[Warrior Level 1!]
[Skill – Basic Footwork obtained!]
[Princess Level 6!]
[Skill – Royal Tax obtained!]
Lyonette woke up. The bright sunlight of dawn was the first thing she saw through the open curtains of her window. She looked around in a sudden panic, remembered that Erin had told her to sleep in today, and relaxed. Then her eyes widened.
There was a ball of fur sleeping next to her, hogging the blanket. Lyonette gathered up Mrsha in her arms and hugged the Gnoll gently, ignoring Mrsha’s sleepy protests.
“I did it! I did it! Mrsha! I leveled!”
A paw slapped Lyonette in the mouth. Mrsha sagged in Lyonette’s arms, completely limp. Gently, Lyonette put the Gnoll back in her bed and then got up and paced around the room frantically.
“I—it happened at last! At last! How? It has to be—Brunkr? But I just did that because—I thought—I never expected—no wonder Mavia leveled up then, if that’s what knighting people does! Why didn’t Mother or Father ever say…? But I leveled! And I got a Skill! [Royal Tax]. I’m sure I saw it listed in the secret book of kings father showed me…”
She paused, gulping for air and feeling dizzy. Lyonette turned around and hesitated. She saw a pile of blankets and a pillow on the other side of the room. Ryoka slept with Lyonette and Mrsha, but she’d already woken up and gone out it seemed.
“I can’t talk to her about it anyways. I could but, it’s dangerous…”
Suddenly, Lyonette drooped. The excitement in her veins faded slightly. She’d done it. She’d finally leveled as a [Princess]. But she couldn’t tell anyone that news. She had no one to talk to.
Glumly, Lyonette went downstairs and found the inn was full of visitors already. Erin greeted her as Lyonette mechanically served tables and brought drinks and food out.
“Thanks, Miss Human.”
A group of Drakes had just finished their meal. They counted up coins and tossed them onto the table. Lyonette blinked down at the silver and copper coins and called out.
“Wait! You overpaid.”
The Drakes turned. One, with dusky orange scales counted up the coins with a claw.
“Nope, looks good to us.”
He and the others left. Lyonette blinked down at the coins. They had overpaid, by about three copper coins!
“Ooh, what’s this about pay?”
Erin materialized out of the kitchen, bits of fish scales on her hands. She cocked her head as Lyonette showed her the coins.
“There are three extra. I feel bad, because they paid too much—”
“Oh, that’s not overpaying, that’s a tip!”
Lyonette bit her lip. Was the extra tip…? Surely not! But she owned nothing on this continent. Why wouldn’t her Skill affect her job?
“Here’s the extra—”
She tried to give it to Erin, but the [Innkeeper] pushed the coins back into her hand.
“No, it’s a tip, Lyonette, a tip! I can’t take that! You keep it and add it to your salary—which I am paying you, now.”
The [Princess] went back to busing tables, noting that Ishkr got nothing like a tip. However, the next three tables all gave her tips, usually one or two copper coins at most. They didn’t blink at giving her the tip, although Lyonette pointed out the extra money. Nor did anyone comment on the extra money either. It was unconscious, the way they added up coins and gave her a tiny bit extra. A royal tax indeed.
Lyonette wished she could tell Erin. But that would put the girl in danger, wouldn’t it? All she could do was helplessly feed Apista, and then take a short break to rest her head in her hands in her room upstairs.
Mrsha was up by now, but she was busy having breakfast at a table downstairs. Lyonette sat in her room and heard a thump. She looked up and saw an Antinium Worker pause in her doorway. He was holding a very long length of wood in one hand. Above, she could hear hammering and many bodies shuffling about.
The Antinium were still working on a third floor and a new wing to the inn. Lyonette sighed and stood up as more Workers filed past her with wood, roof tiles, and buckets of copper nails.
No one knew she was a [Princess]. That secret she had kept, out of fear for what might happen and more recently, shame. No one on this continent knew Lyonette’s true identity, save for Magnolia Reinhart herself. No one knew Lyonette was royalty.
That was how it had to be. Lyonette told herself that as she went downstairs with a smile, to play with Mrsha and help Ishkr with the crowds. It was safer this way. Her identity was a danger to the people she had grown to love. So she had to keep the secret. Lyonette had told no one who she was, and no one would ever know a [Princess] worked in the Wandering Inn.
Okay, Pawn knew. And Ryoka. And…yes, Magnolia Reinhart and whomever she’d told. But that was hardly anyone! Besides that, no one knew.
No one at all.
“Yeah, she’s definitely a princess. I’m one hundred percent sure. Two hundred percent.”
Ryoka picked at the sliced raw meat Krshia had offered her in a bowl and wondered if it was full of E.coli or some other native bacteria to this world. She wondered if there were some tactful way to refuse eating it. She sighed, pushed the bowl back, and sat back on her side of the couch.
Krshia blinked at her. She and Brunkr were sitting in the Gnoll [Shopkeeper]’s apartment. Their ears were twitching, a sure sign of agitation. Ryoka scowled at them.
“What? Don’t tell me you didn’t figure it out? It was obvious! I’d expect Erin not to pick up on the clues, but you two? Lyonette talks and acts like she’s been raised in a rich household! She thinks you need a separate fork for salad!”
The Gnolls shifted. Brunkr looked at Krshia, and his aunt shrugged helplessly.
“We did not speak to Lyonette so much as witness her actions, Ryoka Griffin. They were that of a thief, and her speech and etiquette were not displayed to us. However, what Brunkr heard and his new class—”
“A [Knight]. I am a [Knight].”
Brunkr stared in shock at his paws. Ryoka sighed.
“You woke up and got the class. But you knew you’d get it, because you heard Lyonette knighting you, right?”
The male Gnoll nodded.
“Ishkr did too. But I could not believe—a [Princess]? Truly?”
Maybe it was part of the culture in this world. Ryoka watched as the Gnolls exchanged wide-eyed looks. In her world, on earth, meeting royalty was still a big deal for a lot of people, but it wasn’t unheard of. People with royal blood were people too; a lot of the mystique around them had vanished over the years. Whereas in this world princesses were, well, [Princesses].
“It doesn’t change much.”
“But it does. Her actions change when viewed as that of a [Princess]. Harming her would be a grave mistake, yes? As for her importance…”
“She can make people into [Knights]. And she can serve beer. I don’t see what else makes her special.”
Ryoka sighed. She could tell this might lead to something in the future and she was already not enjoying the thought of it. She shifted in her seat.
“Okay, Lyonette’s royalty. It’s big. Don’t tell anyone, although I bet all the Gnolls know about it already. But isn’t there a more important person in Liscor right now? Who’s this Regrika Blackpaw?”
The name made both Krshia and Brunkr sit up proudly. The female Gnoll smiled at Ryoka.
“She is a hero. A legend. I know not why she has come to Liscor if that is what you are asking. She is not of our tribe and we have not had the opportunity to speak with her. But it is enough that she is here, and her motives are her own, yes?”
“You seem excited to meet her. She’s a big deal?”
“A Named Adventurer is famous. A legend. How can we not look up to someone who has accomplished so much? We Gnolls crave such figures as all people do. It is an honor to meet her.”
Ryoka nodded. She could understand that. Regrika Blackpaw was like a sports star, a celebrity, a national hero. She saw Brunkr stand up and flex his arms and then pace around both couches, unable to sit still. He no longer wore a bandage on his right arm; it had completely healed. Now the Gnoll seemed to vibrate with energy and excitement.
“It is times like this that makes me glad I was born, yes? My dream is in me. I have my arm, and debts to pay. I will be a [Knight] worthy of my class! And strong. It is good honored Blackpaw came here. It tells me to look up to the sky and dream of what I could be.”
He turned to Ryoka, eyes shining. She saw a smile on his face—a somewhat scary sight given the sharp canine teeth Gnolls had. But she had to smile back. Ryoka glanced around, eyed the bowl of raw meat, and then nodded to the door.
“Yeah. What we can be. I’d love to stay Krshia, Brunkr, but I have a date with the wind and snow. I’ll uh, see you around.”
She had intended to make this a quick visit, but Krshia’s paw shot out and pushed Ryoka back into her seat. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] looked shocked as she shook her head.
“You have not touched your food yet. We could not let you go without hospitality, especially not to one who is a friend to our clan.”
“What? Aw, no. I’m really—”
“I insist. Eat. And then we must celebrate Brunkr’s new class, yes? We shall feast, and invite Erin. Or perhaps have our celebration at her inn! You will come as an honored guest.”
There was no getting out of it. Ryoka found the bowl of chopped meat pressed into her hands. She grinned weakly and cursed herself for not jumping out the window when she had a chance. Oh well.
At least Ivolethe would like the food.
Someone said the word. The four members of the Horns of Hammerad looked up to see who said it, and then down. No one in their party had said it—it was a group of Humans sitting a few tables away.
Other adventurers. They looked as dispirited as the Horns of Hammerad. As any other adventurer in the room, really. They were sitting in the Adventurer’s Guild. And today, no one was feeling too energetic. No one except the Gnolls, that was.
They were out in force today, taking requests, chatting, tails wagging, standing tall. The other adventurers, Drakes, Humans, and the other races like half-Elves, sat and didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. The reason was simple: they’d gotten a glimpse of Regrika Blackpaw and been crushed.
Not physically. The Gnoll wasn’t walking around smacking people with her paws or her greatsword, although if she was, who could stop her? No, it was a mental attack. The Named Adventurer probably hadn’t even realized she was doing it. But she’d effectively crushed the spirits of all the adventurers in the city just by walking down the street.
Ceria Springwalker sat at a table and felt like one of the little beetles coming out from a rotting floorboard at the table. She felt like one of them, especially when Ksmvr surreptitiously bent down and crunched one between his mandibles. She felt like a little beetle after seeing a Named Adventurer in the flesh.
The half-Elf could remember when she’d met Gazi the Omniscient. The feeling was similar. It wasn’t just the presence such people exuded, it was knowing all the things they’d accomplished and then measuring yourself against them.
It made you feel small.
As she sat, Ceria fingered the wand that Ryoka had brought back from Invrisil for her. A wand, some magic robes, and a burned spellbook…what else did she have? Nothing. Her magic was a tiny snowflake in the wind compared to real adventurers.
“They look happy.”
This time someone at their table spoke. Ceria didn’t look up; she could hear Pisces’ voice. She nodded, staring at another beetle.
“The Gnolls? Why shouldn’t they be? She’s their hero. A Named Adventurer from your species walks in, and of course you’re happy.”
Someone else spoke. Yvlon.
“What’s her title? I mean, her nickname. Don’t all Named Adventurers get one?”
“Regrika the Fortress. I think.”
“Not very original.”
“Try saying that to her face. I—oh, wait, that’s not it. I got it mixed up. She’s nicknamed ‘Fortress Blackpaw’. Because no one can lay a scratch on her.”
Ceria sighed and looked up as a pair of Antinium fingers picked up another beetle. She saw Ksmvr freeze as he lifted the squirming insect up. Of all the adventurers, he looked the least concerned.
“Pardon me Captain Ceria. Is eating bugs off the floor not permitted? Should I pay for my consumption?”
“I think they’ll pay you if you eat enough, Ksmvr. Aren’t you…bothered by seeing a Named Adventurer?”
The Antinium considered the question.
“I am not sure. What emotions should her visage produce in me?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Hopelessness, despair. A sensation that you’ll never reach that level no matter how hard you try and that your entire life has been wasted because you can’t imagine yourself ever becoming that famous or successful?”
Ceria slumped over the table and saw Pisces and Yvlon wince. Ksmvr paused.
“No, I do not believe so. I will inform you if such emotions cross my mind. Are they to be desired?”
Hollow laughter was his response. The Horns of Hammerad sat. They did feel small. Small and unworthy. They only looked up when someone called their name.
“Hey! You lot! Come over and stop moping about!”
A female Drake with light green scales was waving at them from the receptionist’s desk. The Horns got up and slowly trudged over to Selys. She regarded them critically.
“You look terrible. What, is just seeing a Named Adventurer enough to make you all act like invalids?”
Pisces raised a hand.
“I am, in fact, nursing a hangover as well, Miss Selys. So if you could lower your voice?”
He rubbed at his haggard face as both Yvlon and Ceria glared at him. Selys sighed.
“I don’t know why Erin puts up with you, I really don’t. Okay, time to do my job. I’ve talked with my grandm—the Guildmaster. I’m sorry, but you’re not certified Gold-rank adventurers yet. You’ll have to take on a few requests and prove you can handle yourselves before you get the new rank.”
She looked sympathetic as all the Horns of Hammerad groaned. Ceria felt a weight settle on her back. She knew it was unlikely, but she’d hoped they could become Gold-rank adventurers. But new armor and weapons did not a Gold-rank adventurer make.
“Told you we should have tried it at the guild in Celum.”
Pisces grumbled. Yvlon shook her head.
“That would be…awkward. At least we know where we stand. Is that all, Selys?”
“No. Actually, I’ve got more bad news for you. Or rather, Pisces.”
Selys sighed as she leaned over the counter. Pisces frowned.
“What about? Ah. Don’t tell me. My class has once again stigmatized me in the eyes of your Guild.”
“Don’t be so dramatic! It’s not like that—”
Pisces crossed his arms, frowning. Selys hesitated.
“Okay, maybe it’s because you’re a [Necromancer]. Word’s spread and people like my grandmother, the Guildmaster, are a bit…unhappy.”
That was surprising and unwelcome news. Pisces scowled. Suddenly concerned, Ceria put her hands on the desk.
“Hold on, I thought no one had an issue with Pisces being a [Necromancer]. He wasn’t when we reformed the Horns of Hammerad.”
“Yeah, well, he wasn’t an adventurer until recently. And with all this news about the Goblin Lord and his undead army…”
“I should have known. It seems my magic is unwelcome wherever I go.”
Already Pisces was withdrawing, growing more hostile by the moment. Ceria turned to him and held up a hand. He subsided briefly, looking angry. She remembered that look from Wistram and turned desperately to Selys.
“I know Pisces’ magic is a touchy subject around here, what with the Necromancer, but he hasn’t done anything wr—okay, he hasn’t done much wrong.”
“I know, I know!”
Selys looked frustrated. She tapped a claw on the counter.
“Look, we’re not kicking him out. And we’re not saying he can’t practice necromancy. He just can’t animate, uh, people.”
“What? But that’s—”
“It’s the rules. I’m sorry. If we see him raising dead bodies—no matter what the reason—he’ll be arrested. Or worse.”
“So I am prevented from my craft. How wonderfully tolerant.”
Pisces sneered. Selys gave him a look.
“I’m just relaying orders, Mister Necromancer. While you’re in Liscor or around the city, you can’t use the corpses of people.”
“Of any species?”
“Funny you should mention that. I have a list. Let’s see…no using Drake corpses, Drake bones, Gnoll corpses or bones, the remains of Humans, Minotaurs, Centaurs, half-Elves, Dwarves, Drowned Women—or Men—the parts of Stitch People, any aspect of a Dullahan…not sure if they have bones, so that’s why the wording’s so…anyways, no Gazer bodies either…”
Selys ran down a very long list of what was probably every major known species in the world. She had to take a few deep breaths when she’d finished. Pisces was looking even more irate now, but Ceria had noticed an omission in the Drake’s list of undeadables.
“You didn’t have Lizardfolk on that list. Is that a mistake?”
“Oh, no. The city’s fine with using their bodies, if you find them.”
Pisces was clearly agitated. Ceria traded glances with Yvlon. On one hand she understood the city’s desire for undead to be kept off the streets. On the other hand, a blanket ban against all undead was…reasonable. But Pisces was part of their group. She hesitated, unsure of what to say.
Other adventurers were staring at their group, and most were eying Pisces with no small deal of hostility. The [Necromancer]’s shoulders were hunched. He was clearly aware of the staring and he seemed ready to snap. Ceria opened her mouth, unsure if she could defend him, when someone else leaned on the table.
Ksmvr. He cleared his throat and gently snapped his mandibles together.
“Miss Shivertail, may I state my objections to your restrictions on my fellow teammate?”
Selys blinked at the Antinium and eyed him for a moment.
“Uh, okay. What’s the problem?”
Ksmvr nodded. Oblivious to the stares, he raised his voice and spoke calmly.
“I feel that this restriction on the summoning of undead is unjust. You are restricting our tactical diversity with such actions. The raising of the dead is a key facet to the [Necromancer] class, and I for one object to the crippling of one of my fellow adventurer’s abilities. I am sure my colleagues feel the same.”
He nodded around the room at the shocked Drakes, Humans and Gnolls. There was a pause and one of the Drakes, a short fellow with black scales stood up.
“Not I! I’m glad I don’t have to deal with a [Necromancer], let alone journey with one! Who knows if he’d turn me into a zombie after I died! Would you like that, Antinium?”
There was a great deal of hostility in his voice, which Ksmvr seemed to completely ignore. The Antinium nodded calmly.
“I would be insulted if he did not use my body.”
The black-scaled Drake paused.
“What? Are you insane? Why would you want that?”
Ksmvr clicked his mandibles together.
“Animating a fallen teammate’s corpse is the only sound tactical decision to be made in a combat situation. Or would you prefer to let your comrades lie where they fall?”
Ceria found herself edging away from the Antinium a bit as he turned and spoke. She and Yvlon were biting their lips. Pisces was staring.
Selys coughed gingerly.
“That’s uh—not what we want, Ksmvr. In fact, that’s sort of why Pisces isn’t allowed to animate the dead in the first place. No one wants to end up as a zombie or ghoul.”
The Antinium turned, looking somewhat irate.
“But that makes no sense. I object most strongly to this rule. Are you implying that my corpse has no tactical value in combat?”
He leaned over the counter, addressing Selys directly.
“I can assure you that my deceased form is quite operable in many situations so long as it has not been dissected, disintegrated, incinerated, consumed, possessed, liquefied, or—”
“Alright, thank you Selys! We’ll be going now. Come on, Ksmvr.”
Ceria dragged Ksmvr back. She desperately signaled to Yvlon, and the female warrior helped Ceria pull the Antinium to the door. Ksmvr was still trying to lecture everyone on the benefits of his corpse as a tool of utility. Pisces was trying not to laugh, and everyone was staring.
They made it out the door and it slammed shut behind them. In the snowy street, Ceria looked around. Yvlon met her eyes, and then both heard a grunting sound. They looked and saw Pisces, trying not to guffaw. Ksmvr looked at him, and then at Ceria.
“Is comrade Pisces alright, Captain?”
Ceria sighed. She wanted to cover her face with her hands and get drunk. But she couldn’t. Instead, she pointed.
“Let’s go back to the inn.”
This was her team. Her terrible, mismatched, insane…team. She saw Yvlon smiling for a second as Pisces nearly choked on his robes and then how she caught herself and frowned at the [Necromancer].
Her team. Some days Ceria wondered if they were really a team, or if they would break apart. They were so fragile. Like glass. And they were so, so…weak.
Later that day, around lunch, Ceria was sitting at a table eating and reading from her burnt spellbook when she looked up suddenly and shouted.
“I did it!”
Heads turned. The Horns of Hammerad were in the inn along with Ryoka and the Gold-rank adventuring teams. They were having a day off, and Ryoka had come by to tell Erin the Gnolls were having a huge party in her inn later that day.
“You did what?”
Pisces raised his head up. He had been drinking again. It seemed like he was determined to enjoy Erin’s hospitality as much as he could, and he was having a second plate of pasta. Ksmvr, determined to copy Pisces, was doing the same, happily scarfing down gluten thanks to his enchanted ring.
“I did it, Pisces. I learned the spell.”
Ceria sat back, her mind buzzing, staring in shock at the slightly burnt pages of the spellbook in front of her. And in her head was something else as well.
Knowledge. A…certainty. A revelation, the sense of a puzzle finally clicking into place. Certainty, in an uncertain world.
Ceria breathed the words. A sheet of ice rose in front of her table, cutting off Pisces’ robes and freezing then in place. It was a thin wall, but it was a wall, and as Pisces yelped and tried to free himself, Ceria felt the magic surging in her. She looked around and saw people staring.
Jelaqua sat up, chortling and pointing. Erin rushed out of the kitchen and exclaimed when she saw the six foot high barrier of ice. It was cold enough that it wasn’t melting yet, despite the warm room.
“Oh! Wow! It’s that spell you told me about! The one your old master knew how to use! Did you learn how to do it just now Ceria? That’s amazing!”
“Amazing and cold! Free my leg, Springwalker!”
Pisces howled at Ceria and blew hot flames onto the barrier of ice before she could dispel the magic. The ice melted onto Pisces’ robes, drenching the young man. Ceria watched as Ksmvr helped kick the ice wall apart, grinning stupidly.
“It’s not as strong as some examples of the spell I’ve seen, but for a first time attempt it’s quite reasonable. Yes indeed, I am quite impressed.”
Typhenous smiled as he leaned forwards, hands on his staff. Jelaqua pounded the table.
“Hah! A [Mage] learning a spell’s another reason for a party!”
“Wait, so you just learned it?”
Erin looked at Ceria. The half-Elf smiled.
“I just did. Remember that spell I was working on? The one that that mage—Teriarch—showed me? It was [Ice Wall]. I knew how the spell worked and Illphres was beginning to teach me it but—”
There were tears around the edges of her eyes. The half-Elf wiped at them, feeling mystified and relieved at once. Pisces stopped brushing at the water on his robes and glanced up at Ceria. She looked at him and felt the past drawing at her.
That was all he said. He eyed the wall of ice, half melted and broken in place and tapped it.
“Half a foot thick. As Typhenous has said, a quite passable first attempt. Useful in a myriad of situations I would imagine.”
Ceria grinned, still brushing at her eyes. She felt Erin hovering around her back.
“It’s—it’s great. I’ve wondered if I could master it, but I figured it out so quickly—”
“A Tier 4 spell. Worthy of any Gold-rank mage, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh yes. Not my forte, but I know similar spells and have made use of them on many occasions.”
Typhenous came over. He nodded to Ceria, a smile on his face. Ceria was accepting his compliments, and Moore’s, when the door opened.
The armored women came in, brushing snow off of her new armor. She had the enchanted sword and buckler at her side. When she saw the wall of ice she halted.
“A wall of ice. I just learned how to cast it.”
Yvlon stared as Ceria explained in brief. The human woman nodded brusquely.
“Good. Just in time. I’ve got a request for us at last. It’s just past Esthelm.”
Ceria sat up as Ksmvr and Pisces both looked up from their position around the fireplace. The half-Elf frowned at Yvlon and opened her mouth. Yvlon looked grim, and a bit upset, although Ceria couldn’t have said exactly why.
Erin looked from Ceria to Yvlon with a slight frown on her face.
“You’re going on a request? Fighting? I mean, you’re going to hunt monsters and stuff?”
“So it seems. We talked, but I didn’t—”
Ceria realized the other adventurers were looking and coughed.
“Good job, Yvlon. What’s the request?”
“Bears. There’s three of them that have been bothering the people of Esthelm. Scaring [Hunters], going after people in their home—it’s not worth much, but someone needs to get rid of them before they kill someone.”
The other people in the inn clustered around Yvlon as she explained. Apparently the cave had already been found and it wasn’t far. The request was a simple extermination one. The only catch was that the bears were all adult. And male.
Ryoka frowned. She was sitting at a table as Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon sat around the table. Ksmvr had gone into Liscor to find them a transport.
“I was under the impression that bears—especially male bears—hunted alone. Wouldn’t they kill each other rather than work together?”
Ceria shook her head. She was pondering over a map of the region and trying to eye Yvlon while she spoke. The other woman was ignoring her looks.
“When times get tough, even bears will work together to bring down big monsters. It’s a tough world.”
“Sounds like a simple mission. Better watch out, though.”
Halrac came over. The [Scout] didn’t speak much, but apparently he was familiar with this sort of request. He nodded at Ceria.
“Make sure they’re not Mothbears. It’s hard to imagine a [Hunter] mistaking one for the other, but it can happen. Also check to make sure they’re not rabid.”
“Or infected with Brainshrooms! We had to fight through half a forest’s worth of animals controlled by fungi one time. Not fun! I got one on my head and I had to get rid of my body before the mushrooms got me!”
“We’ll do that. I guess we’ll see what happens.”
Ceria mumbled as she looked from Pisces to Yvlon. He was frowning and Yvlon wasn’t staring at either of her teammates. Both adventurers looked concerned, for different reasons. Ceria was too. But she forced a smile for the sake of the others.
“I guess we’ll see. It’s just bears. How hard—”
She paused as Erin and Ryoka winced. Ceria gulped and sighed.
“We’d better get moving.”
“So, why did you decide to take the request, Yvlon? Without asking us?”
Ceria tried to keep her voice neutral as she covered herself with a cloak. She was sitting in a wagon as it bumped along the frozen ground. Pisces and Ksmvr both looked up from their seats at Yvlon. The armored woman glanced up at Ceria and shrugged.
“I got tired of sitting around. I’m as healed as—well, I’m better now, and we’ve got all these new artifacts. We want to be Gold-rank adventurers, right? We might as well start taking requests.”
“To hunt bears. Hardly an illustrious task, or so I feel.”
Pisces frowned. Yvlon glanced at him, and then away. Her regard for Pisces’ opinion couldn’t have been more plain. Ceria saw Pisces’ face harden and spoke up.
“That’s not what I mind. It’s just that we normally talk things over first.”
“We agreed Esthelm was a good place to look for contracts, especially since there’s not much work around Liscor or Celum.”
“Yeah, but—you know what? Never mind.”
Ceria sat back in the wagon. She wondered if this was how Calruz had felt when he was leading the Horns of Hammerad. He’d had to deal with annoying members of his group she recalled. People with strong opinions who made their own decisions. She’d caused him to lose his temper several times while they’d journeyed together.
“Still, I guess I was hoping our first contract would be bigger.”
Yvlon looked up and at Ceria. She shrugged.
“A Silver-rank team would have to prepare for a request like that. You think bears are easy to kill? I bet even someone like Halrac’d set a few traps before trying to bother them in their den.”
“True. I guess I’m too used to hanging around him and the other Gold-rank adventurers to think clearly.”
“After seeing Regrika Blackpaw as well…I bet she’ll enter Liscor’s dungeon tomorrow, or maybe today. I can’t imagine she’d fear many traps and she has that Gold-rank mage with her. Did you see him? I could tell he was a powerful [Mage] across the street. The quests they normally take on…it’s humbling to think about.”
Yvlon grunted, which could have been an acknowledgement.
“Makes you wonder if we’ll ever hit Level 30, let alone Level 40 or higher. You just learned…[Ice Wall]? Is that a really high level spell?”
“No. Yes. It’s one that grows with the [Mage]. My master could make walls of ice several feet thick. I can barely manage a foot if I concentrate.”
Ceria sighed. She’d learned one spell. And while the rush of exhilaration still hadn’t left her, she knew that was one spell compared to the many Illphres had known. And her former master had still died. Put like that, she felt just as bad as she had that morning.
“We’re still Silver-rank. Even with all these artifacts. I thought we should remember that, and chose a request for us to learn our limits.”
The armored woman tapped her sword and the enchanted buckler which could create a force shield. Ceria nodded, but Pisces sat up, suddenly frowning.
“Silver-rank? I would tend to disagree with that assessment, Miss Byres. I consider our collective skillset to be equivalent to a new Gold-rank team. I certainly rate my own prowess at such a level.”
There was a snap in Pisces’ voice that made Ceria wince. He’d been angry all day and it was coming out now, possibly at the worst of times. They were all sitting on a wagon in the cold, and without space, it meant that he was too close to Yvlon to separate.
And Yvlon wasn’t being diplomatic today at all. She raised her eyebrows skeptically.
“Oh? You think you’re on the level of Halrac, or Typhenous?”
“Of course not.”
Pisces raised his nose and sniffed archly at her.
“Your flawed comparison refers to two veteran Gold-rank adventurers, who occupy a position at the higher end of the simplistic ranking system adventurers employ. However, I know my strengths. I am the highest-level individual in this association, whether in my main class or collectively. My Skills and spells have both been of invaluable service to the party, yet I am crippled by these restrictions placed upon my class.”
“Sensible ones, I’d imagine. No one wants their friend or family to become undead.”
“I hardly go around animating corpses of the recently deceased.”
“No, but some people remember Az’kerash and the havoc he caused. Or are you saying [Necromancers] are all different and that they don’t let their creations prey on the innocent?”
Yvlon sat up, eyes flashing. Ceria opened her mouth, but couldn’t find the words to interject in time. Pisces drew himself together and spoke gravely.
“I know what Az’kerash did. I do not endorse his beliefs or defend his crimes against the continents of Izril or Terandria. However, as a fellow [Necromancer], I admire what he has achieved. Is that so hard to grasp?”
“It is to me. Admiring anything about the undead. About zombies—”
The party was breaking down in front of her eyes. Ceria opened her mouth and saw Ksmvr sitting up, looking from Yvlon to Pisces with apparent concern. Pisces spoke, hunching in on himself, defensive, the same look in his eyes as when he’d been exiled by Wistram’s Council of Mages.
“Ah, so we come to it at last. I have noted your disdain for my profession and my school of magic, Yvlon Byres. Let us not bandy words. You hate me and what I do. Why conceal the truth? You would hardly be the first or last to feel this way.”
He glared at Yvlon, daring her to say it. And when she did, Ceria was sure, Pisces would disappear. Yvlon’s gaze burned. She took a deep breath, opened her mouth, and—paused. She stared at Pisces and then to the surprise of everyone, shook her head.
“I don’t hate you.”
Pisces’ eyes widened. Yvlon sighed.
“I don’t hate you, Pisces. I think you’re annoying, obnoxious at times, and certainly rude. But I don’t hate you.”
That was the last thing Ceria had expected to hear. Yvlon went on.
“I hate necromancy. I hate the undead. You—you wouldn’t be my first dining partner or choice for a teammate, but you I can live with.”
“But necromancy is both my class and specialization as a [Mage]. How do you reconcile that knowledge?”
Pisces studied Yvlon intently, but without the guarded hostility he’d had a moment ago. Yvlon hesitated. She looked at him and then at Ceria. The half-Elf held her breath.
“Hey you lot! We’re here!”
All the adventurers jumped. They looked up and saw the man driving the wagon they were sitting on looking back at them. Termin the [Wagon Driver] waved his hand and they saw Esthelm’s walls staring at them. They’d been so engrossed in their conversation that none of the Horns of Hammerad had noticed the city.
“Having a fine argument, were you?”
Termin grinned as they all dismounted the wagon. He was bundled up and stroking the back of one of his horses. He nodded to the city.
“There y’are. You’re looking for a cave, right?”
“That’s right. We’re only a few miles away. I don’t think there’s a road headed that way, so we’ll have to march through the snow to get there.”
Pisces grumbled under this breath, but quietly. He was wearing only his robes despite the freezing cold. He, Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Ceria had all had Erin’s special Corusdeer soup and were feeling warm despite the cold wind.
Termin sighed as he looked at him.
“You lot make me feel cold looking at you. I’d offer to stay around to give you a ride back, but…”
“We wouldn’t ask you to do that. Unless you’re planning on making a delivery from Esthelm to Liscor?”
Ceria looked at Termin. He shook his head and pointed down the road past Esthelm.
“I’m headin’ north as fast as I can. If there’s a Goblin Lord coming, I’d rather be closer to Invrisil than not. You adventurers take care of yourselves now. If fortune smiles, we’ll meet again one day.”
They bade him farewell and turned past the city. Ceria got a map out and conferred with the other before beginning to march through the deep snow. They moved in silence for a while. Everyone was wondering what Yvlon had meant to say. No one brought it up. After an hour or two of walking, they reached the cave.
“Look. Bear tracks.”
“That’s just snow fallen from the cave’s roof.”
“Oh. Are those bear tracks?”
“Nah, that’s…well, it might be. How should I know?”
“You’re the half-Elf.”
“So? That’s speciesism right there, Yvlon. You Humans think we half-Elves know everything about the wilderness just because we live closer to it. It’s all just snow to me.”
“I see fur by the entrance, Comrade Yvlon, Captain Ceria.”
“…That’s probably a good sign, Ksmvr. Does the fur tell you how many bears are inside?”
“The report said three.”
“The report was made by a [Hunter] who didn’t get within a hundred meters of the cave. We could be looking at only one very active bear. Or three.”
“Six? Dead gods, Pisces, don’t joke!”
“It is a legitimate concern, Yvlon. If we are uncertain of our chances, we should take precautions. What do you think, Springwalker?”
“Well…I was thinking we could…”
“Yes? Develop a defensive wall of ice perhaps while Ksmvr takes up his bow and a superior vantage point? With my invisibility spell I could attack from the flanks while Yvlon engages them with her enchanted equipment. If I calculate the odds, I would assume—”
“Calculate? Odds? No, I was just thinking we’d charge in there and sort things out.”
“What? That’s how Calruz did things. Okay, maybe he had a bit of a plan—”
“I will volunteer to be the first to charge in, Captain Ceria. You may assume from my cries for help or of encouragement whether the danger is—”
“Shush, Ksmvr. Okay, let’s just…go in. I don’t think using an invisibility spell would help in scouting, Pisces. Bears have a good sense of smell.”
“Agreed. I would not risk myself. Very well, but what about scaring the bears out with one of the devices we’ve received? That screaming monster lure?”
“Eh. I thought close quarters would be better, actually. Hear me out. I can freeze part of the cave and make it so only one person gets through. Yvlon uses her shield and pokes the bear with her sword—”
“You know. Do your warrior thing. I’m not an expert! She pokes, Pisces and I throw spells and keep the ice barriers up, and Ksmvr shoots at the bear and takes over if Yvlon needs to fall back.”
“One at a time. I like it. We box them in. I also have the enchanted ring with the [Shatterbolt] spell embedded in it—”
“Is that what it’s called? Just don’t hit us. Use it only if you have a clear shot. Okay, let’s do this. Yvlon in front, then Ksmvr and me, and Pisces at the rear.”
“Please use my corpse as a tool if I should fall in battle, Comrade Pisces—”
Perhaps there were better ways to enter the cave, but at least the Horns of Hammerad moved in formation and no one was screaming. The cave system was fairly high overhead and wide enough for them to move all shoulder to shoulder if they chose. It was dark, and uncomfortably silent. The Horns of Hammerad moved as quietly as possible, hearing Yvlon’s armor shift quietly, Pisces’ robes brush against the floor, but nothing else.
They found the first bear halfway in. Yvlon knelt by the yellowed skull while Ksmvr kept a lookout with his bow.
“Looks fresh. And whatever ate the bear has sharp teeth. See the bite marks?”
“Cannibalism? The others bears turned on it?”
Ceria whispered. Pisces grunted as he knelt by the skull and shook his head.
“Too small for a bear. These aren’t teeth marks either. It looks like the flesh was…clawed from the bone.”
“I am a [Necromancer].”
“What the hell are we looking at, then?”
They got their answer when they found the second bear’s skeleton. This one was only half-eaten. Ceria blanched as she saw the lower half, still partly intact.
“Something’s feasting on it. This bear’s huge!”
Yvlon eyed the dark cavern ahead of them. Their only source of light were the [Light] spells both Ceria and Pisces had cast. Pisces wrinkled his nose at the smell of the dead bear’s flesh, but he still bent and even touched the half-frozen meat.
Ceria could count the number of times Pisces had said that on one hand. She gripped the new wand in her hand tightly.
Pisces looked up and around. He conjured another sphere of light into his hands and threw it deeper into the cave. The light illuminated a dark shape. The third bear. It was dead. And crawling on it, slowly carving away at the bear’s body were gelatinous shapes. Their innards glowed as the light passed by them and they slowly turned.
It was Ksmvr who said the word as he dropped his bow and drew both his shortswords.
Ceria hissed at Pisces. The [Necromancer] cancelled the light spell and the Horns of Hammerad tried to back up. Too late. The Crelers had noticed the light and movement and their fleshy larval forms were turning themselves inside-out, revealing sharp claws, too many sets of teeth—the first leapt towards Ceria as she shouted.
“Get back! [Ice Wall]!”
The Creler crashed into the sheet of ice, biting and tearing at it with pinchers and claws sharp enough to cut through steel. Pisces threw a ball of fire and drew his rapier as Yvlon raised her shield.
“Get behind me! Ceria! Seal off the tunnel!”
“I’m trying, but there are too many gaps!”
Ceria pointed and another wall of ice rose, covering part of the cave. But her mastery of the spell was only good enough to raise a wall eight feet high. Tall enough to block a bear, but not Crelers. They swarmed around the wall.
“[Lightning Jolt], [Flame Rapier]! Springwalker, get back!”
Pisces thrust Ceria back and disappeared in a blur. He stabbed through one of the Crelers as it leapt, catching it in a fleshy portion of its body. The skewered Creler screeched as Pisces’ flaming rapier impaled it, but it kept moving, trying to climb up the length of the blade and reach Pisces.
Ksmvr was slashing at the Crelers as they swarmed around him, biting at his legs and three arms. Yvlon was cursing. The helmet she was wearing and her plate armor were keeping the Crelers at bay, but they were covering her. She tossed them to one side and split one of the jointed creatures with a slash of her blade. The enchanted sword cut through the Creler’s body with ease.
She was the only one having an easy time of it. Ceria aimed her [Ice Spike] spell and skewered a Creler, and missed another.
“I hate these things so much!”
“Get back! Retreat! Let Yvlon cut them down! Ksmvr!”
Pisces was shouting as a Creler buried itself onto Ksmvr’s shoulder and began to bite into the Antinium. Ksmvr tore the Creler off and tried to stomp it to death; it began trying to eat his foot.
“We took out a nest once! We can do it again! Get back! [Ice Wall]!”
This time the wall was low and wide, more of four foot-high barricade than anything else. It covered the cavern and Ceria saw Pisces leap over it, followed by Ksmvr. The Crelers followed, but they had to jump to get over, making them easy targets.
The woman was slashing, cutting the baby Crelers to bits. Her force shield was shimmering in the air as it repelled Crelers leaping at her. She turned, froze.
Ceria’s blood ran cold. She saw something shoot out of the darkness of the cave, a huge, scuttling form four feet high and twice as long. It barreled into Yvlon and sent the armored woman crashing to the ground.
It looked like some kind of monstrous pill bug with too many legs, tearing claws, and a glowing, fleshy, transparent underbelly where its organs hung, glowing slightly. The rest of the Creler was biting jaws, claws, all of which lashed Yvlon as she tried to fight it off. But it must have weighed almost as much as a bear, and it was hammering at her breastplate.
And leaving marks. The enchanted metal could withstand the hammer blows, but the Creler’s main jaws opened—horizontally, two smaller maws opening and revealing spitting, gaping mouths, and bit onto Yvlon’s sword arm.
She cried out and Ceria saw her enchanted gauntlets begin to bend under the crushing strength. She raised her hand.
Three spikes of ice shot from her fingers, each one a pointed javelin. They all broke on the Creler’s back, doing no damage.
“Yvlon! Someone help her!”
Ksmvr leapt up, impossibly high thanks to his Ring of Jumping and then kicked himself off a wall. He smashed onto the Creler’s back and began hammering at it with his shortswords. The Creler reared up and fell backwards. It crushed Ksmvr and then rolled on top of him. Now the Antinium was the one being savaged.
Yvlon got up and swung her sword. The enchanted weapon bit into the Creler’s armored back as Pisces and Ceria desperately blasted away the baby Crelers. The adult turned, not harmed so much as wary, and charged Yvlon again. This time it smashed into her force shield.
The impact made Yvlon brace herself, but the shield repelled the weight of the Creler flawlessly. Ksmvr got to his feet and slashed at the adult’s back as one of the Crelers landed on Ceria. It had crawled onto the ceiling and got onto her neck. She cried out, reached for it—
Two spikes of pain tore themselves out of her neck. She screamed, fell, convulsing, as agony shot through her entire body. Something was digging at her flesh, and there was burning.
A hand tore the burrowing Creler away. Pisces threw the Creler aside and stabbed two as they crawled towards him with his rapier. He picked up Ceria and blasted the ground with fire, keeping the Crelers away.
The half-Elf was shaking, throwing up and burning at the same time.
“You’re poisoned. Can you stand? We have to retreat.”
A sheet of ice rose and melted. Ceria couldn’t concentrate. Pisces cursed as he pulled her back. The adult Creler was smashing into Yvlon’s shield, driving her back. The woman swung her sword and this time the Creler charged onto it. The blade was deflected by one of it’s claws and it ran onto Yvlon’s arm, pushing her forearm at a bad angle. Yvlon’s gauntlet resisted the weight and pressure, then bent—
Yvlon stumbled back, one of her arms clearly broken as Ksmvr swung his swords, knocking Crelers away. Pisces was towing Ceria towards the entrance.
“We must run.”
“No. They’ll catch—”
Crelers never gave up. Ceria struggled to her feet, trying to think past the pain and poison. She raised her hands. Pisces looked at the ground. The first bear was right there.
“Give me a moment.”
They both said it at the same time. Ceria raised her hands. Pisces pulled out his wand.
“Rise, rise, oh fallen bear. To rend and bite, to rend and tear!”
“[Ice Wall]! Yvlon, Ksmvr, move!”
This time two walls of ice rose up, one on each side of Ceria. She took a breath and pushed them forwards as baby Crelers surged at her. Ceria ran forwards as the small Crelers were shoved by the moving walls of the ice, forced towards the adult. Ksmvr leapt over the walls of ice, clinging to the ceiling and Yvlon raised her shield as Ceria maneuvered the ice wall around her.
“I’ve got them in a corner! Back up! I’m casting a fireball!”
Ceria felt sick. She threw up as she was casting the spell, as the Crelers were swarming around the barrier of ice. She raised the wand, tried to focus.
There was heat. Light. The explosion kicked Ceria off her feet and blasted Crelers apart. The ones who survived the blast were set alight. They moved, still trying to kill but overheating. Ksmvr slashed at them, leaping down from the ceiling and crushing the ones that moved.
The adult had caught the fireball’s blast too, but it just hunkered down and let the armor of its body shield its organs. It rose as Yvlon circled it and charged her, biting, tearing. Yvlon tried to hack at it with her sword, but her arm—
The adult turned and a huge paw of bone smashed into what might have been its head. It didn’t flinch and lashed out. Futilely, for once. The skeleton of the bear took no notice of the tearing claws and rammed into the Creler, forcing it back.
“From the other side!”
And a second undead bear stood. Both bears began to smash the Creler from each side, battering it, smashing it into the ground. The monstrosity weathered the blows, tearing bones from each undead, biting—
“It’s too tough! The bears aren’t hurting it!”
Someone was shouting. Ceria was lying on the ground. She felt Pisces picking her up, and saw Ksmvr trying to maneuver around the fighting undead bears and adult Creler. Yvlon had her sword. She was casting aside her shield.
“Pisces! Move the bears! I have to do it!”
“Half-sword. Use the half-sword technique!”
Pisces roared at Yvlon as the two bears backed away. Both were gripping parts of the Creler with their jaws, forcing its attention away from Yvlon. Ceria saw the woman curse and change her grip on the sword. Clumsily, using her broken right arm and left arm together, she gripped the sword by the blade, raising the pommel.
One of the bears was being destroyed as the Creler smashed it into the ground with its superior strength. Yvlon shouted as she ran forwards. The pommel of her blade descended. It was enchanted with the weight spell. It crashed into the adult’s back and went through. It tore open the black armor, deforming the shell under the weight of the blow.
Orange liquid gushed from the opening. The Creler reared up, turned. Pisces flicked his wrist and a bolt of magic shot from the ring on his finger. It pierced the Creler’s exposed underbelly and then fragmented, becoming a splinter of magical needles which tore the thing open.
More orange and red liquid gushed forth. The Creler’s insides burst and the insides deflated as its fluids broke. It kept moving, keening, crawling towards Yvlon. She bashed it several more times, and then backed up. Ksmvr helped pull Ceria away as the adult kept crawling towards them.
It took twenty minutes to die, even without any of its innards. When it was done, Ceria lay on the ground, shaking, the poison running through her.
“It wasn’t too much. You should be fine, but we have to get you to Octavia or a [Healer].”
Yvlon was kneeling by Ceria, watching out for stray Crelers. Ksmvr had her blade and was dicing up the remaining Crelers with Pisces and the undead bears. Ceria blinked at her.
The woman blinked and Ceria looked at her bent right arm. It looked horrible, and blood was leaking around one of the gauntlets, but Yvlon only shrugged.
“Can’t feel it.”
Ceria stared at her friend. Yvlon smiled crookedly. She raised her arm broken and waggled it horribly. It shifted and Ceria saw Yvlon’s face change not one bit.
“I can’t feel a thing.”
“I think we’re done.”
Pisces spoke after a while. He staggered back to the cave entrance where Ceria was sitting up with Yvlon. The half-Elf was feeling better. She’d washed the spot where the Creler had dug into her neck with lots of water and some healing potion. The poison kept the wound from closing and it was horribly deep, but Ceria could think.
“You sure? We can’t leave a single egg behind.”
“Ksmvr was rather thorough. We have diced up every Creler we could find, save for the adult, and begun cremating the remains.”
“Did you get a count? We’ll need to testify under truth spell—”
Yvlon sat next to Ceria, wiping her gore-covered blade with snow.
“I counted eighteen small ones and one adult.”
“Eighteen? They felt like hundreds!”
“Only eighteen. Sorry. But you know what the bounty of Crelers is. We’ll earn a lot for each one. As for the adult, I hear it’s a two thousand gold coin prize for killing one!”
“Too bad that’s not an adult.”
“Ksmvr explained it to me. Ksmvr?”
He called and the Antinium walked over. Ksmvr was wounded in several places and there were pieces of chitin missing from his legs, one of his arms, and his shoulder. For all that, he appeared as unconcerned as Yvlon with his injuries.
“Yes, Comrade Pisces? I am attempting to destroy the junior Creler.”
“Junior? Oh come on. It’s got to be an adult! I’ve never seen one, but—junior?”
The Antinium nodded at Yvlon and Ceria’s shocked expressions.
“It is decidedly a juvenile example of the species. The ones we encountered en masse were hatchlings of course. But an adult is considerably larger. And it can fly. If we had encountered one such Creler, I doubt we would be alive. It takes many Soldiers to bring down a single adult.”
“Dead gods. No wonder the bounty on them is so high!”
“Indeed. On that note Captain, I am about to dismember and then destroy the juvenile Creler. I would ask that Comrade Pisces help me in incinerating the remains. I also caution you all to avoid eating any part of the Creler. Its eggs may incubate in your body and hatch if you eat it.”
The Antinium looked around in the sudden silence. He shrugged.
“The Antinium have learned this to our detriment. Crelers are not a valid food source for this reason.”
He went back to hacking at the Creler’s corpse. After a moment Yvlon tried to get up and go to him. She tried, because she attempted to use her broken arm to lever herself up until she realized what she was doing. Ceria put a hand over her mouth and Pisces frowned.
“Yvlon, your arm—”
“Can’t feel it.”
“It’s still broken!”
Ceria looked in horror at Yvlon. The other woman gave her a pale smile.
“I’m fine, Ceria. Once we get back—”
“I can correct the bones for you and use a healing potion now, if you like.”
Pisces squatted down by Yvlon’s arm and indicated the gauntlet.
“We must only remove the gauntlet first. I fear that will be troublesome—”
“No problem. We can do it. Don’t worry about me; I can’t feel it. Like I said.”
Yvlon gritted her teeth as Pisces tried to remove the bent armor. Ceria had to turn away when she saw the broken skin and protruding bone that was Yvlon’s arm. There was bent steel mixed in with the bone. Pisces hissed under his breath. Yvlon looked down at her arm with disgust, but again, without pain.
“Please hold still. I shall—correct the bones and refit them properly. You may wish to look away.”
Pisces put his hands on Yvlon’s arms and concentrated. The bones began to reshape themselves under her flesh. Both Yvlon and Ceria looked up and away as Pisces spoke.
“You are fortunate that I am present. Using healing potions to mend broken bones is often a futile or dangerous effort. However, in my case—please bear with the sensations for a moment.”
“Like I said—”
“You really can’t feel a thing, can you?”
Ceria stared at Yvlon. The woman’s face was sweaty, but there was no hint of agony in her eyes. Just…a disturbed look. Yvlon nodded.
“I can’t feel a thing. I, aha, have a Skill. [Ignore Pain].”
She twisted her arm as Pisces finished and lifted it. The bones were straight now, whole, despite the metal grafted to them, but the skin—Ceria felt the urge to throw up. Yvlon poured a healing potion on her arm and watched the skin run together like water.
“I’ve heard of older warriors earning Skills like [Lesser Pain Tolerance] which lets them fight on when wounded…”
When she felt she could look, Ceria stared at Yvlon and saw the other woman’s twisted smile. Yvlon swung her arm about, testing it, and then shrugged.
“I didn’t feel my arm break. I only noticed when I couldn’t grip the sword properly.”
“It’s a Skill I got. It’s nothing to worry about, Ceria. I’m grateful for it, believe me.”
“Bullshit, if you will excuse my language.”
Pisces and Ceria spoke at the same time. They looked at each other, and then at Yvlon.
“Pig shit. Bird poo. Squirrel feces. Lizard poo. Drake poo. Excuse me. I thought we were listing excrement.”
Ksmvr came over, covered in Creler goo. He cocked his head at the others as they laughed. Ceria shook her head and then glared at Yvlon.
“No one gets—[Ignore Pain] just like that. You’re hiding something, Yvlon. Why didn’t you tell us you couldn’t feel your arms?”
The woman smiled crookedly.
“Because I was grateful. Do you know how much it hurt the day before I slept…? Right after the dungeon, I mean. I was going to scream, but then I leveled up, gained my Skill…and a new class.”
“A new class?”
Yvlon grinned at Ceria’s shocked expression. Pisces put a finger to his lips thoughtfully.
“Intriguing. I had not heard of such a class…I assume that Skill was one of the, ah, rewards for your transition?”
“The only one I have so far. It’s…I don’t know what to call it. But I could fight. Badly, but I could fight despite my arm breaking.”
“It’s not right. Yvlon, I’m so—”
“What do you want me to say, Ceria? I’m a cripple without that Skill. I wouldn’t be able to move my arms—I’d have to cut them off or scream myself to death. And without Pisces, I’d lose them anyways.”
Yvlon nodded at Pisces. He looked somber.
“I can repair your arms, but I regret that I cannot do anything about the iron fused with your, ah, flesh, Yvlon. It may be removed, but there is not enough bone to reconstruct your arms with afterward.”
“And you can’t…add more bone? I’ve never asked before, but…”
Yvlon nodded subtly at the two undead bears that were standing watch over the burning junior Creler. Ceria’s mouth dropped open. Pisces eyes widened before he shook his head.
“Alas, no. Bones aren’t that easy to use interchangeably, Yvlon. A bear’s bones would be rejected by a human body. So too would any other bones, should you be curious. It is a…a function of your body that it would only accept your bone as part of ‘you’.”
“I see. I guess bones are more complex than I thought.”
The woman laughed shortly. Ceria stared at her. Yvlon quieted after a moment and looked at Pisces.
“I hate [Necromancers]. I hate the undead.”
Ceria opened her mouth, and then closed it. Pisces looked surprised, but not insulted. Yvlon sat up, flexing her formerly broken arm. She sat in the cave, the horrible smell of burning Creler in everyone’s nostrils as she spoke, continuing their conversation from the wagon.
“My family is devoted to championing justice. We have a history of serving as [Knights], defending others. I’ve been raised to hate necromancy since I was a child and I still do. I think it’s unnatural. Any [Necromancer] I meet I will cut down. I would never journey with any kind of spellcaster like that if I had a choice.”
Pisces bowed his head silently. Yvlon eyed him, looked into Ceria’s disappointed eyes and smiled.
“That’s why I’ll tolerate what you do. For you and only you.”
A breath caught in Ceria’s throat and she coughed as smoke made her eyes water. Yvlon pushed herself to her feet. She raised her sword, now clean, and indicated her arms. Metal ran into flesh, twisted, melded with her skin. It was an ugly sight, and haunting. She smiled unhappily.
“I’ll be watching you, to make sure you’re not misusing your magic. I, Yvlon Byres, a Level 26 [Wounded Warrior].”
Ceria took a breath. Telling someone your exact level was…it wasn’t the most familiar thing you could do, but it was a show of trust. Among adventurers, it was a sign they were more than acquaintances. Pisces looked into Yvlon’s eyes and then got up too. When he spoke, it was hesitantly.
“You may not know this, Yvlon, but when a [Mage] transcends into a unique class such as [Necromancer], [Cryomancer], and so on, they become…focused in that specific class. If they pursue other types of magic, they must begin with the [Mage] class again. From Level 1.”
He stared at her, and then Ceria. He gestured to the rapier at his side.
“Necromancers lack many direct spells to attack their foes. High level necromancers are different of course, but the strength of death magic lies in minions, spells which sap energy. It is said that necromancy, above other schools of magic, is the mastery of preparation. Yet armies of the undead and servants of this nature are feared. Hated. Despised. Despite what you may think, I wish to live among people without their disdain.”
Silence. Yvlon looked at him, waiting. Pisces closed his eyes.
“I have dreamed of being a [Necromancer]. It is my calling. My passion. Yet I love magic of all kinds. I wish to see what it can bring me. I wish to know…I hover on the cusp of power. I am a Level 29 [Necromancer], and a Level 18 [Mage].”
Level 29. Ceria’s breath caught. She hadn’t known. Pisces stood at the limit agreed by most to be one of the thresholds. At Level 30 he could call himself a Gold-rank adventurer regardless of his gear.
Pisces nodded to Yvlon. She nodded back. Both looked at Ceria. She realized what she had to do and scrambled to her feet. She nearly fell—she felt sick the moment her head moved. Yvlon and Pisces caught her. She grinned at them weakly.
“Ceria Springwalker. Level 25 [Cryomancer].”
They both blinked. Ceria smiled, surpressed the urge to throw up, and spoke.
“What? I got the class change yesterday. I guess it was a sign I was about to learn [Ice Wall]. I’ve been meaning to tell you all, but what with the Goblin Lord and the Named Adventurers popping up left and right, there was never a good time.”
Pisces spoke to Ceria. He squeezed her arm, and she squeezed his with her skeletal hand. The last to rise was Ksmvr.
“I am Ksmvr, formerly of the Free Antinium. I am a Level 16 [Warrior].”
He looked at the others. They gaped at him. Ceria burst out first.
“Level 16? You’re so…weak! How are you only Level 16 when you can fight like…”
The Antinium looked guilty.
“I was Level 12 when we first met. The Antinium do not level, except in the case of Individuals. And I did not level much after my creation in the Hive, merely studied my predecessor’s history and assisted my Queen…”
He looked at the others and seemed to grow smaller. More hesitant. Ceria couldn’t believe it. She’d assumed Ksmvr was Level 20, at least! He fought like he was a veteran similar to any of the [Warriors] she’d met. Yvlon’s face showed the same amazement Ceria felt.
The Antinium seemed to sense the other’s disbelief. He spoke quietly, suddenly, afraid.
“Please do not eject me from your group. This is the only place where I have meaning.”
The other Horns of Hammerad looked at him, shocked. Ksmvr, who hadn’t trembled when being bitten by Crelers, shook like a leaf in front of them. Pisces let go of Ceria to rest a hand on Ksmvr’s shoulder.
“I doubt either Yvlon or Ceria would eject you from the group, good Ksmvr. I certainly would not, especially since you are the only one who listens to my advice. You are a valued member, and more so perhaps, given your potential to grow in strength.”
“Yeah, what he said without the fancy words. You’re one of us, Ksmvr.”
Ceria smiled at Ksmvr, and then fell over. The other Horns of Hammerad stared at Ceria as she lay on the ground and moaned weakly.
“I think the poison’s getting to her. Damn Crelers are nightmares. We need to get back to Esthelm, or better yet, Liscor at speed. Termin’s gone though. And it’s miles…”
Yvlon groaned as she stared out into the snow. The Corusdeer soup they’d all eaten was wearing off and it was cold. Pisces muttered to himself.
“It seems we must carry Springwalker. On a sledge, perhaps? Is it worth the effort of fashioning one?”
“I could attempt to carry her—”
As Ksmvr and Pisces debated, Yvlon looked around. She jumped as she saw the two undead bears staring at her. She frowned, looked at Pisces, and then hesitated. She looked back at the bears, and her eyes widened.
Slowly, she turned to the necromancer and cleared her throat. He looked at her, and Yvlon spoke very cautiously.
“I might regret saying this, but…Pisces, the Adventurer’s Guild banned you from using any corpses made from people, right? They never said anything about bears.”
For a moment Pisces stared at Yvlon. Then he grinned. Yvlon smiled and Ceria raised her head.
“I’m okay! What’s…what’s…?”
She looked up as Pisces and Ksmvr lashed her to a piece of wood. Yvlon had sliced down a tree with her sword and they were tying it together with some rope from Ksmvr’s pack.
“What’s…? Huh, Yvlon?”
The woman smiled down at Ceria. It was Ksmvr who explained.
Later that day, the guards on the walls of Liscor would see a crude sled being pulled by two skeletal bears approaching through the snow. There would be much deliberation, but as Yvlon pointed out, bears were not people, and thus the city had no reason to object. That they did anyways was perfectly natural, but it marked the start of bear-based transportation for the Horns of Hammerad.
However, that event was not witnessed by Regrika Blackpaw, who was further in the city proper and did not pay attention to the commotion at the gates. She was walking down one of the streets, nodding to Gnolls and speaking with the ones who approached, the center of attention.
At her side walked a Drake with dark purple scales, male, holding a staff. He was a Gold-rank adventurer, a [Mage]. The duo had already been invited to the party at Erin’s inn that night and were heading there at their leisure.
Perhaps it was happenstance that they spotted the young Human woman as she jogged down the street. Perhaps not; Ryoka had just put in an order for a cured ham and other assorted meats to Krshia, and the Gnoll had assured her they would be brought in time for the party. She was on her way back to the Wandering Inn with Ivolethe, chatting, when the Named Adventurer spotted her.
Regrika recognized Ryoka. Of course she did. And thanks to Olesm, she had a name to put to the face. She reached out and touched the shoulder of the Drake [Mage] who walked beside her.
She pointed and the Drake blinked his eyes.
“That’s the Runner?”
“Yes. Let’s intercept her.”
Ryoka Griffin could hardly have missed Regrika Blackpaw heading her way. She was still surprised when the Gnoll called to her in the street and obligingly slowed down. Confused and a bit surprised, she waited for the Gnoll to speak.
“Hrr. You are Ryoka Griffin, yes? I am Regrika Blackpaw. May I have a moment of your time? I have been wishing to speak with you.”
The huge Gnoll with black fur was a giant, and she smiled down at Ryoka. The young woman took the Gnoll’s paw and shook it gingerly, catching the Named Adventurer’s smell as she did.
“With me? Uh, how can I help you?”
“I am looking for a competent Runner, and I have been directed to you by one Olesm Swifttail as the best runner in the city. That is so, yes?”
She smelled of slightly damp Gnoll fur and that intrinsically animal smell of Dog and something else. There was a hint of metal in that scent as well. Ryoka blinked up at Regrika Blackpaw.
“Are you sure you haven’t gotten the wrong person? I’m—a City Runner, not a Courier. And there’s one here. His name is Hawk and he’s way faster than me.”
“Hrr. That is what I have been told, yes. But the Courier known as Hawk has refused to go near the Goblin Lord’s army, and I am seeking anyone else with the bravery to venture close to it. Please, come and have a drink with me so that we might at least discuss it, yes?”
“I’m honored, really. But I don’t think I’m the person you’re looking for. I—I’ve had enough of insane runs and risking my life for a while.”
“Ah, I see. But I hope you would listen to my offer first, then decide. Would you have a drink with me at the very least? I hope you are not too busy to do so.”
Again, Ryoka hesitated, but turning down an offer from a Named Adventurer struck her as a very rude thing to do. Especially one that Krshia and Brunkr loved so much. She looked around and didn’t see Ivolethe, so she shrugged.
“Okay. Uh, I know an inn—”
“There is a bar not far from here. It is closest. I would not want to waste any of your time, yes? Follow me.”
The Gnoll woman and the Drake set off, taking a rather quick pace. Ryoka was able to walk behind them and they soon went down an alley, presumably a shortcut to the rest of the city, Ryoka supposed. She tried to make conversation as she walked down the deserted path behind the Gnoll [Champion].
“I don’t want to disappoint you. I really don’t think I’d be willing to risk my life. There’s a party tonight with the Gnolls in Liscor. We could speak then—but I just can’t see myself doing anything as dangerous as scouting the Goblin Lord’s army. I have a…history with him.”
The Gnoll stopped in the dark alley. She half turned her head and smiled again at Ryoka. Her voice deepened and she cocked her head to one side.
“Oh? But you were quite happy to deliver a letter to the Necromancer himself a month ago. You ran through a battlefield and through his castle to do it. You trespassed and evaded his creations. You did this, Ryoka Griffin. Or had you forgotten?”
For a second Ryoka just blinked. Then she froze.
“The Nec—how do you know that?”
The Gnoll made no reply. She reached for her paw, and twisted something. A ring on her furry fingers. Ryoka felt something shift.
The smell in the alleyway changed. Gone was the smell of Regrika Blackpaw. And gone was the shape of her. Another being stepped into place as the form of the Gnoll adventurer vanished. A woman made of bone, a knight of ivory, turned. A perfect, carved face of white bone stared down at Ryoka, and two burning green eyes gazed down at her. An undead’s eyes.
Venitra reached out as Ryoka turned to run. She caught the Human girl by the throat and lifted her up.
“Hello, Ryoka Griffin. I have been searching long for you.”
Her lips of bone curved upwards in a smile. She tightened her grip.
“I trust that this will hurt greatly. And then you will die. You should never have trespassed. Now you will pay the price. You and everyone you love. I promise you that.”