“I think I see them. Alright everyone! Let’s get ready for tonight! Lyonette? Begin Plan A. Numbtongue? How are the windows coming?”
Erin Solstice stood on the hill outside her inn, shielding herself from the pouring rain with a cloak. It didn’t really help; she was already quite wet from being outside and the cloak just made water run down her arms. Still, it beat being pelted by the rain. Erin stared across the darkening waters. Evening had just begun around Liscor and the sky, never light to begin with, was starting to darken.
She could still easily pick out the boats sailing towards Liscor on the water, though. The returning adventurers illuminated the way with [Light] spells, magical torches, and waterproof lanterns. They seemed in relatively good spirits. Erin didn’t see less of them, so she assumed everyone was alright.
“Looks like everyone’s okay!”
“What about the Horns? The Halfseekers? The Silver Swords? Uh, Gemhammer and the Pride of Kelia?”
Lyonette peeked out the inn’s door. Erin shaded her eyes.
“…I can’t tell the difference between the Gnolls, but I think I see Gemhammer! Yeah, Earlia’s got that huge warhammer. And the Silver Swords are bright and shiny! Hm. There’s Moore. That wasn’t hard. And the Horns…aha! They’re in the back with Griffon Hunt!”
Erin heard a loud sigh of relief and echoed it. The Horns of Hammerad looked unhurt at a distance, although they seemed to be arguing loudly with someone in the boat that Griffon Hunt was sharing with a few Drakes. Probably Revi. Erin turned her head.
“Hey, I bet they’ll be starving! Lyonette, let’s get some food prepped!”
“What should I heat up?”
“Uh—the stuffed pasta? I just made it so I want to see how it’s received. What did I call it again?”
Drassi popped her head out behind Lyonette.
“Manicotti. I think. How do you not remember your own dish, Erin?”
“I have a lot on my mind! Right. Manicotti. That’s Italian, you know.”
The Drake gave Erin a blank look.
“I don’t know that nation. Do they make good pasta?”
“Do they make—yes! And I seasoned the stuffing! It’s this delicious cheese filling with herbs and a tiny bit of spice in some of them. I call it Gambler’s Manicotti! You bite the wrong one and your mouth explodes!”
“From a tiny bit of spice?”
“Well, a tiny bit of super hot spices. I marked the plates that have the spice, don’t worry. I want to see if anyone takes the dare. I bet Jelaqua’ll try it.”
Drassi grinned and pulled her head back into the inn. Erin stared past her at the five Hobs industriously banging on the windows outside her inn. They were installing the shutters she’d helped make in preparation for tonight. Erin waved at Numbtongue who hadn’t replied to her.
“Hey Numbtongue! How’s it going?”
The Hob looked up. He spat out a nail into his palm, and pointed. Erin sighed. For a Goblin who could speak as well as any Human, Numbtongue had an incredible amount of disdain for actual conversation. He was telling her to look and see for herself. Erin saw that all but one shutter was fixed into place.
“Okay, good job! Come in as soon as you finish! I’ll have warm towels and dinner—early!”
She saw the Hobgoblins brighten at that. They picked up the pace. Erin’s decision for an early dinner wasn’t just incentive—like Liscor, she was getting ready for tonight, when the Raskghar would surely attack again. Erin saw Headscratcher pound a nail into the inn’s wall and then wave at a little Goblin awkwardly hammering to his left. Pebblesnatch looked up, gabbled a word, and then visibly brightened. She stared at Erin hungrily until Headscratcher made her continue hammering nails.
It was very strange to Erin how relaxed Pebblesnatch was about nearly having been executed a few hours earlier. But after the Redfang Goblins had explained their change of heart, the Cave Goblin had willingly begun to follow their orders. They kept a close eye on her, but she seemed content to help them out with their tasks. Erin had two theories on why that was.
“Numbtongue explained it to me. Actually, I had to bribe him and tell him I’d buy a new guitar since the old one’s broken, but he told me in the end. Hobs are natural leaders. Pebblesnatch will obey the Redfangs because they’re Hobs, probably more willingly than she would that jerk Raskghar Chieftain.”
Lyonette was busy setting tables. Erin nodded, watching Mrsha scurry out of the kitchen with a stack of plates balanced precariously on her head.
“That’s right. And I bet Pebblesnatch enjoys hammering nails in the rain a lot more than nearly dying in the dungeon. That’s the theory anyways.”
Lyonette replied absently. Erin sighed. The [Barmaid] was too focused on her work. And to be fair, she was setting a dozen tables for what would hopefully be a crowd of adventurers while making sure Mrsha didn’t drop anything and trying to get Apista not to walk all over the plates at the same time. Drassi appeared with a load of silverware and grinned at Erin.
“And you’re not worried about her running off or stabbing you in the tail, Erin?”
Erin brightened. You could count on Drassi to ask questions.
“What a good question, Drassi! No I’m not. Because…Pebblesnatch is going to be sleeping in Badarrow’s room. Actually, she’ll be locked inside and one of the Hobs will watch her. They’ll be up all night, obviously.”
“Right. Say, on that note, are you sure the inn will be safe? I’m going back to Liscor before it gets dark, right? Or am I staying here? I was telling Ishkr that I might be safer here, but, I uh, don’t know. Do you?”
Drassi shifted nervously as she placed silverware next to the plates. Her tail was curled up, though she tried to keep her voice confident. Erin frowned.
“We’ve got the windows on the ground floor all set and the shutters are in place. I thought it’d be harder, but apparently adding onto the inn doesn’t trigger the [Reinforced Structure] Skill. Bird’s got a lock on the door so he’ll be able to run inside if there’s trouble and Badarrow will be right up there with him. And the Horns and the Halfseekers will be in the inn tonight. We should be good. With that said, I still think Liscor’ll be safer, but if you want to stay, you can, Drassi.”
The Drake hesitated and chewed her lip lightly.
“No, that’s okay. I was just curious. And I should probably get back—the Watch has ordered a curfew just past dark for anyone without ten levels in a combat class.”
“Got it. Oh, and by the way, you and Ishkr need to eat before night time. I’ll bet there won’t be any restaurants or taverns open in Liscor, so make sure to get a meal!”
Drassi smiled and saluted Erin. The young woman grinned and turned her head. She could hear distant shouting. It sounded like the adventurers were in high spirits!
“Awesome. Lyonette, make sure Mrsha eats early too. And yourself! I’ll see if I can get some of the adventurers to eat here.”
“Got it, Erin.”
Erin hurried out of the inn, putting on her best smile. Maybe she should wave a plate of food so everyone could see she had some? She stopped when she saw the Hobs. They’d finished with the shutters and were waiting with Pebblesnatch just outside the inn. They hadn’t come in yet because they were watching the adventurers on the water. A giant rocky shell had burst out of the water and two huge pincers were menacing a team of Drakes who were shouting as the other adventurers tried to help them.
“Oh no! Rock Crabs!”
Not just one. Another Rock Crab burst out of the water and capsized a boat. The adventurers shouted in panic as one of the Gnolls was dragged down into the water. The hapless Gnoll might have been torn apart, but five of the [Mages] on the boats threw spells at once and Erin saw several other adventures including Halrac loose arrows.
The Rock Crab that had seized the Gnoll virtually exploded as a bolt of lightning blew chunks out of its shell, then a hail of bright red missiles and a sickle of grey-green light cut their way in. An enchanted arrow sent Rock Crab bits flying everywhere and the second Rock Crab retreated as a Drake in armor leapt onto its body and proceeded to wail on it with a huge hammer.
Still, the aquatic skirmish wasn’t over. More Rock Crabs surfaced, and a pair of black tendrils ensnared one boat. The fish were either agitated or very hungry and the adventurers shouted as they tried to fight the aquatic monsters and not slip into the water. The Goblins cackled with laughter as they watched.
Erin tried not to smile and failed. There was something funny about this battle. She didn’t feel like anyone was in danger, not with all the Gold-rank teams around. At last, the Rock Crabs were fleeing and the Lurkersnatch Fish was floating belly-up, its black tentacles severed and dark red blood staining the water.
“Ew. I hear the bounty on those things is pretty good. Can’t speak for the taste, though. Hey, do you think I can get them to haul it over? Probably not. The fish are already eating it.”
Erin waved at the adventures as the Goblins trooped into the inn, electing to eat upstairs rather than face the adventurers. Erin began shouting as the boats began heading towards the walls of Liscor where ladders were already being thrown down.
“Hey! You want food? We have food! Hot food! Ready to eat! And we have a magic door! You don’t have to climb up to Liscor! Just come on over and walk through!”
It might have been that last comment that brought over a small flotilla of boats to the inn. The tired adventurers swarmed up the wet hilltop, nodding at Erin. She smiled at the Drakes and Gnolls and the rare other species. She kept up a running dialogue as she ushered them in. Another stroke of genius had seen her investing in fresh towels, and soon there was a stack of muddy, wet towels piled up and a bunch of much happier, drier adventurers.
“Hey, how are you doing? How’d the Scale Salad do? Find any treasure? Nasty cut! You should probably pour a healing potion on that. Hey, you. Want a bite? Ask about our Gambler’s Manicotti! That’s pasta. With cheese!”
Erin saw a familiar face as the adventurers passed by her.
The Garuda looked up. She was wet, but smiling.
“That’s right. And you’re…Erin?”
“Yep! Want something to eat?”
“We’d love to. All this dungeon exploring has me ravenous. Too bad it wasn’t much action, at least on our end.”
Apparently not. As more adventurers walked through, Erin got a chance to talk to a few teams not immediately stuffing their faces. The dungeon had been quiet—unnaturally so. Aside from sporadic encounters with monsters, most teams had been mapping and finding traps. The fact that they’d already lost three adventurers made Erin’s heart sink, though.
“It happens. Especially with a dungeon this large and so many of us going in. The trap was a good one and the Crypt Lords encounter was just bad luck. Gekla Raiders got caught right up against a trap. They couldn’t run and they were too far away for another group to get to before they lost two of their own.”
Bevussa shrugged and flicked some water from her feathers.
“That’s adventuring. It’s all a risk. Speaking of which, why is this called Gambler’s Manicotti?”
“Ooh, well if you’re in a sporting mood…”
Erin grinned wickedly. Her spice-filled trap Manicotti had already claimed two Drakes and a Gnoll, who were frantically drinking while the other adventurers laughed at them. It was harmless fun, and that was what the tired adventurers needed most.
The last groups to arrive at Liscor and The Wandering Inn were the Horns of Hammerad and Griffon Hunt. By the time the Horns of Hammerad reached the inn, it was well into evening. It had taken a while for them to get back. Mostly because of Ksmvr. Hauling him up through the water had been a challenge and a half, and the traumatized Antinium couldn’t stop screaming.
“Aaaaah! Aaaaah! Aaaaa—oh. We are not on the water any longer. That is good. Was I an asset to the team?”
The instant Ksmvr got onto dry land he was better. Ceria, Yvlon, and Pisces glared at him and the other adventurers unplugged their ears. The half-Elf opened her mouth and raised a finger, then decided against it.
“Let’s just tie the boats up. Halrac, Revi, Typhenous, do you want to eat in the inn?”
“We might as well since we’re here. We can finish our discussion there. So long as Ksmvr doesn’t scream my ears off.”
Revi grumbled as she sewed her ears back onto the side of her head. Ceria stared as Typhenous took over the needle. She knew other species had odd characteristics—she’d hung around Jelaqua long enough to know that—but this was weird even by Selphid standards. The Stitch-Girl grinned at Ceria.
“Don’t you wish you could do that?”
“I can do that. It’s just that my ears don’t work when I try it.”
That made Revi laugh. Griffon Hunt followed the Horns up the hill. The two teams were fairly amiable towards each other. The understanding they’d developed in the dungeon carried on outside, and soon they were sitting in the inn, warm and dry, with a hot plate of pasta in front of them. Ceria poked at her plate.
“Erin, did you have to make eating a game?”
“No, but it sells better if I do. Don’t worry! This plate of manicotti’s safe. Or is it?”
The [Innkeeper] waggled her eyebrows. Revi glared at her plate.
“I swear, if I eat a hot…whatever this is, I’m taking my tongue out and throwing it at Erin.”
“Don’t worry. None of these plates have spicy manicotti. I checked.”
Drassi moved past the table and gave the others a reassuring smile. Revi didn’t look convinced.
“She could just be saying that.”
Ceria shook her head.
“Drassi doesn’t ever lie, Revi. It’s actually the one amazing thing about her. That, and her ability to talk for nine hours straight without taking a breath.”
The Stitch-Girl stared at the Drake [Barmaid] who was indeed chattering as she made her way around the tables. Revi took a bite of her pasta and her eyebrows shot up.
In a few moments she was eating rapidly. Reminded of their empty bellies, the other adventurers set to with gusto. Only after they’d consumed their first plate did they rejoin the ranks of the social adventurers and start conversing with the other tables and each other.
“I’m telling you, that dungeon wasn’t nearly as populated as I thought it would be. Our team ran into a small nest of Dropclaw Bats, a handful of zombies…what you’d expect of a small-time dungeon. Where’s all the monsters we’ve heard about? Cleared out because they heard we were coming?”
“Hiding? Maybe they’re organized.”
“How would they be? If there’s a bunch of Face-Eater Moths or Ghouls or what have you, there’s no way that group would work with another group of monsters. Maybe the Raskghar scared them off.”
“Right. Scared an entire dungeon of monsters?”
“Apparently there are thousands…”
“Allegedly. A Goblin said that. And I say…”
“Shame about Gekla Raiders. It’s not like they were Bronze-rank. They got to Silver a year ago. I saw their team leader after the fight. Just devastated.”
“I hate Crypt Lords. What is it with undead getting nastier with age? At least the Flamewardens got there in time to save the rest. You know, I heard the first expedition that went into Liscor’s dungeon got wiped out? Over forty adventurers, most of ‘em Silver-rank. Taken out by undead.”
“What, all of them?”
“Apparently there were like, six survivors…”
It was very hard for Ceria to continue happily eating after hearing that. She wondered if she should turn around and address the team of adventurers. But what would be the point? It wasn’t like they were that wrong. And she didn’t want to give them a blow-by-blow of what had happened either. So she turned her attention forwards. For once, Ceria was thankful that Revi was engaged in another argument with her team.
“This isn’t criticism! Okay, it is, but it’s well-intentioned. Halrac and Typhenous agree with me. Your team’s biggest flaw is your fighting style. You fight like Silver-ranks when you should be thinking of advancing to the next level.”
“I thought we did fine. We handled ourselves when a bunch of Children attacked us. And we’ve fought other monsters well.”
Yvlon looked peeved as she stabbed a fried Yellat on her plate. Ceria thought part of the woman’s annoyance was guilt—she’d said the same thing this morning about the Raskghar. But it was never easy hearing criticism from another team. Revi sighed and looked imploringly at Typhenous, who cleared his throat after taking a sip from his mug.
“Revi lacks delicacy, Miss Byres. But she is correct. As adventuring teams go, your team is good. Excellent for a Silver-rank team, given your magical artifacts. But Gold-rank teams stand on another level.”
“I’ll give Ylawes’ team this—they can fight like Gold-ranks. Even if they’re about as smart as rocks when it comes to dungeon diving, they can fight the monsters your group can’t. And that’s all because they’re better on an individual level than you all are. Teamwork isn’t actually your weakest point.”
“I fail to comprehend. Fellow Adventurer Revi, will you give us an example of this difference?”
Ksmvr tilted his head left and right, his mandibles closed and drooping to indicate his displeasure. Revi looked at Halrac. At last, the [Scout] looked up. He’d been patting something under the table. And feeding it scraps from his plate. Mrsha popped her head up, smiling happily. Halrac’s expression defied anyone to made a comment. He spoke curtly.
“Look at Ylawes versus Yvlon. Both have enchanted armor. Both have the same kind of class. Ylawes is better. He has shield techniques like [Shield of Valor] that can hold off a huge monster or an entire line of enemies. He has close-combat Skills like the one he slew the giant Face-Eater Moth with. Yvlon might have a few, but they don’t change a battle like Ylawes can. The same goes for the others.”
Revi nodded. She pointed at Jelaqua, who was dumping milk into Moore’s mouth. The poor half-Giant had gotten a spicy manicotti and he did not do well with hot food, apparently.
“Jelaqua’s another example. She doesn’t use her Skills as much, but she could probably fight as well as Ksmvr and Yvlon put together. I’ve seen her with her flails—the Halfseekers only need her on the front lines to keep their enemies busy. With the Heartflame Armor she’s practically immortal. Plus she’s a Selphid.”
Typhenous and Halrac nodded in agreement. The Horns exchanged an unhappy glance. Pisces blew out his cheeks in exasperation.
“Are you saying that the difference between our teams comes down to levels alone? I happen to be quite high-level. I don’t feel as though I lag behind a Gold-rank adventurer that far.”
Revi cast an appraising eye over Pisces. She shrugged as she tugged at an errant thread on her arm.
“You might be high-level, Pisces. But you don’t fight as well as you could if that’s the case. You use weak undead, you fight with a rapier and Tier 2 and Tier 3 spells—really well, but still—and you don’t have a game-changing spell like Typhenous. Look at Falene. She can throw three times as many spells as you can. They’re not high-level, but she’s an expert at filling the air with magic. And that’s because she has a style. You don’t. You’re just good at a lot of things. And that’s great for Silver-rank. But Gold-ranks are experts in their field.”
The table went silent. Pisces bit his lips but didn’t reply, surprisingly. Typhenous glanced around.
“I believe we’ve belabored the point long enough, Revi. This is just our advice. Please don’t take it as condemnation.”
“No, we won’t. And we really appreciate your team helping us out. Really. Your team works a lot like I’d hope our group will.”
Ceria looked around the table. Griffon Hunt looked pleased. Revi blushed a bit.
“Well, we used to work better when Ulrien…”
She trailed off, and then went on.
“…When he was alive. Our formation’s actually a lot weaker since we depended on Ulrien to fight on the front. My summons can support him, but they lack the offensive power he has. So it was reassuring to meet a team that had good melee fighters. And that had an actual brain in their heads. If you wanted to team up again, we might be willing to do another dive in the dungeon together.”
The Horns looked at each other in surprise. They looked at Halrac for confirmation and the [Scout] nodded. Ceria felt a little bubble of elation form in her chest. Griffon Hunt wanted to work with them? She felt a rush of pride, and then concern.
“What about the Halfseekers? Won’t they be upset?”
“Funny enough—you won’t believe this, but I think they’d be happy to go into the dungeon with the Silver Swords.”
Revi grimaced and pointed. Jelaqua was laughing and elbowing Ylawes in the stomach. Moore was talking with Falene and not rolling his eyes like Ceria or Pisces did every five seconds, and Seborn and Dawil were chatting over a drink. The adventurers looked at each other.
“They really hit it off?”
“They do act the same, I guess. And the Halfseekers don’t insist on silence.”
“Moore’s probably the only one who could tolerate Falene for more than twenty minutes.”
It was settled, then. Ceria reached over and shook Halrac’s hand, agreeing to work together tomorrow. And just as soon as she’d done that, she found herself walking over with Halrac to a table filled with adventurer team leaders. The Flamewarden’s Captain, who was named Keldrass, had called a meeting. He braced himself on the table, speaking in short bursts so he didn’t accidentally immolate everyone in front of him. Apparently he couldn’t control his flame as well as some other Oldblood Drakes.
“The dungeon was quiet today. But that means we got a lot of ground covered. Our initial fortifications are complete. Some have suggested making a formal outpost or securing a better route into the dungeon, but Wall Lord Ilvriss insists we push in further. Tomorrow we’ll be searching hard for the Raskghar’s lair. Any objections?”
The other team leaders shook their heads. They began to pool information, and Ceria heard a few tidbits she hadn’t gotten from the gossip before.
“The treasure chest that the Belfast Hunters found—the cursed one—was brought back on the boat. Don’t worry about the Captain—he’s resting in Liscor with a bit of gold lodged in the side of his face, but he’ll be fine.”
There were a few sniggers around the table. The Drake grinned a bit and then went on.
“Yes, well, he’ll be able to afford a healer. The gold and jewels in the chest are higher-quality than our gold coins. We didn’t do a perfect test, but Earlia of Gemhammer claims that they’re purer than the metal we make our coins with.”
He looked at Earlia. The woman grinned.
“That’s right. Our gold coins aren’t pure gold, you see. We use an alloy. But the gold that was in the chest? I’ll bet it’s as close to twenty-four karat as I’ve ever seen. That chest was probably worth twice as much as we thought!”
The adventurers murmured. Ceria felt a jump in her chest. Envy and excitement. Another adventurer, a Gnoll, spoke up.
“We ran into an unusual occurrence as well. We encountered a masked adventurer who warned us away from a trap. She fought with us against a pair of giant maggots and then left when the retreat was signaled.”
The other adventurers had heard of the masked adventurer. A Drake exclaimed.
“You too? She appeared in front of us while we were exploring. We tried to communicate, but when we said we were fine she left.”
“See if you can convince her to return next time. Or at least ask her name and rank. An unknown adventurer wandering about in the dungeon is a danger, not least to herself. Anyone else?”
There was nothing. Keldrass nodded.
“Then it’s time to go. Watch Captain Zevara’s asked my team and several others to be ready tonight. There’s about twenty minutes before it’s dark. Any team requested to man the walls, now is the time to move.”
The adventures broke up. Ceria saw team leaders rousing their groups and heading towards the door to Liscor. It was surprising how organized they were—and how willing they were to follow Keldrass’ orders. Erin, who’d been visibly eavesdropping, expressed the same sentiment.
“That’s the difference between Human adventurers and teams who live in Drake cities. We have a chain of command. And we’re obligated to listen to Watch Captains.”
Bevussa sighed as she drained her mug and then fished around for coins in her pouch. She handed them to Erin and smiled.
“Your inn will be alright?”
“I think so. We’re sending everyone through. Hey Drassi! Ishkr! Want leftovers? And the Horns and the Halfseekers are staying.”
“I won’t worry, then. Until tomorrow, Miss Solstice. We’ll come back to eat that horrible Scale Salad you’ve got.”
“You think that’s bad? Try the soup!”
The Garuda smiled and left. Erin looked around her suddenly deserted inn. Then she eyed the closed windows.
“Night’s coming soon. Ceria, what’s your plan?”
A small knot of anxiety twisted in Ceria’s stomach. She glanced at the Halfseekers for reassurance.
“I think we’ll stay downstairs. We won’t sleep until we know it’s safe. We’ll get some sleep in the morning before the dungeon dive.”
“Dungeon diving by day, guarding by night. That’s not a lot of time to rest! But it’s probably a good idea for this night at least. The Hobs will be downstairs too. I’m going to warn Bird.”
Erin nodded and dashed upstairs. Ceria looked around. The convivial mood that had been filling the inn had evaporated. Now the adventurers looked serious. As four of the Redfang Goblins came downstairs, Ceria saw they were all armed.
“If the Raskghar come, we’ll handle them. Stay behind us, Halfseekers. Jelaqua will have the door. She’s got the armor.”
Seborn was checking one of Erin’s windows. Ceria nodded and drifted over to Pisces.
“Hey, you can make Bone Horrors, right?”
“I have been adjusting my designs. Should I animate one?”
“Maybe hold off. We’ve got enough bodies as it is. But have it ready just in case, okay?”
Pisces nodded. He sat down at a table and stretched his legs out. Ceria thought that was too casual, but then she realized they might be waiting for a long time and did the same. Erin soon came back downstairs.
“Alright. Bird’s secure and Badarrow’s up there too. He’ll make Bird run if it’s dangerous. Now. Lyonette? Is Mrsha fed? Are you fed? Is Apista fed?”
“We’re all good, Erin.”
The young woman was combing Mrsha’s fur with a brush. The Gnoll was sitting in her lap, looking around anxiously. She knew what was happening and she didn’t like it. She hugged Lyonette’s stomach. Erin hesitated. She went over to the magical door and changed the destination. She opened the door and Ceria saw Octavia’s shop appear.
“Okay. I think now’s the time. Hey Mrsha?”
She came over and bent down with a big, fake smile. The Gnoll looked up, instantly suspicious. Erin smiled and pointed to the door.
“How would you like to sleep at Auntie Octavia’s for tonight?”
Lyonette stood up with Mrsha in her arms. The Gnoll looked at Erin in alarm, and then instantly began to howl. She fought wildly to stay, struggling with both Erin and Lyonette.
“It’s just for tonight, Mrsha! Just in case! We’ll be fine!”
Nothing Erin said convinced the Gnoll. She was afraid. Not just of staying at Octavia’s—she clung to Erin until she was pried free. Then she began crying. She was afraid. Afraid to leave Erin behind. Afraid she’d never see Erin again.
When Lyonette finally dragged her through the door, Mrsha’s loud crying was the last thing Erin heard. She closed the door and looked around. The adventurers and Goblins looked away hastily. Erin took a deep breath.
“Okay. It was just in case. We’ll be fine. Okay.”
“You could go through too, you know. You should.”
Jelaqua looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“And abandon my inn? What if my [Reinforced Structure] Skill doesn’t work if I’m not here? And I can use my aura skill. I will use it this time! I won’t run away. I have a responsibility to stay here. Plus, I can always run with everyone else if it gets really bad.”
The Selphid met Erin’s determined eyes, then nodded. Silently, the adventurers, Goblins, and Erin settled down. They talked occasionally, making jokes, commenting on some trivial detail or other, but the words grew fewer and fewer. They were waiting. And night fell as the rain continued falling over Liscor.
Watch Captain Zevara strode down the battlements of Liscor’s walls, taking care not to slip. It wasn’t that hard—Liscor’s architects had factored the danger of slipping into the rain and carved small grooves into the stonework that added friction to the slick stone. Still, Zevara placed her feet with care. Every eye was on her and she had no intention of making a fool of herself in front of her men. Or the adventurers. Or Wing Commander Embria.
Part of what made a Watch Captain was their reputation. Zevara had fought tooth-and-tail to get to her post and she was determined not to lose it. She raised her voice and shouted as she passed a group of her soldiers.
“The Raskghar are coming with the night! I want every Drake and Gnoll alert! Watch the waters! We won’t let a single one of those hulking bastards up the walls! We’ve got Embria’s [Soldiers] on the walls and the City Watch has every inch of the walls lit up. Adventurers are waiting on standby and Olesm’s prepped every defensive spell. We’ll be ready! Check your posts! Report any suspicious behavior at once! Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Watch Captain!”
The [Guardsmen] and [Guardswomen] shouted as they passed. They stood a bit taller as Zevara walked down the line. It wasn’t a Skill. Zevara wished she had a Skill, but she hadn’t gotten a good one yet. No, this was just good leadership. She walked the entirety of the walls, repeating her speech at least a dozen times, and then walked back towards the walls that had been assailed last time.
The eastern wall was practically glowing with light. The City Watch stood with their backs to bright [Light] spells—the advanced version known as [Illumination] which allowed the [Mages] who’d cast it to change the angle and intensity of the light. Thus, the light shone from the battlements at the Watch’s backs, blinding anyone who might be trying to scale up the walls while the Watch maintained their night-vision for the most part.
“Are we ready?”
Zevara strode up to Olesm, who was nervously staring into the water. He had his Ring of Sight equipped. She saw him twist the ring on his finger and blink furiously before looking at her.
“We’re ready, Watch Captain. The Antinium are on patrol in the streets, Embria’s soldiers are in position, we have a few adventurers with spells and bows on the walls—oh, and I saw a group of Antinium break off and enter Erin’s inn.”
Olesm nodded. He looked around and hesitated.
“Some of the Antinium were Workers. With bows. They were trying to hide it, but my Ring of Sight…”
He gestured to the enchanted ring. Zevara’s head snapped over to the inn. She stared at the boarded up windows, eyes narrowed.
“Put that on your report to me later. The Walled Cities will want to know.”
Olesm nodded. Zevara thought about finding Klbkch and asking him about the Workers, but she decided not to. She’d have all the time later. She stood on the walls, staring into the waters as the rain fell with everyone else. She could not see the moon rising, but she knew it was there, behind the rainclouds. And sure enough, with the moon came the first contact with the Raskghar.
It was a Gold-rank adventurer who spotted the first Raskghar. Halrac drew and loosed an arrow before the others could turn to look. The Raskghar jerked as an arrow struck it in the chest. It floated upwards and only then did it become visible, a small, bobbing form amid the dark waters. The [Mages] shone more light into the waters and more shouts sprang up along the walls. Not just from the east side either.
“Raskghar to the north!”
“On the western side too! Goblins as well!”
“Hold your fire!”
Zevara bellowed as the Watch began loosing arrows at the Raskghar who immediately dived. She shouted again and heard her words relayed.
“Hold your fire! Let our high-level [Archers] pick them off! Mages! I want those of you with the best aim to hit the Raskghar when they come up for air! Everyone else—spot the Raskghar in the water and relay the targets!”
The shouting on the walls subsided slightly. Now Zevara heard tense voices calling out targets, and the sounds of [Archers] and [Mages] doing their work. Below, the Raskghar found themselves literal sitting ducks. They tried to dive deep into the waters, but the need for air and the monsters below drove them upwards to the waiting adventurers on the walls. Over a dozen bodies were floating in the water before Zevara sensed the Raskghar retreating. But it wasn’t over. Olesm’s sharp voice made Zevara look around.
“Watch Captain! The inn!”
He pointed. Zevara looked and cursed. The Wandering Inn was under attack! On the far side of the hill a large group had surfaced. They’d been hidden by the inn. Now Zevara saw small forms scuttling up the side of the hill, disappearing behind the inn’s walls. She cursed.
“How many are over there? It looks like at least sixty Goblins and ten Raskghar! Archers! Get over there and start shooting every Goblin you can see!”
She saw adventurers and guardsmen running down the walls. The inn was under siege. Little Goblins swarmed around the windows, trying to open the locked shutters. They gave up and began climbing the walls until the two figures on the guard tower, Bird and Badarrow, began shooting them and the Raskghar off. Then it was the doors.
A pair of Raskghar smashed into the inn. They roared for half a second and then the sound cut off. The rest of the Raskghar and Goblins charged in after them. There was a brief pause in which Zevara waited with baited breath, and then the Goblins ran out, screaming. A Raskghar made it to the door before a spike of ice burst from his chest and he tumbled to the ground. A loud voice thundered from the inn.
The rest of the Goblins exploded from the door of the inn as if they’d been hurled out by a catapult. More of the Raskghar tried to flee, but only one got out the doorway and Halrac’s arrow took him in the throat. Zevara blinked. She turned to Olesm.
“What do you think they ran into in there?”
“At a guess? Two adventuring teams, a unit of Painted Soldiers and Workers, Hobgoblins, and Erin.”
Zevara stared down at the inn.
“That would do it.”
Then she frowned.
“Wait. What’s happening there?”
Someone was leaving the inn. The fleeing Cave Goblins were pursued by a group of four Hobs. The Redfang Warriors! They charged into the Cave Goblins and began kicking, punching, and laying about with a sword. The flat of a sword. Zevara stared down incredulously.
“What are they doing? Our archers are shooting at Goblins! Hold! Hold your fire!”
She shouted at the Watch who stopped trying to hit the fleeing Goblins. One person kept shooting, though. Halrac’s arrow took a Cave Goblin through the eye and another through the chest. He ignored the Hobs as he loosed arrows.
Olesm whistled. Zevara frowned. The Hobs were taking the Cave Goblins apart. No surprise there. But they seemed to be shielding the Goblins as well! One was waving a sword and shouting something at the walls. She couldn’t hear his voice well, but it sounded like he was trying to say ‘stop’ to Halrac. But the Gold-rank adventurer kept firing, hitting the Cave Goblins with each shot.
On the hill outside the inn, Shorthilt, Headscratcher, Rabbiteater, and Numbtongue fought. As Zevara had noticed, they fought with fists and feet and in Shorthilt’s case, the flat of his blade. The Cave Goblins were armed with crude daggers and clubs. There were dozens of them and fleeing though they might be, they outnumbered the Hobs several times over.
It still wasn’t a fair fight. Headscratcher punched a Cave Goblin as the little Goblin rushed at him, then kicked another Goblin in the chest. He whirled, caught a Goblin by the arm as it tried to stab him in the back of the knee, and hurled her screaming into the air. Rabbiteater smacked two Goblins together and then tossed them back towards the inn. An arrow flashed by his head and pierced a Goblin’s skull. Rabbiteater whirled, saw the dead Cave Goblin falling and looked up.
The hail of arrows had stopped, but someone on the walls was still firing! Their aim was incredible—they hit every Goblin they were aiming at. And the Cave Goblins were dying. Numbtongue shouted up at the walls in frustration.
“Stop! Stop shooting!”
It was no use. Another arrow sped downwards and took a Goblin in the heart. Shorthilt snarled. He lifted his sword, narrowing his eyes as he saw the archer on the walls—Halrac—take aim again.
Legends were told of sword masters so skilled that they could deflect or cut arrows in flight. Shorthilt’s arm rose as Halrac shot at a Goblin running past the Hob. His arm shot out—
And he blocked the arrow with his arm. The impact made Shorthilt’s arm shake with the impact, but the arrow was buried in his arm rather than the Goblin’s head. He grunted as the little Cave Goblin shrieked and ran. Headscratcher chased after it. He tackled the Goblin and looked up. Another arrow took another Goblin through the face.
And then another arrow flew. Not from the walls of Liscor, but from the roof of Erin’s inn. Badarrow took aim at Halrac and loosed an arrow.
Zevara instantly ducked with everyone on the walls. An arrow snapped on the battlements just below Halrac and he leaned back. He snarled and drew an arrow. Olesm exclaimed in disbelief.
“That Hob is shooting at us!”
Badarrow was aiming up at Halrac. The Gold-rank adventurer took aim at another Cave Goblin and another arrow shattered on the battlements right next to Halrac’s face. A warning shot. Halrac turned. He shifted his aim and loosed an arrow. His arrow thunked into the wood right next to Badarrow’s right ear. The Goblin and Human stared at each other as they drew an arrow. And then another arrow flew upwards.
This one came from Bird. It shot straight towards Halrac’s chest. The [Scout] saw it coming and ducked behind a battlement. The arrow curved as it followed him. Zevara’ mouth opened as she saw the arrow flying towards Halrac’s chest. The [Scout]’s eyes widened. His hand shot up and he snatched the arrow out of the air.
The tip of the arrow was less than an inch from his chest. Halrac stared at it as the other guardsmen and adventurers stared at him in awe. He stared down at the inn. His hand tightened and the arrow snapped. He threw it to the ground and snarled.
For a second Zevara thought he’d resume shooting, but he turned and stalked back down the walls. Zevara watched him go. She stared back down at the inn.
“Is that Antinium insane?”
Far below, Bird lowered his bow. He clicked his mandibles together.
“That was a good shot. We were shooting at Mister Halrac, yes, Badarrow? I shot him better than you.”
He looked over at Badarrow. The Hob was staring at him with his mouth open. Bird nodded a few times. Then he stared up at the walls and hesitated.
“…Why were we shooting at Mister Halrac?”
Erin only heard about the archery duel and Bird’s nearly fatal shot after the fighting was over. In truth, the fighting had been over the instant the Raskghar had come through the door and been torn to shreds by the adventurers and Goblins. The rest was just mopping up. Headscratcher and the other Redfangs came in, dragging unconscious or dazed Goblins and the adventurers resumed peeking out the windows. Arrows and spells kept flying from Liscor’s walls, hitting any Raskghar they saw.
In truth, after the first hour of excitement the night was quite boring. The Raskghar and Goblins kept trying to get close to Liscor, but only in small groups and never successfully. By the time midnight had passed into the half-light of just before dawn, Erin was exhausted from the tension but relieved no one had been hurt. Except for the Goblins. Only then did she head up to the roof and get the story of what had happened with Halrac. Then she flipped out.
There was nothing Erin could do while Liscor was on high alert. So she stayed in the tower, trying not to shout at Bird who was humming, oblivious to what had happened. Badarrow wisely got out of her way, although Erin knew why he’d decided to act. A score of dead Goblins were lying on the grass, each hit with a single arrow.
As dawn broke, the Raskghar fled for good. Erin saw the few dark shapes that had kept out of bow range swimming back towards the submerged dungeon rift. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at the distant shapes disappearing back into the water.
“That was way too easy.”
Bird looked at Erin. She met his innocent gaze and bit her tongue.
“Come downstairs, Bird.”
He followed her downstairs. Erin stared around the inn. The dead Raskghar had been dumped outside. There was blood on the floor, but little else. The adventurers were yawning, clearly exhausted from lack of sleep.
Jelaqua looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] nodded.
“Get some sleep. The Hobs will stay up. You’re going back into the dungeon, right?”
“At midmorning. Or something like that. Yeah, time for bed.”
The Halfseekers and Horns trooped up the stairs, swaying silently as they went to their rooms. Erin looked around. The Redfang Goblins stared at her. They were standing guard next to a pile of battered Cave Goblins. Pebblesnatch was staring wide-eyed at the comatose Goblins. Erin nodded.
“Do you think you can control them? Get them where you need them to go? I’m not letting Mrsha and Lyonette back into the inn until they’re gone.”
The Hobs nodded. Erin hesitated, and then pointed.
“Bird. Sit there. Right there. Don’t go anywhere. Pawn?”
She waved at the Antinium standing at the back of the inn. Pawn looked up. He and the other Antinium were sitting together. They hadn’t done much after the first round of fighting, but it had been reassuring to have them here.
“I’m going into Liscor. It should be safe. I’ll be back soon. Can you stay until then?”
“That is perfectly fine.”
The night’s attack had been too easy. Too small in scale. That was Erin’s conclusion, though her brain was so addled with exhaustion that she couldn’t really think of anything else. But she knew what she knew. The Raskghar had attacked…but for a race of what should have been super-intelligent reverse werewolves, that had been a bad attack. It was probably a ruse of some kind.
Watch Captain Zevara was of the same opinion. Erin could hear her wearily addressing her men as dawn broke. Erin climbed the walls and heard Zevara shouting before she reached her.
“Those Raskghar knew we were ready. They’ll be back tomorrow night. And this time they’ll probably try something a lot bigger. Get as much as much sleep as you can today! We’re all on the night shift tomorrow!”
A stream of weary Gnolls and Drakes came down the steps. They blinked at Erin as she walked up past them, but everyone was too tired to ask silly questions. They were all dead on their feet. Erin bet that the city would be slumbering well into morning. Heck, she’d probably sleep until noon! But she had another task before she could rest.
The Watch Captain looked up as Erin sidled over to her. She glanced around.
“The walls are off-limits to civilians, Human. We are under curfew.”
Erin hesitated. Zevara eyed her and sighed.
The young woman nodded. She took a deep breath.
“I’ve got Goblins.”
“I noticed. One of your people shot arrows at my men.”
“That was Bird and Badarrow. Sorry about that. But we’ve got more Goblins. For, y’know, intelligence?”
Zevara stared at Erin. The young woman hesitated.
“Okay, and because I didn’t want to kill them. I’ll keep them in the basement, okay? And the Redfang—I mean, Headscratcher and the others will find a place for them sometime tomorrow. I mean, today. Soon.”
The Drake paused. She seemed to be wavering between shouting and resignation. Exhaustion and her sore throat won. She glared at Erin.
“I won’t stop you. But your inn is a possible threat. We’ll be watching both entrances to your inn. If one of those Goblins takes so much as a step into Liscor, they’ll be dead. The Hobs—we’re watching them too.”
“Thanks for caring.”
Erin made a face. She hadn’t expected anything more of Zevara. Actually, she’d expected a lot less. She supposed she should be grateful, actually. Another Watch Captain might have tried to kill the Goblins outright. She turned.
“I need to speak to Halrac. Is he up here?”
“Down the wall over there. He’s not in a good mood.”
“I don’t think he would be. Thanks.”
Erin walked off. Zevara called after her.
“Why are you doing this, Erin? To make friends with the Goblins? They tried to kill you.”
“The Redfang Warriors didn’t. They saved my life.”
The [Innkeeper] turned. Zevara shook her head.
“And that means you’ll try to save all the Goblins? They’re enemy combatants.”
“They don’t need to be. The Raskghar are using them like slaves.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that they’re attacking Liscor. I’m not arguing with you. I’m too tired. But here’s something you should know. There was a battle at Dwarfhalls Rest. A mountain far north of here. Apparently the Humans led by that Lord Tyrion Veltras finally made a move against the Goblins. Both the Great Chieftain and the Goblin Lord.”
“Really? What happened?”
“Apparently, a huge army of Humans is in pursuit of the Goblin Lord’s forces. They’ve even hired Ellia Arcslinger, the Kingslayer, to slay the Goblin Lord. It’ll be public knowledge in a few hours. But the Goblins are on the run and by all accounts, Veltras has an army that outnumbers them.”
Erin whistled. Zevara glanced at her.
“That doesn’t bother you?”
She received a blank look in reply. Erin shook her head.
“There’s a big, bad army of Goblins up north. Got it. What does that have to do with the Goblins here? Goblins are not alike.”
“That’s not how Liscor’s citizens see it.”
“Well they won’t see the Goblins, then. Any of them.”
With that, she turned and marched away. Zevara stared at her and frowned at Erin’s inn, visible from the walls.
“What does that mean?”
Zevara didn’t know. But she had a bad feeling that it would mean trouble down the road. She watched Erin walk down the battlements to the [Scout] sitting in the rain.
Halrac had unstrung his bow and stowed it away in his bag of holding. He was not in the mood for conversation, though. The piercing glare that he gave Erin as she walked towards him made her want to turn around. But she walked up to him determinedly. Erin didn’t beat around the bush.
“I want to apologize. For Bird, I mean.”
“You don’t have to apologize for anything.”
The [Scout] growled. He was watching the waters, though most of the Watch and all of the adventurers had gone. Erin bit her lip.
“I know. But I should explain.”
“Explain what? The Antinium nearly shot me through the chest.”
“I know! Don’t you think I’m upset! I can’t believe he did that! But—I can believe it too.”
Halrac glanced at Erin. She scrubbed her hands through her hair.
“How can I explain this? Halrac—I’m not making excuses for Bird. What he did was so bad! But he’s…well, he’s like a child. He doesn’t understand some things.”
“Like shooting people?”
The older man’s look told Erin he was losing patience fast. Erin shook her head.
“I think he didn’t expect the arrow to hurt you. Halrac, you’ve met Bird. You know he’s different. He saw Badarrow shooting at you and thought he should do the same. Only, he didn’t understand that Badarrow was shooting warning shots.”
“So he took his shot. I survived. What do you want me to do?”
“Come with me. So Bird can apologize. And before that, so you and I can explain what he did wrong.”
Halrac’s shoulders tensed. Erin took a quick breath.
“He doesn’t think he did anything bad, Halrac. He has to know. Just come with me. Please? Bird likes you. He admires you! That’s why he has to know just what he did.”
For a few minutes the [Scout] just sat there. Then, at last, he got up. Expressionlessly he nodded.
Erin hurried down the battlements. Halrac followed after her. The two didn’t speak until they were heading down the stairs. At last, Halrac spoke.
“Are you going to explain what the Goblins were doing?”
“Headscratcher and the others? They were trying to save the Cave Goblins. Badarrow—he was trying to get you to stop killing the Goblins. Did you not realize that was what he was…?”
“I’m an adventurer. That’s my job. I’ve seen what Goblins can do.”
Halrac spoke flatly. Erin looked back at him.
“I get that. But, see, Halrac, these Goblins are slaves to the Raskghar—”
“Doesn’t matter. They attacked the inn. They’ll do it again if ordered.”
“I don’t trust Goblins. I know you do. I can’t stop you, so I don’t try. I’ll eat at your inn, but I won’t trust those Hobs with my back. And I don’t think it’s safe for you to have them under your roof, either. That’s what I believe, but I know you won’t change your mind. So I don’t waste my breath.”
Halrac folded his arms. Erin stared at him and raindrops pattered off her head. The [Scout] stared at her. Erin was the one who looked away.
“We’re not going to agree on this, are we?”
“No. So let’s drop it. Where’s Bird?”
“Inside. Let me speak first. Please.”
Erin opened the door to her inn. Bird looked up happily.
“Miss Erin! Mister Halrac! Is this who I am supposed to meet? Hello, Mister Halrac. You caught my arrow!”
Halrac’s glare could have peeled paint. Erin took a few deep breaths as she walked over.
“Bird, that’s why we’re here. We need to talk about what you did. You shot an arrow at Halrac.”
“Yes. I did. Because Badarrow was shooting at him. But I shot better.”
“Badarrow wasn’t trying to hit Halrac, Bird! And even if he was, that doesn’t excuse what you did!”
The Antinium paused. For the first time his raised mandibles lowered slightly and he looked less happy.
“You shot an arrow right at Halrac’s chest, Bird. You would have killed him.”
Erin spoke slowly, trying to convey this to Bird. The Worker looked confused. He hunched his shoulders and looked at Halrac.
“But he is Mister Halrac. A Gold-rank adventurer. He wouldn’t die.”
Erin and Halrac exchanged a glance. Bird looked at both of them.
They nodded. Bird paused. He seemed to grapple with this. If Badarrow hadn’t been shooting at Halrac…and he had…and Halrac would have died if he’d been shot…Bird looked up suddenly in alarm.
“Did I do bad?”
The Antinium began to shake. He looked at Erin.
“How bad did I do. Very bad? Very bad?”
Erin’s heart twisted. But she kept a stern face.
“Very bad, Bird. As bad as bad can be. I brought Halrac here so you can apologize. He might not forgive you. That’s how bad it was.”
Bird looked at Halrac, stricken. He wavered, looked around wildly. Erin held her breath. Then Bird curled up. He wrapped his four arms around his body and he began to rock back and forth.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry—”
The Antinium didn’t respond. He seemed petrified and kept babbling the same words over and over. Erin went to stop him, but Halrac caught her hand.
Erin hesitated, then drew back. She took a few steps away as Bird kept rocking back and forth and took several breaths. Someone put a hand on her shoulder and she turned.
The Antinium had been watching the entire thing. Pawn stared at Bird. And then he spoke.
“I have known Bird as long as I have been alive. I understand that he is…different. Even for an Individual. What Bird does not understand is why some things are not permissible and why other things are. Would it be appropriate for me to apologize with Bird?”
Erin stared back at Bird and Halrac. The [Scout] had stopped Bird from rocking. His expression didn’t change much, but he spoke quietly to Bird and the Antinium looked up desperately. Erin sensed a flicker of what might have been pity cross Halrac’s face. Or sadness.
“No, Pawn. I think Halrac understands. You should get your Soldiers and Workers back. Thanks so much for the help.”
“We will be back tomorrow night.”
The Antinium nodded to her. He stared at Bird, then motioned to Yellow Splatters. The Soldier broke off from staring at Bird and the other Antinium followed Erin out the door. She wished she could have talked with Pawn, but she was too tired to think, really. The Raskghar…Erin frowned. They were gone. Yep. Which meant…she glanced around. The Goblins were gone too. As were the Redfangs. Plan A was working. Or was it Plan B? Plan G?
Her mind was fuzzy. When had she last slept? Probably nearly 24 hours ago. She’d been up all day getting ready for tonight, and then up all night. And now it was nearly morning again. Erin stumbled towards the magic door and set it to Celum.
“Is anyone awake?”
A shape moved into view. Erin jumped as Lyonette appeared, pale-faced, a sword in hand. Octavia poked her head out with a pot for a helmet and two potions in her hands. Both relaxed when they saw Erin.
“Is it safe?”
“I think so. The Raskghar are gone and it’s nearly morning. You can come back now. How’s it over there?”
“Bad! I barely got a wink of sleep! I should charge you for staying the night!”
Octavia rubbed at her bloodshot eyes. She plucked one out and stared at it. Erin looked around.
“She fell asleep after she threw a tantrum. I think she’s—oh. She’s up.”
Lyonette grimaced. A flurry of paws and fur exploded from behind her and barreled into Erin’s midriff. Erin went oof and sat down as Mrsha climbed all over her, licking her face and hugging her.
“It’s okay, Mrsha! The bad Raskghar are gone. We’re all fine. We’re all fine.”
Lyonette walked into the inn as Octavia, yawning, shut the door, muttering about sleep deductibles. The [Barmaid] stared at the floor and the blood and blanched a bit.
“They barely got through the front door. The Redfangs captured a lot of Goblins—they’ll be gone most of the day. If they even return by night.”
“Plan G. We’ll have to make a takeout meal for them. Uh…”
Erin tried to get up and nearly fell over. She felt like she was drunk, but without any of the buzz of alcohol. She looked around. Halrac was walking towards her.
“Halrac. Did you…?”
“I spoke to Bird. I think I understand.”
Halrac looked past Erin. He hesitated.
“I’ve met people like that. Adventurers, even. I didn’t realize Antinium had the same problem.”
The young woman slowly shook her head.
“Not a problem. Just different. Just…him. He still did a bad thing.”
Halrac looked as if he were about to say something more, but he decided not to.
“I’m going to rest. I’ll return later today. The adventurers will rally at the dungeon at midday.”
“I’ll see you then. Halrac? Thank you.”
The [Scout] nodded, and left. Erin looked around. Bird was sitting in his chair. He’d stopped rocking, but he was staring down at his legs and he was still curled up. The pose was nearly exactly identical to the one Pawn had made. Erin saw Mrsha pad over to him, looking curious. She patted Bird’s leg with one paw as Apista buzzed away from Bird, still afraid of the Antinium. Mrsha patted Bird and then waved a paw at him. The Worker spoke without looking up.
“Go away. I am worthless.”
Mrsha stood up on two legs and waved her paws. Bird turned, refusing to look at her. He faced towards the fireplace, which was now full of dull embers.
“Leave me. I am not-Bird. I am bad-Bird.”
Unfortunately for him, Mrsha refused to go. She walked around to face Bird. He instantly turned away.
She padded around his other side. Bird swiveled, making the same unhappy noise.
Lyonette and Erin stared at the Worker and Mrsha. Erin sighed.
“I’m going to make Bird go to sleep. He’s tired and really upset now that he knows what he did wrong.”
The [Princess] nodded.
“I think we’re all tired…uh, what did Bird do wrong?”
And then Erin had to explain the confusing story all over again. Lyonette clapped her hands to her mouth and then stared at Bird with sympathy and anxiety. Lyonette lowered her voice.
“That’s…I don’t know what to say! He shot at Halrac? And he didn’t realize—do you think he’s getting worse, Erin? I mean, not worse, but he seems more Bird-ish now. Than he was before, I mean.”
Erin nodded slowly.
“I think that’s because Bird’s happier here. He’s always been this way I’ll bet. But he can be more free here than in the Hive. And that’s not a bad thing. Usually. Pawn told me that Bird used to make mistakes before he became Individual.”
“Got it. Well, if he knows not to shoot at people…I’ll take over. You and Bird get some sleep.”
As soon as she said that, Erin realized how tired she was. She yawned.
“Okay. I’ll…get a few hours. Gotta have breakfast soon. But I’ll…short nap.”
She staggered away, urging Bird up and making her way into her soft, warm bed in the kitchen. Then she realized Lyonette would be walking around her and decided to sleep in Lyonette’s room. After a while, a small Gnoll opened the door and stole Erin’s blankets. But she was warm so Erin slept peacefully.
Night passed into day. The sun rose, and the rain let up a bit, so that a light rain fell while the sky lightened. For once, the inhabitants of Liscor could have done without the daylight. They shut their curtains and cursed the daylight—those of them that weren’t still out cold from sheer exhaustion.
Liscor had survived the second night of Raskghar. It had worn everyone out—even people who weren’t standing guard. The city was practically abandoned until around seven hours had passed since dawn, and after that people moved about grudgingly, yawning widely. The battlements were crewed by a smaller force of [Guardsmen], all of whom looked like they resented each second they stood at their posts.
When Erin woke up, she felt like she could have used another ten hours of sleep. But there was noise downstairs, so she got up, had a weird moment where she wondered where the hell she was, and then realized she was in Lyonette’s room. Erin headed towards the door and stopped. A giant bee was fanning itself on the door.
A giant insect was never pleasant to see, much less right upon waking. Apista had one benefit in that she was cuter than a cockroach, but Erin still gingerly shooed her away before opening the door and heading downstairs. And then it was work as usual. With a few twists.
“Big late breakfast, small lunch. We’re going into the dungeon and the last thing we need is to be crapping in corners. It’s really disgusting. Plus, it attracts monsters.”
Jelaqua’s first comment of the day earned her a slap on the back of the head from Moore.
“Don’t be foul. We’re eating.”
The light blow from the half-Giant sent Jelaqua’s head smacking into her plate of eggs. Erin blinked at the adventurers. Both teams were already up, although Pisces was drooling into his bowl and Ceria had to prop her head up with her arm as she ate.
“You’re going into the dungeon at midday?”
“That’s the plan.”
Jelaqua levered herself up and wiped egg from her face. Then she ate it.
“We’re pushing in hard against the Raskghar. Strike while we have daylight, and all that.”
“Be careful. I’m going to try and fortify my inn a little more. You haven’t seen the Redfangs, have you, Lyonette?”
The [Barmaid] paused as she rounded the tables with some butter and fresh bread.
“Rabbiteater came back an hour ago. Swam back, rather. He’s fishing outside. You want to see him?”
Erin nodded. She opened the door.
“Hey Rabbiteater! Let’s talk!”
The Goblin looked up. He was indeed fishing for food, but his idea of fishing was sticking an arm in the water and wiggling it about until a fish came for him and then grabbing it. He’d already caught two of the flat fishes. Erin shuddered as he offered them to her.
“No thank you. I don’t cook with those fishes. I have a bad history.”
Disappointed, Rabbiteater lowered the fish. Erin relented a bit.
“Okay, put them in the kitchen and I’ll see what I can do. I can always wear gloves or something.”
The Hob brightened and went into the kitchen. Erin motioned him to one side. None of the other Redfangs had returned since last night and the Cave Goblins they’d captured were gone too. She could sense the eyes of the adventurers on her. Erin lowered her voice.
“So? How’d it go? Was the place good like you thought?”
“And they didn’t give you any trouble?”
The Hob shrugged. He mimed thumping a few heads together. Erin winced.
“Okay. But you’re good? You sure?”
He nodded. Erin wavered. She wished she could ask him for details.
“Hey, I know I asked for one of you to come back and give me a status update, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to send Numbtongue to tell me what’s what?”
Rabbiteater shrugged apologetically. His expression made it clear that Numbtongue had been his first pick too, but the Hob had probably refused. He made a scowly face and them mimed shutting his lips tightly. Erin laughed.
“That’s true. Numbtongue would probably say about as much as you. Say, for a Goblin who hates talking so much, why is he called Numbtongue anyways? Wouldn’t…Closedmouth be more appropriate? Or Notongue?”
Rabbiteater shook his head. He bent and patted the air at about waist height, then mimed talking rapidly. He pulled out his tongue and bit it gently. Erin frowned, then grinned.
“Wait, when he was a child he talked so much he bit his tongue and couldn’t speak? That’s hilarious!”
Rabbiteater nodded, smiling hugely. The adventurers stared at Erin. Ceria closed her mouth full of food, swallowed, then spoke.
“Erin, how are you getting all of this?”
Erin turned. She shrugged, much like the Goblins did as a catchall expression.
“It’s not hard, actually. Goblins don’t really need to speak most of the time. It’s all body language.”
Rabbiteater nodded. He mimed swimming through the air and then patted his belly. Erin nodded.
“Right, we’ve got food. You can take some back. Uh—it’ll be a lot. Should we do the special thing? No, wait, you don’t have any wood over there, do you? Okay, I guess we’ll just give you a boat or something. Are you sure it’s safe to go alone? Right, you have a magic cloak. But there’s a lot of water and I don’t think you can drown a Rock Crab. But then, what do I know?”
Rabbiteater frowned. He thought about it, and then agreed to come back with someone else. He left the inn as Erin looked around.
“Okay, I’m gonna make a trip into Celum. I don’t think most people in Liscor are awake. Lyonette? I leave the inn to you. Let’s get ready for a lunch rush.”
“Got it! Don’t worry about us over here. Drassi and two of her friends are coming in. Uh—Welfa and Imissi, I think.”
“Awesome. I’ll be back soon!”
Erin smiled. She opened the door and paused. She frowned for a second and looked around.
“Huh. Guess my ears are ringing.”
Then she closed the door and stepped into Celum. It must have been her ears indeed, because the ringing stopped moments after that.
Erin missed the lunch rush of the adventurers. They’d come and gone earlier than Halrac had told her, so all she got back to was Lyonette and the Drake [Barmaids] cleaning up a whole host of dishes. And Mrsha playing leapfrog with Apista. It was adorable. The Gnoll would leap over Apista, then the bee would buzz over her head and land on the floor.
Since the only limiter was Mrsha’s jumping ability, the game carried them over table and chairs until Lyonette caught Mrsha and told her that she had to either help or not jump around all the fragile dishes. Erin dragged in her purchases, swearing and grunting with the effort. Lyonette nearly dropped the stack of dirty dishes she was holding.
“What are those?”
“Bear traps! I told you they existed! And without springs, too! Hold on—keep Mrsha clear! I’m going to set them up outside. Uh, we might have to keep her from playing out there in the near future.”
Lyonette stared at the bear traps. Erin had bought three—the only three in stock, actually. To her great surprise the [Blacksmith] not only had known what she was talking about, but had directed her to the Adventurer’s Guild, who apparently sold the things to adventurers hunting large game.
“Can you open the door?”
Erin rubbed at one ear as she dragged the bear traps to the door. Lyonette nodded. She opened the door and blinked.
“Oh. It looks like Rabbiteater’s back. With…Numbtongue?”
Erin looked. The Hob was indeed back! And he’d brought Numbtongue to haul the food via boat. She waved at him as the two Hobs came up to the inn. They stared at the bear traps.
“See! I told you they existed! Bear traps! I can believe Lyonette never heard about them, but I thought you were an expert on survival stuff!”
Rabbiteater frowned. He peered at the bear traps, touched the steel jaws carefully, and then straightened and shrugged at Erin. He held his hands up and indicated that they were quite small compared to what he expected. Then he gave the traps a dismissive flick of his hand.
“Hey! What do you mean, ‘small’? These things are dangerous!”
Erin wasn’t sure if she was outraged on behalf of bears or bear traps. Rabbiteater smirked. Both he and Erin looked at Numbtongue. The Hob sighed, but explained.
“Those traps don’t work on Gargoyles. Or Eater Goats. Or monsters from the…Human name. What is it? High Passes. Bear traps useless there. Maybe useful on Carn Wolves. Probably will just make them madder.”
Frowning, Erin rubbed at her ear again. The distant ringing was back, and louder.
“What? Gargoyles? You have…they’re not friendly, are they? And Eater Goats? But the bear trap would totally work on them!”
Numbtongue shook his head.
“If an Eater Goat gets caught, it will bite off its own leg. Or be eaten by other goats. Doesn’t work.”
The Hob seemed to relish the way Erin’s face fell. Numbtongue smirked until Rabbiteater elbowed him in the stomach. Erin shook her head, muttering.
“Aw. Why do you have to tell me stuff like that? Now I’m going to think about that—hey, I’ve only got three of these. I was thinking of putting them in the grass near the water. You know, if the Raskghar try to sneak up again? Think that’ll work?”
The Hobs nodded. For all they’d pooh-poohed the bear traps they were all too willing to bury them in sod and dirt. Erin carefully memorized the spots where the traps were buried.
“Don’t you go stepping on these, now. I’ll warn Lyonette and the others to draw water only from the front of the inn. And Mrsha can’t play outside now. Not that she could with the fish and Raskghar anyways. Okay, you’re here for the food, right?”
The Hobgoblins nodded. They followed Erin into the inn and soon emerged with packs of food which they began loading into the boat. Dried meat, some flour, a few flasks of oil and water—it didn’t need to be too much. Erin helped them, but she kept pausing to rub her ears. The fifth time she did it, Rabbiteater frowned and pointed at her ear. He mimed shaking water out. Erin shook her head.
“It’s not that. There’s nothing in there. I just keep hearing—”
She paused suddenly. A worried frown crossed her face. Erin looked around, then lowered her voice.
“Hey—you have [Dangersense], right, Rabbiteater? Is it going off for you right now?”
The Hob immediately straightened and looked around. He frowned and put a hand to his head. He waited, but at last shook his head definitively. Erin exhaled.
“Must just be my imagination.”
Still, now that she’d thought of it, the distant ringing sounded a lot like a warning. But Rabbiteater could hear nothing. That was curious. The Hob looked concerned. He pointed back at the inn and mimed sitting. Erin smiled.
“No, that’s fine. The others must be starving. Get the food to them. But maybe come back? If three of you can handle the Cave Goblins…”
Rabbiteater paused and then nodded. He walked over to Numbtongue, poked the Goblin, and jabbered quickly in their tongue. Numbtongue looked up sharply and nodded. Within moments their boat was skimming across the water as both Hobs rowed hard. They headed west, further away from Liscor. Erin watched them go and then turned.
“Right. He couldn’t hear anything. Which means we’re probably safe. Probably. But if we’re not…”
She chewed her lip and looked around. There was nothing to see. Just grey skies, rain, and the occasional ripple in the water from a larger fish. Liscor looked fine. But now that Erin had thought of it, she felt like she was being watched. Or was that her imagination?
There was nothing in sight from Bird’s watch tower. Nothing. Erin looked, but the few hills poking out of the water were wet and muddy but otherwise unchanged. The waters were fine. She would have asked Bird to look for more details, but the Antinium was in his room. He’d really been crushed by his mistake—or rather, realizing his mistake. Erin wanted to talk to him, but she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling.
The ringing persisted in her head. But why? Erin had talked to Rabbiteater and he’d felt nothing. Was it just something in her head? A mistake? Something that only affected her? Or—was it something only she’d noticed?
Was her mind trying to tell her something? What had Erin picked up on. The young woman stared around. The sky was clouded over, but it was definitely day. The Raskghar were probably waiting for nightfall. What did that leave?
Rock Crabs? Lurkersnatch Fish? The…Goblins? Surely not. The Goblins were far away and the fish weren’t a real danger to her inn. Not with the magical walls and Liscor being so near by. Was it the adventurers her [Dangersense] was warning her about? Were Ceria and the others in trouble?
No. [Dangersense] didn’t work like that. Erin tried to remember how it had felt in times before. She frowned and then had a small idea.
The [Princess] came over with a cleaning cloth in hand. She frowned when Erin told her of what she was feeling but she didn’t dismiss the possibility that only Erin was being warned. She frowned as she put a hand to her head.
“I was taught about [Dangersense] once. By my tutor. I didn’t listen too much—and I don’t have it. But I was told that not all threats get detected.”
Erin’s gaze sharpened.
“Yes…it’s fuzzy. Hold on. I think…ambushes get detected sometimes, but the higher-level the enemy or the more stealthy the monster, the less likely it is your [Dangersense] will warn you ahead of time. Sometimes it only goes off right as the attack happens. But high-level [Scouts] have great [Dangersense]. Or upgraded versions of the Skill. Sometimes it goes off for everyone, like when something disastrous happens.”
“Like opening Liscor’s dungeon.”
“Exactly. But usually I think it depends on what you’re able to notice. Like—if you couldn’t detect the trap no matter what, the [Dangersense] won’t go off. Does that make sense?”
“Too much. Thanks, Lyonette.”
The [Princess] nodded, looking slightly worried. She glanced around.
“Should I take Mrsha to Celum?”
“No…she’ll fight too hard and we’re doing that tonight anyways. But why don’t you lock the doors? I’m going back up to Bird’s tower.”
Lyonette nodded. Erin went back up the stairs. This time her heart was beating faster. She stared around. But she was no eagle-eyed Halrac. What could she have spotted that he couldn’t. Erin stared around. Then she stared up at the sky.
“No Raskghar. Not until tonight. Jerks’ll probably try to sneak up on us. Good thing we have [Light] spells. Otherwise they’d be impossible to see with all the clouds and rain.”
Erin’s mind twinged a bit. Clouds. Rain. There was something there. She paused and re-examined her thoughts. Clouds and rain. The Raskghar would come back tonight. Why was that odd?
“Because…there’s no full moon. Or rather, we can’t see it. Doesn’t matter, I guess. The moon’s still up there. Both of them.”
Two moons. Erin frowned up at the sky. Well, obviously they won’t be visible now. But the lunar cycle was underway. Stupid double moons that both waxed and waned at the same time. That was probably why the Raskghar got to be reverse werewolves for six days each month.
“For six days each month. And they’re werewolves. Totally. Even though werewolves don’t exist in this world. Apparently. But the Raskghar get powers. Even if the moons…”
Erin trailed off. Even if the moons weren’t visible. She glanced up at the sky. Right. Even if the moons weren’t visible the Raskghar would be out tonight. Why did that phrase make the alarm in her head ring louder and louder? She stared at the sky for several long minutes.
“Shame that I can’t see the moons. I could check on them or something with a telescope. If I had one. Are there telescopes in this world? It has to be possible. I bet there’s a spell that does the exact same thing so no one invented a telescope. Can I get someone to make one for me? Or would Ryoka call that another bad technology to create? Hold on…I bet that if I went to Celum or Pallass I’d be able to see the moons at night! Duh!”
Erin slapped her forehead. Then she had another thought.
“Olesm has that Ring of Sight! I could borrow it, right? Then I could check on the moons. And anything else.”
She hurried downstairs. The [Princess] looked up anxiously. Erin tried to smile reassuringly, but the ringing in her mind made her voice slightly more rushed than usual.
“Lyonette? I’m going to Liscor to borrow Olesm’s ring.”
Mrsha had been playing with her ball. She noticed Erin’s tone of voice and looked up. She whined anxiously. Erin smiled.
That was the wrong thing to say. Lyonette went over to reassure Mrsha as Erin headed for the door. Drassi had caught the mood. She and her friends hovered around Erin anxiously.
“Did I hear you right, Erin? Are you looking for Olesm? We can help you search if you need to find him quick. I know where he lives and Welfa and Imissi can check the Watch’s barracks and the city hall.”
Erin turned, relieved.
“Would you? I’ll run up to the battlements. Meet me…meet me by the barracks if you find him, okay?”
The three Drakes nodded. All four females ran into the rain. Erin charged up the battlements. She didn’t know why she was running. Only, she felt an increasing sense of urgency. She scaled the walls and surprised the Gnoll on duty. He blinked at her.
“Wall’s off limits to civilians right now, Miss.”
“I know! Where’s Olesm? I need to speak with him.”
“I think he’s in his office. In the city hall.”
Erin cursed and ran down the steps. She wondered if Imissi had already gotten Olesm and then ran towards the city hall anyways. Both Imissi and Drassi met Erin. Olesm was following them.
“I found Olesm heading back to his apartment!”
Drassi panted. Olesm looked from her to Erin. His look of annoyance faded into concern.
“Erin? What’s wrong?”
Erin shouted the word. She couldn’t help it. Now the alarm in her head was ringing loudly. Erin pointed at Olesm.
“I need your ring!”
“Yes! I need to see the moon!”
Olesm looked at Erin as if she were insane.
“But it’s not dark outside yet, Erin.”
“I know that! But I need it for something! The moon’ll be out tonight! I just need to see it! Or—”
Erin froze. Her head snapped up. She stared at the dark sky. Clouds. No moon. The Raskghar were still werewolves when they couldn’t see the moon.
They were intelligent even when the moon was out of sight. Suddenly, Erin’s mouth was in her chest. She turned and opened and shut her mouth. Olesm stared at her.
“Erin? What’s wrong?”
The words didn’t come out for a second. Erin was transfixed in horror. Then she grabbed Olesm.
“Sound the alarm! Get everyone to the walls! Get the adventurers out of the dungeon! Now! It’s a trap!”
Erin didn’t answer. She turned and ran for the battlements. She heard Olesm shout after her and then the Drake was pounding after her down the street. Erin ran with the speed of panic. Somehow she found enough breath to scream—something. A family of Drakes on the street stared at her wide-eyed and backed away. Erin didn’t care. She ran up the steps two at a time and gasped at the Gnoll [Guardsman] she’d met.
“Sound the alarm!”
He stared at her. Olesm, panting, caught Erin.
“Erin, what is it!”
“We’re going to be attacked! Right now! The Raskghar are still smart! It’s still the full moon!”
Both the Drake and Gnoll stared at Erin uncomprehendingly. She nearly screamed in her effort to explain. She pointed up.
“The moon is still up there! It’s still a full moon! It’s the lunar cycle! Time! The moon doesn’t have to be visible! It’s still the right time of the month!”
Still they didn’t understand. But Erin’s [Dangersense] was blaring now. Something only she could detect. No, it was something only she could understand. Only someone from Earth understood that the moon was always in the sky, always orbiting. It just wasn’t always visible. And if it was the orbit, the position of the moon that mattered and not whether it was visible—
“I don’t understand. We can’t see a thing. And it’s early evening, Erin!”
“Haven’t you ever seen the moon on a clear day?”
Olesm froze. He stared up at the sky and then whirled. The Gnoll looked at him, wide-eyed. Olesm put his hand to his earhole and then shouted.
“Sound the alarm!”
The Gnoll grabbed the horn at his belt. He raised it and blew a long, piercing note. For a second the wailing sound filled the air with shock. And then another horn blew. Someone began to ring a bell. Erin turned. She stared out into the waters. No one had been checking for the Raskghar. There had been guardsmen on the wall, but they’d been exhausted. Why would the Raskghar attack during the day, after all? She saw nothing at first. But as the bell began to ring, the waters stirred. A shape moved on one of the hilltops. The Raskghar stood up, exposing itself on the far side of the hill. It pointed to the walls and roared a word. Erin saw a group of Raskghar stand up. They’d hidden themselves behind the hills, right where Liscor’s defenders couldn’t see them. Olesm swore.
“Don’t worry, they’re too far away! We’ll get them—”
These Raskghar were different. They weren’t armored in fur and carrying primitive weapons. One of them was wearing shining plate mail. Another held a staff. It pointed it at the walls. Erin heard a shriek in her mind.
She grabbed Olesm and the Gnoll and knocked them to the ground. She heard a scream as something ripped through the air and then a hammer of wind knocked every guardsman on the wall flat. Erin felt as though her chest was compressed. She lay on the ground, gasping, and then heard shouting.
“They’re coming up! Ancestors, they’ve got grappling hooks!”
The Raskghar were swimming to the walls. Another blast of air knocked everyone down, and then the Raskghar were throwing hooks upwards. The water was so high that they could reach the walls. Erin saw a hook land, and then a grinning face pull itself up.
The Raskghar grabbed the Gnoll guardsman as he shakily got to his feet. The Gnoll tried to stab him with a spear, but the huge Raskghar pulled him over the wall. The Gnoll screamed and splashed into the water. Erin saw the Raskghar turn to her. His armor shone brightly. He had an enchanted axe in his hands. She backed up—
Erin heard the voice and threw herself down. She felt a flash of heat on her back and then heard a triumphant howl. When she looked up, a shimmering wall had encased the Raskghar and his armor. Zevara spat more fire as Olesm dragged himself up and pulled Erin back.
“Push them back off the walls!”
The Watch Captain roared. The armored Raskghar slashed at her, but she dodged back. More Raskghar followed him. The Raskghar roared triumphantly, but too soon. Erin heard pounding feet and then someone launched himself.
Relc slammed into the Raskghar and struck him in the helmet with the butt of his spear. The Raskghar stumbled back. Another Drake with red scales charged past Relc. Embria whirled her spear and a Raskghar climbing up fell, howling, his left hand a stump.
“Push them back!”
Drakes and Gnolls were suddenly charging up the walls. The Raskghar found themselves being thrown back, cut down. The Raskghar in armor snarled and jumped off the side of the battlements into the water. They’d been too slow.
Forewarned by Erin, the Watch and Embria’s soldiers cut them off before they could launch another sneak attack and secure the wall. Erin felt another blast of air nearly throw her to the ground again, but the Raskghar with the staff was only trying to keep the archers from harrying the fleeing Raskghar.
“We got them! Alert the adventurers! They’ve got Raskghar coming down behind them!”
Zevara shouted at one of the Drakes. Olesm hauled Erin up.
“I think so. I think—wait. Oh no.”
Erin looked around. Only now that the walls were safe did she have another thought. Erin grabbed Olesm.
“The inn! There’s no one there but Lyonette and Mrsha!”
Olesm paled. Zevara whirled. She roared.
“Get to the inn!”
She ran after Olesm with a squad of guardsmen at her back. But even Olesm wasn’t able to keep up with Erin who sprinted for the door to her inn. But by the time she got there it was too late.
The young woman was lying on the ground. Her head was bleeding. Erin rushed over to her. Lyonette sat up groggily. Her sword was bloody. Her wrist was broken.
“Lyonette! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Fine.”
The young woman’s eyes didn’t quite focus on Erin. She stared around dizzily. Erin heard Zevara shouting orders to search and secure the inn. All of her attention was focused on Lyonette.
“What happened? Where’s Mrsha?”
The [Princess] blinked without looking at Erin.
“I’m fine. They broke through the door. I’m sorry, Erin. They weren’t after me. They were looking for something. They ignored me. Broke my wrist.”
Erin looked around. The common room was trashed. Chairs were upended, a table thrown over—the Raskghar had come in fast. She saw a small shape struggling to move. Apista was lying on the ground, two of her legs mangled. But there was no one else.
“Where’s Mrsha, Lyonette? Where’s Bird?”
Lyonette looked around stupidly. Then her gaze focused.
She screamed the word. Bird came down the stairs, looking confused. But no matter how much Lyonette screamed, Mrsha didn’t appear. She was gone. Erin shouted her name, running around the inn, throwing the basement trap door open, shifting the magic door to Celum and Pallass. Then she heard the shout of pain from outside and ran for the door, ignoring Zevara’s warning to wait.
Mrsha was not outside. The ground was muddied, and there was no Gnoll—or Raskghar in sight. But someone was out there. Erin saw a Cave Goblin lying on the ground near the water. He was screaming and clawing at a pair of metal jaws fastened to his left leg.
The Cave Goblin was screaming, his leg caught in one of the bear traps. He twisted as Erin approached, fingers scrabbling on the bloody metal. She stared at him, feeling sick. Then she grabbed him. He screamed and tried to bite. Erin head butted him and the Goblin went limp.
“Where did they go? Where did they go?”
The Goblin shook as Erin seized him. She raised a fist and he flinched. Erin hesitated, and then lowered her fist. Then she looked down at the bear trap. Her mind was numb, but she made it work. Mechanically, Erin spoke.
“Got to get that off your feet. Bone’s probably broken. Up to the inn with you. You’re going to answer all my questions there.”
The Goblin had been maddened with pain. He shrank and screamed as Erin grabbed the jaws of the bear trap. But the Human hauled the jaws open. The Cave Goblin jumped back as soon as his leg was clear. He turned to flee into the water, but too slowly.
Erin grabbed the Goblin and he twisted up to stare at her. He met her eyes and stared into her burning gaze. He tried to run again and screamed for different reasons than pain. He grabbed a dagger from his belt and slashed at her. A fist flying at his face was the last thing he saw for a while.
“Looks quiet, don’t it?”
Ceria wished the Drake team would stop talking. It had been bad luck that Griffon Hunt and the Horns had taken the same route as a Drake team. But the first few twists and turns in the dungeon had been marked, so they had to share the corridor with a team of chatty Silver-rank Drakes before they could split up.
After working with Griffon Hunt for one day, Ceria already realized how stupid it was to talk in a dungeon where noise travelled so much further. She glared at the Drake, but he was undeterred.
“You’re the Horns, right? We’re the Tail of Xil. Silver-rank, like your team. This is our first dungeon dive. I hear your team’s been challenging this dungeon from the start, is that right?”
“We have experience. And we prefer to work silently. You never know what might happen.”
Ceria grated out the words. The Drake laughed.
“Yeah, that’s what all the Gold-ranks say. But even they chat sometimes! And we’re safe here, remember? We have these maps—”
He flourished the copy of the map from the first day’s expedition in his claws. It was a twisting maze of tunnels, but it did show clearly what areas had been explored and how many places there were left to check.
“—and we’re in known territory. What’s the harm in chatting?”
Ceria clamped her mouth shut. The Drake sighed. He turned to his partner, a female Drake with pinkish scales.
“Humans. I thought it was all tall tales about them, but they’re just as rude as they say, you know?”
His companion glared at the talkative Drake.
“That’s a half-Elf, thick wit.”
“A half-Elf? But she looks like regular Humans! I mean, sort-of.”
“You’re an idiot, Fess.”
Fess the Drake glowered. He strode ahead of his companions, stalking further down the corridor. Ceria wanted to call him back, but they were in safe territory and he was truly annoying. She could hear Fess talking loudly ahead of them as he stomped forwards.
“I’m just trying to be social! It’s not like I asked for our team to be assigned to a dungeon! I hate enclosed spaces, but we have to follow orders!”
“Shut up, Fess!”
The leader of the Tail of Xil’s team shouted at Fess as he strolled along with a pike propped on his shoulder. Fess turned unhappily.
The Drake took another step forwards and exploded. His body bulged and then overinflated like a burst flask. Ceria saw a red fountain, and felt something strike her in the face. She looked down and saw a chunk of scales and flesh fall from her cheek. The adventuring teams, the Tail of Xil, the Horns of Hammerad, and Griffon Hunt all froze.
The pink-scaled Drake stared at the spot where Fess had been, stunned. The team leader made a choking sound. He stared at the innocuous spot on the ground.
“A trap? But how? We checked all the corridors!”
He took a step forwards but Halrac thrust him out of the way.
The [Scout] knelt, ignoring the gore staining the ground. He peered at the ground, then straightened. When he turned to the adventurers his gaze was sharp. And worried.
“Someone’s erased the markings for the trap. There’s paint residue, but it’s been scraped clean.”
“The Raskghar? We need to tell the other teams at once!”
The adventures broke out into a nervous babble. Halrac raised a hand and then pointed.
“Back the way we’ve come! Now! Retrace your footsteps!”
The adventurers immediately reversed pace. As they did, they began to hear more shouts and thumps from elsewhere in the dungeon. And as if on cue, a long, loud howl echoed through the dungeon. Ceria’s skin crawled.
“What the hell?”
She broke into a run with the other adventurers. Ceria ran back down another ‘safe’ corridor and spotted a group of adventurers running towards them. She could hear them shouting.
“There are Ghouls coming down the corridor! At least sixty of them!”
“Face-Eater Moths! A giant one’s coming down this way!”
“We’re under attack! I just got a [Message] from the other groups! The Raskghar are flooding the tunnels! They’re everywhere!”
“Retreat! Get back to the rift and start going back up!”
Halrac roared the order above all the other voices. The Drake [Mage] turned desperately to him.
“We can’t! Liscor says the Raskghar are coming from above, too!”
Revi seized the Drake.
“That doesn’t matter! We secure our exit or we’ll be surrounded! Back to the rift! Move!”
She and the other adventurers charged back the way they’d come. Now they could hear sounds in every direction. The dungeon was coming alive. And behind them they could hear howls and barking. The Raskghar were closing in. More and more teams flooded back the way they’d come, some injured, some missing teammates. Monsters were hot on their heels. Ceria turned and blasted a giant thing with too many eyes and pinchers for a mouth and then formed an [Ice Wall] with another [Mage]. She shouted at Ksmvr and Yvlon to follow as the adventurers made a line of steel that slowly retreated back from the rift. They ran into the Raskghar from above two tunnels from safety.
“Ahead of us! Raskghar with magic weapons!”
Ceria turned as an adventurer shouted. She stopped firing [Ice Spikes] at the melee of monsters behind her and saw a group of Raskghar charging towards their group. They had burdens on their shoulders—limp or bleeding Gnolls, tied up. They crashed into the Drakes in front as Griffon Hunt shouted for the adventurers to make a wall. Revi’s summons dueled with the Raskghar as Halrac loosed arrows at the Raskghar in front, sending them toppling to the ground. He drew an enchanted arrow and fired.
His arrow snapped as it struck the Raskghar in the plate armor. The impact made the huge Raskghar pause in his step, but he charged forwards. Halrac rolled out of the way, avoiding a slice from the battleaxe. Ceria saw Yvlon charge the Raskghar. The woman brought her sword down and the Raskghar blocked with a glowing blue shield. He roared as the impact sent him staggering, and then struck Yvlon with his axe. She raised her arm and blocked with her shield. Ceria shouted in horror. The impact—Yvlon’s arm cracked and then buckled. It bent—slightly—and the woman fell. The half-Elf stared in disbelief. But the Raskghar kept coming.
It was fleeing! The adventurers were of less concern to the Raskghar, who were trying to escape with their burdens. Typhenous whirled his staff and pointed. A Raskghar carrying a Gnoll screamed as a flurry of magical arrows burst from his chest. Ceria pointed.
“Block them! Pisces! Form a wall!”
She spun, pointing. Ice sprang up around the Raskghar in the enchanted armor. He snarled as his feet became tangled in the ice but smashed through. He turned to look at Ceria and paused. The Raskghar dropped the Gnoll he was carrying, bent his head, and sniffed.
“Captain Ceria! Beware!”
Ksmvr charged the Raskghar. It swatted the Antinium aside with a huge metal hand. The Raskghar sniffed and then lunged, incredibly quickly. Ceria tried to dodge, but the impact knocked her flat. She saw the Raskghar bending over her, a huge bestial head inches from hers. It sniffed her again and then lifted her up.
Pisces bellowed. He appeared at the Raskghar’s back and slashed with his rapier. But the Raskghar turned his head and Pisces’ blade missed entering the gaps in his helmet. The [Necromancer] struck the Raskghar’s armpits and sides desperately, looking for gaps in his armor. There were none. The Raskghar turned and ran as its companions streamed past it into the dungeon.
Pisces sped after them. He blinked and reappeared, using [Flash Step] as he harried the Raskghar in armor. But it didn’t slow. And as the other Raskghar and monsters closed in, the [Necromancer] had to retreat. He stumbled back, bleeding as a cut opened up the flesh covering his ribs. Pisces shouted, but it was too late. The Raskghar were gone. And they had taken Ceria with them.
An hour later, Pisces, Yvlon, and Ksmvr stood in Erin’s inn. They were healed, but many of the adventurers who stood with them had taken wounds that couldn’t be healed with a mere potion. Some had been injured by the traps. Others by the sudden monster attacks. Others were completely fine and had escaped the Raskghar’s ambush unharmed, like the Silver Swords. But no one was smiling.
The scene was familiar. A Goblin was tied to the chair, surrounded by Drakes, Gnolls, Humans…adventurers and people from Liscor. Only this time the mood was murderous.
“Where are they! Talk!”
Of all people it was Moore who was doing the questioning. The half-Giant loomed over the tiny Cave Goblin. His face was twisted with fury. He lifted the Goblin up as the little monster screamed and thrashed. Moore roared.
“Where did they take them? Where did they go?”
The Goblin shrieked. It screamed, turning to the two Hobs standing in the inn. They were surrounded by adventurers who watched their every move with suspicion. Numbtongue shouted up at Moore.
“He knows nothing! The Chieftain moves their camp every night! So adventurers and monsters don’t find!”
“He knows where they were!”
Moore shook the Goblin again. The Cave Goblin screamed. Numbtongue listened.
“He is giving directions! Left, right—long tunnel, up stairs—stop shaking! Neck will break!”
Moore’s hand was white and the chair back creaked and snapped in his grip. Slowly, he lowered the Cave Goblin. It panted wildly as the half-Giant dropped him to the floor. Erin, standing behind the Horns, opened and closed her mouth silently. Moore bent.
“Where is Mrsha. Where is Ceria? Why were they taken?”
The Goblin didn’t know what he was saying. But as Rabbiteater translated he instantly gabbled a reply. Numbtongue translated.
“Take Gnolls! Take white Gnoll! Special Gnoll! Chieftain want! Raskghar want! Also take special-smelling…pointy-eared not-Human! Very important! No Goblins or Raskghar kill or Chieftain kills them! They must have pointy-eared not-Human!”
The Horns looked at each other, confused. Yvlon’s face was white. Her hands bled as her fingernails dug into her palms. Ksmvr was gripping his shortsword, barely restrained in place. Pisces was less calm. He strode forwards and seized the Goblin.
“Why Ceria? Who is this Chieftain? Why does he want her?”
He shook the Goblin wildly. The little Cave Goblin screamed as Pisces bent. The [Necromancer]’s face changed, turning into a rotting mask. Pisces grew as the illusion magic transformed him. His voice boomed and his body contorted, growing into a fleshy monster of undeath.
“Answer me, wretch!”
Erin shouted, unable to take it anymore. Pisces ignored her. He kept shaking the Goblin, hitting it, until Dawil and Seborn dragged him off the Goblin. The little creature was sobbing. It shouted a response. Numbtongue listened.
“Chieftain ordered. Chieftain ordered! Must obey Chieftain or die! Chieftain will kill!”
Pisces shouted, struggling.
“Who is the Chieftain? Who?”
The Goblin screamed an answer.
“One arm! One arm! Horn Chieftain! Great Chieftain! Not Raskghar! Not Goblin! One arm!”
And then there was silence. Numbtongue looked around, uncomprehendingly. Every eye stared at the Cave Goblin in shock. Then, slowly, the adventurers, the guardsmen of Pallass, Erin, Lyonette…everyone, turned to look at the Horns of Hammerad. Yvlon’s face went white. She stared at the Goblin.
“It can’t be.”
Somewhere in the darkness below, someone slapped Ceria roughly. She came to with a start. She felt a terrible pain in her chest, bruising, maybe a cracked rib. And her head—she groaned, then remembered. Ceria raised her skeletal hand. A hand caught it.
“You’re awake. Good!”
The voice was familiar. But it was odd. Ceria couldn’t place it. The deep, rumbling voice—she looked around wildly.
“Where? The Raskghar?”
It was dark. There was barely any light in the room. Slowly, Ceria’s eyes adjusted. As it did, the hand that was holding hers slowly released.
“Move slowly. You are injured. It has taken me a long time to find, you, Ceria. At last. I’d given you up for dead.”
That voice. It was familiar! But Ceria hadn’t heard it in…months. She looked around.
“It can’t be. Are you—is it—”
A huge figure stood in front of her, barely visible. Ceria squinted up at him. A giant stood in the darkness. Not as tall as Moore, but built of muscle. His body was powerful, humanoid, but not Human. He had short, dark brown fur, and his face was shaped like a cow’s. He had a pair of sharp horns and his hands were larger than any Human man’s.
No. Not hands. Hand. Ceria stared at the figure and squinted. He only had one arm.
One arm. Her breath drew in sharply. The figure smiled. He moved and a bit of light shone down. Calruz grinned down at Ceria, his yellowed teeth flashing in the darkness.
“You’ve returned to me. My precious teammate. My Horn of Hammerad. At last I have someone to rely on. Someone to help me.”
He stepped back. Ceria stared at Calruz, too shocked for words, for thought. Then, at last, she took in the room behind him. She sat in a massive domed chamber, the roof of which had caved inwards in two parts. She saw many, many furry shapes moving about, some sleeping, others eating. And between them scurried a multitude of smaller shapes. Ceria’s breath caught as she identified them.
Raskghar. And Cave Goblins, scurrying around between them. And behind them on the far walls—
They were lined up, held captive in crude cages of wood and hide. The Gnolls of Liscor huddled together, staring at the Raskghar in silence. And held captive in a small cage separated from the rest was a white shape.
Ceria lunged to her feet. She tried to move, but the hand caught her again. She twisted. Calruz stared down at Ceria.
“Hold, Ceria. Those are my prisoners.”
The half-Elf’s jaw worked soundlessly.
“Prisoners? Calruz. Is that you? How are you alive? What are you doing down here? Why are the Raskghar—”
Calruz grinned at her. The Minotaur’s eyes focused on Ceria, looking her up and down. He spoke casually.
“Why, they are my team of course. A new team. A…tribe. I lead them. The Raskghar are my tools to conquer the dungeon.”
“Of course! Why do you think we came down here? This dungeon is far larger than I thought. I miscalculated our first expedition. But we haven’t failed. There are thousands of Raskghar. And they have artifacts! I’ve turned them into a fighting force. And they grow stronger on the full moon. And with the Gnolls, they’ll be stronger still. But most importantly, they found you.”
The Minotaur drew closer. Ceria could feel her bones grinding as his grip tightened on her arm. Calruz’ breath was foul and rancid as he peered at her.
“Yes. My teammate. You’re here. We can finally finish our job. We’ll conquer this dungeon and emerge as heroes! Heroes, Ceria! Imagine it!”
And at last, Ceria understood. She felt the cold dungeon floor beneath her feet, heard the Raskghar growling, saw the Cave Goblins moving about fearfully, and saw the Gnolls watching her. Her and the Minotaur with one arm. But Calruz only had eyes for her. He grinned at Ceria. There was triumph in his eyes. He looked relieved, elated, confident, and he spoke as she remembered. Their fearless leader, ready to charge into the fray. There was only one difference now.
He was completely, utterly insane.