The Wandering Inn was full today as well. That was unusual, at least to Erin, Lyonette, and anyone who knew the inn well. Erin had developed an inn based around the idea of ‘just enough people to survive’ for quite some time. To have an inn that was actually bustling was surprising.
However, word had gotten out that Erin’s inn was a place with excellent cooking, fast service, interesting things, and most importantly, magical food. That, combined with the influx of adventurers into Liscor meant that her inn was a hotspot. Having a magical door leading to Celum helped.
Indeed, it would be more surprising if Erin’s inn hadn’t become so famous. After all, Drakes and Gnolls might not like Humans that much, but who could resist going for a five minute walk and then popping into another city to see what the smelly Humans were up to? And when you were tired of that, you could have a drink or quick bite on the way back. You didn’t have to wait—the inn had food pre-prepared that only needed warming up before it was hot and ready to eat!
Some might go as far to say that Erin’s inn was now a huge concern for the other inns in Liscor and Celum. Erin’s current set of Skills had made her inn three times as attractive as every other inn. Well, except for Peslas’ inn, the Tailless Thief. It was still a byword for Drakes in Liscor, but it was specialized. Erin’s inn accepted everyone.
Everyone. From [Farmers] who stopped by for some food and a break from the cold, to [Guardsmen] and [Guardswomen] from Celum and Liscor who had learned that Erin had a soft spot for their kind. They sat and diced and laughed at tables next to [Merchants] who might be playing games of Chess and keeping an ear open for saleable news. However, these were all minority populations. The clientele that dominated Erin’s inn at the moment were all of a different kind.
They stood out. They were the insane, the suicidal, and the reckless. Or, they could be deliberate, cautious, and mindful of the socioeconomic value of their class and be willing to take calculated risks for ample rewards. Either way, there was a broad name for them.
Right now they were filling most of Erin’s tables, staring at the Antinium Workers who were measuring the walls, shouting for drinks, and trying to eat plates full of Erin’s magical cooking. It was excellent stuff all had to admit—downing a plate could make you stronger, tougher, or immune to the biting cold winds. However, it was also regarded as a punishment game of sorts; Erin still hadn’t perfected the recipe, and more than a few weak-stomached adventurers were swallowing their snail-based Strength Soufflé hard.
Yes, a few silver coins and you could be strong enough to wrestle a Corusdeer with your hands—so long as you minded the horns. That was a great service—and a danger. Halrac lifted up a glob of the blue Scale Soup he’d been served and stared at it grimly. He opened his mouth, swallowed the spoonful, and scraped the wooden bowl without a change in his expression.
He didn’t have to. Revi, watching him, was making enough faces for the both of them.
“That is disgusting, Halrac. How can you stand eating that?”
“You’re eating it too, Revi. No objections.”
“I’d rather you poked a few needles through my head!”
Halrac pushed the second bowl over to Revi. The [Summoner] Stitch Girl picked up a spoon reluctantly. She eyed the soup and kept complaining, much to Halrac’s displeasure.
“Why can’t I eat the Strength Soufflé? That at least looks palatable.”
“It’s got snails in it.”
“Ew! How does Erin serve this stuff?”
“Because it works. Eat.”
Revi did so, reluctantly. She kept making faces, although the blue stuff really wasn’t that bad tasting. Taste-wise, it was actually pleasant. It just had a terrible appearance, texture, consistency, and smell.
“Remind me why we’re eating this stuff? What about the Corusdeer Scramble? That tastes good and it would keep us warm.”
Halrac opened his mouth to snap at her, but a big head leaned over and interrupted him. Ulrien, the mild-mannered leader of Griffon Hunt, raised two fingers as he spoke.
“Two reasons, Revi. One, Erin’s enchantments only work one at a time. Second, if it’s a choice between the three she’s offering—strength, defense, or cold resistance, we’re all getting the defense.”
“Lots of these young adventurers are getting the Soufflé.”
“Yes, they are.”
Halrac glanced around. Erin’s Strength Soufflé could be seen on almost every table. Who wouldn’t like to be stronger for a few hours? It was a great feeling, and it was a fun trick to challenge a friend to an arm-wrestling competition and then give them a sore arm. Some of the adventurers wearing cheap leather armor and bearing shabby weapons were flexing their arms and grinning at each other. They’d probably never been able to afford an enchantment before and were savoring the moment.
At least Revi could understand what the rest of her group was thinking. The Stitch Girl shook her head as she spooned soup into her mouth. She grimaced, but for once it wasn’t about the food.
“I wonder how many of them will get killed because they think they’re invincible? Does Erin know how many of these idiots are going out and getting slaughtered by monsters?”
“If she doesn’t, don’t tell her.”
Halrac looked warningly at Revi. The Stitch Girl glared at him as she took a drink from her mug. It was no secret within Griffon Hunt that Halrac had a soft spot for Erin…in his own peculiar way. She opened her mouth to needle him, changed her mind when Ulrien looked at her, and gave up.
“If Bronze-rank adventurers are dying, it’s because they overestimate their abilities or underestimate their opponents. That’s how it’s always been. Smart adventurers will know that these enchantments are a useful tool, not an all-powerful spell.”
Revi and Halrac nodded silently. Ulrien glanced around and grunted. His passive face turned into a frown.
“Still, there are a lot of them.”
The three members of Griffon Hunt looked around. The inn was packed with adventurers. As they watched, a group of them tossed some coins onto the table and made for the door to Celum. They were probably going to exterminate some monsters nearby. Another group of armed warriors were eating the Corusdeer Scramble with pleasure while they tried to cram a hot Soufflé into their packs for later. That was amusing to watch.
However…there was a large group in the center of the room that looked ready for a fight now. They were checking each other’s gear, and Halrac’s keen eyes placed them squarely as a mix of Silver-rank and Bronze-rank adventurers. There were about twenty packed onto four tables, and one of them stood up with a mug in his hands.
“We will descend into the dungeon through the rift today! Today, Petra’s Bane, Twinfold Daggers, and…”
Halrac tuned the speaker out. He didn’t need to hear the rest, or listen to the adventurers cheering their leader. He turned to Revi and Ulrien.
“Another group heading into the dungeon? Are they insane?”
Revi and Ulrien just stared at Halrac. The [Scout] didn’t really need an answer either. He understood the thinking of the cheering adventurers, though he condemned it.
After the wild success of Vuliel Drae, the wild fervor surrounding Liscor’s Dungeon had reignited itself. It had gone out for a while. A new dungeon was one thing, but the first few rooms were so dangerous that it was a death sentence for anyone but an experienced Silver or Gold-rank team to attempt those first few steps.
But this new entry into the dungeon through the rift in the snow? That was something else. And Vuliel Drae had come out with a weapon worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer, or perhaps a Named Adventurer. The Mace of Howling had sold for thousands of gold coins already, and ignited the passions of every adventurer within three hundred miles. The thought was on everyone’s mind. If one group could find a weapon of that caliber from one scouting attempt, what treasures were lost below? Just one such item could set up an adventurer for life.
Halrac was familiar with that way of thinking. He’d been in the same boat over a decade ago, a poor Bronze-rank adventurer scrabbling for work. However, he and the rest of Griffon Hunt realized the danger in that line of thought. Liscor’s Dungeon was not to be underestimated.
The adventuring group was listening to another impassioned speech, from one of the other team leaders. Halrac was familiar with that as well. Adventurers were people too; they needed to psych themselves up before they risked their lives. He turned back to the rest of his group, and addressed the trio sitting at the table next to theirs.
“Alright, where did we go wrong?”
Jelaqua Ivirith looked up from her bowl of Scale Soup. The other two members of her group, the Halfseekers, looked up as well. All three were eating from their bowls of blue sludge. They’d been laughing and trying to play chess together, but Halrac’s comment made them sit up.
The Halfseekers. Ulrien gave Halrac a reproving glance for interrupting their conversation. Halrac didn’t acknowledge it. They were supposed to be working together. The Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt had agreed to join forces to tackle this dungeon. If they were a team, they should talk like one.
“I’m asking where we went wrong. Why are all these Bronze-rank teams getting ahead of us?”
Halrac growled as he reached for a bowl of walnuts. That was Erin’s newest attempt to add ‘cool stuff’ to her inn. He cracked one of the walnuts one-handed and flicked the pieces into a second bowl. Jelaqua and the Halfseekers turned obligingly to listen as the [Scout] aired his grievances.
“We have more levels in our team than that entire group does between them. How are we still struggling to get past the first set of trapped rooms?”
The other adventurers shared a look. Jelaqua edged her chair forwards and then leaned back in it until it rested on the table behind her. She looked incredibly pleased at this development; Halrac thought it was juvenile.
But that was the way the Halfseekers worked. Griffon Hunt prided itself on being a group that valued teamwork, planning, and serious commitment in the field. By contrast, the Halfseekers…not two seconds ago, Seborn and Jelaqua had had a contest seeing who could down their bowl of Scale Soup faster. They were too relaxed for Halrac’s liking. However, he had to admit that they were competent.
Both groups knew of each other’s reputation. They were sometimes competitors, sometimes adversaries in the same field. So when Moore spoke, Halrac listened.
“I feel bad for these new adventurers, Halrac. I do not feel they’re getting ahead of us. Rather, I’m worried about their inexperience. Vuliel Drae’s success was a mistake. They survived the dungeon thanks to the mysterious masked swordswoman, not through their own efforts, or so I understand.”
Halrac grunted. He’d heard the stories too. There was a Named Adventurer down in the dungeon, was there? Someone who’d gotten past all the traps and entered the dungeon without anyone seeing? Hardly likely, but Vuliel Drae had sworn on truth spells it was true.
One of the Halfseekers seemed to believe in the swordswoman’s existence, at any rate. Seborn leaned forwards, and Halrac glanced at the armored half of the Drowned Man’s face, noting the way the crustacean shell blended with his skin. Seborn seemed immune to the scrutiny as he sipped from the mug of water and spoke.
“It has to be true. The dungeon is too dangerous for Silver-rank adventurers to survive a trip down there without being overwhelmed. We’ve all gone head-to-head with the traps. We teamed up because they’re that bad. This dungeon’s not like the other ones. It’s nasty.”
Nasty. That was one word for it. The other Gold-rank adventurers shifted in their seats. Ulrien nodded.
“I’ve been in several dungeons before. Not deep, and not when they were just discovered, but I’ve seen where the traps used to be and fought their monster populations. They’re nothing like this dungeon. This dungeon feels like it wasn’t meant just to hide treasure. It feels like…”
“Like a huge trap. Yeah. I’m calling it. This one’s a vengeance dungeon.”
Jelaqua drained her mug and slammed it down on the table. The Selphid sighed and pushed her bowl back. Halrac studied her dead features silently. He was in agreement.
Revi was confused. Halrac glanced at her and remembered that she was new. Ulrien and Halrac had hired her and Typhenous into Griffon Hunt, and both [Mages] were competent, but Revi wasn’t nearly as old or experienced as the other three men. He let Ulrien explain.
“Dungeons come in several types, Revi. I know [Mages] study which empire built them and their composition and so on—adventurers have a simpler system. Dungeons are either for containment, future generations, or as an act of vengeance.”
“Interesting terms. What’s the difference between the three?”
Halrac pushed Revi’s bowl of unfinished soup towards her as Ulrien explained. The Stitch Girl sighed, but ate as Ulrien talked.
“Containment dungeons are meant to contain something. Simple enough; it could be a threat, a natural resource too valuable to let someone else get ahold of…I once saw a dungeon that had been built solely to combat Vampires. It was more like a fortress that made use of light-based traps and spells.”
“Okay. Then future generations…?”
“Dungeons built with traps that test people entering. Say an empire’s about collapse. Well, they want to leave something behind, right? Only, the people who build the dungeons want their shiny magical artifacts to go to the deserving. So they build a dungeon which only the best can enter. That way, future generations can follow a handy map and get through the traps, or a brave adventuring group can fight their way through and retrieve past glories. Just a way for the previous generations to help us out.”
“I get it. Then a vengeance dungeon’s what happens when…what? You have angry ancestors?”
Revi frowned. Jelaqua nodded. She grimaced.
“Yep. They’re what you get when the empire or civilization doesn’t feel like being nice to future generations. So they build a dungeon with their best artifacts sealed away—I mean, where else would you put them?—but they put the nastiest traps and monster eggs down there. So when someone cracks the lid on the dungeon, a thousand ravening Crelers crawl out and eat their faces off.”
“Great. And that’s what we’re up against? Remind me why we’re not hunting Griffins? That’s what I signed up for.”
The Stitch Girl pushed her empty bowl back, looking upset. Ulrien sighed, but Halrac decided to answer this time. He saw Ulrien’s warning look, but he could be encouraging too.
“Just because the dungeon’s designed to kill, it doesn’t mean there’s no point entering it, Revi. We’re looking for treasure, and it’s down there. The mace is proof of that. The only difference is that this dungeon’s out to get us. So we need to be wary. And fast. Which is why I’m asking why these amateurs are—”
The [Scout] broke off when he realized someone was standing behind him. He turned in his seat and glared at the leader of the adventurers he’d just been insulting. The young Drake must have come over and he’d been too busy complaining to notice. Halrac scowled, more upset that he’d let his guard down than anything else.
“Uh, pardon me, but you’re Halrac the Grim, aren’t you?”
Halrac hated that name. He growled at the Drake, eying him from head to tail.
The young Drake was wearing iron armor, but he had a steel sword. He was probably Silver-rank, but Halrac would put him on the lower end of that spectrum. Still, he was bold enough to approach the Gold-rank adventurers, which most Human adventurers wouldn’t have the courage for. He smiled nervously as Halrac stared at him.
“Sorry, but you might have heard. We’re heading into the dungeon—we uh, were hoping you had some words for us? Some advice, maybe? Tips?”
The other Gold-rank adventurers shifted. Revi raised her eyebrows and shook her head, not trying to hide her incredulity. Ulrien sighed. Drakes and Gnoll adventurers clearly weren’t like Human ones. No group of adventurers up north would be this bold—they were keenly aware of the hierarchy and unwritten rules, one of which was not to bother the veterans.
Not that Griffon Hunt was into hazing adventurers. But asking for advice? Halrac just stared at the young Drake. He was ready to tell him no and turn away, but Jelaqua sat up. She smiled and gave voice to the feeling shared between all the Gold-rank adventurers.
“I’d be ready to run, kids. Maybe write a letter to your loved ones, if you have any. Best advice? Don’t go down. You’re going to die.”
She nodded at the listening adventurers, who’d gone silent. Jelaqua gave them a friendly smile, her pale, dead lips at once friendly and horrific.
“A strength enchantment’s no good down in the dungeon, not against traps or monsters ambushing you. Don’t go down. Find another quest, level up, and come back when you’re all Silver-rank, or better yet, Gold. We wouldn’t go into the dungeon through the rift, and we know what we’re about. That’s my advice. Take it or leave it.”
The inn had gone silent at Jelaqua’s words. Halrac looked around and saw a lot of the adventurers looking nervous. But one of them, drunk on bravado and alcohol, raised his voice.
“Hah! You’re just afraid we’ll get to the treasure first! What kind of an adventurer’s a Selphid, anyways? A body stealing coward doesn’t know anything about Drake bravery!”
“Or Gnoll courage!”
Another adventurer raised his paw, and the other adventurers around him cheered. Jelaqua shrugged, looking slightly hurt, but more resigned. Seborn nudged her as she sat and Moore frowned, which was as good as one of Halrac’s scowls.
Selphids got that reaction. But this was passing beyond rude. Jelaqua was a Gold-rank adventurer. The Drake leader shouted down his companions, and turned to Halrac, smiling as if they were friends.
“What about you, Mister Halrac?”
“You heard her. You’re going to die.”
The Drake’s smile vanished. He stared at Halrac, as if expecting the [Scout] to smile. But Halrac’s face didn’t change. He folded his arms.
The Drake looked around the table, hoping perhaps for a second opinion. He got none. Revi raised an eyebrow and Ulrien shook his head. Both Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers stared silently at the adventurers. They lost their bravado. In the silence, the leader turned.
They left the inn quietly. Halrac wished they had stayed, or that they turned towards Liscor, rather than north, towards the second dungeon entrance. He had a feeling he would not see their faces again.
Halrac stood up in the silent inn. He nodded towards the door and the Gold-rank adventurers went with them. They walked west out of the inn, towards Liscor and the small, fortified tunnel leading downwards. They were going to the dungeon too. The only difference was that they were ready for it.
Typhenous caught the silent group of Gold-rank adventurers as they were halfway towards the unearthed entrance to Liscor’s dungeon. The [Mage] had been in the city finishing an errand, but they had agreed to meet at this time.
“Why the dour expressions? Has Halrac been talking to all of you too long?”
The [Mage] was in good spirits, but he sobered slightly when he heard about the adventurers trying the dungeon. Typhenous sighed and stroked at his grey beard.
“I had heard of other adventurers attempting to emulate Vuliel Drae’s success. How distressing.”
“They might make it.”
Jelaqua offered the idea up as an idle hope, but Halrac shook his head.
“Too many adventurers. A smaller group might have a chance, but a large one like that generates too much noise and attention. They’ll be attacked at once. Best case is that some of them make it back up.”
“Up a set of ropes that stretches over a hundred feet down? They’ll be lucky if they don’t lose a few just falling, with all that they were carrying. Unless one of them knows [Featherfall].”
“The issue is that their way out is too dangerous. And they’re entering into the middle of the dungeon. If they don’t secure their exit out and make sure they’re not swarmed from behind…”
“Amateurs. This is why you go in from the front. Shortcuts just get you killed.”
Seborn’s sigh was the last word on the matter. Griffon Hunt began to discuss their latest developments as the Halfseekers listened in silence. They trudged through the snow, grilling Typhenous about their latest contingency plan. That was the difference between experienced adventurers and the reckless dead. Gold-rank adventurers always made plans.
“I was in the city, requesting a shipment of specialized lodestones. You see, young Pisces had the notion of connecting Miss Solstice’s magical door to more than one location. However, as Moore and I discovered, such a feat is impossible, at least, without proper anchoring points.”
“Makes sense to me.”
Revi nodded while Halrac shook his head.
“Explain it simpler, Typhenous.”
He had no time for [Mage]-talk. Typhenous sighed. He liked to pontificate.
“Very well. We cannot link the door to multiple spots because it is too difficult. Thus, we need magical beacons—ways to differentiate between locations. Thus, the lodestones. Moore had the idea of devising some sort of mechanism by which the door could be attuned to each stone, creating multiple connections. We shall attempt to change the enchantment when the stones arrive.”
Ulrien nodded, as did Halrac. That they could understand, at least in part. Griffon Hunt’s leader frowned.
“So an emergency teleportation stone like Erin was talking about—”
Typhenous shook his head.
“Impossible until my delivery arrives. It should get here, or rather, to Celum, within the week. I was unwilling to pay a Courier for the stones, given their price and our needs.”
Halrac sighed. The magical artifact Erin had described—an emergency escape device—sounded incredibly useful, although he wasn’t sure if it would work in the dungeon’s magically charged atmosphere. However, it was worth looking into. Such a tool would allow both Gold-rank teams to breathe easier. There was nothing an adventurer feared more than being trapped.
“We don’t need the artifact that badly, but if it looks like we’re heading into a particularly dangerous spot, I’d rather pull back and try to get an emergency escape…lodestone…ready. We have time.”
Ulrien was talking with Typhenous and the others, advocating for caution again. Moore nodded, tapping one huge lip with his fingers.
“If it comes to that, I’m sure Miss Solstice will oblige us. But you don’t think it will be that dangerous today?”
“Not if it’s more of the same. Ah, here we are.”
They’d reached the entrance to the dungeon. The official entrance, so to speak. It was guarded by the city. A group of sixteen guardsmen, armed with bows and spears and one who looked like a [Mage] were waiting under a tent. They were watching the entrance to the dungeon from behind a small wooden rampart. It had a row of sharpened stakes thrust into the ground in front of the wall and enough space for the [Guardsmen] to loose arrows and jab spears at whatever might come out of the dungeon.
“Hello there! We’d like to enter the dungeon!”
Typhenous called up to the [Guardsmen] huddled beneath the tent. Some were sipping hot drinks and they all looked miserable in the cold. One of the Drakes twitched his tail.
“You lot again? The uh…Griffon Hunt team and Halfseekers? Alright, go on through.”
“Is there anyone else down there?”
Ulrien looked at the dungeon for tracks, but the [Guardsmen] shook his head.
“Not today. All you adventurers are too interested in the rift. Suits us. The less of you that go down, the fewer things that come back up. But if you want to go in…be our guests.”
Ulrien nodded. Jelaqua was already hopping over the edge of the ramparts—the Drakes had neglected to build a gate into the defensive fortifications—and Moore was eying the drop.
“I would like to avoid the spikes and squashing you, Jelaqua. Give me more room.”
As Halrac walked up the rampart, he watched Moore jump, and then offer a hand to Revi and Typhenous. The two other [Mages] let the half-Giant guide their descent, rather than fall. Ulrien leapt, and the Drake [Guardsmen] spoke to Halrac. He nodded to the tunnel the Antinium had dug, that lead down to the double doors that marked the start of the dungeon.
“I’ve seen adventuring groups go in and come out. More go in than come out, obviously. But your group’s Gold-rank, right? You go in and come out almost every day? What are you doing down there?”
He leapt, and the Drake [Guardsman] rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, I got that. Lousy Humans…”
He turned away, muttering, as Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers descended into the dungeon.
This is what the Gold-rank teams did all day. They went into the dungeon after preparing, making plans, checking gear, and arguing. They moved slowly down the first corridor and stopped when they saw the room beyond. Halrac and Seborn, both of whom were taking point to scout for traps, held up hands and the group stopped.
Both Halrac and Seborn scouted the room, taking care not to enter it and only look into it. There didn’t seem to be much to see. The room was empty and nondescript. Halrac saw the wide, grey tiles of stone continue seamlessly into the room. The walls were some kind of faded beige, made of simple stone. Any unsuspecting individual might have taken the room as harmless, but Halrac wasn’t fooled. Beyond the first corridor was where the dungeon’s traps began. This first room was certainly trapped.
Seborn nodded to the empty room beyond. He’d found a red mark on the wall, a stripe of very bright paint.
“Looks like the same room as before. We’ve cleared this one.”
“You have? I’m not familiar with it.”
Halrac had seen many of the dungeon’s trapped rooms. They appeared each time you went down the corridor, and what was worse, changed each time you entered the dungeon. There were any number of rooms you could enter, and so you had to be extremely careful not to assume one room was like a previous one.
However, the Gold-rank adventurers were familiar with dungeons and knew how to take precautions. Seborn nodded to the paint, which was a horizontal slash with a vertical line to the left.
“This one’s a spike trap. Simple, but deadly. I’ll trigger it. You stay back.”
He walked into the center of the room and slowed. Seborn took two steps as the other adventurers watched—then threw himself to the ground.
The ceiling fell. A series of phantasmal spikes, glowing ghostly pink-white, shot down through the suddenly low ceiling, almost brushing the top of Seborn’s head. Halrac heard Revi inhale as the magical blades shimmered in the air.
Seborn spoke. Halrac moved aside as Jelaqua stepped forwards. The Selphid was holding her two-handed flail. She threw it out across the floor and Seborn turned and grasped hold of one of the chains. Jelaqua pulled and Seborn shot back across the floor while the spikes waited menacingly a few feet over his head.
Halrac helped the [Rogue] up as Seborn patted himself and rubbed the top of his head. The Drowned Man seemed barely fazed. He nodded at Halrac, one trap expert to another.
“That scared the life out of me the first time it happened. I’m not too happy about it the second time.”
Halrac was impressed by Seborn’s courage…and a bit disturbed that he’d chosen to throw himself into danger. He would have found a way to trigger the trap without entering the room, but the Halfseekers were more direct. Revi stared at the blades and the lowered ceiling, looking pale.
“Do the blades last forever? What about the celling? Do we have to crawl our way to the next room?”
“Nope. Wait for it—”
Jelaqua was barring anyone from going into the room, for good reason. The ceiling spikes were still lowered when Halrac felt his [Dangersense] tingle and then a second set of ghostly blades shot up from the ground. They would have impaled Seborn or anyone else who’d been lucky enough to avoid the ceiling. Typhenous and Ulrien muttered as Revi swore quietly.
The Halfseekers had already seen the trap and just shook their heads. Halrac grimaced at the trap.
“Simple, but deadly. That second layer of spikes is malicious—and probably overkill.”
“The difference between a dungeon designed for vengeance and one that’s not?”
Revi looked at the others and got a nod from Seborn and Halrac. Having seen the trap, the adventurers drew back to confer.
“The trap’s got a timer of around one hour before it resets, and the spikes are smaller…the spell probably needs more time to fully recharge. We can keep triggering it each time we go through, but if the aim of all of this is to clear all the rooms going in so we’ve got a way out, we can’t have that trap still here.”
“I agree. Can any of you dispel it?”
Jelaqua and Ulrien were both of the same opinion. Typhenous, Revi, and Moore were all inspecting the spell, but it was apparently hidden in the ceiling. Seborn and Halrac were in their own conference, inspecting the room now the spikes were gone. Both [Scout] and [Rogue] were ready to leap to safety if the trap reactivated, but their Skills were telling them they were safe for the moment.
“I’m of the opinion the trap is magical. It activates the moment I cross this threshold. See?”
Seborn was talking to Halrac. The [Scout] nodded. He could see a faint aura around the part of the room Seborn had described.
“Cross that line and step anywhere in the room and the trap activates. Want to try breaking the floor?”
“Worth a shot. Do you have a hammer?”
Ulrien stepped forwards and both Seborn and Halrac retreated. The big [Warrior] took his greatsword out and gripped the blade with both of his gauntleted hands. Using the hilt of his sword like a hammer, he cracked the stone floor with a mighty strike.
“Hm. Not spelled against strikes. Will that do it?”
Carefully, Ulrien inspected his greatsword as Halrac and Seborn knelt by the cracked stones. Ulrien’s blade was enchanted, but he obsessed over it. Halrac nodded as he saw no aura around the stones.
“That does it. Let’s tear up the room and see if that deactivates the trap.”
So they did. Moore and Jelaqua and Ulrien began hitting the ground, Moore with his staff, Jelaqua with her flail, and Ulrien with his greatsword. All three could break the stone and Halrac, Seborn, Revi, and Typhenous helped clear the rubble away.
No one used a hammer. A sledgehammer was less useful than an enchanted weapon. You could swing Ulrien’s greatsword all day and not chip the blade or hilt, whereas a sledgehammer would eventually break.
It was hard on the hands, though. Twice Ulrien had to take a break and massage his hands. Half-swording, as the technique he was using was known, was not meant for repeated strikes like a hammer.
By the time an hour had passed, half of the room was destroyed and the smooth tiled flooring had been broken away and a rougher surface had been exposed. Seborn once again entered the room and very cautiously walked from side to side, testing to see if the trigger mechanism for the spell had been successfully destroyed.
It had. However, that didn’t meant everyone crossed through the room at once. Halrac carefully entered the room and did the same test as Seborn, senses alert for anything suspicious. Only after he was done did he let both teams go through one at a time.
That was the first room. The second was a pit trap nearly thirty feet deep. Halrac showed the Halfseekers where he and the rest of his team had strung up a rope bridge to cross without having to touch the ground. The third room was filled with books on shelves—they were supposed to explode when read. The adventurers walked past them without touching any of the tomes.
The fourth room they came to was unfamiliar to both Seborn and Halrac. It was locked by a door, and after determining the door itself wasn’t trapped, Halrac and Seborn carefully opened the door and gazed into a circular room with a grating floor and very dark pit.
“I’m not going in there.”
“Me neither. Think the door closes after someone goes in?”
“Obviously. Let’s take it off.”
Some traps were predictable. Halrac motioned Ulrien over and explained what they wanted to do. Ulrien sighed and grabbed the door’s edge. He was incredibly strong—strong enough to swing around his greatsword like it was nothing, and Halrac had seen Ulrien beat a Minotaur in arm-wrestling once. But no matter how hard Ulrien strained, the door wouldn’t budge.
“Allow me to help.”
Moore had to duck his head as he grabbed the door with one hand. He and Ulrien pulled at the door and now Halrac heard creaking as the door and its hinges fought with the wall of the dungeon to be freed.
“Room for one more?”
Jelaqua handed her flail to Seborn and stepped up, edging between Ulrien and Moore. Between the three strongest adventurers, the door was beginning to come loose. Ulrien grunted.
“Ready? One, two, three, heave—”
The three adventurers pushed, and with a crack of breaking stone, the door broke off its hinges and they let it crash to the ground. Rubbing at their arms, they let Seborn and Halrac inspect the room again.
“Enchanted doors. As if they didn’t expect us to pull each one off. Waste of time.”
Halrac grunted. Seborn nodded.
“Waste of time. And I bet the door’s not got more than a protection spell on it. Still, it might be worth taking back with us.”
“Why? Who needs a door with a protection spell?”
“Someone might pay some gold for it. You must admit, enchanted doors aren’t cheap. If worst comes to worst, some Bronze-rank adventurer can use it as a shield.”
The dry comment made Halrac grin unwillingly. He got along with Seborn, which wasn’t surprising as both occupied the same role in their party. Seborn nodded at the center of the room.
“Ah, I see. It’s a pressure mechanism.”
“You think so?”
Halrac was surprised. He hadn’t seen any magical aura that would have indicated a detection spell, but he hadn’t noticed the way the grate was wired to a spring until Seborn pointed out the tiny grooves where the grating would descend to trigger the trap. Halrac shook his head, grateful for a second pair of eyes.
“Simple trigger. Typhenous, I need a ball of webbing. Heavy. Unless Revi wants to use one of her summoned creatures as a test?”
Revi rolled her eyes as Typhenous spun out some sticky webs from his staff. The enchanted webbing would only last a few minutes, but it was a useful tool and one of the reasons why he was in Griffon Hunt.
“Mind if I add something to it? I can conjure grass, or grass clippings. If it’s weight you’re after, that might help.”
“By all means, Moore.”
The half-Giant tapped his staff and some magical grass and vines grew out of the stone. He carefully mixed that with the webbing and came up with a heavy ball of plant matter and webs. Halrac and Seborn rolled it to the door as they talked conversationally.
“I haven’t had time to see Revi fight. She’s your second [Mage], right?”
“[Summoner], actually. She can conjure spirits of Stitch-warriors or summon other creatures. It’s useful, but not when we’re disarming traps. Her summoned creatures can’t think for themselves.”
“Ah. Here we go. Would you like to do the honors?”
Halrac kicked the ball of heavy matter into the room. He saw the grating descend fractionally, and then both he and Seborn leapt backwards.
“So that’s the trap.”
“Yep. Acid mist.”
Halrac and Seborn backed up into the previous room as all the Gold-rank adventurers drew back. A very fine spray of colorless liquid was shooting down from above. It didn’t affect the stone or metal, but the instant it struck the plants and webbing, the ball began smoking and disintegrating with a subtle hiss.
Jelaqua shook her head as the others waited for the trap to finish its work. As a warrior, she and Ulrien were of the least use in this situation. She leaned against a wall with Ulrien, ready to help if called upon, but mostly alert for a monster sneaking up around them. Since they were fairly confident no monsters existed in the trapped rooms they’d passed through, she allowed herself a short conversation.
“How many more rooms are like this, do you think?”
Ulrien shrugged his broad shoulders as he watched the acid make the stone walls slick with moisture.
“Impossible to say. But there has to be a limited number. Once we’re through here, we can be sure our exit’s safe. Unless there’s a teleportation trap hidden on the way back?”
He looked at the other [Mages], all of whom shook their heads. Typhenous tapped the walls with his staff.
“I have been checking for that diligently, as per your orders, Ulrien.”
“As have I.”
Moore nodded. Reassured, Ulrien looked at Revi. She shrugged, looking embarrassed and annoyed.
“Not my specialty! I told you that Ulrien! But I haven’t seen anything either.”
He nodded. The adventurers sat back when it became apparent the acid wasn’t stopping anytime soon. They began to chatter idly while they waited. Other, less-experienced groups might have stayed on their feet or tried to find something to do, but the Gold-rank teams knew patience was their biggest asset.
“Acid mist. Great. Didn’t Erin say she used to sell acid?”
“Sell acid? You must have heard her wrong.”
“I’d believe anything of her. Want to try and bottle it up?”
“It’s magical acid. It’ll disappear after a few minutes.”
“I hate traps like these. What’s the point? A few seconds of acid and you’re dead. Why waste spell power keeping it going?”
“I guess in case someone casts a spell. The acid probably wears away at magical protections too. If you’ve got an enchanted cloak for instance, this is probably when the acid eats away.”
“Nasty. Hey, anyone want some food?”
“You brought a snack? What’s the point? We’re five seconds away from Liscor.”
“I get munchy when I’m bored, and this is boring. Toasted baguette anyone? I’ll share. Ham and cheese. Erin made it for me.”
“I’ll have some.”
“Well, if you’re offering…”
Jelaqua split her sandwich with Typhenous and Seborn. As they ate, Ulrien looked over at his counterpart. Jelaqua’s white face was pale as death, and she was unmistakably a corpse, but there was still life behind the eyes. Literally.
“You lot are very relaxed, especially in the middle of a dungeon.”
She grinned at him, chewing and swallowing her meal. Part of Halrac wondered whether Jelaqua could taste the food she ate—then he remembered her complaining about trying to keep her body’s taste buds fresh so she could enjoy food.
“Shouldn’t we be? What’s the use of tensing up?”
“We like tense. And serious. Halrac and I are both former soldiers—and we hunt Griffins. Idle chatter in the field can alert our quarry and get us all killed.”
“Right, that’s in the name of your group. I wish we were so efficient.”
“No you don’t. You’d quit if you couldn’t talk every two seconds.”
Moore nudged Jelaqua with one finger. She grinned and swatted at him.
“Okay, I wish I was that efficient.”
“Each to their own. It’s not like the Halfseekers don’t get the job done.”
“True. Hey, was that a compliment? From Halrac the Grim no less. Hah!”
Jelaqua laughed and Halrac scowled. She waved at him.
“Don’t take it so personally. I’m happy to hear that, really. And I wish I had a title. All I get called is ‘corpse snatcher’ and ‘body thief’, and all Selphids get called that.”
“I didn’t ask for my title. Ulrien doesn’t have a nickname. There’s no reason for me to have one if you don’t.”
Halrac snapped and rose. The acid had stopped, although the walls were still wet. He went to study the room with Seborn while Jelaqua turned to Ulrien. The Selphid looked concerned.
“I didn’t mean to offend him.”
Ulrien grimaced, looking at his friend’s back.
“Don’t take it personally. Halrac just doesn’t like the attention. It’s nothing to do with you.”
“Yeah, well, you know how titles go. We don’t choose them, other people do. And you have to admit, it suits him.”
Jelaqua winked slyly at Halrac, whose shoulders had tensed up. Ulrien smiled and covered it with a hand.
“He has a point, though. Halrac’s one of the best [Scouts] on the continent, and probably one of the best ones working as an adventurer, but he’s hardly as noticeable as your team is. Come to that, the Halfseekers have more of a reputation in the south than Griffon Hunt does.”
“Aw. Stop. You’re making me blush. See my orange cheeks?”
Tickled, Jelaqua laughed and pointed to her cheeks, which were indeed glowing slightly orange. Ulrien smiled and Typhenous leaned forwards, chewing aggressively while crumbs fell into his beard.
“Ulrien does have a point, though. I’m quite old, but the Halfseekers have been around for a long time, haven’t they, Miss Ivirith? I wouldn’t be surprised if you were older than I was. When I was young, I remember hearing you’d come from Baleros as a Silver-rank adventurer. I recall a time when the Halfseekers were one of the best Gold-rank teams on the continent. There were seven of you back then, weren’t there?”
Jelaqua stopped laughing. She lost her smile, and Ulrien saw Moore sit up slightly. The two Halfseekers looked at each other wordlessly. Typhenous coughed.
“Forgive me if I misspoke. I did not mean to pry.”
Adventurer deaths were common, but each party remembered their own differently. Halrac and Ulrien had buried more than a few friends, and it was courtesy not to bring up the fallen. But Jelaqua shook her head. She put her hands on her knees and sat cross-legged as Moore rested his weight on his staff, looking tired.
“Eight. There were eight of us, not too long ago. We were great, yeah. We thought we could become a Named Adventuring team. None of us were on that level of course, but together? We could have taken down a nest of adult Crelers and fought our way through a trio of Wyverns like that.”
She snapped her fingers softly. Halrac and Seborn half-turned—they were trying to saw through parts of the grate. Jelaqua waved a hand and they turned away.
The other adventurers sat a bit closer. Revi scooted over, looking concerned.
“What happened then? If you don’t mind telling. I remember hearing the Halfseekers had lost a lot of their group, but I never heard what happened.”
Typhenous cleared his throat gently.
“I ah, heard it was in relation to the Sepicus Delve, where you fought through the caverns and looted the swallowed treasures…?”
“Close, but not quite.”
Jelaqua grinned and then shook her head, closing her eyes and frowning sadly. Moore’s head was lowered.
“It was actually after that. We got chewed up down there, but we came back, all eight of us. I was wounded and needed a new body, Moore was too hurt to walk and needed the poisons leeched out of him before he could be healed and Seborn was asleep when it happened. Our other five members were checking over our loot when a fight broke out.”
“Over treasure? But that’s such a rookie…”
Revi broke off at Ulrien’s glance. Fighting over magical artifacts was a typical end to many groups, but he had a feeling that wasn’t what Jelaqua was referring to.
He was right. Jelaqua shook her head.
“If it was a quarrel over treasure…no. This was different. It was betrayal, pure and simple. One of our own turned on us. He slaughtered four of our own and fled with everything we’d found. We went after him of course, but we never found him. Moore, Seborn and I are all that’s left.”
Silence fell after Jelaqua’s story. Ulrien stared at the Selphid.
“That is odd. Fighting over an artifact is one thing, but killing? Was what you recovered so valuable?”
“No! And that’s the damned thing!”
She struck her leg repeatedly, brushing her dead flesh until Moore grabbed her hand. He spoke while Jelaqua looked down.
“I am afraid the matter isn’t so cut and dried, Ulrien. If it were just treasure our companion wanted…we might have given him all of it. We don’t discriminate if the needs of one of our group outweighs the other. But instead, our friend—”
Jelaqua muttered. Moore nodded.
“He ran with everything and killed our companions. Not because he feared we’d make him share, but, we think, to hide what was stolen.”
“An artifact of great power?”
Typhenous sat up, eyes alert. Moore nodded quietly.
“Or a secret.”
“And he’s still at large? Your companion? Who is he?”
Ulrien looked at Jelaqua. It seemed incredible that a Gold-rank adventurer could turn traitor and he not hear of it. Normally every adventurer within a thousand miles would receive a bounty on the head of the adventurer. The Adventurer’s Guild did not tolerate traitors. But Jelaqua and Moore paused.
“He’s alive, but there’s no bounty on him and no one knows he’s out there but us. We couldn’t tell anyone else except for our closest allies, and we had few of those even in the good days.”
“You can count us among them. If not to help, at least to listen.”
Ulrien spoke for his group. Jelaqua hesitated. She looked at Moore and he nodded. She sighed.
“Okay, but you’ll understand why we kept this secret. You know the Halfseekers are all about taking races that don’t quite fit? Not just half races like half-Elves or half-Giants like Moore…people like me. Selphids. Races that don’t quite fit with other groups. Well, our last member was really different. He was a Goblin.”
Revi gasped. There was a clang, and then an oath. Halrac, working in the room next door, had dropped his metal file in surprise. Of course he’d been listening as well. Ulrien stared at Jelaqua.
“No. A Goblin? How could that be possible? They’re savages.”
She shrugged tiredly.
“Looks like they are in the end. But our companion was a Hobgoblin, not an ordinary one, you know? He was as good as any Goblin Chieftain—better, actually. We always thought he was as good as a Goblin could get without being a Goblin Lord. His name was…Garen Redfang. We know he’s still alive. Got his own tribe now too, by the sounds of it.”
“Redfang. Redfang…I’ve heard of that tribe. It’s one of the Goblin tribes around the High Passes. It’s considered a danger to Gold-rank adventurers.”
Ulrien recalled the warnings. There were only a few Goblin tribes with that kind of warning, and the Redfang tribe had earned theirs by killing several Silver and Gold-rank teams that had gone after them. Jelaqua grimaced.
“That’s not surprising. Garen was…one of our best warriors. A natural leader, too. He’s a [Rider] and a [Warrior] and he’s got magical artifacts. Like any Gold-rank adventurer.”
“So he betrayed your team. Over what?”
“We don’t know!”
The Selphid spread her arms helplessly. She looked around at the others.
“We were wary of Garen, but he was with us for two years and saved all of our lives more than once. He was one of us, but when he found the treasure…I knew there was something wrong. But I can’t remember what we pulled out. I was almost dead and one of my eyes was missing—”
“Seborn remembers a key, a magical orb of some kind, some spell scrolls, a few magical weapons…it may be the key, but what would a Goblin know of keys? Their people don’t use keys and identifying the lock would be a tremendous task for the most well-informed [Spymaster]. If the key even had a lock. As for the rest…”
Moore shook his huge head. Ulrien and the others sat in silence for a while. In the distance, they heard Halrac and Seborn finally cut through the grating and send the entire contraption clanging into the pit below.
“If your companion’s a threat, he needs to be taken care of. Justice should be done for your fallen. After this dungeon…we could discuss it.”
Ulrien offered the suggestion to Jelaqua. She nodded tiredly. A bit of a smile crept back onto her face, which Ulrien was glad to see.
“Who knew Griffon Hunt was full of such softies? Don’t let it get out or Halrac’s reputation will be ruined. And don’t worry—we won’t let the past get in the way of the dungeon. To rebuild our group we need coin and treasure, and that’s what we’re here for.”
“But you won’t forget, will you?”
Revi spoke up. Ulrien looked at her and saw the Stich Girl’s hands were clenched. The String People valued their own highly, he recalled. No wonder Revi felt passionate. Jelaqua nodded slowly and Moore sat up. The gentle half-Giant’s eyes were shadowed.
“Don’t worry, we won’t forget. Ever. Garen knows it, which is why he’s always kept his head down. He’s on our list.”
With that, the conversation ended. Seborn and Halrac came back to report the trapped room had been cleared and they were constructing a bridge across the chasm to the next room. The Gold-ranked adventurers moved onto the next trapped room, and the next.
Six hours after they’d begun, the Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt emerged blinking back into the white, snowy world. They were covered in dirt, tired, hungry despite Jelaqua’s snack, and on-edge from dealing with traps and close calls.
One of the last traps had extended back into the corridor and one of the camouflaged wall scorpions had nearly stabbed Ulrien through the face. It had got Revi in the arm, but she’d pulled her arm off and had cut the envenomed cotton away. She still needed a healing potion though, and the pain from reattaching her arm and feeling the wound in her flesh for a few moments had made her more snappish than usual.
“Hold! Who goes there?”
“Us! It’s always us!”
Jelaqua shouted as the [Guardsmen] on the barricades heard them coming up the tunnel. After a pause they were allowed to continue, and the Gold-rank adventurers found a flurry of commotion on the wall. One of the Gnolls tossed down a ladder so the adventurers could climb up. The rest were packing up their gear and heading towards the city.
“What’s going on?”
Ulrien and the other adventurers were immediately alert. The Gnoll paused long enough to growl at them.
“Trouble. Something just crawled out of the second dungeon entrance! The Captain’s locking down the gates! If you want into the city, hurry!”
He loped off towards the gates. The adventurers looked at each other. Typhenous frowned.
“Up through the chasm? But that rift stretches down hundreds of feet—”
“Not a problem for some monsters, especially if they can fly. What should we do? I can scout the trouble.”
Halrac was looking at Ulrien. The big man considered their options. As Gold-rank adventurers they were expected to help in times of crisis, but that didn’t mean taking on every threat, especially when a city like Liscor could easily defend its walls from most enemies.
Revi shook her head as the Gold-rank adventurers conferred.
“It’s not our fight. Why invite trouble?”
“Erin’s inn isn’t within city limits. That’s all the trouble you need, especially if whatever’s out there decides they want an easier snack.”
Jelaqua pointed that out and Ulrien nodded. He turned to Halrac.
The [Scout] charged through the snow, running fast despite the deep drifts as he scouted ahead. His Skills would let him see danger and avoid it which is why Ulrien let him go alone. Jelaqua was looking at Seborn.
“I could let Seborn—”
“Not necessary. Halrac’s a [Scout]. He can retreat if anything comes at him. Unless Seborn has similar Skills?”
“Point. Let’s get to Erin’s inn, then!”
The Gold-rank adventurers began marching hard through the snow, keeping an eye out for trouble. On the walls of Liscor, they saw Drakes and Gnolls running back and forth. The gates closed as a group of people streamed through it. The Gold-rank adventurers marched on, yet the monsters weren’t visible from their position on the snowy plains.
Revi shouted as she saw the [Scout] racing towards them over a hill. Halrac waved his hand and pointed north—both teams of adventurers picked up the pace and met him halfway.
“Undead! Two Flesh Worms, two Crypt Lords—a score of Ghouls and lesser undead as well.”
“From that hole in the ground? How?”
Jelaqua demanded as Halrac took a few deep breaths. The [Scout] grimaced.
“It looks like they crawled up the hole somehow. They probably used the ropes those idiots left! I think the Flesh Worms carried both Crypt Lords. And the undead—I’m fairly certain they’re the group that left.”
Ulrien wasn’t one to curse often. He frowned as he looked towards the Wandering Inn in the distance. It was near Liscor, and it wasn’t a stretch to think the undead might target it.
“Didn’t Liscor have a big problem with a Flesh Worm one time? A special one?”
“Skinner. I’ve heard the stories. It got over the wall. Want to bet these ones can do the same?”
“No bets. I’m of the mind that we take the undead out rather than risk them attacking the inn or the city. If they killed that adventuring group, we can avenge them. It’s the right thing to do. What does your group think?”
Ulrien looked at Jelaqua. She grinned.
“We’re down for a fight. You leave one of the Flesh Worms to us—we’ll hit them from one side and you squeeze them from the other. That sound good?”
“Works for us.”
There was no time to come up with a detailed plan and besides, both teams didn’t need anything elaborate. The enemy wasn’t that dangerous. Ulrien gave rapid orders to his group, going over a plan of attack while they marched through the snow towards the rift.
“I want our worm immobilized. Revi can deal with the bulk of the lesser undead, and Halrac can support from the air.”
“You want him high up?”
Typhenous looked at Ulrien. Both Halrac and Ulrien nodded.
“There’s no ranged or aerial threats, aside from the Crypt Lords spitting black blood. You and Revi keep back while I engage the Crypt Lord. Just pour on spells from the side and we’ll be fine.”
Both [Mages] nodded. Ulrien grunted, drew his greatsword, and picked up the pace. Within minutes he could see shapes rushing over the snow in the distance. Two giant red worms, writhing and shooting across the landscape at unsettling speed were leading a pair of giant Crypt Lords, amalgamations of rotten flesh and bone. A horde of zombies, ghouls, and skeletons rushed behind them. It was an army of the undead, but Ulrien knew the only true threats were the Flesh Worms.
They were both twenty feet long, had thick red flesh, tiny black eyes and long antennae, and two whip-like appendages with feelers on the ends. These feelers could latch onto flesh and tear it away in an instant. Ulrien had heard stories of Flesh Worms building themselves obscene layers of armor from the skin of their victims over time. These ones didn’t have any such protections, but they were fast, strong, and capable of wiping out a party of Bronze or Silver-rank adventurers by themselves.
Not Gold-rank, though. Not Griffon Hunt. The instant the undead were spotted, Ulrien stopped and lifted his greatsword up, blade flat. Halrac ran towards him, bow at the ready and Typhenous raised his staff.
It was a maneuver they’d performed many times. Halrac leapt onto the flat of Ulrien’s huge blade and Ulrien grunted. He heaved up, and Halrac leapt from his sword into the air as Typhenous raised his staff.
“[Platform of Air].”
Halrac landed on the transparent disc ten feet above the ground and reached for the quiver at his side. He snapped down at the others as he put an arrow with a shimmering yellow-tipped head to his bowstring.
“Immobilizing right. [Sticky Webbing].”
Typhenous lifted his staff as Halrac shot the first arrow. There was over twenty meters separating him and the Flesh Worm, but his arrow still stuck the undulating red serpent straight between the eyes. It shrieked, making Halrac clench his teeth as lightning burst from his arrow and made the Flesh Worm twist upon itself in agony.
At the same time, a stream of grey tendrils lashed out from Typhenous’s staff. The older [Mage] caught the second Flesh Worm with the mass as it tried to evade. The sticky web from his spell anchored parts of the worm to the ground, impeding its movement. The Flesh Worm tore up parts of the ground as it tried to free itself.
“Whoo! Mage support! Alright Halfseekers, let’s do this!”
Jelaqua’s team was less refined than Griffon Hunt. They charged across the snow at the first Flesh Worm, all three of them. It twisted upright, hissing, as Jelaqua whirled her flail and attacked its side.
Ulrien charged the second Flesh Worm as it struggled to free itself. The snow was making his footing unstable, so he took care to plant himself in front of the worm before slashing. The worm swung a feeler at his head and Ulrien cut. The Flesh Worm screamed as one of its ‘arms’ was severed and fell to the ground. Ulrien pressed the attack, cutting into its side with his greatsword.
“I will assist Ulrien. Revi, the Crypt Lord is advancing.”
Typhenous commented to Revi as he shot magical missiles of light at the Flesh Worm’s head, forcing it to dodge as Ulrien sliced into its side, trying to saw it in half. Revi sighed.
“I see it old man. Give me one second.”
She reached into her pouch and pulled out a huge chunk of amber. Embedded in the center was a fragment, a bit of horn. Revi held it up and shouted.
“Come forth! Rush, Corusdeer!”
As the Crypt Lord advanced, spitting black blood onto the ground, something shimmered in the air in front of Revi. A bright, antlered shape burst out of the air and the fire from its body melted the earth. Revi pointed and uttered a command.
A glowing Corusdeer formed out of red and yellow fire charged towards the first Crypt Lord. It rammed the undead and there was a wordless howl as it engulfed the Crypt Lord in flames. The Corusdeer broke off, ran a circle in the snow, and rammed the Crypt Lord from the other side. Revi was pointing, commanding its path as two spectral warriors appeared in front of her and Typhenous, waiting for the Ghouls to approach.
Halrac drew an arrow to his cheek and loosed it at a Ghoul. The arrow hit the undead in the head as it ran and the Ghoul dropped. Halrac turned, shot a Ghoul trying to sneak up at the [Mages] from behind, and looked over at the Halfseekers to see how they were doing.
Jelaqua was a whirling image of death as befit her [Iron Tempest] class. Her two-handed flail was a danger to everything around her, and the undead charging at her were torn to bits by her whirling flail’s heads. She closed on the Flesh Worm as it hissed at her. It lashed out, but one of Jelaqua’s flails smacked its tail away as it tried to hit the Selphid.
“I will take it down.”
Moore ran towards the Flesh Worm, long legs churning through the snow. The half-Giant raised his staff and balled his other hand into a fist.
Thick brambles of dark wood engulfed his right hand. Huge thorns shot out, dark and grey like iron and turned Moore’s hand into a deadly weapon. He lashed out at the Flesh Worm—
And missed. The giant red worm was incredibly agile. It leaned back and dove head-first at Moore, mouth opened wide. He blocked it with his enchanted hand, but the magical gauntlet of wood and thorns wasn’t stronger than the Flesh Worm’s flesh. It had bitten through several layers of the bark surrounding his vulnerable skin when Seborn appeared and stabbed the Flesh Worm in the side with glowing daggers.
It screamed as part of its flesh caught on fire and whirled to attack Seborn. The [Rogue] dove out of the way and seemed to vanish in the snow. Moore backed up, shaking his hand.
“Take care of the undead. Let Jelaqua and I handle the worm.”
Moore took a few steps back as Jelaqua lashed the Flesh Worm’s side with her flail and Seborn stabbed its tail. He turned and saw the undead were about to fall on his party from behind.
The half-Giant calmly kicked a zombie hard enough to send it flying through the air, punched a Ghoul down as it leapt on him, and then stepped on its back. Halrac winced as he heard bones crack.
The other Crypt Lord charged Moore, but hesitantly. It was actually shorter than the half-Giant and Moore was nearly as wide as it was. Moore used the remains of his enchanted hand to hold the Crypt Lord at bay as its rows of teeth and claws scratched harmlessly at his wooden gauntlet. Then he raised his staff with his left hand.
Moore thrust the tip of his broad staff into the Crypt Lord’s side, tearing into dead flesh and pushing the undead monstrosity back. As it tried to swipe at him, Moore uttered a spell.
Thick, green ropes of plant matter erupted from the Crypt Lord’s side. It engulfed the struggling undead as Moore let go, sealing its mouth, anchoring it to the ground and rendering it immobile. Moore nodded.
The half-Giant turned away and began hitting the undead around him with his staff, not bothering with more spells. In the meantime, Jelaqua had brought the battle to the Flesh Worm.
Five times, ten times, twenty times she struck the Flesh Worm’s side with her flail. Its hide was incredibly thick, but the force of each of her flail strikes was able to tear into its hide slightly. And she kept hitting it. Jelaqua’s arms were a blur as she lashed the Flesh Worm’s side, tearing it apart hit by hit. She was laughing as she attacked.
“Strikestrikestrikestrikestrike—whoa, that was close.”
Jelaqua ducked low as the Flesh Worm lashed out towards her with its feelers. It swung its body around and its tail came at waist height. Jelaqua cursed as she dove beneath it, and then saw the Flesh Worm poised to lunge. The worm opened its mouth and then an arrow sprouted from one eye.
It screamed. Seborn took the opportunity to sever a good section of its lower body with a decisive strike. The Flesh Worm screamed again as it bled orange-red blood and tried to retreat. Jelaqua cut it off and her flail caught it on the head this time.
She lifted her flail and buried the spiked ball into the Flesh Worm’s head. The worm screamed, tried to move. Jelaqua whirled her flail, building up speed. She hit the same place again. And then again. The third blow crunched something in the Flesh Worm’s brains and it went still.
As the gigantic creatures stopped moving, Jelaqua studied the broken arrow shaft in its eye and looked around. She saw Halrac standing on his platform of air, shooting down Ghouls and Zombies. She waved a hand at him as he turned his head her way and grinned.
Halrac lifted one hand. He grinned as he shot a Ghoul through the head. Jelaqua laughed and spun. Her flail crushed a zombie’s skull and she whirled her two-handed flail, knocking another zombie off of its feet.
Ulrien finally managed to hack the second Flesh Worm in half and dashed back as it fell to the ground, screaming. It was still alive though, and Typhenous had to blast it with [Fireballs] twice before it fell. Revi’s summoned Corusdeer had incinerated her Crypt Lord, and with her summoned warriors and Halrac’s shooting, the rest of the undead on their side were cleaned up in minutes.
All the undead around Moore had been thoroughly smashed as well. The half-Giant was leaning on his staff and talking to Seborn as he regarded the bound Crypt Lord. No one was in the mood for a fair fight, so Revi let her Corusdeer charge into the Crypt Lord and burn it to pieces. The adventurers headed back towards the Wandering Inn, chatting and cleaning undead gore off of their weapons.
There was something cathartic about fighting monsters. It was simple. There was no tension, worrying that a trap might go off and endanger the group. When you killed a monster, you killed it for good, even if that meant burning the remains until there was nothing left.
“Nice moves against the Flesh Worm. Have you fought them before?”
Ulrien was chatting with Jelaqua. She shook her head, looking rueful.
“No. I didn’t expect the bugger to be so quick! Your Halrac’s a great shot, though. I’d prefer not tangling with those worms anyways, to be honest. My flail’s not a good matchup against them.”
“True. Holding them down and cutting them apart works for my group.”
“Oh? Well next time I think we’ll just let Moore entangle it and then beat it to death as well. He’s got some great vine spells, as you saw back there.”
Revi was smiling for once, and chatting with Seborn and Moore.
“Think we’ll get a bounty on the undead?”
“Perhaps. Although we didn’t take any trophies.”
“Trophies? You can see their bodies over there! If the city wants proof so bad, they can just come out here and count themselves. Anyways, that was refreshing. Anyone want a drink?”
“I could do with a keg of something spicy. And Lyonette promised me a lot of pasta with meatballs tonight. I prefer the Gnollish kind, having tried them.”
“Ooh, share some with me. I think I’ll have Erin make this…‘lasagna’ she keeps talking about tonight.”
“I’m partial to that as well. Let’s order some for all of us.”
The Gold-rank adventurers returned to the inn, chatting, smiling, and not talking about the adventurers that had died. It was part of their life. The others had taken a risk and paid for it. Mourning them was appropriate, and perhaps some words would be said. But death was too often part of their lives for it to detract from living.
“Hey! It’s you guys! How are you? Had a busy day?”
Erin Solstice looked up from her tables, beaming as the Gold-rank adventurers took a seat. In moments she had drinks coming their way courtesy of Drassi, and she was already directing Lyonette to take out the pre-cooked lasagna, much to Revi’s delight and Seborn’s dismay.
“I’m not a fan of cheese. Cows are…odd creatures. We don’t have things like them in the sea. Do you have anything less cheese related?”
“How about fish? Lyonette had one jump out at her and she beat it to death with a bucket. Sound good?”
“That would be excellent. Can you make it spicy?”
“Will do! Oh, by the way, did Lyonette tell you all about what I wanted to talk to you earlier about but never got the chance to talk about?”
Halrac blinked and Typhenous rubbed his ears as the adventurers tried to decode Erin’s convoluted statement. Moore sat up as Lyonette and Drassi lifted a huge pot of spaghetti and meatballs onto his table.
“I recall something about slimes.”
“Yeah! Slimes! Let me get your food and we’ll talk. Or actually, Lyonette and the others will get your food and I’ll talk. Isn’t having help great?”
Erin beamed as she hovered around the tables with her guests. She had hot food, cool drinks, and a warm, inviting smile. All an adventurer wanted at the end of the day. Well, Revi could have done without the smile. She just wanted the drinks.
“How was your day? Did anything interesting happen? I heard there was some kind of monster attack, but Bird says all the monsters are ‘taken care of’. Did anything crazy happen to you guys?”
Halrac glanced over at the rest of his team, and then at Jelaqua and the Halfseekers. It was the Selphid who grinned and casually took a mug from Lyonette’s tray.
“Oh, nothing special. What’s this about slimes?”
So it went. Adventurers did their jobs and got paid for it. Some were quiet heroes, others bold and unapologetic. The experienced ones took calculated risks and paved the way for others to follow. They did their job, and it was a mark of experience that they did not brag about what they did.
However, the inexperienced didn’t know that and so talked constantly. On one snowy trail recently cleared by flame magic, one such adventurer was lauding his achievements to a very patient, very blind young man on a wagon. Laken Godart sat on the wagon’s back, wishing for once that he were blind and deaf.
“—so as I said, we’re not Gold-rank adventurers, but we’re…pretty close. I mean, Silver-rank’s the best you’ll see around most parts. Not Invrisil, true, but I like to think we’re competitive with Gold-rank teams for a lot of assignments.”
One of the adventurers, a young man with a sword and an air of unwarranted confidence, was riding a horse and chattering to Laken. He was quite taken with the [Emperor], mainly because Laken was rumored to be some sort of rich [Lord] and it never hurt to impress the nobility. He was the leader of the Windfrozen Riders, one of the two Silver-rank teams Laken had hired to protect Riverfarm and escort him back to his village.
He was regretting that choice. Charitable though the Windfrozen Riders might be to the plight of simple villagers, humble they were not. Their leader had talked his ear off for three hours straight, and this was the second day of travelling with him. He only broke off when Durene walked to the head of the wagon and spoke with Laken.
“Oh, Durene. Thank you for saving my ears. Is he gone?”
“He’s talking to Gamel. Hey, Laken, can I punch him?”
“What? Durene…no. No, that wouldn’t be right.”
It was uncharacteristic of the half-Troll to be violent at all. However, she was almost as annoyed with the cocky adventurer as Laken was. He dismissed her question, trying not to imagine how satisfying the sound of her thumping the young adventurer would be.
“Patience, Durene. We need these adventurers as friends. I’ll ask him to quiet down a bit, but violence isn’t the answer. Punching him wouldn’t do him any good, would it?”
Durene made a disgruntled sound.
“No, but if I punch him, I’ll save him from being killed by the other adventurers. The [Mage] with the glasses say she’ll turn him into a toad. Can she do that?”
Laken laughed, and then frowned thoughtfully.
“She’s a [Witch]. And I think she’s not high enough level to do that. She’d probably only give him a long tongue and slimy skin. Maybe some webbed feet, but that’s all.”
He heard a shuffle, and then a note of complaint in Durene’s voice.
“Okay, but can I punch him anyways? He keeps telling me that he’s got a second sword just as long as his first sword. Which is impossible. It wouldn’t fit in his pants. And who’d want a sword that big, anyways?”
Laken made an amused face.
“You’d be surprised what some guys think they’d like, Durene.”
There was a pause. Durene trudged alongside the wagon as Laken found Frostwing’s head. The bird was getting very big, and he was starting to flap his wings as if he was trying to fly. Laken wondered what would happen when he did. Would he be able to command Frostwing? Talk to him? He was a [Beast Tamer].
After a moment, Durene edged closer and whispered in Laken’s ear.
“You know I don’t mean sword, right? He was talking about his pe—”
“I get it, Durene.”
“So can I hit him?”
Laken sighed. He could hear the adventurer coming back towards the wagon. He stared ahead, and wished he were back at Riverfarm sooner.
“I’m thinking about it.”