Ordinarily, on any other day, Erin would have been thrilled to have an inn full of guests. However, today just wasn’t that kind of day. She was tired, upset, ashamed of herself, and currently understaffed. Erin rushed from table to table with drinks as Drassi, Ishkr, and Lyonette all did the same. She was relieved none of the adventurers from Pallass were hungry, but everyone wanted a drink. They were sitting about, Drakes mainly, but a good number of Gnolls, chatting while the team leaders gathered around a table with Ilvriss and the other bigwigs, discussing strategy.
“Innkeep! Firebreath Whiskey for us over here!”
“Not for me! Rum if you have it!”
“Do you have any mild ales?”
“What about wine? Or…a fruit juice?”
That last came from a feathered bird-woman. Erin nearly dropped her tray when she saw the Garuda. The adventurers of Pallass hailed from the southern part of Izril, which was, again, mainly inhabited by Drakes and Gnolls. But exceptions always existed.
“We’ve got juice. What would you like?”
The Garuda brightened. She asked for Erin’s menu then chose some grape juice—which was one of the few juices Erin had, really. Fruit juice was expensive! Especially because it had a shorter shelf life than alcohol. Ironically, you could get a keg of alcohol for less than some good old-fashioned apple juice. Apple cider on the other hand…Erin wondered if she could find a nice farm around here willing to sell her fruits for cheap. Didn’t Ryoka say she’d visited a farm once?
She was distracting herself. Erin went over to her bar and filled a mug with juice. Mrsha popped up, surprising her.
“Oh, Mrsha. Do you want a drink?”
The little Gnoll shook her head. She took a mug, and filled it with ale. Then she scampered over to a table and offered it to a surprised Drake. Erin watched Mrsha run back. She felt her heart squeeze.
“You are so responsible! Good job!”
She patted Mrsha on the head and watched the Gnoll smile, then hurried back to the Garuda.
“Here’s your drink!”
“Thank you. I’d like to drink, but alcohol goes through me faster than normal. And it seems we’ll be busy soon.”
“You mean with fighting? The Raskghar are gone.”
The Garuda nodded. Her companions, Drakes with wings folded on their backs, blinked as Mrsha ran up with two mugs, slopping a bit over the sides. The Garuda sipped from her mug with her beak. She was strikingly brilliant—her feathers were a beautiful spring green color with white and slightly pink feathers patterning down her arms and legs.
Her entire body was covered in feathers and her clothing was minimal—like the Gnolls, she wore only enough for modesty. She had a shortsword by her side and carried what looked like a bag of holding at her belt and nothing else. She wasn’t even wearing armor like some of the Drakes who were practically clanking with metal.
“That’s true, Miss. But the dungeon remains. And that’s why we’re here. My team thought about entering it, but that’s not our usual forte so we held back. But duty is duty. Pardon me, I haven’t introduced myself. Bevussa Slenderscale. I’m with the Wings of Pallass.”
“Oh! The Gold-rank team? But you’re…and your name…”
Erin frowned, confused. Bevussa smiled.
“I’m adopted. My people are known as Garuda. They live on Chandrar almost exclusively, but I was abandoned as a chick and taken in by Drakes living in Pallass. Hence the name.”
Erin slapped her forehead.
“That makes sense! Sorry, I’m a bit muddled. I was fighting off giant angry Raskghar a few hours ago. I’m so glad you’re here. Your team are all Oldblood Drakes, aren’t they?”
She nodded at the others. The Drakes looked surprised that she knew the term for them. Bevussa smiled.
“Correct. We’re a rare group. I got in because I can fly. The others are all Oldblood, as is our, uh, leader.”
The Garuda nodded to the Drake who’d first introduced her group. Erin peered over at the Drake as she stood with the other adventurer leaders at the front of the group. The captain of The Wings of Pallass was tall for a Drake and striking with her wings folded at her back. Erin saw the other adventurers from Pallass giving her some respectful space.
“Wow. That’s cool. Sorry, I’d love to chat more, but I have to keep waiting tables.”
“Of course, Miss…”
The young woman turned and grinned.
“I’m Erin Solstice. This is my inn! Don’t mind the mess! Or the blood. Or the Hobs. We have a sign!”
She pointed at the prominent sign she’d propped up next to the bar. It was the copy of the one some of the adventurers had stared at as they’d entered the inn via Pallass. Bevussa eyed it.
“Huh. This is one weird inn. What do you think?”
She glanced at her teammates. The two Drakes stared at the Redfang Warriors who were doing their best not to attract any attention as they hauled the Cave Goblin—still tied to the chair—to a far corner of the room. One of the Drakes with purple scales and a scar running down the left side of her neck leaned over.
“We were told by that Watch Captain that this inn is unusual, Captain. It even has Antinium in it! Do you think all the inns in Liscor are like this? Or is this about the Antinium entering the dungeon?”
Bevussa grimaced and glanced around. All the other adventurers were busy gossiping. She leaned forwards.
“I told you not to call me that! When we’re in public, Issa’s the Captain, got it?”
Disgruntled, Bevussa leaned back in her chair and sipped from her drink. Probably every Gnoll in the room had heard her if they’d been listening in, but it was only the Drakes she was concerned about. She glanced around and then frowned.
“Why’s that Antinium staring at me?”
The adventurers standing around the table were in rapid conference with the officials from Liscor. All of them were team captains and almost all of them were Silver-rank or higher. A few were Gold-rank and they intimidated Ceria. She felt squished as she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Silver-ranks. Ceria also felt like a fraud as she looked around at the serious adventurers from Pallass.
Each one of them was an accredited leader of a Silver-rank team. Hell, even Pallass’ bronze-rank adventurers looked like they knew how to fight. Maybe the Drakes had a different standard for adventurers because Ceria had never seen so many scars on a Bronze-rank adventurer before. She shifted, stepped on someone’s tail, and winced. It was packed! At least the discussion taking place wasn’t that involved.
Halrac, Jelaqua, Ylawes, and four other Gold-rank Captains stood around the table. One of them, the huge Drake wearing plate armor who was the leader of the Flamewardens, spoke. His voice rasped and every time he coughed, smoke or blue flames issued from his mouth. He had a lot of space around him, despite the press of bodies.
“We’re honored to help, Wall Lord. And we’ve been appraised of Liscor’s situation. Our teams have studied the recordings of the Face-Eater Moth attack and we’re aware of the annual flooding. Obviously.”
Ilvriss nodded. The Wall Lord straightened in his chair, looking around importantly.
“And I thank you on behalf of Liscor. As Wall Lord of Salazsar, I personally guarantee all of the bounties promised by the Adventurer’s Guild will be met. Tell me, do you have a plan of attack?”
Halrac, Jelaqua, and Ylawes all shifted, looking annoyed. But the Captain of the Flamewardens nodded decisively.
“We have a clear dynamic to how this dungeon must be conquered. If these…Raskghar are strongest at night, we adventurers must move by day. Our team will enter as soon as day breaks. Until then, we will prepare. I’m told this inn isn’t part of Liscor. Where might we seek lodgings inside the city?”
The Wall Lord grimaced.
“There are a number of inns within the premises of Liscor. They are already quite full, but I personally reside at the Tailless Thief. I will speak with the innkeeper and see if any rooms can be made available. As for the other teams, they may have to seek lodgings with Celum if no more rooms can be found within Liscor.”
“Celum? Isn’t that a Human city a hundred miles north of here?”
The other adventurers were astonished. Ilvriss nodded coolly.
“It is. But this inn is unique. The magic door that transported you all here from Pallass will also transport anyone from Liscor to Celum.”
The adventurers stared at the door they’d entered and murmured. Ceria felt a bit of pride—even the Gold-ranks looked impressed. One of the Silver-rank Captains spoke up.
“Does the innkeeper have any rooms to let here?”
“Sadly, I believe they’re all occupied. By Goblins, no less.”
Ilvriss sighed. He looked around at the adventurers.
“I will remind you all that Liscor is allied with the local Antinium Hive. Furthermore, this inn itself has proven itself…useful, so the laws of Miss Solstice, the Human who owns it, are also to be respected. Aside from that, I am honored to see so many brave souls from Pallass arriving to assist Liscor in its hour of need. I personally wish you the best of luck in your expedition into the dungeon.”
“Thank you, Wall Lord.”
The Flamewarden’s Captain inclined his head and Ilvriss did the same. The Gold-rank adventurer looked at Jelaqua.
“We have a limited window of time before we commence the dungeon raid. Does the Adventurer’s Guild have any guides or maps of the dungeon, Miss Selphid? Or can we buy the information from your team?”
Jelaqua folded her arms, her tail tangling the legs of the Drakes standing beside her as it lashed.
“Bold, aren’t you? I thought only the Silver-rank teams were crazy enough to go into a dungeon without prepping.”
The Drake met her eyes levelly.
“We’re ready to fight. And my team hardly intends to go in alone.”
“Exactly. We’ve discussed the issue amongst ourselves and we’ve elected to go in strong. We’ll hit the rift the Raskghar came from. Not as one, but as a united front, yes?”
Another Gold-rank adventurer spoke up. Jelaqua glanced at the Gnoll.
“Your team too? I get that there’s safety in numbers, but this dungeon isn’t something to be underestimated! Fine, if it’s three Gold-rank teams or something…hells, how many are going in today?”
The adventurers looked at each other. The Flamewarden’s Captain bared his teeth and spat a bit of flame.
Over a hundred adventurers in her inn. Maybe two hundred? No. Over a hundred. Erin tried to guesstimate the numbers as she ran figures in her head. Guesstimate was a word, wasn’t it? It didn’t sound like it should be one. It sounded…fake.
And they were all going into the dungeon. All at once. Faced with that news, the other teams decided they’d join in too. After all, there might not be safety in numbers all the time, but if an army of adventurers was going in to save the missing Gnolls, you didn’t want to be the one team that stayed behind.
Erin’s stomach hurt as she thought of the missing Gnolls. It hurt harder as she remembered the Raskghar attack. She pushed the feeling down as she waved her hands desperately, trying to attract the attention of the mob of adventurers as they headed for the door to Liscor. They’d already left coins on the table for the drinks. Erin saw Lyonette sweeping them up and wondered how much they’d made already.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!”
They all looked at her. Erin smiled, feeling a bit of sweat run down her back.
“Uh. Hi. I’m Erin Solstice. I run this inn. I uh, hope you all go into the dungeon safe and sound.”
They stared at her. Awkwardly, Erin fumbled with a jar of thick blue soup and held it up.
“The thing is—I also sell stuff to adventurers. My inn is connected to an [Alchemist]’s shop in Celum, and I sell other stuff! Like magic food. I have this soup that makes you warm—uh, keeps you warm. It’s magic. And I have another dish that makes your skin tougher! Come back and try it! I’m selling it at a discount to anyone that needs it. [Guardsmen], adventurers—anyone!”
She looked at Zevara, who was waiting by the door with Relc and Klbkch. The Watch Captain eyed the blue soup and shuddered, but gave Erin a slight nod. The adventurers murmured and some came over to try her Corusdeer soup. Erin had a feeling that no one would want that soup when they entered the dungeon, so she willingly gave out samples and answered questions about whether her food would conflict with other magical enchantments and how long it would last and so on.
“That’s one way to do business. I wonder how many teams will buy from you. We’ll be buying some of your Scale Soup before we go.”
Jelaqua strolled over as the press of adventurers broke up around Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared into her mostly empty jar.
“It’s called Scale Salad now, actually, Jelaqua. I finally figured out how to make it taste a little better. The soup still has all those crunchy bits in it, but the salad’s…well it’s still got crunchy bits, but it tastes palatable. If crunchy.”
“Hey, whatever works. I can turn my taste buds off. And I think any adventurer would gargle rocks if it meant they’d survive an arrow to the chest.”
Jelaqua smiled. The Selphid looked at the press of adventurers lined up to leave Erin’s inn through either doorway and shook her head.
“Dead gods, what a mess. I guess this is a good thing but—damn it, I can’t say I enjoy seeing this.”
“What? All the other adventurers?”
The Selphid nodded, looking miserable.
“Competition. I feel like a stomach ulcer for saying it, but it’s true. All these other teams means we’ve got a lot less of a chance of making it big on the dungeon. Saving the Gnolls would be great, but—”
The Selphid shrugged. Erin nodded slowly. Jelaqua and her team—and Griffon Hunt—had invested a lot into this dungeon. They’d worked tirelessly. It had to be hard seeing so many adventurers come in right when they felt like they were making progress.
“Don’t be. The people come first. And it’s not like they’re stealing anything.”
Jelaqua smiled crookedly. Seborn came over and Moore edged around all the Drakes.
“Looks like we’re entering the dungeon. How much of that foul soup do you have, Erin?”
“I made it taste better! It’s a salad now—well, it looks like a salad if you squint. I’ll have to make a lot more today.”
Moore rumbled as he bent down, looking serious.
“Just be sure to take care of your inn first, Erin. I heard the Watch Captain speaking to Olesm and her [Guardsmen]. Liscor will be fortifying while the adventurers go in. You should do the same. We will be here tonight, but it would be better if you made some preparations. Especially for young Mrsha.”
Erin nodded seriously.
“I will, Moore. Don’t worry. That’s on the top of my list. That’s why I’m pitching to the adventurers, actually.”
It was for the money. Of course, Erin appreciated money in any circumstances, but right now she was desperate for as much as she could get. The Halfseekers left her inn with the Horns and the rest of the adventurers. They wanted to talk more with the new adventurers and most of them had agreed to meet up in the Adventurer’s Guild after they found a place to stay. That news made Selys swear a blue streak and mutter about crowds as long as an ancestor’s tail. She ran off after saying the briefest of goodbyes to Erin.
Suddenly, Erin’s inn was empty. She stared around and saw Lyonette, Drassi, and Ishkr cleaning up with Mrsha dutifully helping. The Redfang Goblins were sitting in a corner with the little Cave Goblin, chattering amongst themselves, and Bird and Klbkch were talking to each other. Aside from that, everyone had gone.
Erin sighed and felt a bit of the mad energy leave her. She looked around and realized that the room was lighter. The sun was rising into the sky and with it came light. Erin blinked at it and realized she hadn’t slept since the Raskghar attack! She wobbled and sat down at a table.
Only now did she feel exhausted. Only now did she remember last night, and let herself give into a bit of the guilt and fear that had been flooding her. Erin rested her forehead on her arm, suddenly too tired to move, but too worn down to sleep.
It was there that Rabbiteater found Erin. The Hob shuffled over, his water cloak swirling around his shoulders. The other Hobs were busy patting Headscratcher’s muscles and pestering Numbtongue to play them music on the mostly broken guitar. But Rabbiteater had noticed Erin’s slump and came over to check if she was dead. She was not, and when she saw the Hob come over, Erin sat up.
“Rabbiteater. Are you okay?”
The Redfang Warrior nodded. Erin eyed him from head to toe. He looked okay. But she remembered him kneeling on the ground, covered in blood as the Raskghar attacked. She spoke softly.
“I feel pretty useless.”
Rabbiteater stared down at Erin. Rather predictably, he didn’t say anything. He hesitated, and then pulled up a chair next to Erin. She glanced up and saw his red eyes staring at her.
Goblins had pupils. It was just that their eyes looked uniformly red at a distance. However, Erin had stared at enough Goblins to know that the whites of their eyes were red, as were the cornea. The pupils, by contrast, were the darkest part of their eyes. She saw Rabbiteater’s focus on her now. The Hob waited for Erin to speak.
“You saved me last night. You and the others. If you hadn’t been there, the Raskghar would have killed me.”
Headscratcher didn’t respond. Erin stared down at her hands.
“You saved me. I didn’t do…anything. I threw pots and pans and knives and those Raskghar just blocked or ignored everything. I’m sorry, Rabbiteater. If you hadn’t blocked them, they would have gutted me in a moment. I was so scared I couldn’t even use my aura on them.”
Erin remembered trying. She remembered throwing her kitchen knife, watching it slice the Raskghar’s arm, as useless as spit. She’d thrown a frying pan at the Raskghar next, but it had done almost nothing. For the first time Erin had been acutely aware of her weakness. She was an [Innkeeper]. Not a warrior. And the Hobs had nearly lost a fight against the Raskghar themselves. After a while, Erin went on.
“I was so very glad to see everyone was okay. Even Ilvriss’s jerk face. He is a good leader, you know. He just happens to be racist, arrogant, and hate cake. But he does care about Liscor.”
Rabbiteater nodded. Erin sighed and rubbed at her eyes.
“I can’t believe how unprepared I was. I thought I could do something if I got attacked. But I keep relying on you guys. It’s a class thing. But I should have done more to prepare. I hope you leveled from the fighting at least.”
She looked up. Rabbiteater nodded.
“That’s good. Really. I haven’t slept yet. But I don’t think I will. As innkeeping goes, defending my inn doesn’t seem like it earns me many levels. Anyways, I just wanted to say thank you.”
Rabbiteater shrugged and smiled. That was the Redfang Warriors for you. They were casual—no, modest about what they did. Erin sighed. Then she leaned over. She gave Rabbiteater a one-armed hug and the Hobgoblin froze. Erin grinned.
“You’re too shy, you know that? You and all the other Goblins.”
Then she got down to business. Namely, the business of defending her inn. Erin’s brows drew together sharply as she thought. The Raskghar would come back. Krshia had told everyone that. The full moon hadn’t even been full yesterday. That meant there would be more nights of attacks. More fighting. Erin was determined that last night’s desperate struggle wouldn’t happen again.
She needed defenses. More defenses than just Bird, that was. It was funny. She’d invested in an Antinium watch tower, Hobgoblin security, and she had two adventuring teams under her roof, but Erin hadn’t yet done anything as simple as setting out some traps. Surely there were some she could buy or manufacture, right?
Erin thought about traps. She thought about boiling oil, pitfalls, giant walls of spikes that swung out, and then thought about how realistic any of that was.
“Mm. Nope. I don’t have the budget for any of that. And I’m on a time limit. What can I put out that’ll really inconvenience a Raskghar coming my way?”
Rabbiteater scratched his head.
“Nail? Sharp rock?”
“Nails? I guess. That’d really hurt, yeah. Sharp rocks…caltrops, maybe? But who makes caltrops? Really? No, there’s gotta be something—”
Erin snapped her fingers together.
“Bear traps! Landmines? Nope. Bear traps. Uh…attack runes? I don’t think I’ve got time to hire anyone for those. So bear traps. They have those in Liscor, right? Krshia knows a lot of [Hunters]. She’s got to have something like that in stock. Hey, Lyonette! I need you to go shopping for something!”
Lyonette looked up, her arms full of empty mugs. She came over as Erin found a piece of parchment and began to write an order on it.
“What’s up, Erin?”
“I need you to buy something pronto. To defend the inn. Go to Krshia and see if she knows where they sell bear traps, okay?”
“Bear traps. They have them here, don’t they? Big, spiky things that go snap when something steps on them?”
Erin looked expectantly at Lyonette. The Human girl looked at Rabbiteater and the Hobgoblin shrugged. Erin’s face fell.
“Wait, they don’t have them?”
“Maybe they do. What do they look like?”
The [Innkeeper] frowned. She turned the bit of parchment over and fiddled with the stick of charcoal.
“Well, they’re like two steel jaws that close on anything that steps on them. I know it’s really cruel to animals, but if I was hunting like, giant Rock Crabs or something really evil…like a Troll? I’d use one of these. It looks…like this. See?”
Erin sketched out the bear trap on the parchment and held it up. Rabbiteater took the sketch Erin had made and looked at it dubiously. He tilted his head, frowned, and then turned the parchment upside down. That didn’t help.
“Hey, it’s not that bad!”
Lyonette looked at the parchment and frowned.
“It…are those teeth? I have no idea how that thing works. The teeth come together? How?”
“With a mechanism in the center! It’s like—okay, look. You have this thing here and if you step on it, the trap closes. Over your foot. Or your hand, I guess. Any part of you that lands on the trap, really. Look—does this make sense?”
Erin grumbled as she snatched the parchment back from Rabbiteater. She made another sketch and Rabbiteater began to see what she was talking about. Well, if she put it like that, it was easy, wasn’t it? Two spiky sides would close on anything that stepped on the little thing in the center. Unfortunately—
He grunted and shook his head. Erin looked disappointed.
“What? Why not?”
Rabbiteater pointed to the blueprints and pointed. He mimed the jaws of the bear trap closing on his foot and threw up his hands in surprise. Then he shrugged. Lyonette, who’d been frowning at the trap, came to the same conclusion and put it more succinctly.
“Erin, that trap won’t work. If someone steps in it, sure, it’ll hurt, but unless those blades are incredibly sharp, it won’t do that much damage. I guess it’d do some damage if it snapped really hard, but most times you’ll just step on that and…well, it might slow someone down.”
Erin was incredulous.
“On a bear trap? No way! Those jaws will snap shut and you won’t be able to open them!”
“Sure you can. You just pull the thing apart.”
“No, you can’t. See? It has these springs that’ll hold the jaws closed—”
“Springs? You mean…it jumps up or something?”
And then Erin ran into a problem. She paused as both Lyonette and Rabbiteater looked at her without a hint of comprehension on their faces.
“No, not spring. Springs. You know, the spiral things? Very flexible? Holds things together? Bouncy?”
She didn’t do a good job explaining what she meant. But it soon became clear that springs, or rather, the coiled version of springs that went in bed mattresses and so on, didn’t exist in this world. At least to Lyonette and Rabbiteater’s understanding.
“I’ve never seen one of those things before, Erin. You say this is a little metal coil all wrapped up, right? That sounds like very difficult work, even for a good [Blacksmith].”
“You’re right. You’re right.”
Erin groaned as she thought about how hard making a small spring would be. There was no mass production in this world, after all! She tore up the bear trap blueprints in disgust.
“Great! So I can’t defend this inn. Unless they make landmines here? How am I supposed to guard the inn this time?”
“Well, why not barricade the door?”
Lyonette looked towards the door. The Raskghar had smashed into the inn through the door last time, breaking the wooden latch on the door. Erin looked up.
“Well yeah, I could do that. I could put a big honking bar across the door, and maybe the [Reinforced Structure] Skill would hold it, but what about my windows?”
“What about them? We can barricade them too. There’s already shutters on them.”
Lyonette nodded to the glass windows. Erin made a face.
“Yeah, but the shutters are in the inside. Which means that anyone smashing through’s already broken the glass.”
The [Princess] and Hob stared at Erin.
“So, glass is expensive! Do you know how much Klbkch charged me last time to fix all that? I don’t want my windows broken in! Plus, those shutters aren’t made to hold out angry Raskghar.”
“Hm. Well, in that case…”
Lyonette trailed off. Rabbiteater frowned at the windows. He pointed to the window and mimed hammering. Erin sighed.
“Yes, Rabbiteater. That’s what we’re saying. But it won’t save the glass!”
Rabbiteater shook his head. He put up his hand and mimed a window. Erin frowned as Rabbiteater stood on one side of the imaginary window and then walked around. He began hammering…on the outside.
“Oh! You mean, put on shutters on the outside! Rabbiteater, that’s genius!”
Erin sat up in delight. That would work! All she had to do was install big defensive shutters on the outside of her inn. She could close them if she knew something was going to hit her inn—and then open them if it was all safe! Lyonette frowned.
“That’s a good idea, Rabbiteater. But putting shutters on the outside also means we can’t open them to look around at something right next to the inn. And that’s dangerous.”
“Right, right. Um—okay, what about this? We put the shutters on the ground floor windows, but leave the second floor open? I’m pretty sure my windows can’t be broken by arrows. Unless, like, it’s Halrac shooting them or something.”
Lyonette looked at Rabbiteater. The Hob scratched his head. Then both nodded. Erin clapped her hands.
“Alright! That’s phase one! Reinforce the inn! Lyonette, we’ll need some good wood, more nails, and maybe another hammer from Krshia.”
“I can pick those up. What’s phase two for the inn?”
“Uh—let me think it over for a bit.”
Erin stood up and paced about the inn. She was feeling a bit better now, and Rabbiteater and Lyonette both went outside to see how much wood the windows would need. Erin walked back and forth, trying to figure out what she could do. She discarded all of the impractical ideas or the things that’d take too much time.
Really, when you got down to it, the only way to defend her inn was to have enough people inside of it with weapons ready in case something attacked. Erin could build traps in her inn, but it would be easier to have something disposable. So she discarded bear traps and thought about potions. By the time Lyonette came back, Erin had a second plan ready.
“Essentially, I want a big box full of potions and alchemy…grenades? Right here. And Bird gets some of his own in case he’s attacked in his watch tower. And I want a lock on the door leading to the tower so he can get back in the inn if there’s a lot of monsters, like the moths.”
It was what she’d already done, except that Erin was doubling down on supplies. She found her money bags and poured gold pieces onto the table.
“We need a bigger defense budget. We should have, like four Tripvine Bags at all times. And those explosive potions! Octavia can’t make them. I don’t think she knows how. So…we need to go grab some from a better [Alchemist] in the city.”
“She’s not going to like that.”
“Well, she doesn’t have to know. As for the door lock—”
“Not a good idea.”
“Why not? If Bird’s in trouble—”
“A lock’s too much to work with, Erin. And Bird will forget the key. Why not just make it a door bar?”
“That is a reasonable suggestion.”
Both Erin and Lyonette looked up. Klbkch had walked over. He had stayed in the inn, mainly to explain to Bird exactly what a Garuda was and why he was not allowed to talk about shooting Bevussa or any of the Drakes with wings. Klbkch listened to the rest of Erin’s ideas and nodded when she finished.
“All of these additions seem like practical, simple measures that may save your life. I could send a Worker to make the improvements today if you wish.”
Erin waved a hand dismissively.
“What, barricading windows and making a door bar? I could figure out how to do that myself with [Advanced Crafting]. Just give me a few bits of wood and uh, maybe Rabbiteater can carve it a bit? I don’t like splinters. Okay, and maybe I could use some things from Krshia. Lyonette, can you see if she sells…door bar handles? And get me some screws? You do know what screws are, right?”
After Lyonette had gone, Erin turned to Klbkch. The Antinium was looking about the inn.
“Hey Klbkch. Are you okay?”
He turned and nodded precisely at her.
“I am well, Erin. Last night’s fighting did not extend to the Hive, and I was only made aware of the attack after a Street Runner was sent to the Hive. I was not injured. I was, however, concerned about you and your inn. As was Pawn. And Belgrade. And Anand.”
“Tell them I’m alright, okay?”
“I shall convey your words. However…your preparations for tonight’s defense are somewhat troubling.”
“It’s not enough?”
The Antinium paused as he looked around the inn.
“Given your budget and the time available, I would imagine that it is quite appropriate for any lesser crisis. But for a larger catastrophe, such as the invasion of the Face-Eater Moths?”
Erin nodded seriously.
“Yeah. It probably would be like last time. Which we survived! But I could do more. I’ve really been thinking about getting some enchanting done on my inn, actually. But none of the [Mages] I know have the ability to enchant things. I was going to see if anyone from Pallass could do it, but it’s been so busy—”
“No [Enchanter] would be able to perform more than rudimentary wards by nightfall anyways. That is a decent long-term plan. May I offer you a short-term one?”
Klbkch studied the inn, his head sweeping slowly down the long common room.
“I assume you intend to put on a play tonight?”
“Not tonight. I’ll tell Wesle and the others. It’s too dangerous to think about.”
“Very wise. That will aid my suggestion as well. I would like to send a squad of Painted Soldiers to your inn. They would be led by Pawn. In addition, they would be accompanied by several Workers armed with bows.”
“Workers? Wait, you want to protect my inn with them? I’ll accept of course! But do you want to be paid or…?”
Klbkch shook his head.
“Consider it an act of friendship. And practicality. Your inn has aided Liscor’s Hive in more ways than I can state, Erin. However, I would like to keep this arrangement secret. Very secret, in light of the current controversy surrounding Liscor’s Hive. The fact that Workers are being armed is to be most secret of all.”
He stared at Erin. She nodded slowly.
“So they’ll stay here tonight?”
“And leave just after dawn. Watch Captain Zevara has already requested a group of Soldiers patrol through Liscor tonight as a precaution. Pawn’s group will be part of that unit.”
This all sounded dicey to Erin, but she wasn’t in a position to refuse. Maybe Klbkch was just being cautious. Arming Workers. It didn’t sound that bad to Erin, but then she remembered that Workers using bows had been part of the Antinium’s strategy in the Antinium Wars.
“Okay, Klbkch. I accept. Thank you.”
“There is no need for thanks. I will excuse myself. I have much work to do in Liscor.”
Klbkch nodded to Erin. He strode through the door. She stared after him as he walked through the rainy streets. Sometimes it felt like Klbkch was more of a stranger than when she had met in the old days. She wished she could sit with him and Relc for a while over a plate of pasta. Then she shook her head.
“Well, I guess the Raskghar are really going to get a surprise if they attack tonight.”
“I’m sure I’ll feel better.”
Lyonette came over. She hadn’t quite been eavesdropping. Erin turned to her.
“Yeah. But the Antinium are just for now. I do want to make upgrading the inn a priority, Lyonette. Not just with structural stuff and enchantments. I’d like some real guards, the kind that will be here all the time. I can’t always hope there’ll be adventurers or Goblins or Antinium in my inn.”
The Human young woman eyed Erin warily.
“What then? You don’t mean something like Toren, do you?”
“No. I think…no. Well, if Pisces…no. Probably not. I was really thinking about Golems.”
“Golems? How much do you think they cost, Erin?”
The two stared at each other. Erin laughed.
“It’s just a thought! But really, Lyonette, I am a bit worried. We’ll have Antinium here and I’ll be staying the night, but the Raskghar could still do a lot of damage. And there is…”
She and Lyonette both looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was playing with her ball, bouncing it against a wall and running about. Erin sighed worriedly.
“I wouldn’t risk her at all. Even if I’m like, 99% safe I don’t want to take a chance.”
“Neither do I. But your inn will be the most well-defended spot I can think of. What else could you do?”
Erin paused. She frowned at Mrsha, and then looked to the magic door of her inn.
“Well, I can think of a way to make her just a bit safer. So right after dinner, here’s what we’ll do…”
The Redfang Warriors did not feel good. It wasn’t the aftermath of fighting the Raskghar that bothered them—they actually felt over the moon about that, so to speak. Headscratcher’s changing classes to a [Berserker] and Numbtongue’s [Bard] class was the best news they’d had in a long time.
No, it was seeing all those adventurers that made the Hobgoblins feel bad. There was something about a room full of hostile glances that didn’t do much for the nerves, incredibly enough. More than one team from Pallass had looked like they’d been ready to attack the Redfang Warriors right then and there. Of course, they’d given the same look to the Antinium.
Shorthilt’s stomach still felt bad, but it was restoring itself to something approaching normal as he squatted on the floor, staring at the Cave Goblin. She was still secured to the chair. There would be no sudden escape where she wriggled free—the Redfangs knew how to tie a knot properly. When you tied an Eater Goat to a pole to lure Gargoyles, the last thing you wanted was an angry goat getting loose and munching your face off.
He was confident in his knot. Still, Shorthilt checked again just to be sure. His attention to detail and caution was why he was the group’s best warrior with a sword. He nodded as he found the bindings secure, and then looked at the others. They stared back.
Grimly. Now the adventurers were gone, now that the Raskghar had retreated, at least for the moment, the Redfang Goblins were faced with one last task. The problem of what to do with the Cave Goblin. She’d gone very still with fear when the adventurers had arrived. She’d been terrified the entire time, really. Now the little Cave Goblin sat on her chair, practically panting with fear as the Hobs deliberated what should be done about her.
The logical thing to do, as Badarrow pointed out, would be to toss the Cave Goblin in the water. Without untying her from the chair. After all, there were only two things that could really be done with the little Goblin. The Redfangs couldn’t keep her here. She was the enemy! No matter how securely Shorthilt’s knots were, even if they locked her in the basement, the Redfangs knew from experience how resourceful a desperate Goblin could be.
And a Goblin who escaped in the middle of the night could kill anyone with a knife in the back. No, that was far too dangerous. Goblins didn’t keep prisoners, anyways. So that left letting her go or killing her. And letting her go was a stupid idea. So that left killing her.
It was the smart thing to do, but none of the Redfang Warriors wanted to do it. They were proud warriors! Just killing an enemy Goblin was…well, it was wrong. They’d kill another of their people if they had to, in battle, but not like this. After all, she was the enemy, but she was a Goblin. Like them!
Then again, the little Cave Goblin and her tribe were so not-Goblin that the Redfangs really didn’t know what to do. She and her tribe served the Raskghar! They obeyed a Chieftain who was not a Goblin—they didn’t even have any Hobs! They didn’t even remember Hobs!
It was pitiful. Pitiful and depressing and sad. However, the facts remained that the little Cave Goblin was an enemy in no small way. Letting her go would mean the other Goblins and perhaps the Raskghar would know too much. They owed Erin Solstice more than words could say. So the Redfangs were forcing themselves to come to a difficult decision.
It wasn’t easy. But at last, even Headscratcher bowed his head. They picked up the little Goblin as she was tied to the chair. They wouldn’t drown her—that was cruel. Badarrow would shoot her instead. One arrow through the head was quicker. Badarrow’s face was very blank as he strung his bow.
The Cave Goblin screamed and writhed as the Hobs picked her up. She’d heard the entire discussion of course. The Redfangs hadn’t bothered to hide what they were talking about. After all, what would be crueler than hiding the truth? They marched towards the door of the inn. They could toss her body in the lake afterwards. Better that than become one of Pisces’ undead. If they could, they’d probably dispose of the other Cave Goblin’s bodies that way too.
The little Cave Goblin wriggled desperately and shrieked as the Redfangs carried her. Her efforts made no difference to the Hobs. Unfortunately, the noise and commotion attracted a worse sort of problem. The worst person to be present in this moment, actually.
Erin Solstice turned her head as the Hobs marched past her with death in their faces. She stared at the Cave Goblin.
“I’m an idiot. I nearly forgot about her! Hey, Headscratcher! Hold up!”
The young woman intercepted the group of Goblins. She stared at the thrashing Cave Goblin with concern.
“Is she alright?”
The Hobs nodded. They looked at each other in silent anguish. Numbtongue signaled rapidly. Pretend. Go along with her until they had a chance to go outside. The other Hobs nodded slightly. Erin didn’t notice. They turned and put the Goblin on the ground. The Cave Goblin babbled wildly, but Erin couldn’t understand. She bent.
“Hello. I’m Erin. And you’re the Goblin that attacked my inn. I’m not angry about it. Well, I’m sort of angry, but I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?”
The Cave Goblin screamed for help and tried to indicate the Redfangs with her head. Erin looked at Headscratcher.
Numbtongue spoke the lie quietly. Erin nodded.
“Oh. Sorry. You’re taking her out?”
The Redfangs nodded. They picked the Cave Goblin up. The Cave Goblin shook her head wildly. Erin frowned.
“Hold up. Not bathroom? Can she understand me?”
Numbtongue didn’t have to lie there, but the Cave Goblin was doing everything in her power to tell Erin that something was wrong. The [Innkeeper] frowned at her wide eyes and rapid babble in Goblin.
“She seems upset. I guess you guys really scared her. Maybe put her down, okay? What’s her name?”
All the Redfangs froze. Her name? But Erin treated the question as if it were the most natural thing to ask. She looked expectantly at Numbtongue who knew from his questioning. The Hob visibly hesitated before answering.
The other Hobs tried to forget the name as soon as they heard it. Erin smiled.
“Pebblesnatch? That’s cute! Hey Pebblesnatch, we don’t mean any harm. We—”
She extended her hand. Instantly, Pebblesnatch’s head shot forwards and she bit.
The small Cave Goblin’s teeth snapped together, narrowly missing Erin’s fingers as she snatched her hand back. Badarrow growled in fury and cuffed Pebblesnatch, making her screech in pain. Instantly, Erin smacked him on the shoulder.
“Don’t do that!”
Erin stared at the Cave Goblin. Pebblesnatch had abandoned hope. Now she was trying to bite, kicking wildly, determined to do some harm before the end. Erin looked at the Redfangs with a frown.
“She seems really upset. You haven’t been hitting her, have you? I told you to be nice to her!”
The Redfang Warriors stared at Erin. ‘Nice’ wasn’t a word they’d ever had to employ as warriors of Garen’s tribe. Nor was it something they thought of as necessary when dealing with their own kind, especially enemy tribes. In this case, ‘nice’ had nearly lost Erin a finger. And nice wasn’t about to happen later. They looked away.
Numbtongue spoke the word and the Hobs lifted Pebblesnatch. Instantly, she peed on them. Headscratcher and Rabbiteater shouted with disgust and nearly dropped the Cave Goblin. Erin leapt away.
“Aw, gross! I’m sorry I stopped you! Quick, take her out and dunk her in the water. I’ll—hey, Drassi!”
“What? Why do I have to clean that up? Make Ishkr!”
“I can smell it better than you can. You clean it up!”
Now. The Redfangs left Erin and the two arguing employees and ran for the door. Pebblesnatch screamed. She screamed and screamed, with the truest terror in her voice as the Hobs tried not to listen. Then she started to cry. And Erin’s head turned. She stared at the Cave Goblin’s face, and suddenly picked up all the little clues—the panic and fear, the tense body language of the Hobs—and spoke.
The word sapped the momentum from the air. The Hobs slowed and turned. Erin stood up and walked over. She stared at Pebblesnatch who was sobbing in the chair. Then she looked at Headscratcher.
“Headscratcher, are you really going to take her to the bathroom?”
The Hob avoided Erin’s gaze. She narrowed her eyes and then her eyes widened.
“Are you letting her go? No—oh no. You can’t!”
She reached for Pebblesnatch. Instantly, Headscratcher grabbed Erin. He pinned her arms in a bear hug and spoke.
The Redfangs moved. Or rather, they tried to. The air was thick and heavy and their footsteps dragged. Erin, who had been too afraid to use her aura on the Raskghar, kicked and struggled in Headscratcher’s grasp, holding the Hobs in place with all of her might.
“No! No, Headscratcher! There’s a better way! Don’t kill her! You can let her go!”
They couldn’t. The Hobs moved slowly, growling with the effort it took. Shorthilt saw Drassi and Ishkr, frozen with shock at the sudden commotion. Ishkr wavered and Shorthilt drew his sword. The Gnoll froze and backed up.
The Hobs ignored Drassi and Ishkr. Neither of them could stop the Redfangs. Nor could Erin, no matter how much she tried to stop them with her aura. They’d do it quick. If she kicked them out—the Goblins tried not to think about it. It was like the artifacts, like Rabbiteater’s cloak. They had to do it and no one could stop them.
Do what you had to do. Pay the price later. That was what Garen Redfang had taught them.
“Don’t—stop—put me down! Headscratcher! Put me down!”
Erin was struggling. But it was too late. Numbtongue thrust the door open. Rabbiteater and Shorthilt marched to the door. Badarrow pulled an arrow from his quiver and closed his eyes. Erin went still, helpless in Headscratcher’s arms. She looked up into the Hob’s glistening eyes. When she spoke it was very calmly, in a carrying voice that reached across the inn.
“You’ll regret it for the rest of your lives, you know.”
All five Hobs stopped. It wasn’t the aura that held them. Erin stared at Numbtongue’s back. The rain was pouring in through the front of the inn, drenching the Hob.
“You don’t want to do this. I know you don’t. If you do it, you will regret it forever. Don’t kill her. Put her down.”
The Hobs wavered. They wanted to believe Erin. But letting Pebblesnatch go? Showing her mercy? All they could imagine was disaster. Erin spoke again, urgently.
“There’s another way. Believe me. Give me ten minutes and I’ll convince you. Ten minutes.”
And because they really didn’t want to, because they cared, because their souls told them to, the Redfang Warriors turned. Headscratcher put Erin down. He let go slowly. She turned to him. There was no reproach in her eyes. Just a deep sadness. That cut him harder than anger. Erin stared at Headscratcher, then at the other Redfang Warriors. None of them could meet her eyes. She took a deep breath, and then exhaled.
“Let’s play a game of chess.”
A strange gathering took place around one of Erin’s tables. The young woman sat on one side, arranging a chess board and explaining to Headscratcher how the game worked as he sat on the other end of the table with the four other Redfangs around him. Drassi and Ishkr worked in the background, nervously glancing at the tableau every few seconds.
Pebblesnatch sat at a table close by, her head lolling. She was unconscious. The Cave Goblin had fainted, probably so she wouldn’t feel anything. Erin glanced at her as she finished placing pieces.
“You understand? Well, if you don’t, I’ll teach you as we play. Your pieces are white, so you go first. Move a pawn. Or a knight, if you want.”
Hesitantly, Headscratcher picked up a pawn and tried to remember all the confusing things Erin had said. He peered at the board and looked at his fellows for guidance. They stared at the board. At last, Badarrow pointed decisively. Headscratcher placed the pawn. Erin nodded.
“Pawn to F4. Bird’s Opening. That’s what it’s called. Bird uses this opening all of the time. Because of the name.”
She placed a pawn at E5. Erin smiled as Headscratcher blinked. Didn’t she just give him her pawn? He stared suspiciously at Erin, suspecting a trap. He was right of course, but Erin gestured at him.
“Your move. This is From’s Gambit, by the way.”
She waited patiently as the Hob stared at the other Goblins for help. They deliberated, and then Hob took the pawn. Erin instantly moved another pawn up to D6, offering Headscratcher yet another target.
The game began. Each time Headscratcher moved a piece hesitantly, Erin would instantly move a chess piece with supreme confidence. It was unnerving. Within moments she’d reversed Headscratcher’s lead and begun tearing apart his chess pieces. The Redfang Warrior’s playing grew slower and slower as he bent over the board, trying to find an escape from Erin’s relentless assault. But that was the game. As she played, Erin spoke. Conversationally. Casually, as if she were having nothing more than a chat.
“Don’t worry about winning this game. Or losing it either. It’s not about playing chess right now. I just use chess because it’s what I know. In a sense, it’s the only thing I know. I’m an [Innkeeper], right, but that’s only my class. Chess is what I’m good at. People used to call me a prodigy—which wasn’t really true—when I was a child. Well, a prodigy is only really good at chess. I’m far better than I was back then. Because I practice.”
She moved a piece. Headscratcher stared at her. He looked past Erin at Pebblesnatch. Erin went on, her voice pleasant.
“It’s odd, being good at something most people don’t care about. A lot of people say how stupid it is to be good at chess. Or how pointless it is to play a game every day for years, decades, to get good at the game. Sometimes I thought the same thing. But you know what? I like playing. There was a time when I got sick of it, but I came back because I love it. I like playing. I’m good at it. There’s something nice about being good at something. And here, in this world, I’m probably the best player of chess. In the world.”
It was such a casual thing to say. But unlike any other species or people in the world, the Redfangs took Erin at her word. They looked into her eyes and tensed up. The greatest chess player in the world sat in front of them. Erin laughed gently.
“Don’t worry. That doesn’t give me any Skills. Or classes. Chess is a game to me. Just a game. And this is just a fun match. I’m not trying to win repeatedly—I have the magic chessboard for that.”
She pointed at another chessboard, where the ghostly chess pieces sat, playing out a game that had taken place over the course of the week. Erin’s mysterious chess partner had been busy of late. The Goblins stared at her. Erin waited until Headscratcher moved a piece, then cut to the chase.
“So. Why were you going to kill her? Because she tried to kill you?”
She looked at Numbtongue. The Goblin hesitated.
“Because she is the enemy. She will tell the Raskghar what we do. What we are doing if she goes.”
Erin nodded. It was a reasonable fear.
“Why not keep her here?”
“How long? Forever? Little Goblins are cunning. She will escape. Throat cut in middle of the night.”
Another nod. Another logical response.
“And letting her go? Not just outside, I mean. What if we went to Celum, took her outside the walls, and…let her go there?”
The Redfangs exchanged a glance then shook their heads. Numbtongue explained haltingly.
“Can’t let go. She will go back. Or die. A Goblin alone dies to monsters. To adventurers. It is one of the worst deaths. Slow, lonely death. Wandering death. Cruel death.”
The other Hobs nodded as one. Erin looked at them. So. It was too dangerous to keep her, too risky or cruel to let her go. That was why they would kill her. It was practical, like the Goblins. It was also wrong. She sighed.
“Okay. I see what you were thinking. And I think you’re wrong. Let me explain.”
She reached for a pawn, took Headscratcher’s bishop which she’d cornered, and spoke absently.
“Here’s the problem, I think. You say that Pebblesnatch is the enemy. You say she’s dangerous. If we let her go she’ll turn on us. We can’t keep her. So we need to kill her. And I say—why do we have to do any of that? Why can’t we help her?”
She looked up expectantly. Numbtongue shook his head.
“Help? Her? She is other tribe. Other tribe has many Goblins who will kill—”
He emphasized the word.
“—Us. Why help them? We can’t help them. Too many. Too far away. What point? Why help enemy?”
Erin rested her chin in her hands. She eyed the board.
“Whenever anyone says something like that—we can’t help them, or they’re the enemy, or how hard it would be, it’s sort of like a game of chess. That’s my analogy. I like chess. We’re all trying to get ahead, to survive. We’re all playing chess, if you think of it like that. So everyone wants to protect themselves, their side. The king. See?”
Erin pointed at her king, safely hidden behind her pawns. Headscratcher and the other Goblins eyed the white king on their side. It was being menaced from all angles by Erin’s pieces. They found that ironically familiar. They nodded and Erin went on.
“That’s how people play. Life, like chess. It’s all about sides. Us. Them. Me. You. But here’s the thing. Life isn’t a game of chess. You say that Pebblesnatch is the enemy, Numbtongue? In that case, you’re playing a game. Your side is the Redfangs, you, and my inn, I guess. And my side would be Pebblesnatch. And the Raskghar.”
The Redfangs stared at Erin’s side of the board. They eyed their disadvantaged position. Erin rolled her eyes.
“It’s a metaphor. It’s not representing how things actually are. Look, it’s your side and her side. That’s how you’re playing. But I don’t think that’s a healthy way to look at things. It’s too limiting. Sometimes I think we should do this.”
Erin spun the chess board. Suddenly, her pieces were in check and Headscratcher’s pieces were on the attack. The Hob blinked. He stared at Pebblesnatch, who’d woken up and was trying to bite at the ropes tying her down. Erin smiled slightly.
“Weird, isn’t it? Now you’re winning. Go on, move a piece.”
She waited as Headscratcher did. Erin continued to play, reversing the board yet again.
“The thing about sides, Headscratcher, you guys, is that they’re made up. Chess is a game. It’s not real. But we pretend the sides are real. Just like we pretend there are sides in real life. What makes the Raskghar our enemy?”
“They’re trying to kill us?”
Ishkr blinked as Erin looked over.
“Right. But are they trying to kill us because they’re hungry? Are they just monsters? If they are, I guess we might have to fight. But what about the Cave Goblins? Are they our enemy? Or are they being made to fight?”
The Redfangs looked at Pebblesnatch. They tried to imagine any scenario where a group of Goblins would assault an inn full of adventurers or try to attack Liscor without being coerced. They were silent as Erin went on.
“Sides. Winners. Losers. It’s all part of the gaming mentality. I win, so you lose. But life isn’t like that. Why does Pebblesnatch have to die? Because she’s the enemy? Why does she have to be the enemy? Can’t we do something about her? That’s checkmate, by the way.”
She pointed. Headscratcher groaned as he saw she was right. Erin smiled and swept his pieces off the board, leaving only her black ones behind. She got up and found another of her chess boards and carried it over. The Goblins watched, confused, as she set up the board again, only this time with a twist. When Erin was done, she pointed to the chess board, ready for another game.
“Life isn’t a game of chess. But if it was, I think it would look a lot like this.”
Headscratcher looked at the board. On his side were black chess pieces, lined up, ready for battle. On Erin’s side were her chess pieces, set to their default position. They were also black. Erin stared at Headscratcher over the chess board.
“Okay. If we play a game now, who wins? Who loses? And how can we tell? If I take a pawn off the board, who loses? Me? You? Or the pawn?”
She picked up the pawn and showed it to Headscratcher. He looked at her. Erin smiled very gently.
“Headscratcher. This is what I think about living life like chess.”
She reached for the chess board and lifted it up. Then she hurled the board across the inn. The chess pieces went flying, clattering off windows, the floor, the tables and chairs. The board cracked as it struck a table. Erin stood up. The inn went silent as she glared at the Hobs.
“You don’t have to kill. No one has to lose for you to win. This world is not a game. Why can’t we all win? Forever? Why does Pebblesnatch have to die, Headscratcher?”
He couldn’t answer. He tried. But whenever he attempted to form the thought—she’s dangerous, or it might hurt us, or we can’t keep her here forever—it was somehow not good enough. Yes, all of these things were valid. But it wasn’t enough for him to look at Pebblesnatch and agree to murder her in cold blood.
The Redfang Warriors didn’t quite look at Erin as she stood in front of them. Erin looked from face to face, and then sighed.
“But you are right. It is a problem.”
She stumped over to the chess board and began picking up pieces. Erin grimaced as she collected the black and white pieces.
“With that said, I really like chess. And board games in general. You know what? I should really find a game we can all play. Monopoly, or maybe Risk. Charades? I still have to teach Olesm how to play shogi. Or what about Ur? That game’s fun too!”
She inspected the cracked chess board and shook her head.
“I broke my board. Darn. But hey, it was worth it, right?”
She glanced up at the Redfang Warriors. They watched her warily. Erin sighed and came back to the table.
“That was my lecture about sides. But you’re right in that Pebblesnatch is dangerous. And it’s probably not good to let her go. So here’s a thought from a chess player. Why don’t we stop playing chess and start playing another game? Why don’t we stop treating this as a chess game and start playing shogi?”
The Hobs stared at Erin. Now she’d lost them. Erin gestured energetically as she began to talk with the enthusiasm of a board game fanatic.
“You see, shogi is this great game that originates from Japan. It’s based on chess, but the rules vary in a lot of interesting ways. You can promote each piece in shogi like you do pawns in chess, but there’s other things you can do. For instance, and here’s the important bit—you can play any piece you’ve captured from your opponent on your side! Isn’t that cool?”
Erin looked from face to face and realized her audience wasn’t following her. She sighed.
“I knew I should have stuck to the chess analogy. Okay, look. Pebblesnatch doesn’t have to die. Nor do the Goblins. They’re your people. Why do we have to treat them like the enemy? The Raskghar are pretty evil so I’ll agree to shooting them with arrows, but the Goblins? Are they innocent in all this? Or at least, victims? I want to know.”
Erin began ticking off points on her fingers.
“Do the Cave Goblins want to fight Liscor? How many are there? Could they run away? Would Pebblesnatch help us if we fed her? Gave her a healing potion, maybe? Could she warn us when the Raskghar are about to attack or—or figure out exactly where they’re camped for the night? Could she feed them false information?”
The Goblins stared at Erin in amazement. They hadn’t considered any of this. Ever. The idea of turning a Goblin against their own tribe, of using them like spies…it was, well, unthinkable! Goblins didn’t do that. Even a Goblin from a poor tribe was loyal to their Chieftain. If the Chieftain was replaced, then they’d see if they were loyal to the new Chieftain. If they weren’t, they’d leave. Betrayal was…what kind of a Goblin would betray their tribe? Their family? But Erin was right. The Raskghar ruled the Cave Goblins. So theirs was the one tribe any Goblin would betray if it were possible. Erin smiled as the Hobs looked at each other.
“Exactly. Here’s the thing. Everyone’s still playing chess. Ilvriss thinks of Pebblesnatch as a pawn he’s captured. So does Olesm and everyone else. A pawn from the other side. A danger until you remove it. And then it’s gone. Like that. The enemy side is weaker. That’s how they play. But like I said, chess isn’t a game like life. Why can’t I take a pawn, a person—”
Erin picked up a white pawn and placed it on her side of the board.
“—And do this?”
The Hobs stirred. They looked at Erin in amazement as they finally got the entirety of what she was saying. She winked at them.
“Strategy. Not that I’m a [Strategist]. But I’m not always dumb either. I’m just better at making friends than I am at poking holes in people. Now, tell me. What’s going to happen to poor Pebblesnatch?”
The Cave Goblin looked up. She squirmed anxiously and Headscratcher looked at her. Really looked at her, without forcing himself to look away or rationalize her as the enemy. For the first time he saw how young she was. How hungry she looked. He stared at her arms and saw blood. Blood. She’d rubbed her skin off trying to escape. Her face was snotty and she looked terrified.
Headscratcher looked at Erin. He thought about what he’d done and his face twisted. A child. He’d nearly killed—he sank down as tears began to seep from his red eyes. He began to shake as the other Redfangs looked away. Erin came over and hugged him.
“It’s okay. Come on. You didn’t do it. It’s okay.”
The other Redfangs crowded around Headscratcher. He was too emotional. They slapped him on the back and pretended to laugh at him. But some of them had to turn to hurriedly wipe an eye or cough. Erin smiled and hugged them.
“Try something else. They’re your people, aren’t they? It’s okay. We can keep her here. If we can make her an ally—it’s not about food, it really isn’t. I’m happy to try. If we can save your people’s lives, or help—”
The Redfangs looked at Erin. Your people. She really cared. That was what was amazing. She cared about them. As Goblins. It was so strange and wonderful and painful that they couldn’t give words to it. They looked at her—
And then someone blew her nose. Erin and the Redfang Goblins looked up. She saw Drassi and Ishkr staring at them. The Drake’s eyes were running with tears and she was dabbing at them with Ishkr’s handkerchief.
“That was so beautiful!”
The Gnoll coughed. Both he and Drassi had been listening in. Drassi began to babble as she came over, smiling wetly at the Hobs.
“I totally look at you guys differently now! That chess thing made so much sense, Erin! Why do we have to kill the little Goblins? I mean, if they’re attacking us, yeah, but if they’re slaves? To the Raskghar? And you’re right, we can work together! Oh, Ancestors! We’re all on the same team! Give me a hug!”
She tried to embrace Badarrow, who fended her off. The Redfangs looked at each other, dry-eyed now. It wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate the Drake’s sudden change of heart. It was just that they were having a moment with Erin. Drassi was nice…but they didn’t know her. The Drake tried to hug the Hobs as they shared a common thought and nodded at each other sourly. They agreed that Drassi had rather spoiled the moment.
Ceria had to remember that it was, in fact, late morning in Liscor. Despite all that had happened, the Raskghar attack had occurred in the middle of the night and all that had followed had taken place without the blessed relief of sleep. So it was day. Not that anyone could tell, really.
It was still raining. By this point, Ceria would have happily given half the money in her pouch for one day of sunlight. And that was because she had about eight silver pieces in her money pouch at the moment. Sunlight was cheap. But she was getting sick of the pouring rain, the slippery streets, and all the water where land should be.
“Not that it matters where we’re going.”
She looked to Yvlon. The woman grunted as she rowed on one side of the boat across the lake. Yvlon looked up and brushed water out of her face as Ksmvr paused in his rowing so the boat wouldn’t turn.
“You say that as if we don’t have to swim down through the water to get into the dungeon, Ceria. And you’re not the one rowing.”
“Touchy, aren’t we?”
“I don’t like being wet.”
Ceria eyed Yvlon. Or rather, her arms.
“If you want to switch, me or Pisces could take over.”
“Don’t volunteer me.”
Pisces looked up from his position in the back of the boat. He was trying to shield his spellbook from the rain and read at the same time with a [Light] spell. Yvlon shook her head.
“I’m fine. My arms feel good and Pisces says they won’t break.”
Ceria glanced over at the [Necromancer] for confirmation. Pisces looked up and nodded.
“Most assuredly. Let Yvlon row, Ceria. I most certainly will not.”
“If you say so. In that case, hurry up you two. We’re falling behind.”
Yvlon splashed Ceria with her oar. She and Ksmvr dipped their paddles into the water and the boat caught up with the others. Dozens of boats, large and small, patchwork and well-made were making their way towards the rift leading into the dungeon. The adventurers were out in force. They’d commandeered every vessel Liscor had and Ceria could see dozens of cloaked figures sitting miserably in boats.
Some groups didn’t bother with covering themselves—the brave ones sat stolidly in the rain, readying themselves for the fight. The higher-ranked groups didn’t have any problems because their [Mages] protected their boats from the pouring rain. Ceria glanced at the Silver Swords, who were rowing at the head of the group, untouched by the droplets thanks to Falene, who was sitting calmly at the back of the boat and insulting Dawil.
“This is so weird. Have you ever seen a dungeon raid this large, Yvlon?”
“Never. I’ve heard of them, though. It’s amazing to be part of one.”
Ceria nodded. This joint effort by all the adventuring teams was too large to call an expedition. It was what adventurers called a dungeon raid—a true attack on the dungeon, as opposed to exploration or opportunistic treasure seeking. She was amazed to be part of it. And nervous. And worried.
“I’m gonna say it when we get down there. Alright?”
Yvlon nodded. Pisces looked up and Ksmvr raised his voice.
“Captain Ceria, do you believe the other adventuring teams will cooperate with your mission?”
“They should. It’s uh, a courtesy among adventurers, right? Even if we are a Silver-rank team no one’s heard of. I can’t imagine they’d refuse, unless adventurers are that different in the south. Oh look, they’re already going in. Looks like they’re using…ropes?”
The adventurers were indeed casting ropes attached to weights down into the rift. The first teams who went down, the Flamewardens, used the ropes as guides while they dropped into the water. They didn’t even need to hold something to weight them down—their plate armor ensured they went down like anchors. Ksmvr sounded confused as more adventurers went down, some casting water breathing spells, others just holding their breaths.
“I thought that leaving an exit route for monsters was considered amateur by Gold-rank teams, Captain Ceria. Why are they doing what Vuliel Drae was criticized for?”
One of the teams, the Wings of Pallass, overheard Ksmvr. The Garuda, Bevussa, called out as she and her group checked their gear.
“A dungeon raid’s different, Antinium. No one wants to swim back up. And if we’re all dead, well, Liscor’s got a lot more to worry about than a few ropes. See you down there. Ancestors, I hate swimming.”
She leapt out of her boat. Ceria saw her flap her wings and gain a few feet of distance before she hit the water and disappeared. The other adventurers dove and Ceria looked at her team.
The others nodded. Yvlon took a few deep breaths, Pisces closed his spellbook and sighed about the water and Ksmvr…froze. Ceria stared at him with concern.
“Ksmvr? Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I am quite positive, Captain Ceria. I will not abandon the group. And I will be fine entering the…liquid. I came here all this way of my own volition, did I not? I even helped with the rowing.”
“True. And you have your Ring of Waterbreathing on?”
“Yes, Captain Ceria.”
“In that case, I’m going to take your blindfold off.”
Ceria reached for Ksmvr’s blindfold. The Antinium was very still as she took off the blindfold she’d tied over his eyes. When it was off he looked around at the water and started screaming.
“Aaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaah! AAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”
He started flailing about in a panic. Ceria swore and the other teams looked around as Ksmvr screamed and tried to hit everything with his paddle.
“Ksmvr! Calm down! You told me you could handle this!”
“I thought I could! Water! Water everywhere!”
“Ceria! Put the blindfold back on!”
Yvlon grabbed Ksmvr and held him still. Unfortunately he had three arms and he managed to punch both Ceria and Pisces before they could put the blindfold back on. When Ceria finally managed to tie it around Ksmvr’s eyes, he went still.
“Oh. I cannot see the water. I must be on dry land. I am on dry land. I am on dry land.”
“Damn it, Ksmvr.”
“I am sorry, Captain Ceria. I am a disgrace. But please, toss me in the water!”
“After you just panicked? Not likely!”
“Please! It will work if I cannot see the water.”
“But if you’re in it—”
“I have never been in the water. It is a foreign experience to me since if I was ever in the water, I would be dead. Thus, I will not panic. I think.”
Ceria looked at her team. It wasn’t like they could back out now. It was too important.
“If he panics, he has the ring on. We can bring him back. Somehow. Okay Ksmvr, brace yourself—”
“I am braced. Please tell me before I enter the…thing. I wish to prepare myself. When will you—”
Ksmvr screamed as Ceria pushed him overboard. Yvlon glanced at the half-Elf.
“That was a bit mean.”
“He hit me in the nose. Come on, let’s go after him.”
The Horns dove after Ksmvr. To Ceria’s surprise, she saw Ksmvr wasn’t flailing about at all. He was very still as she, Pisces, and Yvlon all sank down, holding Yvlon so they’d fall faster. They fell into the dungeon, catching hold of the ropes and scaling down when the water met the dungeon.
It turned out that Ksmvr’s lack of panic had been due to mind-numbing fear. He shook like a leaf when he was on dry land and curled up into a ball. Ceria shook her head. How were they going to get him back up?
A problem for another time. The adventurers were all gathering, and the area around the rift had been secured by the Gold-rank teams that had gone in first. Griffon Hunt was already checking one tunnel and some of the Gnolls were conferring with the [Veteran Scout].
“…No sign of the Raskghar. I would have thought we’d be attacked soon after entering.”
“They must have known a counterattack was coming. Or they looked up and saw us all coming down. It makes sense they’d hide until nightfall when they’re smarter and stronger. Everyone down yet?”
The leader of the Flamewardens looked around as the last of the adventurers dropped wetly onto the dungeon floor. One team forgot to grab the ropes and crashed down onto another team. The ensuing screams of pain made Ceria wince.
“Stop making sound! And you idiots—make another mistake like that and you can leave. This isn’t a Bronze-rank mission. We’re in hostile territory. Act like you’ve got a brain.”
One of the senior adventurers barked. Shamefaced, the two adventuring teams got up. The Gold-ranks outlined the raid plan to everyone as some of the teams began moving around the perimeter. Ceria had heard the plan already, but she listened intently.
“Our plan is simple. We move in waves, in each direction. Gold-rank teams go first, Silver and Bronze-ranks behind. Each team chooses where they go and coordinates with the others. No one trails on each other’s tails. If your team can’t detect traps or you’re not confident, find a team willing to work with you. Call out for help if you need it, but don’t expect it. We’re adventurers. Let’s do our job.”
That was it. It wasn’t so much of a pep talk as a set of guidelines. In another way, this dungeon raid wasn’t like the expedition that Ceria and Yvlon had been part of. There was no real leader—it was a group effort of individual teams. The adventurers began dispersing, some calling out which way they were headed.
Now was the time. Ceria took a deep breath and shouted.
“Excuse me! There’s one more thing!”
All the adventurers turned. Ceria turned beet red, and stammered.
“I uh—we’re the Horns of Hammerad. We’re looking for someone in the dungeon. A companion of ours was lost. Calruz. He’s a Minotaur. He used to lead our group—we think he might still be alive down here.”
“A missing adventurer? We only heard about Gnolls. Did the Raskghar get him too?”
One of the Drakes looked surprised. Ceria shook her head.
“No, he vanished a while ago. On another expedition in Liscor’s crypt. But he might have arrived here.”
The adventurers looked at each other dubiously. Ceria’s heart pounded. One of the senior Drakes, an old yellow-scaled Drake with a greatsword, leaned on it and frowned at Ceria.
“How long has he been missing?”
“Months. But we never found his body! And there’s a…route from Liscor’s crypts to the dungeon. He might have arrived down here! He was wounded when I last saw him, but I know he had a healing potion on him.”
She felt her heart sinking with every word. The old Drake shook his head.
“Months? If he’s been gone that long, he’s dead. Body’s probably eaten by now or shambling around as a zombie. Give it up, rookie.”
He turned away. Ceria stared as his team walked into the dungeon. The other adventurers began to move again too. Some looked sympathetic and promised to tell the Horns if they saw anything. But the rest just left. Ceria wanted to shrivel up into nothing and disappear.
Yvlon patted her shoulder. Ceria nodded miserably. Not only had the others thought she was delusional, she’d given away the secret entrance from the crypt to the dungeon. What had she been thinking? Of course they’d think she was mad. How many people swore their missing companion was still alive? Ceria had heard that sort of talk herself—adventurers who’d seen a friend dragged away by a Mothbear, swearing that he was alive days later and that they’d go back and get him. She flushed and then saw familiar faces heading towards them.
“Hey Ceria, you’re with us.”
Jelaqua raised a hand as the Halfseekers strode towards their group. Griffon Hunt was right behind them and the Silver Swords were trailing in their wake. Revi scowled at the old Drake’s team who was already disappearing down one of the corridors.
“That Drake’s an ass. Talk about rude. Can you believe him?”
Everyone gave Revi the fish eye. The Stitch-Woman blushed and tugged at the string around her neck.
“What? We all thought the same thing, but even I didn’t say it. At least they know now. And we’re part of this raid. Hooray for us. We still doing this babysitting job?”
“Teaching job, Revi.”
Typhenous interjected diplomatically. He nodded to the Silver Swords, none of whom looked happy.
“We shall take the Silver Swords and the Halfseekers the Horns of Hammerad. We’ll impart our tactics and switch groups after a few hours. Is that reasonable?”
“Perfectly. Thank you for doing this.”
The other adventurers nodded. Halrac jerked his head.
“Let’s get moving. We’re falling behind.”
The teams split up, the Silver Swords falling in with Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers with the Horns of Hammerad. They headed down the right-most tunnel. Other groups had come that way, but they’d marked where they were going with bits of chalk. Someone had also spattered bright alchemical paint on the ground around a trap on the floor which all the adventurers gave a wide berth.
When both groups came to another intersection, Halrac pointed to a tunnel that hadn’t been claimed yet.
“We’ll take that one. Send a [Message] spell in three hours.”
“Got it. Let us know if you’re in trouble and we’ll come running.”
Halrac nodded. He strode forwards and then put out an arm to block Ylawes from following on his heels. Revi audibly sighed and Jelaqua turned to the Horns of Hammerad. The Selphid gave them a big smile.
“Alright, let’s do this. We’re not going to make this a habit, so if you have any questions, ask. Otherwise, watch and learn from the best. Which isn’t me. Seborn?”
The Drowned Man nodded. He moved forwards, pulling one of his enchanted daggers out.
“Keep behind me. About ten paces. Stop when I tell you to stop. Try to follow in my footsteps. I’ll check the entire corridor, but I might miss things.”
The other adventurers nodded seriously. Ceria saw Seborn move forwards cautiously, then stop. He squatted down to inspect a flagstone, stood up, and took another step. The Horns followed, waiting for anything to pop out. Monsters, a trap, something horrific—they froze as Seborn paused again, this time to inspect a wall. He stared at it, then moved on. Five seconds later he stopped.
Dungeon diving it turned out was boring. At least, it was when you had someone competent leading you. The tension the Horns felt quickly became mild boredom as Seborn moved forwards at a snail’s pace. However, they never quite relaxed. Ceria and Yvlon remembered all too well a similar encounter, and besides which, the dungeon was not exactly reassuring.
They could hear noises in the distance. Fighting. Shouts, and once, a thump in the distance that was either an explosion or an incredibly powerful impact. The other adventurers were making progress. But the Halfseekers refused to be rushed. Indeed, they took a meandering pace down the corridor and even talked as they went.
“What? Keeping silent? Nah, that’s only if we want the drop on monsters. And believe me, Moore’s not capable of sneaking up on anything. If something’s out there, it’ll attack us. We just need to be ready if it does.”
Jelaqua walked at the front of the group, a good pace ahead of the others. She had insisted on it, and no wonder. The Heartflame Armor wasn’t active, but the magical artifact still shone with power in Ceria’s gaze. Jelaqua had fended off over a dozen requests for other teams to buy out the lease contract on the armor from her when they’d seen her wearing it.
The Selphid never glanced over her shoulder despite the magical protection, though. Her flail was ready in her hands and she stayed alert to Seborn’s movements despite her chatty tone. She addressed Ceria in a soothing tone, trying to assuage the half-Elf’s voiced concerns.
“Don’t worry. We’ve done this before. We’ve done this a lot of times. Not like the Silver Swords. You said our formation is similar, though?”
“That’s sort of what the Silver Swords did. Except that they didn’t have a [Rogue]. They put Ylawes in front and had Falene cast [Detect Magic].”
“Not the same at all.”
Moore, the normally quiet half-Giant shook his head disapprovingly. He tapped his staff as he walked next to Yvlon. Moore’s face was serious as he flicked an eye towards Ceria.
“A [Rogue] matters. We may be less disciplined than other groups, but we know our strengths and weaknesses. Seborn is our guide. Without his Skills we would never risk this sort of thing.”
“But you’re not worried about an ambush?”
The half-Giant smiled.
“As Jelaqua said, I cannot hide. And our strategy this time is based around being attacked. Jelaqua wears the Heartflame Breastplate. With it we can take battles we wouldn’t wish for otherwise.”
“Oh. Of course.”
“It’s nice to be invincible. Don’t worry, we’d be quieter if I didn’t have this on. But the Halfseekers have always been the door-kicking type of team. We just do it practically. I can’t imagine walking forwards without Seborn being there to explode first if there’s a trap.”
Ceria glanced forwards.
“So this is all good? We haven’t made much progress.”
Indeed, the Halfseekers had barely progressed compared to what Ceria had expected of other teams. Jelaqua nodded.
“Can’t rush Seborn. We take things slow. Don’t worry if we don’t find anything—we can’t rush things. Relax, Ceria. Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. The other adventurers can go in hot. We’ll hang back and take things at our pace. That’s one of the reasons why we got here first. Racing isn’t something the Halfseekers do. Again, because of Moore.”
“I’m faster than you are, Jelaqua. Long legs means quicker running.”
“Hah! As if. I could outsprint you any day of the week without pushing my body past its limits.”
“And I could outrun the two of you any day of the week. And swim laps around you two in my sleep.”
The Halfseekers laughed. Ceria winced as the noise echoed, and glanced at her team. Pisces walked along, looking equally wary and bored. Ksmvr looked raptly focused, paying attention to all of the conversation as if it were the font of all adventuring knowledge. Yvlon caught Ceria’s eye and grimaced.
To change the subject, Ceria brought up something that had confused her.
“What’s with the four teams that stayed behind, Jelaqua? Are they going in later?”
“Nah. You saw them, right? They were loaded up with boards and nails and mortar ingredients and stuff. They’ll fortify the entrance, give us a place to fall back to. It’ll help the next time teams go in and they’ll be paid for guarding our backs. Everyone’ll chip in a little bit. It’s a courtesy sort of thing.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well, it’s a dungeon thing. It’s like how we got paid a bit for sharing our map of the dungeon. If the adventurers went through the main entrance, they’d pay us and Griffon Hunt a courtesy fee for untrapping everything. Most teams. Gold-rank teams would. They don’t have to, but it’s etiquette. Don’t worry, you’ll hear all about it if you don’t follow custom. In fact, that’s how we learned about the courtesy fee. It was eight years back, right when—”
The adventurers were passing by a section of wall that curved leftwards. Ahead of them, Seborn raised his head and shouted a warning. The Drowned Man leapt back and the wall evaporated and a horde of Children, the monsters shaped like the offspring of the races they preyed upon, poured out of the gap.
They looked like very young Humans and Drakes. But that was only from afar. Up close their skin or scales was too pale. Their faces were twisted, and their teeth and claws were sharp. They screamed as the adventurers turned. Ceria raised her wand. Instantly, Jelaqua charged forwards, flail blurring.
“Behind us, Horns!”
She swung her flail and crushed the head of the first Child. Moore raised his staff and swung, not bothering with a spell. Three of the monsters went flying as Seborn appeared behind another and stabbed it through the chest with both daggers. The Horns attacked at the same time. Ceria raised an ice wall, shouting for Yvlon and Ksmvr to guard them.
The Antinium and Human woman guarded Ceria and Pisces. This time Yvlon had activated her Forceshield and she deftly blocked a leaping Child with the shimmering shield of energy. She swung and the creature screamed as she slashed it across the chest. Ksmvr cut left and right, warding off the monsters around him.
Pisces was already on it. From his bag of holding he poured bones on the ground which sprang up to form three skeletal Raskghar. They surged forwards and Pisces drew his rapier. He took a position behind Yvlon and Ksmvr, throwing fire as Ceria blasted with [Ice Spike] spells.
They’d practiced this formation. It was a defensive tactic that allowed Ceria and Pisces to cast spells from the back with the ice walls holding off the monsters from flanking them while Yvlon and Ksmvr fought on the front. It was a good strategy for creating a choke point to funnel the Children through, and Pisces’ undead could wreak havoc. It would have worked fine too—except for the Halfseekers.
They had no strategy. At least, not one that involved them taking up positions. Jelaqua spun through the monsters, her flail flashing left and right. She ignored the teeth and claws that fruitlessly struck her blazing form. Behind her, Moore laid about left and right with his staff, only occasionally throwing a shower of thorns or tangling his opponents with a sudden flurry of vines that would burst from the ground. And darting from shadow to shadow was Seborn, watching Moore and Jelaqua’s back, striking and vanishing as quickly as he came.
They got in the way and attracted all of the attention. The Horns found themselves unable to help out for fear of hitting the Halfseekers, and the Children only paid them sparing attention, focusing more on the engaged Halfseekers than the defensive Horns. In the end it didn’t matter. The Children, for all their numbers, were no match for even one of the adventuring teams and soon lay dead. The Halfseekers walked about, finishing off anything that moved. Jelaqua grinned as she wiped blood from one cheek.
“Good fight! Looks like you held together well, Horns! Nice formation.”
“Yeah. Thanks. We uh, tried to help but you were everywhere.”
“Don’t worry about it. That’s how we roll! Formations only work if there’s more than three people in your team. But the Halfseekers never really did any of that even when there were twice as many of us! Hey Moore, you got any cuts?”
“A few. Nothing bad. I didn’t have time to put my thorn armor spell up.”
“I keep telling you to do that first! Hey, nice undead. I forgot Pisces could do that. Good job you didn’t let the other adventurers see them, huh? Drakes really hate [Necromancers]. All right, let’s collect the bounty parts and move on. Seborn, there wouldn’t happen to be any treasure in that secret wall, would there?”
Jelaqua laughed and followed Seborn. The Horns stared after her as the Selphid waved an arm, encouraging them to catch up. Slowly, they moved on.
In the end, they didn’t run into any other monsters. Seborn followed the corridor down to an intersection, took the left passage, ran into a team of Gnolls and turned around. By the time they went down the right corridor and found a particularly troublesome trap that Seborn didn’t want to cross, three hours had passed. The entire time Jelaqua, Moore, and Seborn had been talking. They gave up on the trap and began heading back to the meeting place with Griffon Hunt and the Silver Swords, still chatting.
“So? Thoughts on how we’re doing so far?”
Jelaqua turned to Ceria as they were close to their destination. The half-Elf hesitated. She bit her lip, but she couldn’t lie.
“It was uh, instructive, Jelaqua. Really. But…I don’t think our teams work together particularly well.”
She glanced back at the other Horns and got two nods in reply. Yvlon looked a bit embarrassed. Pisces just rubbed one ear and shook his head. Ksmvr looked confused. He probably hadn’t minded any of it. Ceria winced.
“It’s not your team! It’s just…your style. You’re so laid back.”
It wasn’t like the Silver Swords who were practically foolhardy. The Halfseekers were cautious, but they were also casual. Ceria couldn’t relax like they did and she chafed with impatience every time Seborn double-checked something just to be sure. She looked down at her feet.
“I’m sorry. We really appreciated working with you.”
“Hey, what’re you sorry for? It’s not like your team did anything wrong. Don’t worry about us not working together one hundred percent. Teams working together is tricky. It’s like a marriage between strangers—you never know what you’ll get. We’ll switch with Griffon Hunt and see how you do. After all, you don’t need us to dungeon. But now you’ve seen us work—do you understand what your team needs?”
“Yeah. A [Rogue].”
“Hah! Not our charm and wit?”
Ceria grinned in relief. Of course the Halfseekers wouldn’t take offense.
“We’ll do fine without that, thanks.”
Jelaqua was laughing when they spotted Griffon Hunt and the Silver Swords. Instantly, Ceria knew there’d been friction. The two teams stood apart and Halrac looked even sourer than usual. He wasn’t the only one—Revi looked grumpy as usual, but even Typhenous looked put out. As for the Silver Swords—well, Dawil was stroking his beard and wincing as Falene spoke sharply to Ylawes.
“Looks like they didn’t have much fun either. Ooh, this might not be fun, Moore.”
“When is it ever with half-Elves? I can’t stand them.”
The half-Giant winked as Ceria and the others gaped at him. It took the Horns a second to realize that was a joke. Moore kept doing that. He’d make very sly jokes that no one would pick up on. He also had a very deadpan way of telling them. Jelaqua raised a hand as the Gold-rank teams spotted them.
“Hoi there! Ready to switch?”
“Never been happier! Let’s get this over with. We’re burning daylight and the other teams are making progress! One group even found a small treasure chest!”
The other adventurers were stunned. Revi smirked.
“Yeah. It was filled with gold and little emeralds and already open. Wonderful—except for the rune on the bottom. When the team captain starting scooping up the money the rune exploded and it flew up like shrapnel. Don’t worry, he’s alive. But he has a chunk of gold lodged in his cheek.”
“Nasty. But that’s what you get when you don’t watch it. Okay, Silver Swords, let’s go for a walk. Horns? It’s been a pleasure.”
Jelaqua waved at the others and pointed back the way they’d come. The Silver Swords trooped after them, looking put out. Ceria wondered if they’d enjoy the Halfseeker’s company. Probably not. She looked apprehensively at Griffon Hunt. Revi sighed.
“Okay. Looks like we’re with you. Wonderful. At least we can tell you all to shut up and follow our orders without backchat. Or are we going to have another problem?”
The Horns exchanged a look. Yvlon shook her head.
“Not from us.”
“Not if the orders make sense.”
Pisces met Revi’s glare with raised eyebrows. The Stitch-Woman looked at Halrac.
“You want to do this?”
The [Scout] nodded. He appraised the Horns, then spoke up tersely.
“If we’re moving together, you need to follow our way of doing things. We keep silent. Nothing above a whisper, and only then when necessary. Speak only when we stop. I move fifteen paces ahead. Watch for my hand signals. If you spot anything, tell us to stop and everyone will stop. If there’s an ambush, we all fall backwards while Revi summons support and Typhenous buys time. What are your defensive spells and positions?”
Ceria blinked. She looked at her team and then stammered to answer.
“We uh, put up an [Ice Wall] first and Yvlon and Ksmvr take the front. Pisces summons undead and then we just…attack. I cast spells with him and he uses his rapier if need be. We try to stay together and not get separated.”
Griffon Hunt considered this. Typhenous stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“A good strategy. But prone to danger in case of ambush. It relies heavily on Ceria’s [Ice Wall] spell, although they do have three good melee fighters. Halrac, I suggest changing our positions. If Miss Byres follows with me in front while we place Ksmvr and Pisces in the rear, we’ll safeguard our two most vulnerable members—Revi and Ceria in the middle. Your thoughts?”
“I like the walling idea. Typhenous usually opens with [Sticky Webs], so if he casts it at anything running at us, Ceria has time to put them up. But how strong are the walls? We might want more space for my summons and Pisces’ undead. Or do you always send them forwards?”
To the great surprise of the Horns of Hammerad, the first twenty minutes of their time with Griffon Hunt wasn’t actual exploration, but rather changing and implementing their strategy moving forwards. When they did move at last, everyone knew exactly what they were doing. Halrac took point, and the group followed him in dead silence. They didn’t just rely on him either. As [Mages], Ceria and Pisces were both tasked with watching for the slightest magical glimmers that would indicate any kind of hidden spell or passage. Meanwhile, Ceria and Yvlon alternately watched forwards and back to avoid being crept up on, despite the fact that other adventurers had already secured the passages before them.
It was tense, working with Griffon Hunt. But of all the teams they moved fastest. Halrac pushed relentlessly forwards. Once he’d heard about Pisces’ Raskghar, he’d actually insisted on having two of them move in front of him. That way he could scout for traps and also have a decoy in case of an ambush or a trap he failed to spot. He was constantly signaling Pisces to move or stop his undead.
Ceria found herself constantly on edge and watchful. Not once did she or her team have the luxury of relaxing. Griffon Hunt would push down a corridor, reach an intersection, stop, and only take breaks once they were sure it was safe. They encountered no monsters and avoided each of the traps successfully—Typhenous wondered if all the adventuring and fighting was scaring away most of the monsters—but despite that, at the end of their three hours, the Horns found themselves walking backwards, still in formation, but chatting fairly amiably with Griffon Hunt.
Of all the teams, Ceria thought that Griffon Hunt’s style matched theirs best. The Gold-rank adventurers seemed to agree, because even Halrac and Revi were willing to talk on the way back, albeit quietly with Halrac watching their backs.
“We thought you’d be a disaster like the Silver Swords. Sand in my stitches, I’ve never met anyone as full of herself as Falene. Is that ‘wise half-Elf’ thing she does an act? And does your brother not know the meaning of stealth, Yvlon?”
“He never was good at it.”
“He took offense when we told him to dirty his armor. Dead gods. Only the Dwarf seemed to have a head on his shoulders and he kept trying to make Halrac laugh at his jokes.”
“Not a good team for dungeons.”
Halrac grunted. He stared at Ksmvr, who had a shortbow out. The Antinium nodded a few times. Then he looked at Halrac.
“Please tell me, Captain Halrac. Why do you think we have not found any monsters yet? Or Raskghar?”
The [Scout] considered the question.
“They probably pulled back. Monsters and Raskghar. It means this dungeon’s sentient. Or there’s a controlling force.”
“You think so?”
The Horns looked at Halrac, concerned. Revi nodded.
“The Silver-rank teams were attacked within seconds of entering the dungeon. There’s no way those furry things wouldn’t have spotted us coming down. And it doesn’t take an idiot to run from a hundred adventurers. The real mystery is why the regular monsters are gone too. That’s…not normal. We’ll see if the other teams had the same experience, but I don’t like it. Especially since we covered a good amount of distance. How big is this dungeon anyways?”
No one had an answer. And as the two teams met other adventurers they found that the actual number of encounters with monsters had been strangely low. Halrac grunted as he conferred with Nailren.
“So you have not seen any track of the Raskghar either, Captain Halrac? Nothing specific that might lead us to their den?”
“Nothing. There are crisscrossing fur trails all over the dungeon, but I can’t tell the difference between Raskghar fur and Gnoll fur. What about your team?”
Nailren growled and the Gnolls behind him shifted. Their ears were lowered and they looked slightly ashamed.
“We cannot smell our people. The Raskghar have…marked all the tunnels. The smell is overpowering. Too, they have rubbed blood on the walls to hide where they have gone. Gnoll blood. We followed one trail but we were wary of traps. And when we went too far…”
“We sensed eyes on us and retreated. It is not brave, but we have marked the tunnel. We will go back next time, yes?”
“Nothing wrong in doing that. Can you mark the route you took? We’ll add it to the map of the other adventurer’s routes.”
Griffon Hunt studied the map they’d made afterwards. Ceria looked anxiously at the lines showing a dizzying labyrinth spreading out from the entrance via the rift. If all the other teams had gone their own route, they’d have a more complete picture. But from the looks of things, they were only covering a fraction of the dungeon so far.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t investigate the spot that Kelia’s Pride found now, Halrac?”
The [Scout] shook his head.
“Not enough time. We’re already in the evening and we agreed to meet in half an hour.”
“But the missing Gnolls—”
“Amateurs. We don’t rush. If the Raskghar are setting up ambushes and hiding, we move slow. Carefully. Creating a proper map of every trap and tunnel in the immediate area is the first thing we should do. This first raid means we’ve found a bunch of traps and know where to go. We’ll try again tomorrow. But we can’t run about and risk getting stuck in the dungeon by nightfall.”
Ceria knew that was true. But her conscience plucked at her.
“What about the Gnolls, though?”
“They’re already dead.”
Halrac’s flat voice made her stop. Revi shrugged apologetically.
“He doesn’t mean that. It’s more like that’s what we’re assuming. Look, Ceria. We can’t afford to be reckless. Not our team. I know the other Gold-rank teams would do it. The Halfseekers have a soft spot for those in need. The Silver Swords are…”
Halrac frowned. Revi sighed.
“See? I’m not always the rude one. We’ve got to go back.”
Ceria knew that was true. Reluctantly she followed Griffon Hunt back. As usual, Halrac led the way. But since they were in familiar territory he let the group follow closer on his heels. And for the first time she noticed him doing something to the wall at each intersection he passed.
“What’s Halrac writing?”
“Adventurer sign. Marks that we explored this place already. And the way the exit is. For your Minotaur friend, if we find him.”
Ceria was astonished. Revi raised an eyebrow.
“Of course. It’s not much, but if he’s any sense he’ll notice the markings. Minotaurs are great with mazes, right?”
“Um. That’s a stereotype. But he does know his away around trail signs. You think he’ll spot them?”
“It’s better than nothing. What would you do?”
The half-Elf hesitated. Revi narrowed her eyes.
“What was your plan, exactly? Wander about shouting his name?”
“It was a little more intricate than that…”
The Stitch-Girl rolled her eyes.
She stopped at the intersection as Halrac moved on and pointed. Ceria stared at the faint lines on the wall. Halrac had written in a glowing white paint that was probably hard to remove. The Stich-Girl nodded to it.
“Here. We’ve been leaving these at every intersection. Your friend might see them, might not. But he’ll trust it more if you leave him something he can identify. Tomorrow you can do it at each corridor you pass down. But for now…do you have a symbol, or some code he’ll recognize?”
Ceria thought for a long while. At last, she took a small vial that Revi offered her and dipped her finger into the glowing liquid. She scrawled something on the wall. Revi blinked.
“That’s your secret message?”
The half-Elf blushed.
“It’s all I could think of, okay? We don’t have a sign…but he’d see this and know it was me. Definitely.”
For the first time, Revi chortled. She waved at Typhenous and Halrac.
“Hey, look at this.”
The other two came over and Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr crowded around to see. Typhenous chuckled and Halrac actually smiled for a brief second before scowling. Pisces sniggered and Yvlon laughed. Predictably, Ksmvr didn’t get the joke.
And then they were done. Griffon Hunt reached the entrance to the dungeon and stared up at the teams going up through the water. Bevussa and the Wings of Pallass were overseeing the leaving adventurers as the rear-guard. Halrac and Ceria went to hear what the Garuda was talking about.
“Looks like almost everyone got back. How many teams are still unaccounted for?”
“And the casualties?”
“One stepped on a trap, and two more got killed by an ambush from the dungeon. Silver-ranks. Both from Gekla Raiders. Poor bastards ran into a group of Crypt Lords leading undead and called the alarm too late.”
“Damn. What happened to the team going in front of them?”
The adventurers conferred and waited for the last of the teams to come back, which they all did. By the time they left the sun was setting. The Horns were one of the last groups to go, mainly because Yvlon was worried about holding her breath all the way up to the surface and Ksmvr kept making excuses why he didn’t need to go up just yet. In the end, the Horns got one of the adventuring teams on the surface to haul Ksmvr up after tying the Antinium to a rope and they made it to the surface.
The dungeon remained. It was silent, disturbed and upset by the sudden incursion into its depths. It was also hauntingly empty. The corridors lacked life. The monsters roaming about had vanished in the face of the adventurers. Very few things were brave enough to stir until the ropes had been hauled up, and the last invader gone. Only then did things move and the flow of the dungeon change.
It was in that brief window before the denizens of the dungeon returned that a figure walked down the corridors so recently filled with adventuring teams. It moved slowly, warily, pausing at each trap that had been so clearly identified by the adventuring teams. It proceeded down one corridor, and then stopped as it spotted something on the wall.
A bit of glowing paint. At first it looked like just an odd symbol, but the figure spotted a crusted patch next to it. An old adventurer’s trick. The dirt rubbed away, revealing…an arrow. It pointed to the dungeon entrance. But that wasn’t all. Someone had left another message below it. A personal one.
The marking wasn’t a word, or a symbol, or anything so elegant. It was a drawing, in fact. A drawing of a cow. It was crude, but the cow had udders, spots, and a pair of oversized horns. It was…a joke. An old picture that only one of the original Horns of Hammerad would know. Something Ceria had used to make fun of her team’s leader until he snapped and roared at her that cows were not like Minotaurs.
A bit of the past flaked away on the stranger’s fingers. It—he, sniffed the marking. Then the figure bent and searched the ground. A hair had fallen while the illustrator had worked. It was mixed with a bit of the alchemical paint. The figure picked up the strand of hair and inspected it. He lifted it into the air and his eyes widened. Calruz spoke one ragged word.
He stared at the marking and touched it with one broad hand. His scarred fingers ran over the silly drawing of the cow. Then he turned and walked back into the dungeon, leaving the marker behind. Into the darkness. And the dungeon stirred. Enveloping him. Waiting for nightfall.