It was passing strange. A curious phenomenon. An odd thing. Headscratcher couldn’t describe it. He had been a warrior for six years, a Goblin’s lifetime. He had fought monsters far more terrible with his tribe, survived adventurer attacks and climbed the treacherous High Passes all his life. He had faced down great challenges with his tribe, following the back of his hero.
Garen Redfang, a Goblin hero. And all his life Headscratcher thought he had known what strength was. He had leveled. He had become an elite among the strongest tribe of Goblins. Or so he had believed. But only now, over a hundred miles from his home, cut off from all but four of his fellow warriors, having lost his brothers in arms did he feel as though he was changing.
Growing stronger. Headscratcher looked down at his hands. Large hands with jagged fingernails. Clean fingernails, though. Erin insisted he wash his hands before every meal. Absently he chewed at them. Yes, it was strange.
This inn was a soft place. Full of too much food, too much niceness and…and safety. It was not a place Headscratcher would train a warrior in. And yet, and yet—he felt stronger. Stronger than he had ever been in his life. For the first time in the seven years he had been alive, Headscratcher’s belly no longer rumbled when he slept. He, a Hob, was full and didn’t have to worry about what tonight’s meal would be or how much of it there would be.
And he had leveled. So had Badarrow, Numbtongue, Shorthilt, and Rabbiteater. They had leveled defending the inn, surviving all these cold months away from their tribe. They had become Hobs. And now, in this soft inn, Headscratcher felt something in him hovering on the brink of change.
It felt like a gap in his chest. A wide, vast, mysterious feeling waiting to be set free. And his head! Sometimes it felt like Erin had cut the top off and exposed a new world to Headscratcher. A wonderful, strange, frightening, cruel, joyous world. Headscratcher stared at his hands and wondered what he would become. He was not afraid. He wanted to be more. To be like his hero. He wanted to protect his tribe, this inn—
And his friends. Headscratcher looked up. Badarrow was lounging against a window, fiddling with his shortbow. It was small in his claws. Too small for the Hob he’d become. Next to him a box of bright yellow flowers bloomed. The [Archer] Goblin pretended to be staring out into the rain, but Headscratcher was sure that Badarrow was smelling and looking at the flowers.
The rasp of a stone moving down a blade’s edge made Headscratcher turn his attention to the Hob sitting across from him. Shorthilt was sharpening his blade, carefully maintaining the edge. He was engrossed in his work. It seemed as though he could sit there and maintain his weapon forever. It wasn’t in preparation for battle. It was just something the Goblin enjoyed doing in quiet.
Peaceful. That was a word Headscratcher had not known before coming here. He looked to his left, at Rabbiteater. The Hob wasn’t doing anything. He was sleeping at his table. Just sleeping. But he looked so content with that. Sleep was a luxury to Goblins. Rabbiteater’s ears twitched slightly as he dreamed without fear.
Headscratcher heard a slight sound and looked up. He didn’t see Numbtongue, but the sound he heard, the sound of a claw striking the chords of a guitar, was impossible to miss. He stared towards the door leading to Erin’s basement and knew what the other Hob was doing.
He’d stolen the guitar Erin had bought. Again. No one had noticed but Headscratcher’s stomach still knotted up with worry thinking about it. But the sound that came from the basement weren’t just the random sounds of someone that didn’t know what they were doing. The rhythm of Numbtongue’s claw striking the chords was replaced by a note.
The Hob played a note, a single soft sound that only the Goblin’s sharp ears could hear. It wasn’t anything like the music they’d heard once, the beautiful sounds. But each night, whenever he could, Numbtongue would hide in the basement and play notes, laboriously learning each hold on the guitar to make different sounds. Recreating from memory what he’d heard.
Not a [Warrior]’s task. Not something that was useful. But something that was good. Headscratcher closed his eyes as he heard another soft sound. And his heart—he knew it would be soon. He would level. And what would he become then? When he dreamed of battle, he only felt rage. All-consuming. He would throw himself into battle before another of his comrades died. In battle he was fire. But here—
It was peaceful. Just for a moment. Then Headscratcher’s ears twitched again and he listened to the two Humans talking. They sat at the table. How curious they were too. He had been sent to kill Erin Solstice, but now he guarded her inn. He had thought of leaving a hundred times. And he would. But for now he rested under her roof. Until they returned back to the dungeon. Until they risked their lives for more treasure. Headscratcher thought of the strange white cloth, the bell, the necklace, and his claws twitched reflexively. Soon. But just for a moment longer he listened to Numbtongue play. He could die later. For now, he wanted to live.
“There it goes again! See?”
At their table, Lyonette and Erin watched Mrsha’s ears twitch. The Gnoll was closing her eyes as she let both young women comb her fur with brushes. But every now and then her little ears would twitch as she heard something. The other two couldn’t hear a thing, but watching Mrsha react was as amusing as anything else. And it was a distraction.
Erin was worried. She tried not to be restless. Everyone else was lounging around. The Goblins looked content, she was distracting Mrsha by brushing her, and Lyonette was doing the same. Apista waggled her antennae as she ate her honey in a bowl. Everything was quiet as the rain poured down outside.
But Erin couldn’t hold still. She felt worried. The adventurers were in the dungeon. Six teams in all. She hadn’t heard anything from them. It had been an hour—no problem! They could be down there for hours. But she felt worried. Why couldn’t she keep tabs on their progress? Why, yes, why did she have to sit here and worry?
“I should get an artifact.”
Lyonette looked up. Erin gestured distractedly.
“An artifact. You know, like a book that can receive [Message] spells? Or a monitor. A big board on the wall where I can see any [Messages] people send me. Or what about a scrying orb? Would those work in the dungeon? Something so I know what’s happening at all times.”
Mrsha stirred a bit. Lyonette stroked her head.
“Erin, something like that would cost a fortune.”
“So I’ll have to earn a fortune. I could do it! We’ve got a good amount of gold saved up from the plays!”
“Which we had to spend to buy new chairs and tables. And dishes. And cutlery. Never mind that Wall Lord Ilvriss paid a fine. You have employees now, food expenses…and you paid for all those glass windows. We’re not earning that much money. And if the Drakes boycott us—”
“Yeah. I know.”
Erin sighed, feeling her stomach clench unpleasantly. She frowned.
“I don’t get why they’re doing it. Of all the things to get mad about! I’ve done way worse things! I think.”
“But the play had a Drake marrying a Human.”
“So? I have Hobgoblins living under my roof.”
“I’m sure they’re not happy about that. But the play—look Erin, Drakes and Humans sometimes get along, but marrying each other? There’s a reason why most Human cities don’t have any Drakes in them and vice versa. Even Liscor, a border city, has a lot of Drakes who hate Humans.”
“But they have Drakes who like Humans.”
“Yes, Erin. But think of it like this. Liscor is next to Human lands. They’re liberal compared to most Drake settlements.”
“And marriage really gets people upset. Back at home there was a couple I heard about. A young [Lady] who married a half-Elf. A mob nearly tore both of them apart before they fled. The parents of the [Lady] disowned her and hired assassins to kill her.”
Erin looked appalled.
“Their own daughter?”
“Better to kill their daughter than let them marry the enemy. This could be a real problem.”
“I’m not going to ask the Players to change Jasi out for someone else! That’s not right!”
Erin heard the meaningful tone in Lyonette’s voice. It said that Erin was making a mistake. The [Innkeeper] crossed her arms and had another thought.
“I just hope those Drakes don’t come back for more trouble tonight! If they do I’m gonna get Headscratcher and the other Hobgoblins big clubs to keep order!”
The Goblins looked up. Lyonette winced.
“Can’t you stop them from fighting without needing force?”
“You mean with threats? That’s what the clubs are for.”
“No, I mean, with your Skill! You have [Inn’s Aura], don’t you? Why didn’t you calm everyone down with that?”
Erin protested indignantly. She paused and frowned.
“I tried. I mean, I think I tried. I’m pretty sure it didn’t work because of Ilvriss. And because everyone was so mad.”
“Oh. I guess your aura couldn’t handle the crowd. Or Wall Lord Ilvriss cancelled it with his own.”
“Wait a moment. He can do that?”
Erin sat up. Lyonette nodded. She scratched behind Mrsha’s ears as the Gnoll listened drowsily to the adults talking.
“[Lords] can do that. They have aura Skills, just like anyone else. It’s more impressive you can do anything against him.”
“I remember him trying to pressure me once. Crap. I mean—”
The young woman bit her tongue as Lyonette pointed at Mrsha. She adjusted her vocabulary.
“You know about auras, Lyonette?”
“Maybe. I do have…expertise in the matter.”
The two shared a meaningful look. Erin knew that Lyonette knew that she knew that Lyonette knew that Erin knew…something. About her being a [Princess]. She put her hands on the table, grateful for something to occupy her nervous thoughts.
“Okay, lay it on me. Anything I should know about my Skill? I can’t believe none of these things come with an instruction manual.”
“It would be nice. Sometimes a Skill or class has a secret to it that only a few people know. Auras are rare among most classes, so you don’t hear of them much. Noble classes, leaders, sometimes [Mages]…it’s rare even for them. I can’t remember hearing of an [Innkeeper] with an aura, but it is confined to your inn so it makes sense. Although that’s odd too.”
“People have auras, Erin. Inns, objects, generally don’t. Actually, everyone probably has an aura of some kind. But a Skill lets you manipulate it. Still, anyone can learn to resist most aura effects.”
“Right, right. I think I get it from watching Ilvriss. Or Zel, maybe.”
Lyonette looked sadly down at Mrsha who’d stopped smiling.
“Yes. Zel did have an aura, I think. He might not have been trained, but it would have made him look more…impressive. You can imagine it. A shining [General] leading an army.”
“What about a [King]?”
“They could have auras they make other people kneel to them. See them as shining figures. Or make them afraid. I hear that some royalty have auras so powerful that people kneel before them as they pass.”
“Wow. Could I do any of that?”
Lyonette laughed. Erin looked hurt.
“Hey! I have a Skill!”
“Yes, but you don’t know how to use it, Erin. An aura expert can make their aura visible or even use it as a shield for their body. You can terrify people with it when you’re mad. But you don’t practice.”
“Well, I can practice now. Let me try!”
“If you want. But auras aren’t something you can master overnight.”
“I bet I could stop a fight if Ilvriss wasn’t here.”
The [Princess] shook her head.
“Erin, auras work on the unprepared. I don’t have a Skill, but I doubt you could get yours to work on me. Not if I tried to resist it. Maybe you’d have been able to a few days ago. Now? No.”
There was a newfound confidence in her eyes as she looked up. She wasn’t insulting Erin—rather, she was explaining. Erin smiled.
“But I could practice, right?”
“You could. And I could teach you how to use your Skill on purpose rather than unconsciously.”
Lyonette smiled. She patted Mrsha on the head and stood. The Gnoll looked up curiously. Erin smiled and noticed Headscratcher poking Rabbiteater awake. They had an audience.
“Okay, what do I do first?”
Mrsha reached up and Lyonette scooped her up into her arms. The Gnoll snuggled against her chest as Erin frowned. Lyonette nodded.
“Get angry. Use your emotions. Concentrate—an aura is something you focus like any part of your mind. Focus on what you want to do. Pressure me with your will.”
Erin tried. She reached into the core of her being, searching for…something. The force? A magic power inside her? She gritted her teeth.
“Okay, here goes. I’m getting mad! I’m pumped! I’m focusing my energy!”
“You don’t…have to say it out loud.”
“It helps! Okay! Here goes! Mad, mad—table flip! Getting really angry! I’m awakening my warrior instincts! You can’t stop me! This is not my final form! Graaah!”
Erin raised her arms and shouted, trying to push against Lyonette. The [Princess] and Mrsha stared at her wide-eyed as Erin shouted. In the silence, Erin lowered her raised arms.
“I feel silly.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
The sweet reply made Erin blush. Lyonette sighed as Mrsha smiled, looking not the least bit discomforted.
“Erin, you know how to use your aura. You’ve done it before. Don’t make a show. Just…project your authority. Remember when you used it?”
Erin thought back to when she’d been sitting across from the [Innkeepers] from Celum. Or when she’d yelled at Safry and Maran. She paused.
This time, Headscratcher and the Goblins didn’t see Erin move. She didn’t make any flashy gestures or say anything. Her brows simply furrowed and when she raised her head, her gaze was—
Something changed in the inn. Headscratcher heard the sound of Numbtongue playing softly below stop. Mrsha looked up. Badarrow looked up and uttered a Goblin curse. Suddenly, the air felt heavy. Headscratcher got up and staggered. He tried to take a step and felt slower, as though something was weighing him down. The other Redfang Warriors exchanged glances.
Erin glanced at them. Her gaze wasn’t angry, but it was focused like the edge of Shorthilt’s sword. She looked intense. She watched the Goblins get up, feeling at their bodies.
“Can you move?”
They could. The Redfang Warriors tried running, vaulting over tables, punching each other. All of these actions were possible and it wasn’t as if they were slowed, but everything took more energy. Headscratcher couldn’t put all of his strength into his hands. He glanced at Erin, impressed. Fighting in her inn would be dangerous! And then he saw Lyonette.
The [Barmaid]—or rather, former [Barmaid]—was standing in front of Erin, looking a bit pained. In her arms Mrsha was squirming uncomfortably and whining. Lyonette took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She did nothing visible either, but when she opened her eyes they had that same, focused look. And something changed.
Headscratcher could see her body relax as the invisible pressure dissipated around her and the Gnoll. But only around them. Amazed, he tried to copy her, but he had no idea what she’d done. Erin glanced at Lyonette and smiled.
“Cool. Okay, I’ll be Ilvriss and you be me. Do you want to put Mrsha down?”
“She’ll be fine.”
Lyonette’s held Mrsha confidently. Erin nodded and frowned harder. Headscratcher felt the weight on his shoulders increase. He sensed something in the air around Erin, a localized disturbance as her aura grew stronger. It concentrated on Lyonette. But the [Barmaid] didn’t move. She met Erin’s eyes and stood tall. Erin stared at her and Headscratcher felt the aura in the inn, her will pushing at Lyonette. But the young woman refused to give in.
The two locked gazes and something clashed in the air between them. The Redfang Warriors watched, holding their breaths as the silent battle went on for seconds, and then minutes. The pressure Erin was exuding was powerful. But it seemed that whatever she tried, she was unable to pressure Lyonette like the others. The young woman stood before Erin, not backing down. And at last Erin had to admit defeat.
“You’re good! Whew!”
The intensity in the air vanished and the sense of conflict evaporated as she sat at a table. Lyonette sat with her and Mrsha hopped out of her arms. The two young women shared a glance. They’d fought, not physically but in another sense. Erin got up and fetched cups for the two of them. She offered Lyonette some wine and the [Princess] accepted. Erin poured her a glass and Lyonette raised it. They touched glasses and smiled.
“The experience helped me too. I’ve never done that against anyone before. Not successfully, anyways.”
Lyonette sipped from her cup and shooed a curious Mrsha and Apista away. Erin nodded. She was about to ask Lyonette for more tips—could she use her aura to turn her hair golden and make it stand up, for instance? And then the door to Liscor burst open.
Drassi stood in the doorway, breathless, panting. She was covered in rain—she wasn’t wearing her cloak! Erin turned and her sense of calm vanished.
“Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers have found a Shield Spider nest in the dungeon! There are tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands! They’re attacking!”
“Oh no. No, not again!”
Lyonette gasped in horror. She rose as Erin leapt to her feet. The Redfang Goblins instantly rose.
“Are they hurt? Are they retreating?”
“I don’t know. That was the first [Message] that came through. I ran to get you—the guild sent a Street Runner to summon Watch Captain Zevara and Olesm!”
Erin strode towards Drassi and hesitated. She turned.
“Shield Spiders. A nest. You mean like the Face-Eater Moths?”
“Yes! What do we do? Are we going to be under attack again?”
Lyonette had grabbed Mrsha. She looked frightened. Erin felt terrified. But beneath her sudden panic, a cooler part of her took charge. She glanced out her windows, looked through the door to Liscor at the rainy streets and shook her head.
“No. This won’t be the same. Lyonette?”
“Get to Bird. Tell him what’s going on. Then open the door to Celum. Warn Octavia, tell Wesle and send a Street Runner to let Celum’s Council know what’s going on. And then get back here.”
“Should we leave Mrsha in Octavia’s shop?”
Erin didn’t have to think.
“No. She’ll be okay here. But warn everyone just in case. Tell Pallass too. Headscratcher—”
She whirled. The Redfang Goblins had grabbed the weapons they’d stolen from the Raskghar. Shorthilt had his sharpened blade at the ready. Erin nodded.
“Stay here. I’ll come back if there’s more trouble or we need you. For now, secure the inn with Bird. Got that?”
They nodded. Rabbiteater rushed down the basement stairs to grab Numbtongue. Erin turned towards Lyonette.
“It’ll be fine this time.”
“Pretty sure. I’ll go to the Mage’s Guild. You let everyone know, but don’t start evacuating. The threat’s not to us. It’s to the adventurers.”
So saying, Erin looked at Drassi. The Drake didn’t need an invitation. She turned and pelted through the streets, Erin following at a run. The Drake ran as fast as she could, but she didn’t exactly have Ryoka’s training. And she kept babbling worriedly.
“Oh Ancestors, what are we going to do, Erin? It’ll be the Face-Eater Moths all over again! Do you think Pallass will send reinforcements? What about Celum? Why are there so many monsters?”
“We’ll be fine, Drassi!”
Erin had to slow or wipe out on the slippery cobblestones. She slowed to a jog as Drassi ran just in front of her. The Drake wailed.
“How do you know?”
“Because we’ve done this before.”
Erin answered with confidence. She felt it. There was a certainty now in her chest. Drassi stared at her side-long as they ran.
“Really? That’s it?”
“Yes. We’ve survived one disaster. And we have experience.”
Experience. That was the key. Erin had survived Skinner. She’d survived fighting Regrika, Gazi, the moths, and Goblins. Each time she’d learned something more. She was no [Tactician], but she’d fortified her inn. Bought healing potions and other alchemical weapons. She pointed up.
“It’s raining. Liscor is flooded. The Shield Spiders have only one way into the city and that’s over a bridge that can be cut. They’ll never reach the inn or Liscor’s walls. Maybe they can build webs and float? Either way, it won’t be the same as last time. The adventurers in the dungeon though are in danger. How long has it been since they reported the attack?”
Drassi gasped for air as she slowed further.
“Six—eight minutes? I ran here the instant I heard the [Message] come in! Like you told me!”
Erin nodded. She’d offered Drassi the chance to sit in the Mage’s Guild and gossip all day long in case an adventurer sent a [Message] in. She ran towards the Mage’s Guild and saw Drakes running through the street towards the Guild as well. Zevara, Olesm, Ilvriss—Erin let them go in first.
It wasn’t the same. Liscor couldn’t fall to the same disaster twice. Each time something bad happened, each time there was an attack, they grew. Erin grew. That was the point of leveling. And this time, Erin swore, she’d do all she could to bring back her friends safely. But that was only assuming they were still alive. She raced into the Mage’s Guild, while rain poured down from above. And below there were spiders.
“Fall back! Fall back!”
Halrac shouted the order as Shield Spiders poured out of the massive shaft that had been converted into their nest. The mile-deep vertical drop was filled with their nests and the spiders, sensing light and life above, swarmed upwards in an unending torrent, intent on consuming all that lay above.
It was a trap. Halrac cursed and loosed two arrows that exploded, sending the first wave of spiders fleeing in burning agony. But more came after. He nearly ran into Jelaqua as she charged forwards.
“Back! We need to form a barrier!”
He roared at her. Jelaqua hesitated, but then raced backwards as Moore and Typhenous reversed direction. Revi sprinted past them, screaming and swearing and Seborn flickered into view, a moving shadow.
“There’s hundreds of thousands!”
“Typhenous, Moore , put up a barrier! Buy us a minute. Revi—”
“Give me time!”
The [Summoner] was already raising the instruments of her trade. Pieces of fallen monsters encased in amber and more precious, ornate talismans manufactured from fallen Stitch-People. Ghostly warriors appeared behind her as Revi summoned them one by one. But the Shield Spiders were already pouring up the corridor full of destroyed statues. Halrac loosed another arrow, watching the explosion barely faze the spider horde.
The [Scout] glanced over his shoulder. Typhenous’ face was concentrated. The spiders were closing. Ten feet, five feet—Jelaqua whirled her flail and Seborn braced. Then the [Mage] pointed his stave. A loud booming voice spoke at the same time he did.
“[Barrier of Thorns]!”
Moore and Typhenous cast the spells almost at the same time. A wall of thorns erupted from the ground as the first Shield Spiders scuttled forwards. The dense brambles engulfed the first group of spiders, making the second wave crash into the branches. Surprised, the spiders tried to climb for a second—before a burning wall of flames burst into life. It ignited the thorns, the spiders, and made the living ones screech. Halrac heard and saw the spiders crash against Moore’s barrier, but it held.
Three living Shield Spiders had been quick enough to escape being caught in the wall of thorns. They were all about the size of sheep, huge, horribly large spiders with armored carapaces and terribly sharp pinchers. One reared up to bite. A pair of glowing daggers sliced its head off. The other two dashed forwards and Halrac’s arrow went straight through the first at close range. A pair of spiked flail heads crushed the other in a single blow. The spiders twitched and fell still.
“We have a minute at best before the barrier fails.”
None of the Gold-rank adventurers wasted time exclaiming. Moore peered at his flaming wall of thorns, glancing back at Typhenous.
“Good spell. I thought you were doing webs?”
“Not against spiders.”
Typhenous grinned. Halrac stared past the flaming barrier. The Spiders were attacking it despite the intense flames. He looked around. At times like this, everything slowed. The idle banter, the sound of the spiders cracking the sturdy brambles, the feel of the bow in his hand—all of it crystallized. He looked around and saw the other Gold-rank adventurers were in the same state of mind. They didn’t speak normally, but in a rush that merged together, somehow making sense.
“We saw hundreds of thousands—”
“Illusory barrier. Lost my Corusdeer—”
“Send a [Message] spell to Liscor warning them.”
“Already on it. Plan of attack?”
“Has to be me. My armor—”
“Containment’s key. Can you hold if they rush you? If they knock you off—”
“I’ll cover her with arrows if larger ones appear. We need to narrow the corridor. Killing field.”
“Push them back to the pit. What about creating barriers? More walls of fire?”
“Do that. Revi, your summons will screen Jelaqua.”
“How do we want to do this? Push with warriors? I can use my trump spell—”
“Hold it, Typhenous. Don’t exhaust yourself. Smaller spells until we push them into the pit. Moore—”
“My staff will do the work.”
“Leave the big ones to me. Seborn, guard Jelaqua.”
The conference had taken about thirty seconds. The Shield Spiders were already breaking down the flaming barrier when it vanished. A huge spider nearly as wide as the corridor reared up, surprised. Halrac aimed and loosed. The Phoenixflame Arrow he’d chosen was expensive. The flaming head penetrated the Shield Spider’s body and then the enchantment activated. Like a phoenix, the arrow exploded into flames bursting the spider’s body like a bubble of soap. The adventurers charged with a roar as the Shield Spiders rushed forwards.
“Here we go!”
Jelaqua was first into the waves of Shield Spiders. Her body was wreathed in flame, her flail swinging. The spiders were all around her, but the Selphid’s flail tore through them, smashing spiders, spinning, hitting and striking in every direction countless times per second. The Heartflame Armor burned as the Shield Spiders tried to bite Jelaqua. But their mandibles and legs glanced harmlessly off of her fiery body. Not off of an object, but deflected by the magical flames themselves. Jelaqua spun, her flail bashing a spider’s head, tearing another one’s eyes away. Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike—
The corridor was wide. Too wide for Jelaqua to hold it alone. Her flail couldn’t even stop all of the ones trying to push past her. But the adventurers were equal to that. Another barrier of thorns burst out of the walls beside Jelaqua, halving the corridor’s width. Moore grunted as he swept his staff like a broom, sending a wave of spiders flying back over Jelaqua’s head. Typhenous set both barriers alight and then there was a choke point. And behind Jelaqua, Seborn and Revi held the line.
“Go! Kill the damn spiders!”
Revi shouted at her summoned Stitch-Warriors as she shot glowing missiles of light from her wand. Her spells were weak—they sent a few Shield Spiders reeling backwards as the magical arrows cracked their armor or burnt their eyes away, but their armored carapaces usually deflected her spells. The summoned warriors were a different matter, however.
Eight glowing figures formed a line of steel and magic behind Jelaqua, cutting off both ends of the flaming barrier Moore and Typhenous had set up. They did not flinch from the flames and moved in tandem. They cut, sliced, kicked, and stabbed every Shield Spider that got past Jelaqua, moving tirelessly, holding the line.
And behind them, a shadow flickered between the gaps, slicing any Shield Spider that managed to pass the summoned warriors. Seborn had neither Jelaqua’s reach nor spells, but his blades were sharp enough to slice a Shield Spider in two and he attacked from the shadows, always catching the spiders by surprise.
Halrac grunted as he shot an arrow past Jelaqua, catching a Shield Spider as tall as she was and piercing its small brain. Typhenous threw a ball of light up, illuminating the dark corridor. Halrac nodded. He didn’t need the light, but the warriors did. Now the Gold-rank adventurers could see each of their foes. They moved forwards, Jelaqua the tip of their spear. And the Shield Spiders began to be pushed back.
They filled the corridor. Thousands of them, trying to scuttle on top of each other, small ones, large ones—the offspring of centuries of breeding in the darkness. They could overwhelm a city. The giant ones in the pit might be able to cut a tower in two in a single bite. But the Gold-rank adventurers took not one step back.
No one had said retreat. No one had suggested it. The corridor was right next to the nest, but it was the perfect place to hold. And they were adventurers. They might not have faced this threat before, but they were equal to it.
“I’m wading through spiders here! We need to push!”
Jelaqua shouted as she moved forwards. Her flail was striking hard and fast, but the spiders were literally flooding the corridor. Piling up on each other. Soon they’d be too thick to crush and if that happened she would be born down. Her armor might allow her to survive that, but the other adventurers wouldn’t.
“My trump card?”
The white-haired mage turned to Halrac, his staff aglow with magic. Halrac shook his head.
“Fireballs first! Give me five! I’ll hit them with burst arrows!”
Typhenous nodded. He raised his staff and Halrac selected a Lightningstrike Arrow from his quiver. He aimed, waited. A [Fireball] flashed from the tip of Typhenous’ staff. Revi covered her eyes and Jelaqua turned, sensing the movement. The fireball struck the mass of spiders in front of her.
Halrac felt the kick in his chest. He heard a roar, saw pieces of Shield Spiders fountain upwards in flame and smoke. He aimed past the explosion and loosed. His arrow sped past Jelaqua and hit another clump of spiders.
Lightning boomed. Revi, Moore, Seborn, all couldn’t hear it. The ringing in their ears remained at the same pitch. But they saw the spiders blast apart. Jelaqua had been hit by the blast too. She staggered, shook her head, and shouted though no one could hear her.
“Dead gods that’s loud!”
Neither the flames nor electricity had touched her through the enchantment. She saw another fireball flash towards her and flinched reflexively. But as it landed among another group of Shield Spiders she felt only the slightest nudge that knocked her back a step. Another arrow blew the Shield Spiders to bits.
Jelaqua turned her head. She couldn’t hear Halrac but she could see him pointing. She grinned and charged.
The Shield Spiders were limitless. They were ravenous. But they were not fearless. Nor were they stupid. As three more fireballs and arrows blew the oncoming horde to bits, the Shield Spiders retreated. The noise, the heat, the death was too much. And the flaming Selphid that charged them was invincible! They retreated back into the pit. And the adventurers pressed forwards.
“Revi, Seborn—kill the ones at our backs!”
“Dead gods, this is disgusting!”
The Stitch-Girl hung back, blasting the Shield Spiders that had survived the blasts with her wand as her summons covered the Gold-rank adventurers’ backs. Halrac, Typhenous, and Moore pushed forwards. Halrac kicked a Shield Spider aside as he ran towards Jelaqua. She was knocking Shield Spiders off the ledge, her flail moving.
The Selphid spun as the other approached. She raised one hand to her ear.
“What? I’m deaf! I think the blasts damaged my ears!”
Halrac cursed as he realized the problem. The other Gold-rank adventurers had paused to pour healing potion down their ears which had helped them regain their hearing. But Jelaqua’s body was dead.
He motioned and Jelaqua sprang back. Halrac stepped away as her flaming armor nearly struck him. Jelaqua shouted.
“I can repair the eardrums! But I need a minute!”
Halrac turned his back on her. The Shield Spiders were swarming back down the tunnel but he could see giant ones crawling up from below. The mother spiders weren’t as afraid of fire and they were coming up, squashing their offspring. He didn’t know if they could widen the dungeon corridor with brute strength. And he didn’t intend to find out.
“We’ve got them pushed back. Typhenous, Moore. I’ll shoot down any spider coming up. Give me your best spells. Typhenous, use your trump card.”
The old [Mage] grinned as Halrac began shooting spiders down from the ledge. He raised his staff and the crystal on top began to glow brightly. He looked up at Moore.
“Do you have a Tier 5 spell, Moore?”
“No. I can use [Thorn Spray] to clear out the spiders.”
“Do that, then. Halrac could use the help. I will prepare my opus.”
The half-Giant nodded. He pointed his staff down and a rain of wooden thorns as large as Typhenous’ hand shot downwards like hail. They perforated the first rank of spiders that swarmed up the ledge. The second shower was equally devastating.
Typhenous ignored the violence below. He raised his staff which shone even brighter. The Spiders rushed upwards and a giant one three times as large as Moore approached, ignoring the thorns and Halrac’s arrows alike. It did not seem to realize the danger.
Typhenous’ eyes began to glow as the magic energy in him reached a critical point. He pointed his staff down and a gentle smile crossed his face. The grandfatherly mage stared down at the spiders and whispered the name of his spell.
“[Valmira’s Comet Storm].”
In the dark shaft, there was light. Not the faint glow of a [Light] spell, but true light. Searing. Intense. The Shield Spiders far below looked up as something fell from above. Something bright which burned and hurled the first giant spider downwards. Vaporizing, crushing. It fell, a bright nova which burned through the darkness.
A comet. It struck one of the giant spiders, crushing its front two legs. The giant behemoth tried to hold onto the wall but the impact and flash of magic knocked it off. It fell, taking thousands of the smaller spiders with it. The crunch as it landed on the floor was like thunder; the spiders around it swarmed the giant, devouring it, ignoring the twitching legs. The rest of the spiders still headed up. They did not realize what was happening. But then the second comet fell.
Jelaqua was still. Motionless. She looked like she’d passed out on her feet, but that wasn’t true. It was just that her body, her real body was in the head of her vessel, busily trying to repair the shattered eardrums. It wasn’t easy. True, she had a lot of material to work with since the body was fresh, but repairs weren’t something she liked to rush. Still, hearing was important so as soon as she thought she’d restored most of her hearing she reconnected herself to her body’s nerves.
Just in time to see the flash and hear the explosion. Jelaqua raised her flail instinctively and saw that it was damaged. The spiked heads of her two-handed flail were horribly dented and the chain linking them to her handle looked like it was fatigued. It would break. Swearing, she tossed it aside and reached into her bag of holding.
“I need a damn enchanted flail! At least I have spares.”
She pulled out another one and strode forwards. Moore, Halrac, and Typhenous were standing at the edge of the pit. But none of them were moving. Jelaqua reached forwards and realized she was still on fire. She quietly hissed and the flames on her armor went out.
She stopped as she saw a comet fall. The burning, blazing ball of light was magic, blue and green and red and purple surrounding a white core. It had weight, though. It fell and blew apart a group of Shield Spiders retreating down the cavern. Typhenous’ eyes blazed as he conjured another comet and hurled it down. This time it struck one of the mother spiders. Jelaqua saw the mother’s face vanish and the dead spider fell, curling up reflexively before it struck the ground.
The Selphid whispered as Typhenous continued to call comet after comet out of the air. The attacks were slow, but where they struck, the Shield Spiders just…vanished. Halrac nodded. He reached for a stamina potion and drank half roughly before handing it to Jelaqua. She accepted it and drank. The [Scout] watched her hurl the bottle into the pit.
“That’s his trump card. We used to use it against Griffin flights when outnumbered.”
“It’s Tier 5?”
“Tier 5. His best spell. One of the reasons why Ulrien and I wanted to hire him so badly. As Tier 5 spells go, it’s apparently one of the better ones in the world.”
“I’d believe that. Tier 5. Moore doesn’t know a single one. Where’d he get the spellbook that taught him that?”
The next flash illuminated Halrac’s face. He glanced at Typhenous—the [Mage] didn’t hear him or Jelaqua. His eyes were glowing with magic as he shaped each comet.
“He never said.”
“Could have used that on the moths.”
Jelaqua leaned against the wall. Halrac shook his head.
“No. They’d swarm him because of the light. He has to form each comet close to him. And they could probably dodge some of the attacks. They’re slow.”
“Moths like light. But I get your point. How do you get it to work on Griffins, then?”
Jelaqua left it at that. She felt the adrenaline running through her host body and adjusted the glands to stop it. The battle was over. She began checking the Drake body she was inhabiting for stress fractures, damaged muscles, and so on. Moore sighed heavily and leaned on his staff. Sweat and spider blood covered his face.
“How long will Typhenous’ spell last, Halrac?”
“A few more shots. He might be able to cast a few spells after that.”
Halrac watched Typhenous, keeping an eye on the pit. After a while Revi and Seborn came over.
“He’s doing the spell? We got them?”
“We’ve cleaned up the Shield Spiders here. A few small ones might have escaped.”
Halrac nodded. Typhenous gasped as the last comet flew downwards. He sagged and both Halrac and Revi caught him.
Revi offered him two potions, a stamina potion and a mana potion. Typhenous reached for the mana potion first. His hands shook a bit with fatigue. All the Gold-rank adventurers congratulated him. Jelaqua slapped Typhenous on the back.
“For an old guy you’ve got spirit! Wish we could contribute like that!”
“Your armor really let us cut those damn spiders off. As for the threat—”
Halrac glanced into the pit. Typhenous’ comets had wrought havoc among the spiders. But there were far, far too many hiding below for his comfort. He grimaced.
“We’ve pushed them back. I doubt they’ll make an attempt for the top for a while. But there’s no way we’ll be able to descend without clearing them out.”
“Not a task I’d relish performing alone.”
Typhenous grimaced as he took a swig from the mana potion. Seborn nodded as he gazed down.
“Clearing them out will be a difficult task. We could try poison. But the important part is making sure the spiders don’t escape up here. We’ll have to seal the entrance.”
“That’s our job. Moore can shift dirt and we can use the caved in part of the dungeon. Excavate some stone, seal it up.”
Jelaqua flexed her arms, and the other Gold-rank adventurers nodded. Typhenous took a few deep breaths.
“All worthy tasks. Still, we do have a captive audience. I feel as though I could hurl a few more fireballs down there.”
“Don’t tax yourself. Depleting a monster nest isn’t an overnight job. And now that we know there’s one shaft like this…I’d bet that if we tried another route into the dungeon we’d run into another shaft. The one the Face-Eater Moths came from, perhaps.”
Revi made a disgusted face.
“You think that’s the way the dungeon is set up? Horde style?”
“It makes sense. How else do you explain two mutually antagonistic monster populations thriving down here? They have to be separated from each other. Not to mention fed somehow.”
Halrac looked at the others and got reluctant nods. Jelaqua’s tail twisted through the Shield Spider blood and remains.
“Wonderful. But hey, we did it! Not much to salvage here with all the bits, but—”
She turned and gave the others a wide, toothy Drake grin. Revi’s scowl turned into a reluctant smile, and even Halrac had to nod.
“We did do it. The Adventurer’s Guild owes us a bounty, I think.”
“Our first mass-slaying bounty for clearing the dungeon. Think they even know what that is?”
“We’ll explain it to them repeatedly.”
The others laughed at Revi’s comment. All the tension they’d been feeling drained and they took another look into the pit. Revi stared dreamily at the huge Shield Spiders clustered at the bottom out of range of any further comets.
“Look at those huge spiders. If we could poison one and somehow get to it with the body intact—Typhenous, I could summon one of them! The mana cost would be insane, but just think of it! Halrac, Typhenous, do you think…?”
“Anything for you, my dear.”
Typhenous stroked his beard. He tapped his staff and a fireball appeared.
“But let’s save collecting monsters until we’ve thinned the nest a bit more, shall we? Not that it appears we need to do more work. There’s far fewer of them left than I thought—my comets must have been aimed well!”
Moore looked up.
“I’m receiving multiple [Message] spells from the Mage’s Guild in Liscor. They want to know how many spiders are down there. They’re threatening to cut the bridge if we don’t respond.”
“Hah. They’re probably panicking. Let them know it’s alright, Moore. I don’t fancy swimming back to Liscor.”
Jelaqua was inspecting her damaged flail to see if it was worth hauling back to be reforged. Halrac was still staring into the dark pit. His eyes narrowed.
“Hold on. Someone pass me a torch.”
Seborn pulled a torch out of his bag of holding and Halrac lit it on the fireball Typhenous had conjured. He hurled the torch down into the pit. The flame became a speck that none of the other adventurers could see as it landed among the spiders. But Halrac’s eyes picked out something and he cursed.
“Moore! Send a [Message]!”
The half-Giant had a finger to his temple. He looked up sharply.
“To the Mage’s Guild?”
“To the Silver-rank team if you know their [Mage]! If not, have the Mage’s Guild relay it! And tell the Silver Swords the same thing! We didn’t kill nearly as many Shield Spiders as we thought. They fled. Into the dungeon!”
Jelaqua grimaced. The other Gold-rank adventurers looked at each other and shook their heads. They’d stirred the nest and subdued it, but the cost was agitating the Shield Spiders. They’d fled Typhenous’ comets and now they were flooding into the dungeon. They might run into other monsters and traps and that would be good. But there were adventurers down there. Halrac looked at the others. True to his nickname, his face was grim and resigned.
“Warn them. That’s all we can do. They’ll have to handle it. We need to seal this entrance off. Let’s get to work.”
The Gold-rank teams nodded. They allowed themselves a moment longer to enjoy their victory, and then they got to work. They could hear the spiders moving far below, a vast rustling sound as the ones capable of squeezing into the tunnels drained out of their nest and into the dungeon.
The mood in the Mage’s Guild of Liscor was tense. Erin stood behind a gaggle of Drakes besieging the front desk. The nervous [Mage] on duty was not ready to have Watch Captain Zevara, Olesm, and Ilvriss demanding answers of him from all sides. Especially when he didn’t have any to give.
“I’ve cast the spell eighteen times, Wall Lord, Watch Captain! The mages must be busy!”
“Request another status update.”
Ilvriss glared at the shrinking Drake.
“Wall Lord, I did—”
“They can at least spare the energy to tell us whether they’re retreating or whether the spiders are moving out of the dungeon!”
“Wall Lord, I cannot force the [Mages] to respond. I only know what they’ve said.”
The Wall Lord stared at the [Mage] and then turned.
“Very well. Watch Captain, what is Liscor’s status?”
“Prepared, Wall Lord. I have already given orders to my men on the walls and I’ve concentrated everyone on the north and eastern walls. We’re ready to cut the water bridges the instant we see Shield Spiders.”
Zevara didn’t blink. She folded her arms and Ilvriss backed down slightly. From her position at the back, Erin thought she could feel him pull back his aura. Yes, now that Lyonette had mentioned it she thought she could feel the Wall Lord trying to use it to take command! But Zevara was equal to the pressure because she didn’t blink.
“I have command of the walls and Olesm assures me an assault on Liscor will fail, even if twice as many Shield Spiders crawl out of the dungeon than the moths. There is too much water. And Shield Spiders don’t swim.”
“Then we must simply worry about what will happen when the rain stops.”
Zevara nodded slightly. Olesm looked between the two and coughed nervously.
“I think the Gold-rank teams can hold them off. It’s rare that lower-level monsters can overwhelm a good team and there are two currently fighting.”
“Understrength teams. Both have lost members. Although I agree with Swifttail’s appraisal. But they have not responded. Mage, tell them that I am requesting a report—”
Erin heard pounding footsteps and turned. She saw the Mage’s Guild doors flung open. Embria and two of her [Captains] strode into the room. The Wing Commander looked furious.
“Why was my command not informed about an attack on Liscor?”
The other Drakes stared at her. Erin saw Zevara turn her head. Olesm closed his eyes. She audibly heard Zevara whisper.
“Festering scale sores, I forgot.”
Embria advanced and the Drakes in front of her cleared out of the way. She nodded curtly at Ilvriss, and then Zevara. But it was Olesm she looked at.
“What is the situation, [Strategist]?”
Olesm straightened and saluted. His tail wagged nervously although it wasn’t visible by anyone but Erin and Drassi who were watching from the side.
“Two Gold-rank teams report a massive infestation of Shield Spiders in the dungeon, Wing Commander! They claim they’ve discovered an artificial nest containing hundreds of thousands of them! Large Shield Spider mothers similar to the Face-Eater Moth colony that assaulted Liscor. They speculate that the dungeon is a horde-style vengeance dungeon!”
“Horde style? Vengeance dungeon? I’m unfamiliar with these terms.”
Embria glanced uncertainly at her [Captains]. Olesm bobbed his head.
“These are adventurer terms, Wing Commander. It refers to a dungeon constructed solely to eradicate trespassers and damage intruders, rather than test them or safeguard treasures. It is considered the most malignant dungeon type. Horde style dungeons rely on massive monster nests rather than advanced traps or other features, although they may have multiple forms of protection.”
“I see. In that case I will instruct my men to deploy to the walls in case the spiders breach the dungeon.”
Embria raised a claw and Zevara spoke up.
“Not necessary, Wing Commander. I already have my people on the walls. I would appreciate your soldiers holding back until called for.”
Embria paused. She locked gazes with Zevara.
“My [Soldiers] would bolster your Watch, Captain Zevara.”
“I have no doubt, Wing Commander Embria. But this is my city.”
Zevara held her gaze until Embria nodded reluctantly. Erin whistled under her breath. She felt bad for the Watch Captain; Zevara had to deal with both Ilvriss and Embria all the time. She thought Embria was about to ask another question when the forgotten [Mage] gasped. Instantly all eyes turned back to him.
“They’ve done it! Moore of the Halfseekers reports that the Shield Spiders failed to push back their teams! They halted the advance and greatly damaged the nest with a Tier 5 spell! They’ve taken no casualties and are preparing to seal the nest until they can return to it!”
A sigh rose around the Mage’s Guild. Erin felt the tension in her chest ease and saw Drassi’s eyes sparkling. The news would spread around the city the instant the Drake left the Guild. Ilvriss nodded.
“Adequate. Ask them for an estimate of the spiders and—”
The [Mage] interrupted the Wall Lord. Her eyes flicked rapidly as she held one purple-scaled claw to her brow. Then her eyes widened.
“We have an immediate request! Someone send a [Message] spell to Gemhammer’s [Mage] or The Pride of Kelia’s [Shaman]! The Shield Spiders are retreating into the dungeon and it is Halrac the Grim’s assessment that the other teams may come under threat!”
Some of the other [Mages] on duty immediately raised claws to their temples. Ilvriss looked around, frowning.
“A threat to the other teams? But not to Liscor?”
“Doubtful. The only other entrance we know of is through the underwater rift. We’re still safe.”
“What about Liscor’s Hive?”
“What about it?”
Olesm cringed as the others stared at him.
“Well, they did suffer an attack when the Face-Eater Moths attacked Liscor. It may be that their Hive will be assaulted again.”
Ilvriss dismissed this with a flick of his claws.
“A few Shield Spiders burrowing through the walls of their Hive isn’t a threat worth informing the Antinium over. Let them be.”
“Yes, Wall Lord.”
“As for the other teams—well, their survival is to be hoped for. But it seems this crisis has passed.”
“It does. For us. I’ll request a meeting with both Gold-rank teams when they return.”
Watch Captain Zevara adjusted her belt, looking visibly more relaxed. Erin watched both her and Ilvriss leave the Mage’s Guild. She didn’t feel any less tense. And when a [Mage] looked up and gasped, it was Erin who pushed her way through the crowd.
“The Pride of Kelia’s [Shaman] has replied! They have received the warning but cannot currently retreat! They are under attack!”
Everyone’s mind leapt to the same conclusion. But the Drake was shaking his head.
“No. A smaller group of monsters—”
“Where? And what monsters?”
Erin interrupted the gaggle of Drakes. The [Mage] looked irritated but he replied.
“Not Shield Spiders—no. They’ve been engaged with a band of Raskghar for the last hour! Apparently they’ve been fighting just below the rift. They do not intend to retreat, but they claim the enemy has magical armaments. I’m awaiting another update.”
“The Raskghar have magical weapons? That makes them a lot more dangerous. They’re intelligent, and I have every reason to believe they’ve been hunting adventurers. Guildmistress Tekshia should be warned about this threat.”
Olesm muttered to himself as he scribbled on a piece of parchment. The other Drakes weren’t really listening. The threat to the adventuring teams was a low priority and most of the crowd had dissipated to relax now the crisis was over. Embria stormed out of the Mage’s Guild growling about being kept out of the loop. Olesm’s mind was still racing, though.
“I wonder if the Silver-rank teams can handle them. And why weren’t the Silver Swords and the Horns of Hammerad warned? Wait—they didn’t go into either entrance. Do you think they’d be willing to comment on these new developments for me, Erin?”
The Drake waited for a response, but none came. After a moment he looked up.
She was already gone.
“Captain! Liscor says there’s a Shield Spider nest being stirred up somewhere in the dungeon!”
“What? Who the fuck cares about a nest! Tell them we’re a little busy over here!”
An arrow flew over Earlia’s head, nearly grazing her helmet. She ducked and shouted at her group’s [Gem Mage]. The man was hiding behind a shield and wasting his time on [Message] spells. She pointed.
“Stop chatting with the Drakes and cast some magic!”
She saw the man in front of the mage holding the shield stagger. Nothing had struck his shield. Nothing visible at any rate. But Earlia knew from the burning pain in her shoulder that the invisible arrows the Raskghar with the bow were firing were powerful indeed. Another arrow struck the shield bearer in front of her from the side and she saw an arrow sprout from his leg. He screamed and nearly dropped his shield.
“Don’t you dare lower that shield! Shield your faces!”
Earlia screamed at her team, grabbing another healing potion. She yanked the arrow out of Timgal’s leg and heard him scream. Ruthlessly, Earlia poured the healing potion onto his leg. The potion was a good one—it would neutralize the poison as well as heal the wound.
“Not barbed. Thank the cities.”
“Do not falter! Take cover if you are wounded! Focus on the one with the enchanted bow!”
Nailren bellowed as he tossed another explosive vial of alchemist’s oil at the Raskghar. The flames made them howl in fear and panic and pull back despite the urging of their leaders. Earlia spotted the huge Gnoll in armor waving a maul and pointed at him. Then she saw a flash. The slim [Swordswoman] who’d joined the fight raced into a pack of Raskghar. She heard them howl in pain and saw them fleeing. Earlia grunted.
“Who the hell is that?”
“Whomever it is, they have a death wish. There are too many Raskghar out there!”
The Gnoll Captain followed the masked woman as she dodged and wove among the Raskghar. His prediction of death didn’t come true; the mysterious fighter was adept at striking the Raskghar and fleeing or dodging backwards before they could follow.
With her skirmishing in the shadows they could divide the enemy’s attention. Nailren shot another arrow at a Raskghar threatening to club down the strange ally from behind and then spun as he heard a roar. He growled and Earlia pointed. The armored Gnoll was charging!
“He’s coming! Ready the ropes!”
The huge Raskghar bounded forwards, the magical armor he was wearing shining as the Gnolls tried to hit his unguarded face. But the Raskghar was clever enough to shield his face with a gauntleted hand. With the other he charged the Humans with shields. He would have shattered them with his maul, but Earlia raced forwards with three of her companions. They tossed something at the Raskghar.
Rope. Just plain, sturdy rope. But it was attached to grappling hooks or looped. The Raskghar grunted in surprise as the adventurers split up. They ran past him, the ropes dragging around the giant beast. Too late he realized what they were doing. Entangling him! Trying to tie him up!
The Raskghar immediately swung his maul, forcing one of the adventurers with rope to roll away. But then Earlia was charging him.
“Let’s see you dodge this!”
She swung her warhammer with a roar. If she’d still been able to use her [Hammer Blow] Skill, she would have. The Raskghar blocked the blow with an arm and howled. Earlia felt the impact run all the way back down her warhammer. It hadn’t broken the armor but it had to have hurt to block. Tearing at the ropes, the Raskghar swung at her.
“Hold him steady!”
Earlia wanted to swing again, but the Raskghar tore free of the other two adventurers and stumbled backwards. The other axe and club-wielding Raskghar who’d come forwards with him fell back and the Gnolls who’d showered them with arrows before meeting them in a brutal melee fell back.
“Cuska lost her thumb! The Raskghar bit it off!”
Nailren saw one of the Gnolls howling over a bloody appendage. He snarled and raised his bow. One of the Raskghar fell as it retreated. Nailren would have shot again, but his instincts made him duck behind the shield one of Gemhammer’s [Warriors] was holding. The invisible arrow glanced off the shield.
“Stalemate. Everyone, heal any injuries! Captain Earlia, we must break this situation before reinforcements arrive!”
“You’re reading my mind!”
Earlia took cover and downed a stamina potion, feeling the rush of energy fill her limbs. She glanced over the shield she was hiding behind. They’d been fighting for over an hour here, right at the entrance to the dungeon. It had mostly been an archer’s duel with a few bloody skirmishes. And so far it felt like they were winning.
“Miss Swordswoman! Over here!”
In the sudden lull, Earlia took the opportunity to shout at the woman who’d appeared in the middle of the fighting. The slim figure turned, her sword wet with blood. She tilted her head slightly as Earlia waved to her frantically. She strode towards them, ignoring the arrows flying past her.
“Dead gods, you must be insane! Are you Gold-rank? What’s your team? How long have you been down here?”
Earlia grabbed for the stranger, dragging her behind the wall of adventurers. She received a shock—the stranger was light as a feather! The masked adventurer didn’t respond. She nodded at Earlia, pointed at the Raskghar, and made a slicing motion across her neck. Earlia stared. Then she laughed.
“Works for us! Stick with our groups. We’re making a push!”
The woman nodded. Earlia looked around. They had the upper hand now.
The Raskghar were numerous. Strong. But they lacked magic. With two exceptions they were simply strong [Warriors] and both Silver-rank teams had the Skills and magical gear to even the odds. The real trouble was the Raskghar wearing armor who was difficult to kill and the one with the invisible arrows and enchanted bow. But so far Earlia’s team had beaten them back.
The one in armor feared to approach again lest he be caught by Gemhammer’s rope tricks. And the Raskghar archers were losing the duel of arrows for all they outnumbered The Pride of Kelia. Their stone arrows and cruder bows were no match for Gnollish recurves and composites. And the Gnolls could heal anything but a mortal wound with potions.
But the longer the fight wore on, the more the Silver-rank teams would be at a disadvantage. The only thing that gave them the edge were the healing potions. And Erin’s Scale Soup, which had allowed them to survive the Raskghar’s primitive arrows. Earlia looked at Nailren and got a nod. She tapped the man in front of her and he moved forwards. She shouted as Gemhammer pushed towards the Raskghar clustered down the tunnel in front of them.
“Advance! We need that armor or that bow! Don’t let them escape!”
Boldness. The Raskghar expected them to hold in face of their numbers. But the Silver-rank adventurers wanted that armor and that bow. Earlia led the charge and heard the Raskghar howling as they fell back. She saw the one in armor point and then smaller shapes with glowing red eyes filled the space between them. Earlia cursed.
“They’re sending the Goblins forward!”
The small Cave Goblins were fast, far weaker than the Raskghar, but deadly in numbers. Earlia swung her warhammer and felt the tip crunch into a Goblin’s head. She halted as her team began to cut into the Goblin’s ranks.
“Damn, there are a lot of them!”
“Watch for arrows!”
The masked adventurer danced past Earlia, her blade cutting through the air. She beheaded a Goblin, turned, slashed another one across the chest, and speared a third through the neck. She was quick! Earlia was a master of brutal, powerful blows. This stranger used light, swift cuts and relied only on her grace to survive. The two women cut a path through the terrified Goblins. Until Earlia heard a warning call from behind.
“Captain! The Raskghar are retreating!”
It was true. The Raskghar had taken the opportunity given to them by the Cave Goblins to move back. She saw them turn and run as the Cave Goblins broke, fleeing before the adventurers and leaving scores of their dead behind.
“Why would they do that?”
It wasn’t like they were losing that badly. The not-Gnolls were bloodthirsty as any monsters Earlia had ever seen. Mystified, she looked at Nailren. The Silver-rank Gnoll Captain frowned.
“I hear howls of retreat. Of…of danger? I cannot tell. The Raskghar do not sound as we do. But they are retreating.”
“From us? You’re pulling my leg.”
“I am not, no. There is something else at work here.”
Earlia frowned. Her instincts were singing that this wasn’t good, but she wasn’t sure why. She looked back at her team and then at the bodies.
“I’m of the mind to pursue, but I don’t want to run into a trap. There’s a bounty on Raskghar. Let’s collect some heads first. Unless you object?”
“Not at all.”
Nailren grinned savagely. Earlia turned.
“Alright, set a guard and let’s get to collecting bounties!”
She saw the other adventurers in her team groan. They didn’t enjoy the gruesome task of hacking monsters apart to collect trophies they could turn into the Adventurer Guilds. The Gnolls just set to work with grim purpose, finishing off any monsters that moved.
“Miss Adventurer, care to join us? We’d be honored to share the bounty.”
The masked woman hadn’t moved since the Goblins and Raskghar had fled. She was staring into the dungeon. She jumped—literally jumped—when Earlia addressed her. She spun, warily. Earlia paused and gave her a friendly smile.
“How long have you been down here, Miss? We heard rumors there was someone in the dungeon. Are you part of the guild? We’re Gemhammer. That group of Gnolls is The Pride of Kelia.”
The adventurer tilted her head left to right, staring at Earlia. She didn’t respond. Her mask had neither breathing holes nor a place for her mouth. It looked crude, patchwork. But something shone in the eye sockets. A purple glow. An enchantment? Earlia hesitated. She felt…afraid. Just as quickly, the light vanished and Earlia’s nervousness vanished.
Had that been an enchantment? A Skill? Earlia bit her lip. Good form was to introduce oneself, but you got all kinds of strange adventurers in the higher ranks. In the lower ones too, but they tended to die off quick. She’d heard of Named Adventurers that acted like this. Could this woman be that good? No, she was probably Silver or Gold-rank. If she had survived down here, Gold-rank for certain.
“Will you join us? We’re collecting bounties.”
Again, the masked woman didn’t respond. Earlia wondered if she even understood. The Captain of Gemhammer knelt by a Goblin body and the masked woman knelt with her.
“Are you hurt? Do you need a potion?”
No response. Then the woman slowly shook her head. Earlia nodded encouragingly. She could work with this! She tried to chat as she got to the dirty work in front of her.
“I hate this part of the job. Collecting heads. Ears. At least they let us do ears for the Goblins. It’s not worth hauling around a bunch of heads—unless you have a bag of holding. And I don’t have the coin to buy one for my team yet. You know?”
The masked woman shook her head again. Earlia laughed.
Back to work. Earlia grunted as she knelt by a Goblin and fished a dagger out. Goblin ears weren’t worth much, but every bit counted when you were saving. She began to saw, cursing at the blood when she heard something. Earlia looked up.
“What’s that sound?”
She listened as the other adventurers looked up. Nailren, who’d already been frowning, shook his head.
“Not just sound. It’s a vibration. Something—”
Someone grabbed Earlia’s wrist. She shouted in alarm. The Goblin wasn’t dead! Earlia raised the dagger but the Goblin wasn’t trying to attack her. Its lips were moving. It gurgled a sound at her. Earlia paused.
The Goblin repeated the word. It was in its tongue. Earlia shook her head.
“What’s that? Mercy? Sorry. I’ll make this quick.”
The Goblin twitched. It said another word. This one sounded like common. Earlia frowned.
“What was that? Say it again.”
She looked up. Nailren was standing over her. He looked at the Goblin. Earlia felt a jolt of surprise as she realized it had died as she’d looked away. The Gnoll frowned as he bent over it.
“It said ‘wave’.”
Someone laughed. But Earlia frowned. Wave? That was a strange word, especially for a Goblin to use. Especially one in a cave. It couldn’t have seen the ocean. The ocean was hundreds of miles from Liscor and the Floodplains had no tidal action, for all it was underwater. So how—
The masked woman had readied her sword when the Goblin moved. She had frozen when it spoke, but all of Earlia’s attention had been on the strange word the Goblin was repeating. But as Earlia spoke the word she reacted. She backed away from the Goblins and waved her hands. The other adventurers stared at her.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
The masked woman was suddenly panicked. She waved her hands, pointed up at the ceiling, and then pointed frantically with her arms down a tunnel. Earlia tried to make sense of it.
“Wait! Slow down. What do you want us to do? Follow you? It’s too dangerous!”
The masked woman stared at her. She looked over her shoulder, at the Goblins, and then ran. She waved her arms frantically as she sprinted down a tunnel. All without a sound. Earlia ran after her.
“Wait! Don’t go! What do you—”
Too late. The masked woman vanished into the darkness. Earlia stopped, bewildered. What was that about? She turned to look back at the other adventurers. They were just as confused. But now they were afraid. The masked woman knew something they didn’t. Earlia saw one of the Gnolls glance up and perk his ears up. He glanced at his Captain and murmured softly.
“Nailren. The rumbling. It is growing louder.”
One of the Gnolls called out uneasily. Earlia looked up. The distant rumbling was growing louder. And she could feel it now, too. In her bones. A distant vibration. She felt uneasy and shifted. This was like an earthquake underground. She saw the rest of Gemhammer reacting the same way.
“You think this is why the Raskghar cleared out?”
“It must be. But what does the wave mean?”
Nailren looked around. He sniffed the air and then turned. The rumbling sound kept growing louder and louder. Earlia gestured.
“Team, form up. Whatever’s coming, I want to be ready.”
The adventures abandoned collecting trophies. They formed a wall in three directions, their back to the rift leading up. Earlia stared into the darkness. Now the rumbling was a physical sound. She felt her heart pounding. What was this? What was—
Nailren saw it first. He sucked in his breath and made a very un-warrior like whimpering sound. Earlia turned to him.
“What is it?”
He whispered the word. Earlia stared at him. She turned to the [Gem Mage] who’d received the [Message] and then to Nailren, uncomprehending.
Then she saw it. In the distance, the black dungeon corridor suddenly turned into a rushing torrent of motion. A huge Shield Spider charged out of the darkness, pushing—being pushed by—a wall of spiders. They surged forwards, climbing on top of each other, scuttling forwards, crushing, devouring, burying everything in their way.
The Silver-rank teams stared in horror for one second. Then Earlia moved.
“Up, up! Climb for your lives!”
The adventurers ran for the rift. But the wave was closing and they didn’t have time to scale the rocky walls! The spiders were closing on them. A hundred feet, fifty feet—
“You are terrible at this. I’m trying to be nice, but I can’t explain it any other way.”
Ceria glared at the Silver Swords. She was this close to firing an [Ice Spike] at Ylawes. She pointed angrily at the dented and battered suit of armor lying on the ground. Half of the visor was melted off and a huge gaping hole had been torn into its chest. The enchanted suit of armor was dead. Inanimate, rather. And the Silver Swords had done the killing.
Ceria was furious. She stood around the downed suit of armor, shaking with frustration as Yvlon backed her up. The Silver Swords stood on the other side while Pisces and Ksmvr hung back. Pisces was interpreting the tense scene for Ksmvr, who, as usual, was at a loss. She raged at the Silver Swords, trying not to shout in the confined dungeon.
“I thought you were going to help us! Instead, your team is a liability!”
“Watch your mouth.”
Falene frowned at Ceria. The older half-Elf looked peeved; her ears were twitching angrily. Ceria didn’t care.
“Watch my mouth? I’m speaking the truth!”
“Miss Springwalker, we are a Gold-rank team and we’ve been together for eight years. I would appreciate a bit of civility. We are not amateurs.”
It was hard to tell who was more annoyed, Ylawes, Ceria, or Falene. The [Knight] looked angrily at his sister.
“Yvlon, your Captain believes we are inept. Please talk some sense into her.”
Yvlon folded her arms and sighed.
“I agree with Ceria.”
The Silver Swords stared at her. Ceria grabbed at her hair. She stood in the dungeon’s corridors, not five turns from where they’d begun. They had made almost no progress in an hour. For one reason.
“See? We’re trying to tell you the truth!”
“Sister, your tone is beyond insolent. I do not wish to be lectured by—”
Falene’s sharp voice was cut off by a rumble from Dawil. He raised his hammer and banged it on the ground loudly.
“Oh shut up, you stinking half-Elf. Not you. Our half-Elf. Although both of you smell.”
Both half-Elves glared at the Dwarf. Dawil appeared not to notice. He looked at Ceria.
Ceria took a deep breath and tried to be diplomatic. She failed.
“Okay, listen. Your team is Gold-rank. You’re good at fighting monsters. No one’s denying that. Dead gods, you might even be better than Griffon Hunt or the Halfseekers in a straight up fight.”
“Hah. I like how this is starting.”
Dawil grinned. Ylawes and Falene just kept frowning. Ceria sighed.
“But. You’re not a good team for a dungeon. You might be the worst team I’ve ever seen for dungeon diving, and that includes Bronze-rank teams!”
The Silver Swords gave each other incredulous looks. Ylawes coughed into his gauntleted hand.
“You’re exaggerating, surely.”
Ceria pointed at Ylawes with a trembling finger.
“Every time you see a monster, you attack it! Or challenge it to a duel! In a dungeon filled with traps! You think the best way to get rid of traps is to walk onto them and hope you survive it!”
The [Knight] blushed a bit. Ceria pointed at Falene next.
“As for you—you think that [Detect Magic] is all you need to check for spells! And you won’t shut up when we’re supposed to be quiet! And you always have a snide comment! Even Pisces shuts up sometimes!”
“Why thank you, Ceria.”
“I resent the comparison.”
Ceria nearly screamed.
“That’s what I’m talking about! As for you—”
She pointed at Dawil. The Dwarf blinked at her accusatory finger.
“Why does an [Axe Champion] have a hammer instead of an axe!?”
A moment of silence followed Ceria’s last shout. She colored as she realized she didn’t really have anything bad to say about Dawil. But it had been bugging her. Dawil chewed on his beard for a moment and then fished at his belt.
“I’ve got an axe. Here.”
He raised an ornate throwing axe. Ceria stared at it. Dawil tossed it up and down casually and shrugged.
“I got my class because I won a throwing competition. Drunk. Got crowned as champion and got the class. I don’t like axes as much as hammers. I’ve got one good throwing Skill. That satisfy you, Miss Nosy half-Elf?”
Ceria rubbed at her head. Dawil nodded.
“Then I think it’s time we headed back.”
Ylawes and Falene looked at him in shock. Ylawes protested.
“You can’t be serious, Dawil! You agree with her?”
The Dwarf nodded calmly. He looked at the other adventurers and rumbled.
“She has a point. Lots of good points, actually. We’ve never cleared a dungeon anywhere near as dangerous as this before.”
“We made good progress. We killed the suit of armor. And the Face-Eater Moth we found. And the pack of ghouls.”
“And nearly walked over an exploding rune trap. And the other one that took out half of my skeletons.”
Pisces sniffed. Ylawes paused, glanced at him, and then away. Dawil nodded.
“Face it, Ylawes. The only thing that kept us from walking on traps were all the [Necromancer]’s little toys that did it for us. None of us have trap finding Skills. More importantly, we don’t do well as a team.”
He glanced meaningfully at Ceria and she nodded reluctantly. It was true. Neither team got along well. They stepped on each other’s toes, argued…and she could tell that Ylawes was willing to admit that, if nothing else. The [Knight] looked frustrated. Dawil stroked his beard and then grinned before bringing up a final point.
“Plus, two half-Elves is worse than one. Stands to reason we’re not getting anything done. We barely functioned as a team with one pointy-earred git holding down the team. With two…let’s call it a day, lad. We can work out a way to solve things over a hot meal.”
He gestured back the way he’d come. This time Falene was the only one who glared. Ceria just laughed. Dawil shot her a sideways grin and Ylawes nodded, resigned.
“If that is how it must be, I suppose we have little choice. I had intended to make great progress, but—”
He broke off, shaking his head. In silence, the two teams trooped back down the corridor, passing by the patrol of enchanted armor they’d destroyed. Dawil paused to kick at one of the helmets.
“Not bad steel here. We could use a bag of holding. Claim the bounties on the moth and ghouls too. Worth a bit of coin.”
“Yeah. There’s that at least. You can have the bounty on the armor and moth. We’ll take the ghouls since Pisces snapped all their necks.”
“We should split it equally. We are a team, if in name alone.”
The headache that Ceria thought was fading sprang back into her head. She glared at Ylawes.
“Yes, but we didn’t do anything for the armor.”
“But as a team—”
Yvlon groaned and Pisces rubbed at his eyes tiredly as the two began arguing again. Ksmvr, watching the discussion and the way Falene slid herself into the conversation, tilted his head. His antennae twitched a few times and he turned. He clicked his mandibles a few times and raised his voice.
“Ah. I believe we are in danger.”
All the other adventures spun. They readied their weapons but heard nothing. Saw nothing in the darkness. Ceria looked at Ksmvr.
“I detect vibrations down this tunnel. Something is approaching.”
“Many somethings. At speed.”
Soon, the other adventurers heard it. Ceria swallowed as she felt the vibration in the stone walls.
“Tree crap. We should retreat for the entrance.”
“And be cornered? Whatever it is moves fast. We should hold our ground. See what we’re facing.”
Again, Ceria felt a severe disconnect as Ylawes planted his feet on the ground and raised his shield. Dawil raised his hammer, grunting.
“I’m with you there, lad. I don’t fancy being the last one in a race for the exit.”
“You may retreat behind us. We will wait here.”
Falene glanced at Ceria. The younger half-Elf glared back at her. She looked at Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr.
“Let’s see what it is. Pisces, can you send a skeleton forwards?”
The [Necromancer] pointed and the remaining pair of skeletons rushed into the darkness. They were unarmed, but the Raskghar made for imposing skeletons nevertheless. Ksmvr raised his shortbow and Yvlon raised her shield, taking the other half of the corridor. Ceria and Pisces lined up. She saw his eyes flickering as his skeletons rushed forwards and then he groaned.
“Spiders? You mean, the ones Halrac and the others warned us about?”
Ceria breathed a sigh of relief. She’d been concerned when they’d received the message about Shield Spiders, but if the Silver Swords were good at anything, it was a standup fight. But Pisces’ pale face made her think twice.
“It’s not one or two Shield Spiders. It’s a—a wall of them. They are coming down the passage. Tens of thousands. I recommend we flee. Now.”
The other stared at Pisces. He took a step back and pointed.
“Did you hear me? I said, run.”
“From Shield Spiders? Even in number, they’re not a threat.”
Ylawes looked dismissive. Pisces colored, and then shouted.
“And if there are enough to bury you alive, you incompetent fool? I said there is a wall of them coming! Enough spiders to flood this tunnel from bottom to ceiling!”
He pointed up to the twelve-foot high ceiling above. Ylawes stared up.
“That’s a lot of spiders. How fast’re they coming?”
Dawil looked ahead uneasily. The rumbling sound was getting louder fast. Pisces turned.
He began to run. The other adventurers looked at the fleeing [Necromancer] and then sprinted after him. Ceria felt the rumbling behind her enter her bones. She chanced a look over her shoulder. The light from her [Light] spell didn’t reach far back, but if she stared far into the distance she could see a lot of rapidly moving shapes…
Falene flung an orb backwards as she ran. The glowing yellow ball of light illuminated the corridor, passed the broken pieces of armor and then—
“Oh dead gods, run!”
Ceria saw the spiders. They crawled over each other, a torrent, a sea of skittering legs, staring eyes. Small ones crawled forwards, crushed by larger members. And behind them pushed a massive spider as large as the corridor. It was rushing forwards like a bull. Ceria imagined tripping, being covered by the tiny spiders as they bit her before the larger one simply crushed her with its weight. They were so many. They could bury her alive just with their numbers. There was nowhere safe. Like Pisces said, they went from floor to ceiling.
And they were fast. Ceria picked up the pace and passed by Ylawes and Dawil and Yvlon. Falene was lagging at the rear while Ksmvr and Pisces and Ceria took the front. But only Pisces was outdistancing the Shield Spiders with his [Flash Step]. The rest were falling behind.
“We’ll never make it!”
Falene shouted at the others. They were four corridors away from the burial chamber, but it was too far. She spun, her robes flashing with magical symbols and planted her staff.
“We need not flee. I will use a barrier spell!”
Instantly, the other two Silver Swords halted and ran back towards her. For an agonizing moment Ceria turned and saw Yvlon staring back at her brother. Then she halted.
The two turned. Ksmvr immediately ran back, but Ceria saw Pisces hesitate. He looked back at the spiders, and at her and she met his eyes. Pisces whirled—and ran back.
“Yes. Do not interrupt me. I will cast a barrier across the tunnel. It will hold the spiders.”
Falene was sweating as she raised her staff. She glanced over her shoulder at Pisces and Ceria.
“I would…appreciate any assistance you could give me.”
That was almost a plea coming from her. Ceria bit her lip. She wasn’t an expert with Tier 4 or Tier 5 spells at her disposal! She had one good spell, though. Ceria concentrated, drawing her wand and pointing it at the ground in front of her.
A wall of shimmering ice grew out of the ground. It stretched towards the ceiling, thin as a roll of parchment at first, then thickening as Ceria poured her magic into the spell. She saw Pisces raise his hands and point. A whirling mass of air formed in front of her wall, and then bones began to rise behind it, forming a crisscross pattern.
“[Wind Shield]. [Bone Wall]. This isn’t going to work.”
“Don’t tell me that now!”
Ceria poured her magic into the spell. Pisces bit his lip as the temporary bones he’d summoned out of the ground thickened. The ice and bones mixed into a solid mass. Ceria eyed it hopefully as the wave of spiders approached.
“It can hold! It’ll be four feet thick! Six!”
“That’s not enough. Falene’s spell will not hold either. The spiders are moving too fast and they are too heavy.”
Pisces snapped back at Ceria. She saw the fear in his eyes and wavered. Falene cast a glance over her shoulders. It was full of pride, of scorn, and, Ceria’s heart lurched, beneath it all, uncertainty.
“I am a Gold-rank [Mage]. My [Force Barrier] spell will hold. I will pour all of my mana into it.”
She pointed. Behind the ice and bone, the air twisted as a barrier appeared. [Force Wall], a Tier 4 spell. Ceria stared at it hopefully. Pisces took one look and shook his head.
“Keep running. We have bought ourselves seconds at the price of minutes! We could attempt to go down that passageway there—find an escape.”
He urged the others down the corridor. There was a split ahead, a T-junction. Ceria gritted her teeth.
“We can’t go down that corridor! We’ll run right into a trap!”
“Then run back to the entrance! Hurry!”
“I am pouring my mana into the barrier. It will hold.”
Falene spoke in a half-trance. She refused to budge. Pisces swore and turned.
“Die if you wish! The rest of you, follow me!”
He turned and ran. Ceria hesitated for only a moment. But Pisces was right. And if there was any expert on spells she trusted—no, she trusted his cowardly instincts more.
Ksmvr and Yvlon dashed after Pisces. Ceria saw Ylawes and Dawil exchange glances. Dawil grunted.
“You keep doing your spell, Falene. Don’t mind us.”
He grabbed Falene’s arms and Ylawes grabbed her legs. The half-Elf barely reacted as they ran, Dawil carrying her over his head and Ylawes supporting her legs. The half-Elf spoke slowly. She was putting all she had into the spell.
“It will hold. Do not run. We will be safe. We will—”
The adventurers slowed as they passed the T-intersection. To the left, Ceria saw the dungeon stretching beyond. Unknown. She chanced a look, but it was too dangerous. She halted as she saw Pisces had stopped. Ksmvr was rummaging around in his pack.
“I will endeavor to help as best I can.”
The [Necromancer] stared back to the triple-layered barrier. Ceria turned and looked too as Ylawes, Dawil, and Falene skidded to a stop. She knew they should keep running. But she couldn’t help it.
The mass of Shield Spiders came down the tunnel like a breaking wave. The spiders were insane with fear and anger. They didn’t care that there was a wall in the way. They smelled living things. And they were moving too fast. They hit Pisces’ spinning barrier of air, hit the wall of ice and bone, and hit Falene’s [Force Barrier] spell with a collision that made the ground shake.
Ceria felt her magic shatter as the wall broke. She cried out—from shock more than anything else. But she had only cast the spell. She hadn’t tied herself to it. Ahead of her she saw Falene’s eyes go wide. The half-Elf convulsed as bone and ice splintered down the corridor. Ceria saw spider chitin flying like shrapnel, saw a confusing mess of body parts and then saw the spiders.
They were still moving. Thousands had been crushed by the impact, but the giant spider behind them was intact. And as more poured forwards, they regained their momentum. The spider wave began charging again. Straight at the adventurers.
Ylawes was shaking Falene. The half-Elf was bleeding profusely from both nostrils and she’d bitten through her lip. Dawil cursed and fumbled for a health potion.
“She’s suffering backlash! We need to—”
“Drop her and get ready! They’re coming!”
Yvlon snapped at the two males. The Silver Swords turned. The giant Shield Spider pushed its smaller brethren as they charged. Down the corridor. There was only the corridor to the left now. But even if they ran, they wouldn’t make it. Ceria raised a trembling hand. She could cast a spell. An overcharged [Ice Spear] like last time. But even if she did—
“Everyone, it’s been an honor.”
Yvlon raised her shield. Her sword was steady as she eyed the oncoming spiders from beneath her helmet. Ksmvr was still fumbling in his pack, as if they had anything that would stop that many spiders. A [Fireball] wouldn’t do it. Five fireballs—they should have been shooting them from the start, not blocking!
Another error. If she’d been thinking she would have come up with it. Ceria closed her eyes. She looked at Pisces. He was standing still, his eyes on the spiders. He hadn’t drawn his rapier. It wouldn’t do much good anyways.
“You can still run.”
She looked at him. Pisces met her gaze. He had [Flash Step]. He could outdistance the spiders. Leave them behind. He glanced over his shoulder, back at her.
“That is true.”
He didn’t move. The spiders rolled towards them, and Ceria raised her skeletal hand. How had it gone? Maybe if she put everything she had into it. Maybe—
“Ah. I have found it. It is true that it is always in the last place I look.”
Ksmvr lifted something triumphantly. Ceria looked at him and wanted to laugh.
He had a small, leather ball in his hands. A toy. It looked like one of Mrsha’s toys. Pisces’ eyes widened while Ceria turned away. At least Ksmvr tried. She saw the Antinium stride forwards.
“Allow me to help!”
“Ksmvr come back! Come—”
Yvlon shouted at him. Ksmvr was approaching the spider horde without fear. The Antinium tossed the little ball. Ceria watched it fly. Not towards the spiders. Left. Down the corridor. She heard it land softly, somehow, between the roar of the oncoming spiders. And then she heard the most terrifying, startling, horrendous shrieking sound she’d ever heard in her life. It was terrible, louder than the spiders, a sound designed to cause physical pain upon hearing!
And she had heard it once before. Ceria clapped her hands to her ears and saw Ksmvr run backwards, waving his three hands delightedly. The effect on the Shield Spiders was immediate. They stopped, slowed, rearing up, some rolling over, agonizing as the piercing sound reached them. It was coming from the little leather ball. The enchanted leather ball. The very one Ryoka had brought back from Invrisil.
An adventurer’s trick for luring monsters. The shrieking little ball rolled down the corridor. Instantly, the Shield Spiders turned to chase it. Ceria watched, mouth agape, as the living flood of spiders turned left and abandoned their pursuit of her team. Only a handful of spiders continued onwards, to be crushed by Dawil’s hammer and cut by Yvlon and Ylawes’ swords. The rest of the spiders chased the little ball as it shrieked and rolled forwards rapidly.
And then? And then the sound was muffled. The rumbling continued. But the spiders couldn’t turn back on their momentum. They flooded past the stunned adventurers, heading down the corridor into the distance. And then the rumbling was faint. And then it was distant.
And then there was silence. Ceria stood in the darkness, her heart pounding, drenched in sweat. She only closed her mouth when a tiny spider crawled into it. She spat and then looked at Ksmvr. He stood proudly in front of his team, in front of the Silver Swords and the comatose Falene. He looked hopefully at Ceria.
“Did I help adequately, Captain Ceria?”
Earlia climbed up, hearing the roar of the wave of Shield Spiders behind her. She knew they were too slow. The spiders would climb up the walls! If they could reach the water they might be safe. But her team was tired, burdened by their armor. The Pride of Kelia might make it. Some. But the rest would die.
She didn’t weep. She didn’t give up. Earlia reached for another rocky handhold and screamed for her team to move faster, damn them. She saw something flash past her face and thought the first spider was coming. She reached for her dagger and saw something long. And light. And sturdy.
A rope. Water showered down onto Earlia as the rope dropped through the enchanted barrier above. She looked up. A rope had fallen. No, three. No, eight. The adventurers stared.
“Someone’s dropped ropes! What in the—”
Earlia let go of the cliff and grabbed the rope. She began to climb feverishly. The others didn’t wait to ask about the ropes either. They climbed. Just in time. The Shield Spiders swarmed up the rocky walls as the adventurers climbed up. They swarmed up the ropes. Earlia saw Timgal screaming, felt the water break over her head, reached back, and pulled him up. The Shield Spiders let go as they entered the water. The adventurers felt the ropes pull and they were moving up.
The way to the surface was so long! Earlia gagged for breath. She saw Timgal’s eyes rolling up and put a hand over his mouth and nose. She felt the blackness close in and then her head broke the surface. She felt rain pounding her, felt the rope dragging her up further still, heard screams and sobs and felt the first breath of air enter her lungs. She sobbed for air and then looked around.
A smiling young woman stood on a large boat crewed by Goblins. They heaved and grunted, pulling the other adventurers on board, hurling one of the dead Shield Spiders still biting Nailren back into the water. Erin grinned at Earlia’s stupefied face.
“Hello there! The Wandering Inn provides you with a Hobgoblin escort to and from the dungeon plus emergency rescue! And we have a boat. Three, actually. Want a lift?”
Earlia looked at her. She could have kissed the young [Innkeeper]. Or wept for gratitude. She settled for passing out.
One last thing. Dawil was surprised after the stunned relief had ended that the Horns of Hammerad insisted on continuing exploring the dungeon. Or rather, he was only surprised until they explained to him and Ylawes their reasoning.
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime shot at this. The Shield Spiders did us a service. We can follow their trail.”
“You must be joking. This is a joke, isn’t it? One of the ones I never understand?”
Ylawes looked from Ceria to Pisces to Yvlon. But they were all serious. Yvlon explained to him as they tended to the unconscious Falene.
“This isn’t like rushing into danger, brother. The Shield Spiders aren’t a threat.”
“How is that the case?”
“They cannot move backwards. At least, a horde of that size cannot. Their momentum would not allow it.”
Pisces pointed the way the spiders had left. Crushed spiders, dead ones or confused stragglers from the pack littered the corridor. But it was true. The spiders had not returned. The [Necromancer] smiled smugly.
“You see, they are able to hunt with this impressive technique, but it has significant weaknesses. Unless they are able to loop backwards—which I doubt given the structure of the dungeon—they will continue forwards. And everywhere they pass will be much safer for us to travel than say, an unknown space.”
Dawil understood this one. Ylawes was a bit slow on the uptake when it didn’t come to being a heroic [Knight] or hitting monsters.
“Ah, because the nasty little things have sprung all the traps, haven’t they? And chewed up anything they find.”
“Exactly. We would have free reign to explore as it were. And following the Shield Spiders is a simple task at the moment. They have left an obvious trail for us to follow.”
Pisces smiled and rubbed his hands together. Ylawes looked at Falene with concern.
“I understand. But Falene is injured. I feel that I should retreat—as you suggested earlier.”
“She’s not in any danger. She just overtaxed herself. Let’s go just a few corridors and see what we find. Alright?”
The Horns urged Ylawes and he couldn’t easily protest. Dawil stared at the Silver-rank adventurers with a frown. They were a bit too eager to explore after they’d almost died. Still, he chalked it up to youthful enthusiasm and followed them.
The tunnels the Shield Spiders had gone down were uneventful. They’d triggered all the traps, and the adventurers noted the effects and locations of each by the corpses left behind. They quickly copied down the branching passageways, and then, as they reached the third intersection since following the spiders, Dawil saw another suspicious thing. He saw Ceria glance at Ksmvr and him nod ever so slightly down another passage.
“Why don’t we head this way?”
“But the spiders went that way.”
By this point Falene had woken up and was well enough to retort, although in a simple-minded fashion. Ceria grimaced.
“I think I heard something. Alright?”
The Silver Swords exchanged a glance. Dawil glanced up at Ylawes and coughed. When the [Knight] glanced at him, Dawil made a covert gesture that looked like he was stroking his beard. Ylawes nodded.
“If you think it is safe.”
The Silver Swords followed the Horns of Hammerad down the corridor and came to a surprise. A gap in the sturdy dungeon walls. They stared at the gap. It led into the earth. Ceria’s eyes widened.
Dawil glanced at Pisces who looked suitably impressed. Ksmvr he couldn’t read, but Yvlon was a terrible actor. The Horns insisted on exploring the tunnel of course, and the Silver Swords weren’t about to object. They followed it, passing down a corridor filled with…
“Pit trap. Boulder trap. Ooh. This will collapse the tunnel on us if triggered remotely.”
Ksmvr walked forwards, taking point. The Silver Swords edged by all the deadly traps built into the dirt tunnel. It was not part of the dungeon. Nor had it been built by the original architects. Dawil was a poor Dwarf when it came to traditional things like building and smithing, but he was sure of that. His eyes locked on Ksmvr’s back and narrowed. He followed the Antinium until the corridor widened. Ksmvr stepped out into a wide space, already raising his hands. Dawil followed, swore, and tried to back up.
Too late. Ylawes bumped into him. The [Knight]’s eyes adjusted to the dim light and he reached for his shield and then froze. Falene looked around.
They were standing in a large room. A chamber from which three separate tunnels entered. It was not a dead end though. A single tunnel led through this spot. But to get to that tunnel…Dawil stared at the barricades of stone and dirt. He stared at the dead monsters, piled up. The Shield Spiders riddled with arrows. Crude arrows, but hundreds could be fired at once. He stared up at the silent Workers standing in alcoves.
“One, two, three…twenty…”
They were lined up on three sides, facing inwards so whomever was funneled into this spot would be assailed on all three sides by arrows. Behind the stone barricades, giant Antinium Soldiers waited, ready to engage anyone who made it that far. And behind them…
An Antinium sat at a table. He was not a Soldier. Nor was he armed. He had what looked like a book in one hand and he had been reading. Dawil stared at the Worker as he slowly got up. The Worker opened his mandibles a few times as he stared at the Horns of Hammerad, all of whom had shocked faces and had raised their hands, and then at the silent Silver Swords.
Belgrade slowly closed the book he was reading and stared at the intruders. Not monsters. Intruders. Adventurers. From the dungeon. He stared at Ksmvr. He stared at the Silver Swords. He looked around at the very conspicuous Antinium fortifications. He looked around. Anand was off-duty. Klbkch was above, dealing with a potential crisis. Belgrade couldn’t exactly gulp, but he could click his mandibles. Which he did.
“Oh dear. This could be problematic.”
“The Antinium have a route into the dungeon. An entrance underground.”
Ilvriss stared hard at Pisces. The [Mage] shifted in his chair and smiled.
“So it would seem. A quite efficient kill-zone. I observed a score of traps. And I believe it is three entrances into the dungeon if the tunnels were any indication.”
He watched Ilvriss exchange a swift glance with Zevara and Embria. The Watch Captain and Wing Commander had joined this little interrogation session in the Watch barracks. Well, interrogation was a strong word.
If Pisces had any thoughts on the issue of betrayal, it was his fascination with what the word constituted. Betrayal. What was the line past which no sins could be forgiven? Was selling secrets that much of a trespass? Surely, putting personal gain above the needs of the group was objectionable, but that was what every individual did. What was the difference between selling a small secret and a large one?
After a while, Watch Captain Zevara spoke.
“We were aware that the Antinium had suffered an attack from Face-Eater Moths during the assault on Liscor. But we assumed they had burrowed through the earth.”
“And your assumption was clearly wrong. The Antinium have ever had a way into the dungeon. Longer, perhaps, than the entrance has existed aboveground.”
Pisces smiled. He put his fingertips together as the Drakes exchanged another look full of meaning and worry. How he did enjoy moments like these. He could practically see the thoughts playing out among them and he couldn’t help but nudge them along to some inevitable conclusions.
“Of course, the Antinium have a vested interest in securing their Hive. It would be unthinkable to imagine they were not aware of such a large underground structure, is it not?”
“So they knew. They knew and unleashed the dungeon on the city.”
Pisces rolled his eyes as the red-scaled Drake made a fist out of her claws.
“No. Wing Commander Embria, I believe it is quite the opposite.”
Ilvriss fixed Pisces with a stare meant to frighten. The [Necromancer] gave the Drake his smuggest smile in return, noting the way Ilvriss looked disgusted.
“It is quite a simple conclusion, Wall Lord. The Antinium never tried to disclose information of the dungeon, did they? In fact, it was only after the dungeon was ‘discovered’ that they offered their services. Always to help. And they came to the defense of the city quite readily.”
“Their aid could have been seen as slow during the Face-Eater Moth attack.”
“Only because their Hive was actively under siege! No, Wall Lord. I believe the Antinium were entirely helpful in their assistance to Liscor. After all, without Gold-rank adventurers and Liscor’s support, they would never be able to claim the dungeon’s riches for themselves.”
The Drakes sat up as Pisces dropped the obvious clue into their laps. Ilvriss leaned forwards.
“The dungeons’ riches? We haven’t found more than a few magical items in there.”
“And yet, the Antinium seem to regard the dungeon as important. Why else would they leave open a pathway from the dungeon into their Hive? An open wound by which monsters might pour in? And fortifications? Antinium do not build defenses. Yet this kill box they have constructed seems purpose-built to last for years if necessary. And while it is a splendid defense, it would also serve another purpose.”
“As a staging ground for an assault on the dungeon.”
Pisces sighed internally with relief as Embria sat forwards. She pointed to the rough sketch of the tunnel he’d provided and looked at Ilvriss and Zevara with concern in her eyes.
“Wall Lord, Watch Captain. If this Human is correct, the Antinium could flood the dungeon with their numbers at any time.”
“Why? For treasure?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps they want to claim it? They could double, triple their Hive without us knowing it if they sealed off the entrance. But the idea of treasure—I’ve spoken with Olesm. He claims that even the worst of dungeons hide some kind of treasure.”
All eyes turned back to Pisces. He nodded, still smiling.
“A dungeon is a receptacle for the past, in the end. Even vengeance dungeons are made to hold a nation’s greatest treasures. And one of this magnitude, well. I imagine the greatest treasure recovered from Albez would not compare with what this dungeon might hold. Of course, that is speculation.”
The three Drakes looked at each other. Ilvriss was the first to speak.
“What do the Antinium know that we don’t?”
“Anything. It could be anything.”
Watch Captain Zevara cursed. She stood up and began to pace.
“I could speak with Klbkch. He’s open about his Hive. What he doesn’t tell me reveals more than…”
“Don’t play our hand too early. This requires more thought. High Command should know.”
“As should the Walled Cities. If the Antinium are poised to uncover a grand treasure…Ancestors, how far does this stretch? Was the entire purpose of putting a Hive in Liscor because they knew the dungeon was here?”
Both Drakes looked at Ilvriss and their scales turned grey with shock. Pisces tried not to laugh as the Drakes began panicking. So simple. But he sat up and adopted his most avaricious face as Ilvriss turned to him.
“This information is…helpful. Thank you, Human. We will compensate you. But this stays secret. I will know if you speak of it to anyone. Understand?”
He tried to glare at Pisces while pressuring him with his aura. The [Necromancer] pretended to be suitably cowed and accepted the bag of gold from Ilvriss, peering greedily into it before being dismissed. He left the Watch barracks under an [Invisibility] spell, letting the Drakes continue arguing. Oh, to be a spider on the wall…but they were too alert. Better not to risk it.
Pisces strolled back towards The Wandering Inn, counting the gold and smiling to himself despite the pouring rain. He picked up his pace slightly; he had excused himself from the party at the inn and he was already gone far too long.
All six teams were celebrating surviving the dungeon. None had come out with great treasures, but there were bounties to be claimed and they might level. More importantly, they had lived. They were drinking, toasting each other, and talking about how they’d each survived. It was a jovial mood. For a second Pisces felt a pang that he couldn’t honestly celebrate with the others.
And then he stopped. Someone was leaning against the wall in an alleyway close to where the magic door to Erin’s inn was. Pisces turned, sighed, and stepped into the alley. He reappeared and heard a gasp.
“It is easier if we are not both seen missing from the party.”
The other figure paused.
“I had to know. How did it go?”
Pisces smiled with genuine satisfaction.
“Extremely well. They all paid close attention to the prompts I gave them. They are doubly suspicious of the Antinium motives. I believe some urgent communications are going out to the Walled Cities now. Which is why I shall be sending [Message] spells with my valuable information as soon as I have the opportunity. Is that to your satisfaction?”
He waited as Ceria brushed water out of her eyes. The half-Elf glanced at Pisces and nodded.
“It is. Are you planning on selling the secret of the Antinium entrances to all the Walled Cities?”
“The Walled Cities—all except Oteslia perhaps since they seldom spend money on purchasing secrets. And the information will be public knowledge among those privy to it soon enough. But yes, the Walled Cities and a select list of nobles in northern Izril.”
Ceria eyed Pisces.
“You have a list? Really?”
“Springwalker, I bought a list of those who might in turn purchase secrets from me. Secrets are valuable wherever one travels and there are those who pay well for any advantage over their competitors. By this time tomorrow everyone will know that the Antinium want something out of Liscor’s dungeon.”
“Yeah. Treasure maybe. Or strategic advantage.”
Ceria shivered in the rain. Pisces nodded.
“I suspect more adventurers will flood into Liscor soon. Far more. And if the Walled Cities do not immediately fund an expedition, well, I would be stunned.”
“Which means there’ll be a lot of competition. A lot more bodies entering the dungeon. The other teams would kill us if they knew we were doing this.”
“Or at the very least, not sharing the profits.”
Pisces hefted the bag of gold. He offered it to Ceria. She swore.
“He gave you that much for talking?”
“He assumed I was going behind all of your backs, so yes. A Wall Lord knows to be generous especially to backstabbing Humans.”
Pisces watched Ceria half-open the bag, and then close it. His old friend closed her eyes, looking pained.
“I know how much trouble this is going to cause. I know. And the other teams deserve to have the first shot at the dungeon. But—”
She looked helplessly at Pisces.
“Do you think they’d understand?”
Yvlon and Ksmvr stepped out of the shadows. Pisces sighed.
“You do know that a sheet over one’s head is not a disguise, Ksmvr?”
“It is not a disguise. I am keeping the rain off of myself and Yvlon.”
“Ah. Carry on.”
The two other Horns of Hammerad joined Pisces and Ceria. Yvlon wiped water out of her hair. Pisces resolved to use a flame spell to dry their clothes before returning to the party. And come up with a suitably unbelievable excuse that hinted at something innocuous. One of them had to be professional about all of this.
“We all talked it over, Ceria. We all agreed. We can’t search that dungeon alone. We’re not qualified. If there is any chance at someone finding Calruz—”
“It’s with everyone fighting to be first into that dungeon. I know. I came up with the idea with what Ksmvr told me.”
Ceria leaned against the wall. She looked at Ksmvr.
“You’re alright with all this, Ksmvr?”
“Yes, for the eighteenth time, Captain Ceria. I am not betraying my Hive.”
Ksmvr stood proudly. He’d acted his part out well. The Shield Spiders had not been part of it, nor had the Silver Swords’ incompetence, but all had worked out in the end. He nodded at his team.
“The knowledge of the dungeon’s entrances will not inconvenience my Hive. I am sure of that.”
Pisces was not, but he watched Ceria pat Ksmvr on the shoulder and the Antinium stand taller without comment. He looked at his team. Fellow conspirators all. He would never have expected this kind of plan from them, but they were always surprising him. Pisces smiled.
“Well, it seems you’ve finally begun taking advantage of my varied and extraordinary skill set, Springwalker, Miss Byres. I hope you will at least enjoy the next phase.”
“Next phase? I thought the next part was that we didn’t talk about this ever again.”
Yvlon eyed Pisces with deep distrust. He sighed.
“Of course, that is part of our design. But we are allowed a bit of enjoyment. Please consider how amusing it will be.”
“What will be?”
The [Necromancer] smiled.
“Why, everything that follows of course.”
He smiled. Above the dungeon adventurers celebrated and grand plots were spun, the outcomes of which only he could guess at. And below the dungeon waited. It had failed to claim the adventurers who had begun to wake it. But there was always more dungeon. And there was always next time.