She woke up quietly, without screaming. Ceria opened her eyes and sat up. She was in pain, but she didn’t cry out. She just took a deep, wavering breath in the silence of the pit and knew she was alive.
Her skin felt burnt. Not just burnt; damaged. The heat from above had cooked her like an egg. But she was still alive, so it was clear that the magical flames from above hadn’t managed to spread to below.
The half-Elf sighed, and felt something move on her chest. She looked down and saw the book. Part of it was white ash that fell away as she lifted it up. But the other half—
It was magical. The page that lay exposed under the dust shone, the intricate, spider-web writing that made up the magical spells glowing like saffron under her gaze. Ceria breathed lightly and the ash fell away. She looked at the spell and felt the magic reach out to her, whispering. For a second Ceria just looked at the third of the spellbook and believed in magic, believed in legends and dreams and even heroes. Then she put the book down and looked for her friends.
The shimmering azure orb cast into light the fragments of scorched bone, the black tar-like substance on the walls, and the armored young woman sitting cross-legged in the center of the destruction. Yvlon sat silently, head bowed, staring in quiet contemplation at her arms. Her golden hair shone slightly, but the reflection off the melted silver of her arms shone even brighter. It flowed, like an ocean of metal.
The other woman didn’t look up as Ceria staggered over. She just lifted her arms—with effort.
“It’s fused to my skin, Ceria. I can feel it. I could take off the rest of my armor but this—this isn’t so easy to undo.”
She had indeed taken off the rest of her plate armor. It lay scattered around her, badly deformed, parts melted together such that Yvlon had had to take off the entire section at once. But the metal on her arms remained. Ceria caught her breath as she saw how badly the metal had melted. It was twisted, warped, and clung to Yvlon’s arms like—
“We can cut it off. Even if we have to heal some of it afterwards—”
“Some will come off. But the rest—it feels deep, Ceria.”
Yvlon shook her head. Her arms moved as she—slowly—flexed them. Ceria saw breaks along the elbows and wrist sections, enough for Yvlon to move her arms. But the metal was clearly anchored to Yvlon’s flesh.
“We’ll get it off. We just need to get back to the city.”
Yvlon nodded slowly. She smiled, only a trace of bitterness in her eyes.
“I always wondered how Dullahans lived. I guess I’ll learn a bit of what it’s like.”
There was nothing to say. Ceria bent down and clasped Yvlon’s shoulder. After a moment, she felt a cold, hard hand grasp hers.
“You saved us all. You slew a being made of pure flame with a sword. You’d be a hero among adventurers just for that.”
“Father would be proud.”
The Human woman laughed. Ceria forced her lips to move, smiled. Then she looked around.
“Pisces and Ksmvr?”
“Over there. Pisces looks worst off—I’d have woken you, but I thought it was better if you rested.”
Ceria nodded and brushed at her sooty hair. She staggered a bit—she felt empty.
“How long was I out?”
“I was only up for the last twenty minutes. Before that? It must be hours, at least. I can’t sense any heat from above.”
Ceria nodded, and then walked over to Pisces and Ksmvr. The two were lying not far from each other. And of the two, Pisces was clearly worse-off. The mage had vomit staining his lips and he had gotten some of it on himself. He was pale and shivering, and Ceria knew he had to be suffering. She pulled out a bottle from her belt. It was still intact. The thick glass had protected the mana potion.
Carefully, Ceria poured the maroon liquid over Pisces, ignoring his reactions. It didn’t matter too much if he drank it; right now his body was a void of mana, and he would absorb it from the concentrated liquid to recover.
Sure enough, Pisces sat up, gasping. The noise woke up Ksmvr as well. The two sat up; Ksmvr dribbled a bit of green from his mouth, but wiped it away. Ceria wasn’t sure if that was blood or something worse. No one was in good shape at the moment.
“Pisces, are you okay?”
The mage’s face was pale. He dry-heaved a bit, and then wiped at his mouth. He regarded the stains on his robe and shuddered before looking up at Ceria.
She nodded. Ksmvr staggered upright and saluted Ceria weakly.
“Take it easy, Ksmvr.”
“I will do so. Is comrade Pisces alright?”
“I think so, but he was insane. You know that, right, Pisces? You reanimated what, over thirty skeletons in a ten minute period? You’re lucky you didn’t start bleeding in the brain or damage yourself worse.”
“I am a better [Necromancer] than I am a [Mage] by far.”
That was all Pisces said, which meant he pretty much agreed with Ceria’s statement. He looked around the pit full of bone fragments and closed his eyes.
“…Did we manage to save anything?”
“I found part of a spell book. Besides that, I don’t know. Yvlon’s not in a good way.”
The other two adventurers followed Ceria over to Yvlon. She looked up and nodded at them. Pisces stared at her arms openly, while Ksmvr looked at them and around the room.
“What should we do now, Captain Ceria? Should we begin collecting valuable items? I still have the pack you gave me.”
Ceria just shook her head. She could barely stand, and she saw Pisces was swaying on his feet.
“Ten minutes. Let’s just…”
She sat down wearily, and then had to lie down. Pisces collapsed back onto the ground; Ksmvr stayed on his feet and began to wander the pit, picking up burnt objects. Yvlon went back to staring at her arms.
It took a while for Ceria to feel strong enough to get back up. When she did, she just felt like lying down again. But they had to move.
“Okay. Pisces, you’re our only ticket out of this pit. Can you make another staircase?”
The [Mage] looked up tiredly at the small gap high overhead.
“I can try.”
It was a mark of his exhaustion that he didn’t brag, and Ceria knew it. She helped him up.
“Do it slowly. Piece by piece. You don’t have to complete it in one go.”
He nodded. Ceria turned to Ksmvr.
“While Pisces is working, let’s get some of the stuff that fell into the pit gathered up. Most of it looks burned, but they’re all highly magical artifacts. Put anything you can find over here, okay Ksmvr?”
The Antinium had already accumulated a few burnt objects. He gently edged them closer to Yvlon, but the other woman was standing up. She moved her arms stiffly, and then nodded.
“I’ll help too.”
“You don’t have to, Yvlon—”
“I can do it. I need to move.”
She began moving around the edge of the pit. Ceria hesitated, and then got to work as well. The first thing she did was pick up the spellbook. The magic words glimmered as she put the book in her pack. Then she began hunting for anything that had survived the flames.
“Burnt sword here. Looks cracked. But it’s still magical; I can feel it.”
“Are such objects repairable, Captain?”
“I have no idea. And I don’t even know what these things do, so handle them carefully, alright?”
“I will do so.”
Ceria placed the sword on the ground next to a pack. She stared at it blankly until she remembered it was the adventurer’s pack she’d found. What could be inside there?
Whatever it was, it would have to wait until later. Some adventurers trapped their belongings in case they were stolen, and Ceria wanted to risk nothing. She looked at Pisces, and saw he was beginning to build the bridge out of the burnt bones again.
This time, the construction process was painfully slow. Ceria could see Pisces grimacing as bones slowly flew into the air. He could only manage about eight at a time. But he was getting the job done, and he looked determined not to quit.
It was a different side of him than Ceria had seen, and once again it reminded her of the past. She paused as she sorted through a few bones next to Pisces.
“That was some final guardian, wasn’t it?”
Pisces nodded, not taking his eyes off his work.
“It was a formidable enemy. I regret that neither you nor I had the forethought to check for traps at the last moment.”
She nodded, biting her lip.
“Although if the mage was any good, he would have set the summoning spell to activate if we checked the magic, just like the door.”
Silence. Ceria tossed a long bone up and watched it float upwards.
“Did it remind you of anything? The fire construct, I mean.”
“Are you referring to the Golems of Wistram? That is a natural comparison, but unfair. This…creature was clearly meant to be summoned for short periods rather than act as a permanent servant. True, it was far less intelligent than Cognita. It was simply a guardian, meant to kill.”
“It was good enough at that. I just wonder…how’d it catch you? You’re better than that, or you should be.”
The young man stopped in his work. He lowered his hands and stared at Ceria. His eyes were cold.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. Don’t get offended, Pisces.”
“I find that a difficult proposition given your last statement.”
“I’m just remembering how you used to be. And if you’ll remember, you were better than this, once.”
“I’m sure I have no recollection of such martial prowess.”
“Don’t be a prat. I’m not trying to—”
Ceria broke off. She turned her head.
“Ah, Ksmvr? Do you need something?”
The Antinium nodded. He was standing a few feet away from the two adventurers, making no effort to conceal his eavesdropping. He stared fixedly at Ceria and Pisces.
“I would like to stay and observe the act of chastisement so I may learn to do it myself in a command situation.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a—”
“No, no. Let the Antinium stay.”
Pisces folded his arms, looking angry. He snapped at Ceria.
“By all means, Springwalker. Say your piece.”
She took a breath. This wasn’t the time for it. But she couldn’t stop now. Calmly, she spoke, looking Pisces in the eye.
“In the battle against that fire thing, I saw you using [Flash Step], but you got caught, Pisces. When we were students together you could have danced around that construct for days without letting it get near you.”
Ceria spread her hands.
“And that’s all. I’m just making an observation.”
“Don’t get offended. I’m not lecturing you, or complaining. Your quick thinking saved us, and you more than pulled your weight. We would have been dead without your help, and without your skeletons we wouldn’t have even found the tunnel. I’m just worried about what you’ve lost.”
The [Mage] considered this. He lost some of the hostility in his stance and uncrossed his arms.
“I see. Well, I am relieved to know you hold some part of me in high esteem. But I’m afraid I have no answer for you. I have simply…lost my touch as it were.”
“What do you want me to say, Springwalker? I have grown lax, it’s true. I don’t exactly duel other mages in the corridors anymore, and have little need for fencing.”
“Maybe not as a [Necromancer]. But Pisces the adventurer would be even more of an asset if he had his old skills back. I’m not saying you have to—I’m just saying that I admired that part of you.”
Ceria and Pisces stared at each other for a bit longer. Ksmvr stared at both of them, looking disappointed.
“Will there be no exchange of blows? No physical confrontation?”
“I do not believe that will be necessary.”
“I see. Well then, I shall go back to work.”
After a few seconds, so did Ceria and Pisces. And after a few more minutes, they had a small pile of what might be called loot by an optimist, and a stairway made of bones.
This one was thinner, Ceria noticed as she gazed upwards. It was no less sturdy, but Pisces had clearly taxed himself creating it. The mage sat on the ground next to Yvlon as the two rested for a moment. They were exhausted. So were Ceria and Ksmvr, but they were in far better shape by comparison.
“We’ll go up, Ksmvr and I. I think the fire thing’s dead—if it’s not we’ll come running down. But we’ll haul up all this…stuff. You two just rest.”
They nodded, and Ceria seized the sword, her pack, and Pisces’ pack before climbing the stairs. Her legs felt wobbly, but she was determined not to slip or fall.
At last, Ceria reached the top. She pulled herself up over the ledge of burnt and melted stone, relieved it was no longer hot to the touch. She stood up and looked around.
Everything was black and melted. The walls, the ceiling—everything had warped, and the white-hot flames had left sooty reminders where it had burned. It almost felt like Ceria was still back in the pit.
But then she looked in the treasure room, what had been the treasure room, and felt her heart break. It was completely ruined. There was nothing left of the vision she had seen first entering. Nothing at all.
The bookshelf had been turned to ash. The weapons had melted, at least, that was what Ceria could guess. The entire room was almost one solid color, that of charcoal black. Of a certainty, there were no magical weapons left, no books full of spells. Where the gold had been there was only a misshapen dark mass, and there was no staff.
It had been burnt away. Ceria felt her eyes sting as she gazed at the place where it had been, but she couldn’t even find the emotion to weep right now. She had wounded friends down below—there was no time for self-recriminations.
“Even so. What a waste.”
Ceria stared at the pile of burnt wood that had been the desk. Ksmvr walked into the room and poked around the destroyed bits. He paused as he kicked at a sooty mass and looked at Ceria.
“There is gold underneath the ash, Captain Ceria.”
“And gemstones. They hav melted into the gold.”
Ksmvr pointed as Ceria practically dashed over. She saw a huge, melted mass of what first appeared to be scorched rock. But underneath the layer of blackness was a familiar dull gleam.
“Dead gods. It is gold!”
The treasure she had seen in the back of the room had been consumed by the fire as well. But unlike the other materials in the room, gold was still gold no matter what shape it took. Ceria tried to prize the gold free, and found that it had become one solid mass that had stuck to the floor.
“We’ll have to dig it up. But this—”
“I assume this is a good thing.”
Ceria’s heart beat faster. The gold coins she and the others had so carefully used to buy their supplies—how many coins would this lump of fused metal make? She couldn’t imagine, especially because she knew the gold coins traded across the world weren’t pure gold. This probably was.
“Let’s get Pisces and Yvlon. They have to see this.”
As they went to leave the room, Ceria found something else as her foot landed in a pile of ash. She saw a flash of brown and snatched up a small bag, drawstrings tightly fastened. Ksmvr peered at it as Ceria lifted it up.
“It is a bag, Captain.”
Ceria eyed Ksmvr. He ducked his head and shut up. She stared at the small satchel and remembered it, vaguely. It had been on the desk next to the staff…
“It’s not even burnt.”
“It is clearly magical. Should we open it and see what it contains?”
It had to be a bag of holding. It probably held…Ceria’s mind spun at the implications. But her internal warning bells all went off at the thought of opening it.
“No. It might be trapped. We’ll take it with us, but no one opens it or even drops it, okay?”
“I understand. Let us find the others and convey this good news.”
Ksmvr and Ceria made three trips up and down the ivory staircase, twice to haul up the burnt remains of the treasure, and then to help Yvlon and Pisces make their way up. And after the two had gotten over their initial dismay and relief at the treasure obtained, they made a proper survey of what they’d found.
“This sword is clearly magical. I wouldn’t risk using it in combat, but perhaps it could be repaired?”
Pisces murmured to the others as he lifted up the broken sword. The pommel had cracked while the actual blade looked only scorched, but that could well have been part of the spell matrices, and no one dared to separate it.
“A cracked shield. Not good. Can we still use it?”
Yvlon showed the buckler to Ceria. She nodded as she stared at the small bag and the adventurers’ pack, the only two wholly unburned objects.
“It’s magical too. We have to try.”
“We have quite a bit of gold as well.”
Ksmvr had helped lever up the metal and gems and then saw the pieces into manageable chunks. Now he was attempting to cram as many pieces as possible into their packs. Ceria eyed one bulging rucksack. She doubted she could carry the extremely dense gold, tired as she was. Yvlon and Pisces?
It was a hard thing to say out loud, but in one respect, their adventure wasn’t over yet. Ceria didn’t beat about the bush as Ksmvr awkwardly tied the weapons—sword, buckler, dagger, and another sword, of which only the blade remained—into a bundle to be carried.
“We’ve got to get back to a city, everyone. I know we’re tired, but we’ve got practically no rations and we’re sitting ducks out here. Yvlon’s injured and her armor’s gone—”
“As is my sword.”
“—Pisces is out of mana, I’m nearly tapped, and Ksmvr is going to have to carry most of the treasure.”
Ksmvr looked up.
“I am? Hm.”
“I hate to say it, but you’re the strongest of us and no one else can bear the load. Do you think you can handle it?”
She didn’t want to suggest burying the treasure. It was a risky move if people got wind of their haul and decided to backtrack to find anything they’d left behind. But Ceria didn’t want to overburden the Antinium either. To her surprise, Ksmvr shook his head.
“It is no problem. I can drag all that we have collected if need be. I would have simply organized the distribution of weight differently if I had known I was going to be the sole carrier.”
Pisces, still looking quite gray and weary, sat up slowly, groaning with what seemed to be genuine distress for once.
“I can summon—one or two undead aides. They can help lift—”
Yvlon interrupted Pisces. She shook her head and lifted one of the packs, stumbling slightly at the weight.
“No undead. We can carry it ourselves.”
She looked at Ceria, and the half-Elf nodded.
“You heard her. We’ll get back ourselves.”
“Where to? We’re far from all the cities.”
“But we’re nearest to…ah, Remendia I think. Once we hit the main road we can catch a ride.”
“If we don’t hit bandits.”
“Dead gods. Don’t speak like that, Pisces. Let’s just get—”
Yvlon took a few steps and stumbled. Instantly, Ksmvr and Ceria grabbed her shoulder before she could fall. The taller woman smiled gratefully at them. Pisces heaved himself up with a groan and picked up the smallest pack.
“If we must persist, let us do so with dignity. Onwards, then.”
He lurched forwards, ignoring the look the other three gave him. But he was right, and soon enough Ceria and Yvlon and Ksmvr were stumbling up, out of the tunnels, out of Albez. They had seen the dungeon and retrieved the treasure.
But none of them were smiling.
Ceria gritted her teeth as she walked through the snow. Pisces sneezed; Yvlon made a face.
“How’re your arms, Yvlon?”
“Just the same as when you last asked, Ceria.”
“Got another spell in you, Springwalker?”
Pisces chattered as he stumbled forwards in the freezing drifts. Ceria grimaced, but made a flame in her palm, feeding it as much mana as possible. Yvlon and Pisces crowded around, warming their hands.
Somehow, after all their battles in the dungeon under Albez, the Horns of Hammerad had forgotten that it was, in fact, the middle of winter above. It had been a nasty surprise to all of them to emerge into a light snow shower, but at least it hadn’t been a blizzard.
Pisces sighed as his hands grew warmer, and Yvlon grunted. She was trying to warm the metal stuck to her arms, and Ceria knew she had to be coldest since the metal lost its warmth faster than bare skin.
“Sure we’re going the right way?”
“I think so. The mountains are that way—we’ve got to be close. Maybe it’s over that incline over there?”
“Damn snow makes everything invisible. I can’t even see the forests—just white.”
Yvlon grumbled, swearing out loud for one of the first times in Ceria’s hearing. Pisces grunted. He glanced over his shoulder and called out.
“Ksmvr! Are you okay?”
“I am…well…thank you…Comrade Pisces.”
The puffing, slightly out-of-breath reply was at odds with the way Ksmvr diligently kept his steady, unfaltering pace. He slowly trudged forwards, dragging the bulk of their goods along the ground. The one good thing the weather had given the Horns of Hammerad was that they’d been able to make a makeshift sled for Ksmvr to drag along.
“You sure you don’t need help?”
Ceria and Yvlon eyed the Antinium with some concern. He shook his head, although his voice was no less strained.
“I am…designed for heavy labor. I will not…let the team down.”
“You won’t. Just let us know, okay?”
Ksmvr walked past the others, gaining a few feet before they stopped huddling around the fire and kept walking. He didn’t stop. He was like a machine, like any other member of his kind, Ceria supposed. But it was different with Ksmvr. He was working for the sake of his team, not the other Antinium. Somehow, that made him feel that much more valuable to the others.
“Let’s keep moving.”
Ceria let the flame fade from her hands and Pisces and Yvlon dropped their arms with a sigh. All three staggered slightly before the momentum kept them going. Ahead, Ksmvr slipped on a patch of snow but regained his footing and took another step forwards.
They were all reaching the end of their physical endurance. Ceria had already passed around the hard biscuit and dried meat in their packs—the only rations they had left—and now the only thing keeping the adventurers going was the thought of food and rest.
No one was smiling. No one really talked, except for Ceria, and only then to make sure no one else was freezing. The Horns of Hammerad moved in…if not depression, something reminiscent of it.
Yes, they had found treasure in Albez, among the ruins. Yes, they had gone through traps and against all odds survived. But what had they for their trouble?
One burned spellbook, some damaged magical artifacts practically leaking magic, a backpack full of dead adventurer’s gear, and a small bag that was almost definitely trapped with magic way above their ability to dispel. Oh, and nearly eighty pounds of gold and fused gemstones.
It was a win, and it would have been cause for celebration for over a week in the old Horns of Hammerad. But in Ceria’s weary mind, there was more than a bit of regret and failure she couldn’t shake.
She remembered the glimmering staff and the personal arms and equipment of a powerful mage of the past, one capable of creating magical traps and a summoned construct that could last for hundreds or thousands of years.
“But we’re alive.”
“What was that, Ceria?”
They weren’t a proper Silver-rank team, not yet. Individually they were all better than average, but together they still had their differences. But they’d come through their first adventure, their first dungeon alive and in once piece.
That had to count for something. It did count.
“There’s the city.”
Pisces called out as he crested the incline. Ceria raised her head and smiled in relief.
Yvlon peered at the city and shook her head.
“Nope. Too small. We must be at Ocre.”
“Close enough. It’s got walls and a gate. That’s all I want.”
“Okay, let’s get in there.”
“Should we plan out where we go once we get in the city? In case we get separated?”
Confused, Ceria looked at Yvlon.
The woman gave Ceria a weary grin.
“We’re entering the city with a fortune in gold and treasure, Ceria. If we don’t get this stuff under guard quick, it’ll be gone before we get to the market.”
Ceria muttered a half-Elven curse word involving flowers.
“I forgot that. You’re right. Ksmvr, Pisces, we’ve got to get the treasure to the Adventurer’s Guild the instant we get through the gates.”
“Will it be safe there?”
“Should be. And if it’s not, the Adventurer’s Guild has to compensate us. Just don’t stop, don’t drop the bags—Ksmvr, spread it out so we can all carry it—and don’t promise anyone anything, okay?”
Pisces nodded as Ksmvr began dividing the treasure. He grunted as he lifted his pack, but there was a smile on his face. The Antinium nodded.
“We will heed your instructions.”
Ceria took a breath. She didn’t know what to say. Here they were, at the end of their quest and—well, what should she tell them? She was their Captain, even if they’d elected her in a second. But hadn’t it been that way with Calruz? He’d always made his team feel like they were a success, even after the hardest of missions. What had he said?
She couldn’t remember the words, but Ceria remembered the feeling. She called on that now, and looked the other Horns of Hammerad in the eye.
“Heads held high, everyone. It’s been a long journey, but we did it. We found treasure in Albez—probably the biggest haul in over a decade! If that’s not worth a bit of pride, I don’t know what is.”
She saw three pairs of eyes on her, and three people smiled. One, a young woman, grinned and grimaced in pain, but her eyes were steady. The young man with haunted eyes and an expression more used to sneering than honest emotion gave her a true smile now that reminded her of the past. And the Antinium opened his mandibles, his face foreign and to some, a face of nightmares. But he was smiling too.
Ceria pointed towards the walls of the city. The guards at the wall hadn’t spotted them yet; there was a bit of foot traffic navigating the frozen road into the city, but she was sure they would stand out the moment they got close. Gold had its own glitter.
“It’s going to be Humans crawling all over us when we get in, so let’s stick together. If you get lost, shout and we’ll be along. Don’t drop anything and remember, we’re adventurers. We stick together.”
She led them down the hill, towards the gates. Her legs were exhausted, but Ceria put more energy into them. They were here, safe! She smiled up at the guards on the walls, never happier to see a Human in her life. She heard a shout as they spotted the armed warriors approaching—not too warily—adventurers were a common sight. She raised a hand to wave up at them, waiting for them to notice the gold—
“Antinium at the gates! We’re under attack!”
Ceria heard the panicked shout and with a shock, realized the guards were raising their bows and calling the alarm. She shouted desperately and waved at them—it was just Ksmvr! How could they not tell he was alone and with them? But then she saw the arrows at the strings and screamed.
“Ksmvr! Watch out!”
The Antinium had been waving up at the wall, copying Ceria. As soon as he saw the bows he dropped his pack and tried to take cover in the snow. He dove out of the way as a rain of arrows thudded into the ground next to him. The Antinium stood back up and staggered as an arrow sprouted from his right shoulder.
“Stop! Stop, damn you!”
Ceria shouted up at the wall, but no one was listening. The [Guardsmen] were preparing another volley. She saw someone run past her and then saw Yvlon. The woman threw herself in front of Ksmvr, holding the remnant of her plate armor and her pack filled with the gold. She crouched in front of the Antinium as arrows rained down on them again. Her protection wasn’t perfect, but the hail of arrows mostly bounced off her pack and armor. Ksmvr hissed as an arrow struck his leg and another glanced off his lower back, but he didn’t move.
This time Pisces took up the call. He raised his voice and then Ceria remembered she had magic. She touched her throat and then bellowed.
“Stop shooting you damn Humans! We’re adventurers!”
Her voice bounced off the walls and she heard confused shouting. The Humans lowered their bows for a second, and then someone who looked like an officer was running, pointing at them. Ceria and Pisces ran over to Yvlon, watching the [Guardsmen] warily. No more arrows flew down from the walls, and after a second, Ceria saw people rushing down the battlements.
Yvlon crouched beside Ksmvr, still shielding him. The Antinium was trying to get up and she was holding him down.
“Don’t move. They might loose another volley. Ksmvr, are you okay?”
“I am fine. Captain, permission to return fire?”
“Do you have a bow?”
“…Permission to throw things?”
“No. Just hold on.”
Ceria watched as the people on the wall shouted. Then, one of them stood up and raised a flag. It was white. Pisces snorted at it.
“Is that supposed to mean they surrender? Or that they’re not going to try and kill us?”
“Either one works for me. Oh look, now they’ve noticed the gold. They’re sending a delegation.”
Yvlon just sighed. She helped Ksmvr up. The Antinium grunted as he snapped the shaft of the arrow in his leg. The one in his shoulder he left alone as he hefted his pack.
“Adventurers! The [Guardsmen] are standing down! The gates are open!”
Someone was shouting from the walls. Ceria looked up and growled.
“That’s all they can say?”
She raised her skeletal hand and gave the [Guardsmen] on the wall an unmistakable gesture. Then she looked around. Pisces was giving the people clustered at the gates an evil eye. Yvlon was helping Ksmvr walk forwards, and the Antinium was dragging his pack. Everyone had the same grim expression on their face. She nodded.
“New plan. We go in and if anyone gets in our way, you have my full permission to hit them. Stick together, and until we get to the Adventurer’s Guild and log our claim, no one slows us down.”
There was indeed a group of anxious-looking people forming at the gates. Ceria scowled. Pisces rubbed at his face and spoke to no one in particular.
“I really hate this continent.”
“I would like to not have this arrow in my leg.”
“Adventurer’s Guild and bed. And I will kick anyone who gets in our way.”
For once it looked like they all had something they could agree on.
What happened when adventurers came back from a dungeon? For all that the stories of adventurers returning with fame and fortune were told to every child, it was rare enough that no one had any structure to what came next.
But there was a certain rhythm to things. Assuming the adventurers were not being pursued by monsters or grievously injured—and assuming they came back successfully bearing treasure, not laden down with failure and regret—there was inevitably a lot of fuss.
It began at the walls. The [Guardsmen] on duty would always be the first to notice adventurers coming in, and there was a certain walk the triumphant had. Not to mention the glitter of gold. They would be the first to shout the news, and then it was just a matter of who was standing closest to the gates.
Everyone loved treasure. True, Drakes and Humans were known to love it most of all, but there wasn’t an adult or child who wouldn’t drop whatever they were doing and rush to see what wonders had been unearthed by the brave souls who had found some ancient tomb or lair.
Next would come the procession, as the adventurers made their way through a crowd only too willing to take their burdens off their shoulders—and run away with it. Depending on the efficiency of the local City Watch, the streets would be kept clear for the adventurers to make their way to their Guild. In the worst case scenario, the party of weary warriors would have to fight their way through a mob, fending off [Pickpockets] and even attacks with blade and spell.
And then would come the moment they arrived at their Guild, where the doors would be thrown open and the treasure displayed and sorted, and the adventurers would be able to rest, knowing their hard-won earnings were safely stored away and guarded by spell and lock. They would then either drink until they were unconscious, eat half a roasted pig, do both, or simply fall asleep there and then.
That was the way an adventurers’ return went. Events almost always transpired according to this formula, mainly because there was only a finite number of ways people bearing treasure and wealth beyond imagining were greeted. Shooting arrows at them was a first, and so the Horns of Hammerad entered the city in a rather different way than the standard.
Ceria fired an [Ice Spike] spell over the heads of the first fawning delegation that came to greet them. The people screamed and ducked, which made progressing far easier. She and the other Horns of Hammerad marched through the streets, ignoring the voices that pressed around them.
“Honored adventurers, please excuse—”
“Is that an Antinium? Are they attacking?”
“You’re injured! Let us help—”
There were all too many hands reaching for the gold poking out of the bags the adventurers carried. Pisces snarled as a boy reached out for his pack.
“Touch my bag child, and I will reanimate your corpse just so I can beat it to death again.”
The boy fled, but there were many more to take his place. Yvlon shouldered people aside, face set.
“Make way! We’ve got wounded! Where’s the Adventurer’s Guild?”
Fortunately it wasn’t too far down the street. Ceria ignored the crowds and the questions. She threw fire on the ground and people scattered—Pisces blew cold air at people, making them retreat. Ksmvr had his own bubble of space.
“If anyone touches me, I will be forced to defend myself with non-lethal but exceptionally painful force.”
No one went near him, and through shouting, pushing, and mainly the last dregs of their strength, the Horns of Hammerad burst through the doors of the Adventurer’s Guild. Men and women in armor, mages sitting at tables, a [Rogue] dicing with an [Archer], even an armored Minotaur all stopped and stared at the crowd. And then at the Horns of Hammerad.
Ceria lifted her pack, hearing the fabric ripping and praying it wouldn’t give out at this last moment. She staggered towards the desk, and looked into the eyes of a startled male [Receptionist]. He gaped down at her, and at her three companions, all holding gold, magical swords—
The half-Elf croaked the words out loud and then realized there was silence. Suddenly, the shouting had gone still, and she realized that everyone was looking at her. She looked up, and saw the man staring at her, transfixed. What? Was there something on her face?
Was it her burnt hair, her travel-stained garments? The fortune in gold in her pack, the way Yvlon’s armor had melted onto her arms? Ksmvr, the arrows sticking out from his body? Pisces, covered in grime and dust but with magic glimmering at his fingertips? Or was it her, Ceria, a half-Elf with one skeletal hand who looked like she’d dug herself out of the ground?
Ceria croaked the words in the silence. The [Receptionist], the adventurers—the people crowding around the doorway—everyone’s eyes were on her. She took a breath, coughed.
“—I want a full receipt for everything we drop off. And then I want a bed in an inn, but before that my companion needs your best [Healer] and potions, immediately.”
The man just stared at her. His lip was trembling, Ceria noticed. Was he that afraid? That stunned? What should she say? But then she felt people stepping up next to her, three of them. Pisces glared at the man at the desk.
“And we want food.”
Yvlon nodded, exhausted.
“And a bed. Did you mention that, Ceria?”
Pisces pulled at his robes, vomit-stained, bloody, burnt.
“And I would like a change of clothes. A new robe.”
Ksmvr raised a hand and pointed with another hand to his shoulder.
“I would like someone to pull the arrow out of my side.”
The spell broke. The man quavered, stepped back, and stared at Ceria.
“C-certainly. We can do all that. But ah, who are you? An adventuring team no doubt?”
“Who are we?”
Ceria stared at him blankly, but then realized she hadn’t introduced herself. It was customary for any new team to do so immediately, but she’d been so used to Selys knowing them on sight she hadn’t bothered. She gestured at her teammates and herself.
“We’re the Horns of Hammerad.”
“What? I thought they—you were dead.”
The half-Elf gave the man at the desk a wide, manic grin. She laughed, coughed, and spoke softly in the silence.
“We’re not dead yet.”
What happens when the adventurers return with treasure? The real question is: how does the Adventurer’s Guild handle it? For the [Receptionists] and other staff employed at the Guilds, the moment when the weary [Warrior] walks in with a [King]’s ransom in jewels is the hardest. Things have to be immediately counted, a receipt has to be drawn up and approved by mage, guards have to be posted to prevent those with sticky fingers from walking off with everything—
Generally, [Rogues], [Thieves], and people with such classes are banned from the Guild for a good period of time. But the most important thing, every experienced desk-warrior will agree, is tending to the adventurers. In their post-battle state, they are often grumpy, irritated, and as of such, tending to their needs is the highest priority.
The [Receptionists] and other staff at the Adventurer’s Guild in Ocre might not have been high-level, but they knew that when exhausted, irritated adventurers came in with more gold than they could carry, the correct response was always ‘yes’.
In fact, the word yes should be accompanied by more honeyed phrases if possible, such as: On credit? Why certainly. We’ll have the best inn reserved, and porters are on the way. In fact, let me just open our emergency stash of potions right now…
That was how Ceria, Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr found themselves in the best inn in the city in short order, clutching magically-signed receipts for their goods while Silver-rank adventurers were hired to guard the treasure now sitting in the Guild vaults. All four were swaying, but their wounds had been healed with the best potions, they’d been given a full meal which none of them had finished from sheer exhaustion, and Yvlon had already been booked to see the best [Healer] in the city, along with a [Blacksmith].
But for now they were too exhausted to do anything but sleep. Which they did. And when they woke up and found an [Innkeeper] beaming and ready to serve them anything they wanted—including insects and spiders for Ksmvr, if the good Antinium was so inclined—they found a bit of life had come back into their world.
“Do we need to get back to the Guild right away?”
Pisces twisted in the elegant seat he was sitting in. The private room of The Nobleman’s Disgrace was sumptuously adorned, and the meal in front of them had no less sumpt. Ceria pushed back her meal of steak—a real steak, cooked and seasoned despite the winter—patting her belly.
“I don’t think we do. It’s probably good to, I guess.”
“You’re sure those [Receptionists] aren’t leaving with our treasure as we speak? What’s to stop them?”
“The fact that every [Assassin] in the continent would be hired if they did. Relax, Pisces. The Adventurer’s Guild has a solemn contract with us adventurers. If we couldn’t trust them with what we find, we wouldn’t have anything to do with them.”
Yvlon laughed softly as she tore into soft bread seasoned with garlic. Her motions were stiff, but she had reassured the others that she had felt no pain in the morning, and she had several healing potions on her in the meanwhile.
“We should probably go soon though, because the prices for guarding what we earned won’t be low.”
Ceria made a face. She eyed the third of a steak and wondered if she could eat it. She thought about puking up what she’d eaten and pushed it over to Pisces with a sigh. He began chomping down her food. He eyed the two experienced adventurers warily.
“What kind of prices are we talking about?”
“Oh, hiring guards, identifying magical items—I’m not sure if the Guild does that, but they’ll definitely overcharge us for the potions they gave us. We’re oozing gold, and they’ll try to squeeze us for everything they can.”
“All the more reason to leave right away. We should sell what we can and get the artifacts identified by a reputable mage. Unless there is a procedure we must go through?”
He looked at Yvlon and Ceria expectantly. Ksmvr, engrossed in eating the bread dough which he had explicitly requested from the [Chef], looked up. Ceria exchanged a glance with Yvlon and hesitated.
What did they do? She thought about it, and then felt something peculiar in her stomach. It felt…light. What would they have done, if she’d been here with Calruz and Gerial, celebrating after getting the treasure out of Liscor? They’d never…discussed it, but here they were, stuck.
“I don’t know.”
Ceria’s lips twitched a bit. She smiled.
Pisces and Ksmvr looked at Ceria oddly. She smiled a bit wider, as a fuzzy sensation began to float upwards in her chest.
“I don’t know. I’ve never found a magical artifact this powerful before. I’ve never—Yvlon, have you ever come out of a dungeon with this kind of loot?”
The other woman paused, and then adopted the same smile.
“Never. I’d never considered it. We’re walking blind, aren’t we? I’ve never seen a group come in with as much gold as we have—or with as many magical artifacts!”
“And they’re broken! Just imagine—we’ll have to identify them, and then see if there’s an [Enchanter] strong enough to fix them! Could anyone even do that in this day and age?”
Ceria laughed, almost incredulously. Pisces and Ksmvr looked surprised, but then they found the same emotion in their chests. The mage began to grin, and so did the Antinium, in his own way.
“Those merchants out there—they’re going to try and rob us blind!”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if every [Footpad] and [Thug] in the city’s memorized our faces. And the [Shopkeepers]—dead gods, we’ll be lucky if we can buy a loaf of bread for a gold coin!”
Ksmvr nodded his head as the others laughed and smiled wider.
“I find the prospect of being shortchanged quite pleasant.”
The others looked at each other, laughing, and then falling into a smiling silence.
“We did it.”
“We did, didn’t we?”
“We succeeded despite all the odds. We found treasure—in ruined Albez, no less!”
“We accomplished our task with zero casualties.”
Ceria looked around the table, at the three smiling faces. She couldn’t keep hers off her face. She felt a twinge in her heart, but the smile never faded. She said the words softly, disbelievingly.
“We really did it.”
The Horns of Hammerad left the inn around midday, politely fending off the [Innkeeper] as he tried to entice them with more food, and the luxuries of his inn. They never noticed the young boy who sped out the back door the instant they were done eating, and so after they left the inn ten minutes later, they were unprepared for what came next.
Ceria put her hand on the doorknob and opened it. She walked outside, blinking at the sunlight, and was then overwhelmed by sound and motion and movement. She heard screaming, wild, frenzied, and tensed.
But it was no group of thugs that came to attack her, no mob. Ceria blinked and gaped as her eyes adjusted and she saw people, standing outside the inn and shouting and waving at her and the other Horns of Hammerad as they left their inn.
A wall of Humanity, stomping and clapping and cheering at the top of their lungs lined both sides of the street. People hung out of windows in buildings, shouting down at the Horns of Hammerad. Still more were standing on ledges or even on the rooftops, just to see.
They waved flags, threw colored flour—flowers being out of season—and waved desperately to attract the attention of the adventurers. People of the [Musician] class were playing their instruments loudly, and as the Horns of Hammerad exited the inn and stared, someone began hitting a drum and trumpets began to sound.
Ksmvr stared around wildly, confused and unsure of what to do. Yvlon was just gaping, and Pisces and Ceria were dumbstruck. The half-Elf could barely process what was occurring before her eyes. This looked like a celebration. For her? For them?
Everyone was staring at her. The sun was out, and it was like a sea of faces was opened up, every eye looking at her, every face in a smile or shouting at her. It was overwhelming, even terrifying—
And to Ceria, it was a complete and utter surprise. She couldn’t even believe it was for her. But she took a step forwards on the cobbled street and the people went wild. They were cheering, yes, shouting—not just her name, but the name of her party!
“Horns! The Horns of Hammerad!”
She’d been an adventurers for years, but Ceria had never had anyone cheer for her. Oh, a village had turned out now and then once they’d taken care of a monster threat, and maybe they’d have a round of drinks bought for them, but the old Horns of Hammerad had never warranted even a parade. And this?
Ceria lifted her hand hesitantly, and the wave of noise it provoked nearly blew her away. People were cheering and waving handkerchiefs, pointing and smiling—
She still couldn’t believe it. But part of Ceria, once she had overcome the shock, part of her understood.
How long had it been since she’d been a child? When had she…forgotten what it was like to be an adventurer, what it meant to ordinary people? She was someone who went into dark places and slew monsters, who went into the depths of the darkest dungeon and came out with that which shone even brighter than the sun. She was an Adventurer, a hero in the imaginations of many. And she had conquered a dungeon, the feat that every adventurer dreams of.
She had seen the treasure, and she had come back with it. She had proven that there was truth to the old tales, and given them something to hold onto. A bit of truth in the stories. The half-Elf walked forwards, raising her hand, and they shouted and cheered and called her name.
Pisces walked behind Ceria, staring, just staring. He looked down the rows of smiling faces, and felt all that attention, that goodwill directed at him. It was an unfamiliar feeling, bewitching, more enchanting than any spell. He saw young women smiling at him, and children running along, staring at him. He was wearing crimson red robes, the ones loaned to him to replace his dirty garments. But the [Mage], the [Necromancer] walked in them as if they were made for him, and when he made his fingers spark with magic, the crowd cheered and oohed and aahed, for there went a true [Mage], a master of magic.
Yvlon walked silently, in a bubble of her own. She stared at the crowd, and saw people pointing to her arms. But not in disgust. She was a wounded hero, a warrior who had survived a great battle. And her eyes found the young men and women wearing worn armor and equipment, whose eyes were on her, hopeful, dreaming of the day they might be like her. And she thought of those she had left behind, and she kept her back straight as the wind blew her golden hair behind her.
For Ksmvr, he felt as all Humans felt when they saw the Antinium and realized there was another world they had never known, another people. He looked into smiling faces, Human ones filled with emotion and life, and realized how small his understanding of the world had been.
And the Humans looked back, and saw a new kind of adventurer, no longer a nameless horror. They stared at Ksmvr with a bit of fright, but mostly awe. The Antinium waved with his three hands at the crowds, and the people cheered even at him. He might be a monstrous Antinium, but he was an adventurer too. He was special.
Ceria walked down the street, and breathed in. Slowly. The air was cold, but the city was warm, burning even. There were people around her, calling out her name, loving her though they had never seen her face before in their lives. She looked around, and saw a sight she had never even dreamed of in the sixty years she had been alive.
It was humbling, wonderful, and in her heart, Ceria felt something give. She looked over with slightly blurred eyes and saw a tall figure to her left. In her mind’s eye, Gerial walked down the street, slightly stiff but nearly bursting with pride, waving a hand now and then and going red when they cheered his name.
Ahead of her, Calruz strode ahead, tall, back straight to the sky, not looking left or right as he kept up his dignified façade—but loving every minute of it.
Behind her, Sostrom twirled his staff and emitted a shower of light particles, much to the delight of those watching. Hunt and Marian waved and cheered as well, and the other Horns of Hammerad walked proudly, marching as one.
For a moment. And then Ceria was back to the present, and she saw Pisces flicking his fingers and sending pink doves flying across the crowd, making them shriek and reach for the apparitions of light. She saw Ksmvr catch a wilted flower and eat it, Yvlon smiled at a young boy who ran out of the crowd to stare at her arms, and then she looked ahead.
The sky was very bright. And it was still cold, still winter. But right now she felt warm. Ceria murmured the words to herself, and let them disappear in the sounds of celebration.
“What an adventure.”
And somehow, it felt like it had only just begun.