazi.”
They had never seen her face, but both men had heard her name. Instantly, Sostrom was out of his seat and offering her his while Gazi politely refused. Ceria was still staring.
When Gerial had calmed down slightly, he tried to be as accommodating as possible.
“Um, how can we help you Miss, ah—Adventurer Pathseeker?”
She smiled at Gerial. He felt a shock as her eye met his. In his stunned state, Gerial briefly wished Ceria would stop staring and be more respectful.
“You are members of the Horns of Hammerad, aren’t you?”
“Um yes, I mean, that’s correct. We are. All of us.”
“That is good.”
Gazi smiled again. It wasn’t a broad smile—rather, a mysterious small one that fit her perfectly. She nodded.
“I wished to speak with you.”
Gerial and Sostrom were agog.
“With us? You know our names?”
“Is it not appropriate? The Horns of Hammerad are well known in the cities around here.”
That was enough to inflate both men’s chests. Gazi’s eye flicked towards Ceria for a brief moment as she continued speaking.
“I have visited several Human cities to the north. And strangely, come back here chasing rumors. I hoped you could assist me.”
Gerial breathed the words. The smile he got made his stomach jump.
“I have heard—from several sources—of a most extraordinary Human female in this area. A Runner. I believe her name is Ryoka Griffin. A levelless girl who braved the High Passes and survived. A most…interesting person in short. And I am told the Horns of Hammerad are her acquaintances.”
Gerial and Sostrom exchanged a glance. How much of a coincidence could it be? Gerial vaguely noticed Ceria coming to stand next to him.
“We do—we do know that girl! We were in her company only two days ago.”
Gazi’s smile widened.
“Ah. So you know her. Good. Tell me, is she all that people say she is?”
“That and more.”
Sostrom nodded eagerly. Gerial glared, but the bald mage had beaten him to the punch.
“She—well, I don’t know that she’s levelless, but another adventurer with [Appraisal] says it’s true. And she did survive the High Passes. And she has the favor of Lady Magnolia. And she runs barefoot.”
“Indeed? How fascinating. I should very much like to meet her. You wouldn’t happen to know where she is by any chance?”
Gerial and Sostrom both opened their mouths, but incredibly, it was Ceria who beat both of them.
“We don’t, I’m afraid. She moves around all the time, so it’s hard to pin her down.”
Gerial felt something on his foot and looked down. Ceria had stepped on his foot for some reason. And Sostrom’s as well. Why? He glanced at Sostrom and saw the other man was blinking and touching at his head.
But Gazi was looking at Gerial, and suddenly, his attention was focused completely on her.
“Ah, but I would dearly like to meet her. Would you happen to know where she stays?”
“Celum. There’s an inn she stays at quite often there, and she takes most of her requests there.”
Ceria stepped on his foot again. Gerial glanced at her, irritated. She mouthed something but then Gazi was speaking.
“The Bloody Tankard.”
This time, Ceria abandoned all pretense and jabbed Gerial hard in the side. He winced and looked down at her, confused.
Ceria sighed and shoved Gerial back. Sostrom interposed himself between the vice-Captain and Gazi, averting his gaze from Gazi’s eye. So did Ceria. She spoke to the air just over Gazi’s shoulder.
“Excuse me, Miss Gazi. But why the interest in Ryoka?”
Gazi’s eye shifted towards Ceria, but the half-Elf refused to meet her gaze.
“I would simply like to meet her.”
Her eye focused on Ceria, and Gazi’s slight smile grew a fraction. Ceria bit the inside of her lip until it bled.
“Well, you have the name of her inn. And we haven’t seen her. So if that’s all—”
“She was in Esthelm just two days ago!”
Ceria cursed and whirled to glare at Gerial. Behind her, she heard Gazi chuckle.
“And do you have any way of finding her now? Or perhaps you know where she’s going?”
“We do not.”
Ceria cut Gerial off. She glared at Gazi, focusing hard, channeling mana into her eyes as a shield.
“We don’t know anything else. So stop asking. We would like to be left in peace.”
Gazi was still smiling.
“But I have more questions to ask about Ryoka. And I feel you can answer them.”
“I’ve got nothing for you. So you can take your answers and shove them.”
Gazi blinked. Ceria gasped as the pressure on her vanished. The half-Gazer looked disappointed.
“Hm. You would not answer questions for me? I am a Named Adventurer, you know. And you are, ah, yes, Silver-rank. Tradition would dictate you help me to the best of your abilities.”
Ceria snapped at Gazi.
“I know who you are. And a former soldier isn’t the same as a true adventurer. We got our levels from fighting monsters, not killing people.”
“But I am still higher rank than you. I could be…troublesome to you if you refuse to help.”
“I don’t help the insane. You and your mad king can go to hell for all I care—”
Gazi didn’t so much move as blur. One moment she was smiling, posture relaxed, talking calmly to Ceria. The next, the edge of her sword was suddenly at Ceria’s throat. And she was no longer smiling.
“I do not suffer insults to my lord’s name.”
It took a second for the two men behind Ceria to react. When they did, Gerial swore and went for his sword and Sostrom reached for his wand. But they both froze as Gazi poked the tip of the razor sharp blade a bit further into Ceria’s neck.
“How inconvenient. And we were doing so well with politeness. But I will have an answer. But first—an apology. I will hear it from you on your knees, half-Elf.”
Ceria was sweating. The blade was not pricking her throat, but lodged into her skin. She was already bleeding. If it went in just another inch—
Perhaps it was because it had been so quick. Gazi hadn’t attracted attention when she’d drawn her sword because she’d moved so fast no one had seen it leave her sheath. But it was hard to ignore a drawn blade at the throat of a half-Elf in the middle of the street.
People began noticing the standoff and panicking in the course of a few moments. Within seconds, the pedestrians cleared out, and the adventurers could hear someone calling the Watch.
They were using a high-pitched whistle, which gave off a shrill whine that was impossible to ignore. Gazi didn’t lower her sword, though one of her smaller eyes rolled around in her head. Neither Gerial nor Sostrom moved either, and Ceria was already on her tiptoes. They knew how fast the Watch would react and didn’t panic.
The filthy girl hiding behind the stall was no seasoned adventurer, however, and she heard the whistle and thought it was for her. She rushed out from behind the shopkeeper’s stall, appearing in the street as her [Invisibility] spell failed.
Ceria was afraid to turn her head, but Sostrom and Gerial saw a blonde head of hair, filthy travelling clothes, pale skin, and the flash of magic. The girl raised an emerald ring, shouted something as she pointed at the adventurers, and then fled.
From her ring, a huge, thick tendril of what looked like spider web shot out, growing larger and spreading out. It flew at the adventurers like a bird.
Gerial and Sostrom had seen the spell, and they were already diving for the ground. The cobwebs struck their backs and stuck to them, instantly anchoring them with tendrils of silk as strong as stone.
Ceria could do nothing but watch as the spider webs flew at her. They wrapped around her, and she fell to the ground, instantly cocooned. Gazi’s blade would have cut her—but the Gazer moved it out of the way just in time.
Gazi eyed the unfurling spider web and flicked her sword twice. The tendrils of webbing fell at her feet, neatly severed.
Gazi tsked in irritation and glanced around as the piercing whine continued.
The girl with the magic was nowhere to be seen. She’d already fled down an alleyway.
“How inconvenient. I suppose I must ask my questions another time.”
She looked down at Ceria, and the half-Gazer’s eyes were hard.
“But make no mistake. I shall see you again and ask more questions. Unless of course I find this Ryoka Griffin first.”
She smiled then, her slight, mysterious smile.
Gazi turned and strode off. Her legs were a blur as she disappeared into an alleyway.
Gerial cursed as he fought the webs. But they had anchored him to the ground.
“What kind of magical artifact was that? Sostrom, I’m pinned. Can you—?”
“My wand is caught!”
The Human [Mage] cursed and fought to tear his wand free of the webbing. Lying helpless on the ground, Ceria gulped a few times. It didn’t feel like her throat was perforated.
The thick webbing burned off of Ceria in an instant, giving off thick, billowing clouds of smoke. She yelped and cursed as the fire burned her. But in moments, the webbing was gone.
She stood up and unsheathed her belt dagger. Ceria ran to Gerial and Sostrom, working her blade into the webbing. It stuck.
She pulled the dagger away and pointed at it. A stream of fire burst from her fingers and engulfed the blade, turning it red-hot. Ceria began cutting again, and the webbing fell away.
Gerial yelped as the heated blade burned him, but Ceria yanked him to his feet.
“Complain later. Let’s go! If the Watch catches us—”
All three adventurers exchanged a look. They looked around the street. Sostrom pointed to an alleyway, and they ran as the Watch arrived on the scene, led by an irate Drake with a spear.
“We were under a spell?”
Ceria nodded as she, Sostrom, and Gerial walked back towards the inn. She winced with every step. Her skin was red and burned along her entire body. Only where her enchanted robes had covered her was her skin whole.
Sostrom fished out a potion and handed it to her as they walked. None of the adventurers slowed down, though. The commotion hadn’t spread to the rest of the city, but they had no desire to get on the wrong side of the Watch.
“Yeah. She was casting a [Charm] spell with her eye. It hit both of you the instant you looked at her. I barely blocked it.”
“But she was only looking at us.”
“Gazers can cast spells as easily as looking. A half-Gazer can do the same, it seems.”
“A half-Gazer? Is that what she was?”
Ceria glanced sideways at Gerial. The man was still pale from their encounter—and the magic that had worn off on him.
“You didn’t know she was half-Gazer? Seriously, Gerial?”
“I only know the basics. She’s a Named-rank. And she served the King of Destruction. What more do you need from me?”
He felt that covered everything you needed to ever know about Gazi. Ceria muttered darkly to herself as she rubbed the ointment over her burns.
“There’s a lot more to it than that, Gerial. She’s one of the Seven—and she was famous for killing every single [Spy], [Assassin], [Saboteur], and [Rogue] she ever ran into during his wars. Of all of them, she could be called the scariest. Let’s get something to drink back at the inn. I’ll tell you all about it as soon as we get clear of the area.”
“Tell us now. If she’s after us—”
“Not us. She wants Ryoka, and I don’t know why. Possibly the same reason Magnolia is interested in her, but that’s just a guess. It spells trouble, and we need to let everyone know as soon as possible.”
“Give us the details on Gazi before we get there. How strong is she? Where does she come from?”
This came from Sostrom, and Gerial was so amazed that the [Mage] didn’t know…
But Ceria nodded. They were all on different pages, so she decided to start from the beginning. She took a deep breath as she walked. The pain from her burns was easing, but she was still shaky. But an adventurer was calm or she was dead. So she collected her thoughts and spoke.
“I’ll tell you two from the beginning so we’re not making mistakes in the future. Right. Sostrom, do you know about the desert continent south or maybe south-west of here? Chandrar?”
“Too basic, Ceria.”
“Okay, okay. It’s huge, but there are several kingdoms to note. Like Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the largest Stitch-folk kingdom in the world. But there’s one that you definitely heard about—even if you don’t know Gazi. Everyone knew that kingdom, once. In one of them sleeps a king…”
“Good evening, Erin.”
Erin blinked at Gazi.
“Oh hi, Gazi. What’s up?”
Gazi smiled at Erin. She didn’t come in, although Erin held the door open for her.
“I won’t trespass here long. I just wished to tell you I will be travelling from this city for a while.”
“I have business to attend to elsewhere. I just wished to know if you planned on travelling anywhere in the coming weeks.”
Erin blinked. Some people were strange. Gazi appeared on her doorstep and asked—she was staring quite hard at Erin with her huge eye. But maybe that was just how half-Gazers were.
“Nah. I’m not going anywhere in a hurry. Why?”
Gazi studied her with her central eye and then smiled.
“I was just curious. I would greatly enjoy having another meal here at a later date, and I would not wish for you to leave before then.”
“No chance of that, I’m afraid.”
“Well then. Until we meet again.”
Gazi stepped back, smiling. Erin stared at her, nonplussed. Gazi turned and paused. Someone was in her way.
Calruz blinked down at Gazi. The large Minotaur had clearly not been intending to stop, preferring perhaps to run Gazi over or let her move aside, but when he saw her face, his hooves stopped dead in their tracks.
The Minotaur’s eyes fixed on Gazi’s large eye, and his eyes widened in recognition. He instantly made room for her to walk past him, giving Gazi a lot of space. She brushed past him with her faint smile.
“Your pardons, warrior.”
Calruz stared at her back as she left. He turned to Erin.
“Do you know her?”
“Sort of. Why?”
Calruz stared at Erin, back at Gazi’s disappearing figure, and shook his head.
“She looked like—it is nothing. You would likely not know her as an Izrilian.”
Erin felt a little insulted at that, but she didn’t correct the Minotaur’s error. He snorted, rubbed at his face, and stomped into the inn, nearly running her over. She hopped back and eyed Calruz. His eyes were bloodshot, and he looked tired.
“Well, can I help you, Mr. Grumpy?”
“Food. Drink. I will have both.”
He didn’t seem to care if she was sick. Erin sighed, walked into her kitchen, and got Calruz a sandwich. He eyed the hefty slices of ham and cheese packed between two flimsy pieces of bread, but devoured the meal without complaint. Then he sat back and eyed her.
Erin stared back. It was quite silent in her inn. Rags had left after losing to Erin several times, and Toren was busy cleaning dishes.
“Um. Nice day, isn’t it? I haven’t gone outside much, but I assume it’s nice.”
Calruz kept staring at her. Erin shifted in her seat. It was very quiet.
“It’s not a bad day when there are no monsters killing you, right?”
He kept staring. She avoided his gaze.
“It’s not raining, at least.”
“You should have fought.”
Erin glanced up at Calruz. The Minotaur was still staring at her with bloodshot eyes.
“You. You should have fought.”
“Last night. You went out to avenge the insect. You did not. But you should have fought.”
Erin opened her mouth and closed it for a second.
“You mean Pawn and Ksmvr. I didn’t go out to fight.”
“You did not.”
Calruz agreed. He shifted in his seat and put his elbows on his knees as he faced her.
“But you should have. It was a matter of honor. If you cared for the one called Pawn, you should have fought to protect him.”
Erin didn’t know what to say. Where had this come from? But Calruz was direct and as blunt as…his giant axe would be if it met her face. Well, not that blunt. She’d met chess players like him.
“I’m sorry, but fighting would have been prett—really stupid. I would have lost and gotten chopped up.”
“That is immaterial.”
“Um. No it’s not. I don’t want to die.”
He snorted at her. Erin almost expected to see steam coming out of his nose.
“Those who believe they will lose before battle begins have already lost.”
“Yeah, but I know I would have lost. That guy you wanted me to fight? Ksmvr? He hit me once, and I was seeing stars for an hour. He’s a warrior. I’m—not.”
“If you are not a warrior, you should become one. It is unbefitting for a female to be alone and not be a warrior.”
This conversation had taken another right-angle turn into weirdness. Erin tried to come up with a response.
“I have a skeleton. For…protection.”
Toren poked his head out of the kitchen. Calruz glanced at him and snorted.
“It is worthless. Weak.”
For some reason, Erin thought Toren looked insulted, but skeletons didn’t have emotions, did they?
“Well—I, uh, I can fight too. If I really have to. I’ve got [Bar Fighting] as a skill, you know.”
Calruz stared blankly at Erin. She blushed.
“I can fight. But I don’t want to pick fights I know I’ll lose. Look, this Ksmvr guy has levels in some kind of warrior class, right? He’d kill me if I fought.”
“There is more to strength than mere levels.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a Minotaur. I don’t have muscle. Or horns for poking people.”
Calruz rolled his eyes towards the roof.
“I refer to Skills.”
“Yeah, like I said, I’ve got one. And, uh, [Lesser Strength]. Forgot that.”
“That is not what I meant. I mean Skills for combat.”
Erin stared at Calruz with such complete incomprehension in her eyes that he seemed taken aback.
“You…do not know?”
“About what? Skills?”
“Activated skills. Combat skills.”
He blinked at her. Then Calruz stood up.
“Observe. This is my Skill.”
Calruz pointed to the rock he’d found on the ground. It was a good-sized boulder that came up to Erin’s waist. She blinked at it and then at his axe.
“Won’t that break?”
Calruz raised the massive battleaxe over his head like a woodcutter about to split a log. But then he spoke. Or rather—roared. Erin jumped as he brought the axe down.
The axe met the rock, and the next thing Erin knew, Toren had tackled her to the ground. All was confusion as the thunderous impact stopped ringing in her ears and her bones. When Erin got up, she saw the boulder was rubble.
As in—a few split fragments of stone were all that remained at the impact site. The rest of the rock had split and shattered into a million pieces. Erin blinked at the rock and then at Carluz’s axe.
“Oh. That’s what you meant by Skills.”
“Yes. It is my sole Skill.”
“And it’s, uh—wow.”
Erin stared at the boulder.
“Wow. Wow. Uh. Wow.”
Calruz seemed happy that she was impressed. He stuck the battleaxe in the earth and pointed to it.
“That is what you should learn. Skills. If you must be alone, you must not be unprotected. You must fight.”
“But I’m not a warrior. I mean, I don’t have a class—”
Calruz snorted at Erin.
“Immaterial. Classes, levels, these are just additions. What you lack is the soul of the warrior. You must have it. A female must not be alone without the power to defend herself. The singer must not be silenced. You must be stronger.”
He pointed at Erin with a finger twice as wide as her own.
“I have decided this. I will teach you starting tomorrow. There are two days remaining before I go into the Ruins. I will have you learn to at least fight properly until then.”
Erin opened her mouth. She stared at the splintered rock and at Calruz.
“Um. Okay. Thank you.”
“I will rest now. My party will come soon. They must have food. See to it.”
Calruz stomped towards the inn. Erin watched him go. She stared at the boulder. Slowly, she edged towards it.
The rock wasn’t warm from the impact. But it was sharp. Erin cut her finger.
She stared at the blood, then heard a scuffling sound. She looked around and saw Toren next to the battleaxe Calruz had embedded in the earth.
The skeleton was pulling and heaving at the battleaxe stuck in the dirt as hard as it could. The heavy blade didn’t budge.
Erin sighed. She watched the skeleton as it scrabbled for purchase, pushing its feet into the grass as it tried to uproot the weapon.
“That’s just so sad.”
Calruz thought the word aloud as he lay in his room and on the two beds Erin had pushed together for him. It was something he had never had to think about.
But she was weak. Pitifully weak. Normally, that was fine. He expected that of Humans. But she—
She was offensively weak. And it was wrong. It bothered Calruz. She should not be so weak. She had no right being so weak. Because there was something in her that demanded strength.
He was thinking about Erin. Or was it Ryoka? Either or. No—the Runner was strong. She was just not a warrior. She had to learn honor. Once she did, she would be a true warrior. If she gained levels, she would be worthy.
But Erin Solstice was different. Even now, Calruz could remember the music. It haunted him. It was wrong. It made him—
Weak? Weaker? It was not the music of his home. There were no pounding drums, no voices raised for battle. It was not strong music. But neither was it weak.
It was unique. And it should be protected. But she was weak. So she had to be stronger.
Calruz shifted in his bed, ignoring the groaning wood. She had to be stronger. If she were to perish, he would regret it. To let an innocent life end because of inaction was the worst strike against his honor. He would teach her.
But of course, it wasn’t Erin that Calruz wanted to teach. But she would be good—practice, yes. She was female. Ryoka was female. He would learn how to deal with Human females. Because at least one—two of them were worthy of respect. For different reasons.
A tanned face appeared in Calruz’s mind, and he saw a quick form dashing away from him. A bird, tethered to the ground. A hunting raptor seeking a home.
Beautiful. Fierce. And she had proper breasts, not like the small-mammaried females he kept running across.
He wondered where she was right now.