“Toren? Toren. Where have you gone, you silly skeleton?”
A young woman called out cheerfully in an old inn. She stood by a table, turning left and then right aimlessly. She had a blank, vacuous look on her face. But her voice was clear.
“Toren! Get over here!”
At her words, a skeleton obediently trotted over. He was wearing a ragged apron, and he had a sword at his side. The young woman ignored both. She turned and the skeleton obediently sidled over.
“There’s some dirt over there. Someone made a mess. Maybe me. Clean it up, will you?”
The skeleton stared at her. Then he grudgingly walked over to a broom leaning against a table. Erin Solstice turned her back again and bumped into one of the few tables in the room as Toren went over to the tiny amount of dust and dirt and began sweeping it with the crude broom towards the entrance. Erin’s voice continued.
“And here’s another mess! Toren! I told you to keep the inn clean! Sweep this up too! And is that blood?”
She was indicating another splotch on the floor. The skeleton looked up, spotted the other messes, and redoubled his efforts. He swept the first patch of dirt out of the door and scurried over to the next. Erin wasn’t satisfied, though.
“You’re so slow. Honestly! This is why I hired Lyonette. I mean, even though all she does is complain and steal stuff. But to be fair, she never blew up my inn.”
She turned back to the table and bumped into it again. Toren’s shoulders hunched and he paused in cleaning up the dirt. The action wasn’t missed by Erin, even though her back was turned.
“Hey! Get back to work, lazy bones! Clean up the mess! That’s what you’re good for! That’s all you’re good for.”
The skeleton’s head slowly rotated around on his shoulders. Two purple flames stared at Erin through the eye sockets of his skull. Erin, undeterred, kept speaking.
“What’s your problem? I’ve got places to be! Chop, chop! Clean up the mess!”
The skeleton threw down the broom and stepped on it. He snapped the thin handle and heard Erin gasp.
“How dare you! Toren! Clean that up right now and fix that broom!”
He ignored her. Toren advanced on Erin. She turned left, stared blankly at a wall. The furious skeleton circled around her, but Erin wouldn’t look right at him.
“Toren! I said, clean up the—”
The sword cleaved Erin’s head open. Toren raised the blade, wrenched it out of Erin’s head as she jerked, and tore it free. Then he stabbed her through the chest.
Erin stumbled. But she didn’t fall. At last, her eyes focused on him.
Toren yanked the blade free. He ran Erin through a second time. She still didn’t fall. And—she made no sound as he stabbed her. He did it again and again, piercing the pallid, rotting skin of her chest. And she was silent.
At last, Erin fell to the ground. Toren stood over her, silently staring at her open eyes, her gaping mouth. He wasn’t panting; skeletons had no lungs. And Toren was a skeleton. An undead creature brought back to life by necromancy. But he wasn’t mindless. And in his head he was…relieved.
He’d done it. Erin’s stupid voice and her stupid orders were done with. Forever. He’d killed her. Silenced her at last, as he’d fantasized about doing. She was dead.
Toren stared at Erin’s body. And then suddenly, he stumbled back. He dropped the sword, clutched his skull of a head in his hands. What had he done? He’d killed her. He’d—
Erin jerked back upright with a groan. She didn’t get up like normal people did; her feet found the ground and she flopped upright without pushing herself up. It was an unnatural display of midriff strength few Humans could hope to equal.
Oh, and she also had half a dozen stab wounds through her chest. But she wasn’t bleeding. Her mouth gaped blankly at Toren and her unfocused eyes stared right through him. She groaned. But it was more of an unconscious sound; zombies didn’t speak, no matter how hard Toren tried to make them.
Toren stared at ‘Erin’ as the zombie of the young woman lurched upright unsteadily. A few maggots squirmed in her open mouth. The zombie lurched past Toren, blankly, but Erin’s voice still rang in Toren’s head.
“Toren! You stabbed me! Rude! Now, go pick up that broom and fix it. And get rid of all this dirt! Did you hear me? I said—”
The skeleton warrior shook his head. He walked away from Erin, picking up his sword, and sat down at a table. The zombie Erin bumped into a table again and the momentum carried her into it. Toren heard a crash as the flimsy wood broke. Zombie and table collapsed onto the ground. Toren whirled—
And the illusion fell apart. He stared around at the crude tables made of bits of wood held together with string or primitive nails. At the few chairs, which could barely support his weight, let alone an actual person’s. At the bar—a slab of wood on top of some rocks. At the ‘kitchen’, a metal door at the back, and the three doors that he’d created that led into this room. The stone walls.
This was not The Wandering Inn. And the zombie flailing uselessly on the ground wasn’t Erin. Toren was in the dungeon. Erin Solstice was dead. Months dead. He’d killed her. Left her alone in the snow outside a city far from her inn. And he was trapped in the dungeon. The skeleton buried his head in his hands. And he heard it closing in on him.
It was just one small room in hundreds, thousands of others. A single spot in the labyrinth, the maze of Liscor’s dungeon. It was a tiny place, barely fortified by some crude doors. The inn had some tables, some chairs, a few bowls, and a barrel or two of ‘food’. And a skeleton and a zombie.
The zombie was just a zombie. It was a young woman’s zombie, and she had dirty and bloodied hair that might have been brownish, once. She was—had been—Human, and fairly young. She wandered about aimlessly, occasionally groaning, bumping into tables, chairs, walls, and the doors, looking for a way out.
The skeleton was different. He was not aimless. Everything he did had a purpose. And he could use doors. Sometimes he left the inn. Sometimes he came back. Always, always, he kept the three doors that lead out from the inn closed, lest the zombie escape and fulfill her vocation of trying to kill anything alive. And he seldom opened the fourth door that led into the back of the inn. The sturdy, metal door that led to the…kitchen.
There were a lot of sounds coming from behind the metal door. But the skeleton ignored them. He had a job to do. With one hand he held a crude dustpan, which looked like a bit of iron armor flattened out into a funnel of sorts. Which it was. And in the other hand he held the head of a broom.
Toren swept the stone floor, found a dustrag and a bucket of water and polished the floor, despite the water having tiny particles in it that made keeping everything perfectly clean impossible, and fixed up the broken table. The zombie lurched past Toren, groaning, doing that thing with the arms that was so trendy among zombies.
Toren ignored her.
He swept the floor, diligently.
He polished the bar.
He didn’t open the door to the kitchen.
He stood blankly in a corner of the inn.
He stabbed zombie-Erin repeatedly.
He banged his head against the wall until his skull cracked and began to magically mend itself.
He lay on the ground.
He stabbed the giant fly-thing that tried to force its way into the room.
He cleaned up the blood.
He chopped up the fly thing and added it to the barrel of food. There were lots of maggots inside.
He swept the floor again.
And through it all, he wished, oh, how he wished, that he could go back in time. Because Toren was miserable. He was empty.
Erin was dead. And he was lost.
Not lost in a physical sense. Or even in terms of the dungeon. Toren didn’t know how long he’d been down here. He lost track, sometimes. The dungeon felt like a home to him, in a way. He knew the layout; he could navigate the threats of the dungeon and he could navigate most areas without needing to see. Literally; the skeleton’s memory was flawless. But Toren seldom went out of the inn he’d built here. There was no point. All he wanted, the source of his misery and regret, was right here.
Well, sort of. Zombie-Erin lurched past Toren and he stared at her. It wasn’t Erin’s body. He knew that. It was just some Human’s body he’d found among all the dead corpses. This one looked most like Erin. Well, she had. Now she had a bunch of holes in her chest and half of her head was sheared off. Toren might need to find another ‘Erin’ soon. But this one was good.
The skeleton waved a hand and felt a perverse sense of delight as the zombie obediently lurched over to him and halted in front of the table he was cleaning. That was one of his abilities. Commanding the undead. He could make the zombie-Erin run, hit things, lie down, or even pick things up, albeit clumsily. But he couldn’t make the zombie speak. Or think. Or—be Erin for him.
The zombie halted in place, staring aimlessly past Toren. Her mouth was open and Toren saw something wriggling inside. He absently picked out the squirming worms out of the fake Erin’s mouth, tossed them into one of the snack bowls, and patted her on the head. A few hairs came out and the zombie made an ‘urghfshh’ sound that was half-voice, half gas and liquid escaping from her deflated lungs.
“I’m sorry, Toren. I’d never get rid of you. I like you. You’re my favorite worker. Not like that jerk, Lyonette.”
Erin’s voice echoed in Toren’s head. He stared at her and pointed at a chair. Zombie-Erin sat, with Toren’s help, and wobbled unsteadily in her chair. It creaked, but held. Toren stared at her. At Erin.
Slowly, tentatively, he sat next to Erin. He could hear her voice in his head. As bright and cheerful as always. A perfect replica of how the real Erin had talked. That was the problem with Toren’s memory. It was too perfect. He could remember Erin too well. It never faded.
It. Never. Faded.
Toren realized he was slamming his head against the table. He looked up. Erin stared at him, a look of concern on her face. A maggot wriggled in her cheek.
“I really need you to keep it together, Toren. I rely on you for all kinds of stuff.”
Toren nodded. Sorry. He was just having a bad moment. He was always having a bad moment, now. He edged closer. Slowly, tentatively, Toren leaned against Erin.
The zombie tried to lurch away. Toren grabbed its hand and patted his skull with it. It was something he had seen her do to Mrsha. And the little Gnoll had smiled. The skeleton sat there, patting his own head with Erin’s hand. Then he gingerly hugged Erin.
The skeleton smiled, but not by choice. And his purple eyes dimmed slightly. The purple fire grew weaker. He didn’t feel better. He felt worse. The zombie moved, unconsciously trying to seek something to kill. Toren ordered it to hold still and it did. But he knew it wasn’t really Erin.
And then he heard her voice again, whispering in the confines of his skull.
“You blew up my inn, Toren. You blew it up! You maniac! And you killed me. You killed me and I’m dead and you will never leave this dungeon ever again.”
Toren jerked. He leapt away from the table and zombie-Erin fell to the ground as the chair holding her collapsed. Shaken, the skeleton stared at the zombie as she picked herself up. She hadn’t said anything.
It was all in his head. All in his head. Toren smacked his skull with his bony hands. And he felt terrible. Because after months, after so long, he could finally admit it: he wanted to go home. But he couldn’t. The dungeon was his prison.
Toren lacked a living person supplying him with mana. Without it, he couldn’t go above without running out of magical energy in minutes. And without magic, the spells giving him life would wither and he would die. Anything short of that Toren could survive; in the mana-heavy environment of the dungeon, he was very, very hard to kill because his body would automatically repair itself over time.
Those were the facts. Toren had lost his old home, The Wandering Inn. His master, Erin, was dead. He’d killed her. Well, not directly, but he’d left her in the snow, far, far, from home. So it was his fault.
Around and around, the thoughts went. Toren couldn’t avoid them. He’d tried. He’d tried to replace Erin, remake the inn, even find a clientele in the dungeon. None of it had worked. Toren tried to cheer himself up by killing things with his sword, but he’d given that up oh, about two zombie-Erins ago. What was the point?
He’d gotten tired of killing things for no reason. And that was the most shocking thing Toren could ever imagine in the world. But there it was. If you didn’t have a reason, killing things got boring after twenty thousand six hundred and fifty one times.
Toren mechanically got back to work after a while of beating his skull with his hands. He bent down and fixed up the broken chair. The stupid furniture was always breaking. Unfortunately, Toren didn’t have much in the way of stuff to fix it with.
The current chairs and table were held together with bits of twine, strips of monster hide or sinew, and nails fashioned out of bits of metal. Toren was wrapping a bit of antennae or something around the chair, hoping it would keep the fragmented wood together, when he heard a sound.
A voice. The skeleton froze, and his hand darted to his sword. Another hand grasped at something at his side. A mask. The hand tried to place the mask on his face, but Toren forced it down. He waited, listening. Where…?
It wasn’t coming from one of the three ramshackle doors leading out of the inn. Toren relaxed. It wasn’t adventurers. Or Raskghar. Or Cave Goblins. Or those annoying little monsters that pretended to be children. In fact, it was coming from the metal door.
The kitchen. Toren paused. But curiosity slowly propelled him towards the door. He hesitated, listening. There were definitely voices coming from the other side. More than before. The [Skeleton Knight] paused as he reached for the door. There was a bar on this door. He slowly touched it, and then looked around.
Zombie-Erin was nearby. Toren looked at her, and then hurried her into a far corner of the inn. Then he came back over, unbarred the metal door, and opened it. Quickly, Toren went through and shut the door behind him.
It was dark in the ‘kitchen’. It wasn’t a kitchen. It was really just a large room, empty when Toren had found it. Now it was full. Of corpses.
Four thousand bodies. Well, four and a few hundred if you wanted to be precise. Raskghar. Human. Goblin. Drake. Gnoll. All of them were piled up, some practically to the ceiling in places. Rotting. Decomposing. And now—wandering about.
Toren stared around the room. His fellow undead had moved at the sudden influx of light, and lurched towards the door, but now it was shut, they began wandering again. It was nearly pitch-black in the room. There was no light, safe from the countless eyes, staring, shining with undead malice. No light. But there were voices.
Toren jumped. Someone was talking in the darkness. He stared around and saw a huge, hulking, distended figure. A monster twice as tall as he was, with bones for teeth, eyes staring out of the mouth, black liquid dripping from its gaping maw. Huge ‘hands’. Legs, made of other body parts.
A Crypt Lord. One of the more powerful breeds of undead. It moved more purposefully than the zombies and ghouls around it. But it hadn’t made the sound. Toren peered around it. The Crypt Lord held its ground, staring past Toren at the door. There was something like intelligence in the way it stood, but not too much intelligence. Toren impatiently raised his hands to push it out of the way, and then thought better. He meekly edged around the Crypt Lord and listened.
“…it be an end to all of us!”
A voice screamed. Toren jumped a foot in the air and bumped into a Ghoul. The undead staggered and Toren sheepishly edged back. None of the other undead seemed to notice the voice. Toren moved forwards. And then he saw the speaker.
It was a Gnoll. He lay on his stomach, his head twisted up to stare blankly past Toren. He was dead; someone had broken his ribs, torn out his heart. But the Gnoll spoke. His lungs moved and his voice was only slightly distorted by rot and death.
Toren stared at the Gnoll. Then he stared at the thing that the Gnoll was connected to. Where the Gnoll’s legs should have been, Toren only saw a squirming mass of limbs. Fur. Elongated flesh. Heads. Hands, grasping. Legs. Faces. And more voices.
“Lord Veltras! The Goblins are—”
“Not a Raskghar—”
A babble of voices, now, from the heads, the bodies twined together. Toren stared. There were hundreds of faces, all woven together in a…he eyed the thing. A mount of bodies. No, more like a tree. The ‘roots’ or ‘legs’ were torsos, like the dead Gnoll. The thing had limbs, made of people. And in the center of it, rising up, was a pillar of flesh. Of heads. They were all parts of a whole, and they spoke.
Goblins. Humans. Gnolls. Drakes. Ooh! And A Raskghar. It just snarled, growling incoherently. But then, all the voices were nonsensical. Toren shook his head, listening. The Gnoll was speaking again.
Who was he talking to? Toren wondered. They were words from his life, no doubt. The Gnoll tried to drag itself forwards and all the hands and bodies nearby did the same. Toren jumped; the thing was moving. It was thousands upon thousands of pounds of rotting flesh, joined together, but the sum of the parts allowed it to crawl forwards across the ground.
Toren stared at the…thing. Hundreds of elongated corpses tangled together, hands grasping, heads moving. Staring at him. Uttering fragments like the Gnoll babbling his last words. He stepped back and behind the mount of flesh, the entire creation as a whole. The undead collective. Toren turned his head. Next to it, another Crypt Lord had risen, and it was tearing at a lesser zombie, ‘eating’ it and absorbing the bones and flesh into its own makeup. Toren paused and then shook his head.
This was a complete failure. He sighed, stepped back as the flesh-pit tried to crawl forwards again, and scuffed backwards. He tried to order the mass of bodies not to crawl over him, but it ignored his commands. Just like the Crypt Lords. There were eight of them in the room—five more than last time. Hundreds of zombies, already. Not any skeletons; all the bodies Toren had found were fresh, but a good number of Ghouls, too.
Toren pointed at one of them, a more agile, alert version of the zombie. It obediently bounded over to him; a corpse of a Raskghar, but before Toren could give it another order he felt something else impose its will. The Ghoul paused, turned, and bounded back to the nearest Crypt Lord. Toren stamped his foot and glared at the undead commander. The Crypt Lord stared at Toren and he felt a tug. It wanted him to follow it. Toren ignored the command and clattered his jaw furiously.
Failure! Another failure! He’d had such hopes for his room of undead! And he’d worked so hard to gather all the bodies! But instead of creating what he’d wanted—an army of undead he could control and maybe even some high-level undead for him to use—he’d created, well, high undead.
Crypt Lords. And whatever that flesh-pit thing was. They not only ignored Toren’s orders, but were capable of giving other undead orders. Case in point; each Crypt Lord had a retinue over dozens of zombies and Ghouls, which followed them around. Try as he might, Toren couldn’t ‘steal’ any of the undead; the Crypt Lords had more authority than he did. And worse, if he tried to poach a few bodies…
The Level 27 [Skeleton Knight] paused. He hadn’t leveled up much in that class; Toren didn’t do much killing these days. But he had another class. The purple flames in the skeleton’s eyes glowed brightly for a moment. He pointed, and one of the corpses lying in a small mound jerked and began to move. Toren saw it rise, saw the ghastly light appear in its eyes. A zombie Hobgoblin rose and Toren clapped his hands delightedly.
Level 12 [Undead Leader]. [Command Lesser Undead]. That was another class he possessed, and a Skill that allowed him to give orders to zombies and Ghouls and skeletons. But also—
[Raise Corpse]. The zombie lurched forwards. Toren beckoned to it urgently, before one of the stupid Crypt Lords could steal his zombie. The zombie obediently stumbled forwards, and Toren motioned it to the door. He reached for the handle—
And the flesh-pit moved. A mass of hands rose, grabbing, and yanked the Hobgoblin zombie off its feet. Toren froze as he saw the zombie struggling, and then go limp. The mass of corpses was drawing it in!
The flesh-pit picked up the zombie and pulled in into the writhing mass of bodies. Toren felt the zombie’s individual presence vanish. And the squirming pile of bodies was suddenly a bit larger. Toren stared at it. He heard a myriad of voices. A wail of dead bodies, echoing their life.
Toren scuffed at the ground with one bony foot. Jerk. It kept doing that. All Toren wanted was his army of zombies. But could he get even one? No…he could barely replace his zombie-Erin! There were all these…
The Crypt Lords were aimlessly walking the room, searching for a way out. Toren noticed one coming up behind him too late. He turned, and it reached for him with one huge hand. The skeleton tried to jerk away, but the Crypt Lord caught him. It raised Toren up as the skeleton struggled. And the many eyes in the thing’s mouth focused on Toren’s burning purple flames.
The skeleton froze. He felt the Crypt Lord’s mind pressing in on his. And from that mind Toren felt…an instinct. A thought, magnified so loud it drowned out Toren’s sense of being. The Crypt Lord’s thoughts blasted through Toren’s skull.
It dropped him. Toren collapsed to the ground, stunned, the command still vibrating through his entire being. The Crypt Lord lurched past him, ignoring the skeleton in a moment. It grabbed a Ghoul, lifted it up, made eye-contact, dropped it. The Ghoul bounded into place in its retinue. Toren kept lying on the ground. He didn’t feel like following the Crypt Lord around. Still, that had rattled him.
Toren got up after a bit. It was too crowded here. He glared at the Crypt Lord who’d picked him up. He knew it was probably a bad idea, but he was Toren! The strongest skeleton in the world! How dare the Crypt Lord pick him up like—like—like a common Ghoul?
The purple light in Toren’s eye sockets grew a bit brighter. He casually sidled past the undead following the Crypt Lord about. The undead commander was searching for another member of its army when Toren tapped it on the…back. The Crypt Lord turned, black blood dripping between its bone-teeth.
Toren plunged his sword in to the Crypt Lord’s chest. The undead recoiled! Toren laughed silently. Hah! Take th—
The Crypt Lord smashed Toren into the ground with one massive hand. The zombies and Ghouls leapt on Toren, tearing his bones apart and smashing him flat. For about five seconds the skeleton flailed with his sword—and then he was torn apart. The bones went flying as the Crypt Lord kept smashing same spot, and then stopped. It paused, and then then went about its business.
The skeleton’s bones lay there for a while and the Crypt Lord moved past him, wandering aimlessly around the enclosed room. After a few more minutes, the bones began rolling towards the door. Toren furtively reassembled himself next to the door and crept back to pick up his sword. The Crypt Lord he’d stabbed ignored him. Toren lifted the sword, looked at the undead’s back, and thought better about it.
He hurried back to the door and pushed it open. The Crypt Lords turned as one and the wailing from the flesh-pit grew louder. All the undead lurched for the door and the nearest Crypt Lord reached out, trying to fit itself through the opening. It saw a skeleton in the way and ordered it to move aside.
Toren slammed the door in the Crypt Lord’s face and was rewarded with a satisfying thwack. The skeleton grinned and did a little dance in place. Idiots! So what if they could command more undead than he could and beat him in a fight? They couldn’t open doors.
He absently pushed the door closed all the way and slammed the bar down. Then he kicked it for good measure. The door made a satisfactory ringing sound and Toren slapped one shin-bone, grinning. His good mood lasted all of eight seconds. Then he stared at the door and gloomily went back to the table. He sat down as zombie-Erin lurched past him.
Yep. That was a failure. Stupid undead. All Toren wanted were some Draug, not…bosses. And besides which…Toren sprawled out at the table like he’d seen Erin do.
So that was what other undead were like, was it? The Crypt Lord’s order still resonated in Toren’s soul. The skeleton thought about it. And he shook his head.
There was nothing there. Toren had seen a glimpse of the future in the Crypt Lord’s mind—a future it would bring about, what all undead would bring about given their natural instincts and time. And the world they would create was empty. An oblivion where the undead were all that remained. That was its purpose. And Toren, understanding that, came to another conclusion.
Undead were idiots. All except for him. The skeleton looked at zombie-Erin. He paused, and then threw one of the snack bowls at her. It bounced off her head and she staggered.
Yup. Idiots. All they wanted was to kill the living? What was the point in that? Toren paused. Well, obviously for fun, but all life? Every living thing, until the world was silent and empty and nothing, not even insects, could reproduce? That was the stupidest idea he, Toren, had ever heard of. And he’d taken orders from Erin Solstice.
Death was boring. He should know. Life, now…Toren paused. He looked at zombie-Erin.
This was what Toren realized. It hit him like a snack bowl. Killing things was sometimes a bad idea. The skeleton’s jaw dropped off his skull. He had to pick it up and reattach it. But—he looked at the kitchen door. At zombie-Erin.
There could be no other explanation. He regretted killing Erin. He missed her. He wished she were back. Even though she was stupid. Even though she did things he didn’t like.
That was the thing. He didn’t know how he felt about her. Erin. She—had—made him angry. Given him orders he didn’t like. But Toren missed her. More than that he needed her. He…wanted her not to be dead. Because she was annoying and stupid and he had to obey her.
But sometimes. Ah, sometimes. Sometimes she sang and the music still haunted him. Sometimes she said ‘thank you’, or ‘good job, Toren’. And sometimes she came up with things to do that were…fun. She had given him meaning and in a way, life.
Protect Erin Solstice. Obey her. Be used in less-optimal tasks. Of all the people and animals and monsters and things in the world, Toren regretted killing only her. And he realized the scope of his blunder, his error now. She was gone. And death was timeless. The undead came for all things, and they were eternal, or close to it. Which made living things, finite things, more precious.
Or maybe just Erin. Toren was still hazy on whether other living things mattered. But Erin did. Because there had only been one of her.
These were the things Toren didn’t do. He didn’t bury his head in his hands. He didn’t weep. Or scream. Or hit the tables or himself, or curl into a ball or shake or shudder in pain. Because those were biological reactions. They didn’t help him. So he just sat. And hurt.
This was what Toren knew, too late. You couldn’t get something back when you lost it. It was a revelation for him, just the same way it was for anyone who loses something precious the first time.
The skeleton sat and was sad. Insanity gnawed at his head. Madness and sadness. And as it got too much for him to handle, as he sank lower and lower, his hand moved. Toren tried to stop it. But he was too weak. And the mask, the mask hanging by his side came up. It covered his face and he—
Was she. Toren sighed and relaxed and shook her head. She looked around, realized she was naked, and stomped over to a pile of rags in the corner of the inn. Zombie-Erin watched blankly as Toren dressed herself. When she was done, she looked like…a person. You could mistake her for a thin, female Human wearing a mask. Female Toren adjusted the cloth padding one arm, and shook her head.
Too long since she’d last been in charge. He liked moping around his inn too much. But she didn’t agonize like he did. She had something Toren lacked. Purpose. She left the bar behind, contemptuously stalking out of the illusion of the inn. She was so annoyed with him that she didn’t even bother closing the door. It would serve Toren right if something came along and ate his fake-Erin. And he’d probably go on a murderous rampage again or sit in a corner. But that was his time. She had other plans.
The skeleton disappeared from the inn. Zombie-Erin lurched around, not quite picking up on the fact that she could leave the inn yet. She wandered about, occasionally groaning.
After a few minutes, the door to the ‘kitchen’ opened slowly. The Crypt Lord pushing it open stared at the drop-bar that usually kept the room sealed. It hadn’t landed in the crude metal holster. The door opened wider and the Crypt Lord stumbled forwards. The lone zombie in the inn looked up as whispering voices filled the inn. Voices and movement.
And suddenly, there were a lot of…things coming out of the corpse room. Not just Crypt Lords, zombies, Ghouls, and flesh-pits, either. Something crawled down, made of many bones. Toren would have been shocked to know they were in the room. Because Toren, in the way skeletons and people often lack spatial awareness, had never once decided to look up.
Anith, the Jackal Beastkin of Vuliel Drae had never once in his entire life thought to question what kind of stone Liscor’s dungeon was made from. It was not on his list of things to worry about, and as team leader of his eclectic group, he had any number of concerns.
He politely stared at the Human woman holding the hammer and the pointed nail of metal in one hand. It looked like a nail—only about a hundred times bigger. She was angling it towards the slab of the floor, tapping it and frowning. Earlia, the Silver-rank Captain of the Gemhammer, looked up and nodded.
“That’s right. Got to be. You can see just by the way it looks, obviously, but who’s going to make a dungeon out of anything less? What did you think it was?”
Anith blinked at Earlia. The Jackal [Mage] closed the spellbook he’d been studying and coughed.
“I must confess, I’ve never given it any thought. If you were to ask me, I would have assumed it was a…limestone?”
Earlia burst into laughter. She sat back on her haunches, away from the trap mechanism that was only three feet in front of her. Anith’s fur tried to stand up on end; he wasn’t so sanguine about their proximity to the trap. But Earlia kept laughing.
“Limestone. Hey, Timgal, Anith here thinks this dungeon’s made of limestone!”
Anith heard a guffaw from further down the room. The Jackal sighed.
“I only assumed—”
“What, that whoever built this dungeon wants it to wash away with the first rainstorm that hits it?”
Earlia snorted. She grabbed the nail of metal and hammer and leaned forwards again. She pressed the tip into the ground and began smacking the top with the hammer, trying to drive it into the stone. Anith, embarrassed, watched in silence. Earlia was hitting the wedge hard, without fear of smacking her gloved hand, but the pick didn’t seem to be penetrating the dungeon’s floor. With a sigh, Earlia growled and tossed the hammer behind her.
“It’s no good! Boys, we have to crack the enchantment before we can break the stone! Where’s my sledgehammer?”
She stood up and the rest of her team, five more heavily armed and armored adventurers, walked forwards. Anith backed up politely against one wall of the passage to make room for them and the weapons they carried. They were all armed with picks, sledgehammers, or mauls, weapons that required a lot of brawn to swing. And the men and women had that in supply. Earlia nodded as she grabbed a sledgehammer.
“Alright. Me first. Anith, you step back. Watch your faces!”
The rest of her team stepped back, shielding their eyes and averting their heads. Anith copied them, not knowing why, and Earlia raised her sledgehammer.
The first impact made a sound like thunder as metal hit stone. Anith clapped a hand over his sensitive ears and recoiled. The other adventurers, seemingly used to the sound, just waited. Earlia studied the patch of floor and scowled.
The huge fellow named Timgal stepped forwards. He held a miner’s pick, and he swung it up and down, aiming for the same spot Earlia had hit.
His strike was less thunderous, but the crack was still sharp enough to keep Anith’s hands over his ears. He kept watching as Timgal stepped back, grunting and eyeing the spot to let another man step forwards with a maul. Anith watched the maul go up—
“Watch your eyes, idiot!”
A hand blocked Anith’s vision right before he heard the crack of impact. This time there was more than just the collision; he heard the stones breaking and felt something ping off the wall beside him. He jerked back as Earlia lowered her hand.
“Shrapnel. Hey! Keep a hand over your eyes and step back! All of you! Dead gods, haven’t any of you lot ever been around a mining operation?”
Earlia snapped at Anith and the adventurers crowding around behind her team. Anith turned. The rest of his team, Vuliel Drae, stared at Earlia and sheepishly shook their heads. So did he. Earlia sighed.
“Hands over eyes. Got it? We have helmets or we cover ours. You do not want to be hit by a bit of flying rock when we break the dungeon’s floor. That’s how you lose eyes, healing potions or not. Step back! Next! Fea, break open those tiles with your pickaxe! Blaik after her!”
The rest of Gemhammer took turns using their Skills. The sound of breaking stone was accompanied by a spray of fragments that kept Vuliel Drae covering their eyes until Earlia announced a break.
“Alright! Fifteen minutes, everyone! Then Blaik’s up with his [Power Strike]. Back to the other room—let’s keep working on that trap!”
The rest of her team trooped backwards, laughing good-naturedly and picking up the hand-wedges—the oversized nails of steel—and the smaller hammers. Vuliel Drae watched, bemused and confused.
“Wait, you’re giving up?”
Insill, the Drake [Rogue], stared at the patch of broken stone, perplexed. Earlia shook her head.
“Not at all. But we’re out of usable Skills. The rest of my team only has one, like Blaik’s [Power Strike]. We need to keep using them; we’ll never break the stones just by swinging our hammers.”
“Oh. I mean, of course. Sorry.”
The Drake nodded understandingly. Earlia smiled and jerked a thumb behind her.
“And while we do that, we’ll keep breaking down these trap-pillars. We already got the warding enchantment down; all we have to do is carefully remove the actual blades.”
She was pointing to the room behind them. Anith turned and looked at the trap-pillars. There were two in the room, and they were designed such that anyone carelessly entering the room would be instantly diced by the rows of curved blades that would spring from hidden compartments on each pillar. However, the activation mechanism in this particular trap room had been disabled, and now Gemhammer was methodically breaking down the granite stone to get at the trap.
“We’ll split our time between working with hand tools and using our Skills. Once we break the warding enchantment we can use physical force. But we’ll still be at work for a few hours. At least. It’s a day-job, really.”
Earlia sighed as she grabbed her own hand wedge and hammer. Anith nodded, impressed. He wasn’t the only one. Another member of his team, Dasha, the half-Dwarven woman, spoke up.
“That’s proper mining technique alright. Which I know about because of my ancestry. Your team’s not bad at manipulating stone, Miss Earlia. For Humans, of course.”
She stroked her beard self-importantly, ignoring the eye-rolling of the rest of her teammates. Anith sighed, but Earlia just laughed.
“We were [Miners], you know. It’s just that adventuring pays better and it’s about the same level of danger. Anyways, if your team wants to watch…”
She looked at Anith meaningfully and he nodded.
“Of course. Insill, Dasha, watch our way in. Pekona, Larr…”
The Gnoll [Archer] and [Sword Dancer] Human, Pekona, both nodded and moved to cover the other entrance. Insill and Dasha walked past Gemhammer. They took up a casual guard so that both entrances were watched. Earlia nodded.
“Of course. You are paying us.”
The Jackal coughed again, a bit embarrassed. It was the first time his team had ever been hired to guard another adventuring team, but Earlia had asked and he had agreed out of curiosity and a sense of obligation. The Captain of Gemhammer gave him a grin.
“I know it’s not much, but my team and I wanted someone to guard us for the first few times, just to see what kind of attention we attract. We’re loud and we’ll have our hands full without posting a guard. Best case is that you pocket some silver and all you have to do is stand about for a few hours. Worst case…”
She looked at Larr and Pekona, leaning against their walls and keeping an eye out, and Dasha and Insill, probably arguing about her dubious claim to Dwarven knowledge. Anith sighed.
“Don’t worry. Despite how they look, my team is relatively alert. Larr and Insill will spot anything coming. But can we help in any way with ah…”
He waved a hand at the traps Gemhammer was working on. They were in the trapped rooms, the first layer of Liscor’s dungeon. But unlike every other team that had tried to pass through this area, Gemhammer hadn’t been interested in advancing or clearing more trapped rooms. Instead, they’d insisted on finding rooms already de-trapped by other teams, like this one. Anith still wasn’t entirely sure what they were doing.
“If your team’s got anyone with [Power Strike] and a sturdy weapon, we could use you. Dasha’s the only one by the looks of it and her axe is a bit…fragile. Don’t worry about it. We just need time and we’ll start breaking the walls and floor. Clearly, we’re working with a dungeon-wide enchantment here. The big stuff. No room-by-room enchantment or mundane materials here.”
Her comment made one of the other adventurers look up. Blaik wiped a bit of grime from his brow as he hammered the spike of metal into the stone pillar.
“What d’you reckon’s holding the place together? Dungeon-wide enchantment worked into the stones? That’s high-grade stuff, which is what I’d expect. Or does it have a locus of some kind?”
“What, like a dungeon heart? Hah!”
“As bad as limestone?”
Anith politely inquired. The rest of the former [Miners] snorted. It was Earlia who replied, shaking her head.
“If it is, it’s worse than limestone. Dungeon hearts or dungeon cores are terrible dungeon design. All one adventurer has to do is charge into the center and break whatever’s powering all the enchantments. Then the entire dungeon implodes or falls apart.”
Anith had no idea that was a problem. But then—he wasn’t an expert on dungeons. And he was regretting it now. Earlia’s team had clearly done their research, and they were talking as they hammered at the trap. One of the women, Fea, was nodding knowingly.
“It’s not actually that bad to use limestone in a dungeon, Mister Anith. I mean, limestone’s soft, almost as bad as marble, but so long as it’s enchanted, that’s the trick. You can’t make many dungeons out of regular stone. It breaks down too fast—and if you get Crelers, Rock Mites, or half a dozen other monsters infesting your dungeon? Inside of a decade and it’ll be more porous than a sponge!”
She tsked, shaking her head over poor dungeon quality management. The rest of the [Miners] nodded. They were wearing gloves and several had helmets on to shield their faces. Earlia’s voice was muffled as she put on a helmet and got to work beside her team.
“Don’t mind my team, Anith. We’re good at dungeons and rock-related stuff and nothing else. A new dungeon’s a great opportunity for us, especially now all this insanity with the Raskghar and so on’s died down. Still, no one’s taking chances.”
“Which is why you reached out to my team. May I ask why you wish to dismantle this room, though? I assumed it was already safe.”
Anith glanced at the trap pillar. One of the adventurers was carefully working a concealed metal blade out of the wall. Earlia chuckled.
“What? You mean you don’t know what we’re doing? There’s gold to be made—safely—by removing these traps. That’s what our team’s here for and that’s how we’re going to make a fortune.”
And then Anith saw Blaik pull out of one of the metal trap blades out of the wall. The man grunted, very carefully keeping his fingers away from the edge.
“Captain. Got one!”
“Good work, Blaik!”
Earlia chortled and raised her visor for a better look. She motioned Anith over and he examined the blade. The [Mage] could tell there was an enchantment on the metal, but Anith’s understanding of magic wasn’t specialized in that area. He was certainly not about to touch it, though. Neither was Earlia. She grinned at the blade, looking delighted.
“Beautiful. See? Gold. Just lying here! I can’t believe the other teams aren’t trying to compete with us. Let alone the teams that actually did the de-trapping! I asked Halrac before he left, but he said we were free to have at it. Either he’s an idiot, or the rumors are true and he came away with a huge score.”
Anith’s paw tightened on his spellbook. Halrac, Captain of Griffon Hunt. And one of the people who knew Vuliel Drae’s disgrace. He bowed his head, but then moved on.
“Perhaps. I had heard that he ran into some good fortune. Well-deserved, I think if so. But why would he be interested in…?”
He indicated the metal blade. Earlia gave him a strange look.
“It’s enchanted, Anith. You’re telling me you don’t think we could sell this?”
The Jackal Beastkin paused.
“Oh. Of course. But who would buy…?”
Earlia shook her head, tapping the metal.
“Enchanted metal, nice quality, very fine edge—I’d say forty gold pieces per blade? Unless it’s enchanted with some really keen enchantment, in which case it could be worth ten times that. We’ll have to see—hey! Anyone got something to cut with this thing?”
“I have a mutton leg. Let me eat it.”
One of the other adventurers fished out a snack. After carefully stripping the meat from the bone, he handed it to Earlia. She lifted the bone and chopped at it with the blade. Both she and Anith whistled; the trap blade had gone straight through the bone and marrow. Earlia nodded, satisfied.
“Yup. That sliced through the bone like that. I’d say we can get at least six-fifty on each blade.”
Anith inhaled sharply. Larr turned his head, blinking. Earlia grinned at the expression on Anith’s face.
“Six hundred and fifty gold pieces. That’s right.”
“For just one of those?”
Incredulously, Anith pointed at the second trap blade Fea was working out of the pillar. Earlia nodded.
“Well, we’re reselling them, not melting them down or repurposing them, right? If it was magical glyphs or something, the dust or inscriptions are worth a lot less. But magical blades are magical blades. Hells, you could even put this on a polearm and have yourself, what, a Gold-rank weapon? Nah, but a good Silver-rank one. See why we’re so interested in these traps?”
Anith did. He gulped and hesitated.
“Is it wise to tell us this? And who would you sell these blades to? A [Blacksmith]?”
“Just a regular [Merchant] who deals in this kind of stuff. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to pay for dungeon-grade traps. Anyways, it’s not like we’re going to hide what we’re doing. If any other teams want to take a crack at removing the traps, feel free. But it’s dangerous and difficult. Not sure how well your team would do.”
Earlia nodded to Vuliel Drae without rancor. Anith sighed. It was true. His team was specialized for a fight, or maybe defusing traps, but not breaking through stone and enchantments to get at them. But if they could hire a [Miner]…he eyed Earlia’s team and sagged. That was why there was an entire team of former [Miners], wasn’t there?
“Don’t take it too hard. You can make your fortune by finding treasure and collecting monster parts. Each to their own.”
Earlia grinned and patted Anith on the back. He looked somewhat dourly at her beaming face, but relented.
“As long as you’re paying us for guard duty. I’m tripling our fee next time.”
The Human woman laughed. Anith smiled, and stepped back as another blade joined the first in a pile. Earlia went back to her pillar and began hammering at the stone, breaking pieces loose.
“We got the idea from the Horns of Hammerad and Miss Erin, actually. If a door they found in a dungeon can transport people a hundred miles, how much would all this be worth? Hey you idiots don’t fool around with those blades! You drop it on your hand and you’ll lose the hand!”
She snapped at her team and turned to Anith.
“So Anith, how’s your team doing? Don’t tell me you’re that jealous of us; your team was the first to find treasure in the dungeon after all. You made out like [Bandits], right?”
Earlia’s comment took in the rest of Vuliel Drae standing watch. Anith paused, and looked around. Insill, Larr, Pekona, and Dasha all looked back at him with expressions ranging from guilt to wariness. Earlia didn’t see; she was still working. After a moment, Insill coughed.
“We uh, we’re doing alright. Yeah, we got really lucky. We found that mace on the first Raskghar. Gold-rank gear. Sold for a lot. And after that…”
Vuliel Drae glumly looked at each other. Oh yes. After that. Their career as adventurers workings around Liscor had been meteoric at first. They’d found treasure in Liscor’s dungeon—a Gold-rank weapon worth thousands of gold coins! And they’d encountered a mysterious adventurer who’d given them her aid. Confident, overconfident, Vuliel Drae had kept exploring and inadvertently been the cause of the Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor.
It was a fact few people knew. The Gold-rank teams, the Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt who’d uncovered the truth had decided it was best no one but Liscor’s Guildmistress and a few others know. Not out of sympathy for Vuliel Drae, but to prevent the outcry against adventurers and to keep the Silver-rank team from being lynched.
But Vuliel Drae had paid for their mistakes. From drudge work assigned to them by Tekshia Shivertail to a permanent warning on all of their records in the Adventurer’s Guilds’ private files—Anith had no idea that was even a function of the guilds—their team was still haunted by their mistake.
Justly so, in Anith’s opinion. The Jackal Beastkin had a strong sense of justice that came from his tribe, and he considered their disgrace the least of the debt they owed society. However, the topic was still touchy, and the silence from the rest of his team lingered long enough that Earlia looked up.
“What, the mace you got wasn’t worth as much as you hoped? Or did you sell it to the wrong [Merchant]?”
Larr folded his arms. The taciturn Gnoll glared at nothing in particular, his ears lowered. Pekona, the dour woman from the Drath Archipelago, just looked down, scowling. Anith cleared his throat hurriedly.
“We sold it by way of Invrisil. The money finally got to us by way of Courier, along with some of the equipment we ordered.”
“We could have done Pallass—”
Insill grumbled under his breath. The lone Drake in the group had voted for that. Dasha rolled her eyes. Earlia looked up.
“You got your goods via Courier? Isn’t that a waste of gold?”
“Not at all. Apparently, if you’re rich, the [Merchants] will send you a…what did they call it, Anith?”
“A catalogue, Dasha. They even paid for the Courier’s fees.”
“For what we spent, of course they did!”
“They must have heard you had money to burn! That’s fancy. Free Courier deliveries? That explains your gear.”
She nodded to Vuliel Drae. Anith smiled a bit. He was wearing new robes. Not the best money could buy, but better than the common cloth enchanted with a weak stain-resistance spell. And Dasha had upgraded her axe to a mithril-alloyed metal she swore was ten times better. Larr had a few enchanted arrows, Pekona had a scroll at her belt and Insill had enchanted armor and weapons. It wasn’t a huge upgrade, but it had moved them up the Silver-rank hierarchy a bit. Earlia nodded.
“How much do you have left, if you don’t mind sharing?”
And there it was again, Vuliel Drae paused and Insill piped up nervously.
“We donated some of it. It uh—the thing is—”
He hesitated, guilt written across his face and Dasha elbowed him.
She hissed at the Drake. Anith coughed.
“We donated some of the money to the victims of the Face-Eater Moth attack.”
“Oh? That’s generous of you. I mean, yeah. I suppose we owe Liscor something. Huh. I don’t know if my team would be down for that.”
Earlia frowned absently, glancing at her teammates. Anith took that moment to give Insill a warning look. Both Pekona and Larr did the same and the Drake [Rogue] bit his lip. His tail thrashed guiltily, but he said nothing more.
Secrets and guilt. It wasn’t what Anith wanted. This wasn’t why he’d left his home in Chandrar. But it was what fate had brought to his team, so he could only steer them with dignity and integrity from here on out. And while Anith had wrestled with his shared guilt, he had concluded that telling other people what his team had done would cause nothing but harm. So he signaled to Dasha to drag Insill further down the hallway and let the conversation die out.
It was boring work, watching Gemhammer slowly dismantle the trap and occasionally use their Skills to begin breaking down the next room. Anith didn’t even understand why they were interested in the next room—it was designed to cremate anyone alive, a ‘classic’ trap made more sinister by the fact that the spell didn’t shoot flames or slowly warm the room—it would explode in a fireball of air instantly. That was, until he saw Gemhammer carefully removing the actual spell-trigger.
“You see, to write magic runes, people have to use some kind of dust or paint or whatnot. We can scrape it off if no one wants to buy the runes. It can be worth a bit or a lot, again, depending on if we can sell it wholesale without scrapping it for the dust. But the real treasure in a trap room like this is—aha! Magicore!”
Earlia crowed as her team cracked one of the walls and exposed a thin tube of oozing liquid. The [Miners] scrambled for jars, scraping the precious, fiery molten stone into jars. Anith could feel the heat of the stuff from here.
“Fire-elemental magicore. No wonder the trap room heats up so fast! Do you have any idea how much we can sell this for?”
Earlia crowed in delight. Vuliel Drae glumly watched as the exuberant [Miners] began talking about potential buyers. Earlia waved a hand, shushing the lot.
“Stop yakking and get to work! This is great, but also bad. The instant we start selling this stuff, we’re going to have competition. More teams are going to make a beeline for this dungeon to strip the traps, so every hour we have on them is more gold we pocket! Less talking, more mining! Anith, can I convince your team to keep this all secret for a bit of gold…?”
“Sorry, Captain Earlia. But you’ll have competition soon enough. I’m not certain we can compete with a [Miner]’s team as efficiently, but with the door open to Pallass, you can bet we’re hiring our own specialists.”
A feathery Garuda appeared in the far hallway. Earlia jumped and Anith whirled. Insill and Dasha waved at him as Bevussa Slenderscale, the Gold-rank Captain of the Wings of Pallass, strode into the room. Technically she was just a Gold-rank adventurer, but it was an open secret that she was the defacto leader of her team among the adventurers in Liscor. But Captain or not, it was her Gold-rank status that had both Vuliel Drae and Gemhammer turning to respectfully greet her.
“Miss Bevussa. What brings you here?”
Anith bowed respectfully towards Bevussa. The Garuda smiled at him, and nodded back. She walked lightly, eying the [Miners] trying to hide the fiery magicore behind their backs and swearing as it burned their gloved hands.
“Captain Bevussa, we were just—”
“Stripping the dungeon? I’m not trying to intrude. It’s no one’s territory since the original teams are gone. Don’t worry.”
The Garuda opened her beak, amusement in her voice. Earlia relaxed a bit, looking embarrassed.
“Sorry. Sometimes in other dungeons—”
“It’s no problem. And you won’t have to worry; there’s a system for claiming areas you’re working on. It’s still first to eat the worm, but Gold-rank teams can’t order you to abandon this spot. Am I intruding?”
“Not at all. We were just finishing—hey! Start packing that magicore! Bags of holding—one jar apiece! What can we do for you, Captain?”
The Garuda nodded at Anith and Earlia.
“I wanted to find you two. I’m letting all the Silver-rank teams and Gold-ranks know that we’re doing a coordinated push into the dungeon again today.”
“Again? That’s the third time this week!”
Earlia looked startled. Anith just nodded slowly. Bevussa shrugged.
“It’s just for teams who have the energy. My team does, and Keldrass’. The more teams who go in, the safer. Usually. Let us know if you’re coming; it’s in three hours and we’re hoping to push into that Bagrhaven area. There’s a buyer for their feathers in Pallass.”
“Oh! Well, if it’s Bagrhavens—no thanks. Our team will stick right here. Anith, we can manage without you and pull back to a spot near the entrance. What do you say?”
The Jackal rubbed at his finely-furred chin. He looked at his team, taking in their opinions in a glance, then nodded.
“If Earlia won’t object, I’d be pleased to take a position in the push, Captain Bevussa. We’d like to do something active today.”
The Garuda nodded.
“We’ll put you on the list, then. Oh, and you’re paying a fee to the Lifwail Blades. They’re holding the back lines and acting as emergency backup in case of Raskghar or that Facestealer thing strikes again.”
All the adventurers present shuddered. Liscor’s dungeon had been purged of some of the main threats, including the Face-Eater Moths and Raskghar, but there was always something else. Over a dozen adventurers had already been found headless, killed by the last guardian of the dungeon.
Anith knew the team on standby was good, able to fight at range contrary to their names, but the thought of running into Facestealer was horrifying, even if Anith only had his imagination and Calruz and Ceria’s words to go by.
Still, you could earn a lot of gold from a single day in the dungeon. And if you found a truly great treasure haul? You’d be set for life. That was the calculation every adventurer made.
Bevussa’s voice was brisk as she looked at Anith. If she was afraid of Facestealer, she gave no sign of it.
“Remember, three horn blasts and you run for the exit. That means Shield Spiders are coming in waves. One long blast—”
“Facestealer. We remember. Do you think we can trap him, Captain Bevussa?”
The Garuda frowned.
“Maybe? He’s never taken the bait so far, but that thing doesn’t strike often, according to…the Minotaur. And we’ve got Gold-rank teams. If we run into him, we’ll pin him down and melt him at range. That’s the plan, but I’d rather stick to monsters I know are down there. See you in three hours.”
She nodded to Anith and Earlia. Then she nodded to the Jackal and he followed her back down the tunnel. Insill and Dasha stepped back and the two had a quiet conversation.
“One more thing, Anith. Since Halrac’s gone and we assumed the Halfseekers were leaving, I was informed along with Keldrass about the Face-Eater Moth incident…”
Anith’s heart began beating faster. He opened his mouth, and Bevussa put a wing-hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t say anything. Guildmistress Tekshia informed us. It’s important to have some Gold-rank teams in the field who know about any…problems. I’m honestly not worried. You make a mistake, you pay the price. You’re not going to try destroying any nests again without contacting us, right?”
“Of course not, Captain Bevussa.”
The Garuda nodded briskly.
“I don’t have a problem with that. What I do want to know is if you have a way to contact the other adventurer. You know? The Masked Warrior?”
“She’s still been seen below? My team hasn’t been in the dungeon proper for a while. We assumed…”
“A few teams see her now and then. Human, wears a mask? Lends a hand to teams that get attacked? Never says a word? The Guildmistress wants to talk to her. So do our teams. I know the Face-Eater thing was an accident, but anyone who’s survived that long would be valuable to know. And it’s also risky having someone wandering about who might trigger an attack. We sealed the Shield Spider nest again, but…”
She trailed off meaningfully. Anith nodded.
“We do not have a way to contact her, but she has found our team most of the times we entered the dungeon. If we see her, we’ll let you know, Captain Slenderscale.”
“Just call me Bevussa. Thanks, Anith.”
The Garuda smiled. She left, and Anith watched her go, a bit breathless. Now there was a Gold-rank Captain that he aspired to be. The Wings of Pallass were a good team, and Bevussa felt reassuring to him. He looked over as Insill and Dasha approached.
“What did she want, Anith?”
“Hm. Well, she knew about the moths…Larr. Pekona!”
Anith signaled them and Vuliel Drae converged for a quick meeting. Larr had of course, heard it all, and the Gnoll was fretful. The rest of the team was nervous.
“Wait, how many people know what we did?”
Insill looked panicked. Dasha slapped him on the shoulder.
“Everyone you told, idiot! I said we should keep it secret. And now that masked woman’s in trouble? Good! I say she deserves a lot of the blame!”
“She didn’t know any more than we did. We thought we were getting rid of a nest—”
Insill protested hotly, blushing a bit. The half-Dwarf woman rolled her eyes.
“You’re just saying that because you want to get in her pants!”
“I never said—”
Pekona frowned at Dasha.
“If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have survived the first time in the dungeon! We owe our lives to her! Be respectful.”
She glared, the accented words coming out slowly. Dasha folded her arms. Larr growled.
“If she made a mistake, she made a mistake, yes? The other teams should be curious of her. If it is just talking, let them. I am curious of her as well. She always smells of so much blood. She must be killing monsters constantly to survive. That is a strange person, no?”
“Some adventurers are like that. She saved our lives—”
“If she doesn’t have a beard, she’s untrustworthy!”
“Shut up, Dasha!”
Anith raised a paw for silence. His team looked at him.
“No one’s asking us to turn her in. Our…friend has been the source of much of our luck. And some of our misfortune, it is true. But we owe her our lives. If we see her, let us try to honor Captain Bevussa’s wishes. But most of all, let us be careful.”
Vuliel Drae nodded. They looked at each other, annoyed, disagreeing—but a team. Not the best team in the dungeon. But not the worst. And they’d be better. They checked their gear and prepared to go into the dungeon, to risk their lives for fame and wealth and power. That was the adventurer’s calling.
And then they glumly watched Gemhammer making easy money for three more hours. Some teams had all the luck.
This was what the skeleton saw. Toren wandered the dungeon, a skeleton in the darkness, a shadow in the night. Or maybe it was day? It didn’t matter. She was in charge. And Toren was a lot more proactive than he was.
She asked the questions he never did. Why was there a dungeon here? What was it hiding? What secrets were there yet to uncover? All he did was think of Erin. But that was their duality. She enjoyed seeking the answer to the question more than the answer itself would bring her. So she flitted from space to space, sword in hand, gilding across the floor, avoiding traps.
Rarely fighting monsters. That was the thing. Toren was a skeleton. As such, half the monsters she encountered didn’t attack her because there wasn’t anything they wanted. Bones weren’t very nutritious and she didn’t smell of succulent flesh or blood. And the other half didn’t even seem to see her. They walked past Toren, as if she wasn’t there.
Of course, Toren could choose to fight them, but she preferred to save her energy for the battles that mattered. Thus, the skeleton spent most of her time investigating new parts of the dungeon. She would carefully investigate a corridor, following trails left by monsters, eying suspiciously clean parts of the dungeon. Occasionally she’d step on a trap and have to reassemble herself, but mostly she explored.
See—here came a Flesh Worm. A sinuous, crimson worm, as tall as…Toren stared up and up and backed away as the gargantuan worm-monster swept down the dungeon. It had two long, ‘arms’ with palps that could snatch flesh off a body. And like the Crypt Lords, it had a trail of undead. Toren eyed the escort of zombies and decided here was an opportunity.
She meekly fell into line behind the trialing undead. Some of the zombies paused, but Toren’s appearance didn’t matter. She was a skeleton and they were zombies, so they made little reaction to her. The Flesh Worm never noticed as it slithered forwards. Toren followed it down the corridor.
She was careful not to attract the Flesh Worm’s attention. They couldn’t control her any more than the Goblin [Shaman] could. Not anymore. But even so, Toren didn’t like them trying to impose their will on her. Worse still, if the Flesh Worms failed, they would immediately attack her with the rest of the undead following them.
And where were they going? Let’s see. The four ‘nest silos’ full of monsters led up to the teleporting trap rooms. And from the nests the labyrinth worked its way inwards, past designated habitats for monsters, natural springs of water that held aquatic things—Toren wasn’t willing to try diving again in case she was dragged down and stuck forever—leading ever inwards, past those odd places where all the food was.
The same food he was so obsessed with getting to stock his fake inn with. He’d gotten them crushed and ‘killed’ eight times trying to fight monsters for the food that appeared in designated rooms, only to learn that it disappeared after a few hours!
Anyways. Toren huffed along, and realized the Flesh Worm was moving inwards, towards the center of the labyrinth. The skeleton paused as she heard the clank of metal ahead. She peered past the Flesh Worm as it turned and saw it.
A suit of armor. The enchanted metal warrior walked past the Flesh Worm, ignoring it and the undead. The Flesh Worm contemptuously slithered past it. Toren stared. This was further than she often went.
This was enchanted armor territory. They occupied the inner part of the dungeon, mostly, guarding the city filled with the…people. The ones with holes in them and no skin. That was the most dangerous area; the traps got worse and worse the closer in you got, and the patrols of enchanted armor and Flesh Worms and other monsters were nastier and more frequent around there.
The inner city was relatively fine by comparison; it had no traps or monsters. The only real problem was that that the horde of those Infested people would tear anything apart and Toren had no desire to recollect her bones over the period of a week again after being scattered nearly a mile wide.
The Flesh Worm was moving straight through the armor’s territory without fear, though. Toren wondered if the creature was insane. But Flesh Worms were intelligent. Dangerously so. If it thought it was safe…Toren turned, looking around. These corridors were taller! And the fortifications—she saw suits of armor standing guard, and the Flesh Worm had to slither between defensive lines. Some of the enchanted suits of armor carried bows! They were prepared for a war!
This was a part of the dungeon Toren had never seen. She’d never been close enough; the armor would smash her to bits. No wonder no one had ever taken the inner part of the dungeon, Raskghar or not—fighting the armor on their home ground was suicide. There were constant patrols of them. Toren kept right behind the Flesh Worm with the undead. And it kept going further into their territory!
Now there was clanging. A glow in the darkness. Toren paused, and then hurried after a zombie. She tripped it up so the line of undead behind her would slow and stared at what lay beyond.
Forges. Battered suits of armor were slowly being repaired, the dents hammered out, steel patched onto steel. An armory of weapons and armor, the latter enchanted with life. They stood in rows, silent, some moving off into patrols or war bands. But the rest ominously still. Silent. Rows upon rows of them. Toren stared until a zombie bumped into her from behind. Then she jumped.
The Flesh Worm turned. It hissed in displeasure as it saw the undead following it hadn’t kept up. It swung one tail—Toren saw it shear through a zombie’s neck. She edged backwards as the Flesh Worm continued onwards and moved to the back of the line. Just in time to see the nearest suit of armor pause with hammer in hand as it repaired its brethren.
The suit of armor stared at her. Toren froze, and then put her arms out. She walked forwards, trying to open her mouth and groan. Then she remembered she didn’t have any flesh. The suit of armor stared at her, masked, wearing clothes, and the nearest zombie.
The enchanted automaton had nothing like actual intelligence. Even so, it processed Toren for a few more seconds before slowly walking past her. It must have sensed her undead presence, or else it had fallen for her act. Toren followed after the train of undead and Flesh Worm, metaphorically sweating.
And then she saw it. Standing at the head of the legion of armor on a pedestal of its own. So still, so unmoving that spiders had built cobwebs that appeared to anchor it to the ground. But the creation’s eyes burned. It still had presence. It waited sword and shield in hand. And as the Flesh Worm and the entourage of undead moved through the grand assembly room, the general of the legion of enchanted armor slowly looked up. Its head turned and Toren saw a flash of something like intelligence from the burning lights in its helm.
A guardian of the dungeon. Toren froze. She stared at the General of Armor or whatever it might be. It stared at her, and then the Flesh Worm. Slowly, it moved. Spiders fled and the cobwebs broke as it raised a sword and pointed at her. Without words, without life, in truth. But with ancient duty.
And as one, the legion of enchanted suits of armor turned. Toren froze. The Flesh Worm paused, and then whipped around. It stared at Toren. She looked at it. She looked at the Armor General on his pedestal. She waved a hand. And then she ran for it.
Arrows flew. Enchanted armor charged at her, and the Flesh Worm shrieked as it and the undead raced after Toren. She fled, waving her arms and clattering her jaw indignantly. It wasn’t like she was trying to—
A hammer smashed her skull in and the skeleton collapsed. Her bones rolled onto the floor and the enchanted armor smashed them to powder. Toren held very still as the alarm ended. After a while, the magic in her bones slowly returned her form. The cracks sealed, the powder reformed. Toren got up, adjusted her clothes, and stomped off in a huff.
That was how she spent her time in the dungeon. She was different than he was. He lacked something she did. Well, she lacked it too, but she knew it was lacking. It was the same thing, only there was a trace of it in her still. A distant memory. Sometimes it was faded and she, like he, only understood death. Killing. Leveling. A mindless pursuit. But other times she saw something. And that part of her woke up.
The Antinium sent an army into the dungeon sometimes. A few hundred, or sometimes thousands, to cut down as many monsters as possible, or—Toren suspected—to map parts of the dungeon they didn’t know. They did it by sacrificing dozens of Antinium for each step. The monsters would pour out from every corridor and the Antinium would charge on, through traps and ambushes until there were none left.
Toren didn’t know what the purpose of this outpouring was. She only knew it when she saw it and felt it. She heard the thrumming of thousands of feet, heard the sounds of violence. And she felt the dungeon moving, changing, reacting to the threat.
Flesh Worms slithered down the corridors. Dens of monsters, agitated, poured out. Traps exploded and unleashed their wrath. The armored legions poured forwards, as unending as the Antinium. Toren hurried down the corridors, ignored by the monsters, peeking around corners.
She saw them. The Black Tide, sweeping forwards. Fighting. Dying. Soldiers and Workers, grappling with monsters, tearing them apart. Nameless Soldiers. Those without paint.
But people, still.
Toren paused. Why had she thought that? She stared at the Antinium. They were fighting, dying. And Toren, both Torens, were amazed by the battle. The Soldiers refused to die easily. They dragged their opponents down with them. If it took a hundred Soldiers to bring one Flesh Worm down, or hundreds, they paid that price. They were grouped up, fighting in narrow corridors, unable to surround their opponents.
But they did not yield. They advanced. And he reveled in the slaughter. He laughed at the death, the spectacle of it. She? She saw something else. Something more that she tried to show him.
Look at how they died.
The thousands fell away. The corridors were filled with blood. The Soldier’s green. The Workers retreating, dragging bodies back to the Antinium Hive. But the Soldiers continued on. They had no home to return to. They had only one last order.
From thousands, they were hundreds. She watched them fighting, bringing down nearly a dozen Flesh Worms, a score of undead, battling through exploding larvae, until the Shield Spiders poured through the tunnels, destroying everything in their wake. Toren and the last Antinium fled. And she watched them fall.
Twenty three. And then sixteen. Nine. Five. And then, two. The last two Soldiers ran, fleeing the Shield Spiders that stopped to drag the corpses of their brethren back to their nest. The other monsters halted their pursuit as well. They had much to eat, or wounds to nurse. Even the enchanted armor seemed fed up with the slaughter. They marched back towards their garrisons.
Leaving the two Soldiers alone. There they stood. Worn. Bleeding. Dying. The dungeon surrounded them. They would never return. They could not. They had been sent to die, to strike a blow at the dungeon. So the Soldiers had been dead the moment they charged.
In the silent corridor, the two Soldiers stopped. The Soldiers stood, bleeding green, looking around wildly. But they had a reprieve. The spiders had fled. Something else was coming, summoned by the massive incursion into the dungeon.
The Soldiers paused. They turned to look at each other and lowered their fists. They stopped. And one of them made a clicking sound. The skeleton watched, her eyes seeing all. And what she saw next spoke to that spark in her.
One Soldier opened his mandibles. Closed them. He made a click. And it was soft. The other Soldier paused. And then it went click. What they said—if they were even words—Toren had no idea. But then the Soldiers stepped forwards each other.
They grasped each other, clumsily. All four arms of one, and three arms and a stump of the other. Toren thought they were trying to kill each other. But then she saw one step. Slowly, his hands on the other Soldier’s shoulders and waist. And the other stepped with him. In perfect synch.
They moved slowly, in a halting, rhythmic pattern. A swaying tracery on the floor. Turning, pausing. Twirling.
And Toren saw, amid the faint glow and death, the way they moved had a purpose. And she realized it was a dance. The Soldiers held each other, the last two in their world. And they moved. Not with the desperate last energy of the dead, but with dignity. With grace.
They waltzed, dancing in the dark corridor in the elegant style of a Terandrian ballroom. And Toren saw it all.
He didn’t want to see. He didn’t understand. But she saw. And it called to her. Toren turned her head. The dungeon had gone silent.
It was coming. So the skeleton stood from where she was crouched. She drew her sword and advanced slowly.
The two Soldiers stopped dancing as soon as they noticed Toren. They whirled, bringing up their fists. Toren held up her sword, her palm open, pleading. They stared at her, wavering. And then Toren felt it.
She turned her head. And there it was. A staring head poking around the corridor on a stick. Toren whirled. She pointed. The two Antinium Soldiers hesitated as she turned and lifted her sword. She pointed again.
They hesitated. And then they ran. Toren charged. And Facestealer was there. It looked down at her. The bag of heads it carried trailing behind. The heads on sticks clutched in one hand, a grotesque collection. Toren raised her sword and leapt forwards. Not for victory; she knew that all too well. But for something else. For—
It took her a long time to come back from having her skull and bones crushed into powder. At last, Toren got up. Her mask was broken. Her clothing torn. She found some dead spiders nearby and managed to fix the mask, at least. Her sword was lying on the ground, for all the good it had done. Then the skeleton looked around. She was afraid of what she would find. But she did look.
She found them two corridors over. The two Soldiers lay where they had died. Their heads were missing. The skeleton knelt next to them for a very long time. She bowed her head. And she felt…as terrible as he did when he thought of Erin.
And then Toren noticed one thing. The two corpses on the ground were identical. Not in every way of course; both had different wounds. But both were missing heads. And both had four arms.
One of the Soldiers had been missing a hand. Toren looked up. She looked around. She searched. But she never found another pair of Soldiers, or one with a missing hand. Maybe the monsters had gotten them. Or maybe…
The skeleton smiled. And she had a winning grin. She stood up and stretched. She twirled amid the death and laughed silently. They both sought it, each in their own way. He, and she. And she found it in this.
And in battle. That was true. But one Toren killed to kill. She—did it for a reason. The skeleton drew her sword. And she went hunting. She had only one quarry in the dungeon worth doing battle with. He and she could agree on that, at least. They were a nuisance. And they had killed Toren countless times before. Now the shoe was on the skeleton’s foot.
She found the Raskghar camp after nine hours of searching. They had hidden well. But not well enough to escape a skeleton with all the time in the world. They smelled her, of course. And she was used to their howls.
The Raskghar were already waiting for her. Especially the special one. Toren halted in front of their camp. She adjusted her mask. And she moved forwards slowly, as gracefully as the two Soldiers. She was a [Sword Dancer], Level 13. It might not be enough today. It hadn’t the last twenty three times.
But she could try again. The Raskghar could not. And they knew her. Oh, yes. They remembered. The one standing guard snarled. Her voice was guttural. Desperate, rasping—that was new—and hateful.
The Raskghar coughed. Nokha bared her teeth, the glowing blade in her hand held up warily. Toren paused. She lifted the blade in her hand and tapped it with one finger.
A new sword. Nokha had destroyed the last one in their last encounter. The skeleton smiled behind her mask. Nokha warily held her ground. Behind her, the other warriors backed up, howling quietly at the camp already preparing to flee. There were less of them, now. Far less than when the Minotaur had led them. Far less camps too. Toren had played a part in that.
“Leave. Leave now. We surrender. Tell magic-Human. Surrender. Surrender.”
The Raskghar was speaking nonsense. Interesting nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. Toren tilted her head. And then she advanced. Nokha raised the magic sword Toren wanted so much with a snarl of rage. The two waited.
Nokha coughed again, unable to suppress it. Toren leapt. And the Raskghar snarled and screamed. Toren swept towards her, blade slashing up in a two-handed arc. Nokha swung straight. She was faster and stronger. But Toren had anticipated the cut. She let it slash through her ribs and struck Nokha along the arm. The Raskghar howled in pain. Toren grinned. She could recover. She rolled, trying to get away to attack again later—
Too slow. Nokha stomped, crushing Toren’s bones, smashing her skull with her foot over and over. Then she fled, coughing, howling a pained call to the other Raskghar. They fled with her. Toren lay on the ground, her body rebuilding.
Darn. Well, it was worth a shot. And next time, maybe the Raskghar’s arm wouldn’t have healed. She was annoyingly intelligent, though. Still, that cough…
As Toren rebuilt herself, she decided she needed a bow. A bow and arrows might really help. But it was hard finding good weapons that didn’t get smashed with her body. And could she even shoot a bow and arrow? The skeleton picked up her skull and had to fix her mask. Again. She sighed, but it was busy work.
This was what the skeleton saw and did. But what she was really doing was waiting. And then, at last, the skeleton heard it. Distantly, in the way the monsters moved, the dungeon shuddered and adjusted. She turned her head. And she knew they were there.
Adventurers. She smiled and ran towards them. Because she liked people. And they were always worth seeing. Protecting. And maybe her team would be there. The ones she liked.
Friends? She liked that thought, even if she didn’t understand the concept entirely. But that’s what the Drake had called her. He hated the idea. Hated it and them. But he wasn’t in charge. And they were both lonely. So she kept the mask on. They could always sit in the inn later.
A skeleton sat in a tiny bubble in the ground. A hollow depression of dirt, barely large enough to hold her. A coffin would have been more spacious. In fact, the crushing weight of the dirt trying to settle on her would have killed any living creature. The lack of oxygen certainly would have.
But Ijvani, the greatest skeleton in the world and obviously, the only one with actual intelligence, was too depressed to care. Her magical robes were puddled around her, filthy and unwashed. An earthworm digging through the soil went straight through her ribcage.
Ijvani didn’t move. She didn’t react, or move. She could have been an actual skeleton, the dead kind, save for the two dimly golden flames burning in her eye sockets. And her bones.
They were black. Black and glossy—coated with a dark metal. They were part of what made Ijvani special. Unique, in fact. But she didn’t feel special. She was a sad skeleton. Because she was alone. Abandoned. Or worse—would it be worse?—forgotten.
It had been ninety six days. Ninety six days since her last communication with her master, her creator, Az’kerash. Ninety six days since he had reached out to her and she had felt his presence.
He had forgotten her. That was the plain truth of it. Ijvani knew it to be true. Why else had he left her, his Chosen, and not called her back since? He had forgotten her, or replaced her. She didn’t matter.
So. How had she ended up in a hole in the ground rather than proudly serving her master? Ijvani knew the answer. In fact, since she could neither sleep nor forget, she dwelled upon it every moment of her existence, without any biological functions interrupting her grief. Skeletons were unparalleled at having pity parties. And Ijvani could name all the reasons for her despair.
Firstly, she was inferior. She had failed her master, the glorious Az’kerash. The Necromancer. The most brilliant, most powerful [Necromancer] in the history of the world. She had failed him by failing to kill Zel Shivertail with her brothers and sisters. Not only had he survived and forced her master to take to the field himself, he had wounded Az’kerash. And he had damaged all the other Chosen—destroyed one of their number beyond repair, Oom.
Secondly, Ijvani had witnessed a horror worse than her own inferiority. She had seen…her master…the great and powerful Az’kerash whose wisdom and intellect was unmatched by all the Archmages of Wistram…lose a game of chess.
Yes. Lose a game of chess. Ijvani groaned in her pit in the earth. How could it happen? It shouldn’t have happened. But it had. He had lost a game. She had failed him. And now, thirdly, to top it all off, he had forgotten about her.
She had already been in despair about points one and two. Ijvani recalled it so clearly. Her master had killed Zel Shivertail, albeit at cost. And he had retreated, calling on the remaining Chosen to teleport back with the Scrolls of Greater Teleportation that he had spent so lavishly to kill his hated foe. But he had been one short. So he had looked around and—
“Ijvani, you will make your way back with an invisibility spell; there are no more scrolls of teleportation.”
The black skeleton [Mage] shuddered. Oh! The pain of it! The horror! Her master had looked around and named the least worthy of his Chosen to return on foot. The most expendable. He, in his infinite knowledge, had looked among his Chosen and found her the least worthy after measured thought and consideration.
Thus, Ijvani knew: she was a failure. Even more so than Venitra, who had failed to capture both the Human Runner, Ryoka Griffin, and been defeated by Zel Shivertail. But Ijvani was somehow worse.
Even so, that might not have been so bad. Ijvani would have walked through molten magma for her master after all. She had slowly made her way back towards his castle south of the Blood Fields. And then…then had come her error.
It wasn’t disobedience. Ijvani cringed internally. Not really. At first, she just hadn’t heard her creator’s voice in a week, and she had been tired of travelling south, hiding behind illusion spells and moving at night to avoid being spotted. She’d decided, well, to stop.
Not to disobey her master! But just so that he might contact her, to demand what had slowed her down. Because…because that would prove empirically that she still had worth to him. Of course! It had been such a simple plan. He would contact her and no doubt be furious. But he would contact her and then Ijvani could return without fear of going back to him and being…worthless.
So the skeleton had stopped. She’d slowed her pace to a crawl. And the first week had been a grand, butterfly-inducing game of disobedience! Ijvani had hid herself, burying herself in the earth under the pretext—if her master asked—that she had been swallowed by a sinkhole. Buried miles deep, so she’d been faithfully digging her way out!
That was a logical explanation, wasn’t it? She would never have dared to trick her master before, but he had lost a game of chess. So perhaps he might not be perfect in every other way?
It was just a test. Just a little test! To make sure of what she had been sure of—that she still mattered to her master. That, in time, she could regain her grace with him. So Ijvani had waited. She knew that her master knew how long it would take her to return. So after, say, two weeks, he would begin to wonder, if not sooner! After all, she could be very swift when stealth wasn’t a hindrance.
That knowledge had kept Ijvani waiting for the first week. And then the second week. He’d contact her and demand to know where she was tomorrow. And then tomorrow had come and she had heard nothing. But, surely, it would be the next day. Sometimes he spent weeks working on a project, but even then, he could still devote some of his incredible intellect to managing his Chosen, giving them orders.
He would contact her tomorrow. He was just busy today. Venitra had probably done something stupid again. It was a month before it had dawned on Ijvani how long it had been. And then she’d been in denial the second month. Waiting, day after day, to hear him reach out for her. Then she’d been afraid. Something had happened! One of his enemies had laid siege to him in the castle! But—Ijvani realized that would have made her master call her even sooner. Unless she was so useless that even an attack by the Dragon wouldn’t necessitate her presence.
So that led her to today. And Ijvani now realized the truth: she was unloved. She was forgotten. So the skeleton sat. She could not weep. She didn’t even really understand the action. In Az’kerash’s castle, there were no tears. The undead did not laugh or weep. Nor did their master. So Ijvani was sad without knowing how to be sad.
In the darkness of the ground, she whispered to herself. Ijvani’s voice was a ghastly whisper, an echo from beyond. And a bit petulant.
“I am superior. Master loves me. I am unique. Master will call for me. He remembers me. I am…”
Weak. Ijvani remembered Oom dying. Again and again. She saw the Drake crushing his mana core, breaking Oom’s center like glass. She had thought she was so much stronger than Zel Shivertail! He was just a [Warrior]! A mortal of flesh and blood! But he had torn through the Chosen like…
Oom was gone. Not just broken, able to be fixed, but gone. That meant Ijvani could be…gone…too. The skeleton shuddered, confronted by her own mortality. What would it mean, now that the Chosen were one less? How were the others reacting to Oom’s demise?
Not with satisfaction. Yes, the Chosen vied to be the one most loved by their creator, but the loss of one was a blow to their master. And that was a terrible thing. Moreover, Ijvani had liked Oom. More than Kerash or Venitra, at any rate. What would Bea, the lovely creature of plague, do with him gone?
Bea was the one who liked Oom most. They had been created at the same time, after all. Oom had been the second-oldest, Bea third by only a day or two. Ijvani next. And then Venitra. Kerash had been there from the beginning and he was special in a different way. Nevertheless, they were five of Az’kerash’s Chosen, his special creations. But now they were four.
Or was it three? Ijvani shuddered. Was she no longer one of the Chosen? Forgotten as she was, was she like…Viltraid? She remembered him. He had been…not one of the Chosen. But more than a regular undead. And she remembered how he had been removed.
At the time, Ijvani had rejoiced in his demise, because he had been a pest in her eyes, inferior to her. But now she wondered. He hadn’t been one of the Chosen. But her master had created him. And could it be that he had once been one of the Chosen who had…?
Kerash claimed he could remember…more. More who had once been…Chosen. And had somehow failed. Was that what Ijvani was?
“No. No. I am not a failure. I am still one of the Chosen! I am—”
The black skeleton shuddered. She was a special creation! She had a nigh-indestructible body, the ability to match any Gold-rank [Mage] in magical combat! But…
She couldn’t stay here any longer. But—she was afraid to return and have her fears proven. Even so, Ijvani was tired of the dirt. Water kept tricking down every time it rained and the worms were getting on her nerves. She’d find somewhere else. And keep thinking. Her master might not not hate her, after all.
So Ijvani stood up. Her head was immediately engulfed in soft, earthy loam, but she barely paid it any mind. She put her hands up and began excavating the ceiling. Dirt swallowed her, but Ijvani kept digging, climbing upwards.
A strange sight greeted anyone who might be strolling along the ground of Liscor’s Floodplains. In a small valley, a skeleton’s head suddenly popped out of the ground in a shower of dirt. Ijvani dug herself out of the ground and quickly swiveled her skeletal head three hundred and sixty degrees.
Of course, she was using [Invisibility], [Suppressed Aura], and [Muffle], but Ijvani was well aware that she could be detected by the right Skill or Spells. [Greater Invisibility] was still…beyond her, so she checked the surrounding area for any possible watchers. No one was there. Ijvani pulled herself out of the ground. Then she looked around.
“Where should I wait for master to call me?”
She stared around blankly. Everywhere looked as equally pointless as her hole in the ground. At last, the skeleton began walking towards a nearby cave. It was as good as any a place to wait. Because her master would call her. Definitely.
In the Floodplains of Liscor were many unique sights of nature. The ecological marvel and nightmare that was Rock Crabs, for instance, or the surprising survivability of Ashfire Bees trapped in a cave with a limited supply of honey in their hive. Not to mention the wonders of the nature in the higher reaches of the High Passes.
However, the most astonishing thing in the entire Floodplains from a researcher’s perspective might be located in a humble cave and valley just outside of it. Because there, in the cave, lived a colony of Fortress Beavers, the oversized cousin of the regular beaver capable of creating massive dams as large as any castle. And just outside the cave, cleverly hidden in the grass, was a nest of Shield Spiders, the dangerous and numerous spiders who could grow to gargantuan sizes given enough time.
Neither species was unique to Liscor. In fact, both were downright common. But what was fascinating to the inner [Arachnologist] and [Mammalogist] inside every person was that both species were living in more or less harmony. This was an unheard of arrangement, given that both species generally tried to exterminate each other given the slightest provocation. And yet, both species were living in more or less symbiosis!
Well, technically you could call it a non-aggression pact born out of a mutual war with a hated foe that had turned into a surprisingly profitable defensive alliance and trade agreement between species. And it had endured, which was even more surprising.
Once, there had been a grave threat to the cave. A foe more terrible than any regular animal. Crelers. And they had infested the cave, as they had so many parts of the world and devoured both spider and beaver alike, preparing to unleash a massive brood in time that would eradicate all life from the Floodplains if left unchecked. But they had been stopped. Not by adventurers, but by a desperate alliance of beavers, slime, spiders, and a Gnoll with a wand. Once, a glorious battle had been waged in this very place.
But such stories were old. And much time had passed since then. Anyone would expect the animals to revert back to their natures and resent each other’s proximity. But that strange alliance had endured.
Here was how it worked. The Fortress Beavers would helpfully (or perhaps, lazily) toss out all the scraps they had no use for in their caves into the Shield Spider’s nest. And that included rats, foxes, other scavengers unprepared to tangle with Fortress Beavers, and once, even a wolf. The Shield Spiders happily devoured the lot and in turn kept the cave clear from larger predators—mainly by trapping them in their concealed nest.
It could have been a clever arrangement that tested the limits of animal and arachnid intelligence by creating a symbiotic relationship that might irrevocably shift the natures and cognition of both species over time if the right circumstances endured.
Or it might be dumb luck. But the sacred bond forged in the Battle of the Cave had endured, albeit with cracks over the long months since. For in the absence of the Crelers, both species were reproducing with the bountiful spring, and cracks had already begun to form in the treaty forged between both species.
The Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers had both reaped the benefits of the era of fish and rains that had filled the Floodplains. The Fortress Beavers by happily fishing, the Shield Spiders by consuming the fish as the waters receded, leaving the more foolish members of the species trapped. And accordingly, both populations had entered into a massive population boom that meant they were encroaching into each other’s territory.
Several young Fortress Beavers had been eaten—some by wandering into the Shield Spider nest, others by straying too close to it when the Shield Spiders were hungry—and more than a few intrepid Shield Spiders had been smacked to death when they’d crawled into the Fortress Beaver’s cave. Faced with mounting provocations from both sides, both sides could naturally be assumed to go back to war. However, that never occurred mainly due to the one mediating presence that travelled from both cave to pit.
The healing slime. And if a…slimenologist were to happen across this marvel of magical biology, they would probably be at a loss for words. Because the little slime that zipped around the cave possessed not only the ability to move at incredibly rapid speed, but to heal. It was a small blob, barely two feet high, whose inner body glowed and shimmered with magical colors.
It could heal. And because of that, both Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders tolerated its presence. In fact, both species had begun to rely on the slime. Fortress Beavers wounded by combat with other animals would slink back to the caves and emerge healed in moments. Shield Spiders damaged while at war with other nests of Shield Spiders or animals would wait patiently for the healing slime to roll on by. And while the slime frequented both areas, peace reigned.
It was a marvel. A peace unlike any other. Ijvani stared at the healing slime rolling happily out of the Shield Spider pit. And then she grabbed it.
The slime made no sound. But every color in its translucent body instantly turned to purple and orange. It tried to speed away, but Ijvani held it up in the air and the slime whirled in place. The black skeleton held it up and stared at it. She eyed the mana stone inside the slime.
“What a strange slime. You are not naturally-made. Did some [Alchemist] throw out their potions? But…how curious.”
The slime quivered in terror. And it’s fright—and the presence of the black skeleton—awakened the Shield Spider nest. They swarmed out of the opening. But they didn’t see Ijvani. They only saw the slime, hovering in midair, clearly under duress. So they swarmed towards Ijvani and ran into her.
Of course, they bit her. The black skeleton stared down at the spiders as the swarmed up her robes and bit at them, and her black bones. The largest spider’s mandibles locked onto a femur and hung on. Its crushing mandibles did exactly nothing to her bones. Ijvani went back to staring at the healing slime.
“You are strange. As odd as Oom.”
She paused. Then she hung her head.
“Oom is gone.”
Depressed, Ijvani put the healing slime under one arm. She didn’t let it go. Or squash the slime’s core. She couldn’t do that to a slime, even if it wasn’t Oom. And she didn’t feel like letting it go. She missed Oom.
“This is a good place to be forgotten by master. I guess.”
Glumly, Ijvani wandered into the cave. She stared at the colony of Fortress Beavers and the wall of packed mud, grass, and bits of wood they’d turned into a fortress. The Fortress Beavers stopped patting at the wall with their tails and looked up in alarm at the mass of Shield Spiders attacking the…thing in the cave. They saw the healing slime’s distress and lumbered forwards.
Ijvani stared blankly at the Fortress Beavers and noticed she was covered in spiders. She sighed.
“Oh. Right. Invisibility.”
She dispelled the magic and appeared as she was. A metallic skeleton. The Fortress Beavers froze. The Shield Spiders scurried off Ijvani in terror. There was more than a bit of unnatural power in Ijvani. More than a regular skeleton. The Fortress Beavers, who would and did crush errant undead that attacked them, backed up. The Shield Spiders scurried back.
Ijvani didn’t care. She looked around. Then she collapsed onto the ground, staring up at the cave ceiling. She hugged the healing slime to her, much like she remembered Oom doing.
“Master. You remember I exist, right?”
The animals and spiders stared at the quivering healing slime and the motionless black skeleton. The healing slime tried to roll away. Ijvani held on tighter. It stopped moving as she reached into its body and gripped the mana core that was its life source. Then it just trembled.
“Master, I am here. Your faithful servant. Do you remember me?”
Ijvani stared at the ceiling of the cave. She didn’t move. In fact, she was so still that it was unnerving. But there Ijvani stayed, as the Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders warily moved around her, considering, weighing what their instincts told them against the evidence of their eyes.
An hour Ijvani lay there. Two hours. Three hours. Then eight. Fortress Beavers realized they could edge around her. Shield Spiders scurried in a large circle around the skeleton and she didn’t move. The healing slime stayed where it was, quivering; the mana core was still in Ijvani’s hand. She enjoyed its presence.
It was to the credit of the Shield Spiders and Fortress Beavers that it took nine hours before one Shield Spider finally decided to overrule the warning bells in its head and scuttle forwards. It opened its mandibles, preparing to bite the skeleton in the face. It was how the Shield Spider reacted to every threat, so it thought the action had a chance here.
The Shield Spider never got to Ijvani’s head. As it got within four feet of the skeleton, it saw one finger rise and point at it. Ijvani spoke a word as she stared up at the ceiling.
There was heat. A popping sound—the spider exploded so fast it didn’t have time to make a sound—steam, a patter of falling parts, light, and the sound of many things fleeing as fast as they could. And then blissful silence again. Ijvani sighed.
“Master. I’m here. Can you hear me? Master?”
But that wasn’t how it worked. If she contacted him, how would she know he loved her? That was the quandary. So Ijvani lay on her back and sulked.
There she remained. And the defenders of the caves, the doughty Fortress Beavers and fearless Shield Spiders fled as their ancient ally, the Healing Slime, was held captive. They might have dared an army of baby Crelers. But this?
No. None could oppose the horrifying, unnatural skeleton who wielded magic. It was a threat far beyond even the Crelers. Despair filled the Defenders of the Cave, and they wailed lamentations to the sky. In a metaphorical way.
Who could save them? Who could bring justice back to the cave? Only a wizard. Or perhaps, a [Druid]. So the people cried out, calling the heroine who had once brought salvation to these lands.
And far, far away, in lands most distant, Mrsha the Great and Terrible looked up at the table she sat at. Her ears twitched and her head turned. The wise and brave [Druid]’s head rose and her hair stood on end. Mrsha stood up, not knowing why, only that she was needed—
“Mrsha! Where are you going? Just wait one more second—the Election Day Pancakes are ready to eat!”
The Gnoll paused and looked over. Erin walked out of the kitchen with a huge stack of fluffy pancakes. Mrsha’s eyes went round and her tail began to wag. She sat back down and made a happy signal with her paws. And she completely forgot what she’d been thinking about a few seconds ago.
So the skeleton lay on the ground. And she continued laying there. Ijvani was unhappy. Sometimes, she had to admit, even if she was a Chosen of Az’kerash, sometimes it was really hard being the only sentient skeleton in existence. Venitra didn’t count, obviously.
Bevussa Slenderscale leapt forwards and slashed with her enchanted shortsword. The blade cut into the first Bagrhaven’s chest and the screaming monster retreated. The harpy-like creature flew backwards, talons raised, but Bevussa kept advancing. She had no fear of the other monsters swooping around her; her team was in the air and they had the Bagrhavens on the run.
“Push them into the trap! [Gale Wings]!”
Bevussa twisted and her wings flapped once. The Bagrhaven swooping at her screamed as a blast of wind suddenly sent it and three of its companions flying. Bevussa’s team of Oldblood Drakes flew after them, capitalizing on the moment.
The monster harpy-women weren’t idiots. They could sense when the tables were turned against them and the Wings of Pallass had come into their lair ready for a fight. The Drakes and Bevussa might have been outnumbered, but they carried magical armor the Bagrhavens couldn’t easily claw or bite through, and their magical blades hurt. So the Bagrhavens fled, flying down the corridor, intending to lose the fliers behind them.
“Keldrass! Coming your way!”
Bevussa shouted. She heard a shout from ahead. The Bagrhavens tried to slow down, hearing and seeing the armored shapes, but too late. Keldrass and his team threw the nets up and snared the Bagrhavens in the lower-ceilinged corridor. The monsters dropped and the Drakes charged in.
“Cut them down! Bevussa, two are getting—”
“I see them! Wings, after me!”
The Garuda led her team after the last two Bagrhavens who had avoided the nets. She flew through the narrow corridors, faster than her team. The monsters, realizing that they couldn’t escape her, turned. Bevussa slashed at one, striking while flying backwards and kicking off the walls, the ceiling.
The Bagrhaven screeched, trying to bite her, claw her. It fell at last, not from any one decisive strike, but blood loss. Bevussa stared down at the dozen wounds on its body as her team pinned the other to the ground and finally ran it through.
“It was just a Bagrhaven.”
Bevussa modestly wiped her blade before sheathing it. In truth, she was a bit embarrassed. The Flamewardens had already dealt with the other eight Bagrhavens in half the time it took her team. But Keldrass was beaming as he cleaned blood from his axe.
“Good job, Bevussa. We apologize for letting the others get away. We should have aimed more carefully. Injuries?”
The Oldblood Drake was gifted with the power of fire breath unlike Bevussa’s team, who were capable of flight. However, as often happened, the power of Keldrass’ flames were hard to control, such that even the Gold-rank adventurer had to speak in shorter bursts, to avoid accidentally discharging his fiery breath. He also avoided looking straight at Bevussa, turning his mouth to one side as he spoke.
Neither feature bothered the Garuda. She knew Keldrass, and so she only smiled.
“None, Keldrass. No problem on the nets. Bagrhaven are quick. I wish my team and I had your staying power, though. We’d never have taken this nest without injuries. I can barely take one and your team got…”
She indicated the Bagrhavens on the floor, who’d been neatly killed while in nets. Keldrass laughed and a bit of blue flame exited his mouth.
“Nets aren’t very sporting. And we carry heavy armor.”
He indicated the plate armor his team wore, and their weaponry. Bevussa knew that was true.
“Still, if you wanted to, you could fry them in one blast, couldn’t you? I can’t help but feel my team’s lacking compared to yours.”
One of Bevussa’s teammates, Issa, cried out, sounding hurt. The Garuda rolled her eyes.
“I’m just saying, Issa. We can fly. We’re not exactly great dungeon-divers.”
“Yeah, but we can fly.”
Zassil demonstrated, flexing his wings and grinning at the other Drakes. The Flamewardens on Keldrass’ team grunted or spat flame dismissively. Bevussa sighed. Oldblood Drakes. The ones who could fly always argued with the ones who could spit lightning or fire or acid about who was best. And the ones who could do both were insufferable.
“I just mean I wish I could carry something heavier than a shortsword.”
“Why don’t you?”
Keldrass looked up. He was squatting by a Bagrhaven, plucking the glossy black feathers loose from the creature’s wings. Bevussa squatted next to him. That was their haul today; Bagrhaven feathers were worth good money, and this nest was one she’d be glad to see the last of.
“Oh, you know. Too heavy and I can’t fly right. I’m all hollow bones anyways; armor’s no good, so I have to dodge or die. That’s what they teach you at Pallass’ flying academy. Dodge and strike. Wear your opponent down. Never go for a frontal assault.”
“Huh. I never knew that. Isn’t military doctrine…?”
“We have Garuda instructors. We’ve changed how Drakes view aerial combat. You know our [Generals] love frontal assaults. Well, that’s not how you fight in the air.”
“Good to know. The brass understands that?”
“They’d better, or they’ll have a lot more casualties than we need. But we’re not in the army anymore, Keldrass. And I’m not about to reenlist and shake things up.”
“No aspirations to be the first Garuda [General]? In Pallassian history? You know, Gold-rank teams can instantly receive…the [Captain] rank if we join back up. And promotions are fast. If you know the right people.”
“Yeah, but is it fun, Keldrass? Why’d you quit that fancy elite unit with your team if it was so great?”
The two Captains chatted as they stripped the monster corpses with their team. Bevussa slid the last blood-covered feathers into her bag of holding and sighed.
“That’s some good money right there. Not as much as we’ll get from those trap rooms. We need to hire some [Miners] or something from Pallass. That Gemhammer team is already stripping the rooms.”
“Huh. Really? How much gold’s…up there?”
Keldrass frowned, pausing to exhale some smoke. Bevussa shrugged.
“Before they noticed me eavesdropping? Few thousand gold in one room.”
“Let’s investigate it. I had no idea it was worth so much, but Earlia sounded serious.”
“Definitely. I’ll send a [Message]. To Pallass’ Guild. Get some insight.”
Bevussa nodded. She straightened, looked at her team, and jerked her head.
“Alright! Everyone got all the feathers? Back to the safe zones!”
Both teams moved in tandem, marching back down the dungeon corridors. Bevussa watched the markings on each wall, checking for outlined traps, navigating back towards the hole in the dungeon that the adventuring teams had climbed down. She and Keldrass kept an eye out, only relaxing when they were in areas cleared of monsters.
They knew it was clear because the first thing they saw was a wall. A palisade, rather. It was made of metal and blocking a tunnel. It was one of dozens the adventuring teams had set up in the dungeon. This one was designed to let adventurers fleeing a threat bail over the top if need be; Keldrass and his team clambered over while Bevussa’s team just flew. But Bevussa knew that before they left the dungeon, unless they were in full retreat, the teams would seal the tunnel completely.
“Classic dungeon tactics. Seal areas one by one. Create safe zones. Deplete monster reserves.”
Keldrass rolled over the top of the palisade and landed on the ground with a crash of metal. He got back up and Bevussa saw his armor flicker a dozen colors. She grunted as she helped pull him up.
“Nice armor. You got that from the Raskghar?”
Her voice was envious; she hadn’t gotten anything nearly as good in the lottery. Keldrass grinned.
“Magical. I could walk through a [Fireball] and not blink.”
“Yeah, yeah. It doesn’t make you any more agile. Come on, let’s seal this palisade and see how the other teams are going. We cleared two corridors today. There’s about eight thousand more to go, but that Minotaur’s map says there’s one of those unopened treasure rooms eight corridors further than where we went. I don’t trust his word at all, but if there’s a chance…”
Keldrass frowned at Bevussa as he helped the rest of his team over the palisade.
“You don’t trust him?”
“What, a traitor that allied with monsters?”
Bevussa folded her wing arms. Keldrass paused, sniffing the air.
“Phew, reeks in here. Those Bagrhavens stink. I usually don’t smell anything but smoke. Anyways, Bevussa. Good soldiers snap. I’ve seen it in the army. You too.”
Bevussa had to agree. About the smell. She waved a wing in front of her face, scowling.
“That’s different. This was—”
The Garuda broke off. So did Keldrass. Issa was waving at Bevussa urgently.
“Captain! I just got a [Message]!”
She unrolled a scroll. Bevussa leapt over to her.
“What is it? Facestealer?”
Instantly, both teams were on alert. Keldrass looked up, his posture tense. Issa shook her head as Bevussa snatched the scroll and read.
“No. It’s from that Silver-rank team. Vuliel Drae. It’s her.”
“The Mask Warrior?”
One of Keldrass’ teammates exclaimed excitedly. Bevussa frowned. She noted the coordinates.
“So the mysterious adventurer’s here, is she? Keldrass, you want to meet this mystery adventurer?”
“The one who helps other adventuring teams?”
The Drake raised a brow. Bevussa scowled.
“Yeah. I want to convince her to come to the guild. Or at least identify her. We still have no idea who she is. And from what I heard, she had something to do with the Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor—”
“She’s an adventurer. We don’t pry. Besides, she could be Named.”
Keldrass grunted. Bevussa shook her head.
“Hah. Named Adventurer? I’ll eat my tail if that’s the case. Er, wings. I’m going to catch her before she runs off. You in?”
The Drake swished his armored tail for a moment before nodding.
“Go. We’ll catch up. We have to seal this tunnel first.”
“Got it. Don’t be slow!”
Bevussa took wing, calling for her team. They flew after her, disappearing down the corridor in seconds. Keldrass heard a snort from another Drake.
“Don’t be slow. Lizard-faced hatchlings. What, do they not see our armor?”
“Shut it. Let’s get this wall up.”
Keldrass exhaled a plume of smoke wearily. He looked around for the other half of the palisade so they could anchor the wall and seal any monsters that might creep through. Then Keldrass frowned. He looked up.
The ceiling was fairly high overhead. And it was dark, but Keldrass didn’t remember seeing any murals on the dark stone when they’d passed through last time. Only now, there was a pale ivory and yellow…thing…
The Drake’s eyes widened. The crawling bone-thing stared down at him, its face a mask of yellowed bone hung with scraps of rotten flesh. He opened his mouth, the fire building in his lungs.
The Ceiling Crawler dropped on him. Four more launched themselves down at the Flamewardens, biting and tearing with their limbs of sharpened bone.
“It’s really good to see you again, um, Miss Warrior?”
Toren smiled. Of course, she was already smiling, but now she traced a smiley face on her mask. Insill smiled back. The Drake [Rogue] edged closer, eying the two dead Ghouls. One had been shot neatly in the head by Larr’s arrow and struck in the chest by several arrows Anith had conjured. The second had been beheaded by Toren’s blade.
“You always seem to appear when you’re needed. I mean, the dungeon’s sort of your home, isn’t it? We’re really grateful. Again.”
“Not that we needed her! I had it all under control! Right, Pekona?”
Dasha called out loudly as she swung her axe into the skull of the last crawling zombie. Pekona made a snorting sound as she cleaned her curved blade; she and Dasha had hacked through the group of zombies following the Ghoul. Anith just sighed. And Toren smiled.
Vuliel Drae had been surprised by the undead attack. Not too surprised; they’d cut through the group with Toren’s timely arrival with no issue. But Toren had been slightly surprised to see so many undead. So had Anith. He knelt by one body, frowning at the loose armor it wore.
“Hm. A [Soldier]’s gear. And undead? The last expeditions ran into very few undead. I thought we had exterminated most of them already.”
“Maybe some fell into the dungeon. Hah! Anyways, they’re just fodder! Although—hey, Insill! Check the bodies! See if any of them are carrying anything valuable! I’ll pull the armor off this lot. We can probably sell it for some good—hey! Pekona!”
Dasha protested as Pekona pulled her back by the hair. The part-Dwarf woman spun around. Pekona’s expression was disapproving as Anith’s.
“We don’t loot the dead.”
“Since when? We used to do it all the time! Zombie corpses have chainmail? That’s free chainmail!”
Anith coughed, looking at Toren and then at Dasha.
“I believe since we were able to earn enough to outfit ourselves, Dasha. It is about respect. It may be permissible to search their belongings, but at least leave them their clothes.”
The Dwarf’s face fell.
“What, all of them? At least take the armor and swords…”
“And why do I have to search the bodies? I’m talking with Miss Warrior here!”
Insill complained, looking back from Toren to his team. Larr sighed.
“You’re the [Rogue].”
“So? What does that have to do with anything?”
Pekona, Anith, Dasha, and Larr all looked at Insill. He wavered.
“Well? I don’t like searching bodies.”
“But you are the [Rogue]. There.”
Pekona folded her arms. Insill spluttered.
Toren patted him on the shoulder. Insill looked around and Toren squatted next to a body. She turned it over and rummaged around. She offered Insill a handkerchief. He hesitated.
“Um. Well, I guess that’s useful, but not exactly what…”
The Drake glanced over his shoulder. Dasha tapped the side of her head and mouthed ‘crazy’ until Pekona slapped her hand down. Anith shook his head.
“Miss Warrior, thank you again. But some ah, other adventurers have been asking about you. If you’d consent to stay so they can speak with you, we’d be grateful.”
Toren looked up, alarmed and intrigued. Adventurers wanted to speak with her? She adjusted the mask uneasily. Was her cover blown? Maybe she should…
She began edging away from Vuliel Drae. Flustered, Insill raised his claws.
“No, wait! They just want to talk! We’re not trying to accuse you of anything! Or blame you for…”
He bit his tongue. Toren looked at him. Blame her? Had she done something wrong?
“Insill, you idiot. You have the biggest mouth of any Drake I’ve ever met!”
Dasha cursed. Insill flushed.
“I just meant.”
“If you’ll let me explain.”
Anith stepped forwards, bowing apologetically. Toren looked around. She heard flapping wings. And in the distance, what sounded like whispering…
“Aha! Hold it right there!”
A giant bird-woman flew down the tunnel. Toren stared, lifted her sword, and prepared to slash. She halted as Insill darted forwards.
“No, wait! That’s Captain Bevussa! The Wings of Pallass!”
Toren froze. The Garuda landed in front of her, staring.
“Well, well. So this is the mysterious Masked Warrior all the teams are talking about. Hello. Bevussa Slenderscale. Wings of Pallass. Gold-rank team. Before you run off, mind if I have a word?”
Toren paused. She stared at Bevussa. A Gold-rank adventurer? She didn’t look like much. The skeleton saw a few magical items at her belt, some enchanted leather armor, a magical shortsword…she nodded slowly, eying the other Drakes who alighted behind Bevussa.
The Garuda smiled. But she was watching Toren carefully. Vuliel Drae hesitated, but Bevussa was a Gold-rank Captain. The Garuda spoke briskly, peering at Toren’s mask, her clothed body.
“Sorry to bother you, but we’d heard there was a solo adventurer in this dungeon. One that refused to leave the dungeon. I couldn’t believe it myself. Someone surviving this long alone? But I suppose anything’s possible. The thing is—you wouldn’t happen to be able to speak, would you?”
Toren paused. She considered this, and then shook her head. Bevussa nodded slowly.
“Mute? Vow of silence? Cursed?”
The skeleton shrugged unhelpfully. She didn’t like all these questions. Nor did she like Bevussa’s tone. She liked Vuliel Drae and the little Drake standing nervously by her side. Not the Garuda. Bevussa sighed. She folded her wings and looked at Toren.
“Miss. Miss…Warrior? I know we’re both adventurers, but let me be honest. Liscor’s Adventurer Guild’s Guildmistress would like to speak with you about some incidents in the dungeon. The Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor, for one. We’re not saying it was your fault! But you had a role in how it happened. And frankly, after this situation with the Minotaur, we want to treat anyone staying in the dungeon with care. Do you…are you aware about the situation with the Raskghar? The Minotaur?”
She looked at Toren. The skeleton gave her a blank look and turned her head to Insill. The Drake hesitated.
“Well, what happened was…”
“You can tell her all about it. Above. Miss Warrior, it won’t be for more than a few hours, but we need to talk with you. You can write, can’t you? Let’s go to Liscor and you’ll be free to come back here…or we could find you a team. It can’t be easy staying below. Come on, come with us, please?”
Bevussa tried a smile and held out one claw-hand. But Toren was instantly alarmed. What had she just said? Go above? For hours? That would be death. She slowly stepped back, shaking her head.
“What? No? Why not? I mean, what’s wrong?”
Toren just kept shaking her head. Bevussa paused. She looked at Vuliel Drae.
“No idea. But she never wants to go above. She does that all the time. Annoying, ain’t it?”
Dasha answered unhelpfully. Bevussa exhaled slowly. She looked at her team, but they were waiting for her.
“Where’s Keldrass when you need him? Excuse me, Miss Warrior—”
Toren hopped backwards. Bevussa paused, and then she did frown.
“I have to insist.”
Shake, shake. Toren crossed her arms for further emphasis. No going above. No way. Bevussa paused.
“Captain Slenderscale, it is her choice. She’s a fellow adventurer…”
Anith murmured to Bevussa. She scowled at him and the Jackal [Mage] hesitated.
“I’m aware, Anith. But if I don’t get her to come with me, Guildmistress Tekshia will have my feathers…Miss! Can you at least identify yourself?”
Toren paused and thought about that. She shrugged and then shook her head again. Bevussa snapped her beak.
“Alright. Well. In that case, if you won’t go up, and can’t tell us who you are…take off your mask, please.”
The skeleton froze. So did Insill, who peeked at her masked face. Bevussa walked forwards.
“Or tell me who you are. I’ve had enough surprises from adventurers in this dungeon.”
Toren backed up. And now she had a hand on the hilt of her sword. He was in her head, laughing at the situation and telling her to stab the Garuda. But Toren didn’t want to. And yet—she couldn’t take her mask off. She couldn’t go out of the dungeon. And she wasn’t sure she knew how to write.
All these things made her back away. But now Bevussa had a look of deep suspicion in her eyes. She advanced, only to be slowed by Insill and Anith.
“Miss Bevussa! Wait! She’s saved our team dozens of times!”
“I wouldn’t say dozens…”
“Hey! That’s our Captain, normalblood. Gold-rank. Claws off!”
Issa snapped at Insill. He hesitated, but Anith backed him up, firmly barring Bevussa’s way.
“Captain Bevussa, adventurers are entitled to their anonymity…”
“She can have that. But there’s the situation with the Minotaur—with Calruz, remember? I just want proof she’s not some half-insane person as mad as he is! Or…or a Raskghar or something!”
Bevussa protested. Everyone looked at Toren and her thin frame. The Garuda sighed.
“Okay, not a Raskghar. But you know what I mean.”
She pointed at Toren.
“What reason does she have to be down here? Why not go above? It’s too suspicious. There’s insanity in challenging a dungeon alone, and then there’s this. Why are you down here, Miss? Why can’t you speak? Who are you?”
Toren had no answer. Well, she had tons of answers, but not ones she could give. And not ones that would deescalate the situation. She tried tracing a smile on her mask. Bevussa glared.
“Are you mocking me?”
“Captain Slenderscale, I’m sure she…”
Anith broke off. Toren was nodding her head happily. It was sort of fun.
Insill choked. Dasha guffawed. Bevussa snapped.
“Alright, that’s it. Mask comes off. Miss, take it off or—”
She paused as Toren drew her sword. Bevussa stepped back.
Toren shook her head and lifted her sword. Bevussa’s eyes narrowed. She reached for the hilt of her shortsword.
Anith protested, but the other Wings of Pallass moved forwards, suddenly tense. Bevussa looked around. She exhaled, annoyed and frustrated. She did not want to do this, but Keldrass wasn’t here being reasonable and she was out of patience. She tried one last time.
“If you won’t so much as answer one of my questions, I have no choice but to—”
She stopped. The masked warrior was looking around, cocking her head. Bevussa scowled.
“Hey! Are you listening to me? I said…”
Then she stopped. Because the mysterious adventurer had held up a finger to her mask where her mouth should be. She was looking about, and looking wary. She turned, blade in hand. And then suddenly, Bevussa felt a tingle of danger too. Not from [Dangersense] or any Skill, but just long-honed instinct. She cleared her throat.
She looked around. And then she saw the masked warrior pause. Slowly, ever so slowly, prodded by the sense that there were more undead really close nearby, Toren looked up. And so did Bevussa. She shouted.
The Ceiling Crawler leapt. But Toren was faster. She kicked Bevussa backwards and the Ceiling Crawler landed on her. The undead instantly tried to squirm off Toren—she wasn’t a living thing—but Toren furiously stabbed at it and the undead, sensing the threat, began to fight back. Bevussa flew backwards and Dasha shouted in horror.
“Dead gods! Undead crawling on the ceiling!”
“Wings of Pallass! At them!”
Issa shouted, panicked, and the team began to take wing. Bevussa unsheathed her shortsword.
“No! Stay on the ground! They’ll hit you in midair! They’re jumping!”
“Help Miss Warrior!”
Insill shouted desperately. He swung his daggers, stabbing at the skeletal Ceiling Crawler’s back, but it was all bone! Bevussa hacked with her shortsword. The enchanted blade struck pieces of ivory away as Toren stabbed at the thing from below. It was biting her, sinking its claws and teeth into her cloth ‘body’. Anith, Insill, and Bevussa were all trying to get it off her, crying in horror, but Toren mostly just felt tickled.
At last, the three adventurers tore the Ceiling Crawler off Toren and it flipped, trying to snare Insill. He dodged out of the way and it crawled backwards, unnaturally fast. It was bigger than even Larr, and there were three more of them, leaping from wall to ceiling, trying to pin down and savage the adventurers!
“Gah! What are these things! Pekona! Help!”
Dasha screamed as one leapt at her. Pekona leapt forwards and slashed.
Her blade went through the thing’s arm and the bones clattered to the floor. The Ceiling Crawler recoiled and Dasha smashed it on the bony, gnashing face, shouting. The Wings of Pallass were fighting back-to-back, not at home on the ground.
“Retreat! We’re fighting the wrong type of monster! Retreat!”
Bevussa shouted at her team and Vuliel Drae’s. Larr loosed an arrow and watched it bounce off one of the skeletal monster’s heads. Anith raised his spellbook and pointed.
“[Repulsion Barrier]! Go, go!”
The wall of force threw back the Ceiling Crawlers for a moment. All the adventurers turned and ran. Toren bounded after them, feeling distinctly miffed. What kind of undead were these? And why did she sense a lot more ahead of them?
She got her answer as the adventurers streamed back towards the entrance and came face to face with another Silver-rank team. Nailren and the Pride of Kelia. The Gnoll adventurers, most armed with bows, were retreating as well. The Gnoll howled at Bevussa.
“We’re under attack! There are Crypt Lords! And something else! All adventurer teams, pull back! They’ve smashed one wall!”
“Where’s Keldrass? We need his team!”
Bevussa shouted. Nailren drew breath as his team began loosing arrows—Toren peered past them. Those were Crypt Lords! The same ones in his kitchen! She slapped her skull, vexed. Of all the—
And then all the adventurers heard it. Three loud, desperate blasts. They looked up. Bevussa shouted.
“That’s the retreat! Shield Spiders?”
“Or just too many undead! Come on!”
“Not without Keldrass! Wings, we have to find—oh, Ancestors. What is that?”
Toren turned. And then he heard it. Faint whispers growing louder. Voices. A chorus of the damned.
“Doombringer. Bring us doom…”
“Lord Tyrion! The Goblins are—”
“Who are you? You’re not a Gnoll. You’re—”
Dozens of voices. The adventurers froze. Toren stared at the writing mass of hands and bodies, pulling the entire assembly towards him. The flesh-pit writhed, calling out to the living. Dasha paled. Pekona stumbled backwards, eyes wide. Toren wondered how it had gotten out of the inn. It better not have smashed any tables!
“Greater undead. Back to the entrance. Wings of Pallass, throw your alchemical weapons! Issa! Wand of Lightning! Now!”
Bevussa reached for her belt. She grabbed a potion, threw it, and ducked backwards. Toren stared as the other adventurers took cover. What was—
The whumph sent the skeleton flying. She landed on her head, which was fine, and got up. There was a flash—lightning blasted past the adventurers, catching a Ceiling Crawler as it leapt. The Wings of Pallass were using their magical items with abandon. Bevussa yanked an acid potion from her belt.
“Acid potions, on that thing! Withdraw! We’re making a stand at the entrance! Zassil, fly back and find the other teams! Rally on me! On me!”
Anith was chanting, throwing magical arrows of light. Vuliel Drae held their ground as Larr shot zombies and Ghouls through their heads. Pekona leapt forwards, slashing at a Crypt Lord and dodging backwards as it spat black blood and swung at her. Toren wondered if this was somehow her fault.
Probably. She looked around, seeing more battle, flashes of light from behind them. The adventurers were putting on a really good fight. The undead, for all that several Crypt Lords were leading them, weren’t actually that much of a threat to this many teams. Toren didn’t see a reason to panic.
The fact that the many dead bodies of the flesh-pit were screaming at the living, calling out to them, didn’t really strike Toren as an issue. The Gnolls crying out to the Pride of Kelia, the Human faces beseeching Pekona, the Drakes screaming at their comrades in the Wings of Pallass—Toren scratched her head. Now where could she do the most good? Or—maybe she could slip away? That angry bird-adventurer got on her nerves.
Toren was just deciding to quietly leg it when she spotted something lurching forwards next to the flesh pit. She froze in place. And she looked back across the battleground at the lurching form. No. At her.
It was Erin. No—the zombie. Toren felt a hand creeping up towards her mask. She seized it, staring at the hand. No! Not now! But it was her! The zombie-Erin had gotten loose, and it was advancing on the adventurers! But it was moving past the flesh-pit, and the desperate undead abomination, looking for something to replenish the bodies melting under the acid and combined firepower of the magical adventurers, suddenly seized zombie-Erin with dozens on hands.
No! He was suddenly wrestling with Toren, trying to remove the mask. She grabbed the hand reaching for the mask with her own. He was trying to take over! Not now! She stared at zombie-Erin, flailing vacantly at Bevussa. It was just a zombie! It wasn’t even the real Erin!
But it was real to him. And Toren felt her feet carrying her forwards. She looked around. The adventurers were stumbling back. But Insill, darting forwards to hamstring the undead, had been caught by one of the hands of the flesh pit. He was screaming, sinking into the abomination as hands tried to drag him into the center of the fleshy mass. Dasha was running towards him with Pekona, but a Crypt Lord barred their way.
Insill. The funny Drake. Toren froze. She looked at him. And then at zombie-Erin, absently waving an arm and groaning. And Toren, both Torens, realized something. They looked ahead. And then at their hands. Slowly, the hand grasping Toren’s mask let go. And it reached instead to the right. Nailren jerked and turned.
“What are you—”
Toren’s hand slapped him on the face and snagged the buckler on his side. The skeleton raised the shield. He and she ran forwards, past the adventurers who shouted at her to come back. For him to stop. But neither Toren listened. For the first time, they began working together.
There were zombies in the way, Ghouls leaping forwards. Toren barreled into them, shield raised. [Daring Charge]! He smashed a zombie aside, ducked as the undead turned their wrath on him. A Ghoul leapt, jaw gaping. Toren blurred out of the way and his sword ran it through the stomach.
[Mirage Cut]. Toren tore the blade loose and ran past the Ghoul as Larr’s arrow caught it in the chest, keeping it from rising. He saw a wall of zombies and hesitated.
Attack? No! [Hi-Jump]. Toren leapt into the air and kicked off a wall. She saw a Crypt Lord turn and swing at her. She slashed down, cutting across the undead’s body, but it kept swinging. Toren flung herself sideways.
[Perfect Dodge]—she braced on the ground and lunged. Her sword slashed through the Crypt Lord’s leg. [Sharpened Edge]. It fell and Toren stopped. The kick to the Crypt Lord’s face came from both of them.
Closer. Insill was sinking into the flesh-pit, screaming in pain as the bodies inside clawed and bit at him. Toren leapt forwards. He brought his buckler down. [Shield Bash]. Toren heard a satisfying crunch, and one of the arms snaring Insill fell away, broken. Toren sawed at the other. Insill, one of his arms free, cut at the other arms, sobbing.
“Thank you, thank you—”
“Insill! This way!”
Dasha was shouting. She and the other warriors with weapons had opened a hole for them to retreat. Insill leapt forwards.
“Come on! Miss Warrior! The Flamewardens are here! Miss Warrior?”
He turned. Toren was still hacking at the flesh pit. He turned.
The masked face turned. She looked at Insill, and then shoved him. He stumbled backwards. Pekona darted forwards, hauling him away.
“No! Wait! She’s—”
Insill shouted, but Toren was surrounded by the undead. Bevussa caught her breath. The undead were being cut down on all sides, but the flesh-monstrosity was coming straight at the adventurers. And it was trying to pull them in like Insill.
“We can burn it down!”
Keldrass rasped. He was spitting smoke, his armor still littered with bones from the Ceiling Crawler ambush. He pointed.
“Flamewardens, prepare to breathe! One, two—”
“No! She’s still in the line of fire! Hold it! Keldrass, there’s an adventurer there!”
Bevussa yanked at Keldrass. The Drake stopped.
“What’s she doing?”
Another Gold-rank team Captain, Lifwail Blades, lowered her wand and shouted incredulously. Bevussa didn’t know. The masked adventurer had gotten the Drake [Rogue] to safety, but she was still hacking at the flesh-pit. Trying to pull…Bevussa’s eyes narrowed.
“Is she trying to rescue a zombie?”
Keldrass stared. Bevussa hesitated. The masked warrior was trying to save the zombie, heedless of the hands trying to pull her into the undead mass. Bevussa cursed.
“Archers! Protect that adventurer! Keldrass, wait! Take out the undead on the flanks! Pull back! Don’t let her get sucked in!”
Toren heard none of it. Nor did he see the arrows that flew, covering him. All he could see was Erin. He began hacking at the mass of moving bodies, heedless of the hands trying to drag him in. He could see the Erin-zombie—Toren grabbed at her, dropping his shield and pulled as he slashed wildly. She came away rotten flesh tearing, light fading from her undead eyes. Toren staggered back. Erin? Erin? He lowered her to the ground. Staring at her.
Fire blasted past him. Toren didn’t see it, didn’t see the other adventurers throwing the jars of acid that seemed so familiar, or the monstrosity of corpses burning, melting. He heard a voice as he held Erin. The zombie was weakly trying to bite his arm.
Right. She was just a zombie. But she was his zombie. She represented…Toren stared at it. It was no good. She was fading. Too damaged by the flesh-pit and the battle.
Damn it. Damn it all. He was going to have to get a new one.
“A second time! Inhale—now!”
This time the fire drowned out the voices of the dead. Toren heard a crackling sound, explosions of fat catching fire. He felt the heat and then hands gently pulling him back. He stayed where he was, cradling the dead Erin in his arms. He’d worked so hard on the clothes. And the hair! It was so hard to find an zombie with the right color hair! Not to mention the same species!
The adventurers slowly regrouped, counting injuries. Not losses, thankfully. The undead assault had been quick, but not deadly. Keldrass’ team was mainly to thank for that. The furious Oldbloods had burnt half the undead themselves, and Bevussa’s holding of the line had ensured the undead hadn’t even overrun them. Even so, they were all shaken.
“Dead gods. What kind of undead was that?”
Bevussa pointed at the remains of the monstrous flesh-pit that had been made of hundreds of bodies. She could still hear the voices, calling out to her. She shuddered; some of the greener adventurers were throwing up. The other veteran Captains looked at each other.
“I think it was a Wailing Pit. You get them in mass graves. I don’t know. I didn’t think they could move.”
“Dead gods, I didn’t know undead could speak—”
“How did so many corpses get in one place?”
“Maybe they fell into the dungeon after the battle with the Goblins. Could be anything, but dead gods, I thought I recognized someone…”
“No recognizing anyone now. Almost all ash. Still—anyone got more acid jars? Let’s melt the rest.”
“What I want to know is why that crazed adventuress stuck around. She got Insill out, but why…?”
And then everyone was staring at the masked warrior. Some of the other teams pointed, recognizing her. Keldrass and Bevussa stared at the enigmatic warrior. Keldrass cleared his throat. Bevussa closed her eyes.
“Oh. Oh, that’s why…”
It was a simple picture, really. A tableau. There was the masked adventurer, nameless, a shadow in the dungeon. And she was cradling someone. A zombie. Yes. A zombie, but one she had risked her life to preserve. And sometimes you forgot that zombies had been people.
Erin. Well, sort of. Toren held the motionless zombie in her arms and bowed her head over the corpse. It was going to be such a pain to find another one. He didn’t notice the adventurers watching him.
“Well, now I feel like a complete Lizardperson.”
Bevussa whispered to her team. She shook her head, ashamed of her suspicion. Keldrass looked at the masked adventurer, a pained look on his face. Slowly, he off his helmet. After a moment, the rest of his team followed suit.
“You hate to see it. Think she lost her friend in the dungeon or in one of the battles?”
Issa leaned on Zassil, tears in her eyes. The other Drakes looked at each other.
“Fellow adventurer, maybe? A duo?”
“Could be one of the monster attacks.”
“Argh. And no wonder she’s not leaving. But it’s not healthy to stay—”
“You can’t talk sense to them. She nearly drew a sword when Captain Slenderscale tried to get her to leave. It’s the shock.”
Bevussa reddened under her feathers as Keldrass looked at her reproachfully.
“I didn’t know. I thought—”
The Drake paused. And then he slowly walked over to the masked woman. He bent down. Slowly, his voice rasping after breathing so much fire, he coughed and addressed her.
“Miss? Miss. Let’s bury your friend. You can’t do anything more for her. You found her—you did it.”
The masked woman looked up, almost surprised. She let go of the body. Keldrass caught her, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry. We’ve all experienced it. Was she—were you old comrades?”
He waited. Toren stared at him and then the zombie. Keldrass shook his head.
“You don’t have to say anything. But we can’t leave the body. Burial might be—once a zombie—we could cremate her. With respect. An adventurer’s burial.”
Toren had no idea what they were talking about. But she obligingly let them burn the body. All the adventurers made a big deal about it, solemnly standing around and saying a few words. For some reason they expected her to collect the ashes. They even gave her a bag for it. And the bird-woman kept patting her on the back.
“I know it’s hard. But you can’t throw away your life. You understand? Just—come with us for a bit.”
Toren kept shaking her head. She was prepared to run, but Bevussa didn’t seem intent on taking her mask anymore. Toren saw some of the other adventurers whispering and looking at her.
“We can’t force her. You know how unstable—”
“—be worse to let her as she is. Staying down here?”
“The Minotaur did it. Look, let’s get a [Healer]’s opinion on this. One used to dealing with adventurers? She’s survived this long—I knew a team that tried to force it. Turned ugly.”
“I’m really sorry. Again. But if there’s any way…”
Bevussa sighed as Toren backed up. The Garuda shook her head and looked at Keldrass. He grimaced, but tilted his head towards the ropes. Some adventurer teams were already ascending. Bevussa gave it one last try.
“At least let’s say we owe you a drink. Any…anytime you want, we’ll buy you a drink. Hell, we’ll buy you ten! You want to come above, you can find us in Liscor’s Guild, alright? Just send a [Message] and someone will get word to us. We’ll take you to the best inn we know. Alright?”
She waited. And at last, the masked woman slowly nodded. Bevussa smiled. She held out a claw.
“Then—friends? I’ll look for you again when we return. You’ll be there. Promise?”
The masked adventurer wavered. But she came forwards. And after staring at Bevussa’s claw, she took it.
Slowly, the skeleton shook the Garuda’s hand. And Toren—both Toren’s—felt a flash of…warmth. No. Not warmth; they were dead after all and there was no biology to react. But a memory of it. Bevussa smiled and Toren traced a smile on her mask.
He watched them preparing to leave. In the end, Vuliel Drae and the Wings of Pallass and the Flamewardens were last. They’d stayed to try and convince Toren, but now they were going. And in the end…the skeleton wavered.
She would miss them. And he had never understood why. But today, they’d been…fun. They’d killed the stupid Crypt Lords that kept stealing his undead, and the flesh-pit. So, maybe she was right. Maybe…Toren looked at the adventurers and decided they weren’t so bad.
“Dead gods, but I do need a drink. And I’ll buy a round for everyone. My treat.”
Bevussa was talking to the others, glancing back at Toren now and then. She wished she could join Bevussa. But outside was…Toren turned away, sighing inwardly. Bevussa sighed too, watching her leave. She shook her head. Each adventurer made their choice. She only hoped she’d see that brave soul again. By her side, Zassil looked up at his Captain.
“What is the best inn in Liscor, Keldrass? Or bar? Wishdrink’s? I know you’re not thinking of the Tailless Thief, Bevussa—”
“Hey! I like that inn.”
Bevussa rolled her eyes at Keldrass as he protested mildly.
“Because you’re a Drake, Keldrass. That [Innkeeper] treats you like royalty and anyone who’s not a Drake like dirt. Please, there’s only one inn I’m thinking of—”
“Oh come on. She doesn’t even have a good selection of alcohols.”
Keldrass protested. Bevussa snorted and turned to him.
“It’s The Wandering Inn for sure. Sure, it’s not the best cooking, but Miss Solstice’s got all those new foods. Sure, the variety’s less than what you can get at some other inns, but there’s the plays and the magic door and the fact that there’s always something interesting going on…”
She turned back to the tunnel. But the masked woman was gone. She’d vanished while Bevussa had been speaking. Damn. Bevussa had been hoping to lure her with the promise of a hot meal, but the masked woman was truly…the Garuda shook her head as she turned sadly back to Keldrass.
“Gah. I hate to see it. We have to do something for her. Carefully. Let’s get that drink, Keldrass, figure something out.”
“You can’t save them all, Bevussa.”
Keldrass patted her on the wing-arm. Together they left the dungeon. The adventurers left, abandoning the horrors of below for recuperation.
And in the dungeon, Toren lay on his back. He jerked—looked around. Why was he lying down?
Oh. He’d fainted. He’d heard ‘The Wandering Inn’. And then he’d heard…the skeleton stared up at the ceiling. He’d heard that wrong. Hadn’t he?