Ceria sat on the floor of The Wandering Inn. The wood beneath her bottom was slick with melted ice water and blood, but she didn’t care. Her arms and both hands, living and skeletal, shook. She was bleeding from a gash down one arm where a Goblin blade had cut her, but she was alright.
The other Horns of Hammerad sat around her. Ceria felt the adrenaline leaving her body slowly. She could still hear horns blaring in the distance from Liscor’s walls. Now that the roar of blood had faded in her ears, she could also make out the pouring of rain overhead, the sounds of Erin tending to the Goblins, Lyonette telling Mrsha to stay put with Apista while she went to help Erin out—
Normal sounds, for a normal life. It stood in contrast to the moments before, where Ceria had stabbed a Cave Goblin through the chest with a dagger and watched it bleed onto her hands. She stared at a motionless body in front of her. A Raskghar lay with its eyes still wide open. Its face was mutilated by a melting [Ice Spike]—Ksmvr’s shortsword had pierced its stomach in three places and Yvlon’s sword had cut through its right arm. It had still taken far too long to die.
Two Raskghar of the six had escaped. The Cave Goblins were all dead. In contrast, no one in the inn was dead. Not Bird or the Redfang Warriors or the Horns of Hammerad, Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha, or Apista. Ceria wished she could have been proud of that fact, but she wasn’t. She stared at the lone Raskghar her team had felled during the fighting, and then looked at the three that had fallen to Numbtongue, Rabbiteater, and Headscratcher. She shook her head and felt the world grey out a bit around her.
“Rot, I’m getting too old for this.”
One of her teammates looked up. Yvlon’s blonde hair was bloodied and damp with sweat.
“You? Too old? Aren’t you sixty years old, Ceria? That makes you twenty in Human years.”
“Something like that. I guess. Sixty’s still old, you know! I’ve been adventuring for nearly a decade. It’s not like I don’t experience each day. Hell, sixty years…if I was an adventurer for that long I’d probably be retired. Sixty years of anything is way too long. Except if it’s in a half-Elven village.”
The armored Human woman eyed Ceria.
“What makes that different?”
“It’s easier to pass years away there. That’s why you get snotty half-Elf brats who’re forty years old and behave worse than Human teens. I spent forty years of my life in a village. Feels like I only started living once I left.”
Intelligent conversation was not one of Ceria’s strong suits in the best of times. She rubbed her face, realized she was wiping blood into her skin, and stopped.
“Everyone okay? Anyone hurt?”
Yvlon reflexively checked herself and nodded. By her side, Pisces raised his head. The [Necromancer] was unharmed but covered in sweat from casting a dozen spells in the course of minutes.
“I am unharmed. I would like a mana potion, though.”
“Suck it up. Ksmvr?”
“I am bleeding from eight wounds. However, my injuries are mostly superficial. I calculate that I will be able to fight with little impairment to my combat ability for twenty more minutes before blood loss—”
“Yes, Captain Ceria.”
The Antinium rummaged around at his belt and lifted a healing potion. He began to apply it to his wounds, using only a drop of healing potion for each spot. Yvlon sighed.
“Ksmvr, pour it onto your wounds. We can afford more.”
“But rationing it—”
“You are worth more to us than a single healing potion. Pour it.”
In the silence, the Horns of Hammerad watched Erin at work. She had no compunctions about literally dumping half a healing potion onto Rabbiteater’s wounds before making the Goblin drink the rest. Pisces sat up, pale-faced, and Ceria almost relented and told him to take a mana potion. But those were expensive and if they weren’t fighting, it did make sense for him to hold back. Pisces seemed to think so, because he didn’t keep complaining. Instead he looked at the dead bodies and sniffed.
“So. Those were Raskghar. I quite object to their characterization by Gemhammer and The Pride of Kelia. Those were not moderate threats.”
Ceria stared at the Raskghar. She glanced at the three the Redfangs had killed.
“How many did Gemhammer say they got?”
“Tree shit they did. Six of them nearly took out our team and three Hobs. We outnumbered them and they nearly tore us to ribbons!”
“In point of fact, they outnumbered us if you count the little Goblins.”
“They don’t count, Ksmvr.”
“Didn’t I hear that the Raskghar get stronger at weird times? Like during the full moon?”
All the Horns of Hammerad looked towards the windows. Ceria craned her head, peering through the rain splattering against the glass.
“It’s a cloudy night. Who the heck could tell if one of the moons is full or not?”
Pisces wiped his sweaty forehead on his pristine white robes.
“I would surmise that at least one moon is full. Possibly both, although that is a rare occasion. Perhaps the effect of these full moons would be amplified or doubled on such a day?”
“Don’t even joke about that, Pisces.”
“Who said I was?”
The Horns sat, contemplating that thought. It wasn’t nurturing by any means. They were too tired to move—they watched Erin tend to the Redfang Warriors with Lyonette, then rush upstairs. After a moment, one of the healed Redfang Warriors sat up. Headscratcher looked muzzy. He might have had a concussion, but he still wobbled upright and lurched past the Horns. They stared at him as he and the other two Goblins practically dragged themselves to the door.
“What’re they doing?”
“I think they’re…guarding?”
The Redfang Hobs stationed themselves at the door. Headscratcher pointed, and Rabbiteater and Numbtongue heaved a table in front of it. The Horns stared at them and then looked at each other.
“We should do that.”
No one wanted to move, but suddenly the aftermath of battle felt a lot less safe. Ceria cursed inwardly at her own stupidity as she forced herself to her feet. The Raskghar could come back! With reinforcements! Was she a Bronze-rank adventurer or a veteran? The Goblins had clearly remembered. The Horns lurched over.
“We can guard too. We’ll take that side.”
Ceria pointed and the Hobs nodded. The adventurers and Goblins went to the glass windows. Ceria wanted to stand, but in the end she found a chair and sat so she could stare out a window with the others. They heard Erin banging around upstairs before she shouted down.
“Bird’s okay! So are Badarrow and Shorthilt! Lyonette, can you get me more arrows from Bird’s room? Then open the door to Octavia’s shop! Grab more potions and some of those exploding bottles if she has any!”
The Horns listened to Lyonette hurry up the stairs. Yvlon, sitting and rubbing her face with her right hand, looked around.
Mrsha was sitting on a table, sniffing the Raskghar with wide eyes. Ceria whistled and the Gnoll’s head turned.
“Come over here, Mrsha. Don’t get near the dead bodies.”
The Gnoll came over and Ceria heard a buzzing sound in her right ear. Reflexively she ducked and Yvlon leaned back as Apista flew past them like a bee straight out of hell. The Ashfire Bee’s stinger was bloody. She circled once, and then flew away from Ksmvr who was looking hungrily at her. Mrsha sat by the Horns and Apista landed on her head. The Gnoll looked at the adventurers. She wasn’t petrified with fear, but she looked nervous. Ceria tried to smile reassuringly.
“Don’t worry, the bad monsters are gone, Mrsha. If they come back, we’ll chase them away.”
The Gnoll nodded dutifully in a way that said that she didn’t believe Ceria one bit. She had something in her paw. Pisces’ wand. She waved it in the air.
“You’re going to protect us? That’s very brave. But maybe leave the fighting to us, okay? That is a nice wand. Better you have it than Pisces.”
“A hurtful sentiment.”
“You should take it back. You’d be a better [Mage] with it.”
“I am used to unarmed spellcasting. Besides which, it is harder to aim a wand in combat. Especially when one attempts to fence with the other hand.”
“Oh, indeed. Why do you think Springwalker shoots [Ice Spikes] with her skeletal hand even though she has a wand?”
“Huh. I never knew that.”
“I never knew that. My master taught me to cast magic with my hands. I thought she was just being strict about it.”
“Fingers are flexible. Wands are not. One can reliably aim spells from the tips of one’s fingers in much more rapid fashion than you would by maneuvering a wand into position each time.”
“So says the self-proclaimed dueling expert of Wistram.”
“If you have any objections or addendums to my theory, Springwalker…”
Ceria did not. The Horns sat in silence for a while. Mrsha edged up to Ceria and the half-Elf began to scratch her head behind the ears. Apista crawled onto Ceria’s arm and was flung off with a shout of panic. After a while, Pisces spoke.
“That was a magical cloak I saw one of the Hobs using, was it not? A cloak made entirely of water? Only, it now appears to be made of blood. Did anyone else notice that during the battle?”
The Horns looked over. Rabbiteater raised his head and the blood cloak swirled around his shoulders. Ceria stared at it.
“Huh. It is a magic cloak. From the dungeon?”
“How the hell did the Goblins figure out how it worked?”
“They put it on, duh.”
“Would that not be dangerous? Comrade Pisces assured me that would be dangerous.”
“Oh, highly. They might have discovered the nature of the cloak…or unleashed a possibly dangerous curse spell or other effect. We are fortunate that the inn was not swallowed by a void spell and dragged into a dark netherworld hell, in which we would be tortured endlessly until our demise.”
“Is that so? I will consider myself fortunate, then.”
The Hobs nodded. They seemed to be listening in. Ceria eyed them and then looked at Pisces.
“But we’re not dead. And the cloak’s magical. It’s…some kind of liquid cloak? That changes depending on what it touches?”
She stared at him. Yvlon and Ksmvr looked at Pisces too. He raised his head, still looking pale from mana exhaustion.
“Don’t you have a big theory on what it does? Some kind of annoying lecture for us?”
“No. Would you like me to come up with one?”
Everyone nodded. Mrsha scooted closer to Pisces, staring at the cloak with fascination. The blood was rippling every time Rabbiteater moved, as if it were actual cloth. Pisces stared at it for a moment.
“Very well. It is obvious that the cloak is enchanted to take on the properties of a liquid. I would surmise that not all liquids work. Base liquids—that is to say, non-complex fluids like blood, water, and so on seem to be the target reagents of change. It seems the cloak changes rapidly—it may be possible to affect a change with a small amount of liquid.”
The others considered that. Numbtongue, sitting by a window and fiddling with the broken guitar he was still carrying, turned and pursed his lips. He spat. A glistening glob landed on the blood cloak and turned it into a saliva cloak. Rabbiteater swore and threw it at Numbtongue, who laughed until the spit cloak splashed him. Then he just wiped away the spit in silence. Pisces nodded.
“Fascinating. The cloak is denser than it appears on first glance. It would provide a useful bulwark of sorts against physical blows, although I would hesitate to use it as cover against arrows. No, the cloak’s utility in defense is limited. What is more interesting is how much liquid the cloak holds. Therein lies its value.”
Ceria nodded slowly. She’d seen a few artifacts at Wistram and she could follow Pisces on that.
“You mean, you could probably ‘set’ the cloak so it stopped changing all the time, right? And then use it as a portable water source? Or a portable spit source, I guess. But there has to be a limit. What happens when it runs out?”
The Hobs looked up as they scooped spit out of the cloak and slapped it over the wounds that they hadn’t healed. Yvlon gagged in the back of her throat and looked away. Pisces shook his head.
“The cloak would probably revert back to a dormant state while it recharged for a day or so. That makes it a useful tool. But the cloak would not have been designed to transport water, Ceria.”
“What then, oh great and all-knowing Pisces?”
The [Necromancer] paused.
“The true nature of that cloak—in my opinion at this juncture—is to serve as a well of blood. A portable supply that could be used in blood magic. If I were a [Bloodmage], I would pay tens of thousands—no, hundreds of thousands—of gold coins for a reusable supply of blood. That is my speculation. But I do not dabble in such dark magic.”
Pisces shook his head, looking vaguely troubled. The Horns stared at him. The Goblins stared at him. Mrsha stared at him. The [Necromancer] glanced around and flushed irritably.
Ceria raised both her eyebrows.
“You wouldn’t use blood magic. You. Isn’t that a bit ironic?”
A haughty sniff was her reply. Pisces drew himself up as high as his low moral ground would allow.
“No. I understand your point, but there is a difference between necromancy and blood magic. Yes, necromancy makes use of the dead. It can be a tool of destruction and misery and that is how it is often employed. But it need not be. I can make use of a cadaver or animal’s corpse without harming the living for it. Blood magic on the other hand demands sacrifice by its very nature.”
He looked around, daring anyone to object. No one did. Ceria stared at the cloak, which had now changed back into a water cloak at Rabbiteater’s insistence.
“Okay. So it’s less useful without a [Bloodmage]. It’s still pretty useful. I saw…uh…”
Rabbiteater looked expectant. Ceria wavered.
Headscratcher looked insulted. Rabbiteater glared. Ceria tried again.
The Hob nodded huffily. Ceria sighed.
“I saw Rabbiteater drown a Raskghar with it. On top of the other two they got.”
Whereas the Horns had killed only one Raskghar. The adventurers shifted uncomfortably and the Hobs looked smug. No one spoke after that. Mrsha leaned against Ceria’s leg with a sigh and the half-Elf resumed scratching. After a while, they heard Erin clattering down the stairs and Lyonette rushed out of Octavia’s shop. She had a crate in her arms.
“Okay, potions! Octavia doesn’t have any exploding potions—she doesn’t know the recipe. But I’ve got Tripvine Bags, the Pepper Potion, a Stink Potion—lots of healing, mana, and stamina potions—”
“Put it there. Anyone grab one if they need it. I’m changing the door to Liscor. No—wait. Pallass first.”
Erin rushed past Lyonette as the [Barmaid] placed the crate on the table. Erin yanked the door open to Pallass and Ceria saw a dark street in front of her. Erin took a breath and shouted.
“Hey! I know there are Drakes watching this door! Get out here! Liscor’s under attack! Again!”
There was a moment of silence, then someone swore. A Drake appeared. Erin waved her over and conferred. The Horns saw the Drake dash off and then another one ran through the doorway. Erin pointed at the dead Raskghar and talked rapidly while the Horns watched.
“We should help.”
“Go through to Liscor? Aid in the fighting if there’s any?”
“There’s the City Watch, those angry Drake [Soldiers], three Gold-rank teams, and a lot of Silver-rank ones in the city. And that Wall Lord.”
The Horns stayed put. After a few minutes, they heard pounding footsteps and shouting on the other side of Pallass. A [Mage] must have charged the door because Venim came through with an escort of eight Drakes all wearing Pallass’ yellow armor. Erin closed the door, conferred with Venim, and then opened it to Liscor. She pointed and Venim charged though. Erin hopped about in place anxiously before rushing over to the three Hobs and the Horns.
“Hey guys, Venim’s checking things out. Can you guard the door? I want to keep it open—”
“We’ll do it.”
The Horns of Hammerad stood up. The Redfangs stayed at the actual door. The weary adventurers trudged over and Mrsha padded over until Lyonette stopped her.
“Not you, Mrsha. Stay back from the door. Go play by the stage, alright?”
The Gnoll looked upset. She whined in the back of her throat. Lyonette pointed.
“Come on. You be a good girl, okay? I’ll come over as soon as I can, but Erin’s got me pulling out food—”
All the adventurers and Goblins looked up. Erin nodded as she hurried out of the kitchen with a platter of pre-made bowls of soup now heated steaming hot.
“Food! If anyone’s hurt in Liscor we’ll bandage them up and feed them. Mrsha, listen to Lyonette.”
The Gnoll whined again.
“Mrsha, it won’t be long. Look, why don’t you sit over there and play with your ball? It’s…where did it go?”
Lyonette looked around. Mrsha’s little leather ball had disappeared after her throwing game with Bird. The Horns looked and then Yvlon called out.
“I see it. Here.”
The little ball was lying on the ground next to the wall. Yvlon trudged over to it, her metal armor clanking dully with each step. She reached down with her left arm and paused. Her hand missed the ball. She frowned down at her arm. And then stared.
Everyone stared at Yvlon’s left arm. Her right one was whole—flexible, functional as any arm should be. It slowly picked up Mrsha’s leather ball as Yvlon turned. But her left one? Yvlon’s shield arm was bent at the forearm. The metal armor was still intact, but the flesh and bone beneath had twisted. Ceria’s stomach lurched as she saw Yvlon staring down at her mangled arm, the hand and wrist sticking out at an angle from where they should be.
The armored woman looked around. Ceria opened and closed her mouth a few times. At last she managed to speak.
“I thought you weren’t hurt, Yvlon.”
Yvlon slowly nodded. She stared down at her arm, the same arm that had bent when blocking the Raskghar’s strike during the fight. She grimaced.
“I forgot. I guess. I…didn’t feel a thing.”
That was the thing. She really hadn’t. She hadn’t felt a bit of pain when her arm had broken during the fight. She hadn’t felt it afterwards either, not the entire time she’d been sitting with the others. Yvlon had even leaned on her broken arm. It was lucky she’d still been wearing her armor—she might have snapped the bone clean in half if the armor hadn’t prevented the bones from moving any further.
However, no one could quite believe that. They all knew that Yvlon had the [Ignore Pain] Skill, but it was one thing to know that and see Yvlon wave around her floppy arm without so much as flinching.
“Dead gods, Yvlon, stop that! Okay, we believe you! You can’t feel it! But you need to heal that arm now!”
Ceria’s face was pale as she practically forced Yvlon into a seat. The Human woman almost wanted to laugh at how panicked the half-Elf seemed. What was a broken arm compared to Crelers and the other horrors they’d seen and fought over their careers? She waved Ceria away as she fumbled with her gauntlet. It was hard getting it off at the odd angle and she eventually let Ceria pull the metal off her arm. It came loose with a sucking sound and Ceria’s hiss told Yvlon everything she needed to know before she looked down.
Wet, congealed blood bubbled out and splashed onto the floor. Yvlon stared at the red, puffy skin around her broken bone and then at the places where the skin had torn away. But instead of revealing yellowed bone, the broken bone shone dully in places. Bloody metal mixed with bone. The metal of her old armor that had fused to her bones. Yvlon stared at her arm without changing expression.
She could feel nothing. Ceria on the other hand was fumbling for a potion, cursing with panic.
“Ceria. It’s fine. I can’t feel it.”
“That is not fine! You should have told us your arm was—gods, the bone’s nearly snapped in two! Pisces! Get over here!”
The [Necromancer] appeared next to the two. He peered at the arm with more clinical detachment than Ceria, but there was still a wince in his gaze as he looked up at Yvlon.
“A poor break. I can mend the bone. Put away that potion, Ceria. Or do you want Yvlon to have a stump rather than a connected arm?”
He thrust away the healing potion. Ceria jumped and Yvlon nodded. If Ceria had applied it to her broken arm without at least joining the bones together, the flesh might have grown over the broken bone instead, effectively amputating her arm. Or worse—she’d end up with some kind of freakishly malformed new bridge in her arm made entirely of flesh and no bone. Yvlon had heard all the horror stories about healing potions used wrong.
“Here. Take it. Fix Yvlon’s arm. I need to watch the door.”
Ceria thrust the potion into Pisces’ hands and hurried back to the doorway. Ksmvr was waiting there with his shortbow in hand, watching for Raskghar that might appear in Liscor’s rainy streets. He kept glancing back at Yvlon, though. Anxiously. She smiled and waved her good hand at him.
“Keep still, please. I will need to reinforce the bone. Hm…yes, and regrow as much as I can to fuse it together. Your arm will be weaker for a day or two, but ah, the bones should return to normal after that. Such as normal may be.”
Pisces knelt by Yvlon’s arm. She stared at her discolored, swelling flesh. Funny, she recalled how her old team, the Silver Spears, used to tease her about her flawless complexion, as if she were ready to ride to a ball rather than a monster hunt. Yvlon tried to remember their faces and found it was harder than it should be.
Not so funny, actually. She closed her eyes a moment as Pisces bent over her arm, frowning and muttering.
“By ‘normal’, you mean my arm will still be weak as before, don’t you.”
The [Necromancer] paused.
“I cannot remove the metal in your arm. And it is badly fatigued. So…yes. It will break if you subject it to undue force.”
“Like blocking? I couldn’t take more than one hit. I had to fight the rest of the battle with one arm.”
Shame burned Yvlon. She’d had to fall back, let Ksmvr cover her while she held the Raskghar back with her sword arm. She looked at Pisces. He’d forgotten his rapier, but he’d still burnt the Raskghar, used his undead bears to distract them. Now he was fixing her, the wounded one. The useless one.
“The Raskghar were incredibly strong. And perhaps your sword and shield style is unsuited to your current condition. However, your enchanted sword should allow you to fight with great effectiveness. If you don’t block.”
“Great. So I can hit things lightly. Is that it?”
“You were aware of the complications before hand.”
“I know. I just—”
Yvlon broke off and turned her head. She didn’t like Pisces. She didn’t like him, and yet, she didn’t hate him. Not anymore. He was her teammate when all things were said and done, and she—she was the one who had let him down. Her gaze went over to her shield. The little buckler, the enchanted Forceshield Buckler.
“I forgot to activate the magic on my shield. I just blocked the Raskghar like an idiot.”
Pisces glanced at the inert buckler. He shrugged.
“I did notice. However, I forgot my rapier and my wand. We were caught off-guard, with no time to prepare.”
“I know. I know! But why is it that everyone’s okay, whereas my arms—dead gods, Pisces. I’m so useless.”
“You are hardly useless. You cut off the Raskghar’s arm with a single blow. Highly demoralizing, I would imagine. And you slew two of the Cave Goblins. That is hardly the actions of dead weight.”
Yvlon wanted to laugh. Now Pisces was trying to comfort her of all people! She stared at her arm. Pisces was moving the bones, carefully guiding the broken bones into place. A bit of her blood covered his hands as her skin tore a bit more.
“I can’t feel it. I told you.”
The [Necromancer] paused.
“That is…convenient. This would not feel pleasant otherwise.”
Yvlon could certainly agree with that. And strangely, though she couldn’t feel the pain, she could feel Pisces shifting her bones around. It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Unnatural. She held still though, gritting her teeth. After a moment of Pisces working, she spoke.
“My arms are shot. I can’t fight with them. Not like this. If I take a bad hit and lose one arm—or two—I’m a liability in combat.”
“Only until I am able to restore your arms. With a healing potion and my skills, your arms can be easily restored. Frankly, it is somewhat shocking how effective my talents are—”
“Shut up, Pisces. Don’t downplay what I’m saying.”
“My apologies, Yvlon. But what option do you have? You yourself wished to continue adventuring.”
“I do. I do. But this—”
Yvlon’s head spun. She didn’t want to quit. She couldn’t quit. Abandon the Horns? They were all she had left. What would she do if she stopped adventuring? Sell her gear? Go live on her family’s estates—try and become a [Merchant] and help out with the business? As a failure? A cripple with weak arms? Never. And yet—she looked at Pisces, despairing.
He was a [Necromancer]. She’d hated and distrusted him for that when they’d first known each other. No—that had been when she first joined the Horns. Before that she hadn’t even thought of Pisces. He’d been…just another contemptible person. Someone to avoid, oppose if necessary.
Now? She had to admit his spells were powerful. Useful. Yvlon had to admit that his skeletons had saved their team’s lives more than once. His ability to shape bone had restored her arms when she’d be crippled for months with each break. His undead bears? She’d told him to use their bones. And they had been helpful.
A…feeling stole over Yvlon. A shiver, only it ran through her insides rather than across her flesh. She stared at Pisces. A [Necromancer]. By his own admission, someone who would desecrate corpses. Raise the undead. Pisces was arrogant, greedy, and rude when he chose to be. But he was not an evil man. She had seen enough of him to know that. And his powers—
“I am nearly done fusing your bones together. Please do not move.”
Yvlon jumped. She hadn’t realized Pisces was nearly finished. He gave her a long-suffering look and adjusted his grip.
“As I said.”
The woman held still as Pisces clutched her bleeding, puffy arm. He frowned down at something only he could see, then nodded.
“Very good. Now, a healing potion for the flesh and your arm is restored.”
He gently poured the liquid over Yvlon’s arm. She felt a bit of cold, and then felt her swollen flesh retract, return to normal. Yvlon stared at her whole, unblemished arm. Pisces smiled.
“And there we are. Another fine shaping of bone. A pity I could not do anything about the metal. For now. Miss Byres—”
He hesitated, looking at Yvlon carefully. She glanced up at him as she flexed her arm.
“What was that?”
Pisces gently bit one lip, thinking as he carefully eyed Yvlon. She knew that look. It meant he was about to suggest something he knew she’d object to. However, this time Yvlon didn’t feel any irritation. Any disgust. She waited, patiently.
“Go on. Tell me.”
“I ah, know you have spoken to [Healers] and [Blacksmiths] about your arm. An odd combination, but the metal is grafted to the bone. As they have said, it cannot be removed without essentially destroying the bone itself. It is a miracle any bone marrow remains, frankly, but you were lucky. However, the weakness of your bones has preyed on my mind. It may be—and I only suggest this, I would never force you into any decision—it may be that in time I will gain the Skills or learn a spell to enhance your bones or remove the metal myself.”
Yvlon stared at Pisces as he sat back, visibly apprehensive.
“You? Fix my arms? But you said it couldn’t be done.”
“Not at my level. A [Necromancer] has extreme, and I do mean extreme difficulty working with living bodies. Manipulating bone? I can crack an unled skeleton in two at fifty paces, but it requires physical, skin-to-skin contact to manipulate a living person’s bone up close—and even then, only when they do not resist. Actually shaping bone or reinforcing it is far beyond my level. But for a Level 40 [Necromancer]? If I found a spellbook with the necessary spells? I am assured that any [Necromancer] above Level 50 would have no problem restoring your arms.”
“Really? Who told you that?”
Pisces shifted and scratched behind one ear.
“Ah, well, assured may be too overconfident a word. I’ve read a few books about more powerful [Necromancers]. I am certain it can be done. Give me time and I will come up with a more complete solution to your dilemma. Until then, do not despair.”
And there it was. Yvlon looked at Pisces. He gave her a hesitant smile. A nervous one. He was waiting to see if she’d thank him or snap his head off. Yvlon felt guilty because she knew that two weeks ago she would have done just that. That was the thing about Pisces. He was unlikeable, hard to work with. He could drive her insane and then turn around and surprise her with…this.
She thought of his bears. Undead bears. When she’d told him to use their corpses to drag the dead Crelers and the team back to Esthelm through the snow she’d been exhausted, out of sorts, and willing to compromise her beliefs. After all, the undead bears might be undead, but they were dead animals. Pisces hadn’t killed the bears and they would be worthless corpses any other way. So why not use them? It wouldn’t hurt anyone. And it had helped her team.
That was how [Necromancers] thought. The shock that ran through Yvlon was electric. She instantly felt guilty, but then wondered why. Why indeed? It wasn’t like using the undead hurt anyone. It was only when [Necromancers] used people—used the undead, which were tools—as weapons. But if it was just bone, just magic—
She was talking herself into something. Again, Yvlon felt a shiver run through her. She stared at Pisces. She had a thought. She’d had a thought, rather, lurking in the back of her head. Ever since she’d seen one of his Bone Horrors.
“Pisces, about your undead.”
He looked surprised and alarmed at the sudden conversation change. Yvlon nodded over to a pile of bones. The undead bears had been well and truly smashed by the Raskghar, so badly that their skulls and bones were splintered and broken. Pisces hadn’t cleaned them up so they sat on the floor, a yellowed mess of bones. Mrsha was sniffing at one.
“The Raskghar got your bears, didn’t they? Can you still use the bones? I saw the Bone Horror you made.”
Yvlon hadn’t known Pisces had more than one.
“The one with the long whip-arms.”
“Ah. My older prototype.”
He cleared his throat.
“Yes. It ah, was brought to my attention by Miss Shivertail that my first prototype Bone Horror could be improved. It was not as efficient as I had hoped it to be, so I have been designing a new one.”
He shifted a bit. For some reason Yvlon found his discomfort hilarious. She grinned at him.
“You mean, your undead wasn’t as powerful as you’d hoped? Aren’t you a master [Necromancer]?”
Pisces colored and opened his mouth before he realized she was teasing him. He blinked at her.
“Ah. Yes? Well, I only have so many bones to work with! The bones of three bears, to be precise. And I have already had to scavenge their forms to create several Bone Horrors to clear Liscor’s sewers.”
“They’re all smashed up now, though. Are the bone shards unusable?”
“Not if I mend the bones together. True, the problem with dead bone is that it grows weaker with every fracture, but I will incorporate the bone into a new structure. A reinforced cladding perhaps.”
“Reinforce. Like…put a layer of bone armor over an undead bear?”
The young [Necromancer]’s eyes lit up.
“Well, that is an idea. Of course, the undead bear skeletons are useful on their own—as a hasty creation they are my preferred choice—but I wouldn’t normally attempt to reinforce them as they are. Bears are not the most powerful combatants and they are somewhat unwieldy. Flesh and blood bears trade on their crushing weight, and a skeleton is far lighter. However, if I added armor, it might be an interesting project—”
“You really like the undead, don’t you?”
Pisces broke off. He paused.
“Is it that disagreeable?”
Yvlon shook her head. She looked up and sighed. Her heart was beating too fast for some reason.
“No, Pisces. It’s not. I guess—it’s not. Really. I don’t like undead, but I’ve gotten used to them. So you can reshape bone, huh?”
“Dead bone? Bone not controlled by another [Necromancer] or one that is part of an existing magical being? With ease.”
“And you know about anatomy.”
“One must, to create or alter undead. I am an expert in the skeletal form. I know something of flesh too, but zombies are ah, not my forte. They rot and smell, and are generally too slow. Which is inconvenient.”
“Got it. So…tell me something. If you were going to harden a…bear’s leg. So Dawil couldn’t break it in half with his hammer, say. How would you do that?”
Pisces frowned, his brow furrowing as he considered her challenge.
“There are many ways. Armor, as you mentioned, might work. It is possible to fabricate bone armor—but Dawil is a strong combatant. Rather than trust to an exterior defence, I would harden the bone. Thicken it.”
“What if you couldn’t do that? Is there another way to reinforce the bone without…solidifying it?”
“Well of course. I could create a frame around the arm—add in supports. There is a point at which [Necromancy] becomes architecture, you see. It is entirely possible to create a—a network of bone, almost like a spider web. That kind of support becomes far stronger because it distributes weight. If I must protect a lynchpin in the structure, I can adjust the bones around it to reduce the force that is applied to the bone in question.”
“Good. Do that to my arm.”
Yvlon thrust her bare arm in Pisces face. He recoiled. Then he stared at her. Pisces’ mouth opened in complete and utter surprise.
“Are you serious?”
The Human woman breathed in heavily, and then out. She was shivering inside, but her voice was steady.
“It’s obvious. I didn’t think of it before because I would have rather died than have you—have anything undead in my body. But it’s just bone, right? I’m sure you can make a bracer—put something around my arm, in my arm—make it so it won’t break in a fight. You can do that, can’t you?”
Pisces sat back. His face was pale. Yvlon was reassured to see that her idea had shocked even him.
“Miss Byres, that is not something I ever considered doing. I understand you’re upset, but I cannot guarantee anything. No—doing something like that would be criminal on my part. If Ceria—”
Yvlon gritted her teeth.
“I’m not asking her. I’m asking you. Can you do it?”
Pisces’ gaze flickered to Yvlon. He hesitated.
“Perhaps. But I will not do it.”
“Why not? I need my arms to work, Pisces. Not later. Not when you’re Level 40 or Level 50. Dead gods, how long would that take? I need my arms to work now and if you can reinforce them with [Necromancy]—why are you hesitating? I’m offering you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experiment with my arms, to figure out how to improve a living body! You should be leaping on this chance!”
“But you are my teammate. And I do not—will not experiment with the living.”
Pisces voice was soft. Yvlon stared at him. Principles. A needle’s edge of morality.
“Then don’t experiment. Fix me. If you can do it, do it. You know how good you are, Pisces. Prove it. Can you change my arms?”
He wavered. Pisces eyes flicked past Yvlon to Ceria and Ksmvr. He half-rose, and then, slowly, sat back down. He looked Yvlon in the eyes.
“I can. Is that really what you wish?”
She wavered. For a second every story and folktale she’d ever heard about necromancy, about the undead, the Necromancer, flashed through Yvlon’s mind. Then she met Pisces’ eyes. There was confidence there. Yvlon nodded.
“Use the bear bones. Do it. Before I change my mind.”
Pisces held Yvlon’s gaze for a long time. Then, slowly, he reached out. He took Yvlon’s bare arms, stared at the pale skin, white from hiding in Yvlon’s armor for so long. At last, he inclined his head the barest fraction of an inch.
“I will begin with a lattice…”
Yvlon held still, completely still, as Pisces bent over her arms. She could feel her skin moving, feel him cut into her arm, insert bone where it should not be. She felt her flesh and muscles moving as he forced bone into her arm, cut and using a healing potion to…well, she didn’t know.
Pisces had explained his idea, but it hadn’t made sense to Yvlon. A structure of bone like a spider web? Cushioning her bone? Adding in a splint? Well, the last part made sense, but she had no idea how it looked. She did not, by and large, stare into people’s bodies. Nor was she about to start.
The [Necromancer] was working over her arm, shielded from view at the table where they sat. No one paid attention to them. As far as the other occupants of the inn were concerned, Pisces was still fixing Yvlon’s arm. An occasional glance over was all that Yvlon received.
“You are not feeling any discomfort?”
“It feels weird and unpleasant. But I can’t feel pain. You don’t need to keep asking.”
“Very well. I am adding in the splint now. It should keep the stability of your arm even if your bone breaks. After all, what moves your arm is muscle. The bone is simply structure.”
“Right. Never thought of it like that.”
“And I will shield your bone as well. Naturally I will check on your arm after each battle, but you should be able to use your arm without fear of crippling yourself. Both arms, in fact. And I stress once again that all of this can be removed quite easily.”
“I can pull these bones out with eas—with no proble—with minimal—well, it is a matter of delicacy inserting and removing such bones without ah, tearing through all your skin. But it can be done.”
“If you have any concerns—”
“I trust you, Pisces.”
He fell silent. Yvlon stared at his face so she couldn’t see her blood and flesh and the bones moving about. This was her second arm. The right one. He’d already finished on the left one. It felt…she could feel it was different. Heavier. But sturdy, too. She made a fist with her left hand. He’d told her she could block any number of Raskghar strikes with that arm.
“So. You didn’t learn this at Wistram, did you?”
Pisces glanced up. He smiled briefly. He was trying to be chatty, reassure Yvlon.
“Oh no. You know my story of course. The…mistakes I made with Ceria.”
Yvlon’s mind flashed back to the long cart ride from Celum to Liscor, when Ceria had told the story. Back then Pisces hadn’t said much, only interject a few comments now and then. She remembered his expression.
“Yeah. You never really told us your side of things. Did anything Ceria say…did you disagree with any of it?”
Pisces looked back down at Yvlon’s arm.
“Nothing worth noting. She was largely correct. I kept my necromancy hidden as long as possible during my time at Wistram. And of course, I had no instruction while I was there. What I know now is mostly a product of trial and error. Of course, I did learn more after I left the academy. I had…encounters…with others who shared the same interests I did.”
“Really? You met other people like you? In Izril?”
“Oh yes. In my travels after leaving the academy, I made it a point to seek out other [Necromancers] and covens of like-minded individuals. Izril is not fond of those who raise the undead, but death magic can be found in every continent. Even Terandria, although it is outlawed there. But if one knows where to look…”
Pisces trailed off. Yvlon nodded. She had heard of incidents involving petty [Necromancers] over the years. It was one of the classic adventurer quests, in fact. Go track down the source of the undead and slay whomever was responsible.
“So? Was it good meeting them?”
The young man shook his head, his lips twisting into a sneer of contempt.
“Hardly. I erroneously believed that I would find kindred spirits among such people. Alas, such encounters were ultimately dissatisfactory. Most of those who practice death magic lack the…standards I hold myself to. Low and twisted though they may be.”
He glanced up with a half-smile. Yvlon couldn’t help but smile in reply.
“Self-deprecation isn’t your strong suit, Pisces. So these other [Necromancers] didn’t impress you?”
“Let us simply say that they lacked finesse in any sense of the word. I joined a local group a year before I came to Liscor—The Krythien Sect, I believe. They might still be operating. A pity. They were nothing more than amateurs. No knowledge of anatomy or spellcraft between all of them put together. They only understood how to animate a body, not how it worked. None of them would be able to do what I am doing now. Speaking of which—”
Yvlon raised her arm. Pisces grabbed it.
“Hold on! I haven’t closed the wound!”
She stared at her arm. It looked like someone had taken a sharp knife and sliced her flesh to ribbons. Pisces poured the healing potion over her arm and she felt the flesh close. She flexed her arm. Swung it.
“How does it feel?”
Pisces watched her anxiously. Yvlon banged her forearm on the side of the table, pushed at it with her other hand. Then she smiled.
“It feels solid.”
She smiled at Pisces and he leaned back in relief. The two sat there for a second, Pisces wiping away sweat from his eyes. Two healing potions lay on the table, both completely empty. Pisces had downed a mana potion and he looked worn out. But it was done.
“Thank you, Pisces.”
“Thank me after you hit something. This is all a trial. If there are any complications, I will fix them. In fact, this is just the start.”
Yvlon paused as she put her armor back over her arms.
“Oh? What did you have in mind?”
Pisces leaned forwards conspiratorially.
“If you would like me to, I could research a way to strengthen the metal in your arms as well. Not with [Necromancy]—a basic [Hardening] spell or some kind of reinforcement magic would allow you to fight quite normally. I am sure one of my spellbooks has the necessary spell listed in it. I hadn’t even thought of it, but the metal in your arms is a foreign object! If we did that, there might be no need for my using bone at all.”
Yvlon thought about that.
“Why the hell didn’t you think of any of this earlier?”
Pisces looked insulted.
“Who thinks of enchanting the metal in one’s arms? Frankly, your idea was so unorthodox that even I, a [Necromancer] trained in Wistram—”
He grinned as Yvlon chuckled.
“—Wouldn’t have considered it! But if you are willing to take a calculated risk, then I will adjust my studying.”
The Human woman thought about this. She felt her arms. Strong. Then she nodded.
“Do it. We’ll keep it between us for now.”
“Indeed. I understand this is, well, it would be a problem if anyone were to learn of it.”
“For them. Yeah. But I think I know how I feel. Pisces.”
Yvlon held out a hand. Pisces looked at it. Slowly, he extended his arm and shook her hand. Yvlon smiled. Pisces smiled too then yelped.
“My hand! My hand!”
He wrestled his hand free before Yvlon could crush his fingers. She laughed. She’d forgotten how good it felt to have an arm again! She swung her arm up and Ceria looked over.
“Oh! Did Pisces fix your arm, Yvlon? Careful.”
“I’m fine, Ceria. Pisces did an excellent job. How’s it going in Liscor?”
“Good! The fighting’s over. The City Watch is combing the streets, but it looks like they fought off the Raskghar fairly quickly. But there are dead. And missing.”
Both adventurers came over. Pisces massaged his hand as he stared at Ceria. The half-Elf nodded, her expression serious.
“Gnolls. All the Drakes that the Raskghar attacked were killed, but no one’s found the Gnoll bodies. They think they’ve been carried into the dungeon, but as for why…? That Venim guy from Pallass is talking with the others. Doubt we’ll hear any of it for a while.”
“In that case, I shall devote myself to clearing up my ah, tools. Such as they are.”
Pisces gestured to the pile of bear bones. Ceria glanced over and Yvlon held her breath, but neither she nor Ksmvr saw that the bone pile had been somewhat reduced.
“You do that. Hell, there’s blood to clean up too. Dead bodies—we should probably help with that.”
She stared at the pile of Raskghar and Goblins. Yvlon grimaced.
“Toss them into the water and let the fishes eat them?”
“Works for me. Hey Pisces, can you make an undead to do the lifting?”
“I could, but I have about one bear’s worth of bones left intact.”
Pisces grumbled as he inspected the yellowed pile of bones. Ksmvr sat up, looking concerned.
“Only one? But then our three-fold offensive line of bears is no longer a workable strategy. Captain Ceria, this may affect all our tactics moving forwards! May I request an immediate hunt to slaughter as many bears as possible?”
“Uh—you can request that, Ksmvr. But finding bears is not high on our list of things to do. Pisces will just have to make do for now. If we find other animal bones he can use those. But you know what the Adventurer’s Guild says. No using people.”
Yvlon nodded. She could agree with that restriction entirely. But as she looked at Pisces, she once again had a crazy thought. She coughed.
He looked up.
“Do you remember what Selys told you? There was a list of bones you couldn’t use, remember? All kinds of species?”
“I well remember. It is a tiresome restriction, but I understand the necessity of the law and I will abide. A shame I cannot use convicted criminals or bandits but I understand the difficulty of identifying ah, remains.”
Yvlon nodded absently as Ceria made a disgusted face.
“Right. But I think there’s a loophole you can exploit.”
“If you are referring to using Lizardfolk, I am afraid—”
“Pisces. Look down.”
The mage glanced down at the floor. He stared at the dried blood, and then followed it to the fallen corpses. Raskghar. And Goblins. He stared at them and then at Yvlon. She raised her eyebrows. Pisces blinked.
“I believe I am growing fonder of you by the minute, Miss Byres.”
“Thanks. I think.”
Yvlon turned, smiling, as Pisces walked over to the bodies and began inspecting them, muttering about tossing them into the lake anyways to ‘clean’ the bones. She looked at Ksmvr and Ceria. Both Antinium and half-elf were staring at Yvlon with gaping mouth—or open mandibles as the case may be. She shrugged.
The Wandering Inn was not quiet in the hours after the Raskghar attack. It was late night turning into day, but no one was asleep. And in fact, the inn received more than a few visitors. The first was Olesm, who rushed into the building with several [Guardsmen] and a group of Gnolls that included Krshia in tow.
“Erin! Are you okay? Are you—”
He stopped as he saw the Raskghar and Goblin bodies and looked around frantically for Erin. She turned and waved to him.
“Olesm! I’m so glad you’re al—”
All the wind left Erin’s lungs as Olesm ran across the room and practically tackled her with a hug. She hugged him back as Krshia exhaustedly staggered over to a table with the others.
“I’m okay! I’m okay, Olesm! Are you safe? Where’s everyone else? What happened?”
As she and Olesm talked, Lyonette hurried out of the kitchen. She had a plate full of rare, bloody hamburgers steaming hot and she placed it in front of the Gnolls and [Guardsmen].
“Krshia! Are you okay? Here—we’ve got food! Let me get you some drinks!”
The Gnolls’ eyes widened and six furry hands immediately shot for the food. The City Watch grabbed desperately too, and for a few moments everyone was eating ravenously. Lyonette filled mugs rapidly and sent Mrsha running over to shove the drinks on the table. No one minded the mess. They ate, sat back, and became living people again, rather than wet, exhausted warriors.
“Thank you, Lyonette. We have been searching the city for hours. We are well. Those damn Raskghar, they attacked here, yes?”
“They did. The Horns fought them off. So did the Goblins.”
The Redfang Goblins turned. Shorthilt and Badarrow had come down from the rooftop, as had Bird, now that Liscor was secure. They were milling about and Bird was squatting by Ksmvr and Pisces who were trying to figure out how to debone the corpses.
“They are fish bait? But they look like bird bait to me. We should leave them in the water and see if water birds come to eat them.”
“The trick will be retrieving the bones when eaten. I might suggest deboning the corpses or ripping the bones out with [Necromancy] or telekinetic magic, but that would be inefficient. Also, messy.”
Lyonette grimaced and tried not to listen. She served more food until the exhausted Gnolls and [Guardsmen] just sat around in a coma at the tables. By which time more people had come though from Liscor.
Jelaqua strode into the inn, her armor blazing with fire. She looked around, realized there was no danger, and deactivated the Heartflame Breastplate. Moore and Seborn ran in after Jelaqua. All three Halfseekers looked tired, but unharmed.
“We fought two groups of Raskghar in the city. Both times they fled after we cut them down a bit. Not one of them got past the armor. I was worried you’d been attacked, but we kept seeing the Raskghar and chasing after them. Glad you lot were here.”
The Selphid leaned over the table Ceria and Yvlon were sitting at. Ceria coughed, blushing.
“Well, the Goblins did a lot of the work.”
The Halfseekers glanced at the Redfang Warriors and then away. Jelaqua shook her head.
“Good for them. Hey, Lyonette! Can we get something to eat? I’m starving. There’ll be more people coming too. Ylawes was worried when I spotted him. I saw Halrac on the walls, too. He’ll be along I bet.”
She was right. The Silver Swords and Griffon Hunt both appeared in due time, both groups to check up on Erin. And Yvlon, in Ylawes’ case. Of course, Revi claimed she’d been dragged along by Halrac, but she did check to make sure Mrsha was there before she demanded hot food and a towel.
It was strange, but Erin’s inn only kept getting more crowded as people came by to make sure she was safe, which in turn saved her from having to go out and see if they were safe. Klbkch and Relc stopped by on patrol—Relc grabbed eight hamburgers to ‘share’ and ate three on the way out—Pawn appeared with Yellow Splatters and several Painted Soldiers on the same mission, and even Selys and Drassi appeared with Ishkr in tow.
“Oh Erin! I was so worried about your inn! And Selys said the streets were safe, so we came here and found Ishkr along the way! Do you need help? Are we getting paid for this? No, wait—let me.”
Drassi chattered as she went to help the besieged Lyonette at the counter. They were actually running out of pre-made food and Erin was hurrying to the kitchen to feed the masses when Wall Lord Ilvriss walked in. She stared at him, bemused and touched.
“Ilvriss! Were you worried about us, too?”
The Wall Lord jumped. He was accompanied by a group of his followers. He glared at Erin and adjusted his sword belt unnecessarily.
“Hardly, Human. I just heard that Watch Captain Venim was here and I wanted to speak with a representative of Pallass. And…I was looking for young Swifttail. There he is.”
He pointed at Olesm, who jumped guiltily. Erin smiled.
“Well, can I get you food? Drinks? A towel?”
Ilvriss nodded and then caught himself. He wrinkled his nose at the dead Raskghar and Goblins. They still hadn’t been removed—Pisces was arguing with Jelaqua, who wanted to ‘try’ one of the Raskghar out.
“You may start by clearing those corpses out of the inn. And removing the blood.”
“Ew. Right. Pisces! Get rid of those bodies!”
The [Necromancer] looked up. He sighed and stopped trying to fend Jelaqua off. Ceria pushed herself to her feet.
“Yeah, let’s get rid of them. Pisces, you can figure out what to do when we dump them outside. Ksmvr, Yvlon?”
She turned. The other Horns of Hammerad got up. Pisces grumbled, but helped lift the first Raskghar with Yvlon’s help. He grunted and, red-faced with exertion, staggered to the door. Mrsha opened it and the adventurers disappeared outside.
The Redfang Goblins also got up and began hauling the Raskghar in pairs. That only left the Goblins. Ceria wrinkled her nose as she stared at the motionless form in front of her. She tried not to think of the Goblin as being like Rags, although it was small. This one had tried to gut her with a shiv. She bent.
“Come on, Ksmvr.”
The Antinium dutifully bent and reached for the Goblin’s arms while Ceria grabbed the legs. The Antinium lifted—
And the Goblin’s eyes opened. It sat up with a gasp, clutching at its bleeding chest. Ksmvr leapt back and Ceria shouted in surprise. The Cave Goblin stared around wildly, its little red eyes wide. It focused on the adventurers, the room full of enemies, and froze. Then, quick as a flash, it bolted.
There was no thought to it. The Goblin ran instantly. And because it was moving on instinct, it ran right into the kitchen rather than out the door. Yvlon heard a shout of alarm from within and the Cave Goblin reemerged from the kitchen. Erin dashed out, a cleaver in hand.
“A Goblin! One of them is alive!”
Everyone in the inn shot to their feet as the Goblin fled, screaming. Halrac raised his bow and half the warriors in the room aimed at the Goblin, but they stopped as Erin shouted.
“Don’t kill it! Capture it!”
Ilvriss snarled at Erin. He drew his sword and froze as she pointed at him. The air grew heavy and Ilvriss’ tail thrashed. He turned, pointed, and Erin staggered back as if he’d kicked her in the chest.
“Do not do that again!”
“Don’t kill it!”
Moore obligingly reached down, but the Goblin leapt over his hand and ran for the door. Revi snapped.
“Well someone stop it! It’s getting away!”
The door was open. The Goblin fled through it as Ksmvr leapt and missed. The Cave Goblin sprinted out into the rain and then reappeared through the doorway. Upside down. Headscratcher walked back into the inn, dripping with rain. He was holding the Cave Goblin by the ankle as it screamed and twisted. He stared around.
The inn waited. Headscratcher paused. The other Redfang Goblins came in behind him, and then Pisces and Yvlon. The [Necromancer] sneezed and then stared at the Goblin.
“Ah. Well, this is interesting.”
Numbtongue, Headscratcher, Badarrow, Shorthilt, and Rabbiteater stood around the terrified Cave Goblin as Headscratcher held it up by one leg. The other guests of the inn looked from the Goblin to Erin. Revi was the one to say it.
Erin stared at the Cave Goblin. It was fighting to get free, slashing at Headscratcher with a stone shiv. He didn’t seem to mind—he was dangling it out of reach and every time it tried to sit up he shook the Goblin until it hung in the air, gasping for breath. Ilvriss looked disgusted.
“Goblins are bad enough. That…creature was part of the attack on the city. There are citizens—Gnolls—missing as we speak! Kill the wretched creature or throw it outside if you must, Human. But do not sully our presence with it one moment longer.”
There were nods of agreement, not just from the Drakes sitting around Ilvriss. Erin looked at Headscratcher. The Goblin was watching her carefully. She opened her mouth and Olesm cut in. The Drake had gone wide-eyed as he stared at the Cave Goblin and now he raised one hand for everyone’s attention.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss, unless I am very much mistaken, I believe that Goblin is worth far, far more to us alive than dead. We are in need of information following the Raskghar attack. We captured no Raskghar alive to my knowledge. That Goblin could have all the intelligence we seek.”
One of the [Guardsmen] chuckled as if Olesm had made a joke. The Redscar Goblins stared at him flatly. Ilvriss sighed. He smiled patiently at Olesm.
“Information? Young Swifttail, I appreciate your line of thought, but interrogating a Goblin is a fruitless task. Coercing Goblins is surprisingly difficult and more to the point, it is impossible to communicate—”
He broke off because Olesm was staring at him. Just staring. Ilvriss hesitated and looked back. Towards the Cave Goblin. And the Goblins. The Redfang Goblins stood around the wriggling Cave Goblin. Numbtongue was picking his ears. The Hob paused as all eyes turned towards him. Ilvriss’s tail twitched.
He cleared his throat.
“Yes, Wall Lord?”
“Send a Street Runner to collect Watch Captain Zevara, Wing Commander Embria, ah… Guildmistress Tekshia, and Watch Captain Venim please. Tell them we have a possible source of information of the highest priority.”
“At once, Wall Lord.”
Olesm nodded to a [Guardsman] and the Drake hauled himself to his feet. Ilvriss didn’t quite meet anyone’s eyes as Olesm and the [Guardsman] ran out into the dark and rainy streets of Liscor. He sat at his table and cleared his throat a few times.
“Excellent talent, that young Swifttail. Excellent. A real credit to his species. A [Strategist] worthy of the name. Indeed. Ahem. Did someone mention a drink?”
It was as full as Erin’s inn had ever gotten in the old days. Of course, since these were the new days and she had the [Grand Theatre] Skill, her inn was still fairly spacious. However, everyone was packed onto the tables at the front of the room, leaving the back wide open. Every eye was on the Cave Goblin who’d been tied to a chair. The little Goblin was practically frothing at the mouth with fear and the bucket sitting below her chair was a testament to the loincloth-wetting fear it was in.
The mood in the rest of the inn was…well, it wasn’t tense, but it wasn’t relaxed either. Gnolls were missing. Liscor had been attacked. Again! It seemed like they couldn’t get a break. Only this time, the threat hadn’t disappeared with the end of the fighting like the moths. The Raskghar had retreated, and so what was taking place in the inn was a war council.
Everyone of note was present. All three Gold-rank teams, Tekshia, Zevara, Venim, Ilvriss, Embria, Olesm, Drassi—alright, some of the people present were there for other reasons, but the Drake population spoke to the gravitas of the moment. They were all appointed officials, and the fact that they were all Drakes was not lost on Pisces.
“Speciesism at its finest. At least they have deigned to include Miss Krshia, Guardsman Klbkch, and the Gold-rank adventurers in the discussion.”
Pisces whispered to Ceria as they sat near the back of the war council. They were, in fact, sitting behind a few plumper, older Drakes who were actually on Liscor’s council. Pisces’ whisper reached their ears and the Drakes turned to frown at Pisces. So did Ceria.
He sniffed, which was all the commentary he really needed and stood up to get a drink. Erin was catering the council and she’d elected to serve people buffet style. Pisces wandered over to a table and stared at a devilled egg. He saw a little furry paw reach up and snatch it. Pisces peered under the tablecloth and found Mrsha sitting under the table. With Bird.
“Hello Pisces. I am hiding with Mrsha. I am not sure why, but it is fun.”
The [Necromancer] waited for his heart to stop pounding before he lowered the tablecloth and turned without another word. He looked into a pair of yellow, reptilian eyes. Selys paused with a fish flake in one claw.
“Oh, it’s you. You’re alive?”
Pisces paused and straightened his robes.
“Ah, Miss Selys. It is good to see you well. You are unharmed, I trust?”
She nodded and glanced at the tablecloth.
“I survived. Hid in my apartment until I heard the all-clear. Been working at the Adventurer’s Guild sorting things out until Olesm called for grandmother to come here. She pulled me over too.”
She gestured at the hiding Mrsha and Bird as they peeked out and grabbed more food before hiding once more.
“You saw them too? Nearly scared the scales off my tail when I saw Bird down there.”
“There is something about seeing a crouching Antinium hiding in the darkness that wakes one up. I take it you are participating in this meeting as well?”
Selys lifted up the roll of parchment and quill in her other hand and grimaced as she chewed on the fish flake.
“I get to write everything down. My grandmother has me doing it.”
“Ah. Guildmistress Tekshia Shivertail.”
Pisces glanced across the room at the elderly Drake who was giving him the evil eye. Tekshia looked away and Selys sighed.
“She hates your guts.”
“I had noticed. Well, I am quite interested in what we shall learn from this…interrogation.”
Pisces nodded to the Cave Goblin tied up in the center of the room. Olesm was standing next to the Redfang Goblins, nervously calibrating a truth detection stone while the Hobs spoke to the little Goblin. The rest of the room was abuzz with idle conversation as Selys and Pisces made their way forwards. Everyone was waiting to find out what the Goblin knew, but that relied on the Redfang Goblins finding out first. And they seemed to be having trouble. Pisces inferred this detail from the way an impatient Badarrow and Shorthilt lifted the Goblin and chair up and began shaking it violently upside down as it screamed and thrashed and then, threw up.
“Aw, come on guys! Don’t be mean! Just ask it what it knows!”
Erin made the Redfang Goblins stop and put the dizzy Cave Goblin right-side up. Numbtongue, the translator, growled and shook his head.
“It not saying. It is not talking. To us.”
“Well, can you make it talk? I mean, her?”
Pisces blinked at the little Goblin. Was it a she? He could barely tell, but yes, the Goblin did have a modest breast band to go with the filthy loincloth it was wearing. Numbtongue shrugged.
“We can make her talk. With more shaking.”
“Oh come on. What if we tried being nice?”
The Redfang Goblins looked at each other and then laughed. Erin sighed and Pisces smirked. Selys elbowed him.
“Stop laughing. Erin’s too nice for this.”
Pisces rubbed his side.
“That is precisely why I am so amused. It is because of her kindness that we are in this position. No one else would have spared the Goblin. Possibly not even her own kind. And yet, that kindness goes at odds against the Goblin’s own culture.”
“Yeah? Looks like they’re just bullying the little Goblin.”
Selys eyed the Hobs as Headscratcher made a fist and waved it under the Cave Goblin’s nose. It shrieked and Pisces sighed.
“You think so? Goblins normally do not have to threaten each other to get their way. They are a hierarchical species and rarely bully each other. This is an exception—the Cave Goblin is refusing to answer their questions. She is insulting the Hobs by denying that they are, in fact, Goblins.”
Selys looked at Pisces in surprise. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“How do you know that?”
The [Necromancer] tapped one ear as the Cave Goblin babbled a high-pitched string of gibberish at the Hobs and Headscratcher replied with clear annoyance in his tone. Selys stared at the Goblins and then looked at Pisces in disbelief.
“You taught yourself Goblin? Why?”
“Curiosity. It was more of a hobby than anything else. You will recall that Erin often invited Rags and her small retinue of Goblins to the inn? I occasionally listened to them converse and made a small dictionary of words. It was an amusing puzzle, although I admit, Goblin language is more complex than I had previously understood.”
“And again, why would that help you at all? I mean, really?”
“The Goblins have secrets, Miss Selys. I wished to know some of them. Secrets are important. Valuable. They are the dark lifeblood of this world. They run thicker than blood and are worth far more than gold.”
Selys rolled her eyes.
“Ancestors, that’s pretentious. And what big secrets do Goblins have?”
The young Human man smiled.
“Well, this one has enough to attract the attention of a Wall Lord, three high-ranking Drake officials, a room full of adventurers, and your good self. Is that enough?”
Selys opened her mouth, swished her tail a few times, and then raised a clawed finger.
“Alright. You get that one. Just what are the Goblins talking about?”
Pisces frowned. His command of the Goblin language was more rudimentary than he’d like to admit. However, he knew a few words and he could infer a lot from body language, which was how Goblins communicated mainly anyways. He hesitated and stroked his chin.
“I think she’s asking whether they’re Goblins.”
The Drake [Receptionist] looked at Pisces in disbelief.
“Are you serious?”
Pisces nodded. He spoke slowly as the Goblins argued back and forth.
“She keeps repeating a word. The Goblin word for…well, their people. And whenever…Headscratcher, I believe that one is…says the word for Hobgoblin, she shakes her head. Indeed, she is saying ‘not Goblin’. They are not Goblins. That is a potent insult in Goblin culture, I believe.”
Selys slowly unrolled the piece of parchment. She balanced the inkpot on her arm and began to write as she stood with Pisces. She saw several heads turning as well as the ambient noise died down. Halrac, all the Gnolls, Ceria, Falene, and those sitting or standing around Pisces, turned their heads and listened as Pisces went on.
“Yes, the initial argument that Erin interrupted…seems to be all about that. I think the Goblin is willing to talk—very willing—but the Redfang Goblins are angry about being called not Goblin.”
“Are you serious? They’ve been arguing for the last ten minutes about this! Can’t they get past it?”
“I very much doubt it. The Hobs are insistent on being called Goblins. And on being treated with respect, since they are higher in the Goblin society than the Cave Goblin.”
And indeed, the Redfang Warriors were explaining this to the Cave Goblin in a gabble of words, and actions that involved chest thumping, Headscratcher striking a pose, and rapid gestures. The little Goblin’s eyes went wide. Pisces’ own eyes narrowed.
“She’s never seen a Hobgoblin before. Fascinating.”
“Get out. Almost every Goblin tribe has at least one Hob. Even the smallest ones! She has to at least have heard of a Hob—”
“Apparently not. Look. I think they have resolved the issue.”
The Redfang Goblins were nodding in satisfaction to Erin. She nodded as the Cave Goblin babbled up at Numbtongue and he replied. Ilvriss, who had been talking quietly with Zevara, turned.
“Is the Goblin finally willing to talk? At last. Then I declare this war meeting begun. Keep the monster quiet until we have need of it.”
Pisces rolled his eyes as Ilvriss took the center of the room. The [Necromancer] stepped back and he and Selys found a table. As the Drake scribbled notes, the meeting began, with the Drakes taking charge of the discussion. Selys had to painstakingly write everything in short-hand, her quill skimming across the parchment. Pisces for his part amused himself by condensing the long-winded discussion down into the appropriate key points as he saw them.
The council started by outlining what was obvious. The Raskghar had attacked both the inn and Liscor. Troublingly, they’d also attacked some of the outlying settlements such as the villages on hills. Reports were spotty given the darkness, but it looked like at least one hilltop was in ruins, the inhabitants dead…or missing.
What was known about the Raskghar was that they had attacked and kidnapped Gnolls while killing Drakes for reasons unknown. Krshia related the legend of the Raskghar in brief—they were ancient offshoots of the Gnollish race who had warred with the Gnolls and lost their ability to level in exchange for brute power. More importantly, they regained sapience each full moon. And it appeared that sentience was putting it mildly.
“Those bastards launched a coordinated attack and moved in small groups. They ambushed my [Guardsmen] on patrol—even disguised themselves as Gnolls when moving through the city. One of the Raskghar spoke, and apparently learned our language in moments after hearing it. They’re stronger, faster, and tougher than they were reported being in the past.”
Zevara pounded a fist on her table. She had a cut over her right brow. Embria looked vexed as she sat next to her father. Relc was scarfing down food until she elbowed him in the stomach.
“A creature that grows stronger with each full moon. What kind of strange ability is that?”
Everyone looked at Erin. She looked around disbelievingly.
“Oh, come on. You mean you’ve never heard of werewolves? Really? Dudes that change from Human into uh, furry dudes each full moon? They look sort of like Gnolls. Except more wolfy. I think.”
The Gnolls present in the room looked troubled. The Drakes and adventurers conferred and then shook their heads. Embria looked sharply at Erin.
“We’ve never heard of these…werewolves. Elaborate, Miss Human. Please.”
“It’s only a legend where I come from. I’ve never seen one myself. But, well…werewolves change forms each full moon. They grow stronger, tougher, and they heal really fast. Sort of like Raskghar. Oh, and they transmit their uh, werewolf powers by biting people. I think. It’s like a disease.”
Zevara shook her head.
“Similar to the Raskghar legend. But different. I haven’t heard any of the wounded complain, but I’ll keep them under watch. Is that all, Erin?”
“Yes. Well, no, actually. There’s one thing about werewolves. They have a weakness. Silver.”
Everyone in the room leaned forwards at that. Erin nodded.
“Silver really hurts werewolves. Don’t know if it’d kill Raskghar better. They uh, seem to die with or without silver weapons. But it might be worth looking into.”
“Silver weapons. Why would anyone make a blade out of silver?”
Embria looked blank. It was Ylawes who cleared his throat.
“To hunt vampires, Wing Commander. If it’s silver you want—I have a silver alloyed blade right here.”
He drew his longsword and placed it on the table.
“Oh, so you’ve got vampires but not werewolves? How does that make sense?”
Perhaps only Pisces paid attention to Erin’s muttering. No—not only him. He noticed Typhenous looking at Erin before he like everyone else turned back to Ylawes. The [Knight] was explaining to Embria what the blade meant.
“In centuries—perhaps millennia past, vampires were a common threat. My family, House Byres, made specially crafted arms to deal with them and my family were known enemies of their kind. The last vampires were sighted four hundred years ago, I believe, which has reduced the need for silver arms, but Byres steel always incorporates a bit of silver into the metal in this tradition.”
“Huh. So does it work?”
“Sadly, I never had a chance to wound one of the Raskghar. My team elected to protect a large group of civilians during the night and Falene killed or chased away any Raskghar before they could close with us.”
Ylawes looked apologetic. Embria grunted.
“That’s a shame. But—fine. We’ll see if silver hurts these things later. What else?”
The conversation swung back to damage on the city, reports of wounded and missing. Liscor had endured another attack and one of the Drakes on the council, the head of the Merchant’s Guild, was particularly upset.
“Why is Liscor under attack? Why must we endure assault after assault? It’s all because of this dungeon! The dungeon that the Antinium never warned us about!”
He pointed to Klbkch accusatorially, his finger shaking with outrage. Klbkch didn’t react and it was Zevara who came to his defense.
“The Antinium are our allies, Council Member Ulseil. I would ask that you refrain from making any allegations…at this point.”
Ulseil hesitated, but sat as Zevara glared at him. She was in charge in a definite way, Pisces noted. That was in keeping with Drake tradition—a Watch Captain was second to only a [General] when it came to the defense of their home city.
“Revalantor Klbkch. Do you have any information to add about the Raskghar threat?”
Ilvriss looked like he was chewing sour toads as he addressed the Antinium. Klbkch stood up and spoke in a calm, carrying voice.
“I regret the attack on Liscor as much as any other citizen. In my capacity as Senior Guardsman Klbkch and as Revalantor of the Free Antinium Hive, I am authorized to share all the information my Hive has on the Raskghar. Unfortunately, that is very little. The Antinium Hive has regularly fought off monster waves, but all the Raskghar encountered inevitably attack in small groups with other monster species. It is an unusual phenomenon that has sometimes seen Raskghar fighting side-by-side with Crypt Lords and other species that would not normally ally under any circumstances—only to tear each other apart at a later date.”
“A function of the dungeon, perhaps?”
The Drakes looked to the Gold-rank adventurers who shrugged noncommittally. Klbkch went on.
“As for a coordinated attack…the Hive was not assaulted in any capacity during the night. The Raskghar seem to avoid the Hive. I believe that this may be due to their understanding of the dangers of the Hive, or the fact that no Gnolls live within the Hive.”
A brief silence fell as Klbkch found his seat. One of the other Council members, a Drake with light pinkish scales, complained softly.
“Why Gnolls? It isn’t as if we have enough problems. Now we have to look for—”
Someone shushed her. In the silence, Ilvriss looked around wearily. He focused on an elderly Drake sitting near the back of the crowd.
“Guildmistress Tekshia? Do you have anything to add?”
The elderly Drake looked up. Her voice crackled as she sat up in her chair. She was eating from a plate of cookies Erin had taken out. Pisces had not seen anyone else eating one. Not even Mrsha.
“I hear a lot of whining. What do you want me to say? The Raskghar are dangerous? Bah. Stop complaining you thin-scaled cowards. You’ve weathered two—three attacks and you’re upset? You lack perspective.”
Her gaze went around the room. She pushed her plate back, noticed the white furry head appear over the side of the table and smacked Mrsha’s paw away and yanked her plate back. Tekshia covered it protectively with one claw as she spoke.
“Someone explain it to them. One of you Gold-ranks. I call on the most senior adventurer in this room besides myself.”
“Ah. Well then—”
Falene rose gracefully to her feet, smiling as everyone looked at her. She opened her mouth and Tekshia threw a cookie at her.
“Not you, half-Elf. I said senior adventurer, not oldest. Which one of you is it?”
Every eye swung to Halrac. He grunted.
He looked to his left. Typhenous stroked his beard and smiled, but shook his head.
“I haven’t adventured as long as the esteemed Miss Ivirith.”
He nodded and every eye focused on the Selphid. Jelaqua stood up slowly. She grinned, the pale, dead Drake’s face she wore stretching into a toothy grin as her tail twitched a bit in embarrassment.
“Guess that’s true. Hi. Most senior adventurer here.”
“You? But how old is—”
Erin looked between Typhenous and Jelaqua. The Selphid grimaced.
“I’m fifty one years old. I’ve been adventuring for about thirty three years, which beats Typhenous.”
“By six years. I retired and came back to adventuring twice. And while I may claim to be older than Miss Ivirith, I am afraid that she has more experience than I.”
Typhenous stroked his white beard and smiled. Jelaqua sighed. She looked at Tekshia.
“You want me to say it?”
The old Drake nodded. Jelaqua scratched the spines on the back of her head.
“Alright. Fine. Most Gold-rank adventurers have to say stuff like this. What Guildmistress Tekshia wants me to say, I guess, is that…well, this is normal.”
Everyone looked at the Selphid. Jelaqua raised her hands awkwardly.
“You think this is unique to your city? You think other cities don’t have this problem? You have a Gold-rank dungeon sitting right next to your city. Under it. I’ve seen cities in Baleros fall to a Silver-rank dungeon located ten miles away! Dungeons are bad news. Getting hit over and over is—well, it’s what happens. This is like a siege. A siege from the dungeon. Cities often mobilize their armies to defend themselves. A bad dungeon isn’t just as bad as an enemy army. Sometimes it has multiple armies waiting to come out. So yeah. This is normal. Sorry.”
Jelaqua sat back down. The citizens of Liscor stared at her in horror. It was Ilvriss who broke the silence.
“It seems we have underestimated the nature of the threat once more. We assumed that the water would hold most of the monsters at bay and entrusted the effort of subjugating the dungeon to the Gold-rank adventurers. And while it is true that they have made progress, such as identifying and neutralizing the Shield Spider nest, this latest threat goes beyond any one team. To that end, I am requesting formal permission from Liscor’s Council to instate cooperation bounties on Liscor’s dungeon.”
Pisces paused, caught off-guard by the unfamiliar term. Selys looked up sharply and all the Gold-rank adventures looked up. Tekshia nodded, but the other Drakes looked blank. Zevara frowned.
“I’m not familiar with that term. Would someone explain what a cooperation bounty is?”
“I shall explain.”
Olesm cleared his throat nervously.
“A cooperation bounty is a practice put in place by cities in need of continual aid against some form of threat, usually monsters. With it, any team who satisfies the requirements will earn a weekly fee for fighting against monsters and safeguarding the city. They must remain active, but this allows a city to attract adventuring teams en-masse. It’s uh, rather expensive.”
“We don’t have the coin for that!”
One of the Drakes on the Council protested. Wall Lord Ilvriss cleared his throat and spoke.
“Given the strategic nature of Liscor, I believe that the Walled Cities will offer monetary assistance. I speak for Salazsar at the very least, and so I am immediately allocating a discretionary budget of forty thousand gold pieces to hire any adventurers needed to take on Liscor’s dungeon. To begin with.”
Ilvriss stared around the room at the shocked faces. He adjusted one of the jeweled rings on his claws and went on.
“Salazsar is the richest of the Walled Cities. We will provide whatever funds are necessary to hire more adventurers, as will the other Walled Cities and lesser cites. If need be, I will pay the entire cost myself. It will not come to that, however. Drakes support Drakes. Now, to the matter of finding Liscor’s kidnapped citizens.”
He turned coolly to the Gold-rank adventurers as Pisces caught Ceria’s eye and saw her mouthing the word ‘forty thousand’ at him. He nodded, wondering how much the rumors of the Antinium’s designs on the dungeon had played into Ilvriss’ sudden generosity. He watched as the Wall Lord fixed Jelaqua, Halrac, and Ylawes with a cold stare.
“Your teams will enter the dungeon through the underwater rift and pursue the Raskghar. Find their nest. Recover the citizens of Liscor.”
“We don’t take orders.”
Halrac met Ilvriss’ eyes. The Wall Lord glared.
“There are lives at stake.”
The [Veteran Scout] didn’t blink.
“All the more reason to let us do our work. Our way.”
“And is speed a factor in your work?”
Ilvriss didn’t wait for a reply. He looked at Ylawes and Jelaqua.
“I will not sit by while the citizens of a Drake city perish. If duty will not obligate you, gold shall. In addition to the cooperation fees proposed, I am personally putting up a bounty. One thousand gold pieces for each citizen of Liscor you bring back alive.”
It might have been Ilvriss’ Skill to turn the room full of living people into statues. Pisces’ eyebrows were raised so high he felt as though they might disappear. Erin whistled softly, which in the quiet room was the only sound.
“That’s a big number.”
Ilvriss turned his head and stared impassively at Erin.
Then he looked back at the adventurers.
“You are Gold-rank adventurers. Humans or not. Other species or not. Your duty is to protect and I will demand that you enter the dungeon and attempt to save the lives of those missing, or I will petition the Adventurer’s Guild to remove your Gold-rank status.”
They met his gaze silently. The Wall Lord looked from face to face and then focused on Jelaqua.
“You bear the Heartflame Breastplate. Cowardice will not be tolerated.”
Cool as a winter breeze, Ilvriss turned. He looked over at the Goblins, forgotten in a corner of the room until now.
“Now, onto the last issue before us. Bring forwards the Goblin.”
The Redfang Warriors dragged forwards the Cave Goblin’s chair, waking the little creature up. She’d actually fallen asleep. When she saw Ilvriss staring at her she nearly wet herself again.
“Have it tell us all the information it has on the dungeon and the Raskghar.”
Ilvriss ordered Numbtongue. The Goblin looked irritable, but relayed the questions to the Cave Goblin. The little Goblin didn’t need any persuasion. She began to gabble and Numbtongue listened.
“Well, what’s it saying?”
Impatiently, Ilvriss looked at the Hob. Numbtongue grumbled. All the other Redfang Warriors looked at him. Headscratcher poked Numbtongue and the Goblin growled irritably. At last, pressured by dozens of stares, he spoke.
“She says the Raskghar control her tribe. She is Cave Goblin. She says the Goblins serve the Raskghar. They were ordered to attack—big stone city in middle of water. Liscor. And the inn.”
Everyone stared. Numbtongue’s words were surprisingly normal. Shockingly normal. He was more fluent than any Goblin that Pisces had ever met. Numbtongue glared around and folded his arms. He continued.
“She says Raskghar are very…very…”
He searched for the word. Erin frowned.
Olesm scratched his neck.
Numbtongue smirked at Embria. He shook his head and gave up.
“Very wanting. They want. They come up here for what they want. Other furry not-Raskghar.”
Krshia growled. The other Gnolls rumbled and the Cave Goblin shrank. Ilvriss held up a claw.
“They will not have them. Goblin.”
“Goblin. Where are the Raskghar located? How many of them live within the dungeon? What threats are there to be concerned of?”
Numbtongue looked away and refused to speak. Ilvriss stared at him. Erin coughed.
“Say his name.”
“Say his name.”
Ilvriss looked like he was about ready to stab Numbtongue to death. He ground his teeth as the Drakes muttered but eventually he spoke two grating words.
Instantly, the Hob turned to the Cave Goblin and issued a series of questions. Ilvriss sat, smoldering, as the Cave Goblin gabbled back. This time Numbtongue didn’t look so at ease. He looked around and shook his head.
“Raskghar have a lair deep within dungeon. She knows where, but there are many twists. Turns. And the lair is not always in the same place. The Raskghar are…ever moving. They change rooms.”
Numbtongue nodded in relief.
“Nomadic. They have many spots. And they spread out. To avoid…bad things finding them.”
“Bad things? Like what?”
The adventurers all wanted to know. Numbtongue shook his head, troubled.
“Very bad things. Army of walking metal things. Big red worms that steal flesh. Headsnatcher. Invisible monsters.”
Someone swore. Numbtongue nodded. He turned back to the Cave Goblin and asked one more question.
“There are…many Raskghar. Many.”
“How many is many?”
Numbtongue shrugged. He asked the Cave Goblin another question, but she clearly couldn’t answer. Numbtongue scratched his head and pointed around the giant common room. The Cave Goblin peered around and Numbtongue lifted her chair up with Shorthilt. She craned her neck and then gabbled a reply. Numbtongue’s eyes widened and he repeated the word. She nodded and he put her down. He didn’t want to speak after that.
“Well? How many?”
Ilvriss stared at Numbtongue. The Hob looked around. He looked at the ceiling, the floor, at his fellow Goblins, and then at his audience.
“She says that if this big room is a sleeping hall, then the main Raskghar camp would be six times this large.”
He pointed around the common room, enhanced by Erin’s [Grand Theatre] Skill. Slowly, his audience looked around the huge room, towards the distant stage at the back. This time Ilvriss was the one who swore. And as Lyonette quietly pointed out to Mrsha, it was a very bad word. But it was appropriate for very bad news.
“Okay, that’s a big room. But it still means that there’s only about a few thousand Raskghar.”
“In their main camp.”
“Well, how many camps do they have? And if there are so many, why don’t they all attack at once?”
“Because that would be suicide. No, they have the numbers to raid us rather than take a fight which they’d lose.”
“They’d only lose if they attacked us when they’re stupid. You show me a thousand of those things on a full moon and see who’s laughing.”
“If they’re in the dungeon they’re fighting other monsters as well. They might not even be the dominant species within the dungeon.”
“Oh, wonderful. Now you’ve got me wondering if there’s something worse than Raskghar and Face-Eater moths!”
Ksmvr sat at a table with Ceria and Yvlon and listened to the people argue. He did not join the argument. He was unqualified. After all, if Captain Ceria didn’t speak and Revalantor Klbkch only spoke a few times, what qualifications did he, a disgraced Prognugator exiled from his Hive, have? No. He listened to every word spoken, watching the anxious people debate and talk in circles.
They were afraid. It was a novel concept to Ksmvr. Not fear. He had been afraid when he had failed his Hive. He had been afraid every day since, of being unworthy, of losing his place with the Horns of Hammerad. But it was strange for Ksmvr to see so many others being afraid. Drakes, Gnolls, Humans—why were they afraid?
Ksmvr wanted to speak. He wanted to stand up and ask them why they feared the Raskghar. Yes, the monster attacks were unrelenting. Yes, Liscor had suffered. People had died and there was crisis yet again. But if he could speak he would ask them: ‘so what?’
So what? In Ksmvr’s head he stood and spoke, silencing the loud Drakes turning to Ilvriss and Zevara in fear. Why are you afraid of monsters? Yes, they are terrible. Yes they come again. And yes, this dungeon is a foe worthy of your city. But so what? You are equal to the challenge.
Did not Liscor defeat Skinner and the undead? Didn’t they vanquish a horde of Face-Eater Moths? Hadn’t they endured the worst the dungeon had to offer? And in those moments of despair, did they flee? No. Drakes and Gnolls fought. Antinium fought. That was Liscor’s strength.
Liscor had survived war. It had survived centuries of battle. It had fought off the Necromancer before Ksmvr had even been created. It had beaten back his people. The Black Tide had assailed Liscor and failed to take the city! Liscor had even survived the…water. How could they be afraid of monsters after all that?
Yes, the mood was dark. Yes, Liscor was in danger. But the monsters would be driven back. The dungeon was not an infinite beast of endless passageways. It had an end. It had a limit. The adventurers would enter the dungeon, claim its treasures, lay waste to the traps and monsters within. And when that day came, Liscor would know peace. They would emerge stronger for their trials. Someday the rain would stop. Someday Liscor would emerge proud and triumphant. So what if the night was dark and the rain fell?
That was what Ksmvr thought in his head. Of course, he did not say any of this out loud. He was well aware that he lacked the social understanding of his team. Captain Ceria was always telling him that. If he spoke now he would only embarrass his team. So Ksmvr kept silent. Better to let the people speak who knew what they were doing.
It seemed like there was a lot of shouting going on. Ksmvr saw the organized council meeting dissolve into panic. He stared at one of the Liscor’s Council as they dropped to the floor in a panic attack and another who screamed at Klbkch. He waited for someone to say the right words. No one did.
Maybe they didn’t know what they were doing. The thought terrified Ksmvr. But all the panicked people in the room seemed uncertain, even the adventurers. Even his Captain. His resolve not to do anything wavered. Ksmvr looked around as people panicked and said the same words over and over again. Slowly, he pushed back his chair. Someone had to say it. He rose to his feet and opened his mandibles to speak.
The door to Pallass opened. Ksmvr instantly sat back down. Thank goodness. He’d been about to humiliate himself. He saw Watch Captain Venim reenter the room. Relieved, Ilvriss turned from trying to shout everyone down. Venim looked around, saw the chaos, and raised his tail. He slapped the floorboards of the inn with a crack that drew everyone’s attention.
“Excuse me. Pallass has been appraised of Liscor’s situation. The Assembly of Crafts has carried a motion to aid Liscor.”
One of the Drakes looked at Venim. He nodded.
“In part. However, in light of the Raskghar threat, it was decided in a joint meeting by the Walled Cities that Liscor lacks the population of adventurers necessary for taking on a dungeon of this size. To that end, Pallass will send through adventurers to Liscor.”
The room stared at him. Venim went on as, behind him, Ksmvr spotted shapes marching through the lightening street towards the doorway.
“Some of the teams were already preparing to enter Liscor on their own terms. The rest have been conscripted under Drake law to aid in the subjugation of this dungeon. With your permission, Watch Captain Zevara, we will send them through.”
Zevara looked bewildered, but stood up and nodded.
“You have it, Watch Captain Venim.”
He nodded back and turned his head. Venim called into the doorway.
“Send them through!”
He stood to one side. Erin stared at Venim.
“Wait, more adventuring teams? But we already got the Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer. Wait—Gemhammer’s from up north.”
Venim gave Erin a long, exasperated look.
“Pallass is far larger than Liscor. Did you think the city held only two Silver-rank teams?”
“Uh…no? How many do you have, then?”
Erin turned as the first Drake strode into the room. He was wearing thick, plate armor burnished bright gold. His helmet was open to reveal his face and his scales were bright green. His breath smoldered and smoke poured from his mouth as he stepped through the doorway. He spat a jet of blue flame as three other Drakes wearing the same armor marched through.
The Drake in armor coughed smoke as his team strode forwards. They moved in perfect step and strode forwards towards Wall Lord Ilvriss. They paused before him. The Wall Lord stared at them and the Drake with blue flame saluted.
“Flamewardens. Gold-rank. Here to challenge Liscor’s dungeon.”
His companions saluted as well. And behind them stepped out another team. A pair of Drakes with large wings looked around imperiously. The female Drake bowed as her wings opened.
“The Wings of Pallass. Gold-rank. To protect the city.”
Behind them came another group. Drakes, wearing robes. The leader lifted a wand and traced a symbol in the air.
“Scaleshard Mages. Silver-rank.”
And behind them came more. Drakes walked through the door, some staring at the Redfang Goblins, others visibly recoiling from the Antinium. Ksmvr stared as they entered and lined up. Row after row of Drakes, Gnolls, and occasionally other species.
“Rhine of Blades. Bronze-rank.”
“Tempest Singers. Silver-rank.”
“The Tail of Xil. Silver-rank”
The people of Liscor stared. The adventurers, Erin, all stared in awe of Pallass’ adventurers as they came through in one unending mass. And at last they felt it. A break in the rainy sky. A glimmer of hope. Over a hundred adventurers entered Erin’s inn, fresh recruits from Pallass, from a Walled City itself. Some had come for glory, others for treasure, others because they had no choice. The reason mattered not. The tide had turned against the dungeon. Ksmvr looked around proudly. Pisces’ plan had worked!
After the last adventurer had come through, they stood, waiting for a signal, a benediction, thanks, anything. Ilvriss looked caught off-guard as anyone else, so the air of expectant patience grew strained. At last it was Jelaqua who broke the silence. She groaned and leaned back in her chair,.
“Aw, fuck. I hate competition.”