In the depths of Liscor’s Dungeon, past rooms filled with deadly traps, magical ward spells and places where foul monsters made their homes, a skeleton sat on the ground. He held his head in his hands.
Literally in his hands. Toren’s skull stared blankly ahead. The skeleton sat with his back against a wall in a corridor without light. He wasn’t dead; he was undead. And he didn’t move.
Nothing approached him. Dark shadows slithered or walked or rolled or oozed or floated or teleported or crawled or moved in some other fashion past him, taking no notice of the skeleton. Nothing tried to kill Toren, which was an oddity in this dungeon. But the monsters and other things didn’t bother with Toren.
Not out of fear or lack of malice; there were things down here that felt no fear and relished the chance to hurt anything, even the undead. But they passed Toren by because he just sat and didn’t move. To most, he would simply be another skeleton, and there were more than a few in the dungeon. But Toren’s eyes burned dimly in their sockets.
He was still alive.
This is how it happened.
Toren had been approaching Liscor with the band of undead he had taken from Esthelm. He had been furious, plotting revenge against those stupid Goblins, the Knight and the Humans, and especially against Lyonette. She was a given in any revenge scenario. Toren just didn’t like her.
And then he had felt it. It wasn’t something snapping, and it wasn’t as if anything had been cut. Rather…it felt as though something had reached into the center of Toren’s being and yanked a part out.
The mana connection between him and Erin had vanished. It had vanished, and Toren realized in those next moments of panic and confusion that he was dying.
Because his supply of mana was gone, and Toren was running out. He had already run low on mana from fighting in Esthelm; now it seemed to be leaving his body faster with each passing second.
He had known he was going to die. And so Toren had reached out, feeling the spell in his body burning his life force away. He had searched for something, anything that could give him a few more seconds and found it.
Mana. Magic. In the bodies of the zombies and ghouls following him. So Toren had reached out and…taken it from them.
At the time he hadn’t understood it. Now, sitting in the darkness of Liscor’s dungeon, Toren did. He had stolen the mana from the undead. They had it. It was what gave them the ability to move, to function. Without it they would become dead bodies, or bones. Like Toren.
But he had needed mana so Toren had reached out and taken it. It shouldn’t have been that easy, but these were the dead Toren controlled with his [Command Lesser Undead] Skill, and so in some way they were his. So he had taken their magic and felt it fill him. Not enough, but with more than he had had.
So he could steal magic. At least, from things he owned. That was a revelation to Toren, although again, he hadn’t been in a position to understand that at the time. Now the skeleton thought about this new ability distantly, without real interest.
He was like…a thing that sucked stuff…from things. Toren didn’t have an appropriate word in his head. A straw? That was it! A straw. He was like a Straw Skeleton, something that could feed on the mana of other things. Or maybe a sponge. A Sponge Skeleton.
Names didn’t matter. It was the learning that had saved Toren. He had taken the life of the undead, watched them fall to the ground, lifeless corpses once more. He had lived. But he had still been running out of mana.
So he had searched for more. Suddenly bereft of the thing that had kept him alive, Toren was now focused on it. As someone who had no oxygen would be focused on breathing. And there was magic all around him! It was in the earth, the air, the grass—
But far too little of it. Maybe a zombie could have existed on that ambient mana, but Toren was like a raging bonfire to their modest torches. Something in him was burning through magic at an incredible rate. Erin hadn’t provided Toren with as much mana as someone like Ceria or Pisces could have, but it had still been enough to sustain him.
Searching, Toren had felt something deep in the earth. Something strong. A source of power. He had searched for a way to get to that spot, and remembered the dungeon. He remembered where he had fallen in and desperately made his way to that spot.
There he had had met the small, white Gnoll that used to live at the inn. Mrsha? Mrsha. She had taken one look at Toren and fled. She had gone right to the very crevasse Toren was headed to, and actually tumbled in by herself!
She was clumsy. And she’d let go when Toren went to pull her out. He hadn’t been sure if he was going to stab her or let her go in any event; he just needed her out of the way so he could get into the dungeon. But she had fallen, and that was that.
It was Toren’s descent that mattered. He had carefully climbed down a few feet into the dungeon down the sheer drop, lost his grip, and tumbled to the bottom. He hadn’t broken—but he had fractured several bones.
But then he had been in the dungeon. And oh, blessedly, there had been magic.
It filled the dark hallways of the dungeon. It practically radiated from some rooms, and Toren knew the ambient energy could fuel any number of undead, or other monsters. It was enough to actually fill him with magical energy, enough so that he could reassemble himself a few times if he needed to.
That was a relief. But Toren hadn’t done any fighting then. Suddenly free of the need to survive, the skeleton had seen the small Gnoll running away into the darkness, and heard her howling. He had seen the adventurers and the big Drake kill a score of monsters with commendable skill and bravery. He had seen them climb out of the pit.
And he hadn’t felt a thing. Toren had sat down as the battle had raged, as killing—his favorite thing to do—had been occurring in spades. He had sat and been still. Because now Toren had realized the truth. The awful truth, which held him in place. That wouldn’t go away.
Erin Solstice was dead.
And it was his fault.
The link between Toren and Erin was gone. She was no longer providing him with mana. There could only be one reason for that, Toren knew.
She was gone. He had gotten her killed.
And he hadn’t meant it.
Okay, okay. He had deliberately pulled Erin countless miles away from her inn and left her deliberately near a cave with a sleeping bear in it. And maybe Toren had thrown some rocks at a pack of wolves as he’d walked off. But that had just been a playful attempt at murder, a casual homicide attempt! He hadn’t…hadn’t ever thought it would happen.
It was strange. Toren stirred. He lay down on his left side, turning his head to stare at the rest of his body. He had tried to get Erin killed back then, full of anger for being forced to pull her about, and those stupid bells, but he hadn’t thought she’d really get killed by the bear, deep down.
And that was strange. Toren was dead. He could tell when he was having odd thoughts. Why wouldn’t he have expected Erin to die? Everyone died. Even the undead.
Toren understood death, now. He knew intimately. And killing. He liked it. Toren had learned to kill animals, monsters, and people. It was all the same. All you had to do was stab things, preferably with something sharp, like a sword. Toren was good at it. He was a front-stabber, a backstabber, a side-stabber, and when he could get away with it, an eye-stabber.
Anything could die. Toren was sure he could kill anything with a sharp enough sword. But Erin? How could she die? She was…Erin. The person who’d given him purpose, the second (and more important) person he’d ever seen. His Master. Or Mistress. He hadn’t meant for her to die.
Okay, he had meant for her to die. But part of him didn’t really expect it to happen. It just seemed impossible to Toren. Still seemed impossible, really.
He remembered Erin fighting Skinner, fighting off hundreds of undead, singing…and her immortal game with the Antinium. She was…had been…at the center of the world Toren knew. He could imagine killing anyone, imagine anyone’s dead body, but hers.
He couldn’t believe she would just die like that. But she had. And it was his fault. Because he had left her. And it was his duty to protect her.
He had abandoned that duty. Left it behind. And only now did Toren regret. Erin was dead. Dead and never coming back.
It was the first time he had ever thought of death as a bad thing. Dead things didn’t bother Toren. He was dead. So what if things never moved? It hadn’t mattered. But Erin—she wouldn’t move. Ever. She was dead. She would rot. She would never speak.
She was dead.
There was nowhere to hide in his mind. Toren couldn’t lie to himself. He was dead, and there were no comforting illusions anymore. Only the painful reality.
She was dead.
And it was his fault.
After a while—after a bit of dust had gathered on his body, Toren moved. He stood up. Not because he felt better; Toren never forgot. Memory never faded for him; it was as fresh as the moment he had experienced things. But he felt like he had to do something. Sitting was not working.
Toren leaned against a wall, like he’d seen Erin do when she was upset. It didn’t make him feel better. Maybe it was the wrong wall?
He tried the same thing on the opposite wall. No luck. Toren thumped his skull against the stones. That didn’t help either. He looked around for his sword and remembered he’d dropped it, and everything else in his haste to get here.
So. He was weaponless, trapped in a dungeon full of horrible monsters, and Erin was dead. Toren stared at a wall. Aside from that last bit, things were fine.
Nothing was fine. Nothing would ever be fine. For a second, Toren debated walking out into the corridor and finding a monster to destroy his body a few times. Or maybe he should climb out of the dungeon and lie in the snow until he finally ran out of mana.
To Toren, the notion of oblivion held its own certain charm. But there was a part of him that was afraid of the blank look in the eyes of the dead. After all, they had a second chance, to come back as undead like Toren. But if he died, what then?
If Erin became a zombie, or a Ghoul, would there be anything of her in there? Toren paused. He didn’t want to see a dead Erin. And he didn’t want to die. There was a strong part of him that shouted that.
Yes. Death wasn’t an option for Toren. Despite it all, he wanted to live. And so Toren did. He dusted himself off, looked around, and began to think.
He was alive. Good. That was a good start. Now…what? He was in a dungeon, because he was on his own now. Because he had no mana—
No, scratch that. Because he used too much mana! In theory, he could live like an ordinary skeleton out on the surface. But it was rapidly becoming more apparent that Toren was no ordinary skeleton.
Obviously, because he could level. And think. And he had a name. But there was something else.
Toren felt at his body. His skeletal fingers encountered only yellow-white bone. Was there something off about him?
He carefully pulled a rib out and studied it. Nope. Just a normal rib. His rib. Toren threw it over his shoulder and waited.
After a second or two, the rib rose off the ground and flew back towards his body. It snapped back into place. Toren stared at his reattached rib.
Now that. That wasn’t normal. No other skeleton Toren had met—undead or otherwise—did that. But why did it happen?
Toren thought for a second, and then cast around. He didn’t look with any visual senses, but rather, with that strange ability he’d used out of desperation not long ago. He reached out and searched for the magic with his mind.
There. Toren regarded himself in his head. He could…sense the magic in him. There was a good bit of it, but it wasn’t uniform. There was a flow to it. It occupied his bones. In fact, his bones were the place where the mana was stored. Toren could see how it ran through the bones, absorbed by the spell that animated him from the dungeon. But there were also points where it concentrated, where his body used more mana.
Specific bones, in fact. Toren counted four of them.
Bone one? Second-lowest left rib. Bone two was his right shinbone. The tibia, not the fibula. Bone three was his clavicle. The left one. And the last bone…fourth rib from the top on the right side.
Why were they different? To Toren’s fingers, they were no different from—wait a second. He felt suspiciously at the ends of the rib. The two ‘special’ ones were slightly shorter than the others! And here—his tibia was shorter than the ones on his right side! He was unbalanced!
That indignation lasted only a second. Toren plucked at the bones, removing the ribs to look at them. Why were these bones different? Why did they use more mana, and why didn’t they match the rest of his body? Toren could only assume it was because he wasn’t one skeleton.
He was multiple skeletons.
The [Skeleton Knight] thought about this. Then he fainted.
It wasn’t really fainting, honestly. Toren just swooned over and lay on the ground, like he’d seen Lyonette do once or twice when he’d dropped a bunch of Corusdeer intestines on her head. He got up after a while, but the shock was still there, making his hands tremble.
He was multiple skeletons. Toren felt betrayed by the knowledge. Why hadn’t anyone told him?
Then again…it made sense. Toren was far too intelligent and powerful to be a single skeleton. He nodded to himself, satisfied with that explanation. Then he frowned, or rather, thought about frowning.
He had the ability to sense mana. Not just ambient mana, but to look at something and tell where the mana was concentrated. It was useful, but also a mystery. Because Toren had never learned the [Mana Sense] Skill, if that even was a Skill. So that meant…Toren took several minutes to figure this one out. When he had it he slapped his head off his body in surprise.
You could have a skill which was not a Skill.
It was a mind-blowing revelation. And it immediately made Toren question everything he thought he had known. If you could be good at something without a Skill—like sword fighting, why not learn as much as you could instead of trying to level up and gain Skills?
Maybe…maybe because other people weren’t as good at learning as Toren? He was great at learning. He’d learned that you couldn’t bring dead fish into the inn (unless they were carefully dried off and not in pieces), how to light fires, how to carry plates without breaking them, how to bother Erin so she’d let him go outside…
But it occurred to Toren that there were things he could do that he didn’t know he could do. His mana sensing abilities, for one. That was odd. Could all skeletons do that? Could all living people?
No. Surely not. But if Toren could do that, what else could he make his body do?
He wasn’t sure. It was another thing to explore, but right now Toren was more concerned with survival. Because he would survive. He would live. He didn’t know how to die. He must have forgotten how.
Plus, it stood to reason that Toren was better at living than at dying. He lived all the time, and he’d only died once (as far as he knew). He must not have been very good at it, to have only died once.
So live. And part of living was exploring, finding his whereabouts. Toren looked around.
It was dark. That didn’t bother Toren. But in the darkness, there wasn’t much to see. The corridor was long, wide, tall, and filled with other unhelpful adjectives. Toren had been here before and knew the corridor just led to other intersections and passageways of the same.
This place was a labyrinth. And unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you looked at it, it was filled with monsters. Toren had seen them the first time he’d fallen down here and run away from an enchanted suit of armor.
He’d run around, found a huge staircase going up, run through several rooms, one filled with fire, another with some kind of spell trap he’d dashed through, and then found himself in a room with a bunch of statues and a hole in the wall. He’d dashed out of that and met a bunch of Goblins, who’d been very helpful and helped him kill that blasted suit of armor out on the surface.
So in short, Toren had no idea where he was. He only knew there were trapped rooms ‘above’, a labyrinth ‘here’ filled with monsters, and presumably a lot more dungeon he hadn’t explored. But there was a way out.
For now, Toren dismissed the idea of trying to find a way out of the dungeon. That, ironically, was the most dangerous option for him, lacking a mana source as he was. To go above he’d need a mana potion, or a way of generating more magic to survive off of. So he’d have to stay here.
With the monsters.
Toren patted his side and remembered he’d left his sword somewhere. He looked for it.
There. Toren picked up a somewhat dulled longsword and inspected it critically. It was iron, the cross guard cracked, and covered with dried blood on a few spots. Not ideal for cutting, but it would do.
Sword? Check. Toren needed armor, a shield, and maybe a safe place to run to if he found trouble. He went searching.
The first thing Toren found was a bloodstain. It was yellow. He stared at it, and then noticed the burst sack of flesh next to it. It looked squished. Toren inspected the remains for anything interesting.
Nope. Something had been killed, and by a particularly heavy blow. That was all.
The skeleton went on. The next thing he found was the killer. It was a huge, bear-like creature, all fur and claw, but it had been holding a maul. It was dead. It had one of its hands grasping a short stinger in its side; practically a scratch. But Toren stared at the creature’s bared teeth and twisted expression of pain and knew it had died from poison.
Odd. The bear-thing sort of resembled a Gnoll. Toren propped it up against a wall so he could investigate it better. It was fur-chested, and had no garments except for a loincloth which hid…Toren peeled it away…more of the beast. That was disappointing. Toren had always wondered what clothing hid, but it just turned out to be more of the same. He poked dismissively at a dangling bit of the creature and then inspected its face.
There were definitely Gnoll characteristics here, but this creature had a far broader back, and Gnolls were already pretty big. The teeth were bigger, the head was squatter and actually seemed a bit smaller, and this not-Gnoll had claws that were long and dangerous, not like a Gnoll’s paws at all.
Was it some kind of relative of the Gnolls? Toren shook his head. He eyed the maul and decided it wasn’t for him either. Too heavy.
It was a shame to just leave the dead not-Gnoll here, though. Toren thought it would have made an excellent zombie; practically impossible to kill. But he couldn’t raise the dead, just command them. So he left it there and went on.
Down the corridor, past glowing runes on the walls. Toren stared at a couple of them as they lit up, sensing his presence. He didn’t think much of them until he passed by a cluster of them. They turned bright green, flared up, and an explosion blew the skeleton to bits.
In the time it took for Toren to reassemble, he concluded that the labyrinth was probably full of such traps. He could sense the magic clustering around them. Toren got up, dropped his sword, went back for the maul next to the dead not-Gnoll and ran back. He began furiously smashing the heavy weapon into the runes on the wall, but didn’t make a dent, even when the maul’s head snapped off the sturdy wooden shaft.
Okay, the runes were there to stay. Toren just had to avoid them. He could do that. He stomped past the runes, skirting them by sticking to the other side of the corridor. He made it ten more steps, and then fell into a pit trap.
That hadn’t been his fault! True, after he’d angrily hauled himself out Toren could see the upraised plate of stone that had opened the ground soon after to send him falling into a short pit full of sharp, stone spikes and bones. But how was he supposed to know it had been there?
Toren walked off, looking closely at the ground and walls and ceiling. He spotted five more traps down this corridor, avoided them all, and then noticed the dead spider at the end of the corridor. It was quite dead; something had burnt it to a crisp. Quite recently too, because it was still a bit hot.
Another monster. Well, well. Toren found he was at a T-intersection and headed left. He frowned as he noticed bits of shell, or some other black fragments on the ground. Then he noticed the webbing and slowed down. When he got to the open doorway at the end, Toren cautiously poked his head through the entryway and looked up.
Oh my. That was the skeleton’s thought. Toren’s gaze showed him a huge circular column room, far taller vertically than it was horizontally. And stretching the entire height of the room, sitting in webs, tending to huge cocoons of their young hanging from the walls, the ceiling, bunched together like grapes, were skittering shadows, creeping shapes.
Toren eyed them. None of the spiders had picked up he was here, so he carefully tiptoed backwards. He wasn’t afraid of spiders, but some of them were big. Was that how big Shield Spiders got? A few of the ones near the top were bigger than Rock Crabs.
The [Tactician] in Toren’s head told him that going into that room and fighting like he normally did was sheer suicide. The rest of Toren agreed. But looking wouldn’t hurt. He poked his head back around and saw something that made him go suddenly still.
Pawn. Toren’s keen not-eyes picked out a silent shape, struggling, being hauled by several Shield Spiders into the room from another entrance. It was Pawn! Toren watched with interest as the Antinium was dragged towards a cocoon. It ruptured, and countless tiny spiders swarmed out. They covered the Antinium as Pawn fought, but there were too many and he was covered in webs. In moments, the frantic thrashing slowed. The Shield Spiderlings continued to gnaw at their prey. Pawn was dead.
Toren wondered what Erin would have thought of that. He felt bad for Pawn. But Pawn was dead. And oh, look! Toren spotted another Pawn being dragged into the room. This Pawn was already dead.
Two Pawns? Wait a second. Toren’s eyes would have narrowed had he skin. There weren’t two Pawns. And then he saw more Antinium being dragged in, and more partially eaten, hung in the webbing.
Hold on a moment. More Antinium? Toren thought about that and concluded maybe these weren’t Pawn. They could have just been…the others that sometimes came to Erin’s inn. But they didn’t have names, so Toren didn’t remember them. He stared at all the other not-Pawns and shrugged. What were Antinium doing down here anyways? Didn’t they know it was dangerous?
Toren turned away from the nest of Shield Spiders and noticed something else interesting. Caught in the detritus around the spider’s lair, some other remnants of their victims had fallen. Toren saw a stinger, like the one he’d seen earlier, a crimson pincher, devoid of a body, a rotted arm that seemed far too thin and small to have belonged to a Human, and a head. It stared at Toren and he stared back. Well, there were apparently giant centipedes down here as well.
There were so many monsters about! Okay, perhaps they weren’t popping out every two feet, but the dungeon’s population was clearly actively growing and being cut back down to size as monsters fought with each other and guarded their lairs.
Toren poked his head around the corner again, and eyed the bulging cavern of Shield Spiders and the obscenely glistening eggs hanging from every web. He thought for a second about cause and effect, about actions and consequences, about the nature of causality in general. Then he got bored, threw a stone at the nearest cluster of eggs and ran for it.
Around two dozen angry Shield Spiders chased Toren down the corridor as he sprinted past all the traps he’d found. He stopped at the intersection and looked back. None of the Shield Spiders had made it to him. They’d all died at the first trap, which Toren had run right past since he could see the magical runes hidden in the grime.
The Shield Spiders, or what was left of them, were sprawled around the trap, mostly in pieces. Toren stared at the runes. They weren’t glowing now, but he was curious as to how it had killed the Shield Spiders.
Toren paused, looked about, and went back to find more Shield Spiders. When he eventually managed to lure a few towards the trap, Toren was treated to a horrific sight.
The Shield Spiders went pop as they crossed over the trapped bit of floor. There was no waiting about, no warning. They just exploded from the insides, as if something had blown a huge bubble of air right into their bellies and made them burst.
It was so entertaining that Toren made eight more spiders activate the trap, until the magic stopped working and he had to stomp the last spider to death with his foot. But though the energy of the spell had been exhausted, Toren could sense the latent magic in the dungeon slowly working to replenish it.
So, the traps were here to stay. The monsters either learned to avoid them, or died. And they tended to thrive, if only on a diet of Antinium and each other. Toren nodded to himself as he walked away from the corridor, making a mental note to come back and have fun exploding spiders at a later date. He took another left, then a right, flattened himself against a wall when he heard a sound, and then saw the corridor turn into stairs.
Not the same stairs that led up to the rooms with traps. The purple flames in Toren’s eye sockets narrowed to a pinpoint as he stared up the short staircase. What was this now? He could see more runes on an overhang where the wall went down to block off the corridor, leaving only a metal door in its place. They glowed above the simple door. Not a spell, but words. A message, etched in stone and enchanted to last forever.
Toren eyed the letters. They were all interconnected. It was a flowing, elegant script. And what was most curious to Toren—they weren’t the words Erin or any of the people around Liscor used. This language was different entirely.
It was a curious thing that everyone mostly spoke the same language to Toren, yet they wrote differently. But Toren could read dead languages and living ones with ease. They were just meaning, and his undead mind could translate any meaning.
Not that these words necessarily mattered. These said the usual things Toren was used to reading. He read things all the time in Erin’s inn. They were all the same.
Special on Fish! 2 sp. for all you can eat!
No taking dishes! That means you, Relc!
Horrible death awaits all those who enter this place. Your bodies shall be taken and made part of the Mother of Graves.
It was all the same, really. Toren dismissively walked past the etched warnings on the wall and went up the steps. He opened the door and disappeared through. Ten seconds later he walked quickly back out of the door, shut it, and decided to go somewhere else at speed. Things burst through the doorway, chasing him, but they didn’t follow him far.
And then Toren found the dead adventurer.
She wasn’t any more special that the last ones Toren had met, or so he felt on first glance. There were dead adventurers, dead monsters, dead animals—a few birds, of all things, probably lost from above. But there was something this adventurer had that the other bodies Toren had come across did not.
It was wrapped around her. The adventurer’s flesh was rotted, although Toren could still see her bared teeth, snarling in defiance. She had an open hand, fingers twisted and broken. She had probably been holding a sword, but whomever—or whatever—had killed her had taken it, ripping it out of her death grip to do so.
Toren could also tell she was dead because most adventurers had a throat. Hers was missing.
The other dead people lying around her looked like they’d also gone down fighting. There were twelve bodies in all, fairly well preserved. Toren wasn’t sure if they were freshly dead, really dead, or just old. As skeleton, he didn’t particularly care about the effects of decomposition, since everyone eventually ended up looking like him.
But the cloak. It was wrapped around the adventuress. Toren gingerly bent and tugged it away from the dead woman. He had to undo the clasp at the neck, but then it was in his hands. He held it in front of him, appraising it.
It was…well, it was a ragged brown cloak, a bit holey, and certainly nothing to write home about. If Toren had a home. And if Erin was alive to write to. But it spoke to him.
There was something in the skeleton’s mind that told him the cloak was important. It wasn’t the [Tactician] bit of him, or the warrior, or the bit that said that he could wash the cloak so Erin wouldn’t complain that it smelled—no, this was something else. A new part of Toren, coming to life, speaking to the rest of him.
It was a vague sense of style. And Toren felt the cloak had style in spades, especially around his shoulders.
Carefully, he threw the cloak around him and put it on. The skeleton looked at himself. He couldn’t see the general impression he made with the cloak on, but he felt it looked good.
Clothing. Fashion. Style. These weren’t words that had ever interested Toren, but the cloak had awoken something in him. Erin had always been fussing about clothes, whether they were ripped, dirty, on or or—she had a big problem with Toren staring at her without clothing.
Maybe this was more important than Toren had thought? The skeleton pondered this as he looked for something to admire himself with. After all, clothing wasn’t like armor. It could barely stop a bad sneeze, let alone a sword thrust. So maybe the value of clothes was simply in…looking good.
Aha! Toren found what he wanted in the dead adventuress’ pack. He pulled out a broken fragment that shone in the darkness. A piece of a mirror, perhaps. Yes, Toren rifled around in the dead adventuress’ pack and found the other fragments, all smashed. He carefully reassembled them on the ground and studied himself.
A skeleton wearing a cloak stared up at Toren. He looked at it in shock. It was a skeleton. With a cloak. That was it.
Not that cool at all.
Toren drooped. He’d really thought the cloak would look amazing on him, but it didn’t. It just sort of sagged on his body. It didn’t blow in the wind! Mainly because there was no wind in the dungeon.
He tore the cloak off and hurled it on the ground. For good measure, Toren stamped on it. He didn’t look good. Erin looked good in some clothing. Toren distinctly remembered how she’d looked after the battle with Skinner, her shirt and pants torn, covered in blood and grime and guts. That was a look. Toren could admire that, and that annoying [Knight] he’d fought in Esthelm. If he, Toren, were fighting an opponent that shiny, he’d feel a bit impressed.
They had style. Toren did not. He kicked at the cloak, stared at it, and then picked it back up and lovingly stroked it. It was a good cloak. It spoke to him. Yes, it wasn’t the cloak’s fault; it was Toren’s! He just wasn’t wearing enough to make the cloak look good.
Toren looked around. There was a group of dead adventurers here. They all had clothes. Toren bent down and began claiming it. He didn’t know why he was doing it. It was just a thought.
Erin had worn clothing. So Toren would too. Just to see what it was like. Because anything that reminded Toren of Erin hurt—but it hurt more when he tried to forget.
So Toren dressed himself for the first time since he’d been created. It was hard. Not because he didn’t have a surplus of garments to wear, but because it was so hard getting it off the dead bodies without ripping anything! Toren had never learned what buttons or belts or clips were. He ruined a good deal of pants before he realized they were attached to the waist and that pulling too hard would just pull the pants and the legs straight off the corpse.
But he did have clothing. Toren claimed most of it from the dead adventuress, for the sheer reason that if she was fashionable enough to use a cloak, she probably had good taste. She had been wearing leather armor, pierced in some places, over her clothes. Toren ignored that at first, and began slipping on her clothes.
They hung on him. Toren stared at himself in the mirror and picked disconsolately at the very loose, very ill-fitting clothes. The adventuress hadn’t been that big, but she had skin. Toren didn’t.
But still, he persisted. Toren grabbed the shirt off of someone else and tore it up to pad out his body so the shirt would fit. He began assembling the garments, putting them on. Tattered cloak, pants, shirt…Toren had to put the stiff leather armor underneath the clothes to pad out the clothing on his thin frame. That made him sufficiently bulky.
Actually, Toren considered himself normal and everyone else obscenely fat and heavy. The depths of anorexia wouldn’t come close to Toren’s frame. At least, not until the end.
Now looking somewhat decently Human-shaped, Toren attempted to figure out where the rest of the clothing on the dead adventurer went. He’d seen Erin use a bra—and seen her naked for that matter, much to her displeasure—but he couldn’t see the point on his body.
Still, there wasn’t much point to clothes to begin with, so why quibble? Toren stuffed some rags into the bra and patted them to make everything look right. Then he realized he needed something for his head. Because if he was going to look like a Human, like Erin, he had to get rid of the grinning skull that stared back at him in the mirror as well. Toren thought about how to do this.
Hats were no good. He had a hood on the cloak, but from the front Toren’s features would be fairly obvious. Toren thought about this and eyed the dead adventuress’ face. He could cut it off, but faces probably weren’t that easy to fake. Plus, it was already rotting, which didn’t bother Toren, but the flies did.
A…mask. Yes, that was the thing. Toren looked for a mask, but none of the adventurers had one. Slightly put out, he wondered where he might make something to hide his face and had a brilliant idea.
The dead Shield Spiders had lovely carapaces. True, many of them were in pieces from the trap, but the wonderful thing about spiders was that they had webbing. A bit of work and Toren came up with a mask that covered his entire face. He gingerly stuck it to the front of his skull with some web and trooped back to the mirror to inspect his new look.
The skeleton held his breath as the skeleton on the ground stepped into vision. Only, in the mirror, there was no skeleton at all.
A slim, female figure stared up at Toren. She was female because she had bulges in the right place, and because she had some curves that Toren had worked really hard to get right. She was wearing dirty clothing, ragged and tattered, wrapped and held in place with cloth fragments. The look actually wasn’t that bad and the bindings added to the ‘warrior’ look in Toren’s head.
But what really drew the mysterious figure together were the mask and the cloak. The dark brown cloak swirled around the female warrior as she lifted one gloved hand to adjust the mask on her face. The mask was dark black, the surface shiny and rough. It covered her face, leaving only two narrow slits for eyes—
Toren’s admiration halted as he realized the eyes on the figure in the mirror were glowing. Dismayed, he bent and saw two purple flames flickering in the eyeholes of his mask. Toren cursed. Those gave him away! He thought hard. Could he get away with closing the gaps in the mask off? No, but then he wouldn’t be able to see. What about making the flames dimmer? Could he do that?
In the mirror, Toren saw the flames in the figure’s eyes slowly dim. They grew smaller and smaller and then, quite suddenly, went out.
Toren jerked back. He felt at his eyes, looked around. He could still see! But when he looked in the mirror, only dark slits on the mask were visible. You couldn’t tell who was looking out. Anyone could have been underneath. A Human, or a Drake—no, Drakes had tails. Or a Gnoll—but Gnolls were bigger…
Okay, there could be any kind of Human underneath. Or a half-Elf! The figure straightened up. She admired her ragged look, her masked face, her thin but not undead-thin frame. She struck a pose and felt the innards of her ‘body’ shift, held in place by sticky Shield Spider webbing and the clothing she wore.
And she smiled. She traced a finger over her mask in a smile.
Toren grinned. She had style.
An hour later, Toren had to concede that style had its disadvantages. When she’d gotten bored of running about the dungeon, posing and admiring herself in the mirror, she’d begun testing out the limits of her new form.
Because it was a new body, or as a good as one. Toren felt as though this new shape was person unto itself. Herself. This new Toren was more Erin-like, more Human. She had more weaknesses like this, but Toren felt as though she understood more of Erin this way.
And one of the things she understood was how annoying clothes were. Toren had the opportunity to skirmish with a few creatures in the time after she’d dressed. The first opponents she’d found were some rather unpleasantly large maggots, as high as Toren’s midriff and wider than she was, coming to feast on the bodies.
Toren had killed them, if only because she felt she owed the dead group of adventurers that. But it had been considerably harder than she’d expected. She’d tried to roll and dive as the maggots leapt blindly at her, trying to bring her down, and found she was slower, less nimble.
Fighting with clothes on made Toren feel like she was moving in slow-motion. She couldn’t roll and dive out of the way, and she wasn’t able to bend at crazy angles to slash her foes like normal. She still killed the maggots of course; they were slow blobs and once you punctured their admittedly thick hides they spewed their guts.
But that led to the second problem, which was that Toren’s wonderful clothes were now dirty! She brushed at the slime covering her arms, quite upset about the sudden change in her appearance. So this was why Erin kept telling him not to bring dirty things into her inn! She could only imagine how hard she’d have to scrub to get the stains out.
But Toren was happy, in a way she couldn’t describe. She ran through the dungeon, happily hacking at things, running away, and in general enjoying herself. This was something new, something exciting! It was a challenge to fight without damaging her clothes, and it was amusing to think that no one had any clue that there was a skeleton stabbing them to death, rather than a regular living being.
Only, there was no one to share that knowledge with! Until Toren met the group of adventurers, that was.
It was some time after Toren had dressed herself. She couldn’t have said when, only that she’d acquired a good splattering of blood on top of her clothes, and leveled up. Time was hard to tell in the dungeon. But as Toren was walking down the halls, reflecting that she would need a new blade soon—hers was quite dull from use—she heard a sound.
Immediately she stiffened and got ready to fight. Or run. It was impossible to play dead, dressed as she was. But these sounds weren’t the noises a monster would make. Toren turned her head in disbelief as she heard voices.
“—Freezing my beard off here, Insill! Why in the name of forge fire are we down here without backup?”
“You don’t have a beard, Dasha. And the magical food that [Innkeeper] fed us only lets us use one enchantment at a time, remember?”
“Huh. She didn’t know that.”
“But she gave us back our coin, and we’re set for the next eight hours. Deal with the cold. Only a few groups know about her magical cooking, and so we have a chance.”
Toren listened with fascination to the two voices arguing. People? Down here? Then a growling voice, soft and commanding, interrupted.
“A single enchantment won’t do us any good if we’re attacked by something truly dangerous. We should be quiet. We are scouting. Information about this new part of the dungeon is worth its weight in gold, but only if we get back alive.”
The voices cut off at once. Toren paused. They were just up ahead. She had a rough map of this part of the dungeon in her head, and she knew they were right next to the hole she’d fallen through. Had these adventurers come down the same way? And if they had, what was Toren going to do about them?
Part of Toren knew exactly what to do. Kill them. That was what he’d always done. Kill anything that moved, because he might level! But she wavered. She wondered—
And then soft yellow light flooded the hallway. It stunned Toren, because she’d been in the darkness so long she’d forgotten what light was like. It illuminated the dark corridor, threw her form into relief. She spotted the group of five adventurers at the same time they saw her.
They were five. Two were clearly warriors; a short woman with an axe in front wearing armor, standing next to a young woman with a curved sword. A Gnoll and a hooded figure were looking over their shoulders as they walked behind the warriors, guarding the rear. The Gnoll held a shortbow, and the hooded figure held something thick and flat in one furred hand. They were all following a Drake with black scales, who was dressed in leather armor. He had a dagger out. They all froze when they saw Toren.
The Gnoll snapped the words first. He lifted the bow up, but the hooded [Mage] grabbed his arm.
“Don’t shoot! It’s an adventurer!”
Toren had been charging forwards, ready to cut into the group and slay the [Mage] with her Skill before escaping. But she halted when she heard those words.
An adventurer. They thought she was like them! For a second, Toren’s head was filled with clouds, and she felt bliss permeate every inch of her being.
They thought she looked like one of them. Her clothing had worked! For that reason alone, Toren didn’t immediately try to kill them all.
Still, there was tension in the air as the adventurers backed away from Toren. The Gnoll thrust the [Mage]’s hand away and nocked his bow. He didn’t aim at Toren, but the threat was there. The two warriors conferred with the Drake with the dagger and he called out cautiously towards Toren.
“Hallo? We’re friendly! Are you an adventurer? Are you lost? Look—we’re not threats!”
He sheathed the dagger at his waist, and the other adventurers lowered their weapons. After a moment’s hesitation, Toren lowered her sword. She wanted to see what would happen if she did.
“Great! Uh—are you okay?”
Now this…was a problem. Toren hesitated, because she couldn’t speak. When he’d been running around and Erin had been alive, he’d often wished he could open his mouth and say something. But unlike the spell that had given him vision, it hadn’t seen fit to give him intangible vocal chords as well. And now she was facing a situation where not speaking might get tricky.
Toren improvised. She raised her hand hesitantly and waved it back and forth. The adventurers watched her carefully, and she saw them turn to whisper to each other. The black-scaled Drake who seemed to be acting as their spokesperson called out.
“Are you…mute? Can you talk?”
Toren nodded to the first question and then shook her head. The Drake turned to his companions. He whispered, but Toren didn’t have ears and so his magical hearing far eclipsed that of anyone but a Gnoll’s.
“I think it might be safe. Come on, let’s go over!”
“You go up. I will stay back with Anith. Best just in case, no?”
The Gnoll whispered back. The Drake nodded and he and the two females walked forwards to meet Toren. She stared at the three of them. They stared back.
“Dead gods, is that a mask?”
The shorter woman, who had arms like a [Blacksmith] exclaimed the instant she got close to Toren. She was holding a metal lantern up and she shone it at Toren’s face. The skeleton held her breath. This was the moment of truth.
“Stop that! You’re blinding her!”
The young woman swatted the lantern down. She was Human, and holding a curved blade Toren couldn’t help but admire. He had never seen a katana before, so unlike Erin, he couldn’t make the mistake of assuming it was one. The sword the woman held was no katana—it was too wide, and the tip was double-edged. It was a long blade, and the young woman held it casually at her side as she spoke to the short woman with the axe. But she was watching Toren warily out of the corner of her eye as she spoke.
The Drake was the next person to speak. Toren looked down at him. He was thinner and shorter than any other male Drake she’d seen, but friendly enough. He grinned up at her, looking slightly nervous.
“Sorry about that. It’s just that we didn’t expect to find anyone down here. What are you doing alone?”
Toren had no good answer, so she shrugged. She was quite entertained by the notion that they thought she was like them, and wondered if she should disabuse them by stabbing them in the face. But she thought it would be more entertaining to see how long she could keep up the ruse.
“You can’t speak, right! Sorry. Uh—what should I say?”
The Drake turned to the two warriors. The young woman with the curved sword frowned.
“Are you hurt?”
Toren shook her head.
“Are you lost?”
Again, a shake of the head. The adventuress paused.
“So you’re a solo adventurer, exploring alone?”
Toren hesitated, and then nodded her head. The Drake’s jaw fell open.
“No way. You mean you’re down here—but we thought—how long have you been here?”
The skeleton masquerading as an adventurer shrugged. She was really enjoying this. She held up her sword to show them the bloodstains, and the short woman exclaimed when she lifted her lantern to see.
“Burn my beard, that’s one battered sword! What have you been doing, smashing rocks with it? That thing deserves to be melted down for scrap, not used as a weapon!”
Toren glared at the short woman as the young woman with the curved blade rolled her eyes. She rounded on her companion, sounding irate.
“For the last time, you don’t have a beard, Dasha! Why do you keep saying that?”
“It’s what my people say! Don’t judge me, long legs!”
“You’re only part-Dwarf! And I’m only a head and a half taller than you are!”
“I was raised by Dwarves, not Humans, alright?”
The two began to argue, completely forgetting Toren was there. She scratched at the back of her hooded head. The Drake sidled closer to her.
“Sorry about that. We’re uh, a newer team. That’s your weapon?”
Toren nodded again. She could understand the part-Dwarf warrior’s point. She didn’t like having the sword either. She wondered if she could take the one the young woman had…
A voice rang out from behind the Drake, cutting the argument between the two female adventurers short. Insill turned and waved.
“Come on over! I think there’s no danger!”
He turned sheepishly to Toren.
“Sorry about that. You know how it is with dungeons.”
Toren nodded understandingly. They were being quite smart. The foolish thing was trusting her. She eyed the other two adventurers as they came over. One was a Gnoll and the other—
There were five adventurers. Two Humans, a Drake, a Gnoll and a…Toren squinted at the fifth member of the group. The last person was just weird. He had fur and looked sort of like a Gnoll, but very not at the same time. Where Gnolls had a distinct, thickset build and a certain scruffiness to their fur, this person was different. His fur was black, sleek, and he had a more elongated head, closer to a dog than the mixed appearance of a Gnoll.
If Toren had known about cultures from Erin’s world, she would have said the fifth person looked like one of the Egyptian gods, like Anubis, perhaps. He was slightly taller and thinner than the average Human male, and he was carrying a book which glowed faintly in one of his paws.
“Who is this, Insill?”
“I think she’s a solo adventurer, Anith.”
“In a new dungeon?”
Shock ran through the [Mage]’s voice. The other adventurers looked at Toren, who silently preened in their stares. At last, the Gnoll spoke.
“Well, we shall not bother you, yes? We are exploring this dungeon as you are, Miss Adventurer. Unless there is something you wish to warn us of?”
Toren thought about all the horrible ways to die she’d discovered and thought about how much she cared for this group’s wellbeing. She shook her head lightly.
“In that case, we shall be on our way.”
The Gnoll nodded, but the Drake stopped him.
“Hold on Larr! We should ask if we can team up!”
The others stared at Insill in surprise, but the Drake nodded.
“She clearly knows the area if she’s been down here. And there’s safety in numbers. What about a team up? We’ll split the loot evenly amongst us all.”
The idea threw Toren far more than the other adventurers. Her? Team up with them? For what purpose? But then the idea tickled her. Why not? She felt good after being taken for an adventurer, and she could always betray them after they killed some things. She nodded, the adventurers conferred, their leader, the [Mage] agreed, and so it was done.
A few minutes later, Toren found the group introducing themselves to her, which was another unique experience. Erin had never introduced anyone to Toren. But now the black-scaled Drake, Insill, was doing so for Toren.
“This is Dasha and Pekona, our [Warriors]. Well, I say [Warriors], but Dasha’s an [Axe Fighter] and Pekona’s a [Blade Dancer].”
The short, part-Dwarf woman and the young woman with the curved sword nodded to Toren, Pekona warily, Dasha still grumbling about the quality of Toren’s sword and arguing with Pekona. Insill whispered to Toren as he gestured to Dasha’s notable lack of height.
“She’s got a bit of Dwarf blood in her family. She’s part Terandrian, you see.”
Toren nodded as if she understood any of that. Insill pointed to the Gnoll next.
“This is Larr from the Hawkarrow Tribe.”
The Gnoll nodded, and Insill turned to the hooded, dog-like [Mage].
“And I am Anith. The [Mage] and party leader. I hope to work well with you, Miss Adventurer.”
He reached out and Toren gingerly mimicked his handshake. She must have done it alright, because Anith said nothing about it. He nodded to her mask.
“I wish that I could know your name, or identity. But I suppose your nature is a secret by choice, so I shall respect it.”
Toren bowed her head. And Anith nodded.
“He’s from the Duskclaw Tribe—Jackals.”
Insill explained as Anith walked forwards to break up the argument again. He grinned up at Toren.
“Oh, and I didn’t introduce myself, did I? I’m Insill. I’m the group’s [Rogue]. Notice the black scales? I can hide in the dark like a shadow, and I’ll be making sure we don’t run into any traps.”
Toren stared at him. Insill’s bravado faded a bit. He coughed and twitched his tail.
“So…shall we go?”
Toren walked with a group of adventurers in the middle of the dungeon. It was a novel experience, mainly because they weren’t trying to kill her, and she was only contemplating doing that to them.
The reason the adventurers were down in the dungeon was a mystery to Toren. She assumed they were here to…well, he didn’t actually know much about what adventurers did. That was a hole in her understanding of the world. They killed things, but for what reason Toren had no idea. She thought they might just do it because they were bored, and approved of the idea.
And none of them were about to tell her, even if Toren asked, which she couldn’t. The group of adventurers, known collectively as Vuliel Drae—which meant something to Anith and no one else—moved in silence. They let their [Rogue], Insill, take the lead and he carefully moved down the corridor, checking for traps and keeping an eye out for monsters as they slowly went from corridor to corridor, Anith mapping their route in his book.
It was boring, and not boring at the same time. Toren was bored by the slow progress, and the way that the adventurers let Insill check every tile and wall before moving on. She was bored by the way the Drake meticulously made Dasha shine her lantern down each corridor, and the way Larr kept glancing behind in case of an ambush while Pekona scanned in every direction as if she was afraid of an attack out of one of the walls.
But she was delighted by the company, all the same. Real people, in the dungeon. Soon to be dead people, perhaps, but real people. And they thought Toren was one of them.
There was something…wonderful about that thought. Toren would have loved to explore the feeling, but then they came to a corridor and Toren saw the trap.
It glowed in her magical vision. The runes were shining across the entire hallway, some angled towards the group. There were runes on the ground ahead of Insill as the Drake cautiously advanced, and presumably they’d all fire if he touched them.
And the Drake didn’t notice. Maybe it was because they were magical, and covered by the grime, or he’d just slipped up. Either way, Toren saw the danger and realized he was about to trigger them.
The skeleton thought fast. It was let the adventurers walk into the trap and risk getting damaged herself or stop them. So Toren moved. She dashed forwards as Insill was about to cross the first room. She reached out and punched Insill in the back of the head.
He staggered, but Toren’s hand pulled him back. The adventurers cried out as Toren whirled to face them. She threw her arms out as Pekona turned her blade towards Toren and Larr raised his bow.
Anith shouted to stop the others. He helped Insill up as the other adventurers stared hostilely at Toren.
“What was that for?”
Insill looked hurt and confused, the others suspicious. Toren hesitated, and then pointed down at the runes only she could see.
“What? What are—”
Insill came forwards, the others watching Toren. He pushed gingerly at the dirt on the ground with the tip of his dagger and then swore and leapt backwards as he saw the shining runes underneath.
“It’s a trap! I nearly walked into it!”
“What? How come you didn’t see it?”
Pekona stared at Insill. His tail wrapped around his leg as he hunched his shoulders.
“I don’t know! My Skill didn’t go off—”
“It might have been hidden by magic that nullified your Skill.”
Anith knelt by the runes, staring at them grimly. He looked up at Toren, and to the skeleton’s amazement, bowed his head towards her!
“You saved us. Thank you.”
The other adventurers reacted immediately. They lowered their weapons, looking ashamed. Dasha stroked at her chin, as if she had a beard. She was sweating a bit as she eyed the glowing runes.
“Dead gods, you did save us. Insill didn’t spot a thing.”
“Yeah, but—you didn’t have to hit me!”
Insill looked hurt. Instantly, Pekona whirled on him, looking irate.
“How else was she supposed to do it? She doesn’t talk!”
The Drake paused.
“Oh, right. But couldn’t she have tapped me on the shoulder or something?”
The other adventurers began venting their shock and relief on him. Dasha growled at Insill.
“You idiot! You’re our [Rogue]! Miss Swordswoman here had to stop you from getting us all killed! If you can’t detect a trap, then what good are you? I’ll kick your lights out myself!”
She smacked Insill on the arm, hard, stroking her bare chin furiously. Insill yelped and protested, until Anith told everyone to quiet down. Toren watched all of this with private glee.
Not only did she get to give other people the Lyonette treatment, but she got praised and other people helped him hit his victims? She was beginning to like these adventurers after all!
They went on. And it was now with Toren walking in the front, next to Insill. Her spotting that one trap had raised the adventurer’s estimation of her, and so they both combed the corridor together before proceeding.
The last trap had shaken Insill’s nerves. He would nervously stop to ask if she’d seen any traps every minute as they moved slowly down the corridors, and she would shake her head. The sheer act of checking the corridor and shaking her head filled Toren with a bit of happiness the skeleton couldn’t explain. She was helping. But it wasn’t her doing something alone. This was a team effort, and Toren had never been part of one of those before.
They ran into their first monster sixteen minutes after the trap. They’d just passed down a corridor when Insill raised his hand nervously.
“Wait a second. Something’s not r—”
Ahead of them, a section of the wall opened up and a wall of white wriggling things poured out. Toren hadn’t noticed the trap. Maybe it had been triggered from inside, but out the monsters came.
Hundreds of them. Thousands. A white mass of long, wriggling things. Toren hacked at them as the adventurers fell back, shouting.
They were leeches. They wriggled across the ground, searching for bodies. They ignored Toren, but she stomped on them and cut with her sword because she didn’t want them messing up her clothes. The other adventurers were doing the same, cursing, tearing the things off as they tried to latch onto any skin.
Anith shouted, and Toren saw a wave of leeches go flying away from him and Larr. But Pekona, Dasha, Toren and Insill were in the middle of it. They hacked and stomped until Toren heard Larr shout a warning.
“Watch out! There’s the mother!”
Toren turned and saw the bigger leeches. They were far larger than the hand-sized ones that had come out in a wave. Some were as long as her leg, others as long as she was. And one was half the width of the corridor and the sharp opening on the underside of its body was gaping as it lunged towards the adventurers.
Toren was in the way. She dove, but the mother leech must have identified the skeleton as a threat, for all Toren had no blood to suck. Grimly, the skeleton waited for the big leech to leap on her—it would be messy, but Toren would kill the leech if it tried to smash her into bits. But she heard a shout as someone leapt at the leech.
Pekona dashed forwards and cut into the giant leech’s side. Greenish-yellow blood spurted out from the slight wound. The leech turned, twisting towards the swordswoman but Pekona pirouetted and spun.
That was it. Toren watched, jaw agape as Pekona leapt and twirled, sword slashing down as the leech dove at where she had been. The [Blade Dancer] landed, twisted, and cut out, slashing another worm creature as it leapt towards her face. She spun, leapt again, and once more avoided the mother as it charged her like a bull.
Toren watched, entranced. She had never seen sword fighting like that before! But Pekona moved unlike any other warrior she’d seen. She didn’t hold her ground, but directed her opponent, attacking from odd angles, avoiding, rolling—
Like a dancer. Only Toren had never seen someone dance before. She stood up and charged the mother leech, hacking into her back, dodging back. Enraged, the giant leech turned to Toren. It gathered itself and leapt—
And he copied Pekona. Toren twisted, sprang. One hand touched the ground, and she cartwheeled through the air—
And into a wall. Toren’s momentum halted abruptly, and she fell back down.
Dasha charged into the mother from the side, hacking and cursing as more blood spurted. The other threw the part-Dwarf woman away with one shake of its body and turned to Toren. The skeleton got up.
Well, that wasn’t it. She’d have to try again. But the mother was coming towards her. Toren didn’t have time for fighting, not when she had something else to do. The skeleton stared at the mother in annoyance. Her body blurred—
And she flashed past the mother, a tear opening along the giant leech’s side. It keened in silent agony as Toren stabbed it a few more times for good measure.
[Mirage Cut]. It had done the job. The mother died as Dasha got up and hacked it to bits from the other side. Insill, Larr, and Anith were finishing off the larger ones, and Pekona was still dancing among the leeches. None of them had touched her yet.
Toren watched her fight. Pekona twirled, and rolled, spun and cut. She didn’t treat her sword as a thing that moved separately from her body; it and she were one. She moved to get around her opponent’s flank, to strike at them from behind. Okay, that wasn’t ideal for leeches, but Toren saw the way it could apply to almost any situation. It wasn’t a single Skill or sword move; it was a way of fighting.
She admired that.
When it was over, Toren looked around and saw the adventurers staggering back, out of range of the remaining leeches who still wriggled determinedly at them through the guts and blood. Dasha was swearing, trying to unhook her armor so Insill could help her get the leeches that had crawled into the gaps out, and Anith and Larr were helping find the ones hidden in their fur.
“Dead gods. What kind of trap was that?”
“It was like a nest! Some kind of home for those things!”
“They triggered it. I’ll swear it!”
The adventurers were babbling, upset. Toren was calm. It was just leeches. She could have killed them all herself, mainly because there wasn’t much they could do to harm her, except for maybe crush her in the case of the mother. But she was surprised when they turned to her.
“Miss Swordswoman, that was pretty incredible! That Skill you used—was it [Mirage Cut]? That’s a good one! You were fighting through all those bloodsuckers as if you didn’t fear a thing!”
Insill beamed at Toren, and the skeleton didn’t know what to do. She turned away, adjusting her mask unnecessarily. Was it hot? No—why would that matter? Toren was dead! Then why did it feel hot?
“Not bad. I guess you are experienced enough to survive down here alone, huh? But what was with that crazy move where you ran into the wall?”
Dasha looked curiously at Toren. The skeleton hesitated, and then pointed at Pekona. Everyone looked at her. The young woman frowned.
“Wait, were you trying to do what I did?”
Toren nodded. Pekona shook her head, looking amused.
“I’m a [Blade Dancer]. It’s not like a normal [Warrior] class, or like the [Blademaster] class. It’s—well, it’s a class from where I’m from. I don’t think you can get the class just by copying the moves—there’s an entire set of footwork and sword techniques unique to that way of fighting.”
That was probably true. But Toren watched Pekona as she helped the others clean up. She didn’t want the class. She already had a class like that. But why couldn’t she copy Pekona? After all, she didn’t have to have a Skill to have a skill. So could she learn to fight…without a class?
It was an intriguing thought. Toren waited until all of Vuliel Drae was ready, and they set off once more. The adventurers looked like a mess, covered in slime and blood as they were. Dasha was speaking as she poured a tiny bit of healing potion over a wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding.
“I don’t have it in me for another battle like that, Anith. That wasn’t hard, but it was disgusting. I need an hour’s bath, and I think there are still more of the things on me in places I haven’t checked.”
The Jackal Beastkin nodded.
“Nor I. But we should at least explore a few more corridors before we return. We haven’t found much and we’ve only been here for an hour—”
Anith broke off sharply. Toren turned her head. Larr had heard it as well.
“Seems like our fight attracted something. There’s a group coming.”
The adventurers backed up, the warriors and Toren in front, Larr, Anith, and Insill in the back. They saw vaguely humanoid shapes, moving as Dasha swung her lantern out.
“Who’s there!? Are you friends or—”
Howls, deep and roaring, answered her. Toren saw the hulking bear-like not-Gnolls appear out of the darkness. And running ahead and around them were—
Yes, Goblins. Only these ones weren’t like Rags’ people. Toren stared at first. He stared at very pale green skin, glowing red eyes, and hunched forms. These Goblins were different. Smaller, more ragged, and far paler than their cousins.
Cave Goblins? Inhabitants of the dungeon? Then Larr spotted the not-Gnolls and shouted.
“By the tribes! What are those?”
It was a pity. Toren had hoped the Gnoll would know. She eyed the warriors. They were eight in total, and adding the group of Goblins there was over twenty monsters coming their way. Not all were armed; some Goblins had only their hands and rocks, but one of the not-Gnolls had a huge stone mace, carved so that the head looked like a screaming skull.
“Get ready! [Seeking Arrows]!”
Anith raised his hand and shining magical arrows shot from his open spellbook and finger. They struck the Goblins and bear-things, and Toren heard bestial screams. Three Goblins fell; none of the not-Gnolls did. They came on.
Larr felled one of the not-Gnolls with his Skill. Dasha ran forwards.
“Let’s go! [Impact Charge]!”
She smashed two Goblins aside as Pekona leapt forwards. Toren used her own skill [Daring Charge] and rushed into the group of monsters. Unlike Dasha, her Skill didn’t give her physical momentum, but rather strength and speed. She cut a Goblin down and then slashed at the first bear-creature who struck at her with a crude mallet of stone and wood.
It was a battle, as the adventurers fought to push back the monsters. Insill was cutting at the Goblins, circling around and stabbing unguarded flanks as Anith used his barrier spell to keep others away from Larr and himself. Pekona spun and fought four enemies at once as Dasha fought with her back to a wall.
They were outnumbered, and perhaps, outmatched. If Toren hadn’t been there, perhaps the adventurers would have died. But Toren was there, and so she killed.
A Goblin ran up and stabbed Toren in the back. She turned, beheaded the Goblin, and felt someone smash her in the back of the head. She staggered, turned, felt at her mask, and stabbed with her sword with the other hand. The not-Gnoll gurgled as Toren’s sword found its throat.
The thing about clothes was—one of the not-Gnolls knifed Toren again and twisted the blade. Toren laughed silently and stabbed the creature through the chest. The thing about clothes was—a Cave Goblin slashed at Toren’s arm but hit only cloth and bone.
The thing about clothes was, it made people think you could be hurt by mere cuts. Toren beheaded the Goblin and turned. The largest not-Gnoll was advancing on Dasha, despite Larr’s arrows striking it from behind. It had that strange mace in its hands and as it raised it, Dasha grimly raised her axe to block.
The mace fell, and Toren heard a strange sound. It was a faint shriek, and it came from the mace. Then it struck Dasha, breaking her guard, battering her to the ground, and Toren heard the scream. It came from the mouth of the stone club, a wave of sound.
It was deafening, horrible shriek that sent every adventurer—and the Goblins and other not-Gnolls—to their knees, clutching at their ears. The bear-thing with the club raised it triumphantly as Dasha lay on the ground, her plate armor bent. He aimed at her head to finish her off and Toren stabbed him in the back.
The not-Gnoll turned, small eyes widening in shock as it found Toren was still upright. It swung the club—but slowly. Toren heard the warning shriek from the club and leaned back. The club passed over her head, and she cut at the leader’s side. It snarled and swung with its own hand. But now Toren dove and rolled.
She came up, stabbed a kneeling Goblin in the back of the head, twisted, and spun away from the not-Gnoll’s mace. It struck the ground and again the ear-splitting shriek filled the air. But Toren was unaffected. She leapt, and slashed, and the not-Gnoll holding the club howled in pain and fear as Toren landed and danced away.
“Get up! Get—”
Insill felt someone shaking him as he rolled on the ground, his head splitting open. He twisted, and saw Pekona, face white, ears bleeding. She pulled him up and he grabbed for his dagger.
Pekona turned. Insill threw, and the not-Gnoll staggered, the dagger in his chest. Pekona slashed twice quickly, and it fell back.
“We have to help her!”
Pekona pointed, and Insill saw their friend slumped on the ground. He ran towards her, tearing at his pouch. Pekona guarded his back as Insill frantically dumped the healing potion over Dasha’s chest.
“Dasha! Speak to me!”
He lifted her up and felt one hand grab at him. Dasha gasped at him, face pale and bloodless.
“I’m fine! Get that monster before he uses the mace!”
“She’s handling him! Pekona—”
Insill turned, about to suggest Pekona help, and saw the [Blade Dancer] standing with her sword lowered. She was staring at the mysterious adventurer, at Toren.
“Is she copying me?”
The young woman breathed the words in incredulity. Insill turned, and his mouth dropped open. In the middle of the corridor, a masked swordswoman dove and leapt, kicking off a wall to vault over the beast with the enchanted mace. Her sword flashed down, and she cut. The creature howled and stumbled.
The other monsters were stirring. Insill grabbed Pekona.
“Ask later! Come on!”
It ended when Toren grew bored of the battle. She knew she could do it. She bent and dove and twirled, just like Pekona. It was a good way of fighting, and Toren felt she could do it again. But she was getting tired of having to avoid the not-Gnoll’s wild swings, so she positioned herself so her back was away from the other adventurers and used one of her secret weapons.
For just a second, the skeleton’s eyes blazed purple. They shone brightly in her mask, as the not-Gnoll raised its mace for a swing. The beast froze as the [Fear] spell struck it and Toren leapt forwards. She rammed her blade into the creature’s chest, and it choked. It fell, grabbing at the blade and Toren pulled her sword out. She turned, and saw the battle was over.
The last two Goblins were fleeing; the other not-Gnolls were dead. The adventurers stared at her, and Toren saw Pekona staring at her with wide eyes. Only Insill spoke.
In the minutes that followed, several things happened. Larr and Anith bent over Dasha, making sure the healing potion had cured the worst of her injuries. That done, they went over to the not-Gnolls to confer.
“I’ve never heard of a species like this. They almost look like you, L—”
“They do not.”
The Gnoll snarled at Insill, making the Drake back away with hands up. Anith stared grimly at the dead bodies.
“We should take one of their heads. I know Liscor isn’t offering a bounty on any monsters killed in the dungeon yet, but this is important.”
“I’ll do it.”
Larr bent and began sawing at a head with a dagger. Dasha, now on her feet, turned and spat weakly as she saw the grisly sight.
“Can’t believe you lot do that.”
“It’s not like Terandria, Dasha.”
Insill turned to her, looking defensive.
“We don’t have truth crystals, so adventurers can’t prove what we kill. We need to take proof, and in this case—”
“Yeah. Got it. Don’t mean I have to like it.”
Dasha turned away. She blinked as she saw Pekona slashing with her sword, twisting her body and slashing at the air.
“What’s she doing?”
“Teaching Miss Swordswoman her style.”
Insill pointed. Dasha murmured quietly.
“By my beard.”
Pekona leapt and spun, moving from position to position, assailing an imaginary foe. She went through basic strikes, moving into advanced rolling slashes and ways to leap from walls, or vault through the air after a handspring. And Toren copied her.
It wasn’t effortless. The skeleton had to think hard to figure out how to move. But Toren’s body moved exactly as she willed it, and what was better, she didn’t forget.
Toren was a good watcher, because she didn’t blink. Within a few minutes she had memorized every move the [Blade Dancer] had made, and was trying it out herself. The other adventures stopped and stared as Toren and the young woman turned, pivoted and slashed with their swords in a curved, graceful arc with the exact same timing.
By the time Larr straightened with the not-Gnoll’s head, Pekona had stopped, panting heavily. She stared at Toren with a mixture of admiration and fear.
“You’re no normal [Warrior], are you. Are you Gold-rank…? Some kind of prodigy?”
Toren just shrugged. Pekona stared at her and shook her head.
“You saved us back there, so this is the least I could do. I don’t know if you’ll get the class—but if you do, please don’t tell me. I couldn’t bear to be passed up by someone who can copy everything I do just by watching.”
She turned, sheathing her sword. Toren watched as Larr went to confer with Anith, and as the adventurers hesitantly approached her. The Jackal nodded to the bodies.
“We didn’t recover much. But that mace—it’s good loot. And we’ve taken enough damage as it is. We only came down here to survey the area, and we’re in agreement that it’s far too dangerous to continue. We’re heading back.”
Toren nodded. She followed the group, still thinking about all the sword techniques Pekona had shown her. When the group stopped in front of the hole in the ceiling, Toren was surprised to see the ropes hanging down. But then—how else would they have gotten down? She stared curiously at them as the adventurers argued at the base of the hole. Dasha seemed to be in a heated argument with Anith and the rest, but then she reluctantly bowed her head. They approached Toren again, and this time she saw the mace they had taken from the dead leader of the not-Gnolls in Larr’s hands.
“We think you should have this. You saved us not once but twice. If you’re willing to sell it, we’d gladly split the costs, but if not…we’ll earn something for the information from us exploring the dungeon anyways.”
Dasha looked bitterly disappointed, and Toren saw Insill’s eyes on the mace. She eyed it, took it from Larr, and lifted it up. Toren could manage to lift it thanks to her [Lesser Strength]. She swung it once, and the adventurers winced as the mace shrieked as it cut through the air. Toren shrugged and handed it back to the adventurers.
Larr looked flabbergasted.
“What? You do not want it? But it is worth much coin, yes?”
What was coin to Toren? She couldn’t use it. She shrugged and waved a hand at the mace. If she couldn’t swing it fast, it wasn’t worth anything to her.
Anith turned towards Toren and bowed his head. She stared at him as he went back towards Dasha, asking whether she would need help ascending or if she could manage it on her own. And Toren felt…conflicted.
She could have stabbed him in the back. She could have plucked out Anith’s eyes. She could have—
But she wasn’t going to. For some reason, Toren was reassured by that knowledge. She didn’t need to kill these adventurers. They were an asset. Like his undead.
What a strange thought. But the [Blade Dancer], no, Pekona had taught her new things. And they had offered her a share of the treasure.
It wasn’t as though Toren had to kill them. She could make an exception. And so, for the first time, Toren did. She turned away, and walked back into the darkness. And she felt good. Something was in her head, a curious thought.
They thought she was Human. They thought she was alive. They thought she was someone who would help them, be their friend. And Toren had been.
Just like Erin.
Just like Erin, how about that? Toren had done it. For a few seconds…
She’d been just like Erin. The skeleton walked back into the darkness, that tantalizing thought in her head.
Insill was the one who saw the mysterious adventurer leaving.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
He cried out as she began to walk away. The other members of his group turned in alarm. But the masked swordswoman who’d saved their party didn’t come back. She turned to face Insill, and lifted one hand.
She waved at them and pointed back into the dungeon. Insill cried out.
“You can’t be serious! Come back! It’s too dangerous—”
But she strode away. In moments, she was gone. Insill turned back to his group. The [Rogue] was in shock.
“I can’t believe it. She just fought two battles and she wants to go back? She’s insane!”
“She’s got the Skills. I didn’t see her use a healing potion after either fight. And she noticed the traps—”
“Even so! Any normal adventurer would go back and rest, right?”
“Maybe she knows she can keep fighting.”
Anith spoke quietly. He nodded at the place where the mysterious adventuress had been.
“When we first met her—in the moment before you called out, Insill, I was afraid. My [Dangersense] went off when she still thought we were foes. If she had attacked…she is clearly of a higher level than we are.”
“No doubt. But I can’t believe she could find that trap when Insill couldn’t!”
“Maybe she knew where it was already?”
“Yeah, but if she did—how did she find it to begin with? It still doesn’t make sense! Does she have two classes that are both high level?”
“How’d she make it past all the traps, then? You were as surprised as me to see her! If she didn’t come down by rope—and there weren’t any signs anyone was here before us—then how?”
Struck by the thought, the team of Vuliel Drae looked at each other in silence. Either the mysterious female warrior had made her way down the hole into the dungeon by herself—and they hadn’t seen any traces of someone entering before them—or she’d gotten past the trapped rooms already by herself.
“Beard blight, you don’t think she actually passed through those trapped rooms and got down here…alone?”
Dasha’s face was pale as she stroked at her smooth chin. Larr shook his head.
“She’s already gone. We can ask once we reach the city, but we are still in danger here, no?”
That was true. The adventurers began to prepare to ascend the ropes, tying themselves in so they wouldn’t fall all the way to the ground if their hands slipped. Insill mechanically grasped his own rope as he looked into the darkness of the dungeon. He thought about the female swordswoman, how mysterious she was, and wished he could have looked under her mask. Was she injured? Had some accident damaged her throat, and that was why she didn’t speak? Or was there another reason?
He wondered if he’d ever meet her again.
The adventurers left the dungeon. They were the first to come exploring for treasure, through this shortcut. But they would not be the last. And they brought an artifact, and hope of more rewards to kindle the hearts of those seeking fame and fortune.
And so above, the rumor spread of a mysterious swordswoman, someone who had braved the dungeon of Liscor by herself. A Named Adventurer? Unlikely, but possibly a solo Gold-rank adventurer, a rival to Griffon Hunt and the other Gold-rank teams converging on Liscor.
The tale was simple. Down in the dungeon, there was a [Swordswoman], no, some kind of genius [Blademaster], solo adventurer with a mask, who fought alone for fame and glory. If you met her, she would fight by your side and guard your back. It was a beguiling thought for those who feared the monsters below. Somewhere, down there, there was a friend in the darkness.
A friend who would see you home.