People liked to insult the local City Watch, especially in Human cities. Ask any local and you’d get some commentary about how their local law enforcement was about as effective as a hamster with a toothpick, and as corrupt as a bag of [Lords] with their britches stuffed full of gold coins.
The comparison was even worse because Drake cities were known for their effective system of policing themselves. But to be fair, that was because most Drake cities conflated ‘City Watch’ with ‘standing army’ and thus they allocated huge discretionary budgets. Indeed, Drake culture was largely based around supporting their military, which meant the somewhat laissez faire north fell behind.
It honestly wasn’t that bad. Ceria knew City Watches got a bad rap, but what were they supposed to be? Perfect? Take a small city with a limited budget—especially if it wasn’t located on a major trade route or exporting some valuable resource—and think about how much you could pay your average [Guardsman].
Most likely even the [Watch Captain] wouldn’t be high-level and the [Guards] might see some action, but they wouldn’t be equipped or ready to take on dangerous monsters or individuals. They weren’t being paid to be heroes. So usually they did the best job they could, and yes, some cities did have a corruption problem, but others were fine. Not great, not excellent—just fine. If a disaster happened, it happened not because of the local law enforcement, but because it was a disaster.
With that said, Ceria had known bad [Guards] and good ones and they shared a common feature, which was their disdain for adventurers. They hated high-level adventurers who were paid better, had expensive gear, and usually flouted the law and took any opportunity to get back at them.
Which meant that the unlucky adventurer who was arrested would get their gear stripped off them, earn kicks and bruises if they resisted, and if they were in one of the aforementioned corrupt cities, might even see some of their gear disappear along with their gold if the [Guards] thought they could get away with it.
Ceria wasn’t as worried about that in this case; they were Silver-rank and could get their gear back, even if some gold ‘vanished’ by accident. Thank goodness their share of the loot was with the Halfseekers pending their visit to Invrisil. No, what she was worried about was Ksmvr.
“I have done nothing wrong. Yet.”
The Antinium stood in front of what had to be at least forty of Celum’s City Watch. There might be more outside; Ceria seriously doubted half the Watch had shown up, but it was a small army capable of putting down any amount of brawling adventurers at least. And she was terrified for Ksmvr. Because his threat had made the [Guards] back up for a second, but soon they would realize he was alone and his team were in cuffs.
Ceria had her arms twisted up by a female [Guardswoman] and she knew that any spell would result in her being knocked out or shot. And that was the thing about the City Watches in any city. They could be efficient, corrupt, or ineffectual, but even so, they were still good at killing things. And they would do it, too.
The half-Elf yelped as the [Guardswoman] twisted her arm up another foot. She swore, but forced the words out.
“Don’t be an idiot, Ksmvr!”
“I will do my best, Captain Ceria. I was explaining to this Watch Captain that I have done nothing wrong. After all, I did not partake in the brawl.”
The Antinium politely nodded to the destroyed room. The [Captain], a burly man who Ceria vaguely recognized as having taken part in one of Erin’s plays, looked around.
Some of the adventurers nodded; the rest just stared at Ksmvr with obvious distaste. The [Captain] hesitated; then he looked around and realized he was in front of his men. And that Ksmvr was alone. He caught himself and scowled.
“Doesn’t matter. This thing’s part of your team, right half-Elf? It’s under arrest. Antinium, if you attack, we’ll—”
Ksmvr moved. Forty [Guards] instantly leveled their weapons at him, but the Antinium had simply raised one of his hands.
“Excuse me, [Captain]. But I repeat I have not taken part in this altercation. I am innocent. Therefore I cannot be arrested. I have done nothing wrong.”
That was true. But—Ceria was swearing as she stood on her tiptoes to avoid her arms being wrenched out of their sockets—she could have told Ksmvr the facts didn’t matter. Not with a peeved Watch Captain. He snapped impatiently at Ksmvr as he waved six of his [Guards] forwards. They moved slowly; like him, they’d probably only seen the Antinium in Erin’s inn. And you heard stories…
“I decide what’s right or wrong here. And you’re under arrest. Because I said so, got it?”
The Antinium stared at the [Captain] slowly. One of the [Guards] held up a pair of manacles.
He jumped back as Ksmvr spread all three arms. There was another moment of tension, but less pronounced. Ceria could see one [Guard] cracking his knuckles as he snuck up behind Ksmvr with three of his mates. As soon as they got Ksmvr in cuffs, it would be a few kicks at least. If they hurt him, Ceria was going to—she saw Yvlon tensing as two [Guards] held her. Another fight would not be a good idea. The [Ice Mage] braced—
“Ah. It appears we have reached an impasse, then. I claim that under the law, I have committed no crimes save for association with my team. You claim that I have broken a law you refuse to name. So tell me, Watch Captain. Is it war?”
At first Ceria was focusing on Yvlon. The [Guards] were sneaking up on Ksmvr and the [Captain] was looking around as the adventurers patched themselves up with cheap potions, assessing the damage. Then every head swung back towards Ksmvr as if he were a lightning rod in a storm.
The Antinium [Warrior] looked innocently around the room.
“I repeat. Is it war? I am asking for confirmation, Watch Captain. Because if it is, I would like to notify my Hive so they may send a declaration formally. However, if you are declaring war by surprise, I quite understand. No doubt the official commencement will begin after—”
“Wait. Wait—what do you mean, war? War with who?”
The Watch Captain was staring at Ksmvr. So was Ceria. Ksmvr looked puzzled; his antennae waved about uncertainly.
“Why, with the Antinium of course. If you arrest me, it will be war. With the Free Antinium and all five Hives of the Antinium. If you place me in cuffs or kill me as I resist arrest, the Antinium go to war with the Humans of Izril.”
He turned to look at the [Guards] behind him as he said it. They sprang away from Ksmvr as if he was suddenly covered in spikes. The Watch Captain licked his suddenly very dry lips.
“Now, see here. You’re just an Antinium. Aren’t there…I mean, one Antinium isn’t…”
His voice trailed off. Ksmvr was just staring at him. But it was such a contemptuous, Pisces-like stare that the meaning was plain across species. He spoke very slowly and clearly as the room focused on him.
“I am Ksmvr. A Prognugator of the Free Antinium and individual of my Hive. I am unique. There are many Antinium, but the death of a Prognugator means war. Or do you not know of Klbkch the Slayer? The Small Queen, Xrn? We are second only to our Queens. If I am arrested without cause, this will count as a military action against my Hive. There is only one response to that. I have done nothing wrong. So, tell me, Captain. Is it war?”
He raised his voice and stepped forwards. The entire room shuddered and moved back in response. And every eye went towards the Watch Captain, who’d lost all color in his face. Ceria was just staring at Ksmvr.
It wasn’t every day you saw someone actually come close to evacuating their bowels in public. But the [Captain]’s expression suggested that if Ksmvr shouted, he’d be waddling as he ran away. And they would run. War with the Antinium? Ceria saw the face of the [Guardswoman] who’d relaxed her grip. The woman looked horrified, as did everyone else. Who would want that? But Ceria was amazed for a different reason.
Ksmvr was lying! The Antinium looked around the room, calm as could be. But Ceria knew that Ksmvr was lying through his teeth. His mandibles, whatever. He was outcast from his Hive! Klbkch had cast him out and taken his spot as Prognugator.
But no one else knew that. The [Captain] began to back up.
“War? No. No, absolutely…no. We would never arrest—you’re an adventurer, right? Your team…”
He looked at the Horns, suddenly instantly conflicted. Ceria looked up sharply, but Ksmvr just tilted his head.
“I believe they are under arrest. They did start the brawl.”
“Damn it, Ksmvr.”
Ceria audibly heard Pisces curse behind her. The Antinium glanced at Pisces and tilted his head the other way.
“My team has committed a crime. Thus, we must be punished. But I have not, so I will remain here while they serve their sentence. If they are due to be executed, I will of course petition—”
“No, no. They’re just going in jail. We’ll—uh, it’s just an overnight sentence. Right, lads?”
The [Captain] turned. His Watch instantly nodded. They would have agreed to anything at that moment. Ksmvr nodded happily as well.
“I see. That is good. Then I am not under arrest? There is no war?”
“No. No. In fact, you are completely free to go. Now, if you want.”
Ksmvr ignored the note of hope in the [Captain]’s voice. He Shook his head.
“I must see my companions are properly arrested first. It would not due for them to be mistreated.”
And rather to Ceria’s chagrin, Ksmvr did just that. The City Watch escorted her, Pisces, and Yvlon out of the guild as the [Captain] remained to get a full account of what had gone on. And the Horns were hauled to Celum’s jail and put in a cell together.
Ceria had to admit it was the politest and somehow the tensest walk to her cell she’d ever had. Ksmvr walked right behind the [Guards] as they hurried the Horns into a cell. They were so flustered they forgot to grab the adventurer’s gear and had to come back for their weapons.
“Dead gods damn it. Hey, don’t you dare mess with that wand. I want it back, not snapped by accident!”
The half-Elf swore as one of the [Mages] in the City Watch took her wand, eying it avariciously. The [Mage] glanced at Ksmvr, who was loitering in front of their cell and hurried off. Yvlon had given up her sword and Pisces was surrendering his rapier with a very sour expression.
The [Guardswoman] in charge, a [Sergeant], glanced nervously at Ksmvr as she grabbed Yvlon’s Sword of Weight, eying it appreciatively. Yvlon nodded and Ceria glanced sideways at Pisces. He sneered.
“Of course. Would we lie?”
Normally that tone and sentence would have earned him a boot in the ribs. But the [Sergeant] held back on snapping as she glanced at Ksmvr.
“Uh. Fine. We’ll be back. You lot—cast any magic and it’ll be worse for you. We’ll get your side of things in a moment, once the [Captain] comes back. If there are fines…”
“The other adventurers joined the fight. We took on one team. They piled on.”
Ceria had thought of the least expensive excuse and the one that would survive a [Detect Lies] spell. The [Sergeant] looked at her and shook her head.
“We’ll see about the damages. At least the damn Guild wasn’t buried in snow. Anyways—”
She shifted with the sword and rapier in hand and looked at Ksmvr again. He waved at her politely.
“Hello. I am not under arrest?”
“No! I mean, no. I’m going to put these away. You…don’t linger. There’s a waiting time on visitors, you know.”
“I shall leave soon thereafter, then. I would not like to break the law.”
Ksmvr nodded politely at the Human woman. She looked surprised.
She backed away. Ceria looked around her cell. It was one of the shared ones used for common, low-risk prisoners. Metal bars, stone floor and a hole in the floor that probably led into Celum’s sewers. It stank.
But at least they had the cell to themselves; across the way was another general holding area with two drunks, a petty [Thief], and some a woman who’d murdered her husband with her bare hands after she’d found him cheating on her. The [Thief] and drunks were staying well away from her.
“Silver rot. I’ll bet that [Sergeant]’s going to swing my sword around the moment she’s out of sight. And that [Mage] is going to use your wand, Ceria. I hope she doesn’t hurt anything with it; the sword can kill someone if they spar.”
Yvlon sat down on the floor, groaning. She still had a few light cuts around her face; she hadn’t taken enough healing potion to cure all of the damage from her fight. But she mainly looked tired and upset. Pisces grumbled; he was feeling at his bag of holding.
“Fools deserve their fates. Onto more pressing matters. Ksmvr, would you please tell the Watch to release us?”
Ksmvr looked confused.
“But Comrade Pisces, that would be illegal.”
All three Horns looked up. Yvlon bit her lip, but Ceria and Pisces just looked at each other.
“Yes…but it would be convenient, Ksmvr. Nice lie, by the way.”
“Thank you, Captain Ceria. I am ashamed of the ruse. But I thought it was the only way to prevent a death sentence or Comrade Pisces being horribly maimed.”
“Wait, what? What for?”
Yvlon and Ceria looked at Pisces. He looked embarrassed.
“Ah. You uh, remembered our discussion, Ksmvr. That explains it.”
The Antinium nodded happily.
“I did. I was concerned for your safety as you told me how common execution sentences are for menial crimes. As well as the fact that [Necromancers] are unduly hated. Thus, I lied, despite the extreme risk it entailed. I am glad you will not be killed.”
Ceria smacked her head gently against the bars. Pisces coughed rapidly, turning even redder. Yvlon looked disgusted.
“That explains it. Pisces—”
She wavered as she stared at the young man. Then Yvlon turned to Ksmvr and to Ceria’s surprise, she only sighed.
“He’s told you a half truth, Ksmvr. Pisces probably did get in a lot of trouble for being a [Necromancer], but his ‘menial crimes’ probably were a bit worse than that. And yes, he might get roughed up pretty bad if people found out what he is, so it’s a legitimate concern. But the only time it would be a death sentence is in a Drake city. And even then, not for a brawl.”
She looked meaningfully at Pisces. The tips of his ears were red as he nodded.
“A slight exaggeration, Ksmvr. I…apologize. In my defense, I was recounting stories to him.”
He glanced at Ceria. The half-Elf bit her lip. She wasn’t sure whether she should laugh or not. She instead looked at Ksmvr.
“What did you mean, ‘extreme risk’, Ksmvr? It’s just a lie. And a darn good one. You can spring us out of jail with it, right?”
“No doubt, Captain Ceria. However, if the issue is not a life-or-death matter, I would hesitate to do so and in fact urge that I do not. Because it may turn the issue into a deadly matter. For us. You see, if my former Hive finds out I have claimed Prognugator status, they may attempt to seize and execute me as well as my team. Revalantor Klbkch would not hesitate to do so, I think.”
Ceria’s mouth fell open in horror. Her eyes slid sideways to Yvlon and Pisces.
“He—he wouldn’t do that, right?”
The Antinium shook his head seriously.
“I am not a Prognugator. To claim otherwise is one of the most serious affronts I could make to the Hive. I have no doubt I would be executed if he had overheard what I claimed. Recall that I threatened war with all of the Antinium.”
When he put it like that…Ceria gulped.
“Okay, scratch getting us out. It would look bad after you agreed to arrest us. And that might make Celum issue a complaint. And if they do…”
She looked at her teammates. Yvlon and Pisces nodded rapidly.
“One night’s fine. A fee’s welcome.”
“I relish squatting in this squalid, stinking hole of a cell.”
“What they said. You did good, Ksmvr. At least we didn’t earn a beating. Which we would have done with Pisces’ tongue. And at least we won that fight. Although…”
The half-Elf sighed. She looked at Yvlon. The woman was sitting down, rubbing at her arms and not meeting her eye or anyone else’s. Ceria hesitated.
“…We’ll have to talk out why it started.”
“I see. Should I be arrested to partake in this conversation?”
Ksmvr looked from Yvlon to the cell. Ceria shook her head.
“No, no, the last thing we need is more trouble. You just…stay out of trouble. Okay, Ksmvr? Maybe go back to Erin’s inn, alright? Let her know what—no, you know what? Don’t tell Erin what happened unless something worse occurs. Just go back, have a drink…we’ll be out in the morning.”
Ksmvr nodded obediently.
“Yes, Captain Ceria. But what about our request?”
Ceria’s mind went blank as she tried to recall.
“Our what? Oh. The [Bandits]. They’ll keep a day. Don’t worry. We’ll jump on it when we’re out.”
“A menial task. But one that is worth twenty gold pieces plus loot…hardly worth the cost of sitting a night in jail. But as that is a separate matter…Ksmvr, here. Take this.”
He had been busy fiddling with his hands and his belt. Now, to Ceria’s surprise, she saw him pluck a ring off his finger and hand it to Ksmvr along with his personal bag of holding. She eyed him with great surprise.
“What’s that for?”
“My ring enchanted with the [Shatterbolt] spell, as well as the bag of holding containing all my bones. Be very careful with it, Ksmvr. I can sense where the bones are of course, but while the bear bones are still present, what remains of them, there is another skeleton that must not be lost.”
The [Necromancer] met Ksmvr’s eyes. The Antinium nodded seriously.
“I will be very careful, Pisces.”
“And you’re giving that to Ksmvr because…?”
Pisces rolled his eyes as he turned to Ceria.
“Because I would rather not have my ring confiscated. If I had time, I would have sequestered your wand and Yvlon’s sword for the bag of holding along with my rapier. Or do you think the [Guards] will be so polite after Ksmvr is gone? They’ll come back to do some very invasive searches, I have no doubt.”
Ceria grimaced as she realized Pisces was right. Then she felt a moment of grudging admiration.
“Smart to hide your bones. They’d probably burn all of them.”
“Exactly. If you have anything else you’d like to ensure isn’t looted, now would be the time.”
Pisces looked around. Yvlon shook her head.
“All I’ve got is my armor and they won’t take that. Keep Pisces’ stuff safe, Ksmvr. I’m…sorry about the fuss.”
She looked miserable. Ksmvr stared down at her as he attached the bag of holding to his belt.
“I do not mind, Yvlon. I do not fully understand. But I wish to. And I will stay out of trouble, Captain Ceria. Do you have any other instructions for me?”
“Uh…no. No. Thanks, Ksmvr. You were a help. You’d better get out of here before the [Guards] come back.”
Ceria smiled wearily at Ksmvr. The Antinium nodded.
“I will wait for your release tomorrow morning, then.”
“Thanks! And Ksmvr, it’s not at dawn! You can go to sleep!”
Ceria called out as he turned and walked down the jail. He turned and waved his acknowledgement. Ceria saw him pause to speak with the [Sergeant] at the far end of the jail; she was indeed practicing cuts with Yvlon’s sword. Then she opened the door, let him out, and he was gone.
A silence fell over the cell after Ksmvr had gone. Ceria looked around. The other inmates had been an audience to the adventurer’s discussion. Now they stared at their cell mates.
“That thing’s an Antinium, ain’t it? Weird devils.”
One of the [Drunks] leaned against the bars, looking miserable and hung over. The [Thief] nodded.
“Dangerous. No wonder the Drakes fucking hate them. Hey, how much to stay silent about him not being a Prognuga-whatsit?”
Ceria swore and sat up. Before she could formulate a threat, Pisces stepped in.
“If you were wise, friend, you’d keep your mouth shut. Ksmvr may not be a Prognugator, but I am a [Necromancer]. And imprisoned or not, I do not take kindly to threats.”
The [Necromancer] cast a minor illusion spell as he did, so his voice sounded deeper and far more sibilant. The shadows around him seemed to creep towards the other cell. The [Thief] scrambled back with a shout as the two drunks fled.
“Keep back! You so much as cast a spell and I’ll shout, and the Watch will be all over—”
A hand descended on his shoulder. The man spun and stared into a woman’s face. Her eyes were bloodshot with tears, but the husband-killing wife’s voice was steady.
“Shut up. You tell anyone and I’ll kill you. I did it once. I’ll do it again. Be quiet.”
The [Thief] froze. The self-bereaved wife let him go and he backed up into a corner and tried to squeeze into the stone. The wife looked around with a very lost expression. She was a young woman. Barely eighteen. She must have just been married, or else married young. She was attractive, but she was a mess; she’d been crying when the Horns were brought in. Ceria caught her eye.
The murderess looked back at the half-Elf, looking lost.
“He looked nice.”
“Good. Good. I’m…I mean it. I’ll kill him if he so much as squeaks.”
She pointed back at the [Thief]. The man’s face was white as he shook his head frantically. Ceria’s skin crawled; that was another thing about prisons. Sometimes the [Guards] separated by cells, but sometimes they didn’t think someone was a threat and you spent a night sleeplessly watching the other people in the cell. They’d underestimated this girl.
“That’s…quite alright. Thank you, though. But he can stay alive unless he speaks.”
The young woman nodded.
“Okay. I’ll remember that. And him. But I don’t mind it. I don’t have any other reason. I killed him, you know. Myself. I leveled up from it. I’m all red now. It’s so red up here…”
She tapped her skull. Her eyes dripped tears. Ceria found herself backing up unconsciously. She licked her lips.
“I’m sorry to hear it.”
“I did level up.”
Pisces moved forwards. He gave the woman a charming smile and a slight bow.
“And we are grateful. Truly. You look quite tired, Miss. We’ll leave you to your rest. I’m sure it’s been a long day.”
“It has. Thank you.”
The woman retreated. So did Pisces and Ceria. They backed up until the woman was somewhat out of view. Ceria breathed out. Then she turned to Pisces and Yvlon. She wanted to say something, but aware the others might still be listening with Skills, she just looked at Yvlon.
“Alright. Want to talk about it?”
The woman had watched the exchange silently. Yvlon looked up. Her face was shadowed in the dark prison with only a few lanterns providing light.
“No. But we should. I know I shouldn’t have taken the bait. But—”
“I was angry too. But you’re just feeding into what they think, Yvlon. You know what it’s like. Tomorrow we’ll grab Stan and Alais. Kick some sense into them if we have to. If we can find Olesm, the Halfseekers even, get someone to vouch for us…”
Yvlon was nodding. She looked up.
“Thanks. I’m sorry.”
Pisces sniffed and then clearly regretted it.
“This isn’t the first night I’ve spent in a cell. Although perhaps one of the only full nights I will spend in one. We could slip out, but alas, I’m an adventurer now. I suppose I can tolerate this.”
Yvlon’s lips quirked the slightest bit.
“Thanks, Pisces. I didn’t mean it. I’ll control myself. It’s just—”
Her voice broke. Ceria saw her shoulder shake. In the darkness, she finally made out Yvlon’s face. It was running with tears.
The half-Elf looked at Pisces. He’d frozen. So she knelt and grabbed Yvlon.
“Hey now. It’s not true.”
“But I did lose my team. I did. We lost them. Sometimes I forget their names. Their faces. I don’t dream about them anymore, Ceria. I ran, just like—”
Ceria sat on the ground and grabbed her friend. She rocked back and forth with Yvlon as tears and memory both filled her again. Her eyes stung. She whispered.
“It wasn’t like that. We did all we could. It wasn’t like that. We tried…”
Silently, the [Necromancer] turned his back and began investigating the hole into the sewers. Ceria thought she saw him drop something into the sewers. But she was focused on Yvlon. She wiped at her own eyes as she rocked back and forth. It was very quiet. That was all. And soon, the tears stopped. After all, their friends had died a long time ago, or so it felt now. It just hurt sometimes.
That was all.
And then Ksmvr was alone. He checked out of the jail and the [Sergeant] walked him to the door. No one stopped him. No one tried. After all, he was innocent. Although Ksmvr was quite aware that he could be guilty by association.
That was a common crime he had studied up on while he was learning how Drake and Human society worked. Loitering, resisting arrest, and ‘suspicious behavior’ were all valid tactics used by both Drake and Human [Guards] to opportunistically arrest undesirable elements or pursue personal agendas. It was a very convenient loophole in a system designed for equality.
Ksmvr had quite approved when he’d first studied it in his Hive in his formative two years. If you were going to have a flawed society based on individual freedoms, they might as well be curtailed by those with the true power.
It was lucky the ruse worked. Or I might have been arrested. Which would not have resulted in the death of Comrade Pisces. Hm. So is it good that I successfully lied and endangered my team to no gain? I will not be able to hear the discussion Captain Ceria has with Yvlon.
Ksmvr frowned as he walked away from the jail. To an Antinium, the equivalent of frowning was holding his mandibles close together but not touching, while his antennae drooped slightly. Perhaps, he had been rash. But he had acted on the best information available.
“Now I am a free citizen. Bereft of my team until tomorrow. What should I do?”
The former Prognugator stopped in the street and looked around. He realized everyone was staring at him. Over a hundred pedestrians, from children to people conducting their business, to [Guards] peeking out the windows of their barracks were all staring at him.
Ksmvr the Antinium. He had on his magic cloak, and Ksmvr had his enchanted short sword on his left, with his one good arm. On his right was the little Flamespread Dagger, and his shortbow was positioned to be drawn over his right shoulder as well. He had on four magical rings counting the one Pisces had just given him, and Ksmvr had a necklace on, the one that prevented food poisoning.
There was a little quiver of arrows on his left side, behind the shortsword, and Pisces’ bag of holding was located on the right side of his belt behind the dagger. A row of two potions filled the rest of the belt, as well as a small money pouch containing seven gold coins, fourteen silver, and three copper coins as well as a copper penny, a denomination not always used or accepted, but informally treated as a de facto currency.
In short, Ksmvr was armed and prepared for anything. But since there was nothing to do, the Antinium was lost. He looked around and noticed a good deal of flinching.
“I am clearly unwelcome.”
Those were the facts. They didn’t bother Ksmvr in the slightest. He stared around Celum, wondering what he should do with his time. Captain Ceria had told him not to cause trouble, to not tell Erin about what had occurred unless necessary, and to go to sleep at some point. Beyond that, Ksmvr was free to act autonomously. Which he would.
He wasn’t a slave, after all. And neither was he a mindless drone, like many of the Soldiers and Workers of the Hive were. Ksmvr was aware that his team worried over his behavior sometimes, and regarded it as obsessive. But that was a misconception he had yet to clear up. As he’d told Comrade Pisces time and time again…
“I am not without free will. I have simply chosen to devote my entire life to my team. Because there is nothing else in life that gives me purpose or value. Without it and my teammates, I am nothing.”
What was so hard to understand about that? But Comrade Pisces had gotten such a funny look on his face and awkwardly patted Ksmvr on the shoulder multiple times while clearing his throat. Ksmvr shook his head as he marched down the street.
“Silly Comrade Pisces. He exaggerates, as Yvlon says. But we are all with our quirks. Comrade Pisces is a [Necromancer] and duplicitous. Yvlon has a temper but she is very kind and caring. Captain Ceria eats bugs, which is a trait reviled for some reason and she likes sugary foods. I am a failure and weak link in my team.”
This was the way the world was. Ksmvr walked down the street and headed left. He knew the route, although he’d only been to Celum a few times before and rarely outside of Octavia’s shop. But he had memorized the route the [Guards] had taken to get here from the Adventure’s Guild.
And Ksmvr could trace his route from the guild back to Octavia’s shop if he so chose. He had an excellent spatial memory. And it never occurred to Ksmvr he could take another route. Why bother? He had time and this way was certain.
“What should I do next? Hm. I could drink, but that is a social activity and I do not need further energy reserves. Moreover, tipsiness is difficult for Antinium to acquire without Rxlvn. I could practice? Or acquire valuable information by listening to Captain Bevussa and the other adventures in Liscor’s guild. Perhaps Miss Selys has—”
Ksmvr was pondering his options as the Adventurer’s Guild appeared before him. He walked up to the front door, turned around, and then began walking in the direction of Octavia’s shop. But it was then that he paused. Something was happening. Ksmvr looked down.
His rings were…vibrating on his fingers. Ksmvr hadn’t noticed it at first, but they were definitely shaking. And the vibration was getting stronger; it had grown to the point where he could feel it, even with his limited nervous system. He stopped at once and investigated the phenomenon.
“My rings are vibrating. Why? A spell? Perhaps. A function I was not aware of? Comrade Pisces’ ring? But he has never mentioned it. And…all four rings are vibrating. And my sword. And necklace. And bow and dagger and…”
Ksmvr suddenly realized that all the magical items were shaking. From the cloak, to the bow, to the sword…and they the effect was increasing in magnitude exponentially. He looked at his gear, alarmed.
“What is this? What will happen if it grows worse?”
He hesitated. This was something he would ask Captain Ceria or Comrade Pisces about. But what should he do? He was about to check for someone casting a spell on him from afar when his predicament attracted the attention of one of the adventurers exiting the guild.
Crossbow Stan. The man was talking to Alais, the [Aeromancer] and Silver-rank Captain Ksmvr had been introduced to. He paused as he saw Ksmvr and his expression was guarded. Then his eyes widened in horror as he saw what was happening to Ksmvr’s gear.
“Troll balls! It’s dissonance! Pull those rings off!”
He bellowed at Ksmvr. The Antinium looked up.
Stan waved his arms frantically. Alais looked up, alarmed. Her eyes widened as well, signifying great alarm to the Antinium. Genuine alarm. She shouted.
“Your gear! There’re too many enchantments! Take it off! Now! Or it’ll explode!”
Explode? Ksmvr’s arms moved in a blur. The adventurers blinked as the weapons, rings, and necklace all fell to the ground in a blur. Ksmvr was yanking at his cloak as Stan called out.
“It’s fine! It’s fine…Ksmvr? Look, the shaking’s stopped, see?”
Ksmvr paused. It was true. The shaking had stopped, and the rings and his weapons had ceased vibrating, even though they were all piled on top of each other on the ground. He bent to investigate.
“Curious. But they are in closer proximity. Why has the effect ceased?”
“Because they’re enchantments. You can’t have too many on your person at once. All of ‘em in the same place isn’t so bad; they’re not active. You could toss twice as many artifacts in a bag of holding without a worry. But on you? They’ll explode, or the enchantments will combine or break or do something nasty.”
Stan and Alais came over with a few of their teammates. The old man was wiping at his balding head as he stared at Ksmvr.
“I’m surprised you had that many on you before without the dissonance kicking in. Most adventurers have a limit of four items, max, including a bag of holding. Did Ceria or Yvlon not teach you the basics?”
The tone in his voice was accusatory. Ksmvr instantly took offense. He straightened and spoke slowly.
“I was made aware of the issue. But it has never come up until now. I am given to understand these artifacts are high-quality. It seems Comrade Pisces’ ring and bag of holding exceeded my threshold.”
“Must be. Damned thing. Glad nothing happened. I’ve only seen the dissonance get that bad once; and then the fellow’s gear all imploded. Took parts of him with it.”
Crossbow Stan shuddered and some of the adventurers blanched. Ksmvr bent.
“I see. Then may I assume I can reequip my gear and stow the rest?”
“That’s right. Just put what you don’t need in that bag of holding and put the rest on one by one until you feel a quiver. Slowly…”
Ksmvr obeyed. He put on his gear, piece by piece, until he saw the telltale vibration start. Then he immediately pulled off the offending item and rearranged his equipment. It seemed that he had indeed reached the limit of items he could equip. But—it wasn’t as bad as he had feared. Ksmvr ended up only putting two items in the bag of holding.
“I suppose the necklace is least useful. Followed by…the Ring of Waterbreathing. However, it may be very important. I will reequip it at the slightest sign of rain. Happily, it appears I can wear my rings, cloak, sword, bow, dagger…and bag of holding together without issue.”
The adventurers watched as Ksmvr reequipped himself. Alais was blinking hard and one of her teammates was staring.
“That’s a lot of magical equipment!”
Ksmvr looked up. He noted that the other Silver-rank adventurers all possessed one or two magical items each. A wand and some enchanted robes, or an amulet or a mildly enchanted sword. You could tell, sometimes, by the way the light shone on the metal. Or sometimes [Enchanters] added superfluous effects like a sparkling blade. Usually that meant they were low-grade. Crossbow Stan stared at Klbkch as he put the ring away.
“A Ring of Waterbreathing? Well, ain’t that a useful little tool? Not that I’d take a contract fighting monsters in the water. Still—how many items does your team have, er, Ksmvr, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid that information is classified, Captain Crossbow Stan. I would not like to reveal my team’s secrets without Captain Ceria’s permission. If you were her friend, I think that information would not be so confidential.”
“Captain Crossbow Stan?”
One of the adventurers laughed and Stan flushed a bit, but he did smile, which indicated to Ksmvr his words were humorous or at least, well-received. The adventurers stopped in the street and Ksmvr noted they were giving him a moderately friendly look. Cautious, but not nearly as hostile as the looks they had directed at the rest of his team. Perhaps Antinium were more welcome than [Necromancers] and perceived team-killers? Interesting.
“We’re—sort of friends. Your Captain, and I. Ceria and Yvlon—I did know them back in the day. So you can tell me what you’ve got, surely?”
Captain Stan’s tone was what Ceria would have described as ‘wheedling’. And his smile was too fake, much like the ones Comrade Pisces sometimes wore. Ksmvr instantly reevaluated his assessment of the adventurers; they were probing for information. So the Antinium reacted appropriately.
“Your fight in the guild would indicate you are not friends with my teammates, Captain Crossbow. You attempted to shoot my teammate in the stomach.”
“Hah. Well, that was—had to stop him animating undead, right? I didn’t know it wasn’t going to savage the others.”
“And the lightning?”
Ksmvr looked at Alais. The [Aeromancer] looked uncomfortable.
“It was a fight. Besides, Yvlon had that enchanted armor on.”
“Damn. She didn’t use to have that. And her levels! She put down at least a dozen people by herself. Caddin’s going to need healing for at least a few days. Too soon for the job.”
One of Alais’ teammates complained sourly. He didn’t quite glare at Ksmvr. Alais glared and one of the other teammates nudged the complainer. Stan gave them a meaningful look and a nod of the head. Another unspoken message. We need to talk to the Antinium and acquire information due to its naiveté, so cease making inappropriate comments! That was Ksmvr’s read of the body language. He continued playing the part.
“I do not understand. If you are their friends, why the reason for the hostility and the fight? Your accusations are without merit, as far as I understand them. If you had confirmed this, you would understand the truth.”
He looked pointedly at Stan. The man rubbed at his head as the other adventurers muttered invectives and curses on Ksmvr’s teammates. Crossbow Stan sighed tiredly.
“Look, Ksmvr. I’m sure you’re a fine…fellow. But those two are—you heard what Caddin said. Well, even if Ceria told us all the truth, it’s hard. Seeing them get out of Liscor like that? And then getting rich in Albez? No one’s pulled out a haul out of there, like we said, for years. It’s just suspicious. And even if it’s not…look, we made our mistakes.”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the guild.
“Why don’t we bury the hatchet? You can at least tell us about Albez, tell us the story. Over a few drinks? And maybe tell us what you got? Those rings and that gear, right?”
As if she’d been waiting, Alais broke in with a smile that Ksmvr read as fake.
“Actually, the guild’s a mess. Why don’t we get a drink? I know a good inn. It’s on us as an apology.”
They glanced at Ksmvr, but they were unable to read the Antinium’s mandibles. And that uncertainty—and the disdain in some of their eyes—was an open book to Ksmvr. He thought quickly.
This scenario will either lead to me revealing some information as a tactical exchange of intelligence, or a situation where I am killed and my equipment looted. It is a fitting use of time in the former case and the latter’s possibility is remote. However—
Ksmvr looked at the adventurer standing behind Alais who’d been complaining, a man with freckles and dusty hair.
“I would like to partake in this conversation. But did I not hear correctly? You have a request, do you not?”
The adventurers blinked. Alais half-turned and then nodded, off-guard. She was already behaving in a friendly manner to Ksmvr. His polite tone and demeanor were no doubt helping this effect, and her own natural desire for his goodwill aided the effect.
“What? Oh, yeah. But it’s a job for tomorrow. We need to get some other teams, but we can spare some time tonight…we’re just going to send a [Message] spell to some teams we know about that bandit job—”
Stan broke in, but it was too late. Ksmvr’s antennae waved quickly.
‘The request involving the bandits? But my team has taken that job.”
Wasn’t it a courtesy between adventurers? Then again…Alais winced.
“Yeah, well, things have changed. The [Receptionist] just got an update on the bounty. Look, you know Adventurer’s Guild share bounties, right? Big ones, at least. They communicate, and with the Merchant and Runner’s Guilds, passing on valuable intelligence. The [Bandits] are one of the things they notified the local cities about.”
“Yeah, well, this [Bandit] group isn’t famous, but they’re still a threat. Enough to wipe out a caravan, even a well-protected one. Sure, they might lose half their number, but the other half will come away rich. And that’s what they wanted. They’ve cut off the trade going through the pass towards Esthelm and Liscor; a few [Merchants] heard about it and upped the bounty by eighty gold coins.”
She paused for what Ksmvr assumed was dramatic effect. He said nothing; reactions were superfluous effort. After a moment Alais awkwardly went on.
“So it’s a hundred gold bounty on that group of [Bandits]. Poor bastards don’t stand a chance with that kind of reward on them. And we’re going to be the group that takes them out.”
Stan was nodding. He looked apologetic as he glanced at Ksmvr.
“You can tell Ceria and Yvlon it’s our contract, now. We’re getting some teams together and we’ll take it. They can do another request when they get out of jail.”
The group of adventurers held their breath as they waited for Ksmvr’s reaction. The Antinium didn’t need to think. He nodded and opened his mandibles happily, raising them.
“Of course. I will relay the message. Good luck with your hunting. And if I do not take up your time, I would join you for a night of drinking and optional debauchery. Perhaps at The Wandering Inn? I will be staying there tonight.”
Both teams looked relieved. Alais smiled.
“Sure. We could meet at sundown? I’ve been meaning to visit that famous inn.”
“So have I. It’s free to use that door, right?”
“It is in Stitchworks, a shop run by an [Alchemist]. The door is not always active, but if you leave it open, it is checked at a regular interval. If I am not there at that time, I may be in my room. Miss Erin will know where to find me. Oh, and do not be alarmed by the Hobgoblin or white Gnoll, both of whom I understand to be objectionable socially in some way.”
Captain Crossbow Stan nodded, covering Alais’ startled reaction.
“I heard about that. We’ll see you then, then.”
“Excellent. I will bring my artifacts for further recommendation. I would not like to have more adverse effects regarding this magical dissonance.”
The adventurers brightened at that. Alais smiled. Ksmvr was turning to go, when he had a thought. He turned back and politely raised a hand.
Stan and Alais turned back as some of their team went into the Guild, perhaps to talk to their other teammates.
“Yes, uh, Ksmvr? Anything else you need?”
“Regarding the [Bandit] group you are pursuing. May I ask where they are based, exactly? I would like to inform my team so we do not accidentally cross paths tomorrow if we take another assignment.”
Both captains hesitated, but Crossbow Stan smiled after only a moment.
“Fair request. And cautious. From where we ran into them and what we know, they’re in the Humpbacker Hills. You know, that really tall section of hills that starts appearing before the actual mountains if you head southwest? Just short of the High Passes—a good ride from Celum by horse, but not too bad. There’s a little valley there. Just stay out of the region; we’re clearing them out tomorrow and we don’t want anyone spooking them beforehand.”
“I understand. I will inform my team. Thank you.”
“See you tonight.”
Ksmvr waved; the other teams left. He saw Alais putting her head together with Stan as they went in the direction of the Mage’s Guild, which was located not far from the Adventurer’s Guild for convenience. Ksmvr wondered how many teams they considered appropriate for this job. He also wondered if the two laughing adventurers in Alais’ team were laughing at him. At the silly Antinium without a clue.
There was something people always misunderstood about Ksmvr. His team as well, but people who didn’t know Ksmvr especially. The Antinium stared at the backs of the adventurers and shook his head slowly.
“I am not stupid. You idiots.”
He turned and hurried down the street. Away from the Adventurer’s guild. Suddenly, Ksmvr had a lot to do. And it was all thanks to his new skills.
Not his Skills. Ksmvr was a Level 18 [Warrior]; an embarrassingly low level. But he had not fought in many engagements. He had shot up in levels from his initial Level 12 status when he’d first joined the Horns of Hammerad, but Ksmvr hadn’t fought much outside a few encounters with the Raskghar. And even then, he’d only leveled once from that.
No matter. Ksmvr had not spent all that time uselessly. He had developed skills along with his Skills, and he had gained them from his companions. From observation. Questions. They were more valuable than any number of levels.
Comrade Pisces’ ability to lie. Comrade Yvlon’s skill at arms and integrity, although the integrity was hard to use properly. Comrade Ceria’s leadership. And more. Ksmvr had observed Erin and Mrsha’s manipulation of innocence and duplicity. These were valuable skills. Ksmvr had put several of them to use for the first time and it had paid off. Now he practically ran back towards Stitchworks. He got there just in time to see the attack.
A group of men wearing cloths over their faces and hoods were standing outside of the [Alchemist]’s shop, shouting. Ksmvr slowed as he noticed they had weapons. Not swords, but rocks, bricks, an empty bottle, and a maul. Their leader had that and he seemed to be issuing a threat. Ksmvr watched with interest was the man with the maul smashed open the boarded up front of Octavia’s shop. The other men threw their stones, bottle, and bricks through the opening. There was a crash of glass.
“Help! Someone get the Watch!”
“You started this, [Alchemist]! Don’t make Mister Quelm finish it! You know what you have to do!”
The [Thug] with the maul bellowed into the shop. Ksmvr could still hear Octavia’s voice from inside. At last, someone else took up the call. Only then did the men turn and scatter.
The Antinium knew from the [Thug]’s speedy retreat that the City Watch was incredibly unlikely to arrest them, even if a [Guard] were in the area to give chase. Not that it mattered; he opened the door to the shop, hoping the stones hadn’t broken everything.
“Stay back! I’m warning you! I—”
Octavia stopped as she held up two bottles filled with her Pepperspray potion. She stared.
“Ksmvr? Oh, thank goodness! Help me out! Those [Thugs] just smashed a hole in my shop! Run them down! Cut off their heads or something!”
She pointed with a shaking finger at the front of her boarded up shop. It was well and truly smashed in, and Ksmvr noted the projectiles had broken a few potions on Octavia’s shelves. Nothing too important; her alchemical wares were intact. He stepped around a puddle.
“Well? What are you waiting for? They’re getting away! Or, no, I know where they’re going. It’s this ass—”
Octavia rushed past Ksmvr, trying to hurry him out of the shop. Ksmvr held up a hand.
“I am not here to assist in that regard, Miss Octavia. This appears to be matter for the City Watch.”
“They won’t help! They think this is a fight between [Alchemists]! Which it is, I’ll grant you, but I didn’t think it would come to this! That damn Quelm bought out the muscle I approached. And he wants—look, do you want money? I’ll pay you! You’re an adventurer, right?”
The [Alchemist] was very insistent. Ksmvr stepped around her and investigated her wares. He addressed Octavia absently.
“I was instructed by Captain Ceria not to cause trouble. I feel that involving myself in this issue would be a mistake, as it is not strictly adventurer’s work. So I will not help you. I do have an order, however. Three healing potions and one stamina potion, please. Also, one smoke cloud bag.”
He had some potions, but more was always welcome. Octavia stared at him.
“Three healing potions please. One stamina. I do not need the smoke cloud bag on second thought. I will not need it.”
“Uh, that’ll be—”
The [Alchemist] numbly accepted the coins Ksmvr handed her. Then she stared at Ksmvr. Her expression was pleading.
“I know I’m not your favorite [Alchemist]. People are making that clear today. But, look, I could really use some help right now. Ksmvr, buddy? Come on, just let me talk to Ceria. I just need some help. I just—”
She reached for Ksmvr’s arm. The Antinium walked back towards the door. One objective down. He turned perfunctorily at the opening in Octavia’s shop front.
“Captain Ceria is currently under arrest. You may talk to her tomorrow. Goodbye.”
Then he left. Octavia ran out after him.
“Wait! Ksmvr. Please?”
But he paid no attention to her. Octavia wasn’t important on Ksmvr’s internal list of affiliates, friends, and teammates. She was useful to his team, but there were many [Alchemists]. Perhaps if he had not been busy, he would have taken up her problems. But he had something to do. Something that mattered.
So Ksmvr hurried down the street, glancing up at the sun. Not even midday, which was good. He needed all the time he could. He wasn’t sure how long he had based on vague directions.
The Antinium made one last stop in the city. He found a local stable. The [Horse Handler] took one look at Ksmvr and went for his belt dagger. The Antinium had to reassure him he wasn’t a monster first, which was an amusing and unnecessary question to ask. When the man was calm, Ksmvr tried again.
“Hello. I would like to rent a horse.”
“What? Naw, naw…you’re pulling my leg. Aren’t ya?”
The man had a thick accent. He stared at Ksmvr as if the Antinium were joking. Ksmvr was not. He pointed at the sign behind the man.
“This is a stable, is it not? It rents horses? I believe the concept is simple. And you are employed here?”
It was indeed a simple concept. Ksmvr gave the man money, a full deposit on a horse, which was quite a lot, and he could ride the horse out right now. If the horse were injured, stolen, or died, Ksmvr would get less or none of his deposit back. Otherwise, he was simply renting the horse for a fee.
He could buy one if he had the funds, but that wasn’t what the Antinium was after. He didn’t have enough for one thing; he was lucky the deposits weren’t the full price of the horse. But that was because the stables operated on trust; the handlers had perfect memories and if you mistreated or stole one of their horses, not only were you banned for life, but the men and women managing the stables across the continent would rat you out to local law enforcement wherever you went. You didn’t cross horse people.
The man running this stable blinked at Ksmvr. For some reason this simple concept seemed to be failing him, the horse handler.
“You’re one of them bug people. Why do you need a horse?”
“Why does anyone need a horse? That is a rhetorical question, by the way.”
The two stared at each other. Ksmvr shifted impatiently. He tried again.
“I am a Silver-rank adventurer. My qualifications are impeccable. I am fully capable of riding a horse. I need one.”
“Naw, naw…I’m not selling to a bug person. Might not get ‘em back. And it’ll break my heart if one of my lads or lasses got hurt. Can’t trust adventurers anyways. Go on. Shoo.”
He waved vaguely at Ksmvr, looking mildly afraid. The Antinium gave up. He strode past the man into the stables.
“Hmm. This horse looks reasonably able. I will pay for this one. Here is the fee.”
Ksmvr dug gold coins out of his pouch, relieved he had enough to pay for the horse’s rental fee. He resolved not to get it killed; it would be far too expensive.
“You can’t just take one! Mister Fairday doesn’t like you anyways. See?”
The horse was indeed frisky. It pranced in its stall, showing Ksmvr the whites of its eyes. It couldn’t decide if it was hostile or afraid. Ksmvr spoke in a soothing voice as he held a hand out.
“Shh. Or I will have to discipline you by riding you firmly while offering you encouragement in the form of food.”
It took him a few seconds, but a calm approach and even calmer voice worked on the horse. It stopped threatening to rear. Ksmvr turned back to the [Horse Handler]. The man looked impressed despite himself, but he refused the coins when Ksmvr tried to pay.
“Look, no offense, but you’re still one of them bug folk. Can’t trust one of you lot on a horse. Who’s to know you don’t eat horses?”
Ksmvr stared at the man as the hostler folded his arms defiantly. The Antinium sighed. Then he spread his arms wide.
“I see. Is it war, then?”
Fifteen minutes later, Ksmvr rode out of Celum’s gates. He knew his presence was noted by the [Guards] on the gate, but he hadn’t spotted any of the adventurers on the short ride out the gates. His horse trotted a hair too quickly, and it snorted a few times. Its ears kept trying to lay flat and it was snorting. But Ksmvr rode patiently and quickly guided the horse down the road.
Heading south. More than one traveller on the road did a double-take at the sight of Ksmvr on the horse’s back. He heard exclamations, oaths, screams, and more on the road. His horse nervously whinnied—Ksmvr made it pick up the pace. Only when he was moving faster and heading off the road, towards a certain landmark did the horse calm and the exclamations cease.
It was better that way; the horse moved slower on the uneven terrain, but Ksmvr vigilantly watched the ground and got off to let the horse rest. Well, rest just meant Ksmvr ran alongside the horse. He was still in a hurry.
He patted the horse now and then soothingly; it wasn’t happy about him being on it, despite the [Horse Handler] doing his best to convince the animal to let the Antinium get on. But Ksmvr was a capable rider and the horse gradually adjusted to his presence. True to his word, Ksmvr did indeed bribe the animal with food, which no doubt helped.
Was it really that much of a surprise to see Ksmvr on horseback? The Antinium wondered to himself as he rode.
“Yes, perhaps. My team might well be surprised. But they would not be if they considered my origin. Riding is among one of my abilities.”
It was true. Ksmvr could ride, shoot, fight with almost any weapon commonly used across all five continents, lead an army with any number of strategies, perform rapid calculations, hide, assassinate, identify poisons, fight barehanded, construct fortifications, identify a wide variety of spells, read and more. He had been created and trained to be superior to his common counterparts in every way. And even if he was a failure, he had been made in the image of one of the greatest Antinium to have ever lived.
Klbkch the Slayer. Only, Ksmvr was an inferior copy. A defect. As the Antinium rode towards his destination, he thought to himself and out loud. That was what Ksmvr the Antinium did when he was alone. He thought about the future, the present, and the past. Especially the past.
“I was created in secret. To be a Prognugator of the Free Antinium should Klbkch ever fall. I was not meant to exist; my very existence was illegal.”
He knew that. The Free Queen had told him herself. To create him, she had experimented, replicated the methods of making Prognugators of old. It had been costly, and done without the Grand Queen’s authority; she had not desired unique Antinium to come from the Free Antinium’s Hive.
But the Free Queen was gifted. And she remembered how it was done. There had been countless failures. But Ksmvr had been created out of the phenomenal cost to the Hive. Only, he’d been wrong.
Just how wrong? Ksmvr had narrowed his failure down. He spoke out loud as his horse bore him on.
“My faults were twofold. Firstly, in my body. In my origin.”
His body was that of a Worker’s. The Free Queen had only had two forms to choose between; she had spent time on his creation, not towards developing a new form of Antinium. Ksmvr did not understand the formulation process, but he understood it was beyond difficult; even changing a few details about the Worker and Soldier’s forms could throw off body chemistry, balance, muscle formation, and a thousand variables that would create useless rejects.
And because Ksmvr needed the use of his hands, he had become a Worker. Klbkch had been given the same form. But it was a mistake.
“The Worker form is weak. Too weak for a Prognugator. Both Revalantor Klbkch and I suffered from its ungainliness. Four arms are useful, but the agility of Klbkch’s current form with two arms far befits his style.”
Ksmvr had dueled Klbkch after the Revelator’s rebirth. That had hammered home just how ill-at-ease Klbkch must have been in a Worker’s body. Of course, Ksmvr had known his Worker’s body all his life, but only after seeing Klbkch had he understood how fluid and beautiful the Slayer’s fighting style really was. The style Ksmvr had learned from imitating Klbkch had been developed out of necessity. It was weak. However—
“That was a minor fault. Levels and experience may still compensate for biological disadvantage. It speaks to my inferiority. Revalantor Klbkch’s current form is far more agile and adept. As are the other Prognugator’s bodies. I observed Pivr and Tersk’s forms to both be superior in construction to my own. But body only limits my capabilities. My second fault was far worse. It lay in…me.”
Ksmvr touched his chest. He thought about his first assignment. His first responsibility in the days after Klbkch had been brought to the Hive. Slain by Goblins of all things, protecting a young girl with his body when he could have easily finished off the Goblins if he’d let her die. Ksmvr remembered and it hurt.
“At that time I truly thought I was equal to him. I thought I could replace him just like that. That was what my Queen said. Did she lie? Or did she mistake me. Surely…she knew. She knew. Only I did not know.”
The Antinium paused. He reined in the horse and let it rest. He fed it water. Then he leaned against it. He wished he could close his eyes to the truth. But the Antinium’s eyes never closed.
“No, I knew. I just pretended I did not.”
Walking, now. Ksmvr led the horse. His destination was closer than he thought. He didn’t need to hurry; he needed to arrive at a specific time in the evening anyways. It gave him time to think. To remember.
“The days after Klbkch fell were exciting. I felt happy to be in charge. But when the undead attacked. I was—”
Trying to figure out how to protect the Hive when Liscor fell. Ordering the Soldiers to hold their ground around the Hive’s entrance, ignoring the desperate pleas from Watch Captain Zevara. Trying to ignore what he was truly feeling.
Fear. Wondering if he’d made the right choice not sending aid to Liscor, to the inn with Erin Solstice. Hiding behind the simplicity of logic. Waiting for orders. For relief. And when it had come, it had come in the simplest of forms: a fist to the face.
“I should have fought. I should have understood. But I didn’t. It was so easy when I was learning how to fulfill my job. My Queen, why did you not tell me how hard it was to make choices? To be alive?”
Ksmvr looked further south, towards a split in the towering mountains. There lay his Hive. His home. But they did not need him. They had cast him out. A reject. Ksmvr tasted as he stopped for lunch; the beautiful lunch he’d bought from a stall vendor was dust. He offered the rest to the horse after eating a satisfactory amount of nutrition.
“Failure. And again. Failure.”
First the Hive. Then he had been offered redemption at Albez. But he had failed there too. He had contributed so little. And Yvlon. Her arms were damaged, perhaps permanently as a result of her doing what Ksmvr had failed to do; destroy the fire elemental.
What was worse, what truly hurt, was that she hadn’t blamed him for it. She’d told Ksmvr eighty four times it wasn’t his fault. That he’d done all he could. That he was a valuable part of the team. She said such…wonderful lies like that. They all did.
Resting was done. Ksmvr got up and began to walk. His horse excreted as it followed him. Ksmvr stared ahead.
“And then? Cowardice. Fear of the water. With a Ring of Water Breathing. I lost my Captain. I could not stop the Raskghar from taking her.”
Mistake and mistake again. Captain Ceria had been kidnapped and Ksmvr could have stopped the Raskghar. But he’d been swatted away. And he had been afraid of going in the water. Afraid. If they had been faster, if he hadn’t delayed…
If, if, if. It boiled down to the same thing. What he had talked with his team about. Ksmvr was the weakest. He knew it. In level, in experience. In diversity of talents. He was a burden on his team.
But he could not be forever. Or else they would make the rational decision at last and get rid of him. Replace him with someone more capable. Like Olesm, who was far higher-level. Or Numbtongue, who had multiple powerful Skills and a superior body. Or Mrsha. She could cast magic.
Ksmvr drooped as he walked. It was true. He knew it. The only reason his team had not cast him away was because they were not rational. They were kind. How weak. How…wonderful. He could not let them down again.
“Never again. I would rather die.”
That was all Ksmvr said. He walked forwards, towards a cluster of hills. The sun set overhead, slowly falling out of the sky. And at last, as evening fell, as the sun was lowering beyond the ridge of mountains half blocking it to the west, did Ksmvr stop. He spotted smoke, so two miles away he tethered his horse to a tree. It whickered and lipped at his palm as he offered it some oats.
It had grown to like him, somehow. Ksmvr gently tied it, so that if a predator attacked it, the horse might yank free in desperation. He stared at the horse as it tried to bite at a leaf on the tree he’d tied it to.
“You are a simple creature. I envy you your guiltless life. Until you break a bone or grow too old and are no doubt slaughtered for food or parts. But then, so are the Antinium. We are much alike, you and I.”
He reached out.
“Pat. Pat. If I do not come back, try to stay alive for a day. The other teams may find you.”
The horse made a horse sound. Ksmvr stared at it. Then he checked his equipment. Shortsword. Dagger. Three rings. Potions. Cloak. Shortbow. Arrows. He turned and began walking towards the distant smoke trail.
Ksmvr hesitated. Then he came back and stroked the animal for a few minutes longer.
And then he left. The horse watched Ksmvr go until he was a blob in the distance. Then it resumed trying to eat leaves off the tree.
The [Bandits] haunting the road south to Liscor and Esthelm had no name. They weren’t nearly big enough to earn a title of notoriety. They hadn’t even existed as a group for more than two weeks, really. Of course, they had all kinds of names they called themselves. The Devils of Humpbacker Hill, the Scourge of Celum, Remendia’s Nightmares…it had to be said their names weren’t that original or impressive.
They were just [Bandits] of the ordinary kind. They’d come out of some [Thugs] from the city, a local gang of [Raiders], [Poachers], and [Thieves] mixing with some honest, simple [Bandits] who’d survived long enough to have a few tricks. The reason they’d migrated to robbing [Merchants] was because they had a [Bandit Leader] and more than a few decently-leveled members.
They were becoming more dangerous, but they’d lost as many of their group as had joined. Healing potions were scarce, people on the road often had guards, and they’d had a run in with some adventurers. They’d killed one group; the other had gotten away. But the bandit group was still relatively confident. Some were even talking about moving after a few scores around here. Hence the fancy names.
But it was notable that the [Bandits] didn’t call themselves the Bloodfeast Raiders or pretend to be the other notorious [Bandit] groups like the famous Gnoll group, the Tailscutters. You didn’t cross the really bad groups. Because they were real. And they were oh so nasty if they thought someone was imitating them. Worse than any stinking group of Silver-rank adventurers…
And the [Bandits] were ready for an attack. They knew they would be attacked, so they invited it. Why not? Adventurers meant their gear was loot, and they had magic and you could ransom some of them. The [Bandits] would level from them, so they’d planted their bait. A careless bit of smoke and they’d camped in the same spot for days now.
They’d even propped up some corpses to look like they were in the camp. Only, if anyone got close, the real sentries would alert the hidden camp and they’d emerge from a hidden cave and cut the attackers to bits.
It would work, too. There were two good [Mages] in the group and a heavy-hitter who’d been a former Silver-rank adventurer herself. And their [Bandit Leader] was a devil of a fellow, fast with his enchanted longsword and merciless. They could wipe out the local Silver-rank teams. All they had to do was wait and feast on their spoils in the meantime. And if a passerby strayed too close? All the more fun.
The strange figure approaching the [Bandit]’s fake smoke signal mystified the [Sentries] at first. The appointed watchers stared first in confusion and then mild alarm at the approaching creature. They scrambled to alert their group. The thing was approaching the camp on purpose. And it looked like a traveller, or maybe an adventurer. But none of them had ever seen something like this.
When the [Bandit Leader] finally roused himself to look, he shouted a curse and ordered the entire group of bandits out of the cave. He ignored the questions of the others as he grabbed his weapon.
“Come on, you flesh bag bastards! Get moving! Surround it, but no one attack! I didn’t think they left their damn Hives. We’re going to have some fun.”
He swished his tail with excitement as he raced out of the cave. Nearly thirty [Bandits] followed him. They were smaller in number than Alais and Stan had estimated, but no less deadly. The group emerged from their cover and surrounded the traveller on the road. He looked around as they formed a circle, whooping and shouting. Some of the [Bandits] recoiled at the sight of Ksmvr, but he waved happily.
“Hello! I have a question! Excuse me…”
He caught sight of their leader. The [Bandit Leader] was striding towards him, a huge grin on his face. To Ksmvr’s surprise, the person was a Drake. The Antinium stopped as the Drake halted in front of him.
“Well, well. An Antinium? What can I do for you, friend?”
He gave Ksmvr a huge, toothy smile as his tail moved slowly back and forth behind him. Ksmvr spoke brightly as he looked around at the [Bandit] group.
“One, two, three, four…hello. My name is Ksmvr. I am a friendly traveller and adventurer looking for the location of some [Bandits] camped around this location. Would you happen to know where they are?”
The Drake blinked at Ksmvr. Then he threw back his head and guffawed. The other [Bandits] laughed as well. Ksmvr looked around. He took a few steps forwards towards the [Bandit Leader].
“Excuse me. I am not sure what is funny. I asked—”
He stopped as the Drake lazily extended one hand. His enchanted sword’s tip poked into the front of Ksmvr’s chest. The Antinium stared down at it.
“That answer your question, Ant?”
The [Bandits] went silent with expectation. Ksmvr tilted his head from side to side as he eyed the blade.
“I am uncertain. Is this an indication of direction? Or intent? If you are said [Bandits], I would prefer verbal confirmation.”
The Drake chuckled.
“Of course we’re the [Bandits]. Typical Antinium.”
His head half turned and he addressed the watching [Bandits].
“Stupid as they come. I don’t know why the city put up with—”
Ksmvr swept up the blade with one arm and lunged. The Drake reflexively tried to jump back, but the Antinium barreled into him. Ksmvr’s hands were bare as they came up. The longsword tried to cut into his side. Two of Ksmvr’s arms caught the Drake’s. The third dragged at the [Bandit Leader]’s neck spines. The Drake cursed as he tried to throw Ksmvr.
“Ancestors damn it! Get him—”
He screamed and then the noise became a terrible gurgling rasp. The Drake stumbled back, hands clutched to this throat. A stream of red gushed between his claws. The [Bandits] stared. Slowly, the [Bandit Leader] let go. His throat was gone. He fell, making a bubbling sound. And Ksmvr straightened.
The Antinium spat something on to the ground. The [Bandits] around him recoiled. They were paralyzed; they stared at the Antinium for one gut-wrenching second. Ksmvr closed his bloody mandibles and the incisors in his true mouth closed. He looked around.
“Thank you. I was certain, but confirmation is helpful. Let’s see.”
Ksmvr spun. His shortsword appeared in his left hand. His dagger in his right. He reached into his bag of holding; the Forceshield flickered into life. The [Bandits] backed up. Too slow. Ksmvr charged right. A young woman with a sword tried to bring it up. Ksmvr lunged. His enchanted shortsword went through her worn leather armor. The thrust carried her into the ground. Ksmvr planted one foot on her chest and yanked his blade free. He looked left and slashed.
A [Bandit] jumped clear of the shortsword. Ksmvr raised his Forceshield. The man on his right swung with a wild scream; his club bounced off the shimmering, translucent field generated by the magical buckler. Ksmvr’s arm didn’t so much as waver. His dagger shot out and the man ducked back.
Too late, he realized Ksmvr was aiming for that. The Antinium whirled right. His left arm came up. The [Thug] tried to block. The club intercepted the blade, but Ksmvr’s momentum carried through. The shortsword stopped, cutting into the club and the man’s head, across his eyes. Ksmvr pulled his blade back.
He turned. The [Bandits] stared at him, but the shock had run its course. One of them shouted.
“Get that thing! Kill it!”
The rest finally moved. Those with ranged weapons or magic ran back as the others advanced shoulder-to-shoulder. The air was filled with panicked shouts.
“He killed the boss!”
“Don’t let it get close! That shield’s magic!”
“Out of the way!”
The [Bandit] with the largest voice was a woman in full plate armor. The former Silver-rank adventurer. She had a huge spiked mace in hand and a shield in the other. She rushed past the slower [Bandits], aiming at Ksmvr with a roar. The Antinium turned. He raised his hand. Three rings shone on his fingers.
He flicked his wrist at the woman in armor.
The ring Pisces had given Ksmvr flashed. A flicker of silver, a translucent bolt as thin as a needle shot out. The woman couldn’t dodge. The bolt struck her plate armor, and the armor and the [Bandit]’s body cracked. Ksmvr saw the armor break where the bolt had passed through, then blood begin to drip from the opening. The woman was already dropping. Already dead.
The [Bandits] charging Ksmvr slowed, tripping over themselves. Someone shouted in horror. The others tripped over themselves to get back. Some couldn’t believe it. The woman in armor was dead. Just like that. Her armor, her levels, that little spell had gone through it all like it was nothing. It wasn’t fair.
“Twenty six. Heavy armor down. Three high-level opponents remaining. One [Swordsman], two [Mages].”
Ksmvr looked around. The [Bandits] were milling, afraid to approach now. But they were mobilizing. Some were racing towards their cave. Others taking their ground. Ksmvr advanced on the melee fighters who’d closed. They swung at him, swearing. He lifted his Forceshield.
“Get clear! I can’t get a good—”
One of the [Mages] was shouting, gesturing for his comrades to fall back. They tried, but Ksmvr kept advancing. He jabbed with his shortsword, but they kept back. He slashed at a [Warrior] wearing chainmail and holding a shield and sword.
This time Ksmvr’s blade deflected off the hide shield. The man jabbed back, shouting as his buddies to get around. Ksmvr saw the [Bandits] moving and struck a blow before retreating with his third arm. He lanced out with the dagger as his left arm pretended to thrust low at the man’s shins.
The man saw the feint with the sword and shifted his shield. With a snarl of triumph, he blocked the dagger. The curved metal tip stuck into the hide shield. Ksmvr nodded.
The metal of the enchanted Flamespread Dagger turned red. Then it ignited. The flames raced across the hide shield in the blink of an eye. It covered the shield, the arm holding it, and then the man in a moment. He was engulfed by flames. For a second he didn’t know what had happened. His laughter turned to confusion. And then pain.
The burning [Bandit] screamed and dropped his weapons. He stumbled towards his companions, hands outstretched, and then dropped to the ground and began to writhe. The other [Bandits] looked horrified. They ducked back as Ksmvr slashed at them with dagger and shortsword.
Ksmvr began to utter the command again, but a blow struck him from behind. A woman hammered the back of his head with a mallet. Ksmvr stumbled, turned. He swung his dagger and shortsword, but she jumped back. This time someone struck him from the side; a spear jabbing towards his side. Ksmvr deflected the blade.
Surrounded. He looked around. The [Warriors] had all closed with him. They were lashing out, attacking together. Ksmvr blocked with his Forceshield, parrying with his shortsword at the same time. He effortlessly blocked the mallet again with the shield, but someone hit him in the back. He stumbled.
Not good. Ksmvr bent his knees and took a blow to the face. He sat down. He had to get up. He had to—a [Bandit] was snarling at him, mallet raised. And the burnt [Bandit] was on his feet. Somehow he had survived. He got up and lunged, biting. He tackled the woman with a mallet. And began clawing at her. Biting at her…face…?
She was screaming. The [Bandits] surrounding Ksmvr turned their heads. They saw their friend, biting, trying to eat his friend. They couldn’t understand. The burnt [Bandit] tore a chunk of flesh off the mallet-wielding woman and she howled. She bashed at him, pushing him off her and another [Bandit] ran through his companion with a spear. But that didn’t end the nightmare. The corpse stumbled forwards, arms grasping, mouth open impossibly wide.
A zombie. Ksmvr pushed himself up. He swung his sword, forcing a [Bandit] back. Another swung a greatsword at his stomach. He blocked with the Forceshield effortlessly. His dagger darted down, touched the greatsword as the [Raider] tried to pull it back.
Flame. The man screamed and burned and fell down. Ksmvr turned. The zombie was flailing at the others, ignoring the spear in its stomach. And someone else was on his feet.
The Drake. He lurched forwards, ignoring the hole in this throat. He took another [Bandit] by surprise. As she whirled, he buried his teeth on the place where neck met collarbone and began to chew. Her screaming drowned out the other sounds for a few seconds, even when her friends tore the undead Drake off her.
Ksmvr slashed at another [Bandit], forcing them to split their attention between him and the two zombies. They stared at him. Someone shouted.
“Oh hells, it’s an Antinium [Necromancer]! Run for your lives!”
It was a young man. He turned to run. An [Ice Spike] flashed past his face. It buried itself in the head of the burnt zombie. The undead staggered and fell down, but it was rising. A [Mage] roared; his hands shimmered with ice magic.
“It’s just a zombie! Kill that Antinium!”
The two zombies clawed upwards. But the [Bandits] were faster and more agile. They hammered at the corpses. Ksmvr looked for an opening, but the [Mage] was targeting him. He saw a [Bandit] charge him with another shortsword. Something flew between them as Ksmvr braced. The [Bandit] halted, swiped at his face. Something landed on it, dodging around his hand.
A Face-Eater Moth. It was pale, wings tattered. And it was dead. But it still flew. The [Bandit] recoiled in horror, swiping at it, but it had latched onto his skin. He screamed as the undead Face-Eater Moth’s razor-sharp maw opened and tried to take off his nose. Ksmvr jumped forwards and stabbed the man through the stomach. He stared as the little Face-Eater Moth fluttered past him and the man’s corpse jerked.
“Thank you, Comrade Pisces. Don’t tax yourself unduly, please. Long-range undead summoning must be difficult.”
In fact, only three zombies rose from the fallen [Bandits]. But it was enough of a distraction. Ksmvr ran free, pausing to set fire to two more [Bandits].
“Terith. Terith. Terith.”
The third time he thrust with the Flamespread Dagger and spoke the word, the bandit blocking did not ignite. He stumbled back, flailing in horror anyways, so Ksmvr cut him across the arm, but the man’s scale mail blocked a fatal blow. Ksmvr ran past him, winning clear of the [Warriors]. He raised his shield and an [Ice Spike] blasted past his head. Ksmvr ran towards the steep incline of a hill ahead of him; a rocky face littered with soil and grass provided him with a wall to put his back behind. He spun.
The shard of ice splintered off Ksmvr’s Forceshield. The [Mage] snarled in disbelief. Ksmvr lowered the shield. The warriors had fallen back to let the two [Mages] and archers work. They began lobbing spells at Ksmvr. One was shooting [Ice Spikes], an inferior version of Ceria’s spell but no less deadly, the other threw orbs of acid. Ksmvr ran with his back to the hill, holding his Forceshield up as he did, he sheathed the Flamespread Dagger.
“Four applications in combat. Uncertain recharge time. Another deficiency I should have investigated beforehand.”
A blob of acid splashed at Ksmvr’s feet. He recoiled as the stinging liquid nearly struck his legs. Then he turned. A blur—a [Bandit] on horseback! There were eight of them, riding at him from their cave, screaming. The first had a spear.
The [Bandits] were screaming. Ksmvr held up his shield as more spells and arrows struck the hill behind him. He crouched to shield himself, but that meant he couldn’t run. And the [Bandits] on horseback were aiming right at him. The lead rider couched the spear like a lance. He aimed down at Ksmvr’s heart.
His spear shot out. Ksmvr looked up. And he jumped. The [Bandit] spear tracked up, aiming at him. At his head, at his belly, his feet—
The men and women looked up. Ksmvr flew ten feet up into the air. He turned as he flew.
The [Bandit] riding down on him looked up. He tried to dodge in the saddle. Ksmvr’s shortsword sheared through part of his head. The horse reared and fled as its rider dropped from the saddle. The Antinium landed. He spun, leapt again.
A horse reared. The woman with a sword in hand tried to hold on. Ksmvr leapt over the horse and struck her on the way down. She fell out of the saddle and the horse, overbalanced, fell on her. Ksmvr rolled. He raised his Forceshield, blocked a swinging long-handled club as a [Bandit] rode past him and leapt.
“He can fly?”
The Antinium sprang up the side of the hill. Each jump took him higher and higher. Ksmvr couldn’t fly. But he could jump impossibly high. The [Bandits] on horseback circled the hill, staring up at him. Ksmvr stopped. Then he leapt down and landed on a passing rider.
The impact broke the horse’s legs. It killed the [Bandit]. Ksmvr tumbled down but he was on his feet in an instant. The Ring of Jumping had negated the impact. For him. He looked down at the broken man’s spine and the dying horse.
Magic. Ksmvr was too slow this time. The [Ice Spike] shattered on the rim of his Forceshield, spraying him with fragments of ice. But the Antinium had an exoskeleton, not skin. He leapt back and the [Bandits] charging him cursed.
“It’s too fast!”
“Pull back! Surround it when it jumps down! Don’t get too close!”
The [Mage] with the ice spell pointed. There were at least ten [Archers] behind him. They had poor aim, most of them. But their arrows still tracked Ksmvr as he leapt back up the steep incline. The Antinium landed on a rock and perched there, nearly twenty feet up. He sheathed his shortsword.
One of the men on the ground swung his sword as he stared up at the distant Antinium. He turned to a man who’d retrieved the magical longsword wielded by their former [Bandit Leader]. The [Swordsman] grunted.
“Let the [Mages] and [Archers] pick that thing off. If it comes down—charge it!”
“But what if it runs aw—”
The man stumbled. He blinked down at the arrow in his chest and fell forwards. The [Swordsman] recoiled. Then ducked. A second arrow missed him.
Ksmvr took aim again. The [Mage] with the ice spells shot an [Ice Spike] at him; Ksmvr’s third arm delicately maneuvered the Forceshield into place. The spell shattered on his magical buckler. Ksmvr lowered the shield, raised his bow with his other two arms and shot the arrow he’d drawn.
A scream. The [Ice Mage] dropped, clawing at the arrow in his thigh. Ksmvr drew another arrow. Loosed it as he calmly shielded his face with his Forceshield.
“A handy way of fighting. Three arms is beneficial.”
The [Mage] trying to yank the arrow out sprouted an arrow from his collar. This time he stopped moving. The [Bandits] milled about. The remaining [Mage] and [Swordsman] pointed.
The ones on the ground hesitated. They had the numbers, still. They outnumbered Ksmvr by a lot. But the incline was steep. As a group advanced on Ksmvr, more arrows frantically shot at the Antinium. A few were on target but none hit Ksmvr. Because of his Forceshield.
The magical buckler was only a bit bigger than Ksmvr’s hand. But the field it projected created a huge shield. And unless it overloaded, Ksmvr had an unbreakable shield. One that had no weight and transmitted no force from the impact. The [Bandits] couldn’t overload the shield. And Ksmvr had three arms. He drew an arrow and loaded his bow as he held his shield up, covering his vitals. Then, swiftly, he aimed and fired. A [Bandit] fell, rolling down the hill and screaming. And before anyone could blink, Ksmvr’s shield was back up.
There he stood. Shortbow in one hand, Forceshield in the other. The magical shield was raised as Ksmvr nocked another arrow and aimed. A flurry of arrows shot towards him, a coordinated volley, too many to block. Ksmvr turned around, showing the [Bandits] his magical cloak. The arrows glancing off the rock face around him could have been rain; they struck his cloak and failed to penetrate the magical cloth.
“Ah. That explains why I survived blows from behind. A cloak is useful.”
Ksmvr turned back around. His third arm moved his shield and blocked a ball of green acid; he calmly flicked the magical substance backwards and watched it splash down on the [Bandits] climbing up towards him. He deflected an arrow. Then with his other two hands he aimed and loosed his.
“Fall back! Get back to the cave!”
The [Swordsman] on the ground shouted at his companions. He could see what Ksmvr already knew; the [Bandits] would never pry him from his ledge. And Ksmvr could advance and retreat as much as he wanted. The Humans streamed backwards. Ksmvr loosed more arrows, but they had their shields up. He took this moment to drink a healing potion, then a stamina potion. He counted.
“Hm. That [Mage].”
Ksmvr focused on the [Mage] who had been throwing acid. She was retreating quickly. But she wasn’t as fast as the others. And they thought Ksmvr was going to stay on the hill. So he leapt.
Down from the hillside, falling. Leap; the ground blurred and Ksmvr soared up. He fell as the [Bandits] turned. But he leapt again, covering the ground as his Ring of Jumping carried him up. Leaping forwards like a frog. Landing—
The [Mage] tried to duck. Ksmvr lashed out with the shortsword and dagger he’d drawn. The sword glanced off her arm. The dagger buried itself in her stomach.
No fire. Ksmvr twisted the dagger and the woman screamed. He pulled the weapon free.
The side! Ksmvr twisted. This time he was too slow. The [Swordsman] darted forwards, magic longsword in hand. He sliced at Ksmvr’s side and his sword blurred under Ksmvr’s guard. The Antinium staggered.
“I’ve got him! I’ve g—”
The [Swordsman] stopped. He stared. Ksmvr looked down at his side.
The magical blade was lodged in Ksmvr’s side. It had cut into his carapace. But not deep. The magic blade was—stuck. The [Swordsman] tried to slice through Ksmvr. But he couldn’t. And when he tried to pull the blade out he failed.
Ksmvr lashed out with his shortsword and dagger. The [Swordsman] made the mistake of trying to hold onto his weapon; the shortsword flashed down and he stumbled back, screaming as his stump of a hand squirted blood. He ran as Ksmvr swung at him. Ksmvr dropped the Flamespread dagger and felt urgently at his side. The blood—there wasn’t much blood. How? That sword was magical. How…?
Ksmvr stared at his hand. Three rings flashed at him. Ring of Jumping. Ring of Shatterbolt. And…
“Ah. My Ring of [Barkskin]. I’d nearly forgotten about it. Thank you for reminding me.”
He straightened. An arrow struck him in the shoulder. The tip buried itself in his shoulder. But it only lodged in the outer layer of his carapace. Ksmvr looked around.
There were still nearly twenty of them. The [Swordsman] was drinking down a healing potion, clutching at his hand. They retreated towards the cave.
“Hold it back. It’s got some kind of protective enchantment. We need to bash it’s brains in. Just hold the cave. It can’t jump in there…”
The [Swordsman] was sobbing. The [Bandits] retreated, watching the Antinium walk slowly towards them. It was blocking the arrows with its shield. But it hadn’t pulled out its shortbow.
“We can kill it. There’s just one. There’s just one. Get the warhammers. Get ropes! We’ll surround it.”
The [Swordsman] ordered desperately as he clutched a plain shortsword with his offhand. The others hesitated. The [Swordsman]’s face was pale and he’d lost his good hand. He wouldn’t lead after this. But he would help them kill the Antinium who’d stolen his hand. They dropped their blades, grabbed mallets and hammers and ropes, set themselves at the entrance to the cave. It was a good strategy. It would work. It would have worked. But as they waited, tense, silent, they realized something.
The Antinium had vanished. He’d slipped out of sight while they retreated. And something else had happened. Something terrible.
It was simple. The sun had set.
And suddenly—it was dark. The [Bandits] stood together in the cave as blood dried and sweat turned to ice. They looked at each other.
Suddenly, it was very dark. The sun had disappeared behind the High Passes. And in its absence, they were suddenly blind. The [Swordsman] looked around.
“S-someone get a torch. Or a [Light] spell—”
“Yimmie’s dead. So is Freezy.”
One of the others muttered in the darkness. Someone else fumbled for a torch, cursing.
“Anyone got a fire spell? I’ve got a flint.”
There was a spark of light. A torch flared up. At the same time, a blur of motion shot towards the entrance. Someone shouted.
Something leapt over the heads of the people in the front of the cave. The [Bandits] recoiled, striking at each other, at shadows. There was a scream. The blossom of light jerked and fell. The men and women shouted in horror and someone snatched at the torch. More light bloomed. A [Light] spell. There was a silhouette. The [Bandit] shrieked as Ksmvr dashed at her.
“Help me! Hel—”
An impact. A gurgling sound; the [Bandits] around her slashed wildly, but Ksmvr was gone. They backed up, holding their torches, shouting at the others.
“It’s in the cave! It’s in the cave—”
“Get out! Run!”
“No, stick together—we can box it in! Don’t run, don’t—”
But it was too late. The [Bandits] streamed out, some fleeing in a blind panic. The rest stayed together, holding up torches and balls of light. They heard shouts in the night. Screams…the fleeing shapes fell one by one. A dark blur leapt around them, jumping, rather than walking. The remaining [Archers] tried to hit it, but their arrows bounced off the magical cloak or missed.
And then there were no more sounds. Just darkness. The [Bandits] looked around. There were eleven left. The [Swordsman] was pale as he looked back and forth.
There was no sound. No movement. The hills towered around the bandits. The grass waved in the night’s breeze. The sky was cloudy. Shadows flickered. The [Bandits] jumped, clustering together.
A young man shouted, his face pale. He held up his arms, raising his hammer and letting it drop as his torch burned over his head. An arrow shot out of the darkness. He screamed.
The [Swordsman] bellowed. But the rest were silent. They drew together. Ten. They would have prayed, but the gods were dead. So they just held together, fearing, waiting. Ready to fight and die rather than run and die alone.
A minute passed. Then two. Three more arrows flew out of the darkness, but the [Bandits] had shields up. One yanked out an arrow, sobbing, as another poured healing potion on her wound. And then he appeared.
A shadow, walking under the moonlight as the clouds parted. A dark brown and black figure holding a shortsword and dagger. His buckler flared to life as he activated it again. The dagger burned red.
His segmented eyes reflected the lights from the [Bandit]’s torches. His carapace was cut. Pierced by arrows. But he had taken no great wounds. He walked forwards without words. Straight at the [Bandits].
A monster out of Rhir. A nightmare worthy of the legend.
The Humans shuddered. They backed up. But then they held. It was hold or run. If they ran, they died in the night. The [Swordsman] held up his blade. He stared at Ksmvr. His voice was hoarse.
“What are you? What are…”
Ksmvr twitched one antenna. His mandibles opened and rose.
And then he leapt up. And he fell, shrieking like a thing out of hell. For psychological effect.
The Adventurer’s Guild in Celum was quiet in the very early morning. Some adventurers were early risers by nature, and others had come in after an overnight job to collect their pay. But it wasn’t bustling just past dawn. The only sounds that were present in the guild mainly came from the bleary-eyed [Receptionist] doing her job, and from Stan. The old man was sitting at a table, grousing loudly.
“Damned Antinium bastard. We waited all night and did it show? No! And that young [Innkeeper] said she hadn’t seen him! When I get my hands on that—that bug thing—”
“Maybe it realized we were trying to bargain for those artifacts.”
Alais looked bleary and slightly hung over. She’d enjoyed herself at The Wandering Inn, despite Ksmvr’s no-show. Stan folded his arms.
“If it—he—did, he could at least have let us know! It’s damned rude.”
“We put his team in prison. Still, you’re right, Stan. Maybe Ksmvr got into trouble? I checked Celum’s jail, but perhaps he fell afoul of Liscor?”
Stan calmed down a bit.
“Or maybe he got hurt. Or lost. I heard someone say they saw him riding out of Celum. On a horse. I thought they were twisting my leg, but—”
Alais had jerked up in her seat. Stan turned his head. He swore.
Ksmvr looked up as he trudged into the guild. His body was covered with mud and dust. And blood. Dried green blood spattered his armor. He had a few cuts, but the rest were healed. He swayed and stood straighter.
Crossbow Stan got up and strode towards him. His fists were clenched.
“You’ve got some nerve coming here after—”
He stared at Ksmvr.
“What in the hells happened to you?”
“I completed the request. I killed the [Bandits].”
Ksmvr walked past Crossbow Stan. The man stared at him in shock, then outrage.
“You? You’re kidding. You couldn’t have killed—there are at least thirty—hey! Where were you last night? We told you—”
He grabbed Ksmvr’s shoulder. The Antinium stopped.
“Let go of me please.”
“Not until you—”
Ksmvr drew his shortsword. The other adventurers looked up. Stan stepped back. The Antinium turned his head. Alais was on her feet.
“Thank you. Now, excuse me.”
He walked up to the [Receptionist]’s desk. The woman eyed him with apprehension and ill-concealed distaste.
“I can’t just give a bounty out for someone who claims to have killed [Bandits]. You need proof. And I’ll have to test you with a [Detect Lies] spell. Besides, like Mister Stan said, the [Bandits] are at least—”
Ksmvr reached for his bag of holding. He placed it on the counter, then looked around. He eyed the counter and shook his head. The Antinium trudged over to a table and dragged it over. The adventurers winced at the screech of wood on wood. Ksmvr stopped the desk in front of the counter.
“This is enough surface area. Here is my proof.”
He reached into the bag of holding and pulled out a severed head. The [Receptionist] recoiled and then screamed. The Drake’s vacant, lolling head stared at her. The head was bloodless. Ksmvr placed it neatly on the table.
“What did you do?”
Alais grabbed her wand and pointed it at Ksmvr. He turned.
“The request. Wait until I’ve finished, please.”
He reached into the bag of holding. Another head appeared. The room recoiled. A Human woman stared blankly at Ksmvr. And then a man. A young man, a girl…
Crossbow Stan backed up. Ksmvr kept pulling heads out of the bag. One, two, three, four…ten…twenty…twenty nine. He piled them up. And then he turned.
The adventurers stared. Stan stared at the Drake’s head. The [Receptionist] had backed away as far as possible, shaking and trying to climb over her desk and away.
“That—that Drake. I recognize that one. And—and that one. That’s the [Bandit Leader]. And that one—that’s their [Mage]. Freezer.”
He pointed at one of the heads on top of the pile. Ksmvr nodded. His voice was loud as he turned back to the [Receptionist].
“Thank you for the confirmation, Captain Stan. However, I will readily submit to a truth detection spell to prove all of these individuals were [Bandits]. I hope this is sufficient proof, though.”
He looked at the woman. She was shaking so hard she couldn’t formulate a reply. She made a shaky animal noise. Ksmvr stared at her.
“Is this sufficient?”
The Antinium looked at her. Then he leaned over the table.
The [Receptionist] froze. Ksmvr spoke slowly.
“Thirteen hours after defeating the [Bandits]. That is how long it took to collect the bodies, create a pyre for disposal, remove the heads, burn them, collect their gear, reclaim my horse which had wandered off, set the others free, and ride back here. Thirteen hours. I have imbibed two stamina potions. My wounds have yet to fully heal. I have had inadequate sustenance. I am hungry. I am tired. I am in a bad mood. Is this sufficient?”
The woman cowered. Ksmvr nodded.
“Then please give my team the reward. I believe it is a hundred gold coins.”
“I—I have to get a signature!”
The [Receptionist]’s eyes darted around for help. There was none. Ksmvr looked around and the adventurers flinched. They saw the blood on his carapace. Green, Antinium blood. Which meant the streaks of red weren’t his. They stared at the heads. At him. Ksmvr turned back to the [Receptionist].
“Paperwork. Quill and ink, please.”
Her hands shook as she fumbled for the right form. Ksmvr studied it. He dipped a quill in the inkpot as the woman fled towards the back. The [Guildmaster] wasn’t in today. She had to open the Guild’s vaults herself.
She returned, still shaking, and stared at the heads as if they were a dream. The pile stared back at her. The woman realized this wasn’t a dream. The slowly decomposing heads were—she looked at Ksmvr. He looked up and she shrieked.
“I’ve finished my details. Where do I sign?”
Ksmvr stared down at the general spot the finger was shaking in.
“Here? I see.”
He began scribbling on the form. After a moment he looked up.
“Pardon me. Do I list my team as ‘The Horns of Hammerad’ or do I omit the prefix?”
“Horns of Hammerad. Thank you.”
He finished writing. Ksmvr held up the piece of paper. He looked at the [Receptionist]. She was frozen. He waved the paper at her and she backed up.
“Naturally I’d like to turn in the heads as monster parts for processing. My bag of holding couldn’t fit the other body parts, but I will accept any fee the guild posts on Human heads, brains, flesh or skeletal matter. Assuming they aren’t collected as part of the bounty?”
Stan saw the woman had frozen. She looked like she was going to have a heart attack. One of the other adventurers was being sick; a few others were gagging or throwing up as well. He stared at the heads. It was just a dream. That Antinium couldn’t have—
“We don’t—we don’t—use heads. Not Human ones. Or Drakes.”
“Really? Odd. Then I will collect my payment.”
The [Receptionist] dropped the bag of gold on the counter. A head rolled off the pile and onto the floor. The sound it made, the fleshy thump, was the realest thing Crossbow Stan had ever heard. The [Receptionist] stared at the head. She turned and ran out of the building, screaming. Three adventurers followed her.
“Dead gods. Dead gods. Dead gods. Dead…”
Alais was swallowing hard. Stan couldn’t take his eyes off Ksmvr. The Antinium was counting the gold coins one by one as he put them in his bag of holding. When he was done, he straightened and looked around.
“Is my team not released yet?”
“I see. Thank you.”
Ksmvr nodded at Stan. Then, ignoring the heads he walked over to an empty table and chair. The adventurers left in the guild scattered in front of him. Ksmvr pulled the chair back. He sat down in the chair and opened his mandibles slightly. The upright, rigid posture the Antinium had kept up all the while turned into a sag. Ksmvr leaned forwards; nearly fell out of the chair. He tried placing his arms on the table. No good. He kept falling sideways. So he stood up, walked over to the wall, just underneath the job board.
Ksmvr sat with his back to the wall and curled up like a pill bug. He was sitting like Workers and Soldiers did, trying to stay awake but fading, fading…
The Antinium passed out as the morning light filled the Adventurer’s Guild and a rookie team of Bronze-rank adventurers entered the building and saw the pile of severed heads. He didn’t hear the screaming. He was already asleep. That was how his team found him, three hours later.
“I wish he’d saved the bodies.”
Three voices woke Ksmvr up. He jerked upright amid a babble of voices. Waking up took Ksmvr a few moments. He heard the three familiar people. An argument. Shouting.
“What’s to be done? If it went out and butchered—”
An arguing voice raised in reply, exasperated, worried, shocked.
“Hey, Stan recognized two of them! If you want to test him, be my guest! But I’ll bet those are exactly the same [Bandits] you wanted dead—”
“All by himself?”
A sneering tone.
“Of course. Or did you think the Antinium bred pacifistic, ineffectual warriors? I hardly see what all the fuss is about—”
An authoritative tone.
“Try and arrest him without proof and I will drop you. Alais, drop the wand. If you point it at him again—”
Ksmvr woke up. His vision returned. He looked around. There were people gathered around the table. Lots of them. Celum’s City Watch, adventurers, people staring at the table with the heads on them…but the three people Ksmvr wanted most were right there, protectively standing around him. He sleepily opened and closed his mandibles.
“I slept as ordered, Captain Ceria. Was your incarceration pleasant?”
The voices stopped. Every eye fixed on Ksmvr. He saw a half-Elf jump, then turn. Ceria Springwalker looked down at Ksmvr.
“Hello Captain. I have completed our request.”
Ksmvr sat up, watching Ceria’s expression closely. He tried to see if she was angry, or disappointed. Or sad or…but her face was hard to read. A strange expression was written across it, once Ksmvr had no name for.
“I see that, Ksmvr. Why did you go alone?”
The Antinium felt a pang of fear in his chest. He clasped two of his hands together as he spoke.
“Because…I heard other teams were going to take our request. And I thought our team should not forfeit our request. You were gone. I stayed out of trouble. I did not tell Miss Erin where you were. And I slept.”
“You didn’t think taking out a [Bandit] gang was too much?”
The Antinium shook his head.
“I calculated the risks. I estimated that since you or Comrade Pisces or Yvlon could handle the group yourselves, I should be able to. I had help. Comrade Pisces helped. And I borrowed his ring.”
“He told us about that in the jail. He didn’t know what happened after that. Someone squashed his moth.”
Her face was still unreadable. Ksmvr wanted to look at Pisces or Yvlon, but he was afraid of what he might see. He clutched his hands tightly together.
“I hope I did not act out of place. I only wanted to be a helpful member of the group…”
His voice trailed off, becoming small. Ksmvr looked down. He heard nothing for a second, and then Ceria reached out.
He looked up. The half-Elf smiled at him. She looked around, at the heads, at her teammates, and then at Ksmvr. She patted him on the shoulder gently, looking at his unhealed wounds.
“Good job. But next time don’t be so reckless.”
Ksmvr opened his mandibles in a smile. That was all he wanted to hear.
There was more after that of course. More shouting, explanations—Ksmvr was only too happy to explain, and to apologize for his brusque behavior after his sleep.
“It was most unprofessional. I can normally go for a day without sleep without undue mental effects. I am most sincerely regretful.”
For some reason, that didn’t really help matters. But Captain Ceria had taken over the conversation and aided by a [Detect Lies] spell and the expedient of pointing at the heads and saying ‘are those the [Bandits] or not? Okay, what’s the problem?’, somehow much of the issue seemed to resolve itself. The Horns were only stopped by a hysterical [Receptionist] who demanded what should be done with the severed heads.
“I could take—”
Pisces yelped as Yvlon turned and delicately punched him in the stomach. He rubbed at his gut as the [Wounded Warrior] turned back to the shrieking [Receptionist]. Yvlon waited until the woman was done screaming before she replied.
“I saw [Receptionists] in Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild finishing off Face-Eater Moths after the monsters attacked the city. You can grab a shovel.”
“Yeah. We did our job. Come on, Ksmvr. You need a proper bed.”
“I do not use beds. But the consideration is welcome.”
Ksmvr followed Ceria as she pushed past the adventurers and City Watch. They didn’t look happy, but they stood well clear of Ksmvr. They were still staring. The Antinium was nearly at the door when a thought hit him. He held up a hand.
“Captain Ceria. Pause a moment, please. I would like to address the room.”
“Oh? Go ahead.”
Warily, Ceria turned. Ksmvr looked about. A sea of Humanity and a few non-Humans stared at him. The Antinium bowed politely.
“Good morning. I apologize for any unorthodox behavior. However, I would simply like to say that my team has done nothing wrong. You were wrong for falsely accusing Captain Ceria and Yvlon. If you do it again, I will take umbrage.”
They just stared at him. Ksmvr studied the glares, the looks of fear, and nodded.
“I would also like to note that with the Horns of Hammerad’s successful completion of this assignment with a solo member of our group, when no team was capable of doing so by themselves, we have established our superiority over other teams in this guild. I understand that equates to dominance in Human culture.”
At last there was a shift in the crowd. Ksmvr saw an adventurer open his mouth furiously.
“What the hel—”
Ksmvr turned, quick as a whip to face the adventurer. The man froze for a second. He stared at the Antinium and his tongue failed him. Ksmvr nodded.
Then he turned and walked out the door. Ceria followed him, shaking her head. Yvlon was smiling. Pisces stopped to laugh for ten seconds before the other two pulled him after him.
The Horns of Hammerad walked down the street. A [Necromancer] in pristine white robes, a yawning half-Elf, a [Wounded Warrior] wearing bright armor and lending her shoulder to an Antinium covered in mud and blood of two colors. People stared as they passed, but the four didn’t care. They spoke to each other and only to each other.
“Well, we’ve officially burned our bridges in Celum. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re banned from the city.”
“For something I did?”
“…Nah. I think it was a bad scene. And Celum’s clearly too small for us, right Yvlon?”
“After this? I think so. Time to go north. Or south?”
“True. I wonder if there’s work around Pallass? You know, in Drake lands?”
“I should imagine so. And I believe even the tiresome Drake governance would be a welcome improvement over Celum’s benign incompetence.”
“I’m going to assume that meant what I think it did. Ksmvr, how are you? Need another potion?”
“I am quite well, Yvlon. I am only…tired.”
“Don’t scare me like that again.”
“I did not wish to. I only wanted to be helpful.”
“You were. Really. But Ceria’s right. We do things as a team. If you wanted to prove you can hold your own…you definitely did that.”
“Thank you. Thank…you for saying that.”
“Indeed. You must discuss your tactics. I observed some of it. Fine work using all of your magical artifacts. Ceria, Yvlon, I will readily admit that Ksmvr’s strategy outstripped our own. And his Ring of Jumping—we have severely underestimated the mobility it affords.”
“Really? Ksmvr can tell us over drinks, then. Oh, damn. We stood Garia up!”
“We can invite her as an apology.”
“Indeed. I must also confess I tricked both Captain Stan and Captain Alais yesterday.”
“Seriously? Ksmvr, I could kiss you.”
“…Okay? But I have an announcement to make.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“I have obtained the [Skirmisher] class as a result of my reaching Level 20.”
“Indeed. Quite appropriate…don’t poke me! I’m being genuine.”
“Sorry. Couldn’t tell.”
“Ahem. May I finish? I have also received the [Quick Movement] Skill along with an evasion Skill. I believe this, combined with my Ring of Jumping, will expedite new tactics that…Yvlon, you are hugging me tightly. Yvlon? I am having trouble breathing. Oh, Captain Ceria?”
That was all. There was more, but that was enough. The Horns walked back together, talking, laughing, smiling. A team, however fragile.
And in the Adventurer’s Guild, as a [Laborer] earned one of the most unpleasant hauling jobs in his lifetime, a [Receptionist] hurried out of the guild. She made a beeline for the Mage’s Guild and sent a [Message]. It was one of eight, all with the same content. All with the same intended recipient. The [Messages] read something like this:
The [Necromancer] known as Pisces and [Ice Mage] Ceria Springwalker are both present in Celum, travelling in the Silver-rank team, Horns of Hammerad. Please send to current location of Wistram group led by Mage Montressa du Valeross to claim five gold coin reward.
Naturally, only the first sender got the reward. It was cruel, but that was how it worked. Anyways, Ksmvr didn’t care. He was eating a celebratory cake. It was a very good day for him.