Ceria Springwalker stared down at her skeletal hand and for a brief moment, wondered what would happen if she cast [Ice Spike] at point blank range at her face. She’d probably die instantly; in the worst case scenario the shard would lodge in her flesh and brain but fail to kill her.
It was just an idle thought, but she was half-contemplating it. Even horrible mutilation would be preferable to the current situation.
She looked up at the other two members of the Horns of Hammerad sitting around the small fire they’d built. The hazy smoke drifted up, a beacon to any monsters looking for a hot meal. Hopefully none would come; Ceria had tried to camp far enough away from the Ruins of Albez for that, but nasty surprises were always an adventurer’s concern.
Across the fire, Pisces sat on the ground, mumbling quietly to himself as he reviewed his personal spellbook full of notes and spells he was studying. His robes—never too clean at the best of times—were filthy, and he reeked. In fact, he smelled so bad that even Ksmvr, who didn’t really have much of a sense of smell, was sitting far away.
The Antinium had no need of flame. In fact, Ceria thought the fire bothered him a bit. Despite the cold winter weather, the former Prognugator sat with his back to the fire, scanning the landscape. He wasn’t sleeping as he kept watch, but he was so still that he could have been a statue.
Neatly laid out by the Antinium’s side was a shortbow and arrows planted in the ground, ready to be fired. He had one of Erin’s kitchen knives on the ground in front of him, and the enchanted iron shortsword next to it. It was like Ksmvr expected an attack at any moment.
Ceria sighed. Then she stared back at her skeletal hand again. It didn’t hurt. Not anymore. But it felt like it was still covered in flesh, sometimes. But she had to use magic—let it flow into her missing limb—to make it move. And when she touched things, that was the worst. Then she felt as if she could feel something, but it was just her imagination.
The fire coughed and Pisces sneezed into it. Ceria made a face as a wisp of smoke drifted her way. Pisces really did need a bath. She could probably conjure some water out of the air, but it would be a waste of mana. Plus, if she was going to clean him she might as well start with herself.
Ceria wasn’t a stranger to roughing it. She’d spent countless nights outside before she passed her second decade, and she’d gone on countless expeditions with the original Horns of Hammerad, tracking monsters, preparing for dungeon dives, and so on.
But she couldn’t remember camping out ever being this pitiful. Ceria knew that she smelled about half as bad as Pisces, and dried sweat, grime, and unwashed clothing was making her own personal experience unpleasant.
At least they weren’t camping in the snow again. Ceria and Pisces had cleared the ground of the stuff, and it wasn’t snowing like it had last night. Normally Ceria would have liked to camp in a cave, but the Ruins of Albez were part of a natural depression in the ground far from any helpful mountains or hills. The ruined building had sunk into the earth, and so any normal group of adventurers planning to stay in the area for more than one day brought tents.
But they didn’t have any, because they couldn’t afford them. In fact, the Horns of Hammerad hadn’t planned on staying long in any case. They’d brought enough supplies for two days.
This was their eighth night. All of them had yet to eat.
Ceria’s stomach growled and she made a face. Hunger was also something she’d gotten used to when she was young, but she couldn’t ever remember really running out of food in the Horns of Hammerad. For all his temperamental issues, Calruz had been a good soldier and leader in keeping his group fed and outfitted, and Gerial had always left a margin of error when buying gear.
Her heart twinged as she remembered them. Ceria stared back into the fire as Pisces clicked his tongue. Her stomach growled again.
Only—that wasn’t a growl. That was the faint crunch of something in the snow. Ceria instantly looked up and began focusing mana into her skeletal hand. She saw Ksmvr grab his bow and an arrow. Pisces sat in front of the fire, oblivious as he nibbled at a dirty fingernail.
Ceria kept her voice low as she hissed at him. Pisces took no notice. Ceria was about to snap at him even if it meant warning whatever was approaching when she heard a voice.
“It’s me, Ceria.”
Instantly, Ceria relaxed. Ksmvr lowered his bow as Yvlon approached. The armored woman walked towards the campfire and tiredly slung a pack to the ground.
“Food and another shovel.”
She tossed the shovel on the ground as well, nearly hitting the fire. Pisces looked up and sniffed at the tool. Then he went back to reading.
Yvlon eyed the mage, and then laboriously sat down. She began trying to take off her silver armor, equally dirty from time spent outdoors. Ceria went to help; she’d helped her fellow adventurers more than once and she knew how it was done.
Ksmvr came over too. He sat respectfully away from everyone else, which was probably for the best.
“Comrade Yvlon. Does our team have permission to reenter the ruins tomorrow?”
Yvlon barely paused at Ksmvr’s odd address. She nodded tiredly.
“That’s what the City Runner said. No team wants to go to the ruins; they’re all busy with local requests or getting ready to enter that dungeon in Liscor.”
“I see. That is optimal.”
Ksmvr nodded several times. Ceria’s face didn’t really smile; her lips just sort of twisted. Yvlon was making the same face.
“Apparently, the [Dangersense] surge we felt came from that dungeon. No word on whether something else happened; mages would have gotten a message if something nasty came out.”
“Still. That’s some danger in there if that’s what happened from just opening the front door.”
Ceria muttered as she helped Yvlon take off the breastplate. The other woman nodded.
“More teams are coming down from the northern cities. Big names. Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers are going to have competition if they don’t clear the dungeon soon.”
Ceria had too many emotions and feelings about the new dungeon to put into words. Yvlon clearly felt the same way, because she didn’t elaborate. Ceria had just finished helping her take off the last of her armor when she exclaimed in annoyance.
“Pisces! Get your hands out of the food!”
The young man paused as he lifted a sausage out of the bag Yvlon had brought. He sniffed at Ceria.
“I am feeding myself, Springwalker.”
“We’ll make food for everyone in a little bit. Your hands are filthy.”
“I am hungry.”
Yvlon didn’t say anything, but Ceria had to seriously stop herself from blasting Pisces with a spell there and then. She modulated her tone only slightly.
“We all are. But we eat and work together as a team. Put the food back.”
Pisces held her gaze for a second, and then made an irritated sound. He tossed the sausage back at the bag and missed. It landed in the dirt next to the fire.
Yvlon twitched. But she didn’t say anything. Ceria counted to five before she picked the dried sausage up and washed it off. A stream of water flowed from her skeletal fingertip and over the sausage, cleaning the dirt off.
“How far did you have to walk to get to the Runner, Yvlon?”
“Four, five miles? She wouldn’t come any closer.”
Ceria ground her teeth. Yvlon only shrugged tiredly.
“Makes you wish Ryoka were in the area, doesn’t it?”
It did. City Runners were notorious for refusing to get near monsters or dangerous areas when delivering resupplies to adventurers—they were useful because they could save a day or more of travel, but they charged high prices and inconvenienced the adventurers who had to go and meet them.
“If I’d known you would have had to walk that far in the snow, I’d have sent Ksmvr with you.”
“Then the Runner would have just run away.”
Pisces unhelpfully interjected this as he stared at the bread and other food Ceria had purchased with their dwindling coin. The half-Elf scowled as she pulled out a block of cheese and stared at it.
“I told them half a block of cheese. Who’s taking down messages in that damn building?”
The custom for adventurers was to use the [Message] spell to send requests for gear, supplies, or even potions to the local Mage’s Guild or similar buildings in cities. Depending on the urgency of the request (which naturally raised the price of the delivery exponentially), the guild would deliver the request to the local Runner’s Guild where someone would hopefully fulfill it.
Really, it was a gamble sometimes. Prices were very high for deliveries, but most City Runners didn’t like to take the risk of getting near a hotspot for monsters anyways. And when they did, they often waited far away from the actual requested delivery site, shining bullseye lanterns to let adventurers know they had to come out to pick up their package. And the cost—
“How much do we have left, Yvlon?”
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
“We’ve got one gold coin left.”
Yvlon lifted up the empty money pouch and shook it. Even Pisces looked dismayed at that.
“That’s it? How much did the Runner charge?”
“About average. But we didn’t have that much to begin with, and this was the only way to get the food quickly.”
Ceria ground her teeth as she accepted the money pouch from Yvlon. That was the last of their coin, which meant their future was pretty straightforward.
“We’ve got food for two more days, then. If we can’t find what we’re looking for by then, it’s over.”
Over. Ceria watched her three teammates react differently to the news.
Yvlon had the best reaction. She was a seasoned adventurer and a former Silver-rank team Captain. She just nodded, resigned to the outcome. She didn’t like it clearly; her eyes were tight, but she knew that they had no other choice.
Ksmvr was interesting. He didn’t even look that bothered by the news. He just nodded, and went back to studying the landscape. Didn’t he care? Or did he put all his faith in her decisions? Either way, Ceria would have liked more emotion from him.
And less from Pisces. The young man’s eyebrows snapped together furiously.
“Then what? We just give up?”
“If we have to. We don’t have the coin to keep searching, Pisces.”
“Then what do we do, Springwalker? Do we go back and start taking other requests?”
“Maybe. If we have to. Unless you’ve got another idea?”
Pisces stared at her. He was grumpy, tired, and hungry. In short, he had the exact same mood as everyone else in the group. But he was also annoying, and he never hesitated to make his opinions clear.
“I don’t know if I would wish to continue my association with this group afterwards. I have as of late begun to question the merits of lending my services to this team.”
Yvlon frowned, probably trying to decode Pisces’ comment, and then out of genuine anger. Ceria didn’t rise to the bait. She just nodded.
“Fine. You want to quit? Do it after tomorrow.”
“Our searching would be much improved if you took my opinions.”
“We tried that. Didn’t work.”
Ceria pulled a knife out of its sheathe at her side. She began slicing the sausage into chunks and getting a meal ready. Ksmvr came over to help her as Pisces scowled and kept talking.
“One mistake hardly disqualifies my methods. We might have found the secret rooms by now if—”
“We didn’t. And we’ve checked a lot of damn places. Drop it, Pisces.”
“I came here under the assumption that we would find—”
“So did we all.”
Yvlon interrupted. She stared hard at Pisces. It was the first time in a while that Ceria remembered the other woman taking an active stance. But even her patience had limits. She glared at Pisces, but the other mage was hardly impressed.
“We all took a risk on this expedition, Pisces. If it fails, it’s no one’s fault. We just had bad luck.”
“You think you could do better than a group of four?”
“If I had undead—”
Yvlon’s brows drew together. Ceria interrupted as she finished squishing some of the cheese into the hard shell of the bread with the sausage.
“If you did, the local Watch would have shot you full of arrows at Esthelm. And even if you got them here, those Shield Spiders would have eaten your leg before your shambling zombies got close enough to pull you out of their nest.”
Ceria glared at Pisces. She was tired of his constant complaints. It hadn’t been bad at first; he hadn’t been annoyed until around day four. But then, it had been another burden to bear. But this last day he had been incessant.
The half-Elf and unhappy Captain of the Horns of Hammerad rubbed at her forehead, searching for a moderately diplomatic response.
“We’re all tired. We’re all frustrated. But only you keep complaining. Why don’t you keep quiet for a while, Pisces?”
Even Ksmvr nodded. He carefully handed the sandwich he’d made to Yvlon. The human woman hesitated, but accepted it reluctantly. She eyed the sandwich and paused for a good few seconds before biting it. Ceria saw Yvlon glance at Ksmvr, but the Antinium didn’t seem to notice.
“Ksmvr. Do you want another sandwich?”
“I will have just cheese on mine if that is acceptable.”
The Antinium immediately loaded up his sandwich with a double-helping of cheese. Ceria, taking his example, added twice as much meat to hers instead of cheese. Ever since the Antinium had gotten past his allergy to gluten thanks to the magical charm he’d been eating cheese sandwiches almost exclusively.
Pisces hadn’t made a sandwich yet. Ceria began assembling one, even though she privately would have rather made him do it. But then he might eat more than they could afford for the night, so she did it anyways. Pisces observed her working and commented with an acerbic tone as she was nearly done.
“Just so you know, I would never animate zombies to begin with. They are an inefficient use of mana, unless used as immediate shields. Ghouls or skeletons would be—”
“Dead gods, Pisces! Shut up! Just eat and we’ll talk about this tomorrow, alright?”
Her fragile temper snapped. Ceria hurled the sandwich she’d made at Pisces. He stopped the flying food in the air with a hand and an affronted look. But he did shut up.
The food was cold, somewhat hard to chew, and could have benefited from some time near the fire. But all four adventurers were so hungry that they scarfed down the food in seconds. Ceria could have used a second helping, but she knew that was all they could afford to eat.
After that, they just sat around. Miserable. It really was miserable. Everyone stank a bit, but no one wanted to wash in this freezing weather. They were tired and uncomfortable, but at least they’d had something to eat.
It wasn’t so much a spoken word, but sheer exhaustion that made all four begin grabbing their blankets. Ceria shivered even when she wrapped the cold, rough fabric around herself. She moved closer to the fire and saw that Yvlon and Pisces had done the same.
No one talked. Ksmvr neatly unpacked his blanket and then paused. He looked around at the other three, two humans and one half-Elf.
“It appeared that our preparations were decently sound. And our objective had much merit. Our approach was correct, and we have taken many optimal approaches. Yet we have thus far failed to achieve our goals. What went wrong?”
No one had an answer to that. They curled up in their blankets or in Ksmvr’s case, sat with it draped around his body. It was a cold night.
The next day dawned cold and early. Ceria woke up shivering in her blankets. She should have used an ice resistance spell she reflected, but she needed to conserve mana. Plus…she’d never really studied those in Wistram. Ironic, really.
Yvlon rolled out of her bedding at around the same time Ceria got up, and Ksmvr was already awake, if he’d ever slept. Only Pisces snoozed on, incredibly ignoring the cold weather, which suited the others just fine.
“Hot porridge. No spices, no fruits.”
Yvlon handed Ceria a bowl. The half-Elf warmed her good hand as she held the food and shrugged.
“I’ve had worse. Want to look over the map as we eat?”
The young Human woman made an unhappy face.
“I guess so.”
Ceria dreaded looking at the map too, to be honest. It was like staring at a piece of pie held just out of reach. Everything looked perfectly simple at first glance.
See the treasure? See the secret rooms? There’s the treasure. But finding it—
“Okay, we tried digging around the ruined dome building yesterday, but there’s nothing that even remotely resembles the other structures on the map. So we have to assume that area’s lost or completely buried.”
Ceria pointed to a section of the map where a familiar dome-like structure was connected to what she could only see as a secret room. Yvlon nodded as she and Ksmvr stood around the map, staring hard at the places Ceria had marked.
“We have attempted numerous times to visit the second secret location in vain. It may be this section was also already claimed by previous searchers.”
Here was the problem: they had a map. And it was a good one; it showed Albez as it had been, a sprawling city complete with the secret passages and rooms that surely contained treasure. But the map did not reflect current reality.
The three Horns of Hammerad stood on a small bluff overlooking the ruins. Unlike the tidy map of the city, the ruins were, well, a mess.
Dead soil and dried-up vegetation was the landscape that made up Albez’s tomb. But the city itself had not fallen to magic or sword as far as Ceria could tell. It had simply…disappeared into the earth.
Maybe a mudslide had covered it. Or an earthquake had engulfed the city. But it had sunk below the earth, becoming covered by time and dirt until some expedition had uncovered it. Since then, the entire area had turned into a basin filled with half-buried walls and lovely pitfalls that connected a subterranean landscape with the rest of the world. And after all these many hundreds, thousands of years, everything had changed.
Parts of the ruins had shifted in the earth, somehow. Entire passages had moved out of place, and some of the buildings on Ceria’s map were in the wrong places. Worse, some were in the right place as far as she could tell, which made searching even more confusing.
“We know the passage here leads to a secret room. But if we follow it, we get nothing. Just rubble and dirt. We might be able to find the room if we had a team of [Diggers] and [Miners], but we don’t.”
Ceria crossed out another potential treasure site with a bit of charcoal on the map. She eyed the remaining spots they’d pinpointed nearly a week ago. Honestly, it felt like a lifetime. All that hope they’d had had quickly dissipated as they’d gone from spot to spot, digging in the crumbling soil for traces of something they’d never found.
Yvlon squinted at a ragged piece of blue cloth tied to a wooden pole. She pointed.
“We found that marker right around the room marked here. See? I think someone must have claimed that spot.”
That was probably true. Ceria nodded glumly. Searchers often marked their finds with flags or magical signs only they could read in case they’d stumbled onto part of a larger haul.
Ksmvr looked confused. At least, Ceria assumed he was confused. He certainly sounded like it.
“How would someone locate a secret room without a map such as this? Or have other groups obtained similar information sources?”
“Not necessarily. They might have had a [Treasure Hunter]. It’s a rare class, but a high-level one might have had a skill that located a major haul.”
“Are we to assume all the places here have been looted, then?”
Both Ceria and Yvlon shook their heads instantly. If that was the case, they wouldn’t have risked so much on this.
“Even someone with Skills can’t find everything. Especially if the places are guarded. We’ve just been unlucky, or hitting places already searched. We need to go somewhere else today.”
“How about over here? There’s several rooms that belonged to some sort of complex. And a passage here and here…worth a shot?”
Studying the places Yvlon had pointed to, Ceria had to agree that it looked like there was a secret passage over there as well. She nodded.
“I think that spot matches that depression over to the east, don’t you? We’ll head for that after Pisces wakes up, then.”
It took a few kicks for the mage to wake up. He was grumpy when he found only a bit of porridge was left for his breakfast, and even unhappier when he found they’d decided on the next place to search without him.
“I thought adventurers considered all opinions and made informed decisions, rather than rashly coming to conclusion without all input.”
“We’d do that if you woke up earlier. If you’ve got a more likely spot to search, find it.”
He couldn’t, which only made Pisces more grumpy. The Horns of Hammerad struck camp and began cautiously picking their way across the snowy ground towards the ruins, letting Ksmvr take point.
Even as they were moving across the ruins, the group moved slowly, keeping an eye out for anything moving in the snow or strange sounds. Monsters were common around magical sites and the ruins were a known dangerous spot.
However, aside from a nasty run in with a small nest of Shield Spiders, the Horns of Hammerad hadn’t run into many monsters. That bothered Ceria. She didn’t like not having trouble, especially here.
The Horns of Hammerad under Calruz had gone on four different occasions into Albez, looking for treasure like all of the other Silver-rank teams in the area. It was practically a rite of passage; if you could survive Albez, you were ready for harder requests.
But even during the easiest time they’d had here in the past – running into a Mothbear and then a group of Yellow Shamblers – Ceria couldn’t ever remember the ruins feeling this…empty.
She cleared her throat as Ksmvr stopped on top of a slanted block of stone and scanned the area, shortbow in hands. He looked over at her and Yvlon and Pisces stopped to listen.
“Keep your eyes peeled for monsters. We don’t want anything creeping up on us.”
It probably didn’t need to be said again. Pisces certainly snorted and kept walking. But Yvlon and Ksmvr nodded and moved forwards with even more vigilance.
And then they were at the designated search site. Ceria stared down into a collapsed room and tried to compare the dimensions of the rubble to one of the rooms on the map. It was…a rough fit.
“Looks like we should be able to hit another room if we move a few paces up. See?”
The others crowded around the map, trying to find a good point to break into the supposed secret tunnel. It was supposed to lead out of one of the rooms—residential chambers by the looks of them—into another, larger room. It looked exactly like a secret room, in short, but finding that exact spot would be difficult.
By now of course, the four knew what to do. Yvlon and Ksmvr both grabbed a shovel and chose spots apart from each other before they dug down, hoping to hit a stone roof or other part of the building.
Ceria watched them work, keeping an eye out for danger. Part of her optimistic. The other half—
“We will not find anything this way.”
She looked over to her left. Pisces stood with her, staring at Yvlon and Ksmvr with a disgusted expression on his face. On the first day they’d all taken turns digging until their fingers were blistered. Now the stronger two dug until they thought they’d found something, in which case Pisces and Ceria would pitch in.
“You do realize how deep the secret rooms could be?”
“I know. Normally we’d have hired a digging team, we’d have twice as many adventurers and maybe even joined another team. But we don’t have the time for that—and any other group would demand equal shares of the treasure, maybe even try to take it all. And…neither Yvlon nor I have the credibility to persuade anyone to join us, anyways.”
Ceria grimaced. They’d encountered a…bad reception in Esthelm. The other adventurers they’d met had either had words of sympathy or outright contempt and anger for her, but especially Yvlon. All the local adventurers had known someone who’d died in the crypt.
“So instead we have two inexperienced hands and two mages not specialized in earth magic? Hardly better.”
For once, she couldn’t refute his statement. Ceria grimaced.
“We went haring off without a plan. We should have prepared more, planned for this.”
It was the excitement of finding the map. It had overtaken their good sense and made even Ceria and Yvlon ignore their instincts which told them they should have prepared for at least a month and had three times as much coin as they’d borrowed from Erin. But they’d hoped.
Pisces nodded dourly. He had a fresh porridge stain on the neck of his robe.
“I blame myself.”
“Oh, do you really?”
“I should have predicted this outcome. And insisted we use my creations to expedite the process.”
“Pisces. We’ve talked about this.”
“We have. But you have not listened properly as of yet.”
Ceria sighed. She’d gone several rounds with Pisces before, but this time he looked like he had dug his heels in. He was practically impossible to budge in this state.
“You know how Yvlon and I feel about the undead.”
“Summoning the dead is a crime up north unless you have an agreement with the local cities—which you don’t.”
“Without my undead, we will never dig down deep enough. All we will do is unearth previously found structures like we have all week. You need a tireless workforce; I have the means to create one. All that is getting in the way is your distaste.”
It was a rational argument, delivered in a calm, cool voice. It was so like the old Pisces that Ceria had to glance sideways at him.
Yes. If you looked past the dirty hair and clothing, there were traces of the young man she’d known. Still traces. She wavered.
“Springwalker, I can sense the bodies below us. There’s enough for me to animate several skeletons at least. Probably quite a bit more if need be.”
Pisces looked Ceria in the eye like he used to. His eyes were focused on hers, and he had that old intensity, the old half-manic stare of utter determination in his eyes.
“What is more important, Ceria? Your pride or success here?”
That settled it. Ceria closed her eyes and raised her voice.
When the other adventurer came over Ceria explained Pisces’ point in curt words. Yvlon’s face closed off and she looked at Pisces. He returned the gaze steadily.
“Pisces has a point. We kept unearthing emptied ruins. We might have to go deep and we’re out of time. His undead might be our only shot. What do you think?”
The golden-haired warrior looked unhappy. She hadn’t been overtly hostile towards Pisces on the journey, but then, she hadn’t let him summon any undead either. She pushed some of her dirty hair out of the way.
“You are the Captain, Ceria. If you think it’s worth a shot, I’ll put up with it.”
Her tone and stance made it clear that she did not want Ceria to say yes. But Ceria had already made up her mind.
“Okay, Pisces. Do it.”
Pisces nodded. He stood up and raised his hands. He made no audible gestures, and didn’t showboat. But Ceria sensed his mana gathering and probing down below. She shuddered, knowing what he was looking for.
“Ceria? Is he doing anything…wrong?”
Yvlon’s voice was quiet, but her eyes were intent on the half-Elf’s face. Ceria knew how Yvlon had to feel—it wasn’t like either of them had liked undead before the ruins. And now…
“Nothing wrong, at least magically.”
“And you’re sure this is the only way?”
“The best we have. I don’t like it either. You know that. But it’s his main class, Yvlon. He’s a good mage, but he was always best at his passions. As a [Necromancer], he’s powerful. Let him do this once.”
The former Captain’s lips twisted, but she clearly didn’t want to dispute Ceria’s decision in public. She shook her head and planted the shovel in the dirt.
“I’ll stand watch with Ksmvr. If he’s pulling up the dead, we might as well let them work.”
Ceria nodded gratefully, watching as Yvlon picked her way over to Ksmvr. After a few seconds of discussion they walked off to keep a lookout, leaving her with Pisces.
“Rise. Rise from the place where you rest to do my bidding. Claw through stone and dirt to where I stand and obey my orders…”
He was speaking to the earth, his voice lower and audibly infused with the echoing tones of someone casting magic. Ceria shook her head as she sensed the magic leaving him and entering the earth.
“Is that necessary? Can’t you just cast [Raise Dead] and have done with it?”
Pisces shuddered and blinked as he came out of the trance he’d entered to cast the spell. Ceria caught him before he overbalanced and let go immediately. He blinked at her and then nodded once.
It was so…hard sometimes to act normal around him. At least this time Pisces didn’t sniff obnoxiously.
“It’s not that simple when you don’t stick to set spells. You should know that, Ceria. I told you, if you cast a spell the same way each time, you don’t learn anything.”
“Fine. So you improvised. I assume you cast multiple raise dead spells at range?”
“[Raise Skeleton], in point of fact. They are the most cost-effective, or so I’ve found.”
Pisces pointed at an area of ground ahead of them.
“There is a considerable group of dead bodies below us. That might indicate a secret room is indeed down there.”
“It might mean it’s already been looted.”
“Perhaps. Or that it was found but never successfully entered. Either way, I have summoned several skeletons that will assist with the digging.”
Ceria stared at the ground. She didn’t see the normal tremors of dirt or hands clawing their way out of the soil that preceded a zombie bursting out to try and eat her face off.
“Something taking them a while? Or did you just tell them to take it easy?”
Pisces scowled at the needling, and Ceria immediately regretted the words. It had been a powerful spell; she could see him sweating a bit in the cold.
“They must find their way up from a considerable distance. A shame you couldn’t remember where the Lich was, Springwalker.”
“You can’t animate a Lich, Pisces.”
“Maybe not from scratch. But if I had the bones of one—”
“You could animate it? Really?”
“Perhaps. I should like to study the spell animating it at least.”
The half-Elf eyed her once friend as he mumbled to himself. He thought he could create a Lich? Or learn the spell to make one?
That was…concerning. A Lich wasn’t the highest-level undead; not by far. But it was powerful. Powerful enough that if Pisces could animate one by himself, he was stronger than Ceria had given him credit for.
“What level are you by now? In your [Necromancer] class, I mean.”
The mage stopped muttering to himself. He turned to stare flatly at Ceria.
“What do you care? Didn’t you tell me last time we parted ways that you never wanted to hear from me again?”
“That was then. Somehow we’ve ended up working together again.”
“Yes. I suppose I should thank Erin Solstice for that.”
“Maybe you should. Or will you curse her for it?”
“I had no objections to working with you, Springwalker. But you were the one who told me you didn’t want to travel with me.”
“Yeah. I did.”
Ceria dearly wished she used a staff like Sostrom used to carry around. True, it was cumbersome, but it would have been so nice to lean on. She contented herself with sitting on a rock.
“I haven’t exactly changed my opinion of necromancy since then. You do know that the undead killed my team, and Yvlon’s? I saw a lot of friends die thanks to them.”
Pisces just shook his head.
“The undead are mindless. Or rather, most are. The ones under my command are not the same as those roving creatures.”
“Some would say there’s not a lot of difference. If you lose control or get killed, they’re still mindless.”
“Only if I don’t realize my goals.”
“Still going on about that? I’d have thought you gave up by now. You certainly don’t seem to have made much progress.”
To her surprise, Pisces grinned rather than grow defensive at her jibe. That made her cautious. But he glanced over at the ground and she heard the sounds of dirt scattering. The first of the skeletons was digging itself out of the ground.
“Oh good. The diggers are here. Get them to work, will you?”
Both Yvlon and Ksmvr watched from their posts as five more skeletons dug themselves out to join the one Pisces had summoned. Two grabbed shovels; the others just got to digging in the earth with their bare hands.
Yvlon turned away as the skeletons with glowing eyes started working. Ksmvr just watched with interest. Ceria took a seat on a rock next to Pisces as they chatted in the cold.
“It seems odd that Ksmvr wouldn’t be a better digger.”
“He was not built for it, Springwalker. He may share the same body, but he clearly lacks the experience.”
“All things to their intended purpose, eh? Surprised to hear you of all people say that.”
“I am not suggesting it is effective. I am simply stating what is. Do not misconstrue my words.”
They sat in silence for a while, watching as the skeletons got to work. They moved with commendable speed in the cold, and despite being weaker than Ksmvr and Yvlon, they were tireless. Ceria already wondered why they hadn’t used them earlier, until she remembered exactly why.
“They look like they’ll get a good way down before the day’s over. Maybe this will work.”
“One can only hope.”
Pisces grunted as he stared at his creations. His stomach growled audibly in the wind. As if in answer, Ceria’s did likewise.
“Isn’t it funny? A few years ago we’d be in the banquet hall, stuffing our faces over a book of spells.”
“…Do you miss it?”
His voice was soft. Pisces stared at his undead, remembering just like she was.
“But it is the past. I gave it up for my passions. There is no use looking back.”
“To you, maybe. I wonder what would have happened if—you were a better mage once, when you didn’t practice Necromancy.”
The words were still bitter and from a dark place inside Ceria. But she couldn’t help them coming out. This time Pisces didn’t snap at her. He just shrugged tiredly.
“Some thought so. But I was a generalist then; a jack of no masteries. Necromancy was ever my passion. I might have had the dregs of popular support, but only that. Who would applaud a mage without a master or a calling?”
“I respected you. So did Mons and a lot of other people.”
There wasn’t anything he could say to that. Pisces stared at the flying dirt and two skeletons trying to lift a large stone out of a hole they’d dug.
“Mons. Yes. What happened to her? I didn’t hear of another mage joining you when you left Wistram. Did she…?”
“She kept studying in Wistram. Who knows? By now she might be a better [Mage] than you or I.”
“Hah. Perhaps. She certainly knows more spells by now at least.”
They both laughed at that. Then they grew silent. Ceria could sense what was coming, but her tongue kept leading her onwards.
“You know, even if you had become a [Necromancer], it might have all been okay if you hadn’t…”
“I told you, it was to a purpose.”
“But you didn’t even ask permission.”
“I didn’t need it. Cognita said as much. The rules they made—”
“It’s the principle of the thing, Pisces. You spat in their faces and said—”
The other mage cut her off. His face was tight and drawn, and Ceria knew he was reliving the same moment, just like her.
“I…erred. But I did what I thought was best. It is the past, now. Continuing the same argument would be pointless. You fail to understand my position as you have in the past.”
“I guess so. But you have to admit, it didn’t end like you’d hoped.”
“No. It didn’t. I realize that now.”
It was the first time she’d ever heard him admit he’d been wrong. Ceria looked at Pisces in surprise.
“Recent events have given me cause to…regret the ending. That is all.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Neither of us are exactly earning Wistram rates, are we?”
“No. But I was astounded to receive a message from you. I didn’t even know you were still on the same continent. What made you decide to come here?”
“I came to Izril to earn money. To become a better adventurer, since I couldn’t stay in Wistram.”
“Why not Baleros or Chandrar?”
“Too far and too violent. For both, really. I didn’t want to join a Company; I wanted to make my own choices.”
Ceria looked sideways at Pisces.
“What about you? Why did you decide to become an adventurer? Didn’t you swear to me you’d pursue your own path?”
“I…need to be a higher level. That’s all.”
“Really? But you won’t level up that much from just casting mage spells.”
“True. But…well, perhaps I’m also looking for something else.”
“One last chance.”
He hesitated. Pisces stared at the ground, as the cold wind blew his robes around him.
Below them in the ditch they’d hollowed out, one of the skeletons raised its shovel and brought it down on a section of ground. The earth around it collapsed, and the undead disappeared.
The earth rumbled as dirt and stone shifted. Instantly, Ceria and Pisces stepped back, feeling the ground under their feet shift slightly.
“Collapse! Get clear!”
Ceria shouted to Yvlon and Ksmvr as the tremors grew. She stumbled back, looking for safe ground, grabbing Pisces as he tripped after her.
Collapses were a big danger in older dungeons and in places like this. It was all too possible to be swallowed by the earth. Ceria saw Yvlon and Ksmvr running to a large section of stone, hoping to find a safe place on the solid rock. She tried to run after them.
And then, as soon as the horrible rumbling had started, it stopped. Ceria turned shakily and found Pisces getting to his feet. He brushed dirt off of his robes and then turned to stare as well.
“Tree rot. Look at that.”
A huge gaping sinkhole had opened up where the skeletons had been. Ceria could spot two climbing up, but not the other four.
“Trap spell! Get down!”
Pisces shouted it and Ceria immediately dove back into the soil. She saw Yvlon and Ksmvr who’d been running over to them do the same. She turned to look and saw what had alarmed Pisces.
Giant ribbons of flame that writhed and twisted around like snakes were burning around the fallen dirt and stone. The flames weren’t red and orange; these were blue, and already they were melting stone and turning the dirt into smoke that began to billow up from the hole.
“Pisces. Is it aimed at—?”
“No. Let me see.”
The other mage raised his face out of the dirt and focused. Two of his skeletons approached the pit.
“I’ve lost three of my skeletons. Two were incinerated; the other crushed. Last one’s trapped under some dirt. The other two aren’t being targeted—looks like we set off an area trap.”
“Thank flowers for that.”
Ceria sighed and let some of the tension ease out of her body. She’d hoped for something to happen, but she hadn’t expected that.
“We just dug straight into that secret corridor, didn’t we? And by the looks of it, it leads to a [Mage]’s quarters.”
“Looks like it.”
For a second the two mages stared down at the dancing flames. Ceria was already trying to analyze the spell; the amount of mana she could sense in the flames and the way they were instantly burning through the huge amount of stone and dirt in the way told her that it was a seriously powerful spell they’d tripped down there. What Tier? Tier 5? 6?
“Ceria! Pisces! Are you two alright?”
Yvlon’s voice echoed and Ceria realized she and Ksmvr probably couldn’t see what she did. She scrambled to her feet and waved her hand at the two prone forms that were slowly crawling towards them.
“It’s fine! The skeletons broke through the roof of a new area! The falling stones must have set off some of the magical protections. Stay clear, everyone!”
Yvlon and Ksmvr got to their feet. They made their way over to Pisces and Ceria as the two tried to dust themselves off.
“We just heard the rumbling when the earth began to collapse. Good thing we weren’t standing closer.”
“Indeed. That would have most likely resulted in our painful immolation.”
Both humans and the half-Elf fell silent as they stared at Ksmvr. He stared back.
“Unless Pisces or Ceria know powerful anti-flame spells?”
“You’re probably right, Ksmvr. Thank you for sharing that.”
All four adventurers turned their attention back to the pit. Yvlon whistled.
“Those flames are still going? That must be some trap spell. Who were they expecting to kill? Named Adventurers?”
Ceria and Pisces broke off. Both of them had spoken at once. They shared a look and then Ceria explained.
“We hit the binding matrix of the spell. That’s why it’s still going. All the mana is being depleted and it’s not going to recharge after it’s over.”
“Oh. I see.”
Ksmvr looked down into the pit.
“May I ask what the nature of this spell is? It appears to be mainly aimed at close-range magic. Is there any unusual component to it?”
That was what Ceria had been trying to figure out. She rubbed at her chin.
“I’m not sure. That’s some kind of pyromancy trap for sure. But blue flames? It looks like a variation of that [Flame Snake] spell we read about, remember?”
Pisces nodded absently.
“An upgraded version. Clearly evident from the blue flames and extreme heat.”
“Clearly. Probably be practically impossible to block if it suddenly came at us.”
“Indeed. The walls were probably reinforced to avoid sudden escape. Would a trap wall have blocked any retreat?”
Yvlon looked at the two mages.
“What’s the verdict?”
“Good. That’s a powerful spell. And it was fresh. No one’s triggered it before or we’d see the scorch marks. There’s a good chance no one’s explored this place before. And best yet—”
“What they’re guarding could be just as valuable.”
Pisces smiled, and so did Yvlon. Ksmvr just moved his jaws slightly.
“This is good, correct? Should we descend once the flames have ceased?”
“Definitely. Get ready everyone! We’re going in!”
Suddenly energized, Ceria began calling more mana into her skeletal hand as she reviewed spells. Yvlon put on a helmet and began swinging her sword lightly. Ksmvr armed himself with the shortsword and knife for close-quarters combat. Pisces recalled his two skeletons.
The mood of the group had completely changed in a few seconds. The pressure of imminent death—but more importantly, the thought that they might have found something truly important—had given them the same burning hope they’d had at the beginning. Ceria could barely contain her eagerness as they waited for the spell to end.
“Don’t go in for at least thirty minutes after the fires have stopped. The heat down there is intense.”
Indeed, the smoking stones were radiating an intense heat that completely ignored the cold air. Ceria was already starting to warm up even far as she was from the sinkhole. Pisces stared down at the entrance to the tunnel, barely able to conceal his excitement.
“I could cast [Frozen Wind] to expedite the cooling process.”
“Save your mana. We don’t know what’s down there. In fact—let’s get started on the trap dummy. I was going to use the mud ball method, but why not one of your skeletons.”
Even Yvlon didn’t object as Ceria and Pisces got to work on one of the skeletons. Only Ksmvr was confused. He stared at the two mages as they started handing the skeleton items and muttering about enchantments.
“Excuse me. What is happening?”
Ceria paused as she handed the skeleton a hefty rock to hold. Pisces was busy with a torch he was trying to light.
“Oh. You’ve never seen adventurers entering a trapped dungeon, have you, Ksmvr?”
“No. What is the purpose of equipping the skeleton thusly?”
This time it was Yvlon who explained. She gestured at the skeleton as Ceria cast an enchantment over it. A ball of light hovered around the skeleton’s head, radiating light that added to the flame of the torch in its other hand.
“When we go into dungeons, we’re always wary of traps. They claim more lives than monsters most of the time. If we had a [Rogue] or [Scout] we could rely on their trap-sensing Skills but we don’t have one. And even then, it’s extremely risky for anyone who goes in first. Most of the adventurers who take point—don’t survive.”
Ceria nodded grimly. She’d buried more friends than she cared to remember who’d gone in and received the business end of a trap or monster’s claw. Yvlon had the same expression as she continued.
“So. We find ways to trigger traps beforehand. One common way is to shoot an arrow at an obvious tripwire or pressure plate, but a lot of traps are magical. So adventurers will roll something down a suspicious corridor—we use mud balls if we can’t use anything else. But a lot of traps have more sophisticated sensors.”
“Hence using the undead. They might not trip detection for living beings, but by giving them a heat source and the weight of a normal adventurer, this one will probably trigger most traps. And the magical enchantment also activates a lot of sensors.”
Pisces explained as he made the skeleton walk towards the edge of the unearthed corridor. Ceria nodded.
“Hopefully we’re not dealing with an experienced trap maker. If this is a mage’s personal quarters—well, they’re pretty bad at differentiating the activation mechanism for spells. We might get all the traps this way.”
“Excuse me. I am confused once again. I thought this was a dungeon. What was this about a personal mage’s quarters?”
“It’s…hard to explain, Ksmvr. We say ‘dungeon’, but that doesn’t mean this place was originally built underground. I think Albez was actually a city that sunk into the ground over thousands of years.”
“Oh. I see.”
The Antinium considered this.
“So we are, in fact, likely breaking into a deceased individual’s personal quarters?”
Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon looked at each other.
“Or a treasury owned by a guild or rich person. Those are always nice.”
“Then why all the traps? The spell we just witnessed seemed excessive?”
“Paranoia. It’s usually because people have something important they don’t want stolen. And a powerful mage around Level 50? They’d have a lot of enemies, a lot of artifacts and valuables over the years. Their homes tend to turn into miniature gauntlets by the time they die.”
“In some cases, the protections are justified. Consider what powerful items a mage might own? On the other hand, artificial dungeons—ones that people make for the exclusive purpose of guarding something really rare—are the worst. This is more like a few private wards on a home. But dungeons designed to kill a huge number of invaders? Those are real deathtraps.”
“Indeed? How so?”
Ksmvr barely had to get the others started. Even Pisces had stories of the horrors adventurers had found in ruins.
“I heard in one dungeon the creators placed an invisible poison mist trap at the entrance. So while the adventurers were clearing the dungeon they were slowly dying. Hundreds of teams would go in without problems, but none ever came out.”
“What about the acid showers? Did you hear about that? It triggered five hundred meters in and flooded each corridor. If it didn’t have such a long reset time it would have wiped every team that went in there.”
“I heard of one mage who just teleported the people in the trap into a pit in the middle of bedrock. They had no way out and they’d just starve to death.”
“I heard of that one too! The [Miners] who eventually located the trap—didn’t they find some adventurers still alive in there? They’d eaten all their friends and were living off their boots.”
“That’s just a myth. No one would have the air to survive down there.”
“I heard they had a charm.”
“True, but even so—”
Bemused, Ksmvr glanced around at the others.
“You seem unusually upbeat for such a dire circumstance we might be facing ourselves.”
“That’s part of what being an adventurer is, Ksmvr. We risk everything, so we might as well chuckle a bit in case the worst does come true.”
Ceria laughed. Even Yvlon grinned at the Antinium.
“We’re building morale before we enter. Don’t worry—we’re all nervous. But it’s better to tell jokes than to wait in silence.”
Ksmvr considered this, and then nodded.
“I shall learn from this experience. Thank you for explaining it to me.”
That was weird, but it just made the others laugh harder. Because it was weird and they were about to enter a place where they might die. Soon, Ceria judged the hole to be cool enough to enter, and after sending the skeleton in first, the others slid down the melted rock and entered the abandoned tunnel.
“Okay, that was a nasty arrow trap. Pisces, you’re walking in front from now on.”
Ceria eyed the deadly poison-tipped bolt that had neatly passed through the skeleton’s ribs and shattered on the far wall. She didn’t even want to touch the arrow in case all of it was toxic.
Pisces shook his head. He pointed and the skeleton obediently trotted forwards again.
“I will stay behind the two warriors, thank you. They have armor. I do not.”
“You have that ring. It probably would have saved your life.”
Ceria watched as the skeleton advanced fifteen more paces into the darkness and rounded a bend. The tunnel they’d found was long and winding and this was the second trap they’d run into. The first one had been an easily-triggered trap that had unleashed the dreaded spray of acid when Ksmvr had fired an arrow at it. The second the skeleton had triggered and Ceria was only concerned there might be more.
Several hours had passed since the Horns of Hammerad had entered the tunnel. Despite that, they’d gone less than eighty paces. This was due to the excruciating care all four were taking to check for traps every inch of the way.
All of them had long sticks they used to poke at the wall, ceiling, and floor, and Pisces regularly sent his other two skeletons ahead to stomp or bang on walls in hopes of triggering something. Even when they thought it was safe, the Horns of Hammerad went in line, one at a time, letting Ksmvr or Yvlon go forwards a good ways before the others cautiously caught up.
“The tunnel can’t be that much longer. The map shows it leading to a good-sized space ahead, right?”
Ceria didn’t even have to look at the map in her pack. She nodded.
“That’s right. Hopefully we get there by tonight. Otherwise…we could set up camp there.”
Again, it was Yvlon who had the calm acceptance of this fact; she’d probably expected that to begin with, and Ksmvr who deferred instantly to her leadership. But Pisces scowled.
“Camp here? But this corridor is wide open! We should endeavor to get to the end before nightfall—I don’t want a monster cornering us in here.”
“Better that than rushing, Pisces.”
The scowl Ceria gave Pisces was returned with equal value. She hated how he balked at every decision she made. She knew he was eager—she remembered the same feeling and even the same conversation. But she’d seen what happened when they rushed.
Pisces clicked his teeth together as Ceria replied.
“We don’t risk anything. Even if it means two days—even if we had to leave this place and come back with supplies rather than risk going in without moving safely, I’d do it. As it is, we’re still way too close to the trap radius if we hit something large. We’re risking a lot as it is, Pisces. I won’t just walk us into death.”
He clicked his teeth together a few more times, clearly upset. But then Pisces sighed.
“Very well. I defer to your experience.”
That surprised Ceria; she’d been sure he would have fought her more on this.
Pisces paused and clicked his teeth again. This time Yvlon scowled at him.
“Would you stop doing that? It’s distracting?”
“Me? I’m not doing that. I thought Ksmvr—”
They all looked at the Antinium. He whirled. His mandibles opened as the clicking suddenly grew louder and they all realized it wasn’t coming from them.
Something hurtled out of the darkness and knocked the trap-finding skeleton to the ground. Ceria caught a glimpse of whirling scythe-like legs, biting mandibles and pinchers, as she pointed.
She fired the spell at the same time Pisces threw a ball of fire. The spells did not comedically connect and miss—first Ceria’s ice spike blasted into the creature, hurling it backwards, and then Pisces’ flaming ball of magic struck the skeleton. The splatter of flames didn’t touch the creature, but it did illuminate it.
Ceria saw long, almost spider-like legs coated in armor, and a squat, elongated form. But this was no shield-spider. It had too many legs, and barbs on those legs. And it was…dripping. The red and purple carapace and exposed internal organs shifted as the creature opened a maw with rows of circular teeth. It crunched the piece of skeleton it had bit off as more emerged from the darkness.
“Aw hell! Crelers!”
Ceria screamed the words as she pointed at more Crelers. The small creatures scuttled around the corridor, leaping for the adventurers, trying to claw, bite, dig their way through their enemies.
Yvlon rushed forwards, sword slicing down at the lead Creler. Her blade battered the creature down, but even her sharp steel could only cut through the exposed organs of the creature. The rest—hard chitin and other bone-like substances—was too strong and the creature tried to scuttle up Yvlon’s leg.
Ksmvr used his three arms as the other two Crelers came towards him. He grabbed one, ignoring the sharp edges that tore into his hand and began slicing with the other two weapons in his possession. Like Yvlon he couldn’t immediately cut the creature in two, but he had the leverage to slowly pierce the creature’s body with his blades as he sawed at it.
The other Creler tried to jump onto Ksmvr’s back, but Ceria blasted it off with a precise spell. She covered the other two, launching rapid [Ice Spikes] that despite throwing the Crelers back, failed to inflict crucial damage.
Ceria dove out of the way. Pisces raised his hand, and a gust of icy air froze the Creler that had leapt at him. It fell to the ground, stunned, and a skeleton rushed over. It began to stomp.
All three skeletons were fighting, Ceria saw. They’d grabbed stones and were trying to crush the Crelers to death. But they were almost all blades and sharp edges. You had to have a mace—Calruz had killed most of them himself with his axe!
“Freeze them, Ceria!”
She heard Pisces yell, but then a Creler was jumping at her face. Ceria jerked backwards, and the razor-mouth stopped a foot in front of her face as she seized it with her skeletal hand. Instantly, the Creler tried to bite through her bone and Ceria reacted.
“Die, damn you!”
It wasn’t so much as spell as concentrated ice magic. Instantly, the air around her hand froze and Ceria felt the extreme cold as her skeletal hand froze the Creler in her grasp. It screeched and writhed, but she refused to let go. The monstrosity’s legs and claws waved about, threatening to score her flesh even as she held it far away as possible. But after five seconds it stiffened up and died, frozen to death in her grasp.
Shaking, Ceria let go. But she didn’t have time to wait. She spun and began blasting the Crelers trying to swarm Yvlon’s armor. The other woman took the impacts as [Ice Spikes] deflected off her armor—she hurled a Creler to the ground and stepped on it to an accompanying shriek.
Ceria ran forwards and blasted a Creler with an [Ice Spike] dead on. This time the force of the impact broke the creature; it collapsed, several legs breaking off its body as yellow slime exited the wounds. Ceria shuddered and spun, searching for another target.
In another second it was over. Pisces threw fire onto the last Creler being held down by his skeletons and Ksmvr finished smashing the second one with his enchanted iron blade. The Crelers twitched and made bubbling sounds where they lay, but they were too far dead to move.
Ceria stumbled backwards, gasping as sweat poured down her face and the exertion of using so much magic caught up with her. She grabbed onto Yvlon and the other woman stumbled.
“Yvlon. Did they get you?”
The golden-haired Captain was also gasping for air, but she shook her head.
“They didn’t get into my head. Think some cut into my breastplate, but didn’t get my skin.”
“Sorry about the [Ice Spikes]. Did I hurt you or pierce your armor?”
“A few dents. I’m okay. Thanks.”
Ceria nodded. She could have pierced Yvlon’s armor and killed her if the [Ice Spike] spells had been at closer range or hit a weak joint. But better that then let a Creler at Yvlon’s exposed head. It would have chewed its way into her armor through the stump of her neck in second.
“Well, that explains why we haven’t run into more monsters or undead recently. Crelers.”
The two women looked over at Ksmvr and Pisces. Pisces was unharmed, if pale and shaken, but Ksmvr had been wounded. They went over to look.
“It is nothing. My hand is lacerated in several places, but Pisces has bound the injuries. It will heal.”
“Are you sure?”
Ceria peered at the already green-stained bandage Pisces had wound around Ksmvr’s hand. The Antinium nodded.
“I am fine.”
“Crelers have toxins in their bites and claws—”
“It will not affect me. Thank you for the concern.”
“Dead gods, Ksmvr! I’ve never seen anyone hold a Creler down to kill it! Are you insane?”
“I just fought as the Antinium do against them. I am relieved they were only small.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Pisces, you alright?”
“I—I hate those things.”
Pisces shuddered as he stared at a twitching Creler. Ceria nodded. So did Yvlon. And Ksmvr.
“Dead gods. Crelers. Just imagine if there had been a few more—”
“Those skeletons saved us. The Crelers went for us, but they held them away. Got chewed up. Look at that one—”
“Shh. Shh. Are there any more around?”
At once everyone fell silent. Ceria listened to her racing heartbeat, but Ksmvr shook his head.
“This group we awakened, but there are no more nearby. But the evidence is clear; there is a nest nearby.”
He indicated the dying Crelers on the ground. A skeleton had seized a rock and was industriously smashing each one to bits.
“These are in their first stage of life. If an adult Creler were in our proximity it would already have attacked. I recommend immediate extermination.”
“Exterminate? A nest?”
Pisces looked at Ksmvr in horror, but the Antinium only nodded. He was deadly focused.
“They are a threat. A menace. If they remain here unchecked, some will grow to adult size. That cannot be allowed to happen.”
Ceria completely agreed, but she didn’t want to be the one to hunt Crelers.
“Normally we get a bounty for reporting them in. Hunting a nest—plague fungus, I don’t want to think about that, Ksmvr. There’s a big bounty on them, true, but—”
“I believe there will not be more than this number. And they would be in their larval form rather than their attack form.”
Yvlon cleaned her blade, staring at a Creler claw that kept twitching.
“Might be doable, Ceria. One good thrust kills them if they’re in their larvae form. We take them by surprise—”
“No! Have you seen what they can do to flesh?”
Pisces was pale, shaking. Ceria looked at him, and then Ksmvr.
“I think Ksmvr’s right, Pisces.”
“Do you want a bunch of Crelers at our back if they get hungry or wake up? If we keep going they might hit our backs at the worst moment. We’ve gotta take them out.”
“I—fine. Fine. But the skeletons go first!”
Their group moved on. It took only a few seconds for them to round the corridor and spot the part of the wall that had been tunneled out for Crelers to climb out of. It was a big hole that lead to another naturally forming bubble in the earth. And there they found….
Yvlon whispered it as the four adventurers and three skeletons crept into the heart of a Creler nest. In fairness, it was a tiny one, but Ceria spotted no less than eight Crelers in their larval, incubating stage.
When they weren’t all exposed organs and vicious, lacerating limbs and teeth, Crelers looked like horrible, fat, red caterpillars glowing faintly from within. Inside their semi-translucent ‘skins’, Ceria could see yellow lines and discolored organs moving around within. They were growing. Just as Ksmvr said, if they were allowed a few months and food, they might turn into adults, the nightmares even Gold-rank teams didn’t want to fight.
One of the Crelers was on the wall nearest to Ceria. She edged further into the nest, trying not to move or even breathe. Yvlon tiptoed forwards, face a mask of disgust, sword ready.
The glistening, translucent red sack oozed slowly towards them, drawn by the smell of their meat and blood. Ceria held her breath. Any sudden movement might alert them all. They had to be killed before they could turn themselves inside out and move into the deadly attack form.
She held up three fingers so the others could see and began counting down. Pisces’ skeletons stood at the ready, rocks in hand and Yvlon raised her sword, aiming at the nearest Creler.
Instantly, Ksmvr stabbed two blades into the Crelers he was nearest to. Pisces threw fire at another, screaming curses as Yvlon stabbed hers. The Crelers reacted, making horrible gurbling sound as their fleshy outer red sacs tried to pull back and expose their vicious innards. But it was too late.
In their softer forms they were far weaker to attack. Ceria shot an [Ice Spike] into one Creler and watched blood and its yellowish guts explode inside the balloon of its body. The three skeletons smashed their Crelers with rocks, hammering with feverish frenzy as yellow juices splattered everywhere.
Ultimately, only two managed to transform into their attack modes and they were swiftly smashed by Yvlon’s gauntleted boot and one of Pisces’ skeletons with a rock. Ceria stood with the others, panting as she watched the skeleton repeatedly hammer the twitching Creler until it was in pieces.
“Let’s never do that again.”
Ceria panted as she and the others walked out of the nest. Yvlon and Pisces nodded, and even Ksmvr shuddered a bit as he wiped his blades clean. No one liked fighting Crelers. An underground dungeon full of deadly traps and the possibilities of cave-ins was one thing, but Crelers?
“That’s the door.”
Ceria whispered it triumphantly as she and the others peeked around the last corner in the tunnel. It felt like forever had passed, but they’d gone no further than twenty paces looking for traps—it seemed time had triggered another one by the smooth melted parts of the wall and scorch marks—and seen the door.
It was a plain, wood door, innocuously set against the frame of the dark stone. Ceria didn’t trust it one bit. It could be an illusion, a trap, any number of things. But upon trying the handle the skeleton had only rattled the doorknob futilely. It had even tried to bash the door in, to no effect.
“Just a magically enchanted door? I’m not buying it.”
“Well, it could be laced with any number of traps. We’ve got to either knock it down or open it some other way. But if we’re in the line of fire—”
“Cast spells at it from range?”
“Could work. My [Ice Spike] spell might do some damage.”
“It’s the best option we’ve got for long distance. Unless you picked up a better spell, Pisces?”
“No. Do it.”
Ceria nodded. She poked her finger around the corner as the others moved back, shielding herself against the wall. The trap skeleton watched impassively as it stood next to the door, a casualty to whatever was about to happen.
Okay. [Ice Spike] and then get ready to run if need be. Ceria took a deep breath, and then cast.
The magical dagger of ice shot from her fingertip and broke against the door. Ceria tensed along with the others, but nothing happened. Slowly, they relaxed.
“Maybe just fortifications?”
“Probably. How’s the corridor?”
“Skeleton’s gone over it three times.”
“I volunteer to test it.”
“Ksmvr, don’t be silly—”
“We have been sitting here for an hour. We must try something. Allow me.”
Yvlon reached for him, but the Antinium stepped out into the corridor. He paused, but no spell came. Slowly, he walked over to the door.
“Nothing. I shall attempt to break it.”
He raised his enchanted sword and stabbed it into the wood. The door resisted the blow, just as it had the [Ice Spike]. And it didn’t trigger a counterspell.
“What is your opinion?”
Ksmvr returned to the others as they conferred. Ceria pulled at her hair, trying to figure out if this was a devilishly clever trap, or just a door made to last forever.
“It might only activate once we break through.”
“We need to get near, Pisces. We’ll analyze it at close range, and then back away and try from a distance, okay?”
He nodded. Ceria and Pisces exchanged a glance, and then all four Horns of Hammerad crept towards the door.
Nothing happened. They sighed in relief, but Ceria warned Yvlon and Ksmvr.
“Okay, we’re just going to inspect the spell binding the door. If it’s a high-Tier enhancement spell, well, we might have to find another way in. Break through the rock maybe. But don’t touch it until we’re done, okay?”
The other two nodded and readied themselves. Ceria looked at Pisces, and then they reached out and magically inspected the door. Both frowned at around the same time.
“Odd. Look at how delicate this enchantment is, Pisces.”
He nodded as he traced the shimmering symbols and magical currents only they could see.
“Indeed. This is not ordinary reinforcement. There is a trap here. But what’s the trigger?”
The magic shimmered in front of Ceria. Or rather, not shimmered. It was impossible to describe how the magic looked to her with mere words. It was feeling as much as anything else. She delicately looked at the magic, and felt something odd.
It was. The stationary spell was moving, reacting. Ceria’s heart immediately skipped a beat and she stood up to back away from the door. Yvlon lifted her shield instantly.
“What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
“Oh no. Oh—it’s reacting to us looking at it. Run! Ru—”
She’d just turned when something whined and engulfed her. Ceria blundered forwards, and then crashed into something which broke.
A skeleton? Pisces’ creation?
No. Not Pisces’ skeleton. Bones. Piles of bones.
Ceria looked around. They were in a pit. A pit with filth all over the walls. Yvlon, Ksmvr, Pisces—not the skeletons. They looked around, scrambling to get up.
“We were teleported! A trap! Get ready!”
Ceria whirled around, looking for movement, a deadly spell, a monster, anything. But she saw nothing.
Then something glowed. She turned and saw something on one of the walls. It was…flickering at her. She stared at it. A word? Writing?
No. A magical rune. Ceria instantly tried to look away, but it was too late. She’d already seen it! She tried to close her eyes, but—
She stared around. Nothing had happened. She looked over at Ksmvr. He was staring at the magical words. Then he looked at her.
“Ksmvr? Are you okay?”
He hesitated. Then the Antinium nodded. And then he shook his head.
“I—I am an Aberration. No. I am Antinium.”
“What do you mean? Aberration? Ksmvr?”
He kept repeating the word. Ceria stared at him. Was something wrong? But that was how Ksmvr always acted, wasn’t it? Yes? No?
Why was she talking to an Antinium?
Suddenly, someone grabbed her from behind. Ceria screamed and turned, but it was only Pisces. He stared at her, eyes furious.
“Pisces, what’s wr—”
“What are you doing in bed, boy?”
He screamed the words at her, spittle flying, face red. Ceria jerked backwards, but Pisces had a death-grip on her. He shouted in her ears.
“Fencing practice begins at dawn! Get moving, and I swear, if you shirk I’ll tan your back!”
Something was wrong. Something was right. Ceria knocked Pisces’ hand away and scrambled backwards. She looked around. Yvlon. What was a Yvlon?
“Who are you?”
She was looking down the tip of a sword. A tall, blonde woman stared down at Ceria, chin tilted imperiously upwards as she aimed the sword at Ceria’s nose.
“Explain this uncouth behavior at once. What have you done with me?”
“You? What are you—Yvlon?”
“Ylvon? That is my niece, child. I am Yenelaw Byres, and I demand to know what you have done. What sorcery is this?”
“I don’t know. I—”
Ceria hesitated. Something was wrong. Something was right. Wrong. Right. When two wrongs make a right, who was the shipwright?
Pisces howled at Yvlon, pointing his finger at her. She shifted her sword to him and he danced back, suddenly on guard.
“Oh? Angry, are you? Testing me? You’ll have to do better than that, brat.”
“I am Yennais Bryres. Who, pray, are you?”
Ksmvr was clutching at his head. Pisces and Yvlon were shouting at the same time. Someone had to do something! Ceria opened her mouth, but then realized something dreadful.
I’ve forgotten how to breathe.
She had to tell the others. But she couldn’t breathe! Ceria scrabbled at her throat. She’d tear it out! Then she’d be able to breathe through the hole!
Ksmvr stumbled over to her, head in his hands. Her hands?
“i reJEct. aBErRation Is NoT—I am Antinium. I ReFUSE. i—”
Pisces tapped Ceria on the shoulder. She gasped for air and then stared in horror at the man-sized Creler wearing dirty robes.
“Fencing is a noble art, young man. Don’t you agree? Well, we shall see you master the forms or you will go without dinner tonight.”
A butterfly made of steel turned to Ceria and opened its mouth into Erin’s smiling face.
“What am I doing here? Answer me! You there in the frock!”
She had to do something. Stab them! Stab herself! Didn’t she have a skeleton somewhere around here?
Ceria reached for a dagger, but she’d forgotten what her hands were too. She stared at the pulsating flesh-thing on her hand and tried not to scream. Her palm opened up, and little eyes with twig-like legs started crawling out of the hole in her body.
Everything was normal. That was it. Her head twisted—almost of its own volition and stared around the dark room.
What was that on the wall? It had flashed in her mind so quickly she hadn’t had time to read it. As the rest of the world melted away, Ceria saw the shining light again. This time she understood it perfectly.
The word was insanity, written in magic, pulsating into Ceria’s brain. She smiled at it and then threw up. Her vomit turned into dancing little bugs which tried to eat her until she smashed them with her feet.
It all made sense.