When the Horns of Hammerad left the city of Ocre, it was, predictably, to a huge fanfare and celebration by the crowds lining the street. At this point, the four adventurers so highly lauded were well and truly sick of the entire affair.
“It’s not even as if there’s anything to cheer about. We’re leaving.”
Yvlon and Pisces nodded in dour agreement as they strode down the streets towards the gates. Ksmvr didn’t reply—he was busy waving. He seemed to enjoy it.
“There’s the wagon. Let’s get on.”
Ceria pointed, and the Horns of Hammerad piled onto the wagon outside of the city. The cheering faded a bit as the crowds realized that the illustrious adventurers, the heroes who’d conquered Albez, weren’t leaving on white stallions or riding away in a carriage.
They were taking a wagon, for good and practical reasons. But it was definitely less fancy and so the adventurers left the city with their eardrums mostly intact.
“Thanks for waiting. Are you headed directly to Celum?”
Ceria addressed the wagon driver, a woman who grinned at her as she flicked her reins to make the two horses begin plodding down the road.
“That’s right. I’ve got a bulk delivery of goods—crops, meat, and so on—that needs to get down there tonight.”
“Oh? Are you part of the Runner’s Guild?”
The woman clearly was no Runner, but the Guild sometimes hired slower modes of transport to deliver goods the old-fashioned way when there weren’t enough Runners or there was too much to carry. The wagon driver snorted gently.
“No—Merchant’s Guild. We handle all the mundane traffic. You’ll never see a Runner stoop to carrying this stuff. Of course, up north the damn Runner’s Guilds have bags of holding and so their Runners can still beat our prices. But this close to the south us [Merchants] and [Traders] have the monopoly on transport.”
The half-Elf nodded. It wasn’t like she’d asked for an explanation, but guild rivalries were a touchy thing. And the Runner’s Guild wasn’t exactly popular—adventurers had their issues with them, as did [Merchants] and other groups like the Mage’s Guild and so on.
“Well, so long as we get to Celum before dark, we’ll be happy.”
“No fear of that. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be doing this run at all if you lot hadn’t decided to hitch a ride. All these Goblin attacks make it far too dangerous—but the Horns of Hammerad shouldn’t have any problems, right?”
Ceria could only smile crookedly at that.
“Hopefully we don’t see an army.”
So saying, she retreated back to the mostly-filled wagon. Pisces was sitting atop a bag of what was probably potatoes, Yvlon had made herself comfortable on some boxes that she wouldn’t squish, and Ksmvr was sitting with his legs dangling off the back of the wagon. Ceria joined Yvlon on the boxes.
For a while there was silence. The Horns of Hammerad were tired, if not physically so early in the day, then mentally. After a while though, Pisces felt compelled to break the silence. As always.
“What I fail to understand is why those fo—those confused denizens of Ocre—felt the need to cheer our departure. To what end? We are leaving, not arriving in splendor and triumph.”
Ceria sighed. But it was Yvlon who replied. She frowned vaguely at Pisces, but had no real rancor in her tone. She and Pisces might be fairly incompatible, but they were teammates now.
“We’re heroes to them, Pisces. Don’t tell me you’ve never dreamed of seeing a team of adventurers as a child? They wanted to give us a sendoff worthy of the heroes they thought we were. I’m almost ashamed that we disappointed their expectations.”
Pisces sniffed, but made no comment. Ceria just shrugged as she made herself more comfortable on her seat. She drew the wool cloak around her body closer to herself, shivering at the cold winter winds.
“At some point they’ve got to realize that even heroes are practical. Besides, it’s not as if we could afford a carriage or mounts. Not that Ksmvr would be able to ride a horse.”
Ksmvr looked up from his study of the landscape and nodded.
“That is correct. Thank you for noticing, Captain Ceria.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Pisces rolled his eyes and smirked, but Yvlon treated him to a disapproving glance and he swallowed the comment he was about to make. Instead he looked back towards the city, already growing distant as the wagon pulled itself down the road at a good pace. The driver might have had a Skill that allowed the horses to move faster, Ceria reflected.
“I wonder, would all those cheering people believe that we are destitute?”
Yvlon looked blank.
Ceria sighed. Pieces could have used a simpler word, but then he wouldn’t be Pisces.
“I doubt it. After all that coin we received, who’d believe that? But if we hadn’t gotten this deal to guard the wagon in exchange for transport, we’d be walking right now.”
That made everyone go silent for a moment. Yvlon just sighed, and stared down at her arms. She wasn’t wearing her plate armor—it had been too badly damaged to save and they hadn’t had enough coin to buy more. Instead, she was wearing leather, except along her arms which were still fused with the silvery metal.
“Do you think we gave Ryoka too much coin?”
Ceria stared at the snowy landscape as they passed by. In the distance, she saw a village filled with a few moving shapes.
“There’s no such thing as too much gold when it comes to paying [Mages]. She’ll need a lot to get accurate, speedy work done.”
“And we should have had enough to live comfortably if it weren’t for those extortionate fees.”
Pisces put that in with a scowl. Yvlon looked unhappy as well.
“I know. We should have considered that, but neither Ceria nor I had ever heard of the Guild’s taxes until this point.”
That was true. Ceria had been just as surprised as the others when they’d found out that the Adventurer’s Guild demanded a ten percent cut of the spoils gained from a dungeon raid or a particularly lucrative assignment. It did seem like extortion in a way—the Guild already took a chunk out of every assignment they offered and made money from referring adventurers and selling their own products.
But on the other hand, membership in the Adventurer’s Guild was free, and they did provide other services. So the Horns of Hammerad had reluctantly paid the steep fees, choosing to pay more coin rather than report the value of the artifacts they’d recovered and have that factored into the fee.
Still, it smarted and took a lot out of their hard-won savings of coin. And when they added the fees for hiring the [Blacksmith] and [Healer] to remove the metal from Yvlon’s arm—not to mention the price of staying in the inn and eating so lavishly for the few days they’d been in the city—well, that was how the Horns of Hammerad found themselves back to square one.
Which was to say, broke. They had a few silver coins left, but all of their remaining coin and the valuable artifact they’d found were with Ryoka, in the north.
Did Ceria regret gambling everything on her friend? A little bit, she had to admit. Still…
“Ryoka will get back to us soon, and she’ll contact us when she’s done with Lady Magnolia. She might be appraising our artifacts as we speak.”
Yvlon looked slightly doubtful.
“If you say so. You know her best, Ceria. I only met her once before. She seemed honorable—but hotheaded. Are you sure she won’t waste the coin or…make a mistake with it?”
Pisces and Ksmvr turned to look at Ceria as well. She blinked, realizing that none of the other adventurers in her group knew Ryoka that well, even Pisces. True, he’d healed her legs, but he didn’t know her any better than the others.
“She is. Hotheaded, I mean. She’s prickly and arrogant and she’s not exactly easy to deal with all of the time. But she is brave, Yvlon. She went into the crypts to rescue me and she’s certainly no coward. We can trust her. Calruz did, and you know he wouldn’t trust anyone who wasn’t totally honorable. Actually…Ryoka’s a lot like a female Calruz.”
Yvlon snorted at that, but Pisces and Ksmvr just exchanged a confused glance. Ceria’s heart twinged as she realized…neither of them knew who Calruz was, either. Pisces probably didn’t even recognize the Minotaur’s name.
“Well, we’ll wait for her then. She’s a friend of Erin Solstice, so I suppose I shall place my trust in her capabilities.”
That was Pisces’ conclusion. He sat back on his bag of potatoes and shifted around for a moment. Then he looked at Ceria.
“On the topic of spoils however, I wonder. If you’re not planning on doing any studying, why not lend me that spellbook, Springwalker? I’d only borrow it for the duration of the journey…”
Ceria paused as she opened her pack. She pulled out the spellbook, the burnt half of a spellbook rather, and opened it carefully to the first page. It was her greatest treasure, now, far more important than anything else she’d ever owned. Yvlon rolled her eyes and Ksmvr scooped up some snow as the argument between the two [Mages] resumed.
“Oh come now. I won’t need it for long—and you get sick when reading while in motion. Let me see it.”
“My spellbook, Pisces. That was the deal.”
He scowled at her.
“But that—I only meant—”
“I get the first spellbook we find, in exchange for the ring. You agreed, and so this is mine. Deal with it.”
Ceria stared down at the page filled with glowing words and symbols. She had no idea what it meant—like most high-level magical spellbooks, this one was written in a combination of regular text and magical formulas. However, the words that were meant to describe a spell’s use and other details were written in a language Ceria didn’t know. She could only try and decipher the magical instructions, which were written in a universal language for [Mages].
The trouble was…Ceria wasn’t certain what tier the spell she was staring at was, but it was certainly far above her capabilities. So were all the spells in the book—the mage had obviously been extraordinarily high-level, and so the spells were the most complex Ceria had ever seen. She wasn’t even certain of whether she was on the first page of the spell or midway through—that was how hard it was to understand.
“But this is completely unfair. If you compare such a trove of magical knowledge to the paltry ring—surely you understand my position. Springwalker, I implore you. We could study it together. Surely two minds are better than—”
Pisces stopped whining and ducked as Ceria pointed her skeletal finger. A snowball coalesced out of the air and shot past his ear. He sat up and Ceria kept reading.
That was the Horns of Hammerad. They sat on the wagon, Pisces sulking, Ceria reading, frowning and chewing at her hair, Yvlon staring at the landscape and Ksmvr playing with the snow.
They had gone into Albez and made their way through a trapped dungeon. True, they’d nearly died and lost a lot of the treasure to the final trap, but they’d survived. And now they were…
What? Ceria frowned as she tried to concentrate on the spell. Were they better than they had been? They were teammates, now, that was certain. They’d faced death once, and so they were a stronger group.
But was that all? They’d actually lost a lot of combat strength, she felt. Yvlon was injured. She could still wield a sword, albeit with some stiffness, but her armor was gone and her arms would need a master-class [Healer] to fix. Or a spell, neither of which the Horns of Hammerad could afford.
They had a spellbook, but Ceria couldn’t make heads or tails of it for the moment and she doubted that Pisces, genius though he was, would have better luck. Ryoka had their hard-won artifacts, and while they might turn out to be earth-shatteringly powerful, and while Ceria would eventually learn all the spells in the spellbook, it was all deferred rewards. Right here and now, they were no better than they had been. Worse, in fact.
And that was concerning for one reason. Ceria put down the book of spells, making Pisces look up and voiced her concerns to her team.
“I know we agreed to escort Erin back to Liscor. But are we sure that’s wise at the moment?”
The other three Horns of Hammerad looked up. None of them needed an explanation. Yvlon frowned as she ran her fingers across the smooth metal in her arms—the [Blacksmith] had helped sand the rough edges of the metal after she had cut most of it away, but it still had to be uncomfortable, especially in the cold.
“I don’t know. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry normally. We’re more than capable of taking on any normal group of bandits or monsters, but all the rumors of Goblin armies we’ve been hearing recently have me worried.”
“If the reports of a Goblin Lord are true, we should be cautious. Even raiding parties sent out from such a force would number in the hundreds.”
“I doubt Erin’s in danger in Celum, at least if the Goblin Lord’s main army isn’t there. Every city has enchantments on their walls and they can normally hold out for a while. I just don’t understand how Esthelm fell in a day. That makes no sense.”
Pisces just shrugged. He seemed less concerned than the others by the countless stories they’d heard of Goblins attacking villages and even towns and cities.
“Goblin Lords are notoriously powerful. If one is truly present—and I cast aspersions on the rumors of his existence—then he could well have overwhelmed the city’s defenses with a sneak attack. Either way, his army is not a concern—word will spread when it marches. Rather, we should be worrying about Goblin war bands, as Ksmvr has said.”
Yvlon nodded seriously.
“We might be able to escape or fend them off if we encounter them on the road—but that depends on how many spells you and Pisces know. Ksmvr and I can’t fight a horde like that. But what worries me is Erin herself. Would we then be taking her into danger, bringing her to Liscor, closer to where the Goblin Lord might be?”
Ksmvr nodded, but Pisces just smirked and Ceria had to laugh at the irony of the question.
“Liscor? Hah. It’s safer than Celum, Yvlon. Erin’s close enough that she could run into the city if a Goblin force came calling. And as for them getting past Liscor’s walls…not a chance. That city’s famous from the Antinium Wars—it’s withstood sieges from the Antinium and a [Necromancer] far more capable than Pisces.”
“I object. That statement is fundamentally correct, but flawed in its assumptions. I—”
“Shut up, Pisces. The walls of Liscor are high, and they’ve got far more powerful enchantments on them. So long as they actually close the gates, they’ll hold out during a siege for months at least. And there’s two Gold-rank teams in the city. With them on the walls, even a Goblin Lord would think twice before assailing the city.”
Ksmvr and Yvlon nodded. The female [Warrior] looked towards the horizon, still tapping her fingers on the metal in her arm.
“So it seems like we only have two things to worry about. How to get Erin to Liscor safely, and what we should do while we’re waiting for Ryoka to contact us.”
Ceria nodded. But Ksmvr had something else in mind. He stared back at Celum, now a distant spot on the horizon.
“Do you think there will be crowds cheering us in Celum? I enjoyed the ones in Ocre.”
Pisces made a dismissive sound of disgust.
“I hope not. So much noise gets on my nerves.”
“Although…mindless adulation is not without its merits. We should expect at least a small gathering; word will have spread of our exploits and no doubt there will be a commotion when we are recognized.”
“True, let’s just get through it as best we can.”
Yvlon smiled crookedly, but Ceria thought she looked a bit pleased at the idea. For her part, the half-Elf considered that she wouldn’t mind the attention. It was inconvenient of course after a while, but…
“Just so long as it doesn’t get to our heads. Fame is fleeting as adventurers, let’s not forget that.”
“I will commit this to memory.”
The Horns of Hammerad settled back in their cart, nodding to each other. They fell into silence once more, waiting, contemplatively staring at the horizon towards the city of Celum, still invisible in the distance. The only sound was a snort that came from the wagon driver as the horses plodded onwards through the snow.
There were no cheering crowds in Celum, nor any parades, much to the disappointment of all the Horns of Hammerad. In fact, no one even batted an eyelid when the adventurers made their way through the gate.
“The Horns of Hammerad? Hm. Your name sounds familiar. You have anything to declare? No? Move on through, then.”
Dismayed, the adventurers walked past the first guard at the gates. It wasn’t as if they’d expected a huge reception. But how come no one had noticed their party’s name? Usually the exploits of adventuring teams were all gossiped about fiercely in all the local cities.
Either word hadn’t spread yet, or no one cared about a Silver-ranked team of adventurers, no matter what they’d done.
Then again…it did seem like the [Guardsmen] manning the gate had a lot on their minds. They all looked sleep-deprived, as if they’d been pulling two shifts instead of one.
Ceria stopped to talk to one of them in the gatehouse. He was mumbling to himself in a corner of the room—she hesitated as she drew near and heard what he was saying.
“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life…”
Was he really that sleep-deprived? There was an odd cadence to his words. Ceria paused, wondering if she should find someone else to talk to, but she interrupted the man’s rambling self-reflection anyways.
“Excuse me, guardsman.”
He jumped and stared at her. His eyes were bloodshot, and the scraggly mustache on his face could have used some trimming.
“I’m sorry, can I help you Miss…?”
He noticed her robes and her hand. To his credit he only stared for a few seconds.
“Are you an adventurer? Do you have anything to report? Monsters? Or something to declare?”
“No. I was just wondering. Is there any news? Any bad news?”
The fuzzy-lipped man blinked at her.
He blinked a few more times before the words trickled into whatever part of his brain was still thinking. For some reason he took a pose.
“‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Ah…no, Miss. The Goblins haven’t shown up near Celum.”
“I see. Thank you.”
Ceria backed away from him and rejoined her group. Pisces twirled one finger around his ears as he gestured at the guardsman. Ceria just shrugged and led them into the city.
“Now, where’s Erin? Ryoka told me she was staying at a room in…which inn was it?”
“The Frenzied Hare, I think.”
It was a surreal experience, walking through a city where no one stared at them or came over to talk or shake their hands. Were the adventurers disappointed? Yes, a little bit, but at the same time it felt good to be normal again.
They were no heroes, and while they liked to be treated as one, it wasn’t why they’d become adventurers in the first place. True, many young men and women of every species joined for exactly that reason; to become rich and famous. But after they spent their first week shivering in the mud and rain while insects crawled all over them, or come face-to-face with a monster with too many teeth, such people usually quit.
True adventurers, Ceria reflected, wanted something other than just fame and fleeting fortune. Although that was a nice side-effect of success.
It wasn’t hard to find the Frienzied Hare. For some reason everyone the Horns of Hammerad asked could tell them exactly where the inn was.
“Going to see the night’s show? Good luck! I had to stand throughout the entire thing, although I’ll say it was worth it.”
“I’d go back again, but I’ve work early the next day. Maybe when the next play comes out…”
These remarks meant nothing to the Horns of Hammerad, but it reinforced Ceria and Pisces’ belief that Erin was staying at the inn.
“After all, if something strange is going on that girl probably had something to do with it.”
Ceria nodded at Pisces’ comment and both Yvlon and Ksmvr were forced to agree. That was how they found themselves pushing the door to the inn open just before the sun set over the rooftops in the city.
To their surprise, the humble-looking inn was packed. The Horns of Hammerad opened the door and were treated to a heaving room full of people, crowding every table, talking, eating, so many that the adventurers had to edge carefully into the room to avoid stepping on toes.
It was a strange, surreal sight. The guests sat in eager groups, people who looked like they didn’t even know each other, willingly sharing tables and talking excitedly about the night’s play. It was an odd word they used. ‘Play’. They spoke of it as if it were something different, or a magical word, and it made the Horns of Hammerad glance at each other in confusion.
More aspects of the inn didn’t make sense. For instance, why was there a curtain on one end of the room? There was a good third of the common room that had no tables on it—why was no one sitting there? Ceria stared around, wondering what was going on.
“Do you see anywhere to sit?”
Ksmvr spotted a table that was empty and immediately walked towards it. The other five patrons who’d been making a beeline for the table stopped when they saw the Antinium approaching and backed away. Ceria went to sit as well, but she and the other adventurers were stopped by a somewhat stout woman who came rushing over, waving her hands.
“Stop, stop! Please, I don’t know who you are—but even if you are adventurers, I’m afraid all the seats are taken. You’ll have to stand like the rest. You can’t just take over a table…”
She looked nervous, especially when she stared at Ksmvr, but she also sounded ike she was ready to chase Ceria and the others away even if they protested.
“Sorry, Mistress. We didn’t know—what’s going on?”
Ceria waved at the crowds. The [Innkeeper], if that was who she was, looked surprised.
“You don’t know? Aren’t you here for the night’s play?”
“What play? You mean with toys? We’re here to see a friend. Erin Solstice. Do you know if she’s staying here?”
The woman’s eyes widened in shock. She glanced back at the kitchen.
“Erin? You want to meet—I’m so sorry, but she’s busy. Cooking. I’ll let her know you asked about her, but if she doesn’t keep working we’ll never get this crowd fed. If you’ll wait until tonight I’m sure—”
Pisces rolled his eyes. Fed up with the woman, he brusquely marched past her and towards the kitchen. She tried to stop him, but Ceria and Yvlon walked past her too.
Ceria shouted into the open kitchen where the sounds of extreme cooking could be heard. She waited as the woman protectively barred the doorway.
“Erin? Are you in there? It’s me. Ceria! And Yvlon is here as well. We—”
The half-Elf heard a shout from inside the kitchen. A moment later a young woman practically ran the older innkeeper over. She shoved the protesting woman aside and then turned to the Horns of Hammerad. Erin Solstice, covered in flour, sweat, and a strange red paste Ceria vaguely recognized as tomato sauce spread her arms wide and rushed at her friend.
She practically tackled the two women, hugging them fiercely. Ceria laughed as people turned and looked, and Yvlon smiled as she gave Erin a welcoming hug. The girl turned, her eyes widening as she smiled.
She paused when she got to Pisces.
He sniffed, hurt, but then Erin smiled and hugged him as well, much to the young man’s astonishment.
“You’re all okay! And alive! And—”
Erin saw Yvlon’s arms and gasped in shock. Yvlon opened her mouth to explain, but then the innkeeper was interrupting, trying to pull Erin back towards the kitchen.
“You know these adventurers, Erin dear? Can’t you have your reunion later? Folks are calling out for food!”
“They can wait. You cook if they’re so busy! Or get another inn to serve food! Shoo!”
Erin shoved the innkeeper away and then turned back to her friends. She stared at them, looking almost teary-eyed with relief.
“What happened? I was so worried! Ryoka only said—well, she left a message for me that you were in Ocre! Did you find the dungeon? She said you cleared it—”
Their reunion was attracting stares. Only naturally—Ksmvr might have been allowed into the city, but he was still an Antinium, and Yvlon’s arms were getting their own attention. It didn’t take long for people to put two and two together, even as excited as they were for this ‘play’.
“The Horns of Hammerad! The Conquerers of Albez!”
A huge cheer went up, although half of the guests probably didn’t even know what it was about. This was a crowd that would cheer anything, but soon there were people surrounding the Horns of Hammerad, talking excitedly.
At preceisely the wrong time. Ceria, Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr found themselves mobbed, and after a few minutes of chaos, Ceria managed to duck into the kitchen with Erin.
That was what Erin said when they had a moment to speak. The hubbub was muted through the door, and Ceria sat against a kitchen counter, breathing heavily.
“Yeah, I guess. It’s still surprising—how are you here, Erin? The last time we met, you were in Liscor, nearly a hundred miles away from here! What’s this Ryoka said about Toren? Is there a problem?”
Erin’s face fell for a second. She turned around and Ceria noticed she was making food. Strange, circular sheets of dough slathered with pasted tomatoes and covered with cheese and meat. Ceria had eaten this food before, but it was still weird to her. What was it called again? Pizza?
“Yeah. He—it’s complicated. I’m making pizzas right now—sorry, I’ve got to keep working. But it’s great to know you’re okay. Except Yvlon! What happened to her arms?”
“It’s a long story.”
Ceria watched as Erin took a completed pizza—golden brown cheese glistening on top of the baked bread—out of the stone oven. Her stomach rumbled, and Erin laughed.
“You’re hungry! Well, good, because I’m making a ton of food! And you’re just in time! The play’s about to start! Oh, right—you don’t even know what’s happened. Well, just wait and see! You can watch it tonight. I’ll make Agnes get a table for you—unless you have another inn you’re staying at?”
The girl took a knife and diced the pizza up into gooey sections of eight which she placed onto plates. She turned to Ceria, smiling hugely.
“Why not stay here instead? But you’re probably staying at the best inn—that’s okay! I can visit you and besides, the beds here aren’t that great. But you should stay for dinner! It’ll be fun, I promise!”
Embarrassed, Ceria had to interject. She coughed as she confessed to Erin.
“We don’t uh, actually have the coin to stay at a good inn, Erin. We were hoping you could…”
The girl’s eyes widened in shock.
“You didn’t get any money from going through the dungeon? That’s terrible! Everyone was saying how great it was, but adventuring doesn’t pay, huh? You can stay at my inn—I mean, the inn I’m helping to run! Free of charge! I’ll be making pizza tonight and I’ll make a huge breakfast tomorrow!”
Ceria would have liked to protest, but she and the other Horns of Hammerad really didn’t have any room to argue. She could only smile and hug Erin. The other girl hugged her back, tightly. They stood in silence for a moment, countless words unspoken, just happy to see each other again.
Then the door opened and let in spilling noise and confusion. Erin turned back to her cooking after giving the distressed woman named Miss Agnes orders, and Ceria and the other Horns of Hammerad found themselves seated just in time to witness a play.
What was it? The Horns of Hammerad sat at a table right in front of the stage, staring in confusion at the men, women, and one female Drake all dressed up as if they were [Lords] and [Ladies]. They strutted about the stage, and then one began to speak. He declaimed to the audience, who went magically silent as they watched him, only pausing to eat the hot pizza and sip from their mugs.
And then…two Humans, a man and a woman, both dressed as [Guardsmen]—Ceria thought they actually were [Guardsmen]…met in the center of the stage. One called out to the other, who stood at clear attention.
The woman on watch turned and put her hand on her sword, frowning deeply.
“Nay, answer me: stand, and reveal yourself.”
A briefest pause, and then the man cried out.
“Long live the [King]!”
The woman palpably relaxed. She took her hand away from her sword.
The man nodded as he approached.
What happened? One second the two were talking, and Ceria was wondering what in the name of fungus was going on, and then—
And then the play began. The Horns of Hammerad stared at the actors as they began to act, and realized as they were sitting what that word meant. Acting. Telling a story. Of course they’d heard of performers and storytellers and even the occasional reenactment of an event, but this? This was different. They sat in stunned silence as on the stage of the Frenzied Hare, the people in silly costumes came to life and told a story.
For Ceria’s part, she sat with a slice of hot pizza in front of her, chewing slowly and relishing the new taste. She tried to follow the performance on stage. What was this about some kind of revenge plot? Apparently the character – some [Prince] with an odd Human name – was trying to avenge his dead father, who’d come back as a ghost to ask him to slay his killer.
Human [Kings] and [Princes] and betrayal and death. Ceria had trouble keeping up with the plot in truth, but she felt mired by the sheer depravity of it all. The people on stage backstabbed and poisoned each other, dragging all down into death in the end.
It reminded her of Terandria, actually, and the rumors she’d heard of the games of politics played by each nation. She didn’t like the premise of the play, but she couldn’t look away. And the food was good.
But if she was the least-riveted by the performance, the same could not be said for Pisces. The instant the play began the mage was fixated, to the point where he actually stopped eating and just focused on the play.
He sat hunched forwards, eyes intent on each character as they spoke. Occasionally Pisces would sit back and nod his head or shake it sadly as they delivered complex verses in Shakespearian prose, or roll his eyes and smirk when a joke was spoken that passed over the audience’s head.
To Ceria’s right, Yvlon sat tensely in her chair, just as gripped by it. She was entranced too, although in her own way. Yvlon frowned when the premise of the play—a [Lord] who had slain the rightful [King] married the [Queen] to usurp the throne—was revealed. Thereafter she sat rigid in her seat, clearly rooting for the main character of the play to uncover the truth and bring down the traitorous villain.
And on the other side of the table? Ksmvr sat still, his slice of pizza drooping in his hand, staring as the tragedy unfolded. He seemed fascinated rather than emotionally moved, but Ceria didn’t see him look away once.
She suspected a lot of what was going on was passing right over—or perhaps between—the antennae on the top of his head. But he was a keen observer nonetheless, and sat almost completely still as he watched the play reach its conclusion.
When it was over, when the young [Prince] lay dying and the rest of the cast lay sprawled out on the floor and his friend called out an end to the sorry tale, the audience leapt to their feet. They cheered the actors who stood and bowed repeatedly, and only then did Ceria find out the name of the play. She had missed it when getting her pizza, but now the name of the play was on everyone’s lips as they talked excitedly about the story and called for more food and drink.
It was called Hamlet.
It was close to midnight before the inn finally cleared. The people left, most drunk and almost all half-asleep on their feet. The [Actors] had already left. Ceria had seen one of them—the [Guardsman] with the fuzzy mustache who’d played Hamlet—stumbling off, looking partly dead. She wondered how he could work his job and act like this every night.
The [Innkeeper] Miss Agnes and the staff of [Barmaids]—four of them, all needed to keep up with the crowds—had long since retired. Only Erin remained. She sat in the messy room, looking exhausted and happy. And with her sat the Horns of Hammerad.
There was a different kind of feel to the air as they sat, talking quietly and eating the leftover pizza Erin had made. The excitement from the play had gone—Pisces had asked Erin many questions about it, as had Ksmvr. She’d told them all about the first few performances of the tale of Romeo and Juliet, and how it had changed the city.
The play was a new, amazing thing. The tale enacted on stage was a classic. After the first night, the new [Actors] had put on repeated performances, each time filling the Frenzied Hare to the brim with eager, paying guests. Other inns had immediately tried to entice the performance to their inns, but the performance had stayed here.
And of course, where success came, countless people followed, wanting to perform the play themselves, become [Actors]…Erin told the amazed Horns of Hammerad that other groups were already imitating the play, and even going to other cities to perform.
But the [Actors] with the highest levels were by far Wesle and Jasi and the original crew of people who kept performing. They had already gained a handful of Skills and they had been bitten repeatedly by the acting bug. So Erin had taught them another play, Hamlet, which they were performing each night to great success.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do. They want to learn all the plays! And they said they want to create a travelling performance—just like Shakespeare did! It’s so wild!”
“Who’s Shakespeare? The one who wrote this play? Where does he live? Can I meet him?”
Pisces chewed the crust of the pizza furiously as he stared at Erin. Ksmvr was busy eating some raw dough—he was obsessed with the stuff, and only he could eat it with the charm against food poisoning. Erin just waved Pisces away, shaking her head.
“He’s long dead. And besides—there’s just so much to do! I’d like to stay, but doing these plays is exhausting! I can teach Wesle and the others the plays I know—some of them have [Perfect Recall] like me. But I just wanted to show them a play, you know? I didn’t expect it to get this big.”
“Forget famous. This will sweep across the world.”
Ceria sat back in her chair, amazed at the idea. She could already see the play becoming a huge hit in Terandria. Why, every [Lord] would want to put on a performance. How much money could be made from it? She couldn’t even imagine what would happen next.
Erin just shrugged. She hadn’t wanted to talk about the play at all. She stared at Yvlon’s arms again as the woman dozed in her chair.
“I can’t believe what happened to you guys. You’ve been through so much. And Ryoka…I thought she would come back with you.”
“I think she’s okay.”
Ceria tried to reassure Erin. She honestly had no idea what Ryoka was going through, or why she’d attracted the attention of Magnolia Reinhart, but Erin looked worried.
“She’ll be fine. She’s tough. And she has that Frost Faerie with her.”
“Oh yeah! Ivolethe!”
The young woman brightened up, as if having a Frost Faerie follow you around was a good thing. She stared at the others and sighed.
“I’m just so glad you’re alright. So glad. I was worried.”
Ceria smiled slightly guiltily at Erin.
“We did it. It cost us a lot, but we did it.”
Pisces and Ksmvr nodded. Yvlon blinked and nodded as well, automatically.
“What—yes. Yes we did. And we have come here to repay the debt.”
“Not that we have any gold to pay you with.”
Pisces’ sardonic remark made Erin wrinkle her nose at him.
“I don’t care about that! I’m just glad you’re okay. Besides, Ryoka has all your stuff, right? When she comes back you can give me coin. Or a magical sword. That would be cool. Or the bag of holding! That would be so useful!”
“We owe you a great deal. We’ll find something worth repaying you with, even if it’s only a bucket full of gold.”
Ceria meant every word. Without Erin’s help they would have never had the coin to get to Albez, let alone find Ksmvr and joined up the way they had. Erin smiled, and then looked wistfully towards the window.
“And now that you’re here, you’ll help me go back, right? To Liscor?”
The others at the table sat up. Pisces cast a glance towards Ceria and she hesitated.
“I think we can. But it’s dangerous.”
“That’s okay. I’m used to danger.”
No one could disagree with that. Even so, Ceria hesitated. She looked around the inn. It was still messy, but it was a nice place, in it’s own way.
“Are you sure you couldn’t stay here? At least for a month or two? Celum isn’t bad.”
Erin looked at Ceria seriously.
“No, it isn’t bad. But Celum…it’s not Liscor, you know? All my friends are in Liscor—well, you’re here but you know what I mean. But my inn’s there, and so is Mrsha and Lyon and…I have to go back. Even if it’s dangerous. You get that, right?”
The half-Elf breathed out slowly as Ksmvr nodded across the table.
“I believe I do. We do. And we’ll help you get back, but we’ve got to be careful. But Erin, there’s one thing you haven’t talked about. How did you get here?”
Erin had been smiling at Ceria, but now her smile vanished in a flash. She looked down at the crumbs in the plate and drew a finger through them.
Next to Ceria, Pisces sat up, looking suddenly alert and slightly worried. Ceria scooted closer to the table, staring at Erin.
“Yeah. Ryoka mentioned him. What about your skeleton, Erin? What happened?”
The girl looked at Pisces.
“He’s your creation, isn’t he? Can you tell where he is now?”
Pisces hesitated, then shook his head.
“I’m not linked to him at the moment. I can sense him, but only vaguely. He’s…to the south, a good distance away.”
“Okay. That makes sense. It…matches with what I’ve heard.”
Erin’s face was troubled. Ceria saw Yvlon staring at Pisces and the way the mage stared hard at Erin’s face.
“What did my creation do, exactly?”
“I’ll tell you all I know. But it—it makes no sense.”
Briefly, Erin told the adventurers everything that had led up to her arriving at Celum. Ceria watched Pisces’ face. It changed only a little as Erin spoke, but when she talked about Toren disappearing he glanced down at his hands.
“I don’t know what happened. I just fell asleep…and then I was all the way over here. Toren must have dragged me here in the sled when I slept. But he left me in the middle of nowhere.”
The Human [Mage] tapped the table, seeming to think. He looked…slightly worried, Ceria thought, and a foreboding feeling appeared in her chest.
“Pisces. What happened to Erin’s skeleton?”
“I have a number of theories but…it would be best to collect more information first. Miss Erin, have you heard anything else of your skeleton?”
Erin nodded, and now she looked…sad. Terribly sad.
“I kept asking Wesle—the [Guardsman]—about him. At first there was nothing. But…the other day he told me a skeleton on the road was attacking people. He killed a bunch of travelers and buried them in the snow. A group of adventurers nearly got killed by him, and afterwards they found all the dead people. Over twenty of them.”
All four people in the room stared at Pisces. He raised his hands defensively.
“I didn’t order him to do that!”
“Well then, what the hell happened!?”
Ceria stood up in her chair. She pointed a finger at Pisces, who flinched.
“That sure sounds like your spell failing! Did Toren lose control somehow? Why did he start killing people?”
“I don’t know. I have an idea but—”
“That’s not all.”
Erin interrupted the two. They stared at her. Erin stared at them in the darkness, her face only lit by the few candles burning low in the inn.
“There’s more. A bunch of reports just came from Esthelm.”
Yvlon stirred in her seat, looking confused.
“Esthelm? I thought it was destroyed.”
“It was. But apparently a bunch of people survived. They managed to retake the city—they fought off another army of Goblins and a bunch of undead. Apparently, a Goblin army came by just as all the dead in the city began to rise. And they were being led by a skeleton. One who could fight like a swordsman and had purple eyes.”
Pisces froze in his seat. Ceria stared at him, but Erin wasn’t looking at either of them.
“The people apparently were being led by this [Knight] guy. He saved them. Everyone’s talking about him. The Savior of Esthelm. A Gold-rank adventurer named Ylawes Byres.”
Yvlon froze in her seat, eyes wide. Ceria stared at her.
“Is that a relative of yours, Yvlon?”
She vaguely remembered the name from somewhere. Where? Then Ceria remembered.
The pit. The pit of insanity. At one point Yvlon had claimed to be Ylawes. Now the woman closed her eyes. When she opened them, she smiled ruefully.
“I know Ylawes. He’s my older brother. He must have journeyed south to see me. He normally works far to the north, around our family estates.”
Everyone stared at Yvlon. She just shrugged, tired.
“Surprised? I’m only a Silver-rank, but my brother’s quite famous up north. His team—the Silver Swords—often take up causes like this one. Esthelm’s just another one of his triumphs.”
“I’ve heard of the Silver Swords.”
It wasn’t as if Ceria knew all of the adventurer teams by heart, but the Gold-rank ones tended to stick in one’s memory. But she’d never known Yvlon had a brother. Then again, she’d never asked. It was suprising to say the least, but Yvlon didn’t seem to want to talk about her brother at the moment. She looked at Erin.
“Putting aside my brother…you said Toren was spotted at Esthelm?”
Erin nodded unhappily.
“Yeah. Leading the undead. They killed a lot of people. The attacking Goblins too, but a lot of people. It was definitely him.”
She looked at Pisces, helpessly.
“Why did he do it? Why did he run off and…”
All eyes were on the mage. He shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable. Twice he glanced at Ceria, but then he sighed and sat up in his chair.
“Numerous theories come to mind. He could have been controlled, or simply gone rampant if my spells failed. However, both outcomes are unlikely in the extreme. My best theory is that he simply…grew too powerful for your commands to control him. And he decided to go his own way.”
The word came sharply from Ceria. She stared at Pisces, heart beating faster.
“Toren’s just a skeleton, isn’t he?”
She remembered the skeleton’s gaze, almost intelligent. Almost alive. Pisces hesitated.
“He may have developed the capacity for thought.”
Erin looked incredulous. So did Yvlon. Ksmvr just stared silently at Pisces as the mage nodded.
“It can happen. Revenants retain the personality of their former selves. Toren is no Revenant of course, but he could have gained the…ability to think.”
The word was heavy on her tongue. Ceria couldn’t look away from Pisces.
“You keep using words like that. Gain. Grew. But the undead can’t grow. They’re not alive. They can’t change unless a [Necromancer] alters them in some way. Nothing can. Unless they can level.”
Pisces stared past Ceria. Silent. Unmoving. Ceria’s pulse was thunder in her ears. She remembered the past. She remembered Wistram, and she gave voice to her fears.
“Toren couldn’t have changed. Unless you did it. You actually did it. You gave him, an undead, the ability to level.”
Erin’s eyes grew wide across the table. Yvlon sat up straight, and even Ksmvr grew shocked. Ceria just stared at Pisces. He looked ahead, face emotionless. Then, slowly, the façade broke. His lips turned up. He looked at Ceria.
Ceria leapt from her chair. She knocked Pisces out of his seat, and slung him to the ground. He gasped as she put her hands around his throat and tried to choke him. Ceria felt him push her hands off him as Pisces backed away, speaking quickly, urgently.
“I didn’t know he would gain any type of sentience! His capability to level up was only meant to be a feature, nothing more!”
“You knew! You gave Erin an undead that could level! Are you insane!?”
Ceria pursued Pisces, ready to punch his brains out. To her surprise, hands grabbed her. Ksmvr used three of his to hold her, and Yvlon grabbed her other arm. Erin was just sitting at the table, looking blank and shocked.
“Calm down, Ceria. We need to know just what Pisces did before you beat him to a pulp.”
The look in the woman’s eyes clearly said a beating was in order either way. Pisces gulped, but began to explain. He was too eager to do so. Ceria glared at him across the table as the [Necromancer]’s eyes lit up as he told the group what he had done.
“Yes, Ceria is right. I created an undead that could level. Toren, as Erin named him. He was just an experimental prototype—something meant to repay her and guard her inn. But I wanted to see if he could level as well, so I gave him to Erin. I never expected him to gain sentience, though.”
“He can think?”
Erin stared at Pisces, looking horrified. He hesitated, and then nodded.
“He must be able to, to abandon you and do what he has done. Had you noticed him taking independent action or…questioning your orders?”
“I didn’t—I thought it was just him being weird. But now…”
Erin stared at her hands, blinking.
“I—yeah. He did. He was acting so odd lately and I was going to bug you about it. He can think? He’s alive?”
“And he can level.”
Ceria glared at Pisces. He edged away from her, but it was Yvlon who spoke. The woman looked deeply troubled.
“How? How is that possible? I’ve never heard of a leveling undead, ever. Not even the greatest [Necromancers] could make one.”
“More like none of them were crazy enough to try. Any undead that can level will eventually rebel, just like Golems.”
Ceria glared at Pisces. The young man raised his hands, looking nervous but elated.
“I told you it was possible. I told them all at Wistram. Toren was proof I could do it. But I never expected him to level up quickly enough to subvert my control. I did check, you know, whenever I saw him.”
“Not well enough. Look what’s happened!”
Ksmvr was the one to speak. He stared at Pisces, looking troubled.
“Is comrade Pisces truly that great of a prodigy? Or is his level high enough that he is able to create such a miraculous undead through some Skill?”
The half-Elf shook her head, smiling darkly.
“He didn’t learn how to make leveling undead by himself. He’s not that smart.”
Pisces opened his mouth and then shrank back in his chair as everyone glared at him. Ceria explained.
“A Golem taught him. A Truestone Construct; one of the most powerful types of Golems in the world taught him an incomplete formula for creating beings capable of leveling up. And he—completed it.”
“So you made a thinking, leveling undead.”
Yvlon’s eyes could have bored a hole through the mage. He shook his head.
“I was taught a theoretical piece of magic, it’s true. But it’s still not perfect. It wasn’t even certain my creation—Toren—would be able to level.”
“But he did. And he learned to think!”
Pisces stared uncomfortably at Erin, and then away. She had a haunted, horrified look on her face.
“I made him do chores. But he could think the entire time?”
Ceria reached out and touched her friend. Erin shuddered, and then stared at Pisces angrily.
“Okay, he was alive. But why did he start killing people? I never told him to do that! He just did chores for me!”
Pisces spread his hands out, helplessly.
“He probably wished to. I can only speculate, but as I told you once, Toren is not meant for peaceful activities. He may have rebelled out of his desire to fight.”
“Why? He’s not evil! I mean—he wasn’t made that way, right? All he did was do chores! How could he just kill like that?”
Erin tried to snap her fingers, but couldn’t. She was trembling. Pisces closed his eyes, when he opened them, he looked regretful for a moment.
“It is what he was made to do. You see—I made him to fight, to protect. I imbued him with the capability for rational thought in the fashion of Golems. Problem-solving skills; but nothing more, certainly not a groundwork for actual cognition. But I never gave him anything else.”
Erin turned towards Ceria. The half-Elf crossed her arms.
“He didn’t give him a conscience. Or…morality.”
“What? Why not?”
Pisces shrugged eloquently at Yvlon. She clenched her fist, and Ceria interjected.
“He can’t. He doesn’t know how.”
“Then why make a creature like that? You’re just inviting trouble!”
Ceria wasn’t about to defend Pisces on that. He just looked at her, though, haughty and unrepentant.
“Cognita has no moral compass. She functions well enough without one.”
“She’s a monster too. She’s killed more [Mages] than any other being in the world, I’ll wager. She might be helpful to some, but you know she’ll kill without a qualm as well.”
Pisces nodded reluctantly, but he still didn’t appear convinced what he’d done was wrong. Remorseful, yes, guilty, even. But he looked like he’d done when he stood in front of the Council of Wistram the day they’d exiled him. He was certain, and it made Ceria sick because at least in some way, he was right.
He’d done it. He’d actually done it. She could hardly bear to look at him.
Pisces turned back to Erin. The young woman was pale. She looked like she was about to vomit. The [Mage] modulated his tone, spoke softly and, for Pisces, gently.
“Let me be clear, Erin. This was not your fault. The error lay with me in underestimating the capability of my creation. Toren was a loyal servant until he grew strong enough to break the orders you and I had given him. Now he is a threat.”
“A killer. He killed people. Men. Women. Children. But he’s also like…a baby, isn’t he?”
“An odd way of looking at it. But I suppose he would be young.”
“Could you change him? Make him…not kill people?”
Erin looked up at Pisces, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. Ceria waited too. Pisces hesitated, but after a moment shook his head regretfully.
“I could stop him, perhaps. But it would be dangerous and all I would be able to do is render him harmless. Ceria is correct: I cannot give him a conscience. I do not know how. No one does.”
“You have to stop him.”
Yvlon said that. She stood up, staring at Pisces and Erin.
“If what you say is true, that skeleton is a huge threat. A thinking undead, one capable of leveling and leading others? It could become a threat capable of taking on Gold-ranked adventurers soon if not stopped.”
Erin’s voice was quiet, but her eyes were suddenly focused. Her hands—she kept them on the table, but they trembled as she looked at Pisces.
“Can you stop him?”
The [Necromancer] said it quietly. He looked at Ceria and she understood.
“Severing the link?”
“It’s the easiest way.”
Pisces explained to Erin and the others.
“Erin feeds Toren with her natural mana. No matter how far away she is, he and she are connected. Without her mana, he cannot survive, powerful as he may be. If I cut it, he will cease to…live.”
Silence fell over the room. Yvlon opened her mouth, clearly wanting to tell Pisces to do it now, but she stopped when she saw Erin’s face. Ceria understood, a little bit. For all Erin yelled at her skeleton, Ceria had seen it with her since as long as she’d known Erin. It was Erin’s…
What? Friend was too strong a word. The girl had thought Toren was a mindless tool for the entire time. But she’d relied on him, even liked him. What he was to her couldn’t be explained in words.
And now she had to kill him.
“Perhaps we can track him down.”
That came from Ceria’s mouth. She blinked when she said it, but everyone stared at her and so she spoke, desperately trying to give Erin another option.
“If we set out, we might be able to track him down. You said he was at Esthelm? He may still be in the area. Or we could find him, look for rumors—”
“No. Do it now.”
Erin cut her friend off. She stared at Pisces. The mage stared back, looking as shocked as Ceria felt.
“Yes. Cut Toren’s supply of mana right now. This instant!”
“Are you sure?”
Why was Ksmvr saying that? But the Antinium had the same sense Ceria did. Erin was shuddering. Her face was pale and sweat stood out on her forehead. She was not well. But the look in her eyes was steel.
She spoke quietly to the others.
“He killed people. I asked, and I made sure. Toren killed people. Not just one, not just two, and not in self-defense. He killed them because…because he wanted to. And he’s going to keep killing people if he’s not stopped.”
She stopped, gulped. Erin closed her eyes, but then went on, voice hoarse, choking on her next words.
“If this were a movie…or a play…I’d be the stupid idiot who didn’t stop Toren before he killed thousands of people. He’s already killed dozens, maybe hundreds. And how strong would he become if he kept leveling up? Maybe if I knew I could find him I’d—but I can’t. He’s too far away. And I won’t let him kill anyone else. It has to be now.”
No one could answer her. It was the right decision. Pisces hesitated as Erin walked over to him.
“Do you need to cast a spell or something?”
“No. It’s a simple enough procedure. As the one who cast the spell I can unravel it. It will just take a minute—”
“Do it, then.”
Ceria stared at Pisces. He looked at her, uncertain. She just stared back. See, she wanted to ask him. See what you’ve done?
Pisces looked away. He made no sound, but after a moment laid his hands on Erin’s head. She shifted, once, and then was still.
No sound. No grand show of lights, no mystical chanting. Pisces just moved magic and Ceria saw a thread, thinner than silk and stronger than stone flowing from Erin out into the world. Pisces pulled at it and slowly, the connection broke.
That was it. It was over. He let go of Erin and she stared up at him.
“It’s done? He’s gone?”
“He will be. No undead can live without mana and Toren consumes…consumed more than most.”
Erin took a few steps away from Pisces. She stared blankly at him, and then looked around the room. Everyone stared at her, Yvlon with a pale face, Ksmvr silently, Pisces full of what might have been regret, and Ceria with no idea what to say.
“I’m tired. I’m gonna go to sleep, okay?”
So saying, Erin began to walk up the stairs. She left the Horns of Hammerad behind and went into the small room that wasn’t hers and crawled onto the bed. She didn’t bother undressing, and lay down in the rough blanket. She put her pillow over her head, and curled up into the smallest ball possible.
She didn’t cry. She couldn’t cry. But something in her heart broke. Erin whispered the words into the night.
She listened, hoping to hear a reply. But all she heard was silence.