Ryoka closed her eyes and knew she was happy. It was such a rare feeling she savored it.
Ceria was alive. One of them was alive. That the others were not—
She could focus on that later. But one person remained. They weren’t all dead.
She was saved.
It was just a moment. And then Ryoka blinked away her watery eyes and got to work.
The catacombs were still dark, and they were still in danger. Ceria slumped as Erin held her, and Olesm was leaning all of his weight against a coffin. The air was foul and smelled like crap in a literal sense. It was also dusty, and Ryoka felt an overpowering sense of claustrophobia after being down here so long.
“We need to get you out of here.”
“We need to feed them first.”
Ryoka frowned at Erin.
“With what? I didn’t bring much. I’ve got some dry rations in my pack, but we’re in the middle of the ruins.”
“Is now really the time to eat?”
“There’s always time for a meal. Besides—”
Erin nodded at Ceria. Ryoka looked at her shrunken frame.
But Ceria was shaking her head. She tried to stand upright, her eyes determined.
“If there’s danger I can make it to the surface. The other undead—”
“Haven’t seen them. Here, sit.”
Erin guided Ceria to another closed coffin and gently helped the half-elf onto the stone bench. Ryoka hesitated, but Erin was already unslinging her pack.
“We should set a watch.”
“I will be vigilant.”
Ksmvr nodded to the others and he moved towards the door. Toren stood with his sword drawn, looking around the room.
Erin was busy pulling out flat, squished objects from her pack. They’d been lying underneath her supply of rocks and other equipment. Ryoka stared as Erin began to unwrap them.
“You made sandwiches?”
“I thought we’d be down here for a long time. I’ve got soup, too!”
“It’s food. Why? Do you not like soup?”
Ryoka opened her mouth and closed it. She waved away the proffered water flask filled with soup. And nodded at Olesm and Ceria. The two were sitting down, swaying slightly and blinking around. They seemed dazed, which made sense.
“Four days. Or maybe three. And they were in the coffins the entire time?”
Erin shuddered as she assembled her meal. There was a terrible stink in the air, but both she and Ryoka were hungry enough not to care. She looked over at the Drake and half-elf and shook her head.
“I go crazy if I have to sit on a plane for more than an hour. How’d they do it?”
“You can go through a lot in order to survive. Here, give me the soup.”
“Oh, you changed your mind?”
Erin smiled and handed Ryoka the soup flask again.
“It’s good stuff! Beef broth and chopped up veggies so you can drink it.”
It was the soup Ryoka gave to Olesm and Ceria, with instructions to only have a small amount at first. When Erin and Pisces protested, Ryoka overrode them.
“Remember the people rescued from concentration camps? A lot of them died from overeating when soldiers gave them candy bars and too much food.”
Pisces looked blankly at Ryoka, but Erin understood.
“You can die from overeating?”
“Something like that. Your system goes into shock. It can’t process the food so suddenly.”
“Ryoka says that the food is too rich for their stomachs. They’ll get sick and die.”
Pisces looked at Ryoka for a second, and then took one of the squashed sandwiches and bit into it. He made a face.
“If you don’t like it, don’t eat it!”
Erin scowled at him while she handed Ryoka another sandwich and Rags one more. Ryoka’s sandwich turned out to have fried fish in it. She found she was suddenly ravenous and devoured her meal and another sandwich in seconds.
While Pisces and Rags were devouring their food and Ksmvr was nibbling at another flatwich as Erin insisted on calling them, the innkeeper went over to Olesm and Ceria. They were sharing some of the soup Ryoka had given them, but they didn’t seem to have much of an appetite.
“I feel full. Should I be feeling full after only a few sips?”
Ceria smiled weakly at Erin as the girl approached. Erin’s eyes were drawn to Ceria’s skeletal hand, but she looked back up at her friend’s face and forced a smile. She also ignored the terrible stench that was coming from Ceria.
“That’s what Ryoka says. Your stomach hasn’t had anything to eat, so it shrunk down. You won’t be able to handle much food for a while.”
“Oh, good. It’s so hard to stay thin, the way I eat.”
Erin smiled at Ceria’s joke. Her eyes moved to Olesm. The Drake was very pale. His light blue scales had turned even lighter, and dead scales flaked off every time he moved. He smelled even worse than Ceria did.
She reached out towards him, but the Drake flinched away. Concerned, Erin looked at him.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Erin. Really. It’s just—”
Olesm looked at Ceria for help. The half-elf shrugged.
“Um, we might need some water if you have it. And some clean cloths?”
“I can get that. But why…?”
For the first time, Erin studied Olesm. He looked just as desiccated as Ceria, but he was also doing his best to stay as far away from her on the coffin’s seat as possible. He’d been wearing leather armor, but something had torn it mostly to shreds. Parts of his scales were scratched, but not badly.
But his clothes did seem rumbled, and the area around his leggings were…brown…
Olesm caught Erin’s eye and turned pink. Ceria coughed into her good hand. Erin noticed that she was crossing her legs, too.
“We could use something to clean ourselves with. Rather urgently.”
Erin backed away from them. The smell searing her nose suddenly intensified now that she was aware of its origin.
“Oh. Oh. I’ll uh, I’ll—”
She half-dashed to her rucksack, where Ryoka was eating her third sandwich. The other girl had saved Erin some soup and a squashed sandwich from Rags and Pisces, but Erin ignored that.
“Oh, nothing. Um, don’t go over there just yet.”
Ryoka always wanted an answer, especially if the reason was ‘because I said so’. Erin paused for a second and tried to say what she meant without Pisces figuring it out. Rags had clearly already made the connection because she was sitting several meters away.
“Um, you know how you were talking about survival and all that? Well, just imagine the coffins as one big…diaper.”
Ryoka’s face went blank for a fraction of a second, and then her eyes widened.
“Do they need water? I’ve got a flask and some bandages that might—”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry! I packed all of the essentials!”
One of those essential items was one of Ryoka’s water flasks and a clean bit of cloth from Erin’s pack. Ceria explained as she used one of the stone coffin lids as a privacy screen. Not that there was much need to hide; only Pisces and Olesm had to look away. Ksmvr was clearly indifferent.
“The first few days I cleaned up after myself with spells. It was a waste of mana. But I thought the undead might smell. After that…well, you don’t have much of a problem when there’s nothing to eat.”
It was an aspect of living in a stone coffin neither Erin nor Ryoka had wanted to ponder or wished to dwell long on. At least Ceria didn’t smell too bad. Olesm on the other hand—
“I had the same problem. And I don’t have magic, okay?”
Everyone stayed clear of him until Olesm had finished thoroughly washing himself down. Pisces even provided magical assistance. At a distance.
Olesm grumbled as a fine spray of water misted him. He twisted his head to glare at Pisces as the mage studiously looked away.
“Can’t you give me more water? All you’re doing is making everything wet.”
Pisces sniffed, which turned out to be a mistake.
“I’m no [Hydromancer], and I specialize in ice magic. Besides, the air is dry around here. This is the best you’re going to get.”
Erin stared at Ceria as the half-elf finished scrubbing herself. She made to hand the cloth back to Erin, looked at it, and then tossed it back in one of the coffins. Erin offered her another clean roll of linen – Ryoka’s emergency bandages, and Ceria finished wiping with that.
“How’d you survive so long without water? Or did you have supplies?”
“Olesm did. A few of the dried rations, but we lost our packs during the—the attack.”
Ceria coughed and took another small sip of what was left in the flask after her impromptu bath.
“But we didn’t have any water. I burned up all the mana I had left creating ice for us to suck on.”
She shook her head.
“Another day or two and we’d be dead. We couldn’t even move the lids from the inside anymore. I really thought this was it. When I heard your voices and realized you couldn’t hear me—”
“It was Ryoka who figured out where you were hiding.”
Erin pointed to Ryoka. The barefoot girl was alternately avoiding stepping in any of the runoff generated by Olesm and Ceria’s baths and staring none-too-covertly at Olesm’s private…parts. Ceria smiled.
“Ryoka. And you met her? The world’s full of surprises. Or maybe it’s fate.”
She laughed, coughed, and grimaced weakly. Erin sprang forwards to help her, but Ceria waved her away. Her skeletal hand—
Erin saw that Ceria saw that she was looking and turned away. Ceria shrugged, and the two were silent. In the end, Erin spoke again.
“Well, I’m glad you’re okay. Really glad.”
Erin had said that before several times, but this time Ceria seemed recovered enough to respond. She smiled at Erin.
“I am, too. But I never would have imagined the group that came to get me.”
“Yeah, it’s sort of weird, huh?”
Ceria raised an eyebrow.
“To put it lightly. I recognize the little Goblin and Pisces, but that Antinium…that’s not Pawn, is it? They all look the same. Did he regrow his limbs or something?”
“No. That’s um, Ksmvr.”
The Prognugator looked up at the sound of his name. When he saw the two were looking at him, he turned away. Ceria shook her head.
“Huh. You’ve got a lot to explain to me, I can tell.”
Olesm rejoined the group at last. He smelled a lot better than he had, but he still exuded a personal bubble no one was willing to breach. He bowed at Erin clumsily, nearly falling over as he did.
“Miss Solstice, I am in your debt again. What you’ve done for me and Ceria—I can never repay. I joined this expedition to change myself, but in the end…”
Olesm stopped and shook his head. He wiped at his eyes.
“I’m just lucky to be alive. I won’t forget this, I promise you.”
Then he looked up and hesitated.
“I’m grateful, I really am. But why didn’t anyone send the Watch in after us? I mean, I understand they were nervous, but I have friends! Didn’t they want to save me?”
Erin exchanged a glance with Ryoka, although she got more of the glance. She turned red and fidgeted.
“Um, well, we spoke to Zevara, but she didn’t want to send anyone to help us. She said she didn’t want to risk sending anyone on a wild goose chase.”
Olesm looked shocked. His tail thrashed the ground in agitation.
“Zevara? But she knows me! I’m sure she would have sent someone—she’d at least have hired a mage to cast [Detect Life] or something!”
“Well, I’m sure she would have…if…she knew you were alive.”
“What? Didn’t you tell her I was with the others?”
Erin avoided Olesm’s gaze.
“I, um, forgot you were with the Horns of Hammerad. I don’t think anyone else in the city knew you were going, either.”
“I’m so sorry, Olesm! It’s just with the attack on the city and the bad news and the giant skin creature—”
Both Olesm and Ceria broke out of their happy reverie in horror. Ceria unconsciously grabbed for Ryoka’s arm with her skeletal hand and stopped.
“What happened? Did anyone make it out? Rot, we should have asked earlier. But if you’re here, the undead—”
Ryoka tried to reassure Ceria without looking at her maimed hand.
“Don’t worry. They’re not out there anymore.”
“But what happened?”
That was a question Ryoka couldn’t answer, but the others could. Erin broke in, talking excitedly.
“It was crazy! A bunch of undead came out of the Ruins and started attacking the city! I was in my inn so I didn’t see everything, but Krshia says they got into the city before the north gates got closed. The entire city was fighting in the streets!”
Olesm groaned aloud. He grabbed at Erin.
“How many died? How many…?”
Ceria interrupted Olesm. She looked sharply at Erin.
“Did he come out? Is he still out there?”
Ceria’s skeletal fingers twitched. Ryoka stared in horror at them, but only Rags noticed. The Goblin edged away from Ceria as she tried to explain.
“It was what was leading the undead. A horror made of skin. He guards this crypt. He killed the others. Did it get out? Is he still alive?”
Ryoka had no idea who or what Skinner was, but the others did. Erin’s smile faded. Pisces glanced around the ruins and shook his head.
“Skinner? Yeah, I saw it. He’s dead.”
Ceria and Olesm both sighed in relief. But then Ceria looked up.
“How? That thing had some kind of magical ability. It projected fear.”
“I know. I felt it.”
Something. Ryoka glanced at Erin. She had that unsettlingly vacant look on her face again, that expressionless glimpse into something far away. Pisces and Rags were looking at her too. Just what…?
“He attacked my inn. Him and a bunch of undead. They tried to kill me, but all of the Workers—the Antinium I played chess with—they came to help. And all the Workers fought and—”
Erin broke off. Ceria and Olesm were staring at her, but no harder than Ryoka. Workers? Antinium? Chess? She’d fought the thing that killed—
“And he died. Rags killed him. Her and the other Goblins, I mean. He was this large worm underneath all the skin and we—he died. The Goblins ate part of him and then burned the rest.”
Ryoka had run through the High Passes and lived. She’d done something no Runner in the area had done in years. She was the fastest Runner in perhaps a hundred miles. Maybe that made Ryoka special, but Erin was different altogether.
Erin had fought monsters.
And though it was silly to look at the young woman and imagine her fighting some kind of flesh monster that even Calruz and the others couldn’t defeat, part of Ryoka had no doubt that she’d done it. With help, yes. With luck and chance, perhaps. But she’d done it.
Ceria stared at Erin for a second. Olesm was open-mouthed, eyes bulging. But Ceria was just quiet. She met Erin’s eyes.
“You killed it. You.”
Erin shrugged uncomfortably. She pointed at the Goblin sitting behind her.
Pisces choked on one of the sandwiches and coughed as he stared at Rags. The Goblin scratched at one ear and looked around defiantly.
“A Goblin and an [Innkeeper].”
“Lots of Goblins, Workers, and Klbkch and some Soldiers too.”
Ceria shook her head.
“Ha. Course. It’s just—”
She began to giggle, and then to laugh. Ryoka blinked. Ceria started laughing hysterically. Erin reached out and steadied Ceria as the half-Elf laughed until she choked and began to cry.
“I’m—I’m sorry. It’s just…”
She laughed again, a short barking exclamation. Ceria stared wide-eyed ahead, face caught in a taut grin.
“I know. He nearly killed me. And he killed almost all of my friends. And a lot of the City Watch.”
Erin held Ceria as the mage began to shake again. Ryoka felt helpless. She wasn’t the type of person to reach out and comfort someone. But she wished she was.
Ceria said it quietly as her tears leaked into Erin’s shirt. She looked at Ryoka.
“Thank you so much.”
Ryoka shook her head.
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You came for us. Thank you.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Olesm bowed his head at Ryoka. She nodded back, feeling like a worthless piece of trash. She hadn’t done anything. In a very real way, she was even more of an outsider to this moment than Ksmvr and Toren, who were watching silently as they stood guard. They’d fought the undead and this Skinner. All she’d done was get here too late.
Pisces cleared his throat noisily. When Ceria looked at him, he flashed her a condescending smile.
“I believe part of that thanks belongs to me. I did receive your message, after all. Without my urging, we would never have gone looking for you. I also eliminated quite a swath of the undead during the battle.”
Erin and Ryoka both frowned at Pisces. Erin opened her mouth to scold him, but Ceria nudged her very gently.
Ceria turned to Pisces and bowed her head deeply.
“Thank you, Master Mage.”
She said it without a trace of irony or sarcasm. Pisces blushed and looked away.
“Yes, well. We Wistram students must stick together, mustn’t we?”
“If we’d brought you along in the expedition…”
Ceria shook her head. Ryoka wanted to know what happened, but she wasn’t sure now was the time to ask.
Erin looked at Ceria, concern in her eyes. The half-Elf closed her eyes and for a moment Ryoka worried it would be too much to ask. But then she began to speak.
“It started when we got to the second floor. Everything had been going fine before that. We’d run into a nest of Shield Spiders, but nothing besides that. But then we met a group of zombies…”
Ryoka listened to an abbreviated version of all that had happened up to Skinner emerging from the treasury doors.
“It must not have been locked. That thing was just waiting inside for the right moment. He killed Cervial, Gerald, and half of us in moments. And then when we arrived and tried to make a stand—”
Ceria closed her eyes and shook her head. Another tear formed unshed in her eyes.
“He killed them all. Gerial, Sostrom…he tore off Calruz’s arm. I couldn’t even fight back while he was staring at me.”
She looked at Erin.
“You avenged them. Thank you for that.”
Erin shook her head, but not in denial. She looked at Olesm.
“And what happened to you?”
Ceria smiled at Olesm.
“He saved my life.”
The scales around Olesm’s face turned a light red as everyone looked at him. He demurred.
“I didn’t do much. I just ran when that thing appeared and dragged Ceria into one of the coffins. It was all I could do.”
“He saved my life.”
Ceria said simply. She showed the others her frostbitten hand.
“I could barely move and a Ghoul was savaging me. He stabbed it from behind and used a healing potion to mend the worst of my wounds. If he hadn’t been there, I would have died.”
Erin reached over and patted the Drake on the shoulder.
“Good job, Olesm.”
He blushed and shook his head again silently. Ryoka looked at Ceria’s hand and hesitated.
“Is that how you lost…?”
Ryoka indicated Ceria’s hand. The half-Elf looked down and laughed. The fingers didn’t move, but she seemed to be able to move the blackened stump just fine and without any pain.
“This? No. I—well, I used a spell above my level, that’s all.”
Pisces peered at Ceria’s hand, frowning at the blackened skin.
“I can sense the magical residue. Frost spell? [Glacial Spear]?”
“Nothing so fancy. I just used up all the magic in my wand; that’s all.”
Erin glared at Pisces again, but Ceria just nodded.
“I had to create an opening for the others.”
“The others. Yvlon was trying to get away. Do you know if she…?”
Erin exchanged a glance with Pisces and shook her head.
“I uh, didn’t ask. Some adventurers survived.”
Ryoka nodded at Ceria. The half-Elf hesitated, looking at Ryoka’s face.
“She’s catatonic. She doesn’t speak or move.”
Ceria bowed her head and closed her eyes. Again, Ryoka didn’t know what to say. Saying ‘at least she’s alive’ seemed crass even to her. She cleared her throat and looked around instead.
“This Skinner. How do you know his name?”
This time Olesm explained. He pointed at the writing on the wall Ceria had translated and everyone looked up. Pisces frowned and cast the same spell Ceria had, while Ryoka stared at the engraved symbols.
“Now how’d we miss that?”
Erin asked indignantly, and Ryoka echoed the question in her head, only with more self-rebuke. They’d completely missed that detail. And it was a damn important one, if this Skinner had had siblings.
It was completely incomprehensible to Ryoka, but the writings reminded her of Arabic or another Central Semitic language. It was flowing and elongated, which put her in mind of Drakes. That was jumping the gun of any hypothesis though.
Ryoka hesitated and looked at the others. Should she…? But Pisces had already heard too much and Ceria had seen it already. She took out her iPhone and switched it on.
The screen glowed to life. Ryoka looked at the battery level. 24%. Surprisingly high, given how long she’d been using it, but Sostrom’s [Repair] spell must have restored the failing battery as well.
Sostrom. Ryoka’s heart hurt, but she pushed the feeling aside. She raised the iPhone as she switched to camera mode.
Ryoka’s iPhone lit up the inscriptions for a moment and emitted the classical shutter closing sound. Rags stared at Ryoka’s iPhone as if dumbstruck. Pisces blinked and frowned and Olesm gaped.
“What was that? Is that some kind of magical object?”
“Something like that.”
Ryoka put her iPhone back in its holster as Pisces stared at it covetously. She noticed Rags staring at the device as well and resolved never to drop it or leave it unattended.
“I’ve never seen anything like that. Is that steel and glass?”
Olesm paused. His eyes widened and he turned to Ceria.
“Oh. She’s the crazy violent Runner girl you told me about? The one with no levels?”
Ceria laughed and coughed at the same time. Olesm blinked, and then realized what he’d said. His tail lashed the ground nervously as he held up his hands.
“I didn’t mean—what I meant by that was—”
It wasn’t how a rescue was supposed to go, Ryoka was certain. But it was real, and reality beat a fairytale ending every time. They still had to get out of the ruins of course, and Erin had just realized Pisces ate the last sandwich she’d packed. There was confusion and anger and dust and empty coffins and the still-present smell of feces, but…
Ceria was still alive.
Ryoka was saved.
And when she had a spare moment, Ryoka walked away from the others. The wide passageway was still empty of any moving corpses, but that wasn’t what Ryoka was concerned with.
She walked past rotting piles of…muscle. Organs. Bone. It was impossible to really say. She had no wish to disturb the dead, and the shapeless mounds sickened her.
But she looked anyways. Ryoka paused next to a piece of armor covered in redness. She squatted down and tried not to vomit on the remains.
Was it him? Ryoka could barely remember what armor Gerial had been wearing. And Calruz—how would she even tell? She could look for bigger bones, she supposed.
It wasn’t right. This wasn’t right. She couldn’t even bury them, even if she knew which ones they were. She could—put them in a coffin? How? Lift up the entrails and guts with her hands? Use a shovel? A bag?
It was all wrong. All so wrong. And Ceria was alive—Ryoka had to prioritize her. But her heart hurt.
“Too slow. And too weak.”
Far too weak. She hadn’t even killed a zombie coming down here. Of all of the people who’d come to save Ceria, Ryoka had been the most useless in the end.
“To be fair, I do not believe anyone expected much of you.”
Ryoka looked up and turned around. Pisces was standing behind her. He raised his hands as she stared at him.
“I merely followed you to ensure your safety. It would not do for something to ambush you.”
Was that the reason? Ryoka stared at Pisces and then mentally shrugged. She stood in the corridor and stared at the dead remains. After a while she turned and began walking back. Pisces followed her.
“It occurs to me that we have little to discuss.”
“That’s about right.”
They didn’t speak for several more minutes. Now this, this was what Ryoka was used to. Awkward silence and trite conversations. She searched for something to say.
“Thanks for your help, though.”
“Think nothing of it. For my part, I am…relieved Ceria is alright.”
“You know her?”
“We have a history. Not so much a relationship as a passing acquaintance, but once—suffice it to say that we were students in Wistram together, and that we were once…friends. I felt the world would be poorer for Springwalker’s absence, that is all.”
“I see. It’s good you came.”
“Yes. I agree.”
“That artifact you used…it is quite interesting.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“Might I see it? I promise to be quite careful.”
“Mm. Maybe someday.”
“Ah. That would be a polite way of saying ‘never’, would it not?”
They walked on. It was quite far to get back to the room with coffins, but Ryoka felt running and leaving Pisces behind would be a faux pas. She was tempted to do it, though.
After an interminable amount of time, Pisces spoke again.
“Would you consent to letting me inspect that device if I told you there is a strong trace of magic on it?”
Ryoka stopped. Pisces nearly ran into her. She stared at him.
“You can see that?”
“Yes. It’s quite obvious to me. I suppose Springwalker was distracted, but I can…sense something. Was some sort of [Message] spell cast here, by chance?”
Ryoka hesitated. Weigh the options. But it might be worth the risk.
“And it was linked to that device somehow. Well, I may be able to recover that conversation if you should wish it?”
“You can do that? How?”
Pisces smiled enigmatically, or in a way he probably thought was enigmatic. It looked smug, to Ryoka.
“I was a student at Wistram. That spell uses their methods as its base. Any older student learns to pick apart the incantation to see what is spoken. Hence the unique version of the spell Ceria and I know.”
“It won’t damage…whatever that is. And I can be trusted to be discreet.”
Again, Ryoka hesitated. Think. If he learned the details of the conversation…well, was the cat out of the bag already? But he was offering to restore the conversation, which would be extremely helpful.
Ceria could do it. But after how many days? More importantly, what was the real risk? If he knew…
The world would soon know. And far more dangerous people than he had already figured it out. Ryoka handed him her iPhone.
Pisces held the slim phone extremely carefully as he studied it. But after a cursory glance at the construction of the device, he seemed to peer at something else, some invisible substance hovering in the air around it.
Ryoka wished she knew what he was looking at. She was able to cast magic…or one spell to be exact. But even though she tried to focus her eyes, she saw nothing.
“You can see what was cast?”
“Yes—an odd messaging spell. Some kind of written communication system? It’s very…bright.”
Ryoka realized he must be looking at the chat log, the magical screen that had appeared when she answered the call.
“I didn’t realize it would still be visible.”
“Yes, well, the magic cast for this spell is several magnitudes greater than…almost any spell I’ve seen before. It must originate from Wistram. I would know that even without the spell signature. Only they would be this moronic.”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head in disdain. Ryoka looked at him. It was always nice to meet someone who liked to talk if they had something worth hearing.
“What makes you say that?”
He gestured to the iPhone. The air seemed to shimmer at his fingertips.
“It’s the nature of this spell. I—have no idea how it was done, to be honest. I can only speculate that a high level mage, or several of them used a [Far Speaking] spell combined with some kind of location spell and this…thing. I imagine a [Message] spell accounts for this, but it would require an insane amount of mana.”
“If one person were to ah, write in this discussion, everyone who received it would necessitate a [Message] spell. It’s a complex bit of magic and the cost would be multiplied by the number of participants. So many messages…only those fools at Wistram would have the magic to cast such a spell.”
Ryoka thought she understood Pisces’ disdain. If what he was saying was right, the conversation she’d taken part in had an exponential cost with each user that joined.
Sixteen times…at least fifty, possibly a hundred messages in the chat. A thousand and six hundred spells cast? No wonder voice chat was out of the question.
The air was beginning to waver. Pisces frowned and his hands began to glow even brighter, shedding tendrils of blue light that flowed together to form the screen again.
Ryoka blinked as the chat log came back into focus. It hovered in the air over her iPhone, a blue screen with white text. Pisces was sweating.
“I ah, seem to have miscalculated. Even restoring this log seems to be taxing me quite unduly.”
“I’ve seen most of the details. Here. Give me that.”
Ryoka took the iPhone from Pisces as he frowned and more magic flowed out of his hands. Ryoka quickly scrolled down the chat, pausing a few times. Pisces’ eyes darted left and right, trying to read. She didn’t give him much time, though.
Ryoka got to the end – where she’d signed off as batman, and suddenly stopped. She saw the notification for her logging out, but there was more text below it.
Pisces peered over Ryoka’s shoulder as she read the conversation between [Kent Scott] and [twinTrouble_53]. Her mind was spinning, and that was before she read the brief message in Japanese at the bottom.
“Now that is interesting.”
The chat log abruptly vanished. Pisces lowered his hands and mopped at his brow.
“I am fine. Just…taxed.”
Pisces took a few deep breaths, steadying himself. He pointed at Ryoka’s iPhone.
“More importantly, I fear your desire for anonymity might be in vain, Miss Griffin. That short conversation contained more import than the rest of your fascinating…discussion. There is a name to frighten those fools at Wistram.”
“You mean twinTrouble?”
“…Yes. This twin trouble character revealed himself to the other one, did he not? After you had ah, closed the connection. The name he called himself. Flos.”
“I’ve heard of him. Flos. The King of Destruction.”
Pisces exhaled slowly and wiped the rest of his sweat away with the hem of his dirty robe.
“Flos. If the sleeping king has indeed awoken, it means this world is about to change. Quite dramatically too, if I’m any judge. Well, even the meanest [Soothsayer] would be able to predict that.”
Ryoka frowned. She’d read about the King of Destruction in a list of contemporary world powers. The entry had been short and intriguing, but all the details had been recorded in another volume she hadn’t bought.
“Tell me about him.”
“What is there to say?”
He caught himself and glanced at Ryoka.
“Ah. Well, to one who might not…know of him, Flos is a king who was once poised to rule over nearly half of the civilized world. He abandoned his kingdom however, and for ten years he has slumbered in his decaying capital. Until now.”
They didn’t have the rhythm that Erin seemed to generate in her conversations. Pisces politely picked at his robe while Ryoka stared at her phone. The mage seemed to think for a second and added a second casual detail.
“The mages at Wistram were quite afraid of him, even inactive as he was.”
“Yes. I suppose you don’t know that the greatest mages living gather every ten years to deliberate on the future?”
“I did not know that. Do tell.”
“They gather together to ponder recent events and plan for the future.”
“Like. A think tank?”
“Yes, well, one of the things the gathering did was attempt to predict what calamities might befall the world. They created a list of the most likely disasters that might destroy civilization or eradicate life as we know it. Flos was named the eighth likeliest candidate so long as he lived.”
Ryoka paused. She opened her mouth, closed it, and tried again.
“Well, his kingdom would follow him wherever he went. Say rather it was his potential the mages feared.”
“Why number eight? Is there any special reason for that?”
Pisces shrugged indifferently.
“The mages speculated that it is far more likely he would conquer the world or be stopped. Destroying everything is an outside chance, as it were.”
“But still the eighth most likely chance.”
Ryoka pondered that for a moment.
“Did this gathering determine how likely it would be that he’d actually conquer the world.”
“He has a 30% chance depending on a number of factors.”
“Quite. I imagine all those able to retrieve a log of this message would be quite alarmed. Word is probably spreading by spell and letter as we speak.”
What was Ryoka supposed to say to that?
Pisces stared at Ryoka. Ryoka stared at Pisces. There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. After a moment, Ryoka coughed in a fake way into her fist.
“We should probably get back to the others.”
“Quite. I trust Ceria and Olesm are well enough to walk by now.”
“We should talk.”
“About what? Aren’t we talking already?”
Erin wondered why Ryoka was trying to corner her in one part of the massive coffin room, but the other girl seemed insistent.
“I know we don’t have time now, but we need to have a long conversation.”
Ryoka gave Erin a flat look, but Erin wasn’t sure what for. After a moment, the Asian girl shook her head.
“About us. About this world, about how we came here and what’s happening.”
“Oh. You mean talk about everything.”
“More or less.”
“Well, now’s not the time. Ceria thinks she can walk so…”
“Of course not now. Once we get back, I mean. At your inn, or somewhere private.”
“My inn’s pretty private. I can lock the door if that helps.”
Erin waited. Ryoka seemed pretty intent, but she really had no idea why.
“Is that it?”
“I suppose. Just—don’t say anything you don’t need to until then, alright?”
That was easy enough. Erin didn’t think she had anything that didn’t need saying…if that even made sense.
“Okay. We talk later.”
It was one of the more awkward exchanges Erin had been privy to, and she’d met a lot of awkward chess players.
Her stomach rumbled. Ryoka and Erin both looked down and Erin covered her stomach.
“Are you hungry? I saved you a sandwich.”
“Pisces ate it.”
“Ceria and Olesm drank most of it and Rags took the rest.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
Olesm grinned weakly as both Erin and Ryoka jumped and turned around. The Drake was on his feet again, although he seemed unsteady.
“I truly didn’t mean to steal your lunch, Erin.”
Erin exchanged a glance with Ryoka.
“You know, a missing meal isn’t going to hurt me. When we get out of here, I’ll cook up a feast, and you’ll all be invited, how’s that?”
Erin caught Ryoka’s eye and amended her statement.
“—And um, make some nourishing broth, too. Maybe postpone the feast for a while?”
“That sounds good.”
Ceria was on her feet. She seemed a little better. There was more color in her cheeks, although they were still deathly pale. But she managed a smile.
“If it means I can get out of this hole, I’ll eat my right hand. It wouldn’t be too hard at this point.”
Erin laughed politely while Ryoka awkwardly avoided looking at Ceria’s hand. Pisces approached and Rags followed, dragging the wreck of the crossbow behind her.
“All is clear.”
Ksmvr nodded at Erin as he and Toren walked over. Erin looked around. Everyone was present, but no one said anything. She cleared her throat.
“Um, shall we go?”
They began the slow ascent back towards the surface. It was slow going, even with Erin helping Ceria and Toren supporting Olesm. The Drake and half-Elf were stiff and their feet dragged with every step. But they were just as eager to return as the others.
“Why didn’t you leave after you realized the other undead weren’t there?”
Erin asked Ceria that after they paused for a break. The half-Elf’s face was pale as she sat on the floor and took a few deep breaths.
“We thought they were waiting to ambush us if we got out. They did that to us the first time. We thought they were just being silent.”
“I kept my coffin open so I could see the undead moving around. Once they all left—a few came back, but the rest never did. I thought they were all destroyed or…or still out there.”
“And then of course we ran out of strength and couldn’t move the lids even when we tried.”
Erin nodded several times, but then frowned.
“Come to think of it…where did all the undead go?”
“Weren’t they all destroyed?”
Erin shook her head.
“There were still hundreds of undead after that thing died. We thought they were going back to the Ruins. But they didn’t go there. In that case, where did they go?”
Everyone looked at Pisces. He raised his hands defensively.
“I didn’t do it.”
Olesm scratched at a flaking patch of dead scales.
“Could the Crypt Lords have commanded the undead to leave?”
Pisces shook his head.
“Doubtful. Those creatures, while intelligent, cannot control a large mass. Even if there were enough Crypt Lords, they would still separate into a thousand groups. No, something else called them away.”
Ryoka frowned. She was sitting next to Ceria, picking caked….stuff from the soles of her feet. Erin looked away.
“Could that have something to do with the empty treasure room?”
Ceria looked up sharply. Erin explained about the missing magical items Pisces had sensed. He rubbed at his chin and nodded several times.
“The treasure room. Of course. Something or someone came here and looted the place…and perhaps called the undead away as well.”
“That’s a pretty big someone. Who?”
Pisces shrugged helplessly.
“I can think of several [Necromancers] powerful enough to command a small horde like that. Any one about Level 30 might manage to direct them in a general sense given time. But to have them leave without fighting or splintering off?”
He began to count names off on his fingers. Ryoka wandered off – to pee, Erin suspected – while Pisces began to pontificate.
“The Krythien Sect, or perhaps the Magnus Corpsus could do it en masse. But as for individuals, it would take a mage like Az’kerash or The Putrid One to perform such a feat. Of course, there are quite a number of small-time cabals and covens that might—”
Pisces broke off when he realized his audience had left him. Erin raised her eyebrows.
“So you don’t know.”
“Not as of such, no.”
“In that case, there’s no use wondering. We can tell Zevara that and warn her once we reach the city.”
Ryoka had returned. She tugged at her pants and nodded at the others.
“Come on. We’re nearly out. Just a bit longer and we can all rest.”
They got up and began walking again. After a few minutes, Erin muttered to Ryoka.
“I sort of wish you hadn’t said that.”
“Well, now it feels like we won’t get out of here, you know?”
Ryoka did know, and she wished Erin hadn’t brought that up. She shook her head.
Ryoka explained. Erin nodded in agreement.
“I mean, I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen. But it just feels like…you know those movies? Or those stories where the hero’s almost out and then the really bad thing happens?”
“Did you watch The Evil Dead? Remember the final scene right where Ash is about to get away and then that thing—”
Erin paused, ignoring Ryoka’s irate look.
“—Well, we don’t actually know what happens but I bet it wasn’t good.”
Ryoka eyed Erin. She was completely lost on how to properly respond. After a moment, she shrugged.
“I never watched that movie.”
“Good. Don’t. It gave me nightmares.”
Erin shuddered and glanced around the dark corridors nervously. Ryoka looked at her.
“Why’d you watch it, then?”
“Oh, one of my friends insisted we watch it when I had a sleepover. I think I was fourteen. Boy, my parents were not happy when they found out why we were all screaming at midnight. But then they watched the rest of it with us which was totally cool.”
Erin trailed off for a few seconds and then regained her thread.
“Anyways, my point is that something bad is going to happen. Some evil monster’s going to jump out.”
That was ridiculous paranoia, and Ryoka almost said so. That sort of thing never happened in their world except by complete coincidence, and it wouldn’t happen here.
…Unless of course this world worked off of the same rules fantasy books and Hollywood movies were made of. If that was the case, they were all dead.
“And if that were the case, everyone would have plot armor.”
Instead, everyone had vulnerable skin which cut and bled easily. But maybe they weren’t the main characters. If this were a story, it would be Erin and Ryoka and all of the people who came to this world who were the main characters.
That was right. Somewhere, out there, a scrawny white boy would appear out of nowhere and be crowned the chosen one. He’d probably get the [Hero] class, a magic sword, and a scar just to be on the safe side. Add in a female lead and a plucky side-character and you had a series.
More thinking like this and she’d go crazy. Ryoka shook her head again. She knocked at it with her fist to get her thoughts in order—
And nearly went blind as she walked into the sunlight.
“Ow! My eyes!”
Erin cried out and Ryoka heard Ceria and Olesm gasp as the group suddenly emerged from the ruins. She couldn’t see anything, but she felt the welcome sun on her skin, and the feeling of the wind on her face. It blew away the musty stale air of the ruins and made her feel alive again.
They were out.
When Ryoka could see, she looked up and saw the verdant green plains surrounding her, patches of wildflowers still blooming even in the beginning of the winter, and two ranks of guardsmen from Liscor facing them with weapons drawn.
Ryoka paused. Pisces immediately backed up and Rags stepped quickly behind Ksmvr. The Antinium regarded the group of guardsmen warily, while Ceria and Olesm only blinked in bemusement at the welcoming committee.
Erin was the last to recover her eyesight, but when she did, she treated the armed guardsmen as if they weren’t dangerous. Ryoka’s first thought was that Erin had clearly never been arrested before or hassled by any kind of law enforcement. Although of course in Ryoka’s case the hassling and suspicion was quite justified given some of the things she’d done. Blowing up a chemistry classroom tends to get you put on a list for the rest of your life.
“Hey, Relc! And Klbkch! What are you guys doing here?”
Erin smiled and walked forwards. That smile vanished as soon as she saw who was leading the group of guardsmen.
Watch Captain Zevara strode forwards as the Gnolls and Drakes around her lowered their weapons. Klbkch and Relc followed closely behind.
Zevara halted in front of Erin and pointed into the ruins.
“How many undead are down there? Are there any traps?”
Erin blinked at Zevara.
“Tell us what we’re facing in there.”
Ryoka looked at the guardsmen and things clicked. It took only half a second longer for Erin to figure it out and then her eyes narrowed in outrage.
“Wait a second. Now you’re going in? You said you didn’t want to risk sending anyone in!”
Zevara dismissed Erin’s statement with a flick of the tail.
“I did say that. I wasn’t about to risk good warriors if the ruins were infested. But if you lot survived, my guardsmen can clear out the rest. We’ll be confiscating all the treasures we find in there, along with anything else left behind.”
So they could take all the treasure before Erin’s group could come back for it. In theory. Ryoka hoped Erin wouldn’t mention the empty treasury just so Zevara could choke on dust for an hour or two searching. But Erin wasn’t concerned about sticking it to the man. She was more concerned about Ceria and Olesm. She pointed at them indignantly, raising her voice.
“Hey, we’ve got injured—well, starved people here! They need food and rest! Why don’t your stupid guardsmen help with that?”
Zevara shook her head impatiently.
“I’ve got no time for those fools who unleashed—”
She paused and stared past Ceria at Olesm. She frowned, took one step forwards, and then gasped.
“Olesm? You were down there?”
Olesm waved weakly at Zevara.
“Hi, Captain Zevara.”
“So that’s where you slithered off to! We were wondering what happened to you!”
Relc laughed and strode forwards. He slapped Olesm on the shoulder, so hard the other Drake fell down. Klbkch helped Olesm back up on his feet.
“Oops. But I kept thinking that a zombie ate you during the attack. But you were down there the entire time? How was it?”
“Hello, Relc. Um, it was—”
“Move aside, you idiot!”
Zevara shoved Relc aside as she moved towards Olesm. Her tail twitched anxiously as she inspected him.
“You’re a mess. But I am glad you’re okay, Olesm. If I’d known our [Tactician] was down there I would have sent help. But now that you’re here we’ll make sure you make a full recovery.”
He blinked at her a few times.
“I am quite grateful, Captain.”
Olesm was still clearly out of it. Zevara looked at him with genuine concern. She turned and started shouting, which made both Olesm and Ceria wince and cover at their ears.
“Get a mage and healing potions for him right now!”
“And for Ceria! She needs help too!”
Erin glared at Zevara. The Drake glared back.
“The adventurers who caused all this can eat dirt for all I—”
She hesitated and glanced at Olesm and bit back her words.
“—That is, we will discuss this later. For now, we’ll treat them. Both of them.”
Guardsmen approached quickly, holding healing potions. Zevara turned towards Erin and Ryoka, and began snapping orders.
“Now, I want you to tell me how many undead you saw, and how many are left. If there are any traps I want their locations. Better yet, one of you two humans or Ksmvr will come with me and show me—”
Zevara ignored the soft voice. But Relc turned his head and tensed up. He grabbed at his spear and stepped back and Klbkch put his hands on his swords. Zevara was too busy arguing with Erin to notice, but when she realized Ryoka was staring right over her shoulder rather than at her, she turned around.
“Who in the name of Dragons is—”
She stopped. The angry words were sucked out of Zevara as if by a sponge made of sound. The guardsmen around her stared. There was something about her, some quality that attracted attention.
Perhaps it was her mottled brown armor, or the curved sword that looked expensive as it was deadly. Or maybe it was her unique appearance, or her status. It might have been all these things or nothing, but everyone stared at her. They couldn’t help it.
The person they were staring at stared back. She was quite good at that.
Gazi, the half-Gazer Named Adventurer smiled at the collection of guardsmen and the party led by Erin and Ryoka. Her main eye focused on both Erin and Ryoka longest before it swiveled back to Zevara. Gazi inclined her head politely.
“Good day to you, Watch Captain, guardsmen.”
Ryoka stared at Gazi. She barely remembered the adventurer’s name, but the place she had met her stuck in her memory. The dead Gnoll bodies, each one beheaded neatly, flashed before her eyes.
Erin had no such memory, and she smiled at Gazi, albeit with confusion. But the others were transfixed. The guardsmen and Olesm were in awe, Relc and Klbkch were in suspicion, and Ceria was suddenly in deep trepidation.
Gazi nodded at Erin and smiled again.
“Erin. It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
It took even Zevara a second to regain her voice. But when she did, she glared at Gazi. She didn’t quite shout or snap at her, but her tone was brusque.
“Gazi. This is official business of Liscor. We don’t need any adventurers. Please remove yourself from the area—”
“Hm. You are quite annoying.”
Gazi cut Zevara off. It took the Drake a moment to blink at her, but then she spluttered in outrage. She raised her voice, and Gazi unsheathed her sword.
Ryoka saw the blade flash out of its sheathe in slow motion. Slow motion, but Gazi still moved like a blur. In less than a second it was in her hand. She unsheathed it, seemed to pause and smile at Ryoka, and then turned towards Zevara.
Gazi raised her sword and stabbed Zevara in the stomach. The curved blade exited Zevara’s back and Gazi twisted the blade as she pulled it out.
Zevara choked on the words, as the shock of what had happened caught up to her. She stared down at the gaping wound in her stomach, blinked at Gazi, and fell down.
Shock and silence reigned. Everyone stared at the fallen Watch Captain, save for Gazi. She turned back to Ryoka and Erin. Something was in her hands. A scroll, marked with shining golden letters that glowed even brighter in the light.
“Greetings, Ryoka Griffin and Erin Solstice.”
Gazi smiled even wider.
“I’ve been looking for you.”