“We have defeated the adventurers. They flee this dungeon, too exhausted to fight longer. The Antinium have retreated. Their dead lie in droves and they have failed to take the dungeon once more. My strategy succeeded, as I knew it would.”
Calruz stood at his war table, staring down at his map of the dungeon. The Minotaur’s arm flexed as he cleared the crude pieces of colored stone from the map. For the last six hours he had been overseeing the Gold-rank adventurer’s counterattack into the dungeon as well as the Antinium incursion. Now, as both sides retreated, he gloated.
“I told you they would never reach the main camp. Not with so many monsters roaming the labyrinth. Not without knowledge of the traps and secret tunnels. I told you, did I not?”
“Yes, Calruz. You did.”
The Minotaur glanced triumphantly down and to the side. The half-Elf standing next to his war table stared silently at the map. Ceria’s ears were drooping, and her voice was quiet.
She felt crushed. The half-Elf [Cryomancer] looked at Calruz’s map and tried to guess how many turns and junctions, traps, and secret doors lay between the main Raskghar camp and the surface. Too many to count. She tried to plot a course from the dungeon’s entrance to where Calruz had said they were and failed. Nor did she have time to study the map—Calruz folded the grimy parchment and tucked it into his belt pouch possessively.
“I told you. And we have won. But we will not rest on our horns. Not yet. The outsiders are just a nuisance. You and I have much to do, Springwalker. The Horns of Hammerad will conquer the dungeon yet.”
Calruz glared down at Ceria. She stood a bit straighter.
“I mean, yes Captain.”
He grunted in approval. Ceria turned her head, but she couldn’t help but stand to attention. It was that or risk Calruz’s wrath and—her gaze turned towards the Gnoll prisoners in their cages—she had seen what that resulted in.
The Raskghar camp. The prisoners. Calruz. Ceria had barely been awake a day and it still felt like a bad dream. Seeing Calruz turn and shout something to the Raskghar in their own language was unreal enough. But seeing the warriors hurry forwards and the others stand to attention?
Madness. That was what flickered in Calruz’s eyes every time he looked at Ceria. When he’d ordered teams of his Raskghar to try and kill Jelaqua’s team and ambush the others—she’d tried to argue with him. But he’d ignored her. Worse, he’d threatened to sacrifice more Gnolls if she kept arguing.
So she’d stayed silent. Now, Ceria’s gaze travelled across the cavern while Calruz barked commands in the Raskghar’s foreign tongue. The Raskghar camp was as primitive as she’d expected. Cook pots, butchering areas where monsters were cut apart, sleeping quarters that were really just soft hides or piles of bedding—it resembled a Gnoll tribe’s camp.
Save for the prisoners. The shackled Gnolls sitting in cages were one thing that caught Ceria’s eye. She stared at the little white Gnoll sitting in her cage and looked away. Focus. She had to focus.
The other main difference was the Cave Goblins. They scurried about. For every Raskghar there were ten Cave Goblins, tending to fires, bringing food to the Raskghar, maintaining weapons, butchering—and there were hundreds of Raskghar. Thousands. In this camp alone, Ceria guessed there were at least two thousand Raskghar, almost all of them warriors. All of them were larger than the average Gnoll, stronger. And during the period when both moons were full, they were all incredibly intelligent.
She saw it in a myriad of little ways. A Raskghar puzzling over a locked crate, a group of Raskghar finding a deck of cards in an adventurer’s pack and figuring out how to play a game with them, one more disassembling and reassembling a crossbow. As Ceria watched, the Raskghar with the crate improvised a lock pick and successfully opened the wooden chest. It reached inside, pulled out a strange, decorated cup made of red and white ceramic and stared at it.
Ceria turned. Calruz stared down at her, a smile on his broad face. He grinned at her, revealing damaged teeth. The Minotaur gestured around the camp.
“What do you think of my warriors? My tribe?”
Ceria didn’t know what to say. Her answer seemed to satisfy Calruz. And it was true, the Raskghar were the most dangerous fighting force Ceria had laid eyes on. Even the assembled adventurers from Pallass couldn’t compare in sheer numbers or brutality to the Raskghar. Despite their lack of Skills and their inability to gain classes, the Raskghar were deadly. And worst of them all—
There she was. Ceria stared at one of the Raskghar, crouching at the center of the group that was playing with the deck of cards. On first glance, the Raskghar with the dark grey-brown pelt wasn’t too noticeable. She was female—she wore a crude breast band and loincloth—but was otherwise naked save for the stone axe at her side. But what made her stand out from the other Raskghar was her height and the way she moved.
She was one of the tallest Raskghar present. And that made her nearly as big as Calruz, a huge creature of bone and muscle and flesh. But more than that—this Raskghar looked around and Ceria saw her eyes shining with intelligence. Where the other Raskghar were cunning, intelligent by the light of the moon, this Raskghar seemed even more awake. She saw and questioned. She saw and understood.
She was the one who had performed the ritual. Ceria didn’t know what it was—blood magic, or something else, but she had seen that female kill the Gnoll on the Raskghar’s altar. She had drunk his blood and grown larger, smarter. Now she sat at the center of the others and the Raskghar around her deferred to her slightest motion or growl instantly. She looked up and Ceria saw her eyes flick towards her. The half-Elf turned away, and then wondered why.
Why was she being so meek? She glanced around, suddenly upset with herself. Here she was, surrounded by monsters, and she was acting like a shrinking violet, a coward! She was an adventurer! She was a [Mage]! She could throw ice from her hands and she was the Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. Not Calruz. She turned to the Minotaur—
And saw he was looking at her. Ceria’s ears, which had perked up, immediately lowered. Calruz stared at Ceria and then snorted.
“What is that fool doing?”
He turned his head. Ceria looked as well. The Raskghar who’d opened the chest had decided to pour himself a drink from the cup. Intelligent he might have been, but wise he was not. As soon as he put water in the cup, it began to hiss. A thick, black gas began to emanate from the cup and the Raskghar howled in fear as it clung to his fur. As Ceria watched in horror, it began melting into his fur, growing on him.
“Dorak! Keel dorak!”
Calruz bellowed an order as he pointed. Ceria saw the Raskghar try to throw the cup away but he failed. The other Raskghar sprang to their feet. They ran towards the stricken Raskghar holding the cup as it continued to pour black smoke. They hesitated, reluctant to touch the stuff. Calruz charged forwards.
“Do not touch it! Grab spears! Nets! Drag it away if the cup continues to activate!”
Raskghar bounded across the camp, doing what Calruz had ordered. Ceria saw the female Raskghar standing far back as the others formed a circle with the Minotaur. They were braced, ready to act if the cup continued to emit the terrible black gas, but it did not. After it had spewed enough to engulf the Raskghar it stopped. Ceria could see a black mass where the Raskghar had been. It twitched and shook, as if the Raskghar inside was trying to break free. And then the movement stopped.
“No one touch the cup. Bring no liquid near it. Cave Goblins—remove this thing.”
Calruz stared at the black substance and the newly-formed statue sitting in his camp. Ceria saw Cave Goblins hurry forwards with nets, very cautiously approaching the dead Raskghar and cup. The half-Elf blinked.
“Was that normal?”
She stared at the Raskghar. None of the others in the camp seemed too unduly worried about the death of their friend. They walked back to their places, looking unconcerned as they sheathed their weapons. Calruz stomped back towards Ceria.
Now. Ceria drew breath to ask Calruz what the hell that had been about, and wilted as he stared at her. The Minotaur snorted angrily as he walked back to the war table. He had a holster at his back. He was strapping a single-edged axe into place with his one arm, grunting with irritation as he tried to maneuver it into place.
The axe was clearly magical—it looked like it was made of some kind of false gold metal and the edge was bright green. It shone of magic in Ceria’s sight, though she couldn’t guess what kind. The Minotaur finally got the axe sheathed and glared at Ceria.
“That fool. I tell the Raskghar not to activate any magical artifacts, but they are harder to control during the full moon. Their intelligence makes them arrogant. I must keep them busy or they engage in idiocy like that!”
Ceria nodded meekly. Calruz eyed her.
“Another reason you are here. Do you know what that black gas was? Or the cup?”
“No, Calruz. I’m sorry. I’ve never seen an effect like that—it looks like some kind of gas spell, but I have no idea what kind of damage it does. The cup probably converts liquid into the gas.”
The Minotaur nodded.
“That was my thought. Very well. Don’t bother inspecting the cup—I won’t risk you on it.”
The Minotaur nodded and turned away. Ceria sighed with relief. Then she straightened. Why the hell—
Something was very wrong. Ceria stared at Calruz. Her brows crossed. He was busy with his map again. He glanced at her and she felt a pang of fear run straight through her. Not just fear—an overwhelming urge to obey. Ceria felt her ears begin to lower and grabbed them with her hands. Calruz stared at her oddly, and then looked back down at his map.
Only when he’d looked away did the oppressive feeling vanish. And finally, Ceria began to figure out what was going on.
A Skill. He was using a Skill on her. Or maybe he wasn’t using it intentionally—he might just have one. But that was the only reason why she could explain why she hadn’t yet tried to make a break for it or fought back harder. Calruz had broken her will by sacrificing the Gnoll. He’d won the contest of leadership and now he was making her follow along like a good subordinate.
That pissed Ceria off. She glared at Calruz. It was easier to do when the Minotaur wasn’t looking at her.
“It’s been nearly a day since I woke up and all you’ve been doing is sending orders to Raskghar in other camps. If you’re done trying to kill my friends and the Antinium, do you mind telling me what you’re actually doing in the dungeon?”
Calruz glanced up. Ceria felt her confidence drain away, no matter how hard she tried to hold onto it. Unwillingly, she opened her mouth again.
The former captain of the Horns of Hammerad stared blankly at Ceria. She waited for him to rage or snap at her, but instead, he grunted softly.
“You never used to say please for anything. I quite like the change.”
Ceria searched for words and didn’t find any. Calruz shook his head slightly.
“The reprisal from the adventurers and the Antinium assault needed to be addressed. Now I am certain they will not threaten my camps, it is time to go back to business. Conquering the dungeon. But first, the night’s work. Come.”
He turned. Ceria found her feet moving automatically to keep up. She tried to fight it, but only succeeded in keeping the tiniest bit of demand in her voice. She had to remember to walk with her back straight.
“What’re you doing now, Calruz? Clue me in. You went to all this trouble to grab me, after all.”
The Minotaur nodded absently. He grunted, and then growled and waved at a Raskghar sitting around a fire. The beast-woman looked up and Calruz repeated the word.
“Menz. We’re moving camp. You will come with me. My warriors will scout the way while the rest of the tribe moves behind us.”
The Raskghar looked unhappy, but she sprang to her feet. The Cave Goblin tending to the stew pot turned and scrambled away. Ceria saw the little Goblin repeating the word to the other Raskghar, who stood up, some growling. One swiped at the Cave Goblin and knocked it to the ground as it got up.
“Strike the camp! Scouts, check the tunnels! We move to Rally Point B! B!”
Calruz roared at the Raskghar. Several Raskghar turned and loped towards the exit on the far wall. The Minotaur nodded at Ceria.
“It is easy to command them during the full moon. At other times, the savages can barely remember letters. Come, we’ll move ahead.”
“Just like that?”
Ceria stared at the camp. There were supplies, equipment, and the Gnoll prisoners remaining behind, but the Raskghar were already moving in one huge mass towards the exits. Calruz nodded.
“The Goblins will follow. The Raskghar go to clear the way of monsters. Don’t worry about the prisoners. They will be brought as soon as the scouts report back.”
Another group of Raskghar was busy with the cages. They opened the cages, grabbed the Gnolls, and effortlessly hoisted them onto their shoulders. Any resistance was beaten away and the Gnolls were carried out of the room. Ceria stared at the Cave Goblins.
“There are so many.”
The Minotaur looked up and grunted as the Cave Goblins set to work. Rather than carry the cages, it looked like they were breaking them down into component parts to be reassembled at their destination. He shook his head dismissively.
“Scum. They’re expendable. But useful in that they can perform menial tasks. Or slow down other monsters. The Raskghar have ruled over this Goblin tribe for centuries. Give them orders if you need to. But they’re largely useless.”
“Time to go. Follow close and don’t step away from the route the Raskghar take. Come.”
He strode out of the domed room. Ceria followed him. The Minotaur joined a group of armed Raskghar—at least a hundred strong—and they began marching down one of the corridors. The Raskghar in front took a relatively straight path, but every now and then they would walk to one side to avoid what must have been traps. In one spot they paused and deliberately hopped over a patch of the dungeon. Ceria and Calruz imitated them with the rest of the Raskghar. Calruz called out orders as he marched, exhorting the Raskghar around him.
“Faster! Faster! I want to be at the camp in an hour’s time!”
The Raskghar silently adjusted their pace, moving even faster. Ceria puffed as she jogged alongside Calruz.
“An hour? How big is the dungeon?”
“Large enough to dwarf Liscor many times over. And hold hundreds of thousands of monsters. We are headed towards another sector of the dungeon. The labyrinth we stand in has four exits, save for the dungeon rift, all at the outermost corners. They lead up through vast monster nests to a series of trapped corridors. However, closer to the center the monsters and traps grow more numerous. We head to one of the corners now; it will be far from the adventurers and safer.”
Ceria’s mind spun as Calruz casually dropped that knowledge on her. Four exits? And a nest of monsters? Was that the Shield Spider nest that Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers had found? If so, it meant that the dungeon was a gauntlet of gauntlets—adventurers would have to detrap the random network of trap tunnels, risk activating an entire nest of monsters, and only then find themselves on the outermost corners of the labyrinth and have to work their way towards the center.
Valuable knowledge. On the other hand…Ceria glanced up at Calruz. The Minotaur’s stare was fixed on the dungeon ahead of him as he jogged with the axe on his back. Ceria coughed, glanced up at Calruz, and spoke loudly.
“So, yeah, I’m good. I’ve been working out. Lost my hand, but the bone’s still there. I ate these fish flakes that Erin made yesterday. How’s your day been?”
For a second Calruz didn’t respond. His fixed glare ahead of him wavered, and then he glanced down at Ceria.
“Oh, just asking how you’ve been. You know. As one does. Anything happen? Meet anyone fun down here? It’s been what, six months since we talked? Read any books?”
Calruz snorted. He glared at Ceria.
“Are you mocking me?”
The half-Elf halted. The Raskghar behind her streamed around her as Calruz slowed to a stop as well. Ceria glared up at Calruz.
“No. Yes! Don’t you find this weird? At all? One second I’m exploring the dungeon, the next I find out you’re alive and leading Raskghar? How did that happen? Tree rot, Calruz! We thought you were dead!”
Her voice echoed. Calruz clapped a hand over Ceria’s mouth.
She hesitated, and then nodded. Calruz blinked a few times and drew back his hand. He scratched at his head. He looked confused.
“I didn’t tell you? How I survived?”
The Minotaur’s eyes flickered and he scuffed the ground uncertainly with one foot. He shook his head.
“I’ve dreamed so long of what I would say when I met you and the others again that I…I must have forgotten. Come. We’re falling behind.”
He started moving again. Ceria followed Calruz, and thought for a moment that he’d forgotten again. But then the Minotaur spoke.
“After the ambush—no, after I lost my arm, I fled. There were Ghouls biting me, zombies clinging to me—I had to get away. I couldn’t think. I ran.”
“I know. I saw you disappearing down one of the tunnels.”
“Yes. I should have run back, but—the pain made me stop thinking. I just ran. I must have run into a trap, because I charged right into a room and the floor vanished. I fell. The undead fell with me. Hah, that was what saved me. If I hadn’t landed on a zombie I would have broken my neck. As it was, I was barely alive. But no undead followed me into the hole. I think I’d lost too much blood at that point so I passed out. I must have drunk a healing potion because I didn’t die in my sleep.”
Ceria nodded. That made sense. Pisces had shown her the hole Calruz spoke about—the chute that connected Liscor’s crypt to the dungeon. She remembered the room as well—it had been filled with piles of bones. Raskghar bones.
“The place you fell into—what was it?”
“A graveyard. Not the same as the crypt above. This one was a Raskghar graveyard, where they interred the bones of their dead. Not that I knew that. When I awoke in the darkness and saw the bones around me I panicked. Only after I’d smashed a dozen piles did I realize they weren’t undead. And then I realized I was lost. I tried to climb back up, but the hole was impossible to scale even if I had rope and tools. So I started exploring.”
Ceria tried to imagine it. Gold-rank adventurers could barely handle some of the traps in the dungeon. Calruz had survived it by himself? He was a [Warrior], not a [Rogue]! But the Minotaur was shaking his head.
“No. I must have made my presence known to the Raskghar. They came to investigate their graveyard and found me. A group of six attacked me not fifteen paces out of the room. I tried to fight them, but my arm—and my axe was badly damaged. I killed one, wounded another, before they subdued me.”
He spoke the words almost shamefaced. But Ceria looked up sharply.
“You took on six Raskghar and killed one after losing your arm? With your crappy battleaxe?”
Calruz’s steps faltered.
“It was a fine piece of metal.”
“There was more iron in that thing than steel. You bashed it on so many monster’s heads I’m surprised it didn’t snap when you sneezed. But go on.”
The Minotaur turned and Ceria flinched, thinking he would glare at her. But instead he almost smiled.
“Well, I must have impressed the Raskghar because they took me captive rather than kill me. They dragged me across the dungeon to their camp. It wasn’t nearly as large as this camp—barely eighty or more Raskghar. They threw me in a cage. I think they wanted to know how I’d gotten into the dungeon. Perhaps they intended to interrogate me during the full moons. Either way, they never got the chance.”
“How so? Don’t tell me—”
“I broke out that night and tried to kill them all.”
Calruz snorted proudly. Ceria sighed.
“Of course you did. And they didn’t kill you because?”
“Because they admired my warrior’s spirit and my force of will.”
Calruz stared ahead as Ceria shot him a disbelieving look. She kept staring and after a few seconds, the Minotaur sighed.
“Fine. I managed to kill two of the largest Raskghar as they slept. It turned out one of them was the Chieftain, so the Raskghar decided they needed to vote after they recaptured me. I picked up on their dialogue, tried communicating with them. I convinced them to let me go and they made me their new Chieftain.”
“Just like that.”
“Just like that.”
Ceria thought about the odds of that happening. She looked at Calruz.
The Minotaur grinned. It was the first real smile Ceria had seen on his face.
“Well, it didn’t go that smoothly. But essentially that was what happened. There may have been a few other details. Such as a Raskghar female who was attracted to my stunning physique.”
“You’re kidding me.”
He looked offended.
“Why is that so hard to believe? Anyways, the Raskghar soon realized that I was the leader they needed. I was an adventurer. Wounded, but more powerful than they were with my Skills. Moreover, I knew about tactics, strategy. And the nature of dungeons and monsters. And most of all, I wasn’t one of them. Unlike the Raskghar, my intellect does not wane with the moon’s passing.”
“Still, that’s incredible that they’d make you Chieftain.”
“And as I said, it was my force of will that won them over. The Raskghar knew I was their better. So I trained the tribe, gathered the others together. I forged the Raskghar into better fighters, gave them discipline, organization. I began conquering the dungeon sector by sector until the adventurers started appearing. Then I sent my Raskghar above to acquire Gnolls to make them yet stronger. That was when I found you.”
Ceria’s smile faded. Everything until that last part had sounded—well, worthy of a legend, really. But it was Calruz casually mentioning his raids on the adventurers that bothered her.
“Calruz, that’s incredible. Really. But when the adventurers started appearing, why didn’t you try and contact them? Why not get out of the dungeon?”
The Minotaur looked surprised.
“Why should I? I was perfectly placed to conquer the dungeon at that point. I admit, part of me wished to return to the surface, but when I saw the first adventurers striding into the dungeon that I had sacrificed so much for—trying to rob my—our team of our success—”
His breathing became heavier. Calruz’s eyes began to turn red.
“At that point—at that time—”
You’d already gone insane. Ceria stared up at Calruz. Her eyes stung a bit. She tried to imagine it. Months of solitude in the dungeon, with only the Raskghar. Eating dead monsters, wondering if anyone had made it. Losing his arm. It was enough. Ceria didn’t have to make excuses. Calruz had fought as well as anyone else had. He had been honorable, brave. Her captain. He’d just broken, that was all. She didn’t blame him. But how she wished it hadn’t turned into this.
The madness was in Calruz’s voice. His reddening eyes and disjointed sentences added to the unease Ceria felt. She saw the Raskghar ahead of them moving a bit faster. They’d probably seen this a hundred times before. Calruz turned to Ceria, the light of insanity in his gaze—and then it vanished. He stared at Ceria.
“And then I found you. I was overjoyed to learn you were alive, Ceria. Truly.”
His voice was soft. Genuine. Ceria stared up at Calruz. She faltered and nearly stopped. The Minotaur slowed as well. He looked away.
“I knew you had to be alive. I knew it. My team wouldn’t fall so easily. I don’t understand—the others are dead? You’re sure? They’re not in hiding?”
It was the third time he’d asked. Ceria felt her heart twist. What must it have been like, not knowing? All these months?
“I’m sure, Calruz.”
The Minotaur quickened his pace, still not looking at Ceria.
“You’re absolutely sure? You could be wrong. I survived.”
Ceria wished there were some doubt. She kept her voice low, trying not to remember and failing.
“I saw them die, Calruz. Gerial saved me. Skinner got him. Hunt, Corr, Sostrom…they all died. I buried them.”
The Minotaur did not look at Ceria. He paced ahead of her, using his longer legs to move ahead. Ceria stared at his back. She nearly, nearly missed his arm come up. He might have been wiping sweat from his forehead. Or tears from his eyes.
The two marched through the dungeon for fourteen minutes, following the Raskghar. Ceria jogged after the Minotaur and Raskghar, cursing them and their longer legs. The Raskghar loped effortlessly through the dungeon and Calruz looked like he could run at that pace forever. On the other hand, Ceria enjoyed not running a lot more than running and as such, her legs were already hurting.
It was surprising, but Ceria began feeling sweat running down her back. Not from fear or tension—but from the blistering pace Calruz set. Without having to worry about traps or monsters, the Raskghar could move fast through the dungeon and Ceria found herself struggling to keep up.
“Hold up, Calruz. I need a break.”
The half-Elf called out and slowed. She felt at her belt and was relieved to find her water flask was still there. She twisted off the cap and drank sparingly, so as not to overwhelm her thirsty body. Calruz slowed. He grunted in surprise when he saw the water bottle.
“You’ve provisions? The Raskghar have food and water of their own.”
Ceria had seen the Raskghar’s thick water skins, made of some kind of monster hide. Or perhaps Raskghar hide. She shook her head, shaking her water bottle. It was completely full.
“I’ve got water. Should have drunk it before—I’ve got healing potions and mana potions too. We were prepared for the dungeon, you know.”
Calruz hesitated, then held out a hand. Silently, Ceria passed him the water flask. Calruz drank, tilting the flask up and pouring it down his throat. He knew she hated other people’s lips touching her water flask. Ceria glared at Calruz and then kicked him.
“Oi. Don’t drink all my water.”
The Minotaur stopped. He stared down at Ceria and fury crossed his face. For a second. Then he blinked.
“I forgot you used to do that. That hurts, you know.”
Ceria found her heart beating rapidly. She’d kicked Calruz reflexively, not even thinking about it. She didn’t feel as…subdued around Calruz. Why was that? Because he wasn’t ordering her around? She managed a shaky grin.
“What’s the point of doing it if it doesn’t hurt?”
Calruz eyed her. Then he handed back her water flask, two-thirds empty. Ceria scowled and drank another mouthful before tightening the lid. Calruz gave her a few seconds and then gestured. They set off again. After a moment, he spoke.
“Tell me about them. This new team you assembled in my name.”
“In your name? I thought we agreed that the team was our idea. Gerial, yours, and mine. We started it together.”
Calruz’ right eye twitched.
“But I was the one who came up with the Horns of Hammerad as the name.”
“So? Doesn’t mean you own it.”
“Yes it does.”
“No it doesn’t.”
Ceria grinned, enjoying the back and forth. That was like normal. What she wasn’t prepared for was for Calruz to whirl and grab her with his arm. He lifted her into the air by her robes to eye-level. The Minotaur snarled at Ceria.
“The Horns of Hammerad was my idea! Mine!”
Madness again. Ceria held very still, staring into Calruz’s eyes with her wide ones. His expression of rage lasted a heartbeat longer, and then he blinked. He dropped Ceria.
He took a step back from Ceria, caught himself, and turned. Ceria adjusted her robes. After a long minute, the two kept moving. Calruz wavered several times, and then spoke as if nothing had happened.
“Who did you recruit?”
“Um. Pisces and Ksmvr. He’s an Antinium—the Prognugator that replaced Klbkch. And Yvlon.”
Calruz looked shocked. And offended.
“The [Necromancer]? And an Antinium? That was your pick? Byres I can understand, but them?”
“I didn’t exactly have a lot of candidates. It was a spur of the moment thing! Besides, they’ve proved themselves. Look, I wouldn’t have even reformed the team. You know, all the other teams and adventurers refused to even speak to me when I returned to the Adventurer’s Guild? I still haven’t gone to the guild in Celum—I was ready to quit adventuring. So was Yvlon. We had no money, no leads…but then Olesm found this map. Of Albez.”
Calruz looked shocked. He half-twisted to look at Ceria and nearly ran into a wall.
“Albez? A map? You don’t mean just an outline, do you?”
“I mean a genuine set of blueprints. With secret rooms outlined and everything.”
The Minotaur gaped. Ceria had to explain the entire story from the start. She told Calruz how she’d led the other three into Albez and found treasure in the very spot where he and she explored many times with little to no success. The Minotaur was agog and insisted on hearing about each of the items they’d recovered and then the ones Ryoka had brought back. He paused when Ceria mentioned how Ryoka had exchanged one of the artifacts.
“Ryoka. Is she well? Did she complete her task in the Blood Fields? I…regret the way we parted. I thought of her when I was down here.”
“She’s…okay. I saw her again.”
“Well…okay, she lost some fingers—it happened during the winter. That Gnoll I told you about? It happened like this. Remember the Frost Faeries?”
It was another story, summarized for the sake of time and Ceria’s breath. She jogged with Calruz, giving him her perspective on what had happened with Ryoka, until the Runner had vanished after the disastrous battle with Regrika Blackpaw—whoever she’d been. The Minotaur was equally curious about that. When Ceria was done he shook his head.
“You worry too much. She will return. I told you. She has spirit. This would not stop her. She will return when she is ready. But it is good she is well. A false Named Adventurer. I wish I could have seen that. All that passed above…”
He paused, although his body kept jogging ahead. After a second, Calruz looked back at Ceria. His face was suddenly worried.
“I never asked. But the dead. The fallen. Gerial and the others. We arranged for pay in case of their deaths, but we never envisioned everyone falling. Were you able to give something to the families of our team? Did we…?”
His voice was anxious. Ceria remembered when they’d first started their team. Calruz had insisted on making a name themselves. The Horns would be associated with honor as well as strength in battle. And he was a Minotaur. She nodded, trying to keep her voice as reassuring as possible.
“Yvlon took care of it. Liscor confiscated most of our gear, but we had the money reserves of each team. And I think she might have asked her family to cover some of the debts. She never said so, but I think she did. We paid everyone what we could. We made arrangements.”
Calruz nodded absently.
“We did. We did. And Byres took care of it? I should have expected no less. She was always honorable. She was—”
He shuddered. Ceria reached out, but Calruz moved away. The Minotaur moved ahead of Ceria. She saw his shoulders trembling. All that had happened while he’d been down here. After a second, Calruz raised his voice.
“Let’s go. I want to be relocated within the hour.”
He picked up the pace. Ceria stared at his back. He was in there. Part of him. She reached out—and then lowered her hand. She stared at it. Her skeletal hand didn’t sweat. It was…she flexed it and knew it moved, but she couldn’t feel it. Not anymore.
Both of them had changed. So Ceria let Calruz guide her onwards in silence.
The rest of the march to the Raskghar’s new camp was quiet. Ceria found her legs burning by the end of it. When she finally entered the chamber that was the new camp—a strange room with two sets of staircases running up the sides of the very long, very tall chamber and ending in a raised platform where broken fragments indicated something had once stood—she had to immediately sit down.
“Dead gods, do you do that every day?”
“Every night. You’ve grown soft, Springwalker.”
Calruz didn’t sit. Hundreds of the Raskghar had already made it ahead of him. Some had taken fights getting here—they’d cleared the way ahead of Ceria and Calruz as well. The Minotaur had them tending their wounds and then setting guards on the two entrances to the room.
“The platform had an entrance at the back. I never allow the Raskghar to camp in a room with only one exit. Scouts, report! Have the other camps moved to the auxiliary rally points?”
The half-Elf shook her head as Calruz made the Raskghar tell him the progress of the other Raskghar camps. Minotaurs loved their military formations. In this case it made sense; the Raskghar were too many to cram into one room and that was dangerous. So Calruz had a number of permanent and semi-permanent camps that smaller groups of Raskghar inhabited.
Normally they were safe staging grounds to attack from, but apparently something was wrong. Ceria’s head rose as Calruz began talking to one of the Raskghar. The Minotaur spoke in the common tongue, but he listened to the Raskghar growl his report in the bestial language they shared.
“How many? All? And you found—you’re sure? Are you sure? Very well, abandon it.”
He turned as Ceria got up, her legs telling her to sit in no uncertain terms. The half-Elf massaged her calves.
“One of the smaller Raskghar camps was wiped out. Thirty of my Raskghar were found dead. A patrol in the tunnels and the base camp. Slaughtered where they stood.”
Calruz glanced at the Raskghar scouts.
“They don’t know. Which is unusual. There were a number of foreign scents, but nothing stronger than that. They could smell no other creatures. Only the blood of Raskghar and Goblins.”
Only Raskghar and Goblins. Ceria froze for a second as she worked her fingers into her thigh muscles. She glanced up casually.
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. The Raskghar were killed with blades. Well, most of them. It could have been a patrol of enchanted armor. Or perhaps…something else.”
Ceria wasn’t sure if anyone had told Calruz about Erin’s Hobs. Her mind raced. Had she…? No, they hadn’t come up. And she hadn’t seen a single Hob among all the Cave Goblins, not one. Calruz frowned and shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know. But my concern isn’t exactly what it was. I’ve abandoned the camp. Things like this happen. Even the largest camps can be attacked.”
“Even this camp?”
Incredulous, Ceria looked around the camp where hundreds of Raskghar were continuing to pour in. Calruz nodded.
“There are things in the dungeon that can take on a thousand Raskghar and win. Large nests—luckily no Crelers. But the four great nests are death to awaken. Well, three nests. One is empty.”
“One is? What are the other three? One’s a Face-Eater Moth nest and the other one’s Shield Spiders, right?”
“Correct. The last is fungus. Just fungus. Some of it moves, the rest is stationary. It’s sealed off. Good thing too. If it had a chance to spread, it would be deadly. Half the spores the Raskghar showed me are toxic. Some explode. Others…”
Calruz shook his head. Ceria paused.
“And the last one? Why’s one empty?”
The Minotaur hesitated.
“Something killed off whatever was inside. All of it.”
He let that sink in, and then turned.
“The camp’s being set up. I’ve a mind to replenish our water supplies before doing anything else. How much water do you have?”
Ceria held up her empty water flask and shook it. Calruz nodded.
“With me, then. We’ll gather water and return. It won’t be more than twenty minutes.”
He turned and called. Forty Raskghar loped over. Ceria frowned as she looked around. A bit of hope blossomed in her chest.
“Water? From where? The surface? Are we that near to the dungeon entrance?”
Her hopes were dashed as Calruz shook his head.
“No. There are multiple natural springs in the dungeon that provide clean water. We’ll go to one of them. You didn’t think the dungeon had no water supply for so many monsters, did you?”
“I hadn’t actually thought about it.”
Calruz snorted. He began striding away with the Raskghar. Ceria hurried after him.
“Oh come on. I’m not an expert at dungeons. You’re the Minotaur. I should have known you’d be an expert on labyrinths.”
“That is a stereotype of my people.”
“A true one, though, right? Didn’t you say there was a labyrinth in your homeland? A famous one?”
“…Come on. We’re wasting time.”
The water flowed up from below. From some deep underground sea of water, apparently. The pool was so dark and deep that Ceria could barely see more than fifty feet down, even when she hurled a [Light] orb into the water. According to Calruz, the Raskghar had tried to explore the depths but never succeeded.
“They fish from this one. There are fish, apparently. Sometimes they’re a threat. It also means anything entering the water might not exit. So don’t get too close to the edge.”
Ceria felt almost relaxed around Calruz. Not around the Raskghar, but she felt like he was a lot more…well, a lot more like himself now. She watched as the Raskghar filled the huge water skins with water, keeping an eye out for danger. If it was like this, if she took out the parts where they attacked Liscor and sacrificed Gnolls, she could admire Calruz. What if she could convince him not to sacrifice the Gnolls? Could she bring him back like that? Surely not. But if—
The room with the pool of water was a sloping basin with four entrances. The Raskghar clustered around their entrance, watching the other four. The first monster crawled into the room so slowly that Ceria didn’t notice them at first. Then she looked up and froze.
A group of huge bugs had entered the room. They had long, serrated legs and wings. Their bodies were armored plates of chitin and they had huge green eyes. On the tops of their bodies. On the bottom half they were maggots. The insects were half-emerged from their bodies, going through some kind of slow transformation. They were disgusting, to put it mildly.
And the Raskghar hadn’t raised the alarm. Ceria eyed them, but the not-Gnolls were working away without a care in the world. The insects must not have been dangerous, then. Ceria relaxed—until she saw one of the insect staring her way.
The Minotaur was overseeing the water collection, impatiently. He glanced up at Ceria.
“What? We’ll be done soon.”
“Right. But about those things.”
Ceria waved her hand at the insects. Calruz glanced in the direction of the maggot-insects and frowned.
“Them. The Raskghar don’t seem bothered and I guess you’re not. But are you sure they’re safe? One of them’s looking at me.”
The insect-maggot was indeed staring at Ceria. But it seemed to decide the water was more pressing. The maggot half of its body oozed forwards and it bent its insect-body to drink. Ceria saw more ooze into the room, some looking exactly like giant maggots that were longer and wider across than she was. Others looked like they’d nearly completed their transformation and they looked like they’d be fast and deadly once their legs were done.
Calruz stared blankly at the space Ceria was looking at. She glared at him.
Then she realized the Minotaur wasn’t seeing the monsters at all. His gaze flashed past the group of monsters without even pausing. Ceria halted.
“Calruz. There are a group of fourteen insect-maggot things at the pool’s edge, across from us. Do you see them?”
The Minotaur froze. He tensed, and then grabbed his axe. He uttered a low growl that made all the Raskghar freeze. They instantly abandoned the water skins and reached for their weapons. Ceria went wide-eyed as Calruz backed up.
“Invisible? But I see them.”
“I see nothing. But this is a known phenomenon. There are invisible monsters in the dungeon. A large number of them. If you can see them—where are they exactly?”
Ceria eyed the monsters. They were drinking from the water’s edge, but some had begun moving around the pool. She had a sinking feeling that they were coming over because of her.
“Nine are at the water’s edge. Five more are coming around. Three on the left, two on the right.”
“Yes. I can see the water moving. Okay. Quarr. Dret! Yalk.”
He pointed. The Raskghar split up. Half went left, the other half went right. Calruz motioned Ceria forwards. He signaled at her with his hands. She pointed. The Raskghar advanced slowly, tense, until they were less than ten feet away from the maggot-monsters. Then Ceria pointed and Calruz straightened.
The Raskghar howled and leapt forwards. The insect-maggots reacted immediately rearing up and casting about. They seemed surprised! They stared at Ceria until she shot an [Ice Spike] into one’s head and then began to lurch towards her, ignoring the Raskghar. But the beast people knew they were there, and began cutting the monsters apart.
They couldn’t see, but it didn’t matter. The Raskghar used the tips of their weapons as guides. When they encountered a monster, they immediately struck and leapt back. They howled as they fought in groups, surrounding their enemies, attacking from all sides.
Calruz and Ceria took on the group on the water’s edge. Ceria shot an [Ice Spike] at another maggot-insect and watched blood spurt around the spike as it lodged in the creature’s side. But the monster was tough. It reared up and scythed at her, making her duck back.
A wall of ice blocked the creature from leaping at her. The ice cracked, but held. Ceria aimed with her wand and two fingers and fired three [Ice Spikes] simultaneously. The monster lurched backwards, but it was still alive. It was tough!
Calruz bellowed. He had his axe out and was scything through the air, trying to find the monster. He looked at her. Ceria shouted.
The maggot was oozing past Calruz. The Minotaur turned. The tip of his axe cut into the monster and it jerked in surprise. Calruz instantly brought his axe up.
Ceria brought up another wall of ice just in time. The thump of the blow was less than she’d expected—because Calruz’s axe head sheared so perfectly through the insect. It split in half and the two pieces fell apart. Calruz grunted in satisfaction. He yanked his axe head up—it had split the floor of the dungeon—and then swung it at the monster’s corpse.
The corpse exploded. Ceria saw a rain of body parts and blood fly across the room. She tried not to throw up. But the Skill Calruz had used was more than just decorative.
The blood covered the monsters and Raskghar alike. Suddenly, both sides could see each other because Ceria saw the movements of both the Raskghar and insects change. The insects realized they were outnumbered and tried to run. The Raskghar advanced and cut and hacked them apart.
When the battle was over, the spring of water was dark with yellow blood and body parts. The Raskghar didn’t seem to care. They bent and lapped from the water, washing the few wounds they’d picked up. Calruz wrinkled his nose. He smashed his axe on the wall and the Raskghar looked up.
“Boil the water! Savages! I told you, boil it first!”
He yanked one of the Raskghar back. Ceria, staring at the water, decided she wasn’t thirsty after all. She stepped back as the Raskghar filled their water skins with the bloody water and took a few deep breaths.
“Dead gods. What was that about?”
“I told you. Invisible monsters. They are a plague. But it seems you can see them. Incredible. This is a huge advantage.”
Calruz leaned on his axe, looking pleased. Ceria glanced at him.
“Say what? I have no idea why I could see those things and you couldn’t.”
“Why not? It must be your heritage as a half-Elf. You must be able to see through the [Invisibility] spells.”
The half-Elf frowned, doubting very much that was the case.
“I’ve never seen Pisces when he’s been invisible.”
“Well, maybe it’s a lesser invisibility spell.”
“A lesser invisibility spell? That would be [Chameleon Skin] or something like that. And I wouldn’t be able to see through that either. I told you, Calruz. Half-Elves resist enchantments placed on us. We don’t get magical eyes. That’s Gazers you’re thinking about.”
The Minotaur frowned as he cleaned his axe head in the water.
“Huh. But you clearly have some ability the Raskghar and I don’t. I’ve fought invisible monsters before. I never saw one.”
“I’ve never seen an invisible monster in the dungeon.”
Ceria opened her mouth and flushed.
“Wait, I meant—I mean, my team haven’t even encountered one! Neither have any of the other adventurers, as far as I know.”
Calruz shook his head.
“You must have been lucky. They’re everywhere. They attack on sound—or if you run into them. It’s one of the reasons why an active guard has to be maintained on the camps at all times.”
“Wait, so there are lots of invisible monsters. But those insect-things didn’t spot you at all. They were only looking at me.”
That had been curious. Ceria frowned. So did Calruz. He glanced at the dead insects. Ceria did too.
“You can see them?”
“When they’re dead. These things are…ah, the changing maggots. They’re deadly when they reach maturity. But they seldom do in the dungeon. I’ve seen non-invisible groups of this kind of monster, come to think of it. The monsters that are invisible can be anything. Shield Spiders, Flesh Worms, Stone Starers…anything.”
“Wait, Shield Spiders? And you don’t think that’s weird?”
“No. Maybe it’s an enchantment. Some room in the dungeon. Maybe it’s a curse.”
“Or maybe something’s up.”
Ceria’s mind raced as she stared at the insects. She looked at one and realized it was still alive. The Raskghar jumped as it oozed over and grabbed their weapons. The insect-creature flailed weakly with one of its remaining legs. Ceria held up a hand as Calruz turned with his axe.
“Hold on, I think I might know of a way to test this.”
The Raskghar were blind to the invisible monsters, but they weren’t stupid. They could hear and smell and touch the creatures, and so when Calruz and Ceria and the water-gathering expedition returned, the Raskghar were already ready. Dozens of Raskghar aimed bows at the entrance and several Raskghar holding magical artifacts were standing at the ready—until they saw the Raskghar and Calruz. They stopped, sniffing the air, confused.
“Move aside. We have a monster.”
Calruz ordered the Raskghar. They made way, staring at the invisible, bloodied thing in the air. To them it must have looked like some strange ripple in the light, perhaps only visible through the bloodstains and the way the Raskghar held it. But Ceria could see the injured maggot-insect quite clearly.
It was nearly dead. The Raskghar would have happily beaten it the rest of the way to death, but as Ceria had pointed out to Calruz, the monster had to be alive for this to work. The instant it died, the corpse would be visible to everyone. But in life—
“There. Do you see it?”
Ceria approached the Gnolls for the first time. They recoiled as Calruz and the other Raskghar approached. Several stared with hatred and hostility at Ceria, but the rest glanced over her shoulder and gasped.
They cried out in horror. The other Gnolls stared wildly at the thing the Raskghar held.
“What is it? Invisible?”
“No—it’s some kind of maggot and insect! Can you not see it?”
Astonished, the Gnolls looked at each other. Half—and Ceria noted it was the ones in the cages who’d arrived first—stared wide-eyed at the invisible monster. The rest could see it clearly.
“There. You see?”
Ceria turned to Calruz. The Minotaur snorted incredulously.
“They see it. But how?”
“I don’t know. But it’s not just me. There’s something different to the Gnolls in those cages, the ones who can’t see. Something’s happened to them. But what?”
“I will find out. You—dispose of that thing. And you—”
Calruz took one of the Raskghar to one side as the warriors happily dropped the dying maggot and kicked it to death. The Cave Goblins scurried forwards with butchering knives and Ceria’s stomach roiled as she imagined eating the thing. She glanced at the Gnolls in cages.
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to get you out.”
They stared at her, confused, angry. Ceria looked for Mrsha and saw her huddled in her cage. The poor little Gnoll couldn’t move, shackled as she was. One of the Gnolls edged up to the side of his cage and spoke urgently to Ceria.
“How do you know that monster? That Minotaur. Why is he doing this?”
Ceria wavered. She bent and whispered urgently.
“He’s my former team captain. He was lost on the expedition to Liscor’s crypt. He…took command of the Raskghar. He’s…lost it.”
The Gnolls’ ears quivered. The Gnoll in the cage stared at Ceria.
“Can you make him let us go?”
“I can try. What was that ritual?”
The Gnoll lowered her voice.
“Something dark. Something evil. We do not know. A [Shaman] from one of the plains tribes might. Get us out of here before it happens again.”
The half-Elf straightened. The Gnoll edged back as Calruz marched towards her. The Minotaur was smiling. He ignored the Gnolls completely and beckoned her over.
“We know the difference now. The Gnolls have been fed. But those Gnolls have been watered as well.”
Ceria stared at Calruz. He nodded, triumphant and furious.
“Water. There’s something in the water! It has to be that. The Raskghar can’t think of anything else that separates the two and they’re certain those Gnolls drank water while the others were waiting for our expedition to return.”
The half-Elf blinked in surprise. Water? It sounded so insane, but it made sense. She wavered.
“We were just at the pool—do you think—”
“Naturally. Faugh! It’s just like these damned dungeon creators to put something in the water! Or enchant it! And that’s what’s kept this dungeon populated; the monsters don’t fight if they can’t see each other! And I’ve been drinking the stuff!”
The Minotaur cursed, paced past Ceria, and whirled.
“This is good to know. From now on, I will drink only rationed water. As will you.”
He turned and beckoned Ceria over to a pile of equipment, mostly untouched. It was all gear that the Raskghar couldn’t use or had no interest in. Calruz pawed through it and came up with a few flasks. He opened the cap, sniffed, poured some clear liquid out, and nodded.
“This was taken from dead adventurers. They should have—hrr. Yes. Water flasks. The Raskghar prefer their hide bags. Here.”
He tossed one at Ceria. She tried it cautiously, and found the water flask held only stale water. Ceria grimaced as she drank a bit.
“What about the Gnolls?”
“What about them? They can drink the dungeon’s water. If I had more supplies, I’d make some of the Raskghar drink clean water, but we’ll have to be the only ones who can see. I hope the effects on me will wear off soon.”
Calruz shook his head, drinking deeply. Ceria hesitated.
“About the Gnolls—”
She quailed as Calruz stared at her. Then she straightened.
“Look, Calruz. If you let a few go—”
And that was it. Ceria tried to speak, but Calruz’s Skill crushed her voice. The Minotaur glared at her, and then tossed his head. He sprayed a bit of water at Ceria and looked around.
“This has all been useful. But that is not the reason why I need you. Warriors! Assemble five companies! We fight in the city!”
Ceria kept her head bowed until Calruz turned away. Then she could move and think. She followed Calruz, conscious of the Gnoll’s eyes on her back.
“The city? You don’t mean Liscor?”
The Minotaur turned and grinned.
“Oh no. You haven’t seen it yet, have you? Follow me. Your adventurers, the Antinium—they’ve only entered the dungeon. But there’s a final part of the dungeon yet to be uncovered. The city. And beyond it—the end. Come and see.”
The city lay at the heart of the dungeon. The path to it was long, crossing through rooms with traps, past monsters both visible and invisible to the Raskghar. But Calruz had set up his camps so that he and his warriors—nearly four hundred Raskghar—could move from safe space to safe space. They marched fast, but it was still hours before they reached it.
The city in the dungeon. Calruz paused at a staircase. Ceria stared up it. A huge pair of double doors waited above. They were closed. And writing was etched into the wall above it. The letters glowed faintly. They looked like the same words that had been written on the crypt’s walls. She couldn’t translate them without using a time-consuming spell, but they made her afraid.
“Calruz. What is this?”
The Minotaur turned. He stood at the head of the ranks of Raskghar. They were armed with stone weapons, most of them. A few had coveted blades made of steel or iron. Calruz hadn’t taken any of the Raskghar with artifacts. The Minotaur gestured up towards the doors. His eyes were wide with excitement. Madness or anticipation, Ceria couldn’t tell.
“This is the gateway. There are eight. Eight places where the labyrinth ends. Places where you can enter the heart of the dungeon. All of this?”
He gestured around at the stone corridors, the winding passages he and the Raskghar had traversed.
“This is the labyrinth. But it is not all of the dungeon. There is a center. But no Raskghar has ever come close to it. The city is the last protection before the heart of the dungeon. It is a world unlike this closed space. But dangerous. Do you wish to see it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Ceria regretted her flippant answer. The Minotaur glared at her and she felt herself shrinking. The Raskghar waited impatiently, glancing between her and Calruz.
“Yes, Calruz. I do want to see it. But those doors—the words. They’re like Skinner’s warning.”
The Minotaur glanced up. His good hand tightened on the haft of his axe.
“I know. And they are not without reason. But this place makes sense. It is safer than the dungeon in some ways. Now. Open the doors. Ikeld! Advance!”
The first rank of Raskghar ascended the stairs. They hauled on the metal doors and heaved them open. Ceria saw red light, almost blinding in the dungeon’s darkness. She saw the Raskghar stream through one rank, then a horde of bodies. Calruz beckoned. Ceria was afraid. For once she didn’t curse the Skill that made her run after Calruz. She climbed the stairs, charged through the door—
And looked up. A ceiling greeted her. Only, it was a ceiling two, maybe three hundred feet above her. Ceria gaped. Red lichen hung from the rocky ceiling overhead, gently glowing. It provided a bright, almost too-bright crimson glow that illuminated the entire cavern. Only, it wasn’t a cavern.
It was like stepping out of the dungeon and into a castle. Or a palace. Or—Ceria’s breath caught as she saw the tunnel open wider, wider—
The rocky floor opened out past the metal doors. The ground became flat. For a few hundred feet there was only rock and dirt. And then a pair of walls rose. The rock was reddish, tinted by the light from above. Red lichen grew on the stones, but the walls were largely intact. They weren’t tall—not by the standards of Drake cities, barely thirty feet high. But they stretched around the city.
The city in the dungeon. Ceria could see it past the walls. Tall buildings made of crumbling stone, roofed houses, and, as she stepped forwards wonderingly, she could see how vast the city was. The Raskghar streamed towards the walls, barking warily at each other. There was an open gate meant to allow hundreds of people in every second. Ceria jumped and whirled as Calruz came up behind her. The Minotaur stared towards the city, a fierce light in his eyes.
“You see it? This is the true nature of the dungeon. The city in the dungeon.”
“I can’t believe it. This is the center of the dungeon? People? A city?”
The Minotaur shook his head.
“No people. Just the city. And the death lurking here.”
Ceria looked around. The open space between the city’s walls and the metal door was empty. Disturbingly empty, in fact. Ceria felt her skin crawl as she realized how vacant the city seemed. Where were all the monsters? Calruz nodded towards the Raskghar.
“They’re securing the entrance. Follow me.”
He set a quick pace after the Raskghar. They were waiting at the gates. Calruz jogged towards them, speaking over his shoulder.
“This was once a place where people dwelt. Now it is infested. What is not infested is guarded by the enchanted suits of armor. An entire legion patrols constantly and occasionally sends smaller raiding parties out into the labyrinth.”
“The enchanted armor?”
Ceria blinked at Calruz. She’d seen and fought the metal suits of armor. They were the one oddity in a dungeon full of organic monsters. Calruz nodded.
“They have guarded this dungeon for ages, according to the Raskghar.”
“But how could they still be around? Those things break. If they’re fighting monsters or getting damaged—”
“I imagine there were hundreds of thousands of them. Or tens of thousands at the least.”
“Tens of—do you have any idea how much that would cost?”
Calruz turned calmly. He was too calm. The city’s gates loomed over Ceria, red, the bricks covered in lichen. The half-elf stared around, panicked for the first time. The city was too quiet. This entire room, this cavernous place was too vast! She was being watched. She could feel it.
“It makes sense, Ceria. For a city of this size, and given that they could build a dungeon of this quality, it makes sense they would have a force that strong. Look at this city.”
Calruz pointed up at the walls high above his head. He pointed through the gates. Ceria could see a broken street, red, and broken houses waiting for her. Some had caved in. Many were intact. They all seemed empty. But something was in there. Her skin crawled.
“This city, these walls and the houses—it is bigger than Celum. Bigger than Liscor as well. Imagine how many souls lived here.”
“It must be the size of a Walled City.”
“And the people?”
Ceria took a step forwards and then retreated. She looked at the Raskghar. They weren’t at ease like Calruz. They were tensed, scanning the streets, the houses, the windows. The ceiling. They knew something was there. The Minotaur grinned.
“Everything’s dead. As I said. What is not dead are the infested. They’ll come soon. They know we’re here. We’ll move around the edge of the city. We can’t stay in one place. If we do, we’ll be overrun.”
Calruz didn’t answer. He turned.
“Move forwards! Take that street! Shields in front! Archers, ready!”
The Raskghar moved as one. They were alert, superhumanly quick and intelligent. But they were afraid. Ceria saw it in the tense way they reacted to Calruz’s order and saw the wariness on the Minotaur’s face. They made her afraid as well. She was braced, waiting for anything. She did not have to wait long.
It leapt out of one of the house’s windows. It screamed. The Raskghar froze and the archers loosed arrows. The thing staggered as arrows clattered off the wall behind it and several pierced its flesh. The arrows feathered it. A spike of ice burst out of its face. It staggered and then screamed again, around the [Ice Spike]. Then it charged the Raskghar.
It was a person. Or it had been. Like the lichen, like the walls and street, the thing was red. But a fleshy red. Its skin was too smooth, and it had—holes in its body. More of the others, the infested, came at the first’s call. They charged the Raskghar, ignoring the arrows that pierced their bodies. They charged when filled with arrows. They moved when their heads were off, swinging wildly. Even when they were chopped into pieces they moved for a while, until their limbs ceased.
It looked like something had eaten part of them away. That was the first thing Ceria noticed after she’d stopped screaming. The fleshy creatures, the infested poured out of the houses where they’d been hidden, climbing, falling off the roofs and running at the Raskghar. They were fearless, which was good. Because the Raskghar hacked them apart.
The not-Gnolls were intelligent, stronger due to the full moons. They tore the infested apart with their claws, attacked and dodged with incredible agility and precision. They could have killed any regular group of soldiers with ease. They struggled against the infested.
It wasn’t that the infested were tough. On the contrary, they were just flesh. They moved fast, but only as fast as a normal Human could sprint. The thing was that they had no limits. They sprinted, fought, and screamed without getting tired or winded. And they were incredibly hard to kill. A Raskghar split one of the infested’s head open and it grabbed the Raskghar, clawing at it, trying to bite through the Raskghar’s fur before the furred warrior bashed it into the ground again and again.
They had teeth. And claws. And tails. Ceria whirled, blasting every one of the red creatures she could see with [Ice Spikes]. She heard a roar and saw Calruz swing his axe, cutting through three infested at once.
“[Ice Wall]! Guard our left! Raskghar, advance with me!”
He shouted at Ceria. His voice cut through the panic in her body. She turned and raised a wall of ice, cutting off an alleyway to the left. The infested slammed into it and began to try and climb the walls. But the delay allowed the Raskghar to press forwards. Calruz led them in a bloody charge and his axe sliced the infested apart. They didn’t even try to dodge his powerful blows. They ran forwards and died. But Calruz was advancing too far.
Ceria screamed a warning. But the Minotaur didn’t listen. The Raskghar around him fell back. Ceria shot [Ice Spikes] towards the infested, but they were surrounding Calruz. What were the Raskghar doing? They were going to let him—
The Minotaur raised his axe. The green head on the golden metal shone bright. Ceria saw the edge grow, turning transparent, until it was three times larger than the axe head. Calruz turned and cut. At least thirty infested fell as the magical edge of the axe sliced through them like butter. The magical axe swung, and Calruz cleared the space around him with effortless swings.
He had an artifact. Ceria burned with awe at the weapon. That was a weapon worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer! Maybe even a Named Rank one! But then she heard the infested scream. She turned and shot [Ice Spikes], bringing them down as Calruz cut them down by the dozen. But there were more of them. More and more and more—
Ceria jerked. She raised her skeletal hand and wand, but Calruz knocked her arms aside. He grabbed her.
Ceria looked at Calruz. Then she looked around. How much time had passed? Hours? Minutes? Seconds? The ground was covered in blood. Red bits of squirming flesh lay everywhere. The Raskghar were tending to their wounded. And the dead. At least thirty Raskghar had fallen, but they’d killed hundreds of the infested. Ceria looked around. She had blood on her robes and her hand was shaking uncontrollably.
“Those were the guardians of the city. Along with the enchanted armor. We have a moment’s reprieve. More will come. Breathe. Look at me. Breathe.”
Calruz’s orders made Ceria look up. She remembered to inhale, and felt the world stabilize. A bit. But her shaking didn’t stop.
“That was worse than Ghouls. Way worse than Ghouls or zombies! They don’t scream! That was worse than Crelers—no, just as bad! What the hell are they? What in the name of trees…”
She trailed off. Calruz grunted. He turned.
“You didn’t see? Come.”
He grabbed her and towed her over to one of the corpses. It wasn’t moving, but Ceria stayed well back, expecting it to. Calruz bent down.
“This one’s dead. But see—”
He grabbed it, ignoring the blood, and twisted the torso. He’d cut this thing in half, which let Ceria get a good look at the infested for the first time. She saw a protruding jaw, a humanoid body. Shiny red skin—claws on the hands and legs—a long serpentine tail.
“It looks familiar. But what…?”
Ceria stared at the infested. Its shape was so hauntingly similar to something she knew. But her mind resisted her understanding. It was only when Calruz opened its mouth and showed her the teeth that she realized what it was. Ceria bent over and vomited. She’d eaten very little, but she threw it up anyways. She stared down at the dead infested in horror.
Sharp teeth. A reptile’s teeth. Only, it was important not to ever say that in front of one of them because they’d punch you. A long serpentine tail. Claws and sometimes wings, the relics of their distant ancestors. The infested had all of these. What it didn’t have were scales.
It was a Drake. Skinned. Flesh had grown over its body, and it had holes in parts of its stomach, its legs, arms, as if something had eaten it. But it was a Drake. Ceria looked around. Suddenly, all of the infested looked the same.
Drakes. This was a Drake city. And the infested—
She bent to throw up again. She thought she hadn’t anything left to give, but her body surprised her. Ceria choked on her bile and vomit. Then she felt a hand on the back of her neck.
Calruz offered her his water flask. Ceria washed her mouth. When she looked up at him, she spoke two words.
Even Calruz looked mildly unwell. The Raskghar were staying far away from the infested, warily watching their surroundings. The Minotaur shook his head.
“I don’t know. At a guess, these were Skinner’s victims. Or perhaps they were the creators of the dungeon who fell prey to it themselves. Or perhaps there was something…else. You see, I have not found any records of the dungeon. Nothing I can read. But the Raskghar understand something of the writings on the walls. Ancient Drake. And they found something. We’ll visit it before we leave.”
He took the water flask. Ceria was about to tell Calruz she wanted to leave the city now and burn everything down. But then she heard a scream. It was far off, but it was joined by hundreds more. Her blood ran cold.
“More infested. We have to go. Follow me. Warriors! We cut towards the monument! Move!”
Calruz turned. The Raskghar ran with him. Ceria did too. The infested came, leaping from rooftops, appearing in alleyways, out of windows. This time Ceria blasted them with all the magic she knew. She cast [Fireball] and destroyed a group of them. She didn’t feel guilt, not in the slightest. Destroying these poor Drakes would be the ultimate mercy.
“Onwards! Don’t fall behind! If we are surrounded, we die!”
Calruz roared as he cut a path ahead. The Raskghar were falling—but only a few with each attack. They were too large and tough to go down to the infested, especially since the infested had nothing but tooth and claw. Things got trickier when they ran into the first patrol of enchanted armor.
“Twenty of them!”
“Take the infested! I’ll cut them down! Warriors, on me!”
The Minotaur bull rushed the first suit of armor. When he swung his axe, it bit into the animated metal knight’s chest plate. Calruz threw the animated armor to the ground and battered it with his axe as the Raskghar did likewise. The enchanted armor took longer to kill, but the Raskghar were up to the challenge. The real problem for Ceria and the other Raskghar was holding off the infested. After that battle, Calruz called a break.
“We’ve taken twenty percent casualties. And killed at least a thousand infested. Not bad. Your spells turn the tide.”
“I can’t keep casting spells. Even with mana potions.”
Ceria wiped sweat from her brow. Calruz nodded.
“I’m no fool. But we are nearly at our destination. Come, I want you to see this.”
He led Ceria down a wide street. There was a large plaza, reminiscent of Liscor’s central square. But in the center of this one—Ceria halted. Something had been erected in the center of the square, at the heart of a spiral of red tiles. A large monolith. And something had been carved onto the top of it.
Heads. Three, to be exact. Each one was grotesque. Each one was horrific. But it was the one facing Ceria that made her knees shake. She began to tremble uncontrollably until Calruz grabbed her. He held her.
Ceria looked up at the stone face. It was stone. And the creature was dead. But to look at it was to remember. Skinner stared down at Ceria, his flesh mask grinning at her through empty eye sockets.
“Calruz. What is this?”
“A warning. The Raskghar found this when they explored the city. Long ago. The markings on the monolith are hard to read, but they uncovered a few words. It warns that this dungeon is protected by the…the Mother. The Mother of Graves.”
“The boss of the dungeon?”
“Exactly. The Raskghar have never seen her, but they read the rest of the monolith. It tells of three guardians of the crypts who serve her. Three. You know one.”
He stared down at her. Ceria remembered him reaching down, grabbing Gerial. Tearing—Calruz hugged her tightly to his chest.
“He is dead. You told me. If he was not, I would kill him. Calm, Ceria, calm.”
She clung to him. Ceria wrenched her eyes away from Skinner.
“The other two.”
The other two heads were facing outwards. Ceria saw a strange, headless torso with two gaping sockets. And another—a long, angular head and wide, wide eyes and a tongue that hung with apparently no mouth. She stared up at them in horror. Calruz looked grimly up at the two heads.
“Skinner. Snatcher. Stalker. They protect the dungeon in the name of the Mother of Graves. This city is their legacy, I think. They were…venerated by the people here. Until something changed. Now the city is a grave of the infested. But they remain.”
“Dead gods. Dead gods. Two more? Two more?”
Ceria shook, but clung to Calruz. His chest rumbled as he spoke.
“One more. And the Raskghar know it. I have seen him before. Snatcher.”
“The labyrinth. That is his home. The Raskghar call him—it—Facestealer. He is dangerous. Deadly. They have been unable to kill him. I have tried, but to no avail.”
That was the thing the Redfang Goblins mentioned. It had to be. Ceria looked around, terrified.
“Is he—do you think he’s—”
Calruz shook his head.
“No. He doesn’t enter the city. There’s nothing for him here. The infested and enchanted suits of armor don’t interest him, I think. He takes heads. And I know that the guardian of this place is gone.”
For the first time, Calruz laughed. Ceria stared up at him in shock. The Minotaur shook his head. He pointed to the base of the monolith.
It took Ceria several heart pounding seconds to understand what he meant. At first, it looked like nothing was there. Just the spiral pattern of tiles. Only when she realized that the spiral was wrong, that the tiles didn’t match up, did she realize there was something there.
“Come. There isn’t any danger.”
Calruz led Ceria forwards. She walked hesitantly, and then stopped.
Something was curled around the base of the monolith. Something large. It was so large in fact, that Ceria had to halt ten feet away or touch the body. But she could barely see it. It was camouflaged so perfectly against the tiles that even when Calruz reached down and touched it, she could barely tell it was there. Calruz pointed at the silent shape.
Ceria scrambled back. She raised her wand, and then froze as she made out the final, crucial detail of the body. Stalker was curled around the monolith, a vast shape, hidden from view. But she could make out enough the more she looked to realize something important. Stalker was dead.
Something had torn its head off. And as Calruz looked at Ceria, she figured it out.
“I don’t know what happened. Perhaps they turned on each other. But at some point, Snatcher killed Stalker. And now it lurks in the labyrinth, preying on all those it encounters. Of the three, I think it is the most deadly. Skinner was fear. But Snatch is paralysis. You cannot approach it without falling to the ground. Helpless. And its body can resist enchanted arrows. It collects heads. Puts them on sticks.”
Ceria stared at Calruz, aghast. Snatcher sounded like something right out of nightmares. Even adventurer’s horror stories didn’t come close. She looked at the Raskghar. They were keeping well clear of the monolith.
“How did the Raskghar survive down here with it all this time?”
“They breed faster than it can kill. And there are many monsters with heads for Snatcher to take.”
Calruz’s lip twisted. He turned, then turned back and kicked Stalker’s body. Ceria shuddered as the near-invisible body moved. The Minotaur looked at her challenging.
“Do you fear it, even in death?”
The half-Elf nearly said ‘yes’, but then she recovered a bit.
“I fear whatever’s on your foot now. Haven’t you heard of monsters with acid for skin, you rookie? Poke it with a stick if you have to show off.”
Calruz bared his teeth at Ceria. She tried to smile, and then whirled. Another scream. Calruz grunted.
“We’re out of time. We’ll reach a higher vantage point so I can show you the end. Then we leave. Raskghar!”
He led them out of the plaza. Ceria ran with him, almost relieved to be fighting. The infested were real, but she didn’t want to stand near the monolith. Or think about Snatcher.
They paused one final time on the walls of the city. The infested were coming in a huge wave. Calruz ordered the Raskghar to fight for a few precious seconds and pointed.
“There! You see it!”
Ceria squinted past the streets full of infested rushing at her. She saw the rooftops of houses, tall buildings, and then—blackness. She blinked.
“Is that a…hole?”
Calruz roared and the Raskghar fell back. He and Ceria raced down the walls as the infested pursued them. They raced towards the metal doors in full retreat, pausing only to cut down the nearest infested twice. When they reached the doors, Calruz shouted. The last Raskghar leapt through, crashing down the stairs while two slammed the metal doors shut.
They’d trapped two Raskghar. The beast people were too slow. Ceria heard them howling in fear and pounding on the doors. Then she heard screams. She backed away as the Raskghar braced themselves. The Raskghar fought until the end, and then there was tearing. Silence.
The Raskghar and Calruz stared at the door. Then the Minotaur nodded. The Raskghar backed away and began tending to their wounds. Ceria wasn’t sure that was safe.
“If they open the doors—”
“They won’t. We’ve fought the infested before. The armor patrols will pursue, but the infested won’t. They go a little ways into the dungeon at most, but then they retreat. And close the doors. I told you, they guard the dungeon.”
He turned his back on the doors. Ceria looked at them uneasily, but the Raskghar were already moving. They headed back towards their camp. Their numbers had been depleted, but they’d eradicated thousands of the infested. Which was part of Calruz’s plan.
“The infested don’t regenerate. They survive terrible injuries, but their numbers are finite. They’re too deadly a foe to face without a vast force—you saw how close we came even with your help. And they react to larger forces entering the city, especially if they stay longer. If I take a thousand Raskghar, ten thousand infested attack. But a small force like this can do great damage, especially on the full moon.”
“How many times have you done this?”
Calruz grinned, his yellowed teeth flashing.
“Many times. And there are less of the infested than before. The Raskghar would never dream of this kind of battle—there’s nothing for them in there. They won’t eat the infested. Even the Cave Goblins won’t. But I see the advantages of a city that can be fortified. And you saw it.”
“A hole. In the center of the city. What was that?”
“I’ve only seen it up close once. It’s a vast hole. It goes down…I can’t say how far. But it’s wide. Half a mile across if I’m a judge. I’m certain that the infested guard it—they cluster around it most of the time which is why they don’t react to us at the edge of the city at first. And in that hole is the center of the dungeon. The Mother of Graves and the dungeon’s treasure, if it exists, lies down there.”
Ceria shivered. The sound of it! She had no idea the dungeon was this large! But to hear Calruz say it like that—
“You’re this close?”
“With the Raskghar, I am. I just need to clear out the infested so we can descend. And as I’ve said, it’s doable.”
Ceria nodded. Her mind was racing in the absence of fear or danger. She looked back at the distant metal doors as an adventurer.
“It’s a war of attrition. If you don’t lose any Raskghar to the infested, or if you kill more than you lose—”
“I win. The infested don’t come back. There are no traps. It is just a battle against them. A fight. An honest one!”
The Minotaur brandished his axe. He’d cut down hundreds of infested himself. He was faster than he had been before the crypt. Stronger too, despite his missing arm. Ceria stared at Calruz. The numb shock in her body faded a bit. Something like amusement tickled her fancy. She felt her lips quirk into a smile.
“Congratulations, Calruz. You’ve finally found a dungeon made just for you.”
The Minotaur blinked.
“I have, haven’t I?”
The two of them looked back at the doors. Calruz whispered.
“It’s right there. I could run forwards and fall into that pit. But I don’t know what lurks beneath. I’m certain that is the heart of the dungeon. And I have been clearing the infested skirmish after skirmish. There are so many of them. And the enchanted armor. But once they’re gone, the city is open. And I will be the one to throw a rope down into that abyss and descend.”
“The dungeon. This one’s so much bigger than we ever imagined. We thought it might be big. We were prepared for multiple levels. Eight floors, even. But I never imagined…”
Calruz nodded. He and Ceria stood together. The Minotaur clenched his hand.
“This dungeon is on another scale entirely. I’ve seen the old dungeons near First Landing, the ones already conquered. Even the magic dungeons don’t come close to this. This—this is on the level of the dungeon Niers Astoragon conquered before he founded the Forgotten Wing Company. This is a dungeon worthy of a Named Adventurer—no, one that makes a Named Adventurer. And vengeance dungeon or not, I’m certain they would have hidden their greatest treasure with this boss monster. The Mother of Graves. The Raskghar have plundered the city and the dungeon and come away with artifacts worthy of any Gold-rank adventurer. This axe alone would make me Gold-rank.”
He pointed to his axe. Ceria stared at it. She remembered how it had grown and thought of the other Raskghar that had magical artifacts. The one with the invisible bow, the warded armor…and she’d seen more Raskghar with similar weapons.
“You have an army. And they know the dungeon.”
“Precisely. I could take ten Gold-rank teams and perhaps not do as much. There are thousands of Raskghar and Cave Goblins. This was just a trial of your abilities. With the awakened Raskghar, the ones who perform the ritual, and with Cave Goblins, we could eliminate the infested within a month. And then—”
And then that abyss awaited. Ceria’s heart pounded in her chest. Anticipation, excitement, fear, dread—it all mixed together. It was a rush, the indescribable feeling of being alive that made her keep adventuring despite it all. She looked up at Calruz, unable to stand still. She saw the same burning passion in his eyes.
This was an adventure! This was a challenge! Ceria grinned at Calruz. They could do it! They could really do it! She reached out—
And then she’d remembered what he’d done. Her smile vanished. Ceria let her arm drop. Calruz saw Ceria’s expression change. His softened expression hardened and he turned.
Mrsha the Great and Terrible sat in her cage. She felt the cold, hard, painful shackles on her paws. She saw the cage, the bars of wood and hide. She smelled the fear in the air, the blood. She saw the Raskghar pacing back and forth, some training with weapons, others bullying the Cave Goblins. She looked at the other cages full of Gnolls and saw the fear in their eyes, the terror.
Mrsha peed a little. She couldn’t help it. There were no bathrooms here and the Raskghar didn’t let the Gnolls out. She shifted uncomfortably, but she couldn’t help it. She’d already done the very bad in the corner of her cage, and she knew the other Gnolls had done the same by the smell.
That didn’t bother her. It might have bothered Erin or Lyonette or Selys, but when you were a Gnoll, you could smell the outhouse even when you weren’t sitting in it. So long as there were other smells, it wasn’t too bad. Actually, it was sort of interesting because if you were really good, you could tell who ate what and who’d pooed last. Mrsha had a great nose.
…But this wasn’t the time for that. Mrsha could smell the fear on the air, a sharp, urgent smell. That made her feel very scared. It came from the Gnolls. And the Cave Goblins. The Raskghar didn’t smell of fear. They smelled of death and blood. Mrsha didn’t like them. She wasn’t afraid—but she peed a bit more when one of them looked at her.
The Gnolls were talking. That was all that had happened. Mrsha didn’t know how long she’d been down here, not exactly, but she remembered waking up. And then being very scared and trying to get loose, and then she’d seen Ceria and thought everything would be well! But it hadn’t. The bad Minotaur had pointed at the cages and then—and then—
And then the horrible thing had happened. Mrsha still remembered the Gnoll screaming as the Raskghar tore out his heart. She shook wildly and tried to breathe. Don’t think about it. Don’t think. Something had happened, and then Mrsha had been too scared to sleep. But she must have, because the next thing she remembered was a bunch of Cave Goblins lifting her cage and the Raskghar grabbing Gnolls and dragging them through the dungeon.
That had been scary too. But almost fun. Almost. And then the Raskghar had come to this new room, which smelled like they’d been here before. Ceria had come back with a horrible monster that the Raskghar killed and talked about ‘invisible monsters’. She’d said a lot of things, but none of it made sense to Mrsha. Why wasn’t she saving everyone? She was an adventurer. But there were a lot of Raskghar. And the Minotaur was very scary.
And now the Gnolls were talking. They’d been silent ever since the first time they’d woken up. The beating from the Raskghar had broken bones. And after the ritual they’d been terrified. But even that terror couldn’t make them sit in silence forever. Now they were growling softly to each other, talking almost inaudibly.
That was necessary, Mrsha knew. If the Gnolls made anything approaching loud sounds, one of the Raskghar would strike the cages or throw something at the prisoners. Anything after that would earn a savage beating. But since Gnoll ears and Raskghar ears were equally good, the Gnolls could still have a quiet conversation without alerting their captors. And since Mrsha’s ears were even better than normal Gnoll ears, she could hear too. She was young. Plus, she was a tribal Gnoll, not a silly city Gnoll like Miss Krshia and the others. She heard everything clearly.
It was the old Gnoll, the one who’d called her ‘Doombringer’ who was speaking. He was the oldest of the Gnolls held captive, or nearly. And he was the most important. The others deferred to him. His name was Elirr. He spoke, a bruise puffing up one eye as the others, adults, a few children, turned to him.
“In the past, it was said that we were enemies of the Raskghar. It was said that in the time underneath the earth, they broke away from our kind. That they became beasts, unthinking, and hunted us. We thought it was for sport, but the old legends were incomplete. It is clear they performed these rituals and gained…strength from them.”
Some of the other Gnolls nodded. The children tried to hug the adults, but they were shackled. It was very painful. Mrsha had seen the adults try to break the metal shackles, but they had been taken from dead [Guardspeople] and the metal was sturdy. The Raskghar had the keys.
One of the Gnolls whined softly. She was afraid. The Gnolls around her growled softly and her whine lowered before it could disturb the Raskghar. Elirr shook his head.
“It may be a thing of classes and Skills. Or not. The Book of Levels does not mention such things. But I know there is magic of blood, yes. And worse things. Things Gnolls have forbidden as the worst of deeds. Perhaps the Raskghar found such secrets in the darkness. All we can hope is that Ceria Springwalker convinces this Minotaur to release us.”
“How? You saw her. She bows to him. She submits! And he is mad. Clearly mad!”
“Hush. I know. But she is our only chance. You heard what he said. The Gold-rank adventurers cannot reach us. And we have moved camps. Even the Antinium could not best this dungeon. What other chance is there?”
The other Gnolls fell silent. They were afraid. Mrsha could smell it on them. On Elirr, for all he tried to project authority. That was the problem with Gnolls. They could smell your fear, so how could you lead them?
By showing them fear is conquerable. By being brave despite fear. That is what inspires.
Mrsha heard the voice in her head. For a second she couldn’t place it. And then she remembered. Urksh had said that. He had been a good [Chieftain]. Better than Elirr. Better than Krshia. She missed him so much. She cried when she thought of him, but she didn’t cry now. She had to be brave.
But then one of the Gnolls looked at her. Mrsha flinched. It was the female Gnoll, the one who’d whined. She stared at Mrsha and raised her voice.
“What about her? This is all her fault!”
She pointed. The Gnolls looked as one. Mrsha flinched. The brown eyes staring at her found her white fur. And she heard the murmurs.
One of the Gnolls, a young male, glared at Mrsha. He bared his teeth and she shrank against the far wall of her cell.
“She did this. She brought this disaster upon our people! We should have killed her when Brunkr came! We should never have let her in the city, driven her away! Look what has happened!”
Elirr raised his voice. Not to denounce Vakk, but to calm him so the Raskghar didn’t come over. One was looking their way, and the Gnolls had seen how the Raskghar liked to torment the Cave Goblins when they were bored. Vakk lowered his voice, but his growl was still menacing as he stared at Mrsha.
“She is cursed! Just like the legends say! I did not believe it, but look at the misfortune that has struck Liscor! Honored Krshia’s shop—the Face-Eater Moths, the Goblin Lord—”
“Not all that is her fault.”
Another Gnoll spoke up. Mrsha’s ears perked up hopefully, but the Gnoll did not look at her. Vakk growled.
“Too much has happened since she came! Too much! Brunkr warned us. He told us to kill her. We should have listened. He was raised in the Silverfang tribe! He knew the truth!”
“But he changed his mind. And Honored Krshia told us he was wrong.”
“Yes. And look what happened to Brunkr. He was killed by a traitor. And Krshia lost her shop. She nearly lost our great contribution to the meeting of tribes!”
“We gained something of greater value—”
Elirr’s sharp voice was a whisper, but it quieted the other Gnolls. He looked towards Mrsha and shook his head.
“I do not know enough of the old legends. Yes, rumor says the cursed white fur is the death of tribes, but is it the cause? Krshia did not think so. And I do not know. That it is a sign I will not argue. But perhaps this doom was inevitable and the child was a herald of it. I do not think she caused it.”
“But would her death stop it? And why do the Raskghar value her?”
The other Gnolls went silent. Mrsha trembled. She wanted to cry. But Mrsha the Brave wouldn’t cry.
“Even if she were to die, we would be here.”
Vakk slumped against the side of his cage. The Gnolls looked at each other, despairing. But then Vakk raised his head. He looked at Mrsha, his eyes burning.
“But if she is disaster, let it not be for just us. Doombringer, bring doom on the Raskghar.”
He rose. Elirr tried to grab him, but Vakk twisted away. He stood clumsily, his paws were shackled, but he fell forwards and grabbed the bars of the cage. He stared at Mrsha. And now his voice was loud.
“Do it. Let it be an end to all of us! Gnolls, the cursed Raskghar! Bring death, Doombringer! Use your power and destroy these ancient monsters! Do it!”
He shouted at Mrsha. The Raskghar turned. One of them shouted something. Vakk didn’t listen. He pounded on the cage.
“Don’t just sit there! Do something! Anything!”
“Vakk! Enough! She is a child!”
Elirr barked at the Gnoll. He managed to get up. He grabbed the young Gnoll, but Vakk threw him off. He began to howl, in desperation. Some of the other Gnolls took it up.
The older Gnoll ordered desperately, but it was too late. The Raskghar howled in return. They bounded to the cages and opened them. The Gnolls stopped howling as the Raskghar entered and began beating them. Vakk got the worst of it. By the time the Raskghar left, his face was a bloody mess. The Gnolls lay, moaning, weeping. Mrsha hadn’t been touched. She saw them stare at her and heard the same whisper.
Mrsha wished she could tear her fur off her body. She wished she could speak. It wasn’t her fault! She wanted to scream it. But a part of her wondered if it was. And was afraid.
There was no more talk after that. The Gnolls huddled together. The children clung to the adults. One was so young he tried to nurse. The female Gnoll in the cage with him wasn’t pregnant, but she let him try. Mrsha sat, listening to it all. Then she smelled it. Her head turned a good few seconds before the others looked up. The Raskghar sprang to their feet.
Ceria was back. So was Calruz. The Raskghar with him returned, wounded, smelling of—of other things. Sweat. Death. Blood. And something else. A new place. The Minotaur smelled triumphant. Mrsha hid in her cell as he walked into the camp, laughing, in a good mood.
She didn’t trust it. His mood, that was. The Minotaur—his name was Calruz?—scared her. Mrsha could smell his good nature, see it on his face. But she knew it would change in the blink of an eye.
Bad mood. Good mood. Mrsha wanted to scrub her nose each time he passed. There was something wrong about the Minotaur. Something that made her hair stand on end. Sometimes he would be normal. He would speak to Ceria like a person and act like an adult, like a Chieftain and make the Raskghar scurry around efficiently. But then his scent would change.
It was the faintest of things. Something Mrsha could smell and know, but not focus on. It was so faint, so infinitesimal a change that even her keen nose could barely detect it. But she knew it had happened because then Calruz would go crazy.
The other Gnolls couldn’t smell what Mrsha did. The adults had weaker noses and the children were city Gnolls. They didn’t have the practice Mrsha had growing up, smelling squirrels and rodents beneath the earth, or scenting rain in the air.
Not even the Raskghar could smell it. Mrsha could. So she stayed back from Calruz, wondering when his mood would change and the smell would become terrible. He scared her. But the Raskghar scared her more.
One of them came forwards. She was large. Her eyes shone. The Gnolls froze when she passed them. Mrsha thought her heart would explode or stop. She was the one. She had performed the ritual.
She was an awakened Raskghar. That was what they had called themselves. The Raskghar bowed to Calruz, pretending to be subservient, but the Gnolls and other Raskghar watched her. She was different. Special. She was like Krshia. A leader of the pack.
Gnolls were matriarchal. Usually. They respected good leadership over tradition, which is why Urksh had been a leader and why they looked to Elirr now. But the Raskghar were very traditional. And she had performed the ritual.
“I am stronger, Chieftain. Stronger. Smarter. Faster. I hunger for battle. I will be your greatest warrior. I already speak language. And I offer you this.”
The Raskghar had gone hunting. She presented Calruz with the head of something. The other Raskghar who’d gone with her had to drag it forwards. It was huge. The Minotaur inhaled sharply. He moved to one side and Mrsha saw—her hair stood on end.
“A Face-Eater Moth. Tree rot. That’s—is that from a mother?”
The head was nearly as tall as Ceria. It had come from one of the giant Face-Eater Moths, one of the ones who’d crawled out of the dungeon. Mrsha stared at the female Raskghar. She had killed that? By herself?
“You slew it by yourself?”
“Leading sixteen others. Yes, Chieftain. And I located a treasure site. One that may be opened. I puzzled over the solution. I would show you. But I am one. More rituals will mean more awakened Raskghar. More of us.”
She drew closer, touching Calruz. Mrsha knew she was flirting. The Minotaur growled and pushed her back. But then his gaze turned to the Gnolls. And Mrsha was afraid.
“Calruz, you can’t. You don’t need more Raskghar. You need…hostages. We fought in the city just fine. But the Gold-rank adventurers will keep coming so long as the Gnolls are here. If you let them go, or you could strike a deal. Negotiate for items. Potions.”
Ceria’s voice was high-pitched, desperate. She hovered around Calruz, looking afraid. Smaller. The Minotaur glanced at her.
“That is true. But I told you not to argue with me.”
Calruz brushed her off. He strode towards the cages. The Gnolls looked up at him. Calruz looked from face to face.
“Who leads you?”
Elirr sat up. He was bleeding from a cut on his mouth in addition to his black eye. Calruz frowned.
“Why were the Gnolls beaten?”
“They began howling. They had to be silenced.”
Calruz stared at Elirr. The Gnoll met his gaze, but Mrsha saw his hands clenching. He wavered, and he looked away. Calruz snorted. Elirr spoke hoarsely.
“You are making a mistake. We are citizens of Liscor. The Watch will not rest until we are freed. Nor will the adventurers. And the Drake cities know of the dungeon. You will never be safe if we are killed.”
“Are you trying to threaten me?”
There was a dangerous note in the Minotaur’s voice. Elirr tried to look at him, but the Minotaur was too scary. Mrsha tried to cover her eyes and peek at the same time.
“No. No. But I ask—we beg you for mercy. We will pay any ransom.”
“My goal is the dungeon’s treasure itself. No one city could afford what I seek to find. As for mercy—I have promised Ceria to let some of you go if she obeys me. I keep my word.”
Elirr looked up hopefully. Instantly, the female Raskghar protested.
“Chieftain. The Gnolls are needed. For ritual.”
“Not all of them.”
“All! We must have them. You must—”
Calruz spun. His hand shot out. He was fast. The female Raskghar tried to dodge, but Calruz’s hand was at her throat. She struggled—and then stopped as his hand tightened on her windpipe. The other Raskghar stirred. Mrsha was glad to see they were afraid, even if it was of Calruz. His arm flexed as he drew the female Raskghar closer.
“You speak as if you were Chieftain. But you are not. You are weaker than I am, even with the ritual. Or do you challenge me?”
The female Raskghar lowered her ears and head. She submitted and hunched, lowering herself as he let her go. Calruz turned.
“So. My order stands. Not all of the Gnolls will be sacrificed. How many depends on Ceria. I have a mind to spare whomever she picks. And the white one.”
“No. Not that one! She is special!”
Another Raskghar protested in a guttural voice. Quick as a flash, Calruz turned. He backhanded the Raskghar so hard that the beast man lost a tooth. A spray of blood flew—the Raskghar fell.
There was. Calruz looked at Mrsha. She tried to back into a corner of her cell and landed on her poo as he bent down.
“You. Ceria tells me that Ryoka knows you. And Erin. Why are you special?”
Mrsha quivered. Calruz glared at her. His eyes turned red.
She opened her mouth desperately, tried to point at it. The Minotaur grew angrier. He opened his mouth and his hand cracked as it dug into the top of her cage.
To Mrsha’s relief, Ceria pushed forwards. She grabbed the Minotaur. Though she couldn’t pull him back, she spoke urgently and quickly.
“She’s mute. She can’t speak.”
The Minotaur straightened. He looked suspiciously at Mrsha. Ceria nodded.
“She’s been mute since birth. Ryoka befriended her, like I told you. Her fur’s white—that’s probably why the Raskghar think she’s special. But she doesn’t have any powers.”
“I see. Do you think she’s special?”
Calruz glanced at the female Raskghar. Her eyes turned towards Mrsha. The little Gnoll cub flinched.
“Oh yes, Chieftain. White fur is special.”
The Raskghar hesitated. She looked uncertain.
“We…do not know. But we feel it. We know it. Here.”
She pointed to her chest. Calruz grunted. He looked at Elirr.
“You. Do you know why the Raskghar think she’s special? What does white fur mean among Gnolls?”
Elirr hesitated. The old Gnoll glanced at Mrsha and at Calruz. He opened his mouth. The Minotaur cut him off.
“If you lie, I will sacrifice half of the Gnolls here.”
The Gnoll bowed his head. Mrsha stared at him in terror.
“She is cursed. According to the legends of my tribe, those with white fur appear after disaster. Or before it. They may cause disaster or warn of it, but disaster comes either way. They are shunned. I thought it legend myself, but…”
Elirr glanced despairingly at Mrsha and said no more. Calruz straightened.
“So. There is some truth to these legends.”
“It’s all superstition. Come on, Calruz. You don’t believe in that. And Mrsha matters to Erin. To Ryoka.”
The Minotaur paused. A wistful expression passed over his face. He looked at Ceria, at Mrsha, and shook his head.
“I will…deliberate. I will make my decision later. Tonight, before we eat. I will not hear any more arguments.”
Ceria opened her mouth. Calruz turned and she froze. He turned away and strode towards the curtain that had been set up at the far end of the room. He disappeared behind it. The other Raskghar backed away too, staring at Mrsha and the Gnolls. That left just Ceria. The half-Elf hesitated, and then bent down.
“It’ll be alright, Mrsha. I’ll figure something out. You’ll be okay. You…and the others.”
She tried to smile. Mrsha stared at her with wide eyes. She might have been young, but even Mrsha knew that Ceria was lying.
That was what adults did. They lied. But Mrsha clung to the lie. She sat in her cage as the Raskghar got back to work. A Cave Goblin scurried by. He picked up the Raskghar’s tooth and checked Mrsha’s cage for damage. Then he brought food for the Gnolls with the other Cave Goblins.
It was monster meat. Cooked over a fire, but monster. Mrsha knew it was part of the maggot. She heard the Gnolls crying out in disgust, but that was all the food that was offered. The water tasted of blood. Mrsha tried to eat and drink, but her stomach roiled. She bit the meat, gagged, and curled up.
She missed Erin’s cooking. She missed Lyonette and Apista and hot food! Mrsha did not cry. She would not cry. She waited until the Cave Goblin took the food away and then as more time passed. And then she heard arguing.
“Chieftain! Please! Gnolls are important. Must use in ritual. Must—”
There was a crack and a howl of agony. Calruz appeared, striking a Raskghar with his fist. The warrior—not the awakened one, another female—retreated. The Minotaur battered her to the ground and kicked her repeatedly.
“I will not be argued with! The Gnolls are mine! Mine! I am the Chieftain! I give the orders. There will be no sacrifices! Not now! And if I demand it, not ever! I will release some of them. Parlay. I want potions. And equipment!”
“You could get fresh water. Maybe a way to remove the blindness curse?”
Ceria hovered around Calruz, looking visibly delighted. The Minotaur turned and nodded.
“Yes. That’s right. We could do that! I could release the Gnolls, order the adventurers to halt the incursions into the dungeon in exchange for a few—or even assault the city. Yes.”
Mrsha sat up hopefully. Her tail began to wag. The Gnolls looked at each other in disbelief as Calruz strode over to the cages. He looked down at Elirr.
“You. If I send a message with your people, will Liscor hear it?”
“Yes. I swear it. We will bear any message you send.”
Elirr looked hopefully at Ceria, who was nodding. The Raskghar were unhappy. They growled, but as soon as Calruz turned they went still. They were more afraid of him than anything. Even the ritual couldn’t make them rebel. Mrsha felt hope.
“We will send one…no, two tomorrow. Two, yes. The Cave Goblins can escort them to the entrance. Make sure they make it to the surface. Or let the Gold-rank adventurers find them. They will make it clear that I am in charge and—and present them a list of my demands.”
“I can help with that. I’ll write the letter, add in whatever details you want. This is the right move, Calruz.”
Ceria smiled, clearly flattering the Minotaur. He stood straighter.
“Of course. I need penmanship. And paper! The Raskghar barely have parchment—I—I should address the Council. And the Gold-ranks. I’m…I should be—”
Mrsha smelled the confusion and madness in him. The Minotaur touched a hand to his head. But for once the madness was working against the Raskghar. He turned to Ceria.
“What should I do? You know them best. What is the best way to convince them of my sincerity?”
He trusted her. Mrsha could smell that too. Ceria smiled.
“Let’s find paper first. Do you have a quill and ink?”
“Yes. You there—bring me—”
The Minotaur strode away. The Gnolls glanced at each other, their eyes perking up. Freedom! Hope was a dizzying rush in Mrsha’s chest. She saw the Raskghar glancing at each other in frustration. The Cave Goblins scurried around, not paying attention to anything.
Ceria and Calruz stood together, talking over the details of his ransom note. The Gnolls and Mrsha listened, hearing Ceria manage Calruz’s madness and his twists of mood. He trusted her, ignoring the Raskghar, lashing out at them when they tried to whine. Mrsha was happy. Even though her belly rumbled loudly and her butt smelled like poo, she felt safer.
Freedom! Maybe she would be one of the Gnolls chosen to leave tomorrow? Probably not. But Erin would do everything to get her back. And so would Lyonette. And Jelaqua, and Halrac, and Selys…
It was hard to tell when it was night in the dungeon. Especially since the Raskghar and Cave Goblins worked in shifts at all hours. But the Gnolls, accustomed to the day and night cycle, felt themselves tiring and began to drift off. Mrsha found herself yawning despite all the excitement in her. She tried to be more comfortable in her cell with the painful shackles—which might come off soon—and saw that most of the Raskghar were getting ready to sleep. Ceria slept in a separate spot behind some curtains, and Calruz went to his bed too.
The room quieted. Mrsha began drifting off, although she kept waking up every time a Cave Goblin pattered by. She turned, shifting a rock out of the way and smelled poo and pee. She turned onto her side the other way and sighed. She felt her thoughts haze—
And then she heard a howl. It was loud, echoing, a note of pure terror from the Raskghar. Instantly, Mrsha shot up. She saw the Gnolls and Raskghar wake immediately and the Raskghar grab weapons. Mrsha saw them look around, trying to place the call, and then felt a whumph.
It wasn’t a loud sound, but a deep one. It went through the ground of the dungeon, through Mrsha’s bones. It was the sound of some incredible impact or explosion. Mrsha’s ears rang and she saw the Raskghar running in a haze of silence. She saw them howling at each other, using sign, language, pointing, rushing past her. Then she saw Calruz emerge, axe in his one hand. Ceria ran out, wand at the ready. He pointed and roared.
A bit of hearing returned. Mrsha heard confused voices.
Calruz pointed. The Raskghar moved, howling. Ceria backed up as Calruz turned on her. She raised her flesh and skeletal hands, her eyes wide. Mrsha tried to hear. It was one voice out of all the shouts and now, the distant sounds of fighting. Calruz was bellowing.
“Did you do this? Was this your plan?”
“No! I don’t even know what’s going on! What’s happening? Who’s attacking?”
“The adventurers! They’re attacking! They’ve found the camp! They found their way here! Without alerting my sentries! How? How?”
“I don’t know! I don’t! Calruz—”
He raised his axe. Ceria raised her hands, frost shimmering in the air between them. Calruz paused for one terrible moment and whirled.
“Defend the camp! Begin retreating! Send the Goblins forward! You! Grab the prisoners! Take them away! Now!”
He roared and the Raskghar moved. They sprang forwards, hundreds of them, running towards the fighting. So many. Mrsha had seen the adventurers. There weren’t enough! And then she saw the Raskghar running towards the cages. The Gnolls tried to fight, but the Raskghar clubbed them and lifted the prisoners onto their shoulders. They ran towards the other side of the room, out the exit the adventurers were not besieging.
“Calruz! Stop! This is a mistake! Don’t! Try to negotiate! Please—”
Ceria tried to grab Calruz’s arm, but he turned. His eyes were red. Fury burned in them. And madness. He struck Ceria with the handle of his axe and she fell. Calruz pointed and roared and charged out of Mrsha’s view. The white Gnoll sat in her cell, wide-eyed. She saw the Raskghar coming towards her and tried to back away. But she couldn’t. And as the Raskghar lifted her cell, she heard Ceria whisper. A single sound amid it all.
It was a heartbroken voice. A pained one. It sounded to Mrsha like desperation, shock, incredulity and sadness and grief. It sounded like failure.
It sounded like despair.