[Martial Artists]. A term for people who use skills and techniques designed for combat, be it self-defense, war, competition, or other activities. They differed from traditional [Warriors] in a simple way. While anyone could learn to use a sword, and there were indeed teachers of swordplay or soldiering, anyone who knew how to fight could be a [Warrior]. It was a broad term that applied to self-taught amateurs as well as those formally taught by experts.
But [Martial Artists] practiced a system, an evolution of a traditional fighting style refined over decades, centuries, and so on, until it was a culture unto itself. Until you could call the act of carrying out moves a form of art in itself. That was what being a [Martial Artist] meant. But it was a rare class in most parts of the world.
“After all, who fights with their fists? It’s not really viable, especially for humanoid races. No—even Drakes and Gnolls wouldn’t do that well. Think about it. You’re up against some [Warrior] with a sword. Even if it’s made of iron, the sword’s a lot longer than your arm. Plus, it’s made out of metal. I don’t care how sharp Drake claws are—you’d normally get skewered before you got in arm’s reach. That’s why [Fist Fighters], [Brawlers], and so on are normally just tavern toughs or drunks. It’s rare to see anyone use that kind of class outside of a city.”
Ceria was explaining the concept of [Martial Artists] to her team. She was sitting with them in an inn in Celum. It was called The Drunken Swordsman, and it was a fairly nice inn as they went. Ceria wouldn’t have necessarily stayed here when she was journeying with Calruz and Gerial in the original Horns of Hammerad; paying for their entire group would have wasted too much coin.
Now of course, her team could afford it, but it was surprising to Ceria because the young woman sitting next to her was staying here of her own volition. No, everything about Garia Strongheart was surprising. Ceria shot a glance at the City Runner for the ninth time in as many minutes. She couldn’t help but stare.
Garia was thin. Or, thinner. She was still far from a half-starved girl, or a [Lady] striving to wear the sleekest dress possible. But even so, the change in Garia from when Ceria had known her was astounding.
The City Runner had been, to put it politely, a bit sturdier than most. She’d given Ceria the impression she ate too much, but that was a misleading look because more than a bit of her extra weight had been muscle. Garia had been strong as could be, but slow, which meant she’d been a low-level, if dependable, City Runner called on for heavy deliveries at a slower pace.
She’d been friends with Fals and Ryoka and had often been seen in the company of the two when Ceria had come across them in Celum. But that had been ages ago. Now?
She was thinner. Still not quite as thin as someone like Falene, who was practically the definition of austere elegance in how she presented herself, but closer to Yvlon in terms of size, albeit a tiny bit bulkier. But all that extra flesh was muscle. Which meant that Garia Strongheart looked great. No, incredibly good. Ceria was surprised at how attractive Garia had become. The half-Elf paused for a second, wondering if her face had changed as well. Then she realized she was staring and coughed.
“No problem. Hey, can I get you anything to eat? It’s on me. Mister Timbor, can we get some drinks please? And some of your fries? Hey, you’re going to love this, Ceria.”
Garia turned and waved to a big [Innkeeper] helping wait the tables. Timbor waved back good-naturedly. Ceria blinked.
“You seem familiar with him.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m something of a regular. I’ve made Celum my home base. It’s close to my family’s home, and I’ve gotten a lot faster lately. And I’m earning a good bit more, so I can afford to stay here.”
The City Runner turned and flashed Ceria a smile. She was clearly excited, and chatty. She’d practically dragged Ceria to the inn and the half-Elf had agreed, to satisfy her curiosity as much as anything else. She had to know what had happened to Garia. Besides, the only mission her team was on today was to do some work at the Adventurer’s Guild. It wasn’t as if they had to be in a hurry.
“Ahem. Sorry, Ksmvr. Where was I?”
Ceria turned back to the Antinium. Ksmvr was sitting next to Yvlon across the table. Pisces, who had more space to himself and was leaning back in his chair, raised one eyebrow in amusement.
“I believe you were explaining to Comrade Ksmvr why [Martial Artists] were so rare, oh, Captain Ceria. Because hand-to-weapon combat is quite foolish, is that correct?”
He was eying Garia as well, but unlike Ceria he wasn’t at all unobtrusive about it. Yvlon and Ksmvr were politely sipping from the drinks the [Barmaid] had just brought over—neither of them knew Garia as well as Ceria or Pisces. Ceria glared at Pisces as she lifted her drink to her lips.
“What? Yeah, I was. Do you have a problem with that, Pisces? It’s not hard to figure out. Weapons have reach, cutting power—and you can enchant them! True, some races have claws or sharp teeth. So what? We’re not animals. What kind of an idiot would use her fists to pick a fight with someone with a sword? Besides Calruz, that is?”
Pisces just kept smirking at Ceria. Ksmvr meanwhile politely raised one of his three good hands. The place where his fourth arm should have been was just a stump, healed but not regenerated. Sometimes Ceria worried about that. Ksmvr was an outcast from his Hive, but surely they could do something about his missing arm? He’d assured her it wouldn’t ‘impede his combat effectiveness unduly’, but that wasn’t really the point.
“As a matter of fact, Captain Ceria, most of the Antinium do not fight with weapons. Workers may arm themselves with bows, but aside from the Armored Antinium, all other types of Antinium Soldiers only fight with their natural appendages.”
“Ah. Uh. I didn’t mean—obviously the Antinium are an exception, Ksmvr.”
“We do practice exceptionally straightforward and somewhat high-casualty forms of combat, Captain Ceria. I take your point.”
The half-Elf turned bright red. It was worse because Ksmvr was so polite about it. Yvlon shook her head with a slight smile.
“Ceria didn’t try to insult your species, Ksmvr, I’m sure. But she’s right that other species don’t have, uh, the Antinium’s skill at fist-fighting. Your species has four arms and shells. We fragile Humans have weak skin and two hands. It’s not a good idea for us.”
Pisces was sitting up in his chair. He nodded towards Garia with his slight smirk. Ceria shot him a warning glance, but he was too far away to kick.
“As I understand it, [Martial Artist] classes are practically unheard of in most continents. It is difficult to implement it as a fighting method across armies of [Soldiers], and it carries several demerits, which Ceria has kindly listed. However, as I recall, the people of the Drath Archipelago as well as some Minotaurs have that class. Miss Garia appears to have picked up the class somewhere. Which might be the reason for her dramatic weight loss. You look quite fetching, Miss Strongheart, if I might say so. I congratulate you on the change.”
Yvlon and Ceria both snapped at the [Necromancer]. But Garia just laughed, and that at least was the same as Ceria remembered. The boisterous young woman reached over and slapped Pisces on the back; he nearly smacked the table with the front of his face.
“Whoops, sorry, Pisces! I’m not offended, Ceria, uh, Miss Yvlon. I’m glad you said something! It’s the first thing most people say to me—the ones who aren’t polite like Ceria, that is. Isn’t it incredible?”
Ceria gave up as Pisces shook his robes and the wine he’d ordered slid off the enchanted cloth and onto the floorboards. A passing [Barmaid] gave him a dirty look, which he ignored. The half-Elf looked at Garia now that she’d broached the subject.
“How on earth did you change so much, Garia? If you don’t mind me asking? It’s a Skill, right? From your [Martial Artist] class?”
Garia chuckled, looking delighted at the attention.
“That’s right! I actually got the class nearly a month and a half ago. And the Skill I got—[Weight Control] was one of the first I received! Level 6, if you can believe it! I’ll tell you all about it. But here come the fries! Take a look at this!”
One of The Drunken Swordsman’s servers had come over with a plate of fried wedges of potato. French fries, not nearly as thin as Erin would slice them, but unmistakably the same. There was even some ketchup with the fries. Pisces brightened up and levitated two towards him before the plate was even set down. Ceria murmured in appreciation and took one. It was salted very pleasantly and the ketchup was very good, if too sweet for her tastes. Garia beamed.
“Do you like it? It’s a new addition to Celum! They’re called ‘french fries’, but we just call them ‘fries’ for short! Aren’t they a great snack?”
“Mhm. They’re quite nice. These ones could use a bit more crisp for my taste, though.”
Yvlon commented as she politely ate a fry in the singular. Ksmvr had taken nearly as many as Pisces and the two began to devour the large platter with Garia’s help. The city Runner looked shocked and a bit crestfallen.
“Wait, you’ve eaten these before? I thought they’d be a huge shock! They came out just last week and I haven’t seen you all around in Celum. You’re still at The Wandering Inn in Liscor, right? I’ve been meaning to stop over there and talk to Erin, but I keep putting it off.”
All four Horns of Hammerad smiled. Ceria coughed as she turned to Garia.
“Actually, Garia, we’ve been eating these fries for months now. Or didn’t you hear? These came from Liscor. From Erin, actually.”
The City Runner looked stunned. Ceria nodded.
“I guess it is new in Celum, although some people do come through to the inn regularly. They must have copied her recipe. Took them long enough; you can get fries in any tavern in Liscor if you ask. It’s great with a drink of ale.”
“No way. I thought that one of the [Innkeepers] here had invented it and Erin copied it when I had it at her inn! They never said it was from Erin! What about Miss Agnes? Her inn was partnered with Erin’s, wasn’t it? Only, last time I visited it wasn’t doing so well. Although her husband is up and on his feet these days.”
Garia shot the [Innkeeper] named Timbor a confused look. He was a big fellow. Pisces smirked unpleasantly.
“I believe that’s because they have a particular grudge against Erin Solstice, Miss Strongheart. As I recall, your [Innkeeper] was one of the ones who upset Erin in particular.”
“What? But Timbor’s a great innkeeper. He’s had me over since—you’re sure? I need to talk to Erin.”
Ceria drummed her fingers on the table and snatched one of Pisces’ fries as it floated past her face. He scowled at her.
“If you do, watch out for the Hobgoblin staying at her inn. He’s quite friendly, but he hates people screaming at him.”
“Hob—hold on, how much have I missed? Did that little Goblin, er, Rags, turn into a huge one?”
“Oh—no. What happened was…”
It was strange for Ceria to recount all that had happened to Garia. After all, the City Runner had known Erin through Ryoka. But it had been in a peripheral sense; she’d never been at the heart of the drama in Erin’s inn like the Horns of Hammerad, and she’d missed a lot of action. The City Runner listened with mouth agape as she heard the stories. Face-Eater Moths. Raskghar. The siege. Goblin heroes and death. Zel Shivertail, the legend.
“Dead gods. And I thought I’d changed. But one look at your team told me…I can’t quite recall if we’ve been introduced. I knew the Horns had changed; I saw you during the siege of Liscor—I mean, the one with the Face-Eater Moths. And I heard about Lord Tyrion’s army and the Goblin Lord, but I wasn’t near a scrying orb for that. I’ll have to pay to see a recording if there’s one available. I’m sorry if I haven’t introduced myself before. Garia Strongheart.”
She stood up. Yvlon and Ksmvr did likewise. The [Wounded Warrior] smiled slightly as she held out a gauntleted hand. It was bad manners to eat with her gauntlets on, but the woman was doing it anyways. Ceria had noticed Yvlon wore her armor—at least her gauntlets and armguards—at all times. To hide her damaged arms?
Then Ceria wondered if the Free Antinium’s gels would help with her arms as well. She hadn’t complained about her injuries of late, but that was because she couldn’t feel her arms. Yvlon shook Garia’s hand, smiling, and neither commented on her etiquette.
“I have seen you before, Miss Garia. But I can’t say we’ve ever talked that much.”
“Garia, please. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yvlon.”
“And I am Ksmvr. Hello. I am one of the Antinium, but I am not hostile towards you at the moment Miss Garia. So please do not fear for your life.”
Ksmvr held out one of his hands. Garia blinked, but didn’t even miss a beat as she shook it. Ceria groaned.
“Don’t mind Ksmvr, Garia—and he is an Antinium, but—”
“Don’t worry. I met that other one. Klbkch? And Pawn. Ryoka’s told me about them, so I’m not scared. And I hear Antinium have been in Celum before. Honestly, I was a bit worried we’d have people panicking, but they’ve seen, uh, Ksmvr before?”
“Once or twice. There was a baseball game…”
Ceria looked around. Ksmvr was indeed getting a lot of looks, but the Antinium had been spotted in Celum a few times before. Still, if Ksmvr were alone, Ceria would have bet people would have panicked. Another thing to worry about.
“Anyways. Where were we? Oh, right. Erin’s inn is one thing, Garia. But how in the name of tree sap did you…”
The half-Elf waved at Garia in general. The City Runner laughed again. She looked so happy. And she was clearly doing well; Ceria distinctly recalled Garia being worried about her job and how she was doing before.
“Like I said, Ceria. I got the class. [Martial Artist]. Level 14! I’ve been leveling like crazy. No one can believe how fast I’m shooting up, but I’m training every chance I get between runs. My weight’s just one change I’ve had. Look at this!”
She lifted her light tunic. Ceria blinked as she saw a very taut stomach and toned abdominal muscles. And something else she’d seen on Calruz when the Minotaur went shirtless. A six-pack of muscles.
Yvlon sounded admiring. Ksmvr leaned over, looking blank.
“I do not understand what this configuration of flesh means. Comrade Pisces, please explain.”
“It shows high abdominal strength, Ksmvr. And I realize the distinction is lost on you, but I find it a quite attractive view.”
Pisces leaned over for a better look. Garia turned red and Yvlon reached over to punch him.
The Runner girl looked pleased as she lowered her shirt. That was another change. Garia would never had been so bold. Ceria blinked as Pisces edged back from Yvlon and Ksmvr prodded his own stomach.
“So you’re really trying to be a [Martial Artist], Garia? Aren’t you a [Runner]?”
Garia took a longer drink and nodded.
“That’s right. But the two classes have great synergy. After all, both are about the body. I’m hoping I can consolidate the classes. But I have no idea what class I’d get and I’m running out of ways to improve. I do practice punches every day—and kicks as well as this dodging routine I learned—but I’m just dying to meet Ryoka again. I want to see her face—and get her to teach me how to do some flips!”
“Ryoka taught you how to do those punches? Now it makes sense.”
Yvlon sighed and rolled her eyes. Ceria nodded too.
“Of course. She took both you and Calruz on, remember, Yvlon?”
“As if I could forget. That was one way to meet her.”
The [Warrior] rubbed her cheek ruefully. Garia smiled.
“She told me about taking on Calruz with her bare fists. That’s not something I’m ever going to do, but when she visited my parent’s farm, Ryoka also taught me how to do a basic punch. She wanted me to defend myself. Honestly, I didn’t see much point in it, but she did some incredible tricks as well, so I thought—why not? My dad was all hyped up after her visit too. He practically forced me to try her punches the day after she left, and then spar. I don’t know if you’ve met him—”
“Wailant Strongheart? Doesn’t he run a really productive farm around Celum? I remember hearing about how productive his fields are.”
Yvlon looked curious. Ceria blinked at her.
“How do you know that, Yvlon?”
“I do take an interest in that kind of thing, Ceria. My family runs a number of businesses. He runs his farm practically by himself, or so I heard. Dangerous, even for a farm located close to Celum. But I take it he’s good at fighting?”
Garia smiled ruefully.
“Dad’s not alone. But you’re right. He can take care of himself. So can my mother. She’s a [Green Mage].”
“That explains it. Is your father a former adventurer, then? A soldier?”
“No. He was a [Pirate].”
Yvlon choked on her drink. Ksmvr politely patted her on the back.
“You are drowning, Yvlon.”
“Thanks, Ksmvr. A [Pirate]? You don’t hear about that every day!”
“No. But that’s an entire story…anyways, my dad’s still really good with a sword. And his fists. He kept egging me to become an adventurer and learn how to fight. I’m no good with a weapon, though. After Ryoka left he made me do a hundred of her punches exactly like she did, and then tried to get me to spar. Normally I can’t even touch him, but he kept egging me on. And then I threw one of Ryoka’s punches and got lucky and—”
Garia spread her hands helplessly. Ceria winced. Pisces frowned. He leaned over to Ceria.
“Ceria. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but wasn’t Garia in the possession of the ah, [Enhanced Strength] Skill?”
Pisces winced. So did Yvlon.
Ksmvr looked up.
“Ah. That Skill is a more potent version of [Lesser Strength], is it not? I thought it was difficult to acquire for [Warriors], though.”
Yvlon dabbed at her mouth with a handkerchief.
“Rare, yes. I wish I had it. But it’s more common for [Farmers].”
“And I was one until I quit. It’s one of the reasons I was so big growing up, or so my mother always said. And I got a solid hit on my dad during that sparring session.”
Garia waved a hand. Ksmvr stared blankly at her. Ceria smiled slightly.
“Ksmvr, it’s not a complete comparison, but remember Calruz? Imagine him hitting you as hard as he could. He’s probably a bit stronger, but I remember a guy with [Enhanced Strength] nearly knocked him flat in a bar brawl one time.”
“Ah. I see. The potential for bodily harm rises. Commendable.”
Garia shook her head.
“I didn’t hurt my dad that bad. But I did knock him out. It was a lucky shot to the head, but still. I can’t tell you how good that felt! I’ve never so much as touched him when he didn’t want me to. That night I gained the [Martial Artist] class. And I decided that if I could knock my father out, a good punch would do just as well for any [Bandit] I met. Or monster! So I kept practicing off-and-on. And then I got to Level 6 and I realized what my class could do for me.”
She indicated her body. Ceria frowned.
“So you got a Skill and you could just lose weight? Like that? Isn’t that insanely powerful?”
“I know dozens of [Ladies] who’d kill for a Skill like that, Garia. Literally kill.”
“Well, they can learn to do a few punches and see if they get it. I don’t think it’s a powerful Skill by the standards of my class, you see. It just helps me lose weight, which is what I wanted. I guess that’s why I got it?”
She looked around the table for confirmation. Pisces nodded. Somehow he’d signaled for another plate of fries, unabashedly putting it on Garia’s tab.
“Indeed. It’s a well-known phenomenon that classes and Skills are acquired often in line with the user’s desires. I myself don’t have any Skills involving the summoning of flesh-based undead, for instance.”
“Silver and steel, Pisces. Of all the things to say while we’re eating.”
Yvlon glared. Pisces raised a hand.
“I merely bring it up as a point of reference. I much prefer skeletons to zombies, you see. Rotting flesh is so…unrefined.”
“It also carries disease. I am contributing this fact to the conversation.”
“Thank you, Ksmvr.”
The Antinium beamed. Garia looked around.
“I don’t know about all that. But I’m just so happy I got the class. It’s not the only Skill I got of course—I learned a few techniques too! I can do a really fast kick, I have a dodging Skill—and I’m a lot faster on my feet! But that’s just because of the weight loss. I can’t wait to see what other Skills I get, though. So I’m learning all I can about my class. But Ceria and Pisces are right. There’s practically no one with this class in Izril.”
“Huh. So what will you do?”
“I’m trying to see if there are any [Martial Artists] or people with similar classes among the adventurers on the continent. There probably are, and I’ll see if I can talk to them and if they’re willing to share. Aside from that, I do my research. [Mages] know a lot, you see, and experienced travellers from Chandrar are helpful. If I could go to a larger city or a port…oh, and you’re wrong about [Martial Artists], Ceria. Just a tiny bit.”
“Weapons are actually part of the fighting styles [Martial Artists] use. You see, it’s about the attitude and…discipline? The point is, some use hands and feet, but there are entire styles that take other body parts into account. Also, there are groups of [Martial Artists] in Chandrar too, Pisces. There’s this famous nation called Pomle and I was trying to see if I could send a [Message] spell there, but they don’t even have a Mage’s Guild.”
Garia sighed. Pisces sniffed.
“I knew that. I was simply referring to the practice in a broader cultural sense, not minorities by continent—”
“Shut up, Pisces. She’s more of an expert than you.”
Ceria smiled at Garia, privately delighted. The City Runner grinned at Pisces.
“Well, I have done my research. But if you know anything Pisces, I’d love to find out more. There really aren’t any experts around. Oh, there are [Brawlers], and I’ve heard of [Fist Fighters], but they’re completely different. I did hear a rumor about a…[Mage] in Pallass? He apparently trains his body. And doesn’t Erin’s inn have a door to Pallass?”
She looked hopefully at Pisces. So did Ceria, although the comment wiggled at a part of her memory. But she didn’t keep her ear to the door like Pisces did with his constant spying. She was more of an expert on adventuring and uh…half-Elves. He nodded at last.
“I believe I know the [Mage] you’re referring to, Miss Strongheart.”
The young woman reached over and poked Pisces. His chair rocked a bit.
Yvlon was smiling. Pisces blinked twice.
“…Garia. The Drake in question is known as Grimalkin. I’m familiar with a few particulars about him; he didn’t attend Wistram, but he did visit the academy…hm. He graduated from Fissival, but his ah, unique beliefs make him a pariah in the magical community. However, I believe his theories are sound, if excessive. Ceria, you might remember him. He’s the one who challenged an Archmage to a duel.”
The half-Elf snapped her fingers.
“Him? I remember that!”
“Someone challenged an Archmage of Wistram?”
The others leaned forwards. Ceria nodded.
“Two years after I left Wistram with Pisces. I remember hearing all about it. He lost, didn’t he?”
“Of course. He isn’t a high enough leveled [Mage] to beat any of the current Archmages. I believe he was up against Archmage Feor, a bad matchup, given Feor’s extensive abilities to control a duel.”
“Right, right. Good thing he wasn’t up against Amerys, though. She does not hold back.”
Pisces’ lips twitched as Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Garia all looked blank.
“He might have done surprisingly well. He did land a hit that nearly shattered Feor’s barrier spell. Apparently he suffered a bit of the impact. I would have quite liked to have seen that.”
So would Ceria. And she was impressed too; she knew how good an Archmage’s barrier spells probably were.
“So he’s some kind of fighting [Mage]? That might be what Garia wants.”
“Alas, I think ‘physical mage’ is all too apt a term for Grimalkin. He emphasizes physical enchantment spells. Which means he can fight on par with a Gold-ranked [Warrior] with ease, but as a consequence he neglects other forms of magic. His motto is that a [Mage] should be able to keep up with [Warriors]. I admire the concept myself, as I combine aspects of fencing combat with my spellcraft in battle, but I doubt Grimalkin is that acquainted with the kind of fighting Miss…with what Garia desires. [Martial Artists] use Skills and battle techniques, not spells and they can rival even powerful spells at high-level.”
He indicated his rapier as he spoke. Ceria was nodding, but she saw Garia looked disappointed. Ksmvr waved a hand.
“Comrade Pisces. Comrade Pisces, please explain to me. How powerful would you rate a [Martial Artist] compared to a regular [Warrior]?”
“I’ll answer that, Ksmvr. I am the expert here after all.”
Yvlon smoothly interrupted Pisces. He sighed loudly, but took a drink as she took over. That was actually a good sign, as was the way Yvlon didn’t glare at him in any seriousness. The Horns were easy around each other, and Ceria could see Garia glancing from face to face as she sipped from her drink, listening.
Yvlon shot Ksmvr a smile as the Antinium turned to face her. They had a good connection. If Ceria could sometimes sense what Pisces was thinking from their shared past, she thought that Yvlon liked Ksmvr, and she was the only person who Ksmvr didn’t address with any degree of formality.
“You see, Ksmvr, it’s a hard question. [Warriors] like me wear armor, but I do know [Martial Artists] usually go without. It’s more of a question of how rich and what level we are. You see, at low levels, the [Warrior] wins if they’re equipped right. We can wear armor and use steel weapons. Bare hands and feet aren’t much use even with some Skills. And the problem continues at higher levels.”
“Ah. I see. Your Sword of Weight and my Forceshield would be powerful weapons a [Martial Artist] lacks.”
Ksmvr indicated the sword at Yvlon’s side and the small bucker he carried. Yvlon nodded.
“Exactly. But it’s not all clear-cut. For instance, [Martial Artists] have to train and not all [Warriors] do. I practice my swings, but I don’t do the…”
She waved her arms vaguely. Ksmvr copied her. Garia shook her head amused, but didn’t break in.
“…So maybe [Martial Artist] is a stronger class than general [Warriors]? It might be like having a [Blademaster] class in terms of quality. And their Skills are quite good. But we get enchanted gear. So it’s more even at higher-levels. One thing’s for sure, though. Take away a Gold-rank [Warrior]’s gear and give him just steel and pit him against a [Martial Artist] of the same level, and I know who I’m betting on.”
Ksmvr nodded a few times. Then he raised his hand.
“To clarify, which one would you bet on?”
Everyone laughed at that. Garia called for another round as Ceria got up to pee. She had to chuckle over Ksmvr. But someone stopped her on the way back from the toilet.
“Miss. Excuse me, Miss.”
The [Innkeeper], Timbor, halted Ceria. He gave her a wide and slightly nervous smile as he indicated her team.
“That uh, that thing with you. That’s one of them, isn’t it? An Antinium? From Liscor?”
The man licked his lips as Ceria frowned at him.
“He’s not going to do anything, is he? I know Garia, and she’s a good girl. Er, and I know your team’s the Horns of Hammerad, right? But one of the Antinium…it’s safe, it won’t act up, right? You can promise me that?”
“Ksmvr can control himself. He’s an adventurer.”
“Right, right. I only wanted to know…”
Timbor backed up, for all he was quite a bit taller than Ceria. She debated freezing his feet to the ground, and then shook her head. If she hadn’t met Ksmvr, Pawn, and Klbkch, she might have felt the same way.
“He’s quite nice. Don’t worry. We’re not staying the night. We have an inn. Ksmvr hasn’t killed anyone there yet.”
The [Innkeeper] flushed a bit.
“Of course. Look, I didn’t mean to say…”
Ceria let him go at that. The others were laughing as she came back. Garia was telling them stories of her new adventures on the road.
“…and that’s when I realized I really was a lot better! Fals came running back up to me, and then he just stared at the dead thing on the road. He couldn’t believe it! I was going to keep running, but it turned out the bounty on the monster was worth more than my delivery!”
Yvlon chuckled at that. Pisces leaned over to Ceria as he smiled.
“She punched a Rockdevil to death.”
The [Ice Mage] nearly spat out her drink. She stared at her full mug, and then at the [Barmaid] filling Pisces’ tankard.
“Hold on, we didn’t order—”
“Mister Timbor sent a free round around.”
Ceria felt a bit bad about her sharp tongue now. Then she felt better because it was a free drink. Pisces raised his eyebrows as he watched Garia showing Yvlon and Ksmvr a scar.
“No, actually. The [Innkeeper] was just worried about Ksmvr being Ksmvr.”
“That reminds me. When we go to the Adventurer’s Guild, let’s be careful. Because they have weapons and I’d hate for one of them to react badly to Ksmvr.”
“I quite agree. Although, is your guild in Celum that dangerous?”
Ceria made a face. She tried not to drink too much ale before a job, but this was free. She’d have to sober up a bit. Maybe she’d grab a sobering potion at Octavia’s before she left.
“Not really? But you never know. Look, it’s been a while, but Yvlon and I know most of the groups around here. Let’s head over after this. And when you get there, try not to mention the undead…”
She saw Pisces nod. Garia was turning to her as he sat back up in his chair.
“So Ceria! Erin’s doing well, or better, I guess. I’ll drop by and visit her. And little Mrsha too! But have you seen Ryoka around? I’m dying to talk to her, but no one’s seen her in Celum for ages! Is she running errands around the Drake cities?”
Ceria stopped drinking. She looked up. The smile faded from Yvlon’s lips. Pisces looked up as he ate one of the remaining cold fries.
“Ryoka? We haven’t seen her, Garia. Not for a long while.”
“What? I thought she was in Liscor! What about Mrsha? She was looking after her!”
The Runner looked shocked. Ceria shook her head. She looked up at Yvlon and remembered the day Ryoka had disappeared.
Regrika Blackpaw. Her mysterious mage friend. Her chasing after Ryoka—
She gave Garia a truncated version of the story. The City Runner shook her head.
“And she just left? No one told me!”
She pounded the table, making the cups and plates jump. Ceria eyed her.
“You wouldn’t have been able to help, Garia. Believe me—we ran into Regrika or whoever that Gnoll really was. She took out a Gold-rank adventurer like that.”
She snapped her fingers. Yvlon nodded.
“Ryoka had some kind of connection to her. She left before we could get answers, but there’s a bit of ill will, Garia. Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, not to mention Liscor’s City Watch, Zel Shivertail, that Wall Lord Ilvriss…all of them wanted to talk to Ryoka. If she comes back, she’ll have some explaining to do.”
Pisces nodded. His tone was suddenly pensive as he leaned back in his chair.
“I believe the circumstances around Miss Griffin are…complicated. One thing is for certain, however. She is nowhere near Liscor. Nor do I believe she ran south. That would prove unwise.”
“Because the Blood Fields are active?”
The [Necromancer] blinked.
“Hm. Of course. Besides, Erin did indicate she’d run north. It is surprising you haven’t heard news of her, Garia.”
Garia folded her arms and closed her eyes.
“Maybe I was listening in the wrong places. I thought she was in Liscor. You know, semi-retired and looking after Mrsha? She had a lot of gold. If she went north…I’ll ask Fals. Or I can put in a request through the Guild if Ryoka’s still running. I want to see her. And if she’s north, I can do a long run.”
“How far do you run these days?”
Ceria blinked at Garia. The City Runner smiled a bit.
“A lot farther than I used to, Ceria. Farther, faster…and I can defend myself. I still can’t handle people with arrows or the dangerous kinds of monsters, but I can usually outrun anything. And I’ve taken care of myself since then. I’m not the Garia from before. I wish I’d learned this years ago. Maybe I would have been on the track to becoming a Courier by now, not Persua. Although now half the male Runners in the Guild keep asking me if I’d like to go running with them. Which they didn’t do before I lost weight, but they seem to think I can’t remember two months ago. They’re annoying and some of Persua’s friends are mean. Still, I’m glad she’s gone.”
The half-Elf had to agree. She downed the rest of her mug and then she got up from her chair.
“We’re not the same either, Garia. It’s been a long time since we were in Celum. For work, I mean. But we are better. The Horns are back.”
Even if Calruz is in jail. Even if he’s going to die. Ceria paused at that bleak thought. She shook her head.
“I’d love to talk to you tonight. But we did come here to do a job, so…”
“Of course. I shouldn’t have kept you. Hey, why don’t we meet at The Wandering Inn for dinner? If Erin’s made fries, what else has she done? I’d love to find out!”
Garia got up. Ceria nodded.
“If we don’t have an overnight request at the guild, I’d love to. We’ll send word. Or stop by at the Runner’s Guild.”
“Sounds good. And hey Ceria, Yvlon, all of you. If you need something delivered, feel free to ask at the guild. They can get in touch with me even if I’m on a delivery. I’m still not as fast as Ryoka, but I’m the best City Runner in the area now.”
The City Runner smiled at them. Ceria had never seen that look on her face. It was proud, triumphant, and for a second Ceria forgot the old Garia. Then the young woman turned.
“I’ve got to go practice. I’ll see you tonight hopefully!”
And then she was gone. Ceria looked at her companions. Yvlon looked thoughtful, Pisces and Ksmvr were busy eating the last of the fries. The half-Elf shook her head. She noticed Timbor, the [Innkeeper], lingering nearby as they left. He was staring at them, or maybe just Ksmvr? But he said nothing as the Horns made their way into the street.
“Whoof. I drank too much. What was that, three mugs?”
Ceria muttered as she left The Drunken Swordsman. Yvlon steadied her with one hand. The [Warrior] didn’t look at all tipsy, but then she’d had some watered wine and then rosewater tea for her drinks.
“You need to sober up. Or pray our destination’s a ways away.”
“If the request is a day or two away…gah. I’ll be fine.”
Pisces wrinkled his nose as he brushed crumbs off his spotless white robes.
“Ah, the most tiresome aspect of adventuring. Can we choose a request closer to Celum? I would prefer to exterminate monsters and recline in comfort tonight.”
Ceria mock-glared at Pisces.
“We don’t get to choose the jobs, Pisces. Well, we do, but the best paying ones aren’t fun for exactly that reason. Besides, you’d better get used to this if you want to continue with us. We need to make a name for ourselves now we’re done with Liscor and the dungeon. Or we’ll never make Gold-rank.”
The [Necromancer] sighed but he didn’t argue. Yvlon tsked softly as she walked with Ceria down the street. It was a familiar route for her and Ceria. Pisces and Ksmvr trailed them. The Antinium was getting a lot of looks now. Ceria just hoped no one would call for the Watch.
“Captain Ceria, may I ask a question?”
“Yes, Ksmvr. You don’t need to ask.”
“Thank you. When you say we are ‘done with Liscor’, do you mean we will be travelling away from Liscor? Will we not stay around Miss Erin’s inn?”
The question brought Ceria and Yvlon up short. They turned to look at Ksmvr. Then they shot a glance at Pisces. He shrugged.
“I defer to your judgment, Captain Ceria, Comrade Yvlon. You are the senior adventurers as you constantly remind me.”
“I like Erin’s inn. But even with a door to Invrisil—especially since you can’t take more than two or three people per day—we’ll have to leave her inn eventually. We can stay in the area and visit often, but I think we’ll have to say goodbye at some point like the other Gold-rank teams.”
“Oh. I believe Erin will cry.”
The half-Elf rubbed at her head.
“She will. Dead gods, that will be painful. We don’t have to face that just yet, though. Like I said, we’re not at Gold-rank yet. Falene made that clear, along with those damn Ashfire Bees.”
Pisces leaned forwards. The flow of traffic on Celum’s street had practically stopped. People were staring at Ksmvr. He was staring back with interest.
“So our current objective is…?”
“Get more artifacts. Get to Invrisil and call in whatever favor Ryoka bought for us. Uh…find Ryoka? Maybe. Level up a bit. I’m Level 28. If I could hit Level 30…I’d love to gain a new class instead of [Wounded Warrior]. Something actually strong, like Ylawes’ [Knight] class. I feel like the weakest link sometimes.”
Yvlon grimaced as she flexed one arm. Pisces eyed it silently.
“I happen to agree with that. We could certainly use some refinement of our existing tactics as well. I admit my Bone Horrors aren’t at the level I desire. Yet. And I need new bones. I’ve lost all but the components for one Bone Horror after the last one was incinerated.”
Ceria shook her head as she turned the street. The Adventurer’s Guild was only a block away.
“Is that humility I hear, Pisces?”
“Merely common sense, Springwalker. Or don’t you agree?”
“I agree. Totally. I have [Ice Wall] and [Frozen Armor] now, but those are defensive spells. Pretty good ones; I’m miles ahead of old me. But until I can throw [Ice Lance] around like my old master, I’m only good at locking down opponents. And when I do learn the spell, you’d better watch out! Because then I’ll be—”
“Still considerably weaker than Falene, Revi, Typhenous, or Moore?”
“Shut up, Pisces.”
Ceria irritably kicked at Pisces. But he [Flash Stepped] out of the way. She balefully eyed him as he smirked at her.
“Come to think of it, aren’t you in the same boat? You don’t have any offensive spells past Tier 2. And your rapier isn’t much good even when you set it on fire. Your Bone Horrors do all the work and they’re surprisingly fragile.”
He sniffed at her.
“I’m refining them, Springwalker. Or do you think it’s easy to design undead? It is not. And since I cannot use traditional undead forms like skeletons, much less humanoid corpses, I must design new Bone Horrors from scratch. Additionally, the cost of animating a Bone Horror is considerable. If I maintained them like normal [Necromancers]…”
“You’d have an army. How many can you raise?”
The aforementioned [Necromancer] hesitated.
“Well, if I needed to…you are aware [Necromancers] and [Summoners] are related in discipline, yes? Only, the undead are permanent constructs while [Summoners] like Miss Revi use temporary beings that are generally more potent or diverse. So in theory, if I were trying, I could raise quite a number of er, low-level undead. Zombies. Ghouls. Skeletons. But I fear that method leads to circular patterns. I would need to constantly acquire more undead as I expended them. You see, the undead thrive on death magic, so they would need to generate it to avoid me paying the cost in mana myself…”
“And then you’d unleash them on a village to gain more and we’d have to hunt you down. I get the idea.”
Yvlon sighed. She shook her head.
“Fine. Forget I asked. Your Bone Horrors are strong enough even if you can only summon a few. And I like you more when it’s just those.”
“Why Yvlon, I was unaware of your positive sentiments. I return it quite happily.”
Pisces smirked. Yvlon rolled her eyes. And Ceria realized someone hadn’t spoken up recently. She looked back.
“Ksmvr? What’s wrong?”
The Antinium was trailing behind the other three, looking at the ground. He looked up and opened his mandibles. A woman walking out of the shop turned white as she saw him.
“Monster! H-help! It’s a—”
“Oh, shut up.”
Ceria pushed her aside. She pulled Ksmvr forwards gently. The Antinium clicked his mandibles softly as Yvlon and Pisces looked back.
“Ksmvr, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Yvlon, Captain Ceria. I am merely ruminating on my despair. You see, I am quite useless. And Yvlon’s statement about her being the weakest link is fundamentally incorrect; I am clearly the weakest and most inept of the team. I tender my apologies and crushing guilt to the team.”
The other Horns looked at Ksmvr. Then they exchanged glances. Ceria coughed.
“Hey, Ksmvr, that’s not true…”
“I appreciate your lies, Captain Ceria. But the facts do not lie. I am the lowest-leveled among the team by far. I have not even hit Level 20. Whereas Comrade Pisces is now in excess of Level 30, and both you and Yvlon are closing in on Level 30, which is a mark of true ability.”
Ceria bit her lip. That was true. Level 30 was the point where you really started standing out from the crowd. She’d been fantasizing over what she might get at Level 30 for a Skill—or maybe a rare spell. It was amazing how fast she’d leveled since she’d first met Ryoka back in Albez. Then, she’d barely been Level 23.
Gaining six levels in as many months was fast leveling at this stage. Even if Erin was…well, she didn’t count. And [Mages] at Level 30 or higher were nothing to sneeze at. Come to think of it—Ceria eyed Pisces. If he didn’t have the restrictions placed on him by Liscor and Celum’s laws regarding undead, could he have a small army of undead following him around like he’d said?
But Ksmvr was the priority to cheer up right now. Pisces placed a hand on Ksmvr’s shoulder in an uncharacteristic display of warmth.
“Ah, Ksmvr. Don’t despair over your lack of levels. I understand the Antinium level slowly. You should regard your inferiority not as a mark of failure, but as a byproduct of being in the company of the truly gifted.”
“That is true. I am quite inferior.”
The [Necromancer] sighed.
“That is not quite what I…one’s competence does not merely reside in their level, Ksmvr. In time you will rise to something approaching my competence. I am sure you will eventually outstrip Springwalker and Miss Byres.”
Both of them glared at Pisces, but he was doing his best. The [Necromancer] paused as if he’d just had a thought. He turned to Ksmvr.
“Besides which, you are barely three years old.”
Yvlon tripped. It was a full-body thud which attracted every head. And it must have hurt. But she was on her feet moments later.
“You’re how old, Ksmvr?”
The former Prognugator scratched at an antenna.
“Three. I was created in secret by my Queen as a replacement Prognugator in case of Revalantor Klbkch’s injury. I understand you are trying to cheer me up, Comrade Pisces, but I was considered fully trained by my Queen’s standards after two years since my creation.”
“Ah, but friend Ksmvr, Captain Ceria and I took er, at least a decade of training to reach our levels.”
Pisces put his arm around Ksmvr’s shoulder. Ceria and Yvlon were too busy waving silently at each other to interject. The Antinium brightened.
The young man nodded grandly.
“The maturation of Humans, half-Elves, and other species is much slower. Now, I grant you, it would still have taken you quite a long time to reach our level. But your current failing can be excused. I’m sure Ceria would agree with me.”
He glanced pointedly at Ceria. She stopped dancing about and cleared her throat.
“Er, yes. Of course. You’re one of us, Ksmvr. And you’re quite accomplished. For a three-year old. Pisces. You didn’t mention that to us.”
Behind Ksmvr, Yvlon made a fist. The [Necromancer]’s smile turned glassy.
“What? Well, it’s perfectly natural for Antinium…”
“Still, you didn’t think it was important?”
“The lifespan of Antinium…”
Ksmvr held up a hand as he looked back at Ceria.
“Captain Ceria, I am fully aware of your complaint and prepared to address it.”
“Oh? Go on, Ksmvr.”
“I am aware that you know of the average lifespan of Workers is only around two years in length. However, I would like to hasten to assure you that this is not a biological clock in any way, but merely a byproduct of high mortality rates owing to monster invasion, drowning, and accidents in the Hive. My body will not begin to deteriorate in quality owing to my age for at least a decade.”
“Please do not be angry at Comrade Pisces. He merely sought to keep my advanced age a secret to avoid embarrassing me. You see, the Prognugator of a Hive must be trained, for years, whereas Workers and Soldiers are practically fully competent moments after being created. I had to learn to use weaponry, study tactics, history…”
“That’s not quite why we were mad. But I’ll discuss it with Pisces later. Look…you’re fine as you are, Ksmvr. Let’s just drop that and deal with it later. Look, we’re here.”
They’d finally arrived at the Adventurer’s Guild. Ksmvr stared up at the two-story building and tilted his head from left to right. Ceria had to own it wasn’t the most impressive of spots. Oh, it was certainly bigger than Liscor’s guild, nearly twice as large, but it was still the Adventurer’s Guild of a moderately small city.
It was worn, the sign marking the guild was old and the paint had faded, and the guild had open shutters, not glass. Some loud laughter drifted out from the guild, as if it were a pub. Still, it was familiar to Ceria. In a way, it was home.
“What a mediocre guild. We might as well have gone to Pallass. Or waited until Invrisil. This is almost as poor as Miss Selys’ guild. Ah…don’t tell her I said that.”
Pisces studied the guild’s frontage dismissively. Yvlon and Ceria turned to glare at him.
“It’s not a big guild. It doesn’t need to be. And there are good Silver-rank teams in there, so watch your tongue, Pisces. Come to that—Ksmvr.”
“Yes, Captain Ceria!”
He straightened at once. Ceria eyed him.
“Don’t be nervous, Ksmvr.”
“I will endeavor to suppress my natural apprehension, Captain! But this is the second Guild I have ever entered! I must make a good impression!”
Ceria thought quickly. She really liked Ksmvr, she did. But she knew him pretty well now and she knew exactly how much trouble those words might mean.
“Right…how about you don’t. Uh, Ksmvr, this guild hasn’t ever seen Antinium. So they might react—we’ll handle it. Yvlon and I. What I want you and you, Pisces, to do is stay quiet, follow our leads, and don’t cause trouble. Got it?”
“Understood, Captain! I will be quiet and not cause any trouble!”
“Yes, oh, glorious Captain?”
He gave Ceria a sycophantic, fake smile. She gave up.
“If you start a fight, Yvlon and I won’t bail you out. Alright, Yvlon. It’s been a while. Want to see the regular crowd?”
The [Warrior] smiled. But there was a hint of…what? Apprehension? Something like that in her eyes. Ceria felt a strange flutter in her stomach as well and couldn’t place why. Why was it?
Oh. Because the last time I was here, I was with Calruz. Calruz, Gerial, Solstrom, Hunt…we were about to go to Liscor.
The memory froze Ceria in her tracks. She stared up at the guild. Then she shook her head, took a deep breath, and pushed open the doors.
A worn room. Floorboards recently swept clean. Swept, but not scoured, because years of mud and dirt trekked into the room had etched itself between the cracks in the floorboards. There were stains too. Dark ones. Places where adventurers had bled. And perhaps, places where they had died, surrounded by friends after a mission gone wrong.
Marks of victory, small triumphs and battles forgotten by all. Scratches where someone had demonstrated a new Skill. Worn tables and chairs but not too worn; after all, adventurers would start fights or break furniture by accident. So the wood was cheap and the only permanent fixture was the desk with the [Receptionist] and the board filled with slips of paper. Jobs.
Ceria Springwalker looked around Celum’s guild. It was like she remembered. All of it. She felt a wave of nostalgia and sadness grip her. Then someone prodded her in the back.
“May we come in?”
Thank goodness for Pisces. Ceria jabbed an elbow backwards, missed Pisces, and hit Yvlon’s breastplate. The [Warrior] jerked out of the same reverie. As Ceria cursed and rubbed her elbow, Yvlon walked past her.
“Looks like a midday crowd. Not that many teams in.”
Ceria looked up. Instinct overruled her feelings. She surveyed the room a second time. The Adventurer’s Guild really did resemble a pub in a lot of ways. There were plenty of tables and chairs to sit about and adventurers being pragmatic, some did indeed bring their lunches to eat while they prepared for a job or came back from one.
More than that, an Adventurer’s Guild always had someone hanging about. It was a place to socialize. All of your friends might be here if you were an adventurer. This would be more of your home than any inn.
Yvlon was right. This Guild wasn’t nearly as crowded as it could be. It could probably hold close to eighty people before feeling quite cramped. Right now it held only about three dozen, including the staff. Ceria shrugged.
“I don’t know. This isn’t too bad. Looks like, what, four to six teams with a bunch of individuals?”
“Something like it. See anyone you recognize?”
Yvlon studied the room casually. Adventurers had noticed the door opening and some were casually turning to see if there was anyone they knew, or someone new to note. Ceria frowned.
She thought she spotted a group by the job board. The telltale sign was the lack of any glint of metal on them. Ceria motioned Pisces and Ksmvr over. The [Necromancer] looked bored. Ksmvr was the exact opposite. He was craning to see and more and more of the adventurers were noticing him. Ceria saw one woman punch her companion and point. They weren’t stupid; they could see Ksmvr was one of them. But an Antinium had probably never walked into Celum’s Guild. If Moore, Seborn, or Jelaqua had walked in, they’d get the same kind of look.
“Let’s get a seat before we start chatting. Over here. Pisces, please don’t start a fight.”
Yvlon looked at Pisces. He sniffed.
“I can be the model of discretion if I so choose.”
“Do it, then. Good morning, Miss.”
Yvlon waved at the [Receptionist] as she passed by. The woman at the desk looked up.
“Good morning Miss—”
Her eyes widened a bit. Yvlon paused, but before she could ask if the [Receptionist] knew her—and it would be awkward because like Ceria, most of the staff looked the same to Yvlon after a few Guilds—Ksmvr tugged at Yvlon’s arm.
“Yvlon, please explain. Is this guild similar to Liscor’s? I note a number of architectural and stylistic changes, but the concept remains the same. Is this so?”
“That’s right, Ksmvr. We’ve got a [Receptionist] like Selys, a place to hang out—training yard’s around back probably—and they’ve got a supply of emergency potions. This guild doesn’t sell food or drinks, but it’s got the basics. Job board, place to sit, place to turn in bounties and collect gold.”
“Ah. Thank you for clarifying. I wondered if Drakes and Humans were dissimilar in how they ran their guilds.”
“It might be different in a Walled City, or how they manage their guilds up north, but Liscor vs Celum? We’re too close by to be that different. Come on. I think I spot…”
Yvlon headed towards the tables near the end of the room. Some of the adventurers were looking their way. After all, Yvlon was hard to miss. No, their entire team was hard to miss. Ksmvr aside, Yvlon was wearing all-plate armor and even if you couldn’t tell it was enchanted, it meant she was pretty successful. Or her family was rich. And Pisces and Ceria both wore robes, marking them out as well. And Ksmvr was Ksmvr.
A young man a few years younger than Yvlon, a bit younger than Erin, was staring at them uncertainly. He looked at Yvlon first, and then at Ceria. The half-Elf saw his eyes go to her face as she scrutinized him. Was he…?
The adventurer’s eyes widened as he saw Ceria’s hand. But then he stood up. He raised his voice.
“Is that Ceria? Ceria Springwalker? And—Yvlon?”
The guild went silent. Now every head turned. Ceria felt her heart jump. Yvlon stopped.
The young man walked towards them. He wore leather armor, and he carried an odd weapon with him. It was a sword. A sword, but one made of wood. From handle to hilt, it was just wood. But polished wood. Expertly carved and honed until it had an edge that could cut paper or flesh. It still looked incongruous, but Ceria knew the sword had killed more than one monster. She smiled broadly at Caddin as he halted, staring from her to Yvlon with shock.
“It’s us, Caddin! Are you surprised to see us? We just came from Liscor! We’re the Horns of Hammerad. The new group, I mean. The old one’s…”
She trailed off. Ceria felt her heart skip another beat as Caddin stared at her. She waited for him to ask the obvious. But he just stared at her.
“Yeah. We’d heard you’d reformed the Horns of Hammerad. But I couldn’t believe it.”
His eyes shifted to Yvlon. The woman smiled at him.
“Good to see you again, Caddin. How’s the team doing?”
“Us? We’re good. Yeah. They’re right over here. Hey! Guys!”
Caddin waved a hand absently. Ceria saw six people stand up. Three more men, three women. That squared with what she remembered. One of their group was a [Mage], but she, like the others, wore leather armor. And not one of them had a hint of metal on their persons. Their weapons were wood. Even the tips of their arrows were crafted out of wood. They paused behind Caddin as Ceria introduced the Horns.
“Caddin, this is our new team. You know Yvlon, but this is Pisces and Ksmvr. He’s from Liscor and Pisces is from Wistram. Ksmvr’s an Antinium, but they’re fairly normal in most ways.”
“Hello. I am Ksmvr. I understand you are competition.”
The Antinium raised a hand as he extended one to shake. Caddin jumped.
“An Antinium? I thought they—”
He caught himself. Gingerly he reached out and shook Ksmvr’s hand, flinching a tiny bit as he touched the Antinium’s exoskeleton. Ksmvr shook his hand cheerfully.
“I have now met Mister Caddin. Is he a superior adventurer, or inferior, Captain Ceria?”
Yvlon suppressed a sigh. She waved at the [Mage], a woman in her mid-twenties with faded ashy hair as she came forwards.
“Caddin’s a Silver-rank adventurer, just like us, Ksmvr. My team knew him back in the day. His group’s named Thunder’s Solace. They have a [Lightning Mage] for a leader. Their entire team goes without metal so they can use electric spells without getting hurt. And this is their leader and said [Lightning Mage]. Hello, Alais.”
She reached out. Alais gingerly gave her a one-armed hug. She blinked as Ksmvr extended his hands, but shook them.
“Yvlon. It’s good to see you…I thought we wouldn’t meet. After I heard about Liscor—but I did hear your group was back. Ceria.”
She nodded at Ceria. The half-Elf vaguely remembered Alais, but not as well as Yvlon. She nodded back. Alais blinked again at her and Yvlon, looking far more surprised than Ceria would have thought. Well, after Liscor…but she didn’t bring it up, like Caddin. He was still staring at Ceria. Ksmvr didn’t notice their feelings. He was speaking cheerfully, and Ceria was glad of that.
“It is a pleasure to meet a [Lightning Mage]. May I ask if you are superior or inferior in magical capacity to Captain Ceria?”
Pisces gently coughed next to Ksmvr.
“I believe the term is [Aeromancer], Ksmvr. And asking about inferiority and superiority is considered a social flaw in most circumstances. A pleasure to meet a fellow [Mage].”
He stepped forwards as Alais and her team focused on him. Yvlon and Ceria both held their breath, but Pisces seemed to have taken Yvlon’s words to heart. Perhaps too much so. He instantly approached with a hand outstretched and a charming smile.
“Captain Alais, is it? My name is Pisces. I’m delighted to meet you. I’m a [Mage] from Wistram. I hope you won’t hold it against me.”
It was a joke about Wistram [Mages] and their hard-to-work-with natures at times. Alais’ eyebrows shot up and there was a chuckle from the other adventurers. Whatever awkwardness had persisted from Caddin spotting them vanished in a second. Alais reached out and Ceria bit her tongue as she shook Pisces’ hand.
“I’m very pleased to meet you. You’re a new part of the Horns of Hammerad along with, er, Ksmvr here? Are you a general [Mage] or a specialist of some kind?”
Pisces smiled apologetically.
“I’m afraid I haven’t reached that degree of specialization with my [Mage] class. However, I do practice a bit of fencing. Perhaps I’d make a good [Spellsword]? May I assume your team knows ours, or at least Yvlon and our captain?”
He indicated Ceria politely. Alais looked at Ceria and Yvlon.
“Oh, of course. From nearly two years back. We’ve worked with…Yvlon’s old team a few times. And I know Ceria’s old team. Where are my manners? Come and sit with us.”
She gestured towards their table. Ceria followed Pisces as he sat down next to Alais and her team. Somehow, she and Yvlon were at the edge of the table while Pisces and Ksmvr were in the center. Of course, they were the unknown quantities. Caddin was asking Ksmvr exactly what he was while Pisces listened to Alais introduce her team.
“…and that’s Caddin, of course. We’re a mix, mostly [Warriors] and [Archers]. Not really [Hunters] for all we look the part. You see, it’s about my magic. I’m a specialist. Nothing like a Wistram-trained [Mage] in terms of quality, of course, and I’ve got some [Warrior] classes as well. Not exactly a pure [Mage], right?”
She shot Ceria quick glance. The half-Elf sighed. Wistram [Mages] did earn their reputation for snobbishness. But Pisces was shaking his head.
“Practically speaking, a pure [Mage] is quite inflexible. We should all have some means of defending ourselves, if only to fight foes capable of using anti-magic effects. My fencing is as much hobby as for self-defense, which is a necessity among [Mages], wouldn’t you agree?”
The [Aeromancer] was nodding eagerly, forgetting the others as she talked craft while Ksmvr tried to explain what an Antinium was, from his perspective.
“Of course. But it’s a tricky line. I’m good with a staff, but as an [Aeromancer] I find it’s hard to avoid electrifying metal. You see, I’m self-taught, so my team’s had to learn how to use non-metallic weapons…”
Alais looked embarrassed, but Pisces shook his head.
“It’s quite understandable. I wouldn’t dare to fire off a [Lightning Bolt] spell around Yvlon. Wistram does teach control, but electrical spells are extremely hard to control given how fast the currents move. If we have time, perhaps we could exchange lightning form techniques? I might not be able to cast Tier 3 spells, but I do have some knowledge of spell theory I could compare…it would be a pleasure to learn from someone with practical experience, however. I find Wistram students often fall behind people with field experience…”
“You son of a Creler.”
Ceria mumbled to herself as Pisces instantly charmed Alais and the other adventurers. And somehow, he even seemed partly genuine to her. But she knew he was still putting on an act to make a good first impression. She didn’t know if she hated or was grateful to him for it.
And she’d forgotten how likeable Pisces could be if he tried, damn it! Ceria watched him play the humble [Mage] from Wistram so well she nearly forgot to take part in the conversation. Yvlon, who’d waited for the introductions to finish, leaned in.
“It’s been a while, Alais. How’s your team been? We haven’t seen each other since Liscor. Has anything big come your way since then?”
Alais looked up. She frowned and Caddin and the other five looked up as well.
“Nothing to say, Yvlon. We earned some gold, but we spent it getting some new equipment from a [Carpenter]. You know how it is. Wooden swords. Maces, clubs, wooden arrows. We’ve been keeping ourselves busy.”
Ceria raised her eyebrows. That was hardly an answer. Normally any seasoned adventurer would have a story to tell, or complaints about money lost. Yvlon frowned, but someone else approached their table.
“Hullo there. Is that Yvlon and Ceria I see? Mind if I stop by?”
That voice was familiar. Ceria twisted. Her face burst into a smile. She shot to her feet.
“Stan! Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
An older man in his early forties was standing by the table. He wore chainmail and had a dagger at his belt along with a small, brown pouch, but he didn’t carry any other obvious weapons. He let Ceria hug him and then shook Yvlon’s hand. He stared at Ceria’s skeletal hand for a second and then at her face, before nodding to Alais.
“I didn’t think to see you today, Ceria. Yvlon. It’s—quite good to see you two looking so healthy.”
Caddin shifted. Ceria blinked at Stan. Normally he’d be bursting to ask her questions, like someone half his age, but he was more reserved as well. Her stomach twisted. Had someone passed away recently?
“How’s the team, Stan? Are the Boltspitters well?”
“Us? We took a few bad injuries, but nothing to speak of. Lailli’s laid up with a broken foot, but we’re working to keep her fed in the meantime. Who are these two? I heard you’re named Ksmvr?”
“That is correct. I am Ksmvr.”
The [Mage] stood up and shook Stan’s hand. Ceria smiled as she waved at Stan and the two members of his team sitting at their table.
“This is Stan, you two. Crossbow Stan. He’s the only Silver-ranked adventurer around here that has anything like a nickname. He’s a bit of a legend locally—he’s got his own fighting style too!”
Ksmvr looked very interested.
“Really? Please elaborate, Captain Ceria.”
“Why not let Stan explain. You love that, don’t you Stan?”
The adventurer smiled. He touched his belt and the bag at his side.
“I do indeed. I’m a [Crossbowman] by trade. I don’t know if you’ve ever used one, but the damn things take a bit to load. True, you can fire them fast, but there’s nothing like a good bow for speed. Except you can load a crossbow ahead of time. So if I needed to fight, I could do this—”
He raised his hand. And suddenly there was a loaded crossbow aimed at the table. Two of the younger adventurers sitting with Alais’ team swore and jerked out of their chairs, but all of the older ones just laughed. Ksmvr had frozen in place. He opened his mandibles slowly.
“I see. That is impressive. Look, Captain Ceria. I did not move. See?”
He waved a hand at her. Ceria smiled.
“Good job, Ksmvr.”
Pisces sniffed, then caught himself and looked dutifully impressed.
“I see. A bag of holding to store a preloaded crossbow. But may I be so bold, Crossbow Stan? I’ll bet you didn’t keep just one crossbow, did you?”
The veteran adventurer chortled. He flicked his hand next to the bag of holding and a second crossbow appeared, replacing the first. It was a neat trick, but the adventurers he was pointing at did not appreciate it.
“Put it away, Stan! You’ll hit someone one day! At least use an unloaded crossbow!”
“Aw, shut up, Caddin. I’ve never hit anyone yet. By accident, anyways. But you’re right, young man. That’s my specialty.”
“I assume that is a bag of holding, as Comrade Pisces said?”
Ksmvr peered at the small bag at Crossbow Stan’s side. The man nodded proudly.
“That’s right. Preloaded crossbows. I have six of ‘em. My bag can’t fit any more. Every time I had enough coin, I spent it on a better bag of holding. Not that I need a new one now; if I can’t take down what needs taking down in six shots, I might as well be dead. I guess I need better crossbows or enchanted quarrels now, but this is good enough for Silver-rank work.”
He made the second crossbow disappear quick. Ceria nodded approvingly. Stan, or Crossbow Stan as he was affectionately known, was an old man in the adventuring job. Not as old as Typhenous, but he’d stayed in the Silver-ranks because he didn’t have the punch to go any higher. That didn’t mean he was a slouch though; she’d seen him put four crossbow bolts into a charging Ogre in less than ten seconds. Ksmvr nodded.
“I admire your style of fighting. It complements your advanced age and decaying reflexes.”
Ceria put her head down on the table. Stan was too busy laughing to take offense.
“So this is an Antinium? It can tell jokes! And you—you’re one sharp [Mage] if you can figure out my trick, young man. Pisces, was it?”
“I feel like I remember your name. I’m sure we haven’t met, but have you been through Celum before, sir?”
Pisces raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
“I’ve passed through once or twice, but I wasn’t an adventurer then. This is a career change. I hope I can count on you to teach me the ropes as it were.”
He shook Stan’s hand. The man smiled again.
“Pleased. Have you known Ceria and Yvlon long, Pisces?”
He glanced up at Ceria and Yvlon swiftly for some reason before looking at Pisces. The [Necromancer] gave Stan a disarming smile.
“I knew Ceria back in Wistram. We met while she was in Liscor, and I was delighted to join her team after it reformed.”
“I see. I see. Well, I just wanted to say hi. I won’t keep you. Perhaps we can have a chat later today. Is your team going to take a request today, Ceria?”
“We thought we’d look around. We’re planning on working in Celum for a bit, Stan, Alais. But we can stay and chat! How’s it been?”
“Oh, you know. The same sort of assignments. There was a bit of a flood of monsters after Lord Tyrion’s army passed through, as well as those damn Goblins. Critters from the High Passes came out; we had to kill a good number of Carn Wolves and Eater Goats and a few other nasties. Not worth taking up time, with.”
This time both Ceria and Yvlon frowned. Stan and Alais? The man looked down at the [Aeromancer] and cleared his throat. She stood up.
“I don’t want to take up your time if you’re going to work. It’s already midday. We’ll catch your team later, Ceria. Where are you staying?”
“The Wandering Inn. You know it?”
“That inn in Liscor? I’d heard it was in Stitchworks, but I’ve never been. Never wanted to go to a Drake city and besides…but we’ll maybe pop by. I’d like to chat with Pisces about magic if I may.”
“Right. We’ll catch up later. Ceria, Yvlon. Good to see you again.”
He turned and returned to his table. And for some reason, Thunder’s Solace vacated their table to join him. Ceria stared at them and bit her lip for a second. She turned to Yvlon.
“That was a bit abrupt.”
The [Warrior] gave her a crooked smile as she watched the other adventurers go.
“They must be thinking about Liscor.”
“Think they don’t want to talk about Calruz and the others? I was ready for it.”
“They might be trying to spare our feelings. They noticed your hand. We can tell them it’s okay to talk about later.”
Ceria shook herself. You couldn’t be too considerate in this line of work. She appreciated it, but Alais and Stan had both experienced losing teammates before. She looked around.
“I guess we’ll tell the [Receptionist] how long we’re staying and that we’ll work around Celum for…a few days? Ah, Ksmvr, that’s something teams like to do. It helps if someone wants to hire us and the guild can keep track of the teams in the area in case of emergencies. You take a seat or check out the job board. I’ll be a moment.”
She got up. And the other adventurers got back to their seats or their discussions, although some still stared at Ksmvr. And Ceria and Yvlon, but that was only to be expected. The hubbub returned, but quieter. Ceria supposed the other teams were sizing their reformed party up. She approached the [Receptionist].
“Hi there. I’m Ceria Springwalker and I lead the Horns of Hammerad…”
The woman at the desk blinked at her. Ceria had to repeat herself a few times; whoever the [Receptionist] was, she wasn’t on the ball today. When she finally got back to her table she had another surprise. Ksmvr was sitting with Pisces and Yvlon. He had a full stack of the papers from the board on the far wall. Yvlon was trying to make him put them back.
“But Yvlon, we can easily clear all these requests. If we do ten today, and twenty tomorrow…”
“Ksmvr, did you steal all the requests from the board?”
Ceria was scandalized. Ksmvr’s mandibles drooped as he looked up.
“Have I committed another social error?”
“A small one.”
Yvlon sighed. She pointed at the now-bare job board at the back of the guild.
“Ksmvr, there’s a few unspoken rules in the Adventurer’s Guild. One of them is that it’s not polite to take all the requests. You can do it, but you lose a lot of friends that way. And if another group takes a request, stealing their mission is also bad sport.”
Ksmvr looked from her to Ceria. Pisces was yawning as he looked around the room; none of this was news to him.
“Oh. But how is it determined whose request is taken? This system is largely unintuitive.”
“It is. But it’s easy to tell. Go put the requests back. You see, the second board there, with the three requests on it? That means someone’s taken it, but it’s an open assignment. Like gathering materials, ooh, taking out a pair of Eater Goats…checking up on a possible Troll sighting…you see? Out of courtesy we won’t take those. And if we did, we’d talk with the teams involved, reach an understanding.”
Ksmvr nodded as he re-pinned the pieces of paper he’d claimed.
“I see. I see. What is that board above it?”
“Exclusive contracts. See? Escorting a [Trader], someone wants a bodyguard…things only one team can do. But the board you took from is open game for now. It’s generally organized so the harder and riskier assignments are near the top. See? Each one has a difficulty assessment for the recommended level—as well as if you might need a certain class, like [Mage]—as well as location, pay, urgency, and so on.”
Ksmvr peered closely at the board as Ceria worked her way up to the top.
“I see. I see. Ah, Captain. We could gather Sage Grass. It pays in copper coins per pound.”
“…Not really our thing, Ksmvr. Besides, the local farms make the prices too low.”
“Would you like to hunt down some wolves?”
“How much is the pay per head?”
“Four silver coins.”
“No. Unless someone puts a substantial price on the heads of a monster, it’s generally not worth our time, Ksmvr.”
“And four silver coins is not?”
“To track wolves? We’re not [Hunters] and it could be a pain.”
“Ah. So what is our preferred assignment?”
Ceria frowned absently.
“Something that involves high risk. It generally means more pay. Plus, high-level monsters have bigger bounties. What about—oh. This…might be ours.”
Right there, at the top of the board was a bounty. And it was a good one. Twenty gold pieces and sixteen silver ones, with the potential to earn a lot more if Ceria was right. She stared at it. Ksmvr peered up at it.
“That is substantially higher than all other requests. Is it a powerful monster?”
Ceria shook her head absently. She noticed Yvlon and Pisces getting up to see. She plucked the request off the board and showed them. Yvlon frowned. Pisces raised his brows.
“Not monsters. Humans. This is a [Bandit] extermination request.”
“I didn’t know a group had popped up.”
“It must be new. Do you think we should…?”
Pisces shrugged. Ksmvr peered at the request. His antennae were twitching rapidly, which Ceria knew meant he was puzzled.
“I was unaware Humans could put bounties on each other. This changes my perception of the role of adventurers.”
“No, Ksmvr—it’s not—these are [Bandits]. Lawbreakers. We’re not [Mercenaries], but someone has to take care of [Bandits] as well as monsters. And sometimes the local City Watch or militia or [Lord] can’t handle the matter, or they do it by putting up a bounty. We get paid to take on the [Bandits]. It’s dangerous. Monsters are predictable. People aren’t.”
Yvlon nodded. She absently studied the request.
“Still, this is a twenty gold bounty.”
By her side, Pisces sniffed.
“Is that considered high, Yvlon? I would assume a single [Bandit] would be worth twenty gold pieces.”
“Well, yeah. If they were high-level. But this must be fairly low-level group. Or the bounty hasn’t risen yet. It’ll go up if they keep causing trouble. If it were the Bloodfeast Raiders, it would be…what’s their bounty?”
“Four hundred thousand gold pieces, I think. If the entire group’s destroyed, or most of them. Eighty thousand for credible information about who their members are or how they operate. Twenty thousand per head on top of that.”
Yvlon whistled. Ceria shook her head.
“A bit more than our pay grade. But this? We could do this.”
“For twenty gold pieces…”
Pisces sniffed. Ceria frowned at him.
“It’s a lot more if one of the [Bandits] has an individual bounty. What’s this say? There are about thirty of them? We can keep any money they’ve stolen usually and sell their gear.”
“How charitable. But thirty individuals is a considerable risk.”
“You’ve got that right!”
Someone called out. Ceria turned and saw more than a few adventurers had been listening. Stan waved at them from their table. He was frowning as he pointed at the paper in Ksmvr’s hand.
“Ceria, I’d stay clear of that one. Me and Alais were talking about clearing it with a few other teams, but the gold reward isn’t high enough, even if we can keep their possessions. The bandit group that’s referring to isn’t hard to find—but they’re dangerous. They’ve got at least two [Mages] and a leader. Some kind of [Bandit Chief]. My group ran into some of them a while back. They tangled with a few patrols, raided a caravan…there used to be more, but they killed several adventuring groups and quite a number of [Guards] and people in outlying villages.”
“Jeeze. How’d your team get away?”
Stan shook his head.
“We ran for it. It was only fifteen we ran into and they weren’t after us. I shot two; Lailli got knocked off her horse. That’s how she broke her foot. I wouldn’t take them on without outnumbering them. We do know where they’re probably camped, but no one’s had the guts to go after them yet.”
The Horns looked quickly at each other. Yvlon raised her brows and Ceria nodded quickly.
“Really? Then maybe we can join you, Stan. We wouldn’t even need that many teams. With your group and Thunder’s Solace if you’re willing, Alais, we could probably take on that [Bandit] group.”
“You insane, Springwalker? There’s, what, fourteen of us if we combine forces? Not counting Lailli. There’s around thirty of the [Bandits], probably more.”
“If we know where they’re at…how reliable is the intel, Stan? We can set a trap. And believe me, between our team, I’m sure we can handle a good number.”
Ceria looked at Pisces and Yvlon. If they were low-level [Bandits]…Yvlon put her hand on her sword and Pisces smiled. She could practically see him plotting how to use his Bone Horror to greatest effect. Ceria turned back to Stan, but the older adventurer wasn’t jumping at the idea.
“I don’t know, Ceria. We’d like that bounty, but working together’s a bit…”
“Come on, Stan. We’ve known each other for years. Trust us. We’re a lot higher-level than you remember. Me and Yvlon have new gear too, and Pisces and Ksmvr are good, for all they’re newbies.”
The half-Elf came over to the table and leaned over, trying to persuade Stan. Caddin, sitting next to the man, snorted.
“We know about your gear, Ceria. That’s not it.”
“What, then? Our experience? We’ve fought a lot worse than [Bandits], Caddin.”
Ceria looked at the young man, confused. He scowled up at her.
“Don’t play dumb. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Do you think we’d join with you? Really?”
His tone was very hostile. Ceria stared at him.
“Caddin, I don’t get it. What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? You just stride in here and ask what’s wrong? Don’t you know? Or don’t you remember?”
He shot to his feet, knocking his chair back. Ceria blinked at him. His face was flushed. And she realized he hadn’t so much as smiled at her once, or spoken to her beyond that first meeting. She looked at Alais. The [Aeromancer] avoided looking at Ceria as well. She grabbed Caddin’s arm and tried to pull him down.
“Caddin, drop it.”
“No! If you and Stan aren’t going to say it, I will. Look! She doesn’t even get it. Not her, or Yvlon. Does her team know?”
Caddin shook Alais off him. He shoved back from the table and strode around Ceria. She realized the room was silent. Caddin pointed furiously at Yvlon as he stopped in front of Pisces and Ksmvr.
“You, Pisces. And you…Antinium. Do you know what those two did?”
Pisces raised his eyebrows.
“What do you mean by that?”
Suddenly, Ceria had an unpleasant feeling. A horrible sinking in her stomach. She thought she knew why Caddin was so angry. She looked at Alais and Stain. Neither team captain met her eyes. Caddin clenched his fist.
“I mean, do you know what happened to their previous teams, Mister Pisces? Or do you not care? And what about that Antinium thing?”
“Does he know? Or did they recruit him because no one else would work with them? Yvlon and Ceria. They both lost their teams. Both of them! And Yvlon was a captain! She lost her entire team, the Silver Swords! And all of the Horns of Hammerad died but Ceria! Did you hear about that?”
Ceria went pale. Yvlon had gone white. Pisces blinked at Caddin. He looked around and his gaze focused on the silent room. He narrowed his eyes for a moment and then turned carefully to Caddin. Innocently, he spread his hands.
“I am aware Ceria lost her team. How could I not be?”
“Then—how could you—”
The Silver-rank adventurer spluttered. Pisces paused. His eyes darted to Ceria’s face.
“I know it was a tragic accident. A dungeon dive gone wrong. But surely that wasn’t Ceria’s fault. Or Yvlon’s. Adventuring is a terrible business.”
Pisces’ voice was smooth and reasonable, even sympathetic. Caddin choked.
“But I heard—”
Pisces gripped his shoulder.
“Please, friend. Let me explain what I heard as someone who was there. You see, I know my friend. And believe me, Liscor’s dungeon was truly terrible. I don’t know what rumors have passed this way—”
“More than rumors. There was a man…”
“Even so, was he a witness? Because I was. And let me just say first—”
Ceria felt herself begin breathing again. Pisces was trying to steer Caddin back to the table, speaking in a carrying voice. So that was why…she looked at Stan and Alais. She had to clear whatever misinformation they’d been spread. Both were listening to Pisces, which was a relief. But Stan was rubbing at his head, looking very perplexed.
“Pisces. I thought I knew the name. Where did I…?”
“Let’s sit. Is there a drink I can buy? I’ll clear the air. But first, what is my friend accused of? Yvlon? She’s quite honorable, friend Caddin. And when her team went into the dungeon—”
Crossbow Stan abruptly got up. He pointed a trembling finger at Pisces. The [Necromancer] broke off and Ceria felt a lurch in her stomach. Oh no. She sensed what was about to happen.
“Dungeon. You mean crypt. And I remember that name. Pisces. Someone’s looking for you. And you lied.”
Pisces turned, but his posture was suddenly wary. Stan shook his head. He raised his voice until it was almost a shout.
“You’re not a [Mage]. You’re a [Necromancer]! A filthy [Necromancer]!”
And that was it. The silence of the guild, the tense atmosphere turned hostile in a second. Ceria’s head whirled as she heard the screech of wood on wood. Eight adventurers had just gotten up. Pisces looked around as he took a step back. He hesitated, sighed, then sniffed haughtily.
“I’m quite clean, sir. But I will acknowledge the truth of your words.”
Caddin jerked away from him as if he were infected. He stumbled back, face twisted, and then pointed at Ceria.
“You see that? A [Necromancer] and one of the bug people! No one else would partner with her, or Yvlon!”
“Is this true, Yvlon? Are you really working with a [Necromancer]?”
Alais was on her feet. She glared at Yvlon. The armored woman’s face was pale, but her voice was steady as she held up a hand.
“Pisces does use necromancy. But hear us out.”
An adventurer shouted that. The hair on Ceria’s neck crawled. Pisces had a hunted look and for good reason. [Necromancers] weren’t popular in Izril after Az’kerash. But adventurers had another reason to hate them. After all, they were sometimes called on to take care of undead outbreaks, and if a [Necromancer] was behind it…
“Stan, Alais, everyone, let’s calm down.”
Ceria called out. She raised her hands, shouting to be heard. The two captains looked at her. Ceria waved her arms, praying neither Pisces nor Ksmvr made things worse.
“What’s going on? Why are you all so upset? Pisces is a [Necromancer]. It’s true. But he doesn’t animate people. He uses bear skeletons. And Ksmvr’s Antinium. So what?”
“Caddin. Let me handle this.”
Alais pushed Caddin back hard. She walked around the table and came face-to-face with Ceria. She wasn’t smiling. And she wasn’t looking at Ceria like a fellow adventurer. She glanced at Ceria, and then at Yvlon. When Alais spoke, it was to the silent Adventurer’s Guild. Three dozen heads turned to watch her and Ceria. The adventurers of Celum were silent as Alais began.
“Ceria, I don’t know you that well. But I know Yvlon. We’re friends. We were friends. But here’s the thing. The last time we saw each other, you were about to go to Liscor. With Calruz as your leader, not Ceria. And Yvlon, you had your team. Where’s Kina, Veitul, Domie? Where’s everyone else? Horn? Solstrom? Gerial?”
She looked at Ceria. And the half-Elf knew that Alais knew the answer. Ceria felt a pit open up in her stomach and cold memories leak through.
Ceria stared at him. Gerial’s face was white, and he looked almost as bloodless as Skinner’s body. He shuddered and she felt it.
“Run. I’ll—I’ll buy you some time.”
He pointed down the corridor. Ceria’s feet began to move, but she halted them.
He shoved her away.
“Run, damn you!”
Skinner. Ceria’s heart was beating wildly. She looked at Alais. At the grim look in her eye.
“They’re dead. They died in the crypt.”
“They died in Liscor. We all heard about it. It was a massacre, wasn’t it? But somehow you two survived, and you’re already adventuring again? Practically unharmed? With a [Necromancer] and one of…of those?”
She pointed at Ksmvr uncertainly. The former Prognugator didn’t wave a hand. He’d sensed the mood. Alais went on.
“It feels like we just heard about Liscor when news came from Albez that the Horns of Hammerad had just found a huge amount of treasure there. Ceria, what would you think about that?”
Ceria shook her head.
“The way you say it…we didn’t just get out. We lost a lot. Yvlon barely escaped. She was hurt and I—I lost my hand.”
She held up her skeletal hand. Alais nodded slowly, staring at it.
“I see it. But it’s still moving. And if you made it like that, how’d no one else get out. Gerial? Calruz?”
This time Ceria wavered.
“Calruz did make it out.”
“Then why isn’t he—”
“He got lost in the dungeon. And he lost an arm. He’s mad now and he killed a bunch of other people. Alais, I made it out because I found somewhere to hide—”
But of course that was the wrong thing to say. Ceria bit her lip. Caddin shouted.
“Aha! You see? She hid and Yvlon ran!”
Yvlon burst out. She snapped at Caddin. The [Warrior] whirled, looking around the guild. She wasn’t afraid like Ceria. Yvlon looked furious.
“Spit it out, what you’re saying. Alais! Are you saying we abandoned our teams? We were all retreating. The other teams died fighting, but once that monster came out—Skinner—we knew it was impossible. So we ran. Ceria and I were lucky. Pisces and Ksmvr joined us later. What’s wrong with that?”
Alais said nothing. She just looked Yvlon up and down, uncertainly, as if she couldn’t trust a word Yvlon had just said. Stan got to his feet.
“Yvlon. Ceria. A question. After you two got out, what happened to the adventurers that died? Their families?”
“We made sure what was left was cremated. There wasn’t enough to bury and we couldn’t figure out who…we made sure the families got all the money we had left. I survived by the skin of my teeth, Stan.”
Ceria spoke through numb lips. She looked at the old adventurer. He met her eyes, searching. Then he nodded.
“I want to believe you, Ceria. And I heard the families of the deceased got something. But it’s just…a [Necromancer]? Really? And you know what they say about the Antinium.”
He held up a hand before Yvlon could shout.
“And it’s not just that. Look, we’ve talked to more survivors of that night than just you two. One of Cervial’s [Hunters] from the Flawless Flight made it this way a while back. Poor bastard had nothing left. Said Liscor’s City Watch had confiscated all of his team’s possessions and their gold was gone. The way he told it, both his team and Gerald’s went up against that boss from the dungeon first. The Silver Swords and the Horns were out of the way. He said he never saw your teams—you’d already run away.”
Ceria’s stomach twisted. Cervial and Gerald had been trying to open Skinner’s door without realizing it was already unlocked. They’d never stood a chance. Yvlon clenched her gauntleted fists.
“Say that again. Who was it who’s spreading those lies?”
Stan raised his hands slowly.
“I’m not saying I believed him. He was done as an adventurer and he was cursing Cervial and Gerald as well. Said they’d walked their teams right into a trap like fools. Which I don’t believe. But he did say that all of his team’s possessions and the loot they’d gathered were confiscated by Liscor. Is that true?”
“True. I barely had anything left. My wand was gone, and Yvlon lost everything but her armor and sword. The rest went to the adventurer’s family, honest.”
Crossbow Stan nodded. He looked at Ceria, and she realized he was staring at her side. At her wand. Slowly, he pointed at it, then at Yvlon.
“Fancy enchanted armor you’re wearing these days, Yvlon. Magical buckler on that Antinium. And Ceria’s got a new wand. Where’d it all come from?”
Ceria felt a flicker of anger at the implication. Yvlon was already furious. She snapped back.
“Albez. Did you hear about that?”
Stan nodded slowly.
“I did. And I’ve been to Albez before, many times, Yvlon. Probably before you were even born. I’ve never found more than a few trinkets. How’d you find treasure in Albez? Let alone a haul like…”
He waved a hand at them. Ceria shut her mouth firmly. Olesm. Stan looked from her to Yvlon. Alais cut in.
“We’re not saying your teams didn’t fight, Yvlon. Maybe you did. Maybe you got lucky. Or maybe you ran. We can’t prove it and truth spells are tricky when everyone saw something different. But suddenly partnering up after the crypt? Suddenly finding treasure in Albez when no one’s found anything worth speaking of for nearly a decade? Working with a [Necromancer]?”
She pointed at Pisces. He’d folded his arms and was looking around. He glanced pointedly at Ceria, but she couldn’t signal him anything. All the other adventurers were just watching. But their eyes…
Stan took over, like the fatherly figure he was to so many adventurers in the area.
“If you can tell us how you got so lucky, we’ll believe you. Maybe you found a map. But if you did…where? Did you get it from the crypt? Did you, maybe, find something and not tell anyone about it? Not share it with the survivors? Or the deceased?”
“Did you leave them—”
Caddin broke off. He was trembling. So was Ceria. But she was shaking with nerves. One wrong step might lead to something very bad. Everyone was listening. She looked at Yvlon. The [Warrior] hesitated. She glanced at Ceria, then she spoke.
“There was a map.”
The stir in the room was the prelude to something. Yvlon raised her voice.
“There was a map! But it didn’t come from Liscor. It came from a Drake we met in Liscor who was part of the dungeon raid. Ksmvr joined our group by chance. I was penniless and Ceria too. She knew Pisces from Wistram. And Ksmvr we’d met. We took a chance when we discovered there might be treasure still in Albez. We took a chance, risked our lives and we found it! It was luck. It was a miracle! But we didn’t steal it from the people who died in the crypt. That was a nightmare. But I swear, I kept fighting until I thought I’d die. Ceria barely survived herself and she helped hold the undead off. I’ll swear that on any truth spell you want.”
She turned, putting a hand over her heart. No one spoke. Ceria looked at Caddin. He looked furious, still. And Alais and Stan—none of them looked like they quite believed Yvlon.
“Well? You can cast a spell! Test me!”
Yvlon shouted. Alais shook her head.
“Maybe we will. But Yvlon—it still doesn’t sit well with me.”
The armored woman rounded on her. Alais didn’t flinch from Yvlon’s furious stare.
“What doesn’t sit with you, Alais? The truth? Do you want to see my arms? I burned my armor into my bones in Albez!”
“I don’t doubt that—”
“Then what do you doubt?”
Alais crossed her arms. The air around her was crackling with more than just tension.
“You were never the sort to work with [Necromancers]. You hated them. As for Antinium—this Ksmvr thing looks safe enough, but you’re telling me the Drakes just ‘happened’ to have a map of Albez all this time? And never exploited it?”
“It was chance. He found it purely by luck.”
Yvlon ground her teeth. Alais raised her eyebrows.
“Pretty lucky to find a map of Albez in Liscor, isn’t it?”
Silence. Stan looked at Ceria. His eyes were worried and upset, but he did still look at her.
“Anything you want to add, Ceria?”
The half-Elf spread her arms helplessly.
“Yvlon’s telling the truth. I don’t know how to prove it besides swearing on truth spells, Stan. Either you believe us or you don’t. I know you can look at it bad, but we earned our treasure separately from the crypt. Maybe one’s tied to the other. If I hadn’t survived and met Ksmvr when I did, I wouldn’t have been tipped off to Albez. But we didn’t steal from the dead. We ran, but there was no choice. If you’d been there, you would have seen it. I lost this hand trying to stop the undead. Believe me.”
She raised her skeletal hand and showed Stan that. He nodded slowly.
“I’m trying, Ceria. But you have to understand us. Even if what you said was true. Even if it’s on a level, all of it…it’s hard to look at you or Yvlon.”
“Because your team was the one that brought everyone to Liscor. The Horns helped convince the others. And Yvlon—you were a team captain. You lost your entire team. And you walk in part of a new one? You think it’s that easy?”
Caddin spat on the ground. Ceria stared down at the wet mark on the floorboards. Yvlon glared at Caddin.
“People have lost friends before. Stan! You lost two thirds of your team when I was a rookie! And Alais, you’ve lost at least six members!”
“Yes. I did. But this is different.”
The woman crossed her arms defensively. Stan on the other hand looked troubled. And Ceria remembered that he’d stayed far away from the guild for a long time after that disaster. She looked at Yvlon. How easy would it have been if it were Stan coming back wearing new magical artifacts and a new team after…?
“Yvlon. I get their point.”
The woman rounded on Ceria. The [Ice Mage] glared at her and Yvlon hesitated.
“I get it, Yvlon. It’s not true, but they’re upset. They have every right to be. We…lost our teams. We can explain, but it doesn’t change what happened. And working together…I get that too.”
She looked back at Alais and Stan. They nodded. Ceria turned. Ksmvr was still seated, silently watching. She wondered how much he understood. Pisces was aloof, coldly looking around.
“Look, if anyone’s not convinced, get a [Mage] with a truth spell. Or come to The Wandering Inn and find us there. We’ll tell you what happened as many times as it takes. For now…we’re not going to stick around. Just think about what we said. As for this—”
Ceria walked back to Ksmvr and held out a hand. The Antinium handed her the bounty on the [Bandits]. Ceria brought it over to the [Receptionist]’s desk. The woman stared silently at her.
“I’d like to take this request, please. Can you note that we’re trying to complete it?”
The woman stared at her. She stared at the bounty. Behind Ceria, someone laughed incredulously.
“By yourselves? Are you mad?”
Ceria turned her head slowly. She spoke very deliberately to Caddin.
“We can handle it.”
“You’re not getting any help from us.”
He gave her a disgusted look. Ceria turned her back on him, clenching both hands.
“We don’t need it. Like it or not, Caddin, we got stronger after Liscor. We leveled.”
“By taking the treasure you found from Albez. I didn’t see you sharing it with any of the families that died.”
The [Receptionist] jumped as Ceria slammed her hands on the table and turned.
“We had a fund! They got what we could give! Are we supposed to give everything to them? We didn’t even get that—”
She broke off. Ceria turned away.
“Forget it. Let’s go. Ksmvr! Pisces, we’re leaving! Come on. Yvlon, you too.”
She walked towards the door. A few adventurers blocked Pisces’ way.
“How do we know this [Necromancer] isn’t using corpses from our graveyards? Or he isn’t responsible for the undead?”
“I suppose you’ll have to take that on faith. Ask me a truth spell. But get out of my way.”
“And the Antinium?”
Some of the adventurers were standing around Ksmvr. He hadn’t moved, mainly because standing up would run him right into a man in leather armor from Thunder’s Solace who was standing over him and glaring down at the Antinium. Ceria turned back. And the bones of her skeletal hand were beginning to freeze over as more than grief and guilt took over.
“He’s going with us. Stan, tell the others to let Ksmvr go. He’s done nothing wrong.”
“Tell that to us, Ceria.”
“Okay. Back up. Before I make you.”
One of the other [Mages] made a scoffing sound. Ceria turned. But she’d crossed over from apologetic to angry. Yvlon strode over.
“Back up. Ksmvr, come on.”
She thrust the adventurer standing over him aside. The man stumbled, then whirled. He put a hand on the wooden mace at his side. Yvlon immediately put her hand on her sword hilt.
“Don’t do anything you’ll regret, Jerat.”
“Same to you, Byres. Just give me a reason.”
The two tensed. Ceria opened her mouth, but she didn’t know what to say. Part of her wanted Jerat to attack Yvlon. Part of her was shouting. Yes, she knew what it looked like. Yes, she understood their feelings. But part of her was furious.
How dare they. How dare they think we ran and left everyone to die. How dare they assume we abandoned our friends? How dare they think that? Especially because—
It was partly true. So Ceria hovered on the brink of lashing out. Jerat’s knuckles went white on his mace’s grip. He lowered his posture—
Stan snapped. He slapped his hands together, making the room start. Jerat looked up. Stan drew a finger across his throat.
“Cut it. Let them go. We’re all too hot-headed right now. We’ll talk this over. Speak later. Back up. That goes for you too, Caddin. Everyone. Let them go.”
The adventurers slowly backed up. Ceria could see hard faces, tensed muscles. But Stan was speaking sense so the other Horns had room to move. Ceria began breathing slower. Pisces walked toward the door. Yvlon turned and offered Ksmvr a hand.
Ceria was so relieved the Antinium had heeded her words to stay still and not cause trouble. One of his stray comments could have ignited everything. Yvlon was breathing hard, still. Caddin stomped past her, and then turned. He glared at Yvlon as Ksmvr grabbed her hand.
“Guess you got ‘lucky’ again, Byres. I’m sure your team’s real proud of you from where they’re lying in the dirt, Yvlon. We all are.”
The Antinium had been rising, hand holding Yvlon’s. Ksmvr fell back lightly into his seat as Yvlon let go. He watched as Yvlon straightened. Ceria and Pisces, standing by the door, saw Yvlon turn. The [Wounded Warrior]’s hands clenched. Her armored fists rose. Caddin’s glare of hatred turned to one of alarm.
He stepped back, too slow, and too late. Yvlon’s fist caught him across the jaw and sent him flying into the table across from him. Caddin skidded across the top, knocked over a [Mage] sitting in the chair, and tumbled to the ground. The other adventurers stared at him, got up—
And the entire Adventurer’s Guild burst into chaos.
“Ksmvr, don’t move! Stay down and don’t draw your weapons!”
In the first moment of action, Ceria screamed. Then she reached for her wand, blasted a Bronze-rank adventurer off her feet with a spray of snow, and ducked. The first chair passed over her head. Ceria raised her skeletal hand holding her wand and snapped.
She saw and felt ice race across her body. A glistening sheet of ice covered Ceria, weighing her down, changing to imitate actual plate armor. Just in time—someone struck her in the chest as she rose. A Human woman shouted in pain as her fist struck not soft flesh, but Ceria’s icy armor. The half-Elf rocked back, pointed her wand, and shouted.
The adventurer tried to jump back. But the ice that shot up snared half of her body. She fell down, and Ceria halted the spell. One adventurer down.
Dozens to go. Some of them hadn’t immediately entered the fight, but the instant Ceria began casting magic, at least five [Mages] began sending spells her way. Ceria dove behind the [Receptionist]’s desk, raising another [Ice Wall]. Two spells hit her and one shattered her armor. But the spells weren’t meant to kill, just really hurt. Neither Ceria nor the other [Mages] were using deadly spells.
Yet. She saw Yvlon kicking over a table and trading punches with Jerat as another adventurer tackled her from behind. Yvlon was shouting in fury and despite Jerat’s size, she was punching parts of his face in. Of course; he was probably eight levels behind her! But she was outnumbered. Ceria pointed at the adventurers around her and shouted.
Three adventurers shouted as ice engulfed their legs. It wasn’t a vertical [Ice Wall] Ceria had just conjured, but a horizontal one. Some broke free of the ice and stumbled away, but Ceria could engulf them by altering her spell. She aimed again, then something struck her in the head. Something hot.
Ceria screamed as something burned the side of her face and her hair. Her [Frozen Armor] had caught part of the spell, but that had been a dangerous attack! She turned, ducking down and clutching at her head and saw the [Mage] who’d thrown the fire. He was pointing at her with a wooden stave of his own. Ceria aimed at him, and then saw something charging at him from the left. She screamed.
“Pisces, no! Don’t!”
The [Mage] turned, saw the huge skeleton of the bear charging him and screamed once before the bear crashed into him. The [Mage] went flying, but the bear didn’t savage him. It turned and rammed into another adventurer, sending the man sprawling. Someone screamed.
“Undead! The [Necromancer]’s—”
Ceria heard a gurgle. She looked around wildly and saw Pisces. He calmly raised a chair and brought it down on the head of another [Mage]. The man’s friend charged Pisces, but the [Necromancer] blurred away.
[Flash Step]. Pisces turned and hit another adventurer menacing Yvlon with a chair. Then he disappeared again. No one could hit him; he was moving too fast with the chair. He gestured, and his bear charged a group of adventurers. They drew their weapons. Ceria froze one, but the other charged the bear with a yell. It was fine if it was the bear. If it no one—
“Kill the [Necromancer] before he summons more!”
“Fucking tree rot!”
Ceria leapt up. Her first blast of snow shot Caddin, the speaker off his feet. The second blunted [Ice Spike] hit a woman with a bow in the midriff. Pisces whirled. He saw a [Rogue] flip towards him, and pointed.
The spell blasted the [Rogue] off her feet. She landed on the floor, twitching. Ceria looked around.
“Pisces, look out!”
He whirled and saw the man with the crossbow. Stan was standing behind his table, using it as cover. He had one of his crossbows in hand. He was aiming at Pisces’ midriff, as if that would stop the rampaging bone bear. Ceria pointed her wand at him.
“Stan! Drop it—”
Too late. Stan fired. Pisces’ eyes widened and he vanished. He disappeared, blurring over to the left, but Stan was ready. The first crossbow had disappeared and the second one he yanked out of his bag of holding, even as Pisces stopped. It was already loaded and Pisces wavered. The bolt flew and cracked on the wall of ice Ceria conjured from the ground.
“Dead gods damn it!”
The man cursed. Ceria ran past him, blocking more spells with ice walls as she took cover behind him. Just in time; a [Warrior] smashed into the [Receptionist]’s desk, turning it into splinters and sending the woman running for cover. Ceria hid behind Stan, shouting curses. She’d frozen Stan up to his neck. He was chattering already with the cold and jerking his head, but the ice was far too thick to move in.
“Pisces! Get to cover!”
He ignored her. Ceria was raising [Ice Walls] around her, creating a maze the adventurers had to try and smash through or run around. Ceria frantically downed a mana potion, but she realized she was safe. The [Mages] weren’t able to blast through her thick walls of ice and the other adventurers with weapons were being caught by her spells. They were…sort of weak!
And Pisces was still fighting. He ducked as an adventurer with a hatchet took wild swings at him. The [Necromancer] stepped backwards, adjusting his [Flash Step] to stay just out of range. He waited until a swing overbalanced the Bronze-rank adventurer, then appeared behind her and kicked her knees in. The young girl went down and Pisces delicately kicked the hatchet out of her hands. Then he turned as Yvlon howled.
She’d been fighting the other [Warriors] in a cleared space in the center of the Guild. Like some of the adventurers, Yvlon wasn’t willing to draw blood, so her sword remained in its sheathe. But she was still fighting, even without her weapon.
And she was winning. There were half a dozen adventurers lying on the floor, and the number was going up rapidly. Yvlon had grabbed a shirtless adventurer and was demonstrating why going without armor was a stupid idea for a [Warrior]; she hammered his stomach until he started puking, and then kneed him in the chest. He fell down and someone rammed into Yvlon from behind.
Jerat. He struck her armor from behind with a mace, an extraordinarily stupid move because it didn’t even stagger Yvlon. She turned around and punched the man in the face. Ceria winced as Yvlon’s gauntlets opened up cuts on his face. Down he went. Yvlon kicked him twice on the floor and then turned. Someone tried to bull-rush her, but Yvlon outweighed the Silver-rank adventurer and he bounced off her armored body, hurting himself more than anyone else.
Ceria stared. They were just too…weak. The other adventurers, that was. Even the Silver-ranks. Only a few could put up an equal fight, and the ones that could didn’t have Yvlon’s gear. With her helmet on and enchanted armor, Yvlon’s only weak spot were the gaps around the front of her head. Even when someone smashed a chair over the back of her head, it only made her turn and throw the chair-wielder into the [Receptionist]’s desk.
But the scream had come from Yvlon. Why? Ceria saw her duck, and then a flash of light. Yvlon screamed as a second bolt of electricity shot across the guild’s floor. It shocked her, making her flash in Ceria’s vision. It wasn’t a killing spell, but Yvlon stumbled back, armor smoking. Ceria turned as Yvlon tried to charge the spellcaster and adventurers got in her way.
Alais. Ceria shot a blast of snow, but the [Aeromancer] shot lightning back. Ceria blinked, felt a kick in her chest—
And got up from the floor, head ringing. Her armor had taken the brunt of that, but it still felt like being kicked by a horse. She got up, swearing. She was going to freeze Alias’—
“Alais! Watch out! The [Necromancer]’s aiming at you!”
Someone screamed. Alais turned. Pisces was speeding towards her. She whirled her quarterstaff and aimed the tip.
Pisces cannoned into Alais. He didn’t bother with a spell; he just [Flash Stepped] into her and rammed her off her feet. She landed hard on the ground, winded, but she was a veteran. Her staff was still aiming at Pisces.
He kicked Alais precisely in the face. Her head snapped back, but she still tried to cast the spell. Pisces raised one finger.
He was faster. The lightning shocked Alais, making her convulse. Pisces kicked her in the stomach, and then stepped back. Alais tried to get up, her muscles still jerking, and looked up. She screamed for a second before the undead bear sat on her. Ceria, about to shout at Pisces, stopped.
He hadn’t killed anyone. Or injured them, aside from a few punitive spells and possible some broken bones. And the undead bear had simply lain down on Alais and another adventurer rather than attack. Pisces stepped back and calmly waved at Ceria. She realized between her spells and his, they’d cleared all the [Mages] from the room.
He appeared on her left and kicked a Silver-rank [Scout] in the groin. Ceria froze some more adventurers for good measure.
“How many did you get?”
“I think I got ten!”
Pisces shrugged. He looked at the swearing adventurers encased in ice. Then he looked back at Yvlon.
“And I believe our Miss Byres will have ten out…that makes thirteen.”
He pointed. Ceria, panting for breath and drinking the rest of her mana potion, saw Yvlon rush another adventurer. He flipped a table over to stop her; she kicked it into him and then punched. He had armor on like her, but the wumph Yvlon’s fist made as it went into his leather-covered stomach made Ceria wince. Then she grabbed Pisces.
“Her arm! Is it—”
“It’s fine. Watch that other Silver-rank Captain. He’s trying to use his bag of holding to absorb your ice.”
Pisces pointed at Stan. The man shouted obscenities at Ceria as she thickened the ice to prevent him moving his hand to his bag of holding. Her ice was already melting, mixing with the blood on the ground. Ceria looked around, breathing hard.
“Safe. Watch out.”
A chair flew at both of them. Ceria ducked. Pisces raised a hand.
“[Wind Shield]. [Flying Bone Club].”
The chair bounced off a whirling shield of air. At the same time, a bone detached from the skeletal bear’s body and flew at the adventurer who’d thrown the chair. He turned to run; the bone clocked him on the back of the head. Down he went. Ceria paused to stare at the bone as it clattered to the ground.
“Was that an actual spell?”
“It worked. I think Yvlon’s finished, Ceria. We may need to stop her.”
Pisces pointed back at Yvlon. Ceria turned and saw she was the last one left standing. Quite literally; every adventurer around her was on their knees, comatose, or crawling away. Blood was dripping into Yvlon’s blonde hair and she had splinters of wood embedded in one cheek. But she was too angry to notice. And she was holding one adventurer, slamming him into one of the last tables.
“Say it again, Caddin! Say it again!”
The young man of maybe eighteen or seventeen was gasping, weakly flailing at Yvlon with his left arm as his other tried to pull her hands off. Yvlon slammed him into the table and Ceria heard him make a gagging cry.
“Say it again!”
The [Warrior] let go of Caddin and spun as Ceria ran over. She cocked a fist and Ceria raised her wand. Yvlon froze as she saw Ceria and Pisces. Ceria knew she had bruises on the side of her face and she might have a cut. Pisces looked as pristine as when he’d come in.
“Yvlon. It’s done.”
Ceria looked down at Caddin. The young man was lying on the table, panting, making hoarse sounds up at the ceiling. Ceria wondered if Yvlon had cracked his ribs.
The [Wounded Warrior] took a shuddering breath. She looked around the Adventurer’s Guild. So did Ceria. Only then did she see some of the adventurers had freed themselves from her ice. And more than a few were still conscious. But no one was aiming at her, or Pisces, or Yvlon. The fight was out of them.
The guild was trashed, too. Ceria had seen brawls, but this one was destructive, by any standard. There were only about three good chairs left. She looked around for one to sit on; the world had turned grey after so much mana usage. Then she saw Ksmvr. He was sitting in front of his destroyed table, calmly waving at her.
He opened his mandibles cheerfully as Ceria hurried over.
“Hello, Captain Ceria.”
“Are you hurt? Did anyone hit you?”
“I was struck by an accidental chair. Aside from that I am quite fine. I stayed down, did not draw my weapons, and did not cause trouble. Did I do well?”
The half-Elf stared at Ksmvr with open mouth. Then she burst out laughing. Yvlon and Pisces turned to look and began laughing too. Ceria laughed and laughed—until suddenly she realized her laughter was getting hysterical. She stopped. Then she looked around.
The adventurers of Celum looked at her. Stan had freed himself with the help of a [Mage] casting a flame spell. He was shivering, his face blue. Alais was sitting up; the bear had gotten off her and was sitting in front of Pisces as he slowly disassembled it, letting the bones float into his bag of holding. She was clutching her nose, which was dripping red. Ceria hoped it wasn’t broken.
Yvlon walked past Ceria, breathing heavily. She was drinking from a healing potion. She didn’t look at anyone, until a sobbing, breathless voice came from behind her. She turned. Caddin was trying to sit up. He was making a bad sound and Ceria knew some of his ribs were busted. But he still glared at Yvlon, tears in his eyes. Her and Ceria.
“How come you walked away when everyone else died? How’s that fair?”
The room was silent. Yvlon stared at Caddin. She slowly drank the vial of healing potion down and didn’t answer. She turned her back as Ceria looked around. Bleeding adventurers stared at her. Time to go.
“You weren’t able to do that last time, Ceria.”
Stan croaked as she went to walk past him. Ceria turned. She glared at Stan.
“I guess I changed, Stan. I leveled up. I thought that’s what we were supposed to do.”
He stared bleakly at her, then around the trashed guild. As if he’d had no part in what had just gone down.
“Some of us changed a lot.”
What could you say to that? What could you say that would give voice to all the loss, the pent-up feelings, the past both Ceria and Yvlon had left behind but was now dug up, lying bloody and exposed? Ceria stared at Stan, at Caddin and Alais. She shrugged.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
She raised a middle finger. Then she turned.
“Come on, guys. We’re going. Ksmvr—”
Pisces was already opening the door. He began to step outside, and then stopped. Ceria saw only his still back for a second, and then the [Necromancer] slowly retreated back into the guild. And she saw his hands were raised. A man followed him with a drawn sword. He wasn’t an adventurer. Ceria’s stomach lurched as she recognized the insignia on his armor.
Celum’s City Watch. The man shouted as he kept his sword aimed at Pisces. More [Guards] streamed into the guild behind him, some holding bows, a few with wands. Most with swords, spears, axes…they advanced on the adventurers as the man with the sword bellowed into the room.
“Weapons down! Half the City Watch is right outside the guild! No one move! [Mages] with your hands behind your backs! If we so much as see a spell or undead, we’ll put a dozen arrows into you! You’re all under arrest!”
“Oh, tree rot.”
Ceria reflexively raised her hands. She kept them high as two [Mages] immediately trained their wands on her. They might be lower-level and their wands might look cheap, but a [Stone Dart] spell could still kill at this range. The other [Guards] were shouting at the adventurers, forcing them back. The [Captain] in charge kept shouting until there were a good twenty men in the room and more pouring in. Then he looked around.
“Alright! Who started it?”
The adventurers stared. It was a familiar scene. Someone had heard the fighting and called the City Watch. And they had showed up after the fighting as usual. They weren’t paid to risk their skin in a brawl. But after it? They could arrest anyone they wanted to. Ceria was grinding her teeth, ready to argue her way out. Or run if there was a chance. But then she saw the [Receptionist] push her way forwards. The woman raised her hand tremulously.
“She started it! Her and her team!”
Her hand pointed to Yvlon. Everyone looked at the [Warrior]. Yvlon turned crimson.
“Alright. You’re under arrest. Who else is in her team, Miss?”
The [Receptionist] flinched as Ceria shot her a glare, but she pointed. [Guards] surrounded Ceria and Pisces. The [Cryomancer] swore.
“Hold on! That’s a load of—they attacked us! All of them! We were only defending—”
“Save it! You started this brawl; you’re paying for it! And you’re spending time in our cells—I won’t have adventurers tearing up my city!”
The [Captain] shouted at Ceria. She shouted back.
“What? Pay for this mess? No way! They started the fight. Yvlon threw the first punch, but we’re—”
“Silence! Men, arrest her and toss her in jail! That one too!”
“He’s a [Necromancer]!”
A dozen blades were instantly thrust in Pisces’ direction. He held his hands up, eyes flashing fury. Yvlon tried to lower her hands, but a spear leveled at her throat put them back up.
“Shut up! You’re under arrest! This isn’t a debate! Get them in chains, and if we have anti-magic cuffs, I want them on that [Necromancer]! And the half-Elf!”
“Hold on! You can’t just—”
The [Captain] ignored Ceria. And when a [Guard] forced her to her knees, the half-Elf remembered. Oh. Right. This wasn’t Liscor. This was a Human city’s City Watch. Which meant they were less professional even than Relc. And their Watch Captain was less concerned with the minutiae of who’d done what, and more concerned with less trouble. It was a refreshingly simple approach to policing. And Ceria had forgotten how much she hated it.
“That all of them?”
“No. No, you missed one!”
The [Receptionist] panicked as the [Guards] began to drag the three Horns of Hammerad to the door. She pointed frantically back at a figure behind them.
“It’s one of them! Take it too!”
“It? What do you—”
The [Captain] choked on his words. He’d spotted the figure in one of the three remaining chairs. The Watch had overlooked him not because of his appearance, but because he’d been so still, so calmly unobtrusive in the heaving, destroyed guild. Now they focused on him and recoiled.
He was sitting at the table where he’d been before the fight had started. And true to his words, he hadn’t thrown a punch. He hadn’t even gotten up. The [Guards] and adventurers all stared at him as Ceria stopped cursing the [Guard] putting her in manacles and Pisces and Yvlon looked over their shoulders. Ksmvr raised one hand and opened his mandibles in a smile.
“Hello. Are you going to arrest my companions? Because I believe we have a request to fulfill.”
The Watch Captain stared at him in horror. He stuttered for words.
“I am Antinium. Hello, my name is Ksmvr. I request to be identified as a Horn of Hammerad, please. Thank you.”
The man stared at the [Receptionist] and the other adventurers. Their looks reflected the expression on his face. He worked his jaw soundlessly, then turned to one of his [Sergeants] and shook his head.
“Arrest it too. We’re going to need to tie the other arm up.”
He indicated Ksmvr’s three free arms. The Antinium studied a [Guard] as one of the younger recruits approached.
“H-hold still. You’re under arrest.”
The young man stuttered as he addressed the Antinium. Ceria, cursing, watched Ksmvr eye the manacles and then look to her. The Antinium tilted his head from side to side. Then he slowly stood up.
“No, thank you.”
The [Guard] froze. He looked back for help at his superior. The [Captain] blinked. He looked around at his men and the adventurers as if to reassure himself, then barked at Ksmvr.
“You! You’re under arrest!”
Ksmvr shook his head slowly.
“I am not.”
“Yes you are, you—think! Resist and we’ll kill you, got it? You so much as draw your blade—you’re under arrest, damn it! Do you even understand that?”
The Antinium watched the [Captain]. There was something unnerving about the intent way Ksmvr stared at the [Captain]. Then he shook his head again.
“No. I completely understand the concept of arrest, Watch Captain. And I do not believe I will be arrested. I, personally, have done nothing wrong. And if you try to arrest me, sir, I will have to kill you.”
Silence. The guild had gone still for the confrontation. It had frozen in anticipation of the fight and come to a halt afterwards. For the arrests, it had paused to watch the proceedings. Now it just stopped. Every eye fixed on Ksmvr, and a cold chill swept the room. The prelude to true violence. Death. Ceria choked.
Ksmvr spread his three arms out innocently. He looked at her, and around the room. His voice was pleasant. Cheerful, as he met the [Captain]’s eyes, then Ceria’s.
“What? It would be self-defense. I have done nothing wrong.”