On the day of the expedition, all the members of the Horns of Hammerad woke and trooped downstairs to breakfast in silence. Erin, the cheerful [Innkeeper], had provided breakfast—eggs and bacon.
It was the second day in a row she’d provided the same kind of breakfast—but most of them didn’t care. It was nice, hot food, and the [Innkeeper] had put more time and coin into the food than another inn, which might serve you cheap porridge instead.
Ceria sat at one of the tables, blinking and poking at the wobbling, yellow yolk of one of her poached eggs. She was still sleepy, but the blue juice woke her up in a pleasant way.
She looked up from her food and glanced around the room. Good. Everyone was present. All ten members of the Horns of Hammerad were sitting, eating or talking quietly. Calruz and Gerial sat together, discussing the plan, no doubt. Sostrom and another member of the party, Marian, sat at the same table, talking, while the five warriors sat at another table and ate silently.
Aside from those two and Hunt, Ceria didn’t know the rest of her team intimately. They were colleagues and friends, of course, but she’d only fought with them for less than a year—in the case of their most junior members, only a month. Big teams rotated adventurers in and out. Gerial was a heart of the team, like Calruz, but some might not last.
Sostrom laughed at something Marian had said. He liked her. She was the only person who didn’t make fun of his bald spot on occasion. Ceria still hadn’t figured out if he and Marian were sleeping together.
If they were, she hoped Marian wouldn’t break his heart when she left. Sostrom was a good mage, a solid Level 16 [Elementalist]—ordinary in both class choice and spell selection. Marian was a low-level [Ranger], but she pulled her weight.
It was just—
She wasn’t a true adventurer, a true member of the Horns of Hammerad. Ceria still respected her, but Marian only wanted to earn enough money to start a store or an inn herself. Adventuring was a job for her.
It was a job for Ceria, of course, but it was also her life. She lived to adventure. By earning gold, she could master new spells, and with the rare magical items she looted, she could continue to improve herself as a mage and level. She wouldn’t stop adventuring even if she found a thousand gold pieces lying around. She’d just buy a new spell book or a wand and continue on.
Ceria was a lifer, although she didn’t know that term. She, Gerial, Calruz, Sostrom, and Hunt were all adventurers who would never quit. Even before they’d joined together to form the Horns of Hammerad two years ago, each one of them had spent years working their way up the ranks to get where they were.
Someday, Marian would quit. And they would find someone else to fill her place. Perhaps right after the expedition. If she didn’t die.
That was a dark thought, and not one she should be having. Ceria shook her head and concentrated on her meal. She broke the yolk on her egg and watched it soak into the slice of toasted bread. How delicious.
She loved eggs. She loved climbing into trees and stealing them out of nests. Humans tended to disapprove of that in general, but Ceria had grown up part of her life foraging off the land. She wasn’t picky about where her food came from.
She’d eaten earthworms, beetles, bark off of trees—which wasn’t good for your bowels or health—birds both raw and cooked, and occasionally, mushrooms and roots and such. She’d come close to starvation so many times she had developed an appetite for unusual things. Like bugs, although Ceria didn’t like having to pick them out of her teeth afterwards. But they were fun to eat.
Mm. She wondered what those Acid Flies Erin sold tasted like…
“Mm. We’re all set. Time to head out?”
Gerial took a drink of the sweet blue juice before replying to Calruz.
“We’ve got an hour yet. Plenty of time. Let’s not rush things.”
The Minotaur nodded silently and gestured at Toren for another plate of bacon. Gerial wondered how he could eat so much. His stomach wasn’t letting him eat more than a bit of breakfast. He was so energized with nerves as much as anticipation he felt like getting up to pace around.
But, of course, he couldn’t. The vice-Captain of the Horns of Hammerad had to project calm, and that was what Gerial was going to do. He took his job seriously. He had to be a leader like Calruz.
And Ceria, for that matter. Gerial spotted her sitting at her table, looking pensively down into her plate of food. She didn’t seem the slightest bit nervous. He envied her that.
The half-Elf’s gaze had turned far-off, and her expression had become distant. Gerial was familiar with that look. Another thing to envy.
He felt he would never understand the true complexities and unearthly thoughts that surely ran through her mind. She might appear Human in many ways, but Ceria was half Elf. Half of her was descended from legends, and who knew what deep thoughts she pondered at times like these?
Gerial jumped and quickly looked away from Ceria. He smiled up at Erin and smoothed his mustache. Now here was someone he could understand. Erin Solstice was as likable and approachable as any innkeeper he had ever met. He would be sorry to say goodbye.
“Ah. Miss Erin. I hope you are recovering from your cold? We were intending to leave payment and go without bothering you, but you were up before we were.”
Erin looked startled.
“What? Oh, no, I couldn’t do that. I’m feeling a lot better. And you guys paid me so well—a big breakfast is the least I could do. You’re, uh, heading into the ruins today, aren’t you?”
Calruz grunted, and Gerial nodded.
“Indeed we are. We and four other adventuring teams are going in.”
“Wasn’t it six teams total?”
Gerial winced and glanced at Calruz surreptitiously.
“The last adventuring Captain, ah, pulled out at the last moment.”
Calruz rumbled darkly. Gerial hoped he wouldn’t start shouting. That would be the last thing they needed right before the expedition.
To his relief, Erin didn’t seem off-put by the Minotaur’s ire. She poked Calruz in the side, causing the Minotaur to glare at her while Gerial choked on his food.
“Cheer up, grumpy. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
She glanced at Gerial.
“So—should I expect you guys to come back tomorrow? Or tonight…? How long is this, uh, dungeon exploration going to take?”
“We’re not sure. I wouldn’t count on our return, but it could happen.”
Gerial shrugged uncomfortably, not liking the uncertainty in his own voice.
“We have enough supplies for at least four days. I doubt we’ll be down there that long unless we need to do excavation, though.”
Across the room, Hunt looked up from his meal. He had egg in his beard, which Gerial didn’t comment on.
“Those ruins could be deep, though. No telling how far down they go.”
“We’re not clearing out every room. As soon as we strike a treasury or find enough to justify the costs, we’ll leave.”
“Hah! Tell that to the other teams. Gregor is saying his team won’t quit until they reach the bottom floor. A big change from what he was saying earlier.”
“Well, if we’re going in, we might as well go all in.”
“Speaking of which…Gerial, is it time?”
Ceria glanced meaningfully at the sky through a window. Gerial nodded.
“I suppose we should be going. The meeting is about an hour’s time away, and we don’t want to be late. Is everyone finished?”
They were. Or they were once he spoke. The strange skeleton walked around the room collecting dishes while Erin saw the Horns of Hammerad off.
“Good luck. Don’t get, uh, killed by a Dragon or anything.”
Gerial and the others had to laugh at that.
“There are no Dragons on this side of the world, miss. Probably anywhere.”
“Um. There are. I’ve seen one.”
Their laughter stopped abruptly. Gerial stared into Erin’s honest expression. He opened his mouth to say something—
“Hello? Hello! I’m sorry I’m late!”
A figure dashed up the hill. The pale-blue Drake wearing leather armor was desperately trying to buckle his sheathed sword to his belt as he stopped before the Horns of Hammerad.
“I’m not late, am I? I forgot we were supposed to meet here.”
Erin stared incredulously at the Drake.
“What are you—you’re going on the expedition too? But you’re not an adventurer!”
Olesm, the [Tactician] they’d hired on yesterday, widened his eyes, and his tail began twitching as he noticed Erin.
“Oh, Erin. I didn’t—well of course you’d be here. This is your inn—yes, I am going on the expedition! I’m hoping to raise my level. I was so inspired by you that I decided it was time to break out of my shell, so to speak.”
“But can you defend yourself? I mean, I don’t want to be rude but…”
The way Erin looked at Olesm spoke very plainly of her opinion of his fighting prowess. The Drake blushed, but stuck out his chest.
“I may not be a good fighter, but my Skills should help quite a bit. Believe me, I will come back better than ever. And perhaps then I’ll win a game against you.”
“But it’s chess. That’s not the same as—as fighting. And wait a second, Selys said you work for the city. Aren’t you supposed to, like, be there?”
Erin waved at Liscor in the distance. Olesm avoided everyone’s gaze and coughed into one first.
“Technically, yes. But they won’t miss me for a few days. The Watch is supposed to work with me, and I advise the Council, but they meet once a month if that. They don’t need me here. The army has a dozen people who could take my post over in a second. And besides. I’ve stayed the same level for far too long, hiding in the city rather than joining the army or adventuring myself. Today, I’m going to change that.”
Calruz growled, making Olesm jump and stammer. He pointed.
“We have to go. Follow us, but don’t lag behind.”
“Oh, of course. My apologies.”
Olesm sidled behind the Minotaur and smiled toothily at Gerial. The man tried to smile back, unsure of whether he should bare his own teeth.
Erin was talking to Ceria while she tried to offer the Horns of Hammerad a basket of food to take with them.
“I’ll be happy to serve you if you guys come back tonight, no matter how late. Just knock, okay? I’ve got guests coming anyways.”
Calruz poked Ceria in the back, making her stumble. She turned and kicked at the Minotaur, but it was time to go. Gerial bade farewell to Erin as the Horns of Hammerad descended the hill.
They saw Erin’s guests about fifteen minutes after they’d begun walking. Five Antinium were making their way from the city. Two of them were carrying one Gerial recognized. His stomach still clenched to see Pawn’s mangled limbs, but the Antinium greeted them without any inflection of pain in his voice.
“Greetings, adventurers. Olesm.”
“Oh? Pawn! Are you going to play chess at Miss Erin’s?”
Olesm greeted the Antinium cheerfully as the other adventurers mumbled awkward greetings. Pawn nodded at him.
“Yes. We do not have any duties, so we go to play.”
“Oh? I thought you always worked in the morning. Is something wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong. We have no tasks because we are waiting.”
“Waiting? Waiting for what?”
Calruz growled and started walking again. Olesm followed, but Pawn and the other Antinium simply followed their group, continuing the conversation.
“We wait for the Queen.”
“The Queen? Is she…is she doing something?”
“Yes. She is close to completing her task.”
“I heard about that. She didn’t talk to anyone and sent that new Prognugator out. Ksmvr, right? What was she doing that was so important.”
“We do not know. But it will be tomorrow.”
Olesm stared at Pawn. Gerial saw Ceria glance swiftly backwards at the Antinium.
“What will be tomorrow?”
“It will be. Good luck on your mission, Olesm.”
“Oh, um, bye—”
The Antinium left. Calruz growled and stomped onwards, muttering about delays while Gerial pondered the conversation. What did it mean? Did it even matter? The Antinium were strange. Gerial had learned long ago how dangerous they could be and how strange they were. But Pawn didn’t seem evil. Odd, perhaps, but—
Whatever thoughts he had, they were put out of Gerial’s mind when he saw the ruins in the distance. Even from miles away, the dark, grey and black stone of the huge structure stood out against the hill it had been excavated from.
It seemed as if it were some kind of ancient barrow, the grass shining orange and green near the top of the spot where the dirt ended in a kind of cliff and the stone began. The stone was embedded in the dirt, a gaping awning, an oddity in the natural landscape of this place.
The stone looked so old that it was impossible to date, but people had claimed it was probably enchanted—unable to be removed or broken. Yet time had worked cracks and mossy intrusion into even what had once been solid stone. So it truly did look abandoned to time.
The Horns of Hammerad paused. Suddenly this morning, their small concerns and, indeed, everything else in the world had ceased for them. They had been waiting patiently these last few days. They had enjoyed themselves, gotten into small trouble or out of it, but what they had really been doing behind it all was waiting.
Waiting for this. The ruins loomed, massive, unexplored. It called to them. They were adventurers.
They resumed their march. Unconsciously, their pace increased. They felt it in their blood, in their bones, and the beating of their hearts.
Danger and glory, waiting for them in the darkness below.
The ruins had first been discovered a month ago by a [Shepherd] tending his flock. Drakes kept sheep and other animals just like Humans, and one of them had been walking over a hill when he’d tripped over a rock.
After he’d nearly broken his foot trying to kick the rock, the Drake had dug a bit of it up and realized the rock wasn’t so much a rock as part of a building half-uncovered by rains or chance erosion. And when he’d dug further with the help of his friends, they had discovered that the bit of the building was in fact an entire structure hidden in the earth.
And after the Antinium had been called and days of excavations had gone by, the city had found that the hill the building had been found on wasn’t so much a hill as the entire structure itself.
Today, the ruins sat half-uncovered against the large hill, black stone entrance gaping open in the light of the sun. Ceria, Gerial, and the other Horns of Hammerad stared up at it.
A wall of black rock. A carved stone doorway and, in places, open windows that allowed some ventilation into the massive structure.
From up close, the massive stone doors were even more imposing. Although some of the dirt that had once covered the structure had been excavated, it was clear that this—building was huge on a completely different scale than the structures in Liscor.
The roof had not been excavated, and nor had the lower half of the structure. Apparently, an Antinium had dug down but had gone over a hundred feet without reaching the bottom of this massive structure. The city had decided to only dig up what was necessary, so the doorway had been uncovered and the rest of the building left alone.
That made the sight of the black entrance poking out of the hillside covered in grass and flowers all the more odd. And disturbing. The massive doors could easily hold two creatures twice Calruz’s height, and you could push two wagons through at the same time. It dwarfed even the large group of adventurers standing in front of the entrance.
Perhaps there had once been a fresco or decorative front of some kind, but age had worn away any details. And besides, there was really only one message the giant stone doors told. No one was meant to easily enter this place—or exit.
“Dead gods, I saw it from far away, but up close, this is something else entirely.”
Gerial shook his head as he and Ceria stood looking up at the ruins. She nodded.
“The Ruins of Albez seem tiny compared to this one. Well, they’re more spread out, but still.”
“Look at that.”
Sostrom pointed to one side of the doors. Aside from the miniature village that had popped up around the ruins full of enterprising shopkeepers, adventurers, and curious watchers, another group had already occupied this space.
Around fifteen armed warriors, mainly Drakes and a few Gnolls—sat together around an open fire, talking and eating while two of them stood watch at the doors.
Hunt growled under his breath and gripped the mace at his side as he eyed the other group.
“More adventurers? I thought we were the only ones entering. If they’re trying to steal a march on us—”
Olesm shook his head before anyone else could.
“They’re not adventurers. That’s the local Watch.”
“The Watch? Why are they out here?”
Ceria nodded to the group of [Guards] and then pointed to another group of warriors sitting across from them. They had no fire, but they were watching the doors as well.
“There are several Bronze-rank adventuring teams on permanent guard duty as well as several members of the Watch. Seems like this place disgorges monsters every few days. Nothing more dangerous than a mob of zombies or the local wildlife, but they’re being cautious.”
Hunt relaxed, and the other Horns of Hammerad nodded. They weren’t used to a city militia taking such an active role, but none of them were strangers to the idea of guarding a dungeon.
“Good thing we’re going in today. Otherwise, the city’d probably put up a request to clear out this place in a month or two.”
“It still might come to that. Unless they destroy this damn place, something’s going to make its nest here.”
Gerial nodded in agreement as he studied the massive building. It was certainly inconvenient to have so close to the city. It would surely attract monsters and, worse, provide a lair for them to reproduce.
It wasn’t as if monsters popped out of thin air. Except for the ones that did, of course. But caves, abandoned buildings, and magical sites tended to attract monsters like honey followed bees. Monsters would breed in the darkness or reanimate in the case of the dead. Sometimes, they fought each other, but often, they lived in disturbing harmony—until the unlucky adventurer intruded on their lair.
“There’s Yvlon. Move up.”
Calruz finally spotted the person he was looking for. He began walking towards Yvlon and her group of female adventurers wearing polished, silver metal. Gerial picked up his pace, so he arrived just as his Captain did. Calruz had no time for minor details like that, but proper courtesy was important. It was one of Gerial’s few complaints that the Minotaur so often forgot that.
But Yvlon was not the kind of petty person to be bothered by such things in the first place. She smiled at Gerial and Calruz as they approached, and his heart skipped a beat. She was truly beautiful. Almost as beautiful as Ryoka, but different, of course…
“Calruz. Gerial. I’m glad your team is here on time. Everyone else has already assembled. Shall we begin?”
“Why waste time waiting?”
Yvlon nodded. She stepped back and let Calruz precede her. Gerial called to the Horns of Hammerad, and they joined the group of adventurers waiting outside the doors.
Ceria walked with the Horns of Hammerad, merging with the main body of adventurers as she stared up at the dark doors. It was hard—even for someone who had lived as long as she had—to stand still in this crowd. And indeed, the other adventurers around her were constantly shifting, moving around with the same energy she felt.
There were so many! It was a crowd of adventurers like a full day at the Adventurer’s Guild, but in this case, every single one of them was Silver-rank. They let the Horns of Hammerad move next to them, calling out good naturedly and exchanging slaps on the back in the case of the warriors, polite nods and only the occasional spine-shattering slap in the case of the mages.
At the head of the crowd, Yvlon and Calruz joined three other Captains. Gregor, Menes, and Cervial nodded at the Minotaur and female adventurer as the crowd grew silent.
The blonde adventurer raised her hands for silence, but it was already present. The adventurers—and come to that, the large crowd of onlookers—waited in breathless expectation.
“Captains, I am pleased to see you all here. May I inquire if you are all ready?”
They nodded. Calruz was the first to speak. The Minotaur’s rumbling voice was loud enough to be heard quite audibly even from the back of the crowd.
“The Horns of Hammerad are all here.”
“The Flawless Flights are ready to go.”
“Kyrial’s Vanguard are armed and ready to fight!”
“We of the Circle of Reneë have prepared our spells.”
“And the Silver Spears are assembled.”
Yvlon nodded to the other adventuring Captains and raised her voice to address the crowd.
“I’m pleased to see everyone is present. But I expected nothing less of the best adventurers on this side of the continent! We are here today to make history by entering the Ruins of Liscor. We don’t know exactly what is down there, but we do know something dangerous lurks below. And where there is danger, there is treasure and fame to be found.”
The adventurers shifted at that. Yvlon was speaking their language, and her gaze was open and honest. She didn’t lie about the danger, and that they appreciated.
“Some of us may perish on this expedition. Five Families willing, it will be few or none. But I swear that each of you will receive a portion of the reward, and your families and loved ones will not be left penniless should you fall. That is the pledge I make towards each of my Silver Spears, and I offer the same to you today.”
She shook her head, and her golden blonde hair shook in the air, catching the light. Ceria smiled at that; Yvlon had to know exactly what she was doing and how her armor and hair shone.
“But enough dire thoughts. We are about to head in. Steel yourselves. Trust in each other. We know what must be done. Calruz, your Horns of Hammerad and Gregor, your Kyrial’s Vanguard have been chosen to lead the expedition. Would you do the honors?”
Calruz and Gregor nodded. They stepped towards the doorway and gestured.
“Kyrial’s Vanguard—form up!”
“To me, Horns of Hammerad.”
That was their signal. Ceria walked out of the crowd, ignoring the gazes of the other adventurers. Some of their group weren’t so graceful and stumbled or blushed, but they formed up behind Calruz as the Minotaur stood next to Gregor.
The massive, armored man who carried a battleaxe almost as large as Calruz’s scowled when he saw Olesm tagging along with the other adventurers.
“Who’s the Drake? I thought we agreed not to hire anyone else, Yvlon.”
Olesm jumped, and his scales faded in color, but Yvlon shook her head.
“He’s a [Tactician], not a [Warrior], Gregor. A Level 24. He came to us yesterday. I thought you’d agree we could definitely use him.”
Gregor scowled, but Yvlon was right. He nodded grudgingly.
“Hmph. Very well. Just so long as he doesn’t start giving orders to the rest of us.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that. I’m just here to help.”
“Are you done?”
Calruz growled at Gregor. He was breathing harder, and his gaze was narrowed as he stared into the darkness of the ruins. Gregor opened his mouth to snap something back, then paused.
“I’m done. Shall we?”
“Yes. Let us begin.”
The two Silver-rank Captains shared a glance. Then, as one, they unholstered their battleaxes. It was pure showmanship—none of the adventurers expected to be attacked the instant they entered, but the crowd loved it.
The Bronze-Rank Adventurers and civilians cheered as Calruz and Gregor advanced into the ruins, weapons at the ready. Their vice-Captains, Gerial and a big man named Ulgrim, followed. Ceria was right behind Gerial as they stepped into the darkness. She held her glowing wand at the ready as the adventurers around her ignited torches or cast [Light] spells.
The darkness enveloped the adventurers even as Yvlon and the other two Captains began following their teams in. Ceria felt the air change, grow dead and stale, as the darkness closed around them. The grass and dirt became carved stone, and their footfalls echoed in the silence.
The adventurers readied themselves for anything. They could sense it. They had broken the sanctity of this dark place, and they would not leave until they had uncovered its every secret.
It had begun.
“You know, I would have expected something to happen by now.”
“Oh really? You haven’t explored many dungeons, then.”
Even in the flickering light of their torch, Ceria could see Olesm blush.
“This is my first one, actually.”
“Oh? Don’t freeze up and you’ll be fine. Besides, once this is done, you can tell all your friends about it. I’m sure Erin would be very impressed. Everyone loves experienced…adventurers. Especially ones who have big…swords. And explored a lot of dungeons, of course.”
It was quite entertaining to Ceria, seeing how red she could make Olesm’s scales. The Drake cleared his throat and quickly cast around for something else to say.
“These rooms—are quite odd, aren’t they?”
Ceria nodded. It was fifteen minutes into their expedition, but so far, the adventurers had seen very little. They’d passed through a long entrance hall of some kind into large, open rooms with little ornamentation and a lot of dust. Their group had split up—scouts from Cervial’s team going ahead while the main force went through the various rooms, but they’d found little.
“Broken chairs, metal—I can’t tell. It’s been too long, and everything is dust now. This was once some kind of sanctuary, perhaps? A massive one.”
“It’s big. But I could see that. Strange, though—all these rooms must be living quarters, kitchens, storage rooms, and so on. This is practically a city within this one building. How come no one knew of this before?”
“It must be ancient. Far older than Liscor. I can’t imagine how they built all of this—and out of stone! They must have had hundreds, thousands of workers or some kind of powerful magic.”
Ceria nodded as she stepped around a collapsed table that might have once served twenty guests at a time.
“Another time. Another world. They knew how to build such things back then. Is this one of the Walled Cities, perhaps, only forgotten by time? Or something like Liscor?”
“The design of the gates certainly suggests that. Of course, you need a roof or some good magic when the rainy season comes. I suppose it could have been built by my people.”
Olesm looked around and shuddered. Ceria knew how he felt. She wasn’t comfortable with the dark, echoing rooms any more than he was. For all they were spacious, she felt like she was cramped, confined. She could handle it, but Olesm was nervous and chatty, and she didn’t mind talking to him.
It wasn’t as if the other adventurers weren’t talking. The scouts and leading adventurers were silent as they walked up ahead, but the main group of adventurers kept quiet conversations going, joking, talking idly, anything to keep the tension at bay.
“So—I’m with your group. The, ah, Horns of Hammerad? I’m afraid I don’t know much about it. Liscor didn’t get many high-profile adventurers before this.”
Ceria raised her eyebrows.
“High profile? Hear that, Gerial? I wish we were that famous.”
Gerial looked back and smiled wryly at Ceria. Olesm was confused.
“But you’re Silver-rank adventurers. I just assumed—”
“Ceria is just teasing you Mister, ah, Olesm. We are quite well known locally. It’s just that we’re hardly the only Silver-rank teams in the north. And if you count the coastal cities—well, there are a number of Gold-rank teams and adventurers up there, and we can hardly compare.”
“Well, you seem quite competent to me. What does your group do? Aside from exploring ruins, that is.”
“We specialize in monster slaying. If a troublesome group of monsters is infesting a region, we’re usually one of the first groups who answer the call. The Horns of Hammerad are a close-combat group. We close in and smash the enemy while our mages provide backup. Gregor’s Pride is the same.”
“Oh, I see, I see. And the Silver Spears?”
“Good at defense, coordination, strategy; a solid team. The Flawless Flights on the other hand do a lot of scouting work and hunting troublesome monsters that hide.”
“And the—the Circle? They were all [Mages]. Is that usual?”
“Not usual, but not unusual either. They take on almost all requests. They’ve got a bad reputation, though.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they run away quite often.”
A [Mage] from further up ahead had heard that. He turned and flicked up a middle finger at Ceria, and she grinned and waved at him in apology. Mollified, the mage went back to his conversation.
Lowering her voice so she wouldn’t be heard, Ceria murmured to Olesm.
“If they’re out of mana, there’s not much they can do. So yes, often Menes’ team will abandon a mission if something makes them use up all their potions or if the enemy is more numerous or stronger than they anticipated.”
“Oh. I see.”
“They do good work most of the time, though.”
Gerial nodded in agreement.
“But they do have their own style. They prioritize all contracts with anything magic related. It’s their specialty, just like how Cervial has a lot of archers in his group and Yvlon’s team wears silver armor.”
“Do the Horns of Hammerad have a, um, noticeable feature?”
“…Not so much a feature as a code. We don’t break our promises. We don’t retreat, and if we have to abandon a job, we repay all we took in advance.”
Gerial murmured into his mustache.
“‘Death before dishonor.’”
“It’s what we live by. Our leader is Calruz. And you know what Minotaurs are like.”
“Oh. Of course.”
Olesm was silent for a while longer as the adventurers trooped onwards. They reached some kind of audience chamber with a large altar at the front. Ceria pointed while the Captains called for a short break.
“Look at that. You can tell this place is old because of the architecture. I’ve never seen any designs like it. It must be a previous era’s style.”
“True. What do you make of it, Olesm? Was this place built by your people?”
He could only shrug helplessly.
“It certainly seems like it. How else would you explain it being so close to Liscor?”
“And if it was, would they have much treasure?”
Every adventurer in earshot stared expectantly at Olesm. He thought about it and nodded.
“Oh, most definitely. We love collecting things. We are descended from Dragons after all. If this place was at all important, I’d expect some sort of vault.”
That made the other adventurers perk up, including Gerial and Ceria. It was always welcome to know their efforts might not be in vain.
They were about to keep moving when a loud voice cut through the hushed conversations.
The word made every adventurers’ head snap up. They scanned for any sign of movement, but the person who had spoken was passing a message from further ahead.
“One of our scouts found a nest of Shield Spiders. The damn things must be infesting this place already.”
Several adventurers swore, but Gregor hushed them with a slashing movement of one hand.
“Shut it. How big’s the nest?”
“Not big. Around eight adults and a few dozen of the bigger children that we could see. Perhaps there’s more in another room, but they’ve only webbed up one so far.”
Gregor looked at Olesm.
“You’re the local expert. Any advice?”
The Drake nodded.
“Shield Spiders are weak against fire. Two mages with armed warriors holding shields should be able to burn the nest if they know the [Fireball] spell or equivalents.”
“My team can do the fighting. Menes, if you want to send some of your mages…?”
The scout led a detachment of nine adventurers off as the others prepared to move. That was the benefit of such a large group. They could keep going even if they ran into smaller groups of monsters.
Their path took them onwards through rooms in a winding pattern. If the ruins had been fully excavated, they could have made much faster progress, but the diggers and adventurers who had come before them had dug randomly and created a maze within the maze. More than once, the expedition had to halt to dig out a collapsed tunnel again.
Cervial shook his head as they passed by a corridor blocked off by a wall of dirt.
“I don’t like these unexcavated areas. Something could tunnel their way around and ambush us.”
Yvlon paused and considered the situation. Menes tapped her on the shoulder and gestured to his wand.
“We don’t have time to block everything off. How about this? We’ll set wards that will go off if something crosses them.”
She looked at Calruz and Gregor. They nodded in agreement.
“That sounds good. Do it.”
They left a few mages and warriors to set wards while they moved on. After about thirty minutes, they’d reached a long, long corridor wide enough for eight people to walk across when they heard a shout.
This time, they saw a woman running back towards them. She was a [Thief], and her footfalls barely made any sound despite her rapid approach. She stopped and gasped out her message, panting as more scouts ran back towards them.
“Zombies. At least thirty of them up ahead. Probably more. They’re coming from below.”
This time, every adventurer drew their weapon. Olesm fumbled as he unsheathed his sword, and the Captains glanced at each other.
“My team will take the front—”
“Let my archers soften them up first. We can take down at least half in this open area. Save you the energy.”
“Good. Try not to use magic just yet if we can help it. Form up!”
Calruz turned and began ordering the Horns of Hammerad while the other Captains did the same. The adventurers somehow understood what they were meant to do and moved smoothly into position, but Olesm blinked around, confused.
Ceria tugged him into line behind the warriors, who’d formed a wall of shields and weapons staggered so that they could fall back if need be. The mages waited in the back, ready to cast if need be while Cervial took his team to the front.
Eight adventurers, including him, set arrows to a collection of bows. Several longbows and shortbows, but the Dwarven crossbow and two slings as well. Cervial held the crossbow, sighting down it calmly as he knelt with one knee raised to steady the weapon.
He raised a hand. The adventurers, already silent, made no sound.
“I hear them.”
Ceria did too. And soon, every Human could hear the rapid, thudding footfalls echoing in the distance. They were faint, but growing louder.
Olesm was shaking with nervous energy. Ceria wanted to calm him down, but she was afraid touching him would make him shout. So she waited.
As the sounds grew louder, she also heard faint moaning and growling in the distance. The zombies were making noise. She saw Cervial’s eyes narrow, and he swung the crossbow up.
The bolt discharged with a loud thunk, and two of the adventurers with longbows shot as well. Ceria couldn’t even see that far into the darkness, but Cervial nodded.
One of his team nodded, and the other shook his head.
“Hit one in the leg.”
“Chest shot. Didn’t even slow him.”
They reloaded as they spoke. In a few seconds, their bows flew up and they fired again. They did this twice more before the zombies came into view of the adventurers’ light.
Corpses ran at the adventurers. Corpses given life. They were not Human any longer. They couldn’t be, with parts of them rotted so that intestines and bone poked through their dead skin. They were also dark, some green with fungi and rot, but others blue or black in death, their skin leaking bits of their liquefied innards.
Olesm gulped as they came into view, but Cervial’s team didn’t hesitate. Every weapon moved up, and they began shooting, the slings whirling heavy stones into the eyes and faces of the zombies as the arrows cut down others.
A bolt from the black crossbow punched through the heads of two zombies, tripping up their companions as they ran at the adventurers.
Ten zombies fell. Then twelve. Sixteen. As they were twenty feet away, Cervial surged to his feet.
His team rushed back through the gaps in the line the warriors had left for them. Instantly, the adventurers in front closed ranks. The zombies ran at them, biting, mouths gaping obscenely wide as they lunged at the adventurers.
Calruz was up in front next to Gregor. Ceria saw him raise his axe, but not to swing as a zombie ran at him. He just leveled the axe at the zombie and extended his arm in a jab.
The sharp blades of the battleaxe slammed into the zombie’s chest, knocking it backwards. It fell back, and Calruz brought his axe down casually on its rib cage. Bone broke, and the zombie lay still.
The other adventurers met the undead charge in the same way. Shields rammed into the frail dead bodies, pushing them back while swords, axes, and maces clubbed them down, bashing in their skulls, severing their heads. It wasn’t even close to a fair fight. The adventurers worked in tandem, outnumbered the dead, and had Levels and Skills. The dead only had rotting bodies, and soon, not even that.
After the last crawling zombie had been dispatched, Yvlon looked around.
“Anyone hurt? Any injuries?”
There were none. She went to inspect the corpses along with Cervial and a few of their scouts.
“Hm. Look at this, Yvlon.”
Cervial showed her a few of the corpses. Yvlon saw ruined Human faces, their flesh reeking from their rapid decay. She coughed, and a mage murmured a spell.
“Thank you. What am I supposed to see, Cervial?”
“This. They’re mostly Human, these zombies. And freshly dead. If they weren’t, we’d be fighting skeletons. Average zombies rot to bone in a year or less. Even sealed—they’d be all dried out, not actively rotting.”
“More of the adventurers who first came in?”
“Very likely. But see behind them—?”
The second group was odder than the first—they were both actively still in decomposition, but as she held her nose, she saw the ragged steel and leather they wore was almost as rusted and destroyed as their bodies.
“Drakes. Badly rotted, too. But why would their armor look that old…?”
The Captain of the Flawless Flights bit his lip.
“That sounds like a failing preservation spell to me. Something is keeping them from rotting. Zombies are a bit tougher than skeletons so someone wanted their flesh intact…but didn’t spell the gear. That’s why there’s a mismatch. How long does it take for good armor to get to that state? They must be ancient.”
“Or something is restoring their flesh. Wonderful. Do you think the main threat will be the undead, then?”
“They don’t play nice with other monsters. That would be my best bet.”
Cervial grinned, his teeth illuminated in the torchlight. Then his smile faded.
“Still, that was quite a group. Not exactly a small welcoming committee, was it?”
Yvlon shook her head.
“For our first real encounter in here? I’d say it was light enough.”
The other man nodded, but he still seemed troubled.
“Zombies can sense the living. It’s only natural they’d feel so many of us and come running.”
“Still. That was a bit too convenient and quick for my liking. Normally, I’d expect them to be spread out as they sense us and follow each other, not rush all at once like that.”
The armored woman paused, thinking.
“Could be coincidence.”
She nodded to the scouts.
They nodded and disappeared up ahead, their lights rapidly fading in the blackness.
Ceria found Olesm was shaking, but not with fear after the short battle. He stared at the dead, gagging slightly until the magic wind took away the stench.
“That was so—so impressive! There were so many, but you took care of them like—like—”
The Drake tried to snap shaking fingers. Ceria smiled.
“I had nothing to do with it. Good old fashioned metal did the trick here. Which is a good thing. If we had to start casting over a few undead, we’d be in trouble.”
The half-Elf glanced up. Yvlon was waving her to the front next to the other Captains. She also gestured at Olesm.
Ceria approached, Olesm trailing behind her. Yvlon smiled at both.
“Not a bad start, is it? We work well together.”
“Still, that was a lot of undead. Should we expect more up ahead?”
“More than likely. We were debating using your [Illumination] spell now, Ceria. What do you think?”
“I can’t use the lights to illuminate where I haven’t been. I could use it to light the way back but—I think I should wait. It’s not like we’re so far in that it’s hard to find our way back, and when I do cast it, it should be at a place we mean to hold for a longer time.”
“When we make camp, then. We’ll find a spot. But we’re hours from needing rest, so we’ll hold off.”
“Are we moving forwards now?”
“Almost. The scouts are saying this corridor begins to slope downwards. This is the place that leads to the second floor.”
“That’s where all the other teams disappeared.”
“Exactly. We’re going in ready for anything.”
Gregor and Calruz were indeed bringing all of the best adventurers to the front, creating a wall of flesh and metal while the mages and adventurers carrying ranged weapons followed behind.
“I’m sticking in the middle while Cervial’s team covers the rear. Will you walk with me, Ceria?”
“I’d be delighted to. Olesm?”
“Oh, I’d be honored. And they’re moving. Should we—?”
Yvlon and Ceria walked forwards and took their positions in the middle of the group. The Silver Spears spaced themselves out across the corridor, forming a second line that could hold if the front had to fall back.
The Human adventurer talked quietly with Ceria while Olesm lagged behind them, awkwardly chatting up Sostrom as they walked down the corridor’s increasing slope.
“I’m glad you aren’t angry at me.”
“Angry? Why would I be?”
Yvlon smiled ruefully.
“I feel like I had a lot to do with the—incident involving Ryoka earlier. I truly didn’t mean to cause that much trouble.”
Ceria shrugged awkwardly.
“That was mostly her fault.”
“Even so. My aunt had mentioned how much she wanted to meet this Runner, and I couldn’t fathom why. I wanted to test her, but not push her over the edge.”
“That girl is all edge. I don’t understand why Magnolia—well, there are certain things that strike me about her. But why the lady of Reinhart would spend so much effort on her is beyond me.”
“Beyond me as well, I’m afraid. My aunt does not confide in anyone, and she has—eclectic interests. But I do hope Ryoka doesn’t do anything rash. Once you fall into my aunt’s machinations, it is hard to break free.”
Ceria was surprised. She looked at Yvlon in the flickering light and saw the adventurer smile.
“You don’t want to capture Ryoka to gain favor with her?”
“Let’s just say I admire her independence, if not her self-control. Besides, it’s bad if Aunt Magnolia gets everything she wants. Hold up, what’s this?”
The adventurers had stopped at an open room, large and filled with stone altars and the remains of wooden tables. And curiously, open stone slabs placed symmetrically around the room.
“Strange. What kind of stone places are these? It looks like you’d put something on them, but for what? Alchemy? Look, there’s even a divot where you’d kneel, here…to do what?”
Ceria shook her head as she stared at the plinths placed around the room. They had an odd—formality to them that reminded her of a noble court. But it had no meaning to the adventurers, any of them.
“I’ve seen the like in pictures of Drath. Maybe some kind of ultra-formal area? Wait…you’d be facing this wall. And there was something here. See? A statue?”
She pointed, and the adventurers shone lights at a broken pedestal. There was only dust and fragments of stone there. Yvlon bit her lip.
“So this was maybe some kind of memorial?”
The half-Elf had to demure again. She went to the slabs of covered stone next.
“No. This is—different from above. What are those open places for? They look—big. Long enough to accommodate a body.”
Yvlon was skeptical.
“A place to sleep? They look—far too uncomfortable even if you filled them with blankets. They’re closer to legends from my family of Vampyres.”
The Captain of the Silver Spears shrugged it off, mock-shivering.
“Oh, some long-dead monster. A children’s story. House Byres has lots of old tales like that. I should tell you the one about the Silver Dragon. But no one’s sleeping in these uncomfortable boxes. Nor do I see anyone straining their back using them as storage devices. Any other ideas, Ceria?”
Ceria shrugged. And then her eyes widened.
“I know. This is a place to put dead bodies to be cleansed before they’re buried. This isn’t a memorial. It’s a crypt.”
The adventurers around her who heard that muttered, half in agreement, the other half worried. It was good and bad news. Ceria heard Gerial explaining why to Olesm behind her.
“A crypt or a tomb is good because there’s probably treasure buried with the dead. But it usually means traps, ancient curses and hexes on the lids of tombs, and so on. Not to mention the undead.”
Yvlon raised her voice to be heard by the others.
“It’s a good sign, though. We know there’s something valuable here. Any place with this much architecture had to be important.”
Gregor nodded. He seemed happier than Ceria ever remembered seeing him.
“Could be powerful artifacts up ahead. Let’s keep moving.”
“This is a good place to fall back to, though. See—there’s only two ways in, and we can use that long corridor as a killing zone with our bows if we need to.”
Cervial pointed around the room. Yvlon nodded with the other Captains.
“If we can’t find anywhere better, we’ll camp here. But for now—let’s continue.”
The adventurers formed up again and moved onwards, a bit faster now that they knew what might lie ahead. A tomb, or perhaps a treasury for the dead. It made their hearts beat a little faster, their feet move a little quicker.
Ceria was just about to ask Yvlon more about Ryoka and what she had been told about the girl when someone exclaimed up ahead. She and Yvlon pushed forwards again and found a split in their path.
“What’s this? A split in the road? Which way did the scouts go?”
Gregor growled while Calruz squatted on the ground and looked around for a sign.
“No markings on the walls. Why didn’t they double back and warn us?”
Yvlon frowned as Cervial and Menes both pushed their way forwards.
“That is odd. Should we send a spell to contact them? Menes, you said your group used a short-distance communication spell, right?”
Menes nodded. He raised his glowing staff.
“I will talk with them. One moment—hold on, what’s this?”
The glowing bright-blue light from his staff had illuminated something further down the corridor. Menes pointed and walked over to something on the ground while the other Captains followed him.
“It’s quite large—a bag?”
It was indeed a bag, or rather, a large, bulky sack sitting on the ground. It wasn’t alone. Ceria could see a few more objects lying on the floor, although the light didn’t illuminate them.
“Careful, Menes. It could be a trap.”
“Hm. [Detect Magic]. Nothing.”
Cautiously, Menes poked the bag with the tip of his staff. He moved the sides a bit, and something spilled out. Menes swung the tip of his staff down, and his eyes widened.
It was indeed gold. As the other adventurers exclaimed, Menes carefully picked up the piece of gold and stared at it.
“It’s not money obviously. But what is it? It looks—like part of something else. A broken piece of gold from a wall or—or statue or something.”
“Is there more inside?”
Cautiously, an adventurer opened the bag and exclaimed in amazement.
“More gold! And jewels! Gods, it’s a small fortune!”
Several other adventurers clustered around instantly, but Cervial pushed them back. He bent and picked up a small ruby, staring hard at it.
“This is strange.”
He showed the gem to Yvlon and the others. Ceria could see it glowing in the light. It was clearly high-quality, but there was something off about it.
“Look at the sides. Stone. It was attached to something. A wall perhaps, or some kind of art?”
“You’re saying this is from some other part of the building. Looted by an adventurer…?”
“Must be. And these other…yes, these are all bags full of loot! Abandoned. Why?”
“Something got them. Or—scared them enough that they dropped everything and ran.”
“But no one ever made it down to the second floor and returned.”
The adventurers fell silent. Ceria felt the slight pricking of unease in her stomach.
Strangely, it was Olesm who spoke in the silence. He looked around in the darkness, eyes flicking around him.
“Those scouts. They never reported the split in the tunnel. And they would have come back. Where did they go?”
Yvlon opened her mouth, and then her eyes widened. A third of the adventurers in the room jerked or grabbed at their weapons. Ceria had felt it too.
Ceria and Yvlon exchanged a look.
That was the only warning they had. Something shrieked off in the distance, and the dead poured out of the walls.