Senior Guardsman Klbkch walked through the city of Liscor, leaving the Watch barracks behind. He was off-duty, having signed out for the day. And it had been a long day. Nearly nine hours straight, excluding breaks for meals. But being a [Guardsman] was a strenuous job. You didn’t quit the job, even when you were out of uniform.
As he walked down the street, Klbkch greeted people, nodding, exchanging comments, his pace slowed due to the number of people who recognized him. That was inevitable. Not only was he a Senior Guardsman, a position of respect, he was noticeable because he was…Klbkch. The Antinium.
The Slayer. But also, to the people of Liscor, Senior Guardsman Klbkch, who had been the only real face of the Antinium for over a decade. And over that decade, he’d found a place in the hearts of all but the most die-hard Antinium haters.
“Senior Guardsman Klbkch. A word, please? I had a break in last night—”
“I’m afraid I’m off-duty, sir. The nearest Watch patrol will be able to investigate the crime.”
“Guardsman, you must do something about the roaches in my apartments! It’s beyond neglect! The prices are one thing, but we need [Exterminators]!”
“Please inquire into the Watch Barracks, miss. Otherwise, I will look into it when I sign in tomorrow.”
“Senior Guardsman! Over here!”
Klbkch didn’t sigh or groan, and he might have. Instead, he politely and swiftly stepped over to the angry Gnoll waving a paw at him. It was one of the reasons why people liked him. The City had about thirty Senior Guards, a very small number that was essentially a rank below Watch Captain in a city like Liscor. But even the best of them, like Beilmark, hated being bothered on their days off.
But Klbkch never complained. He inclined his head as the Gnoll, who had a few white marks along the fur on her neck, began to speak in a glowering tone.
“Guardsman, you’ve got to settle this dispute between me and my neighbor! He’s up all night, bothering me with his damn thumping.”
“Ma’am, I am off-duty. If the situation cannot be resolved amicably, the nearest Watch patrol—”
“I don’t want some Drakes! I’ve asked, but they don’t get my problem! I have sensitive ears and that Drake doesn’t care! I wanted to ask for Beilmark, but she’s on desk duty! You’re the only Senior Guardsman I could find! Can’t you do something?”
The Gnoll whined at him. Klbkch shook his head slightly.
“Miss, I am afraid you must wait until tomorrow for me to resume my duties. However, I can recommend you a pair on patrol this moment. Guardsman Tkrn and Guardswoman Jerci are both on patrol down Market Street right now…”
He gave the female Gnoll directions, patiently reassuring her that they would do their utmost to resolve her situation. Then Klbkch went on.
The exchange had taken five minutes. But when the female Gnoll was hurrying off, Klbkch calmly went back on his way. And still his ‘expression’, the mandibles, insectile eyes, antennae, never seemed to change. He might be alien, a bug, but he was polite. He never got angry. And dead gods damn it; he was good at his job!
That was why people liked him. Not just Erin Solstice. There had been a wake when he died. And when he came back to life, people had been happy. Because Klbkch was the Senior Guardsman who’d taken down criminals. He managed his partner Relc, who was the definition of a loose flaming arrow, and he always had time for people. You got the impression he cared. Because he did.
Klbkch rounded the corner and came to the empty street that held the entrance to the Antinium Hive. A few Workers were exiting, holding buckets filled with tools. They squeezed themselves to one side despite the large street as the taller Antinium walked down into the Hive, ignoring the concealed Soldiers who stiffened as he passed by. Only then did he sigh, letting loose a soft breath.
Klbkch’s mandibles clicked slightly as he entered the underground. The Hive moved around him and he readjusted his thoughts. Senior Guardsman Klbkch became Revalantor Klbkch. If there was a Klbkch above, who worked tirelessly each day of the week, there was another below. He worked just as hard. But it had never been said of him below that he was kind.
“We believe there is a Heaven. We believe in a place after death. We believe in forgiveness. Salvation of the soul. We believe that pain ends, that life has a meaning, and that we will be together when we pass. We believe in Heaven. No, we know it to be true.”
The Free Antinium of Liscor stood in silence as a voice spoke down to them. Workers and Soldier stood side by side, listening. Looking up at the figure who spoke from the podium. Pawn’s voice was quiet, but the room was so silent his words were clearly audible no matter where you stood. And there was a resonance to Pawn’s tone. A certainty that rang through.
Hope. The Antinium spoke briefly, but with emotion as he looked down at the Painted Antinium. His flock.
“Remember that you must live. Death is not something to be craved. But know that it matters. Every Antinium who has fallen lives beyond. Remember that. Go dreaming of peace. Amen.”
Just that. He did not give long sermons. Most of the Antinium didn’t have the time for that. They had duties. Jobs. And Pawn gave his sermon thrice daily, before each meal. He didn’t need to change the words, but he did, sometimes. To keep it fresh. But the content was always the same.
Hope. A dream of Heaven. As Pawn raised his head, the Antinium stirred. They looked to him. And then, as they always did, they turned to a giant among Antinium. He was…a bit taller than the other Soldiers. But in that way, he stood out. The Painted Soldiers all wore unique colors, each one different in that way. But Yellow Splatters was truly different.
He had come back. He had been reborn. And he had seen heaven. He was proof of Pawn’s words. So the Antinium looked at him and then began to eat.
“Dream of peace. A good meal to you. The sky exists.”
Pawn murmured as he went down the rows of tables and chairs. Well, mounds of dirt, packed hard for the Antinium to sit on. The cafeteria/sermon hall was the latest addition to the growing barracks that was now the realm of the Painted Antinium. And there were nearly seven hundred of them. Pawn looked around and remembered a time when there had only been a bunch of Soldiers. And before that, just a few chess tables with Workers.
Now there was something else. The Worker walked over to where Yellow Splatters was sitting. The table was filled with Workers and Soldiers. They gravitated towards him. The [Sergeant] looked up.
It was still startling to hear the Soldier speak. Startling, but good. Yellow Splatters inclined his head.
“Will you eat here?”
The Workers and Soldiers looked up, all ready to rise. Pawn shook his head.
“No. You should all enjoy your meal. But—thank you for your own words today. You give them all hope. More than I can by myself.”
Yellow Splatters had spoken before Pawn. He did that sometimes, at the sermons. The [Sergeant] paused. And his voice was deep, slow, as he shook his head.
“I only told them what I saw. Without you, there would have been nothing.”
“But you were there. You saw it.”
Pawn whispered the words. Heaven. A tiny thing, but there. Yellow Splatters had seen it, glimpsed a place where Antinium would go when they died. The [Sergeant] nodded slowly.
“It must grow.”
That was all they said. Pawn nodded to Yellow Splatters and looked down the room. Soldiers and Workers were eating the nutritional paste that was so…unique to the Antinium. It was brownish-yellow today, for reasons that couldn’t be explained. Pawn knew what it tasted like. Sometimes there was nuance, but the flavor was always uniquely that. He shuddered. And then, because he knew what it tasted like, he raised his hands.
The Free Antinium looked up. And they saw a miracle. Pawn pressed his four arms to his chest, cradling something. At first it was just air. But then, suddenly, he held loaves of bread. Thick, steaming with warmth. Not loaves like Erin considered ‘proper’, in the quintessential breadbox shape that had been developed and cemented as sandwich bread in America, but a loaf, rounded, even cut across the top and baked perfectly.
Bread. Pawn remembered it because it was one of the first and only times he’d eaten bread at Erin’s inn when she’d first gained baking soda. And gotten promptly sick afterwards. But the memory had stayed.
Now, it reappeared in his arms. Pawn slowly and carefully put the loaves down on one of the ‘tables’. The Workers and Soldiers stared. But Pawn was carefully breaking up the bread. He put a tiny piece, barely a pebble’s size, in front of a Soldier.
“Take and eat it. This is bread, but it will not make you ill with this much. It is fluffy because it was made with baking soda. Or magic.”
He slowly went down the table. Yellow Splatters accepted the morsel and chewed it slowly. It was good bread. Soft. Fluffy, as Pawn had said, but with enough chew to make it worth the bite. And fresh. Hot! The other Workers and Soldiers savored their bites, masticating the morsel slowly.
First Yellow Splatters’ table, then the others. Pawn walked down the room, doling out the bread loaves in tiny pieces, so that every Worker and Soldier got a piece. He was so preoccupied with his task he barely noticed the other Worker sitting at a far table until he handed the last piece of bread and looked up.
The [Strategist] regarded the piece of bread thoughtfully in his hand. He was eating from a bowl with a bunch of the Workers who had been turned into [Archers]. They carried their bows everywhere they went. Archer B23 was nibbling at his bite of bread. Anand just looked intrigued.
“Hello, Pawn. It is good to see you. I had to come here to witness your Skill for myself. You have leveled up.”
“I—yes. I have. Four days ago, I gained this Skill.”
Pawn stared at Anand. He hadn’t seen his friend, one of the original Workers, for nearly two weeks. It happened like that, even in the Hive. Anand was a [Strategist], always working to keep the Hive safe. Now, Anand carefully bit into the piece of bread. His mandibles tore a piece loose and he consumed it.
“Hm. It tastes exactly like the bread Miss Erin gave us. The very bread that made us sick. You recall?”
“How could I not? I think that is the memory that makes this bread.”
“Fascinating. And I believe it is real bread. Not even just magic bread, from a cornucopia artifact. I thought it might be, but apparently, that bread is not actually bread. It is simply nutrition which dissolves if not eaten. But this—am I right in thinking this will make me sick if I eat too much?”
“Not if it’s just a bite. That is why I divide it. I wish I had gained another Skill, but I think creating bread is traditional.”
Pawn explained. Anand nodded as he inspected the bread, feeling it with his fingers on two of his four hands.
“If I leave it alone, will it vanish?”
The [Strategist] was very intrigued at this.
“Really? Not even after a few hours? Magical bread—”
“I thought the same thing, Anand. I have a dry crust over there. It is four days old.”
Pawn pointed across the barracks. Anand looked down the rows of tables. Past a dirt pillar—training Soldiers boxing in little rings, a Worker holding a book open for two Soldiers, the paints section—all the way to an area with cubicles in the walls. Rows and columns of them, for Antinium to sit inside and sleep. There was a little table with a bit of bread on it. It was very dry and very stale, but it was still there. Pawn had left it to give the Antinium good dreams.
“Incredible. This is a very useful Skill, Pawn. If only it weren’t bread. But even so—it allows you to provide a small amount of rations each day! There are very few Skills capable of doing the same. I wonder, is it because Miss Erin is an [Innkeeper]? Some of them have Skills that provide free food each day, like this. But only very powerful spells—Tier 6, I think—can even conjure temporary food!”
Anand mused out loud. Pawn shrugged helplessly.
“I only know that I am leveling, Anand. Slowly, but I do level. I gained this at Level 20. Along with my ability to conjure light.”
“Ah, yes. That is tactically useful. Well, I am glad, Pawn. You are leveling up and gaining useful Skills.”
“And you? Are you…how is Belgrade?”
“We are both leveling. Well, Belgrade continues to level. I have stopped this month. It is distressing me, but I hope that will soon change.”
The [Strategist] was conversational. It was—odd. Pawn felt a bit removed from Anand. He was so important. More important than Pawn, and they seldom got to talk. Even the way he regarded Pawn’s Skills reflected his position. He didn’t feel the sheer wonder Pawn did at being able to make food. To share something with Workers and Soldiers who had never tasted bread. That was the gift. But Anand…the Worker was turning to one of the [Archers] who had raised his hand.
“Strategist Anand, may I ask a question? What is this bread and why will it make Antinium sick? Is this a form of poison?”
“No, Archer B2. This is bread. It is simply unhealthy for Antinium to consume because we cannot process it. In large quantities, it will make us sluggish or manifest in other symptoms. You may eat your piece. Relish it.”
“Yes, Strategist Anand.”
Strange. It hurt Pawn a bit to see the other [Strategist], amid the bevy of Autonomous Workers, his personal ‘team’. He could remember the last time he had spoken with Belgrade. And how the [Strategist] had informed Pawn that he cared about few Antinium outside of his circle. The same held true of Anand, it seemed. They had to send Workers and Soldiers to their deaths each day. And it had changed them.
“Do you have time to speak? I would like that.”
Pawn burst out at last. Anand looked up, surprised. He hesitated, but then shook his head.
“I am afraid I cannot, Pawn. I have a limited break. In fact, I am taking my meal here to meet with Revalantor Klbkch.”
Pawn shrank in his shell a bit. Anand looked at him thoughtfully. His businesslike atmosphere faded for a moment.
“Has he interacted much with you, Pawn? He often instructs Belgrade and I, and he has instructed me to meet with him today. As well as Yellow Splatters.”
“Oh. No. I don’t talk with him. I don’t like him that—”
“You know, he interacts with me more than Belgrade. And he considers my performance superior to Belgrade’s, even accounting for the traps that Belgrade creates.”
Anand’s voice made Pawn look up sharply. He stared at the [Strategist].
“What—why did you say that?”
“Because it is true.”
Anand looked at Pawn. The Worker stared at his friend.
“But that is a hurtful statement.”
“But it is a true one. I believe Revalantor Klbkch prizes me more than Belgrade. I hope it is true.”
“What? Anand. I do not believe Klbkch—”
“I…do not believe Revalantor Klbkch prizes any of us. We are all tools to him.”
“Perhaps. But I would like to be the first of tools. Or something more. I have been thinking on this, Pawn.”
Anand looked speculatively at Pawn. The other Antinium looked back, mystified. Anand had changed. He had spoken with Belgrade. The other [Trapsetter Tactician]—or was he a [Strategist] now?—was different too. He had…broken a bit, when he spoke to Pawn about the Workers and Soldiers that had died under his command. Pawn had brought him to Erin. Now Belgrade went to visit her three times a week and he was better. But Anand had not needed the same. Pawn stared at the [Strategist].
“Anand. Have you spoken to Belgrade? Did he speak to you about the pressures of—”
“My position? Ordering Soldiers and Workers into battle? Yes. He told me he was very distressed and spoke to Erin. I was assigned time to speak with her as well, but I did not need it as Belgrade does. Even so, I enjoyed the experience, and Erin has provided me with useful advice regarding Revalantor Klbkch.”
“Advice? Like what?”
Anand paused. He looked Pawn up and down and slowly opened his mandibles. And lowered them.
“I do not wish to tell you, Pawn. I believe the information may affect my relationship with Revalantor Klbkch and I would not like you to interfere.”
The comment stunned Pawn. The Worker actually walked back a step. Was Anand—he had changed beyond recognition. Pawn knew Garry had changed too, becoming more timid, withdrawn, but passionate about cooking. And Bird had become more…Bird. Even Pawn himself had changed. He liked Lyonette. And he had found religion. But Anand’s refusal to say something was somehow a greater divergence in personality than anything else.
“Anand. Why have you—what has—I did not mean—what did Erin—”
Before Pawn could finish a thought, a figure appeared at the other end of the barracks. And he brought silence with him. It swept across the Workers and Soldiers nearest to him, and the other Antinium caught onto it. Like a wave, a flash across the room, they all fell silent, not that more than Anand and Pawn and Yellow Splatters had been talking, and looked up.
Klbkch stood in the entrance to the barracks. He was taller than a Worker, nearly as tall as a Soldier. But leaner. He had only two arms, and his body was graceful. He had been changed in death, like Yellow Splatters. But he still wore the two silver swords at his belt. He opened his mandibles.
“Yellow Splatters, Anand. To me.”
From their tables, the [Strategist] and [Sergeant] rose to their feet. They strode towards Klbkch. The Revalantor stared at them. His voice was flat. Cold.
He looked at them like…insects. Or rather, not with disgust so much as a remove. Dispassion. For all they had many of the same features, they were different.
He was True Antinium. Ancient. As separate from the other Antinium as the Queen. They’d all known it, even when Klbkch had worn a Worker’s body. Now, Klbkch just looked the part. He strode out of the room, and Anand and Yellow Splatters followed.
It was quiet when they left. Workers and Soldiers sat at their tables, finishing their meals. Pawn looked after the three Antinium. But they had left his world. This barracks, this place of comfort, of…of memory, from the markings in paint on the walls to the little pile of books, that was what he had built. That, and The Wandering Inn. He could do nothing to change the fate of the Antinium outside this room. And even those inside would fight and some would die.
But still. Pawn walked along the room. He put his hands on Workers and Soldier’s shoulders. And he murmured.
“[Benediction of Hope].”
Three times he whispered the Skill. Three times, a group of Antinium straightened. And they relaxed. They looked up. And they raised their mandibles. Smiling. Hope shone in them. It was all Pawn could do.
Some of the waiting Antinium had injuries. Deep cuts in their carapaces, injuries that had cracked their shells, revealing green blood. To those, Pawn used another Skill.
“[Heal Minor Wounds]. Be healed. Be better. I am sorry I cannot heal you all.”
He could barely heal twelve before fatigue forced him to stop. But the Antinium never complained. In fact, they moved away with the twelfth cured Worker, refusing to let Pawn try again. They had seen him overdo it in days before. Pawn would have used his Skill till collapsing, three more times, but he knew that might mean he could heal less tomorrow.
So he endured. All of his pain was pain of the heart. Pain of the soul, trying to tend to his…his flock. They had to endure real pain.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I wish I could help you all! I wish I was not so weak! I shouldn’t go above, to the inn. You should go in my place. I wish—”
Sometimes it burst out of him. Workers and Soldiers turned as Pawn looked around. The Worker hurt. He hurt for all of them. But they never said a word. Slowly, they surrounded him. A pair of Soldiers, one missing an arm, the other scarred, but whole, approached. They hugged at Pawn, gingerly. And the Worker felt their cold embrace. But that calmed him. Soothed him.
He looked at Chesacre and Thaina. They had chosen unique names. And they had named themselves, using the alphabet in the corner of the room. They had written their names on their fronts. And they were a pair. They had danced together in the darkness of the dungeon after their fellow Soldiers had died. And they had been saved by…a skeleton. From Face Stealer itself.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to scare you. I just wish you could all be happy and never suffer again.”
Pawn whispered as he hugged the two Soldiers. Chesacre and Thaina gathered around him. And so did all the other Antinium. Purple Smiles, the Archer groups. Silently hugging him. And Pawn relaxed. He opened his arms and looked at them all.
“I will try to make you happy. Come. Belgrade is overseeing construction at the inn. Purple Smiles, let’s lead a patrol. Chesacre, Thaina, will you watch the others while we’re gone?”
The two [Acolytes] bowed. And Pawn turned. The Worker looked at his flock as he picked up the staff from which the a censer had been attached. A faint smell of cinammon wafted through the air. After a moment, the [Priest] raised his staff.
“I am a poor leader. But even grass sits under the sky. Come. And look. This is what I saw when I first looked up. When I saw her face. [Holy Radiance].”
And there was light. Pawn’s body began to shine. And the light was blinding. It was so bright it destroyed vision. But only to Pawn’s enemies. To the Antinium, he glowed with a brilliant glow. A wonderful blue. A soft inn’s radiance. The color of the clouds. Of a smiling face. Pawn smiled.
He was weak. Uncertain. But everything slowly changed.
Heaven was real.
“Strategist Anand, report on Pawn’s newest Skills.”
Klbkch had no time for pretty lights or heaven. Nor did he waste time. As Yellow Splatters and Anand fell in beside him, he strode down the corridors, taking a route away from the Painted Antinium’s barracks. Workers and Soldiers in the tunnels moved aside to give him space.
Yellow Splatters and Anand followed. Yellow Splatters keeping at the bare maximum of distance to be following Klbkch, Anand almost right next to Klbkch. The [Sergeant] was silent, but Anand immediately began speaking after Klbkch’s order.
“Pawn has been measured, Revalantor Klbkch. His levels are now Level 23 [Priest], a low increase in levels, but it has effected a class change.”
“Priest. An agent of…go on. His Skills included healing. I witnessed some of the tests to ascertain its abilities.”
“Yes, Revalantor. Pawn is able to heal one moderate wound or repeat using his Skill to close a larger wound, but inefficiently. Tests show he can use the Skill up to twelve times, although he must rest after using the Skill repeatedly, and he becomes extremely fatigued afterwards.”
Even so, that was free healing. Klbkch nodded.
“Go on. And his ability to create…bread? Why bread?”
“Pawn believes it is a function of his class, Revalantor.”
“To create bread. Specifically. The Antinium cannot eat bread.”
Well, he could, thanks to the Queen correcting his digestive functions. But generally, Antinium grew sick from it. Anand nodded rapidly, scurrying after Klbkch.
“That is correct, Revalantor. It is a fault of Pawn’s abilities, but it still has some strategic applications—”
“More than that. Pawn is able to heal and give sustenance. He can also blind his foes. He is invaluable to the Hive. Klbkch.”
Anand froze. Yellow Splatters strode forwards. Klbkch turned his head to regard the giant Soldier. His voice was impassive.
“Your evaluation of Pawn has been noted. Has his ability to emit light been tested in battle?”
“Once. All but the undead and armored suits fled the light. And the undead seemed…weaker. Far weaker.”
Klbkch nodded. He regarded Yellow Splatters for a moment.
“I would not risk Pawn in battle, but his abilities are very well-suited to a support role in combat. Even so, is it your recommendation that Pawn still be exempted from taking a leadership role in defense of the Hive?”
“In all but the most dire circumstances, yes.”
“That was my appraisal.”
Klbkch nodded at Yellow Splatters. After a second, the [Sergeant] inclined his head. Anand looked at Yellow Splatters and Klbkch and his antennae twitched.
“Revalantor Klbkch, I can present the rest of my analysis of Pawn’s abilities, or Bird’s if you would like—”
“No. Follow me.”
Klbkch strode down the tunnel. Yellow Splatters and Anand followed. Both knew where they were going, having trod this very same path countless times.
If Pawn tended to his flock, and if he had created a place of happiness in the Hive he tended to with his every waking hour, then surely Anand and Belgrade had changed their part of the Hive as well.
The area of the Hive bordering the dungeon, or at least, the breaches in the dungeon was a constant battlefield of incursions and Antinium guarding their Hive. Or it had been before Belgrade had devised a series of trapped corridors and a kill box that had reduced Antinium fatalities by nearly 56%.
Now, Klbkch strode into a vast, cleared space, the last part of the trapped corridors. Any monster entering this spot—and they did get here, even past crushing rock falls, improvised traps, spikes, and so on—would face ranks of waiting Soldiers, and in their alcoves, the new Workers armed with bows.
It was an impressive design, and one that had made Belgrade invaluable. Of course, Anand was the superior [Strategist] in combat, so he was invaluable as well. They all were, the Individuals. Now, Yellow Splatters and Anand stopped.
“Revalantor, why are we here?”
Yellow Splatters addressed Klbkch. The Antinium turned. There were more Soldiers and Workers in the room than usual, several hundred more. Both Yellow Splatters and Anand were alert; as the two leaders of the Hive’s defense, they were ready for news about a heavy monster incursion. Or worse, Face Stealer. He’d been attacking the Hive just a few days ago.
“I have little time today to waste. However, I have noted both your leveling has slowed of late. You are both in the mid-twenties. Which is superior for Antinium. Inferior among other species.”
Klbkch’s voice was crisp and cold. He looked from Anand to Yellow Splatters. The [Strategist] shifted uneasily. Yellow Splatters did not move. Klbkch went on.
“My own leveling is slow and…mixed. Given my number of classes, which I now believe may be inefficient. However, your total levels are far lower than mine. You have ceased leveling with speed. To rectify this situation, I have placed four hundred and thirty eight combined Workers and Soldiers in this room, the Hive’s excess numbers. I had intended to send them into the dungeon, but this will be a more efficient use of them.”
The statement made Yellow Splatters uncross his arms slightly. Anand just opened and closed his mandibles, looking a bit worried at the tone in Klbkch’s voice. The [Sergeant] looked at Klbkch sharply.
“Yes. Due to Face Stealer’s incursions where he slew two hundred and eleven Antinium, the Hive overproduced its numbers. Belgrade’s traps have largely cut back on Antinium losses.”
“And my tactics, Revalantor Klbkch?”
Anand looked up eagerly. Klbkch paused.
“And this, yes. The Painted Antinium also played their part, as has Yellow Splatter’s leadership in battle. The Hive now regularly produces excess numbers above out set limitations. The Free Queen does not desire expansion given our nutritional intake. Therefore, they are excess.”
He said it so calmly. Anand was nodding along, but Yellow Splatters was not. His voice was low.
“So they are sent into the dungeon.”
“Yes. To cull monster populations and possibly discover artifact locations.”
“Only two Soldier survived last time. Chesacre and Thaina.”
“Two Soldiers became Autonomous. Possibly even Individual. They are already Pawn’s [Acolytes].”
Klbkch paused. His mandibles slowly clicked together and he studied Yellow Splatters with surprise.
“Really? I was unaware of this change. Then I consider this method even more potentially valuable, despite the inefficiency of conversion. Nevertheless, in this case, the excess—”
“Why are they excess?”
Yellow Splatters interrupted Klbkch. The Revalantor slowly swung back towards him. He clicked his mandibles softly.
“Because the Hive does not produce enough food to accommodate more bodies, Sergeant Yellow Splatter. Thus, it is in the Queen’s interests and mine to remove unnecessary bodies. Without wasting them of course.”
“They are not useless.”
Yellow Splatters’ voice was ominous. Klbkch stared up at the [Sergeant].
“If they are not Painted Antinium, Autonomous, or Individual, the Hive is able to create more at will. You have stated your views on the lives of Soldiers and Workers. If you would like to preserve them, you will pass today’s instruction capably.”
The word caught both Antinium off-guard. Klbkch nodded.
“You two are the most proficient commanders among the Antinium. Thus, the Free Queen has decided to treat both of you as Prognugators. And so you will be…trained.”
The word was unfamiliar. The Antinium didn’t train. Or instruct. Teach. They sprang forth, ready to fulfill their function, all save for the Queens. And Prognugators.
“What does this training entail, Revalantor? And why are we here? Also, Revalantor…”
Anand’s voice was nervous and excited from Klbkch’s praise. But now he glanced up.
“Revalantor Klbkch, the monsters are advancing down all tunnels. A wave is incoming and—the traps aren’t killing any?”
“They have been disabled. You two will fight the monsters and hold this position. No reinforcements will be allocated to you except in case of your failure. I will observe and teach.”
Klbkch’s calm voice made Yellow Splatters look at him sharply. The Revalantor continued, gesturing at the small force of Workers and Soldiers, still waiting. Some were looking at Yellow Splatters. Even those who were new to the Hive knew him.
“Revalantor Klbkch, you will teach us? But why is that?”
Anand was excited. Yellow Splatters was looking at the Workers and Soldiers. Counting. He knew how many died fighting monsters each day. And how many had died before Belgrade’s traps. He clicked his mandibles sharply as Klbkch replied.
“Learning is a function of individuals. Since your growth has halted, this method may improve your abilities. It was how Prognugators of old were trained. Prognugator Ksmvr was instructed using this method. As are other Prognugators of the Hives.”
That made Yellow Splatters and Anand look up. They stared at Klbkch. He had named Yellow Splatters a Prognugator for the election of course, but Yellow Splatters was hardly like Ksmvr. But now—Yellow Splatters looked up.
“Monsters. The Soldiers and Workers will die.”
“Then lead them. I will observe. And given your stated objections—each Soldier and Worker you save I will allow Pawn to induct into the Painted Antinium unit.”
Klbkch’s voice could have frozen a blizzard. Yellow Splatters looked at Klbkch. And there was something more than just…disagreement in his eyes. But Klbkch never looked away. And as the sounds coming from the tunnels leading into the kill-room grew louder, Yellow Splatters strode towards the waiting Workers and Soldiers.
“You will command the Workers and Soldiers alongside Yellow Splatters, Anand. You have his command as well. Do not allow him to advance too far or endanger yourself.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch!”
The [Strategist] stood upright. His antennae began to move in rhythmic patterns and the Workers and Soldiers looked towards him. But then Yellow Splatters spoke.
They came. Monsters flooded the tunnels, drawn from the dungeon in a killing rage. Yellow Splatters strode past the lines of Workers and Soldiers as they moved to create formations, bracing, readying themselves for battle. The [Sergeant]’s voice was a roar. He had no time for speeches, so he gave none.
“I am Yellow Splatters. Follow me, and live! Live, until the day you see Heaven. Charge!”
Here they came. Anand saw suits of armor, enchanted metal, charging down the hallways, armed with steel. He groaned. They were a hard foe. But then he heard Yellow Splatters’ voice. And he saw the Antinium race after him.
The Antinium needed no morale. And yet—the first wave of Soldiers hit the suits of armor, undead, and Flesh Worms with a ferocity that took even Anand back. He saw them swarming around the yellow-speckled shell of Yellow Splatters, fighting like—
“Demons. Move forwards Workers there. Flanking—pull back injured Soldiers from Flesh Worm there—”
“What was that, Strategist Anand? Pull back Yellow Splatters and the vanguard. They are overreaching.”
Instantly, the [Strategist] did. He was silent for a moment, concentrating. The first wave of monsters was coming down this tunnel, but more and more were approaching, and he had to move his forces to intercept.
“I have heard an expression, Revalantor Klbkch. It is said of a particularly efficacious group of warriors that ‘they fought like Demons’.”
The Revalantor watched with both arms folded. He surveyed the battlefield and clicked his mandibles as he watched Shield Spiders flood from another tunnel. Soldiers sprinted to engage, sending the smaller ones flying.
“I have seen Demons. Some fight well. The Antinium do boast increased ability under Yellow Splatters. Their morale is higher. Especially the Soldiers, which is useful. They will not break easily.”
“Yes, Revalantor. Um—”
Anand was fumbling. He had to do well! No, perfectly! He tried to spread his thoughts across the battlefield. This was so much more than chess! Remember what Erin had told him about Klbkch. He could be—he was like—
“Soldiers do not break, surely, Revalantor?”
“I have seen it done. They do not break as other species do. But the…versions produced on Izril can be broken. Side tunnels four spots. Pull back, encircle, strike.”
Klbkch accompanied the words with a flash of mental images, showing Anand exactly what he wanted done. The [Strategist] struggled to keep up. He was trying to protect Yellow Splatters, hold a conversation and micro-manage Soldiers and Workers from afar all at once!
He began making mistakes—and Antinium died. Klbkch watched, hands on his sword hilts. He was keeping an eye out for Yellow Splatters as well. But he kept speaking, and the conversation was almost casual!
“Strategist Anand, as part of your training, you will visit The Wandering Inn twice a week. Scheduling has been made to allow you this time in order to level up more quickly. Her initial effect which created your group of Individuals has not been replicated since, despite efforts, although she can facilitate the creation of Autonomous individual’s mindsets. Is it your opinion that the Autonomous-class of Antinium might become Individual with more exposure to Erin Solstice?”
Anand’s focus wavered as he opened his mandibles. A group of Workers failed to fall back—a Flesh Worn whipped its lower half, shearing through two Workers with a whip-like strike of its tail and sending the rest flying. Anand, horrified, ordered the rest of the Workers to fall back while Soldiers advanced.
But he was too focused there, and across the battlefield a group of heavily-armed Armor Constructs were advancing! Some were removing the damaged armor of their comrades, which Anand had orders to prevent. He tried to focus in multiples places—
“Strategist Anand. Your reply.”
The [Strategist] was opening and closing his mandibles in distress. He—he had told Pawn he didn’t mind ordering Antinium to their deaths like Belgrade, and that was true, but it still mattered. And he was failing. He spoke hoarsely.
“Revalantor Klbkch, I am struggling to—would it be acceptable to cease verbal communications?”
“No. This is your training.”
Another wave poured in through a side tunnel. Bats. Dropbats, so fast that Anand hadn’t seen them. They weren’t dangerous to the Antinium, but if they gained momentum and dove—Anand realized he’d lost track of Yellow Splatters. Where was he?
“Revalantor Klbkch, I am failing—”
“Then fail. This practice will be repeated as many times as necessary. Refocus, Strategist Anand. If you are unable to manage Antinium precisely, focus on where they are needed. Pull back the wings into defensive positions and micromanage around the Flesh Worms there.”
Frantically, Anand tried to do what Klbkch said. And it made sense! But he was conscious of unled Antinium breaking on the sides.
“Left. Seal that tunnel. There are too many undead. Choke them off there. Crush the influx of Shield Spiders there.”
As cold as his tone was, Anand understood what Klbkch was making him do. The [Strategist] could feel himself advancing towards the next level. But with every mistake he made, Antinium were dying. Anand struggled, failing, watching Antinium fall. But Klbkch’s voice, always cold and dispassionate, never grew angry either. And Anand was learning.
“You must split your attention more efficiently. Divide your thoughts. Prioritize areas of engagement with the highest casualties or the most to gain. Protect Yellow Splatters.”
That was another thing. Despite the falling Soldiers and Workers, the blur of yellow refused to fall. Four times, Klbkch personally sent in squads of Soldiers and Workers to save Yellow Splatters. Antinium died so he might live.
When it was over, Yellow Splatters returned. His carapace was cracked in places, and he looked…slowed. Anand was about to collapse, like he’d seen Erin do.
That was all Klbkch said. He looked at the Workers and Soldiers who remained. Barely fifty out of four hundred. Yellow Splatters swayed on his feet.
He looked at Klbkch. And his voice wasn’t angry, or commanding as he usually was, a font of strength. It was just…confused. Hurt. Klbkch looked at him.
“So you will grow.”
“It is cruel. I do not want this.”
“The Centenium were created out of the deaths of millions. We were created to be the first and last champions of the Antinium. If I could sacrifice a hundred thousand Free Antinium to make you half of what they were, I would.”
Klbkch looked at Anand and Yellow Splatters. Without a word, the [Sergeant] turned away. Anand’s voice was unsteady.
“Is this…instruction, Revalantor Klbkch?”
“Half. This is how War Queens were taught. How Prognugators were raised to battle. First to learn their mistakes. And then they watch. So. Watch. More monsters are coming.”
Anand looked up. He hadn’t noticed it, exhausted as he was. But it was true. Another wave was approaching. Despairing, he stared at the remaining Soldiers and Workers. Yellow Splatters turned, stumbling, and raised all four fists. Anand called out.
“Should more Antinium be called, Revalantor?”
“No. Step back. Observe.”
The two Antinium hesitated as Klbkch walked forwards. His hands were on his swords. He looked up. Spoke shortly.
Direct control is mine, Klbkchhezeim.
The voice echoed in Anand and Yellow Splatter’s minds. They started. The Free Queen. Anand had not heard her in—ever since he had become a [Strategist], he had taken control of the Antinium fighting. Only when he and Belgrade had slept did she take over. And rarely did she speak so, with words instead of orders.
But now she did. Klbkch nodded. He looked ahead. Anand saw a shape through the tunnel and bodies ahead. He froze.
Flesh Worms. And undead. A horde of them! Eight Flesh Worms and nearly ten times that many undead! For a last wave, it was too much, for fifty-odd wounded Antinium. He opened his mandibles to say so—
And Klbkch drew his swords. They made a soft sound in the shadowed room. But they gleamed like silver. Klbkch’s voice rang. And the Queen’s presence grew stronger. Klbkch strode forwards, towards the oncoming horde. And he shouted.
The order pulsed in the air, a telepathic command. These were not his usual orders, precise and controlled, but lacking emotion. Yellow Splatters and Anand started. Then they felt something else.
In her quarters, the Free Queen stopped eating from the tray Garry had prepared. She looked up. And the Queen spoke, in the silent room, and in the minds of the Antinium.
The exhausted Soldiers and Workers charged. The command was electric. Anand caught himself running. Yellow Splatters had to grab him to hold him back. They watched as the fifty Antinium surged after Klbkch. This wasn’t morale. This was something beyond morale. The Workers and Soldiers made no sound, but that was because they were screaming in their heads.
The Queen! For the Queen! Death! DEATH!
Even the Flesh Worms seemed taken aback at the Antinium’s ferocity. They hesitated, rearing up, their huge, sinuous bodies poised to lash with incredible strength. Klbkch’s swords were shining as he ran at the undead. The first wave of Ghouls sprinted at him ahead of the Flesh Worms. One leapt and Klbkch moved.
A blur of chitin and silver. His swords moved so fast that Anand couldn’t track them. They sheared through flesh, bone, shell—Klbkch cut through three Ghouls and scythed through a group of zombies. He didn’t even slow; with the next move, he was in front of a Flesh Worm. The monster lashed out with its two whip-like ‘arms’, trying to drag the chitin off his body, steal the flesh from his bones.
Klbkch’s swords flashed and a tendril twisted, severed. The worm screamed, striking with its head to bite—Klbkch twisted. He cut it across the head, twice down the body. Jumped back. His swords never stopped moving as the Flesh Worm convulsed. The Flesh Worm tried to writhe back upwards, but then the Antinium were on it. Three Soldiers grabbed its head. Two grabbed the body and the five tore the partially-severed head off.
Anand stared as the Antinium began to take apart the attack wave. It wasn’t just Klbkch, although he left only death in his trail. No—if Yellow Splatters was watching Klbkch, mandibles agape, it was the regular Antinium being controlled by the Queen that stunned Anand.
So precise. It put Anand to shame. He could feel the Free Queen directing each Worker and Soldier individually! She was doing what Klbkch had ordered Anand to do, but on a far wider scale and with far more finesse.
A Worker leaned out of the way of a slashing Flesh Worm’s tail while a group struck from the other side, battering the huge, crimson worm, dragging it down. Anand’s mandibles opened wide as he saw eighteen Workers kill the huge monster.
That was all Anand could whisper. Klbkch was advancing. He’d hacked another Flesh Worm in half. Now, he had engaged a group of enchanted armor that had appeared behind the undead. They were all armed, but the Antinium leapt into the center of their group. He twisted, dodging a longsword, and his swords flickered. Anand heard Klbkch’s voice.
“[Mirage of Cu—”
The swords moved even faster, and so did Klbkch. They became a whirlwind of silver. He blurred slashing at the enemies around him—
And abruptly, appeared, tumbling to the ground. The Antinium had lost his balance or overextended! Anand saw Klbkch recover as the enchanted armor closed in, striking at him. Anand cried out—but then Klbkch jumped out of the melee, and Soldiers and Workers smashed into the suits of armor from the sides, allowing him to retreat. Klbkch moved back, checked himself, and then advanced, returning to his deadly pursuit of the monsters as they began to flee.
“Did you know Revalantor Klbkch was capable of this, Yellow Splatters?”
“No. I did not.”
Yellow Splatters’ voice was quiet. Anand had been a Worker for a long time, but he couldn’t remember Klbkch being this—fast. Or strong. The Klbkch in his old body had fought with great Skill, using his four arms to outmaneuver foes. But this Klbkch—
His new body.
The last of the Flesh Worms fled, bleeding orange as Klbkch returned. Forty three Antinium walked back with him. And the monsters? An entire wave of them lay dead. Anand stared.
“The Flesh Worms will need to be disposed of separately from the bodies. They have contaminated the other corpses. As have the acidic bugs.”
Klbkch looked displeased as he walked back towards Yellow Splatters and Anand. He was speaking to a Worker trotting next to him. The Worker replied, verbally and mentally, echoing the Free Queen’s voice.
“It is not a huge loss of sustenance, Klbkchhezeim. You were quite efficient. Is your new body more suited, as I had hoped?”
Klbkch the Slayer shrugged slightly.
“I have found the limits of the form, my Queen. It is still markedly better than before, although I still must become used to fighting with two less arms.”
“So I see. If you wish to repeat the demonstration, I shall entertain it. I am glad to see your abilities have not waned, Klbkchhezeim.”
“Yes, my Queen. Thank you.”
Klbkch bowed and the Queen was gone. The Worker started and then scuttled back to his fellows. Klbkch turned to Yellow Splatters and Anand. They stared at him.
“That was a demonstration. Your thoughts?”
“Revalantor. What was—your ability in battle is remarkable.”
“It is less than I once possessed. But my new body is more capable of moving like my first one.”
The Antinium’s voice was devoid of anything like a boast. Yellow Splatters hesitated. He gestured to the place where Klbkch had been fighting.
“You stumbled once, Revalantor. Why?”
“I attempted to use a Skill that was once in my possession. However, it was still unusable for me.”
“Use a Skill…? But you don’t have it? Or you have it and you can’t use it?”
“It was lost to me in the Rite of Anastases. I have yet to gain many of my Skills back. I understand you have recovered yours, Yellow Splatters.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch. Is it—can you use Skills you do not own?”
Klbkch turned his head and nodded as he cleaned his blades.
“Some Skills are impossible to copy with mere physical technique, such as [Triple Thrust], which is three literally simultaneous strikes. However, others are simply crystallizations of form. Some can be learnt. If it were possible, I would instruct you, Yellow Splatters. However, all the Centenium experts of unarmed combat were lost to sea during the crossing. Nevertheless, I will attempt to do so. Later. Report to me tomorrow at the same time. And we shall continue your instruction”
Both Antinium reacted, greatly surprised. Klbkch nodded coolly.
“The Hive may not have an excess of Soldiers, so I will instruct Yellow Splatters in the function of combat and leadership. Strategist Anand will also learn to split his attention and engage non-monster foes. Including [Mages], different species, and airborne foes. I will make an allowance of my time outside of my [Guardsman] duties in the Watch for this. Do you have any objections?”
The Antinium replied. Klbkch nodded and strode off. It was so brisk and detached that it caught Anand and Yellow Splatters off-guard. They watched him go. But that was Klbkch. Yellow Splatters looked around. Then one of the Soldiers fell down. He was bleeding severely from the chest.
Yellow Splatters reached for his belt, but he’d used all the ones allotted to him. He turned to Anand, but the [Strategist] had given him his only one as well. The [Sergeant] looked around. Then he turned to the Antinium.
“Pick him up. We go to Pawn. Now! Run!”
The wounded Antinium gathered up the dying Soldier and they raced from the room. More Soldiers and Workers filing in made way for them. Anand watched them go. And then he was truly alone. He looked around. Klbkch was gone. The Queen was busy. Yellow Splatters was gone.
That left only him. And it had happened so fast that Anand hadn’t been able to ask the thing he’d been meaning to ask all day. He looked around. His hearts were pounding too hard. But he had to do it.
Klbkch was working at his desk, writing up some observations, making a note to have the Listeners find out more about Mister Soot and Bearclaw for his job, and so on when Anand poked his head around the corner of the entryway. Klbkch looked up sharply.
“Strategist Anand. What is it?”
“Revalantor, I wished to confer with you about an additional detail that I did not have the opportunity to earlier. Is now an acceptable time?”
Anand did. He was fidgeting, clearly nervous. Klbkch eyed him. His hands reflexively twitched towards his sides. But Anand was no Aberration. Klbkch spoke crisply.
“What is it? I have little time to waste.”
He didn’t have any. With his duties in the Hive, he generally had three hours to sleep before he had to work. Anand wavered, but then he spoke, clasping all four hands behinds his back.
“Revalantor Klbkch, would I be right in assuming I am the most valuable, most useful member of the Individuals?”
“That is a presumptuous statement.”
Klbkch was getting back to his paperwork. He underlined a number—the Hive’s budget. It was almost always positive, but today it was negative. The Council wanted funds, and he was prepared to give them more than they wanted. If he could receive more concessions. Or perhaps not?
“Oh. But I had assumed that I was most important because of my efforts and the other’s flaws…”
Anand’s downcast mandibles made Klbkch look up.
“Why is that important? None of the Individuals are considered expendable.”
The [Strategist] hesitated.
“It is just that I would like to have acknowledged worth beyond any other, Revalantor Klbkch. That I might…have permission to address you more informally.”
Klbkch stared at Anand. He had no idea what the [Strategist] wanted. After a moment, Klbkch shrugged.
“I am aware of each Individual’s personality quirks. And I have made allowances for every other Individual. If you have some need, I will entertain it so long as it is not detrimental.”
“Oh! Then, may I have permission to address you in the manner of my choosing?”
Anand brightened at once. Klbkch hesitated. Something like a [Dangersense] was going off in his head, but he couldn’t’ figure out why. But he had intuition that Erin had something to do with this.
“…What did you have in mind?”
The [Strategist] took a few breaths. He clicked his mandibles twice, and then he spoke.
“Can I call you ‘Father’? Or ‘Dad’?”
Klbkch was checking his notes. He paused as Anand spoke. He stared at the papers on his desk. For a minute. Then two. Then he slowly looked up.
“What did you say?”
Anand looked at him. The [Strategist] fumbled with his words. And he danced from one foot to another.
“I would like to call you father. Erin has told me you are like a father. Not biologically, and you have contributed no genetic material to me. But she has said you are my parental figure. An unnurturing one. May—may I call you father? And hug you?”
Senior Guardsman Klbkch, Klbkch of the Centenium, Klbkch the Slayer, and Revalantor Klbkch all stared at Anand. His mandibles opened and closed a few times. He looked at the [Strategist]. And for the first time he saw the shining light in Anand’s eyes. Admiration. And longing.
Sometimes, Yvlon thought of Ksmvr like a…little brother. It was a silly thought. Yvlon had a brother. An older one in Ylawes. And an older sister too. And she hadn’t known Ksmvr long. But she liked him.
No. She cared for the desperate, slightly broken Antinium. Her friend. When she had first met him, she had thought he was closer to the image of Antinium in her head. More monster than person. But now, Yvlon remembered the cold, heartless thing that had tortured Pawn and endangered Liscor and Erin’s inn. And she wondered if she’d been hating a child.
Because he was only three years old. If you heard that, you wouldn’t believe it. But the Antinium were born fully-grown. And capable of fighting and killing. So in that sense they were adult. But another?
The Horns of Hammerad stood outside Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild. They looked at each other. Pisces’ shoulders were tense with trepidation. Two days had passed since they had fought with Wistram’s team. This was the first time they’d gone into the Guild since then.
And the first time they’d be seeing the other Silver-rank teams with Pisces. By now, his bounty had been circulated across the Mage’s Guilds of Izril. It might be of little note to anyone in other cities, but Yvlon would have bet gemstones against coppers that everyone in the Adventurer’s Guild had read the bounty.
“Well, it’s nearly time. We’ve got to get to work. Can’t stand around all day, right?”
Ceria muttered. It was midmorning; they’d been assigned to the second shift of adventuring teams. The half-Elf was clearly nervous as she looked at Pisces. But the [Necromancer] just nodded tightly. He’d agreed to come.
“Whenever you are ready, Ceria.”
He made no snide comment. Nor did he sniff. Even his customary look of disdain was gone. It was proof that he was trying. Since they’d made up after their argument, the [Necromancer] had been trying to be pleasant. And his team trusted him. But the knowledge of the bounty and Wistram still hung over them.
That was why Yvlon turned to Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher] was tense; she could see his three hands hovering around his weapons. So the [Wounded Warrior] reached out and put an arm around Ksmvr’s shoulders. He started; Yvlon squeezed. She could feel the sensation vaguely, but parts of her arm were—numb. She smiled at him.
“It will be fine. Right, Ceria? We’re used to gossip. But I promise I won’t start any fights.”
The half-Elf blinked, but then smiled at her friend. She cast a glance at Pisces.
“That’s right. You know Yvlon, always getting us in hot water. As bad as—Calruz.”
Pisces blinked. But then a smile flashed across his features.
“I’ve often made the comparison.”
Ksmvr’s head turned from Pisces to Ceria and then he gave Yvlon a stare. She grinned, and the Antinium slowly nodded after a second.
“Ah. This is humor. Ha! Hahaha…ha?”
He trailed off. The rest of the Horns of Hammerad did laugh then. Yvlon squeezed Ksmvr’s shoulder gently. Ah, Ksmvr. She’d always wanted a younger brother. It was hard being the youngest sibling in the Byres family. When the family had a [Merchant] and [Knight] to uphold both sides of the family, what was the third sibling to do?
Do this. Yvlon looked at Pisces. She nodded to him, and saw his chin rise. She met his eyes for a moment, then tilted her head towards the door.
“Let’s go in, then.”
It was Yvlon who pushed open the door to the guild. And the Horns of Hammerad followed her. The adventurers, nearly six teams in total, looked up and stared as they walked in. For a moment there was silence. Every eye fell on Pisces. Then someone spoke.
“Ceria! Dead gods, you’re alright!”
Captain Kam trotted over. The [Bow Rider] and Captain of the Whistling Bows looked at Ceria, relief written across her face. She looked Ceria and Yvlon up and down, anxiously. Yvlon blinked.
“You managed to beat those damn mages? We woke up in the bar after being hit by those dead gods damned [Mages]. And when we woke up, it was all over. And we heard—”
She glanced at Pisces. Ceria smiled, but tightly.
“We’re fine, Kam. Are you alright? We didn’t get to ask.”
“What? Most of us just got webbed. We’ve been back at work the last two days. But it’s good to see you’re all well. Yvlon. Ksm—kissemveir. And—”
She looked at Pisces. But then, she already knew who he saw. Pisces tried to smile, but Yvlon saw his face was tight. Ceria coughed and gestured at him. She raised her voice to be heard.
“This is Pisces, Kam. Pisces, this is Captain Kam, an old friend. Kam, Pisces is our fourth member. He’s a—”
The word came from behind Kam. Yvlon looked up. One of the adventurers had said that. They were all staring at Pisces. Some hard, others with distaste, a few warily. Kam hesitated.
“Oh. Right. I heard—it’s good to see you, Ceria. We’ll catch up if we can during the work. And you—nice to meet you. Pisces.”
Pisces nodded tightly, trying to smile. Kam walked back. Normally, other teams would have drifted over to talk, but no one did. They just stood where they were. And stared.
The words came from several mouths. They weren’t even trying to hide the whispers. Yvlon stood with her team, counting faces. She didn’t see Crossbow Stan. His team must have been on another shift. But she did recognize Alais’ team. And Walt and his Ensoldier Shields. She bit her tongue. He was a hothead and he didn’t like things that bothered him. She looked at Ceria.
The half-Elf was hesitating. She looked around, then back at Pisces. He was standing with his back straight, staring past the adventurers at a far wall. He didn’t react, but she knew he had to be hearing the muffled conversations. And reading lips.
“That’s him? Doesn’t look like the ones I’ve seen.”
“Looks close enough. You can’t tell, usually. Some bastard raises the dead and digs up coffins in the night. Usually male.”
“My team got a female [Necromancer], once. Trying to poison a river. She was twisted.”
“You think? What I read…”
Whispers. Ceria Springwalker heard them with a pit in her stomach. But also—memory. A sense of déjà vu so strong she felt like she’d been teleported into the past. Into another life. When she’d been a student at Wistram.
They were the same. The whispers, the looks. It was such a familiar feeling. The place and the people were different, but the feeling was the same. Whispers, hostile looks. The only difference was that Ceria was older. She’d lost a hand. And this time she stood with Pisces, rather than with the whisperers.
“I’ll talk to Walt. If he’s not spoken to, he’ll make an ass of himself.”
Yvlon murmured, eying the Ensoldier Shields who were gathered around their leader. She began to move, and Ceria shook her head.
“No. Let me.”
Slowly, heart beating, the half-Elf walked forwards. The conversation grew quieter. Ceria saw Pisces looking at her, questioningly. He’d known what would happen when he came with her into the guild. He’d gotten enough looks these last few days in Erin’s inn. But he’d come anyways.
Yes, it was like the past. But some things were different. This time, Pisces was in her team. And this time—Ceria listened to the whispers. She knew what the whispers led to. She had seen it once. So this time she looked around and raised her voice.
“Hey! Listen up!”
The adventurers fell silent. At far tables, the non-Human teams not taking part in the Bloodfields assignment glanced over. They’d been watching covertly too. Ceria pitched her voice so everyone, adventurers, [Receptionists], could hear.
“My name’s Ceria Springwalker. You probably know me. I’m Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. Two days ago, our team was attacked by Wistram [Mages]. You’ve seen them? They went after my entire team to get one of my teammates. Pisces, here.”
She pointed back at the [Necromancer]. Pisces blinked at Ceria. She went on before her voice could quaver. She’d frozen her knees to keep them from shaking.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard. I bet you’ve all seen the bounty that Wistram put up. Well, guess what? Pisces has done stupid things. He’s committed crimes, but he’s no murderer. There was an accident at Wistram. But it was an accident. Yes, he’s a [Necromancer]. But he’s part of the Horns of Hammerad.”
Silence. Ceria felt like the eyes were boring holes into her body. She looked around, her mouth dry. She hadn’t planned this. But she had to say something. So she clenched her skeletal fist and held it up.
“That’s all I wanted to say. Pisces isn’t evil. And he’s part of my team. My teammate, get it? He’s helped save Liscor at least three times, and he’s my friend. Wistram doesn’t get him, and if anyone wants to claim that bounty, I’ll—I’ll find out what you taste like.”
The adventurers stared. Ceria heard a sound from behind her as her brain caught up with her mouth. She turned her head and saw Yvlon looking away, covering her mouth with her hand. Ceria slowly turned red all the way up to her pointed ears. Pisces coughed and covered his mouth.
“Was that a threat?”
One of Kam’s teammates whispered incredulously. Captain Kam glanced at the red-faced Ceria. One of Walt’s adventurers grinned.
“She can find out what I taste like.”
Someone laughed. Kam just turned her head and fixed the man with a cool look.
“Kedel, Ceria eats bugs. I once saw her try to eat a squirrel raw. Ever wonder how she survived in those coffins for days on end? She might actually try to eat you.”
Kam nodded at Ceria’s skeletal hand. Kedel paused uneasily. Ceria turned an even brighter red.
“That was Kam’s way of helping. Shh.”
Yvlon nudged Ceria. Then both women turned and looked at Pisces. They saw his closed expression had changed. He looked—amused. He was still trying not to guffaw in their faces. Ceria flushed again, but then she smiled.
Slowly, the Horns walked forwards. The other teams didn’t encircle them, but they didn’t pull back. Pisces murmured to Ceria as they stood together.
“I appreciate the gesture.”
“I’m just…doing what I should have done a while back. Mind you, I still owe you a good kick for keeping what you were a secret from me. We were best friends.”
“Yes. I suppose I should have told you. But I was nervous. Imagine what would have happened if I had confessed my identity another time?”
“I could have handled it. I hope. It was just because it was so sudden, back then. And everyone was telling me…”
“Hey. You’re the [Necromancer].”
One of the adventurers spoke up. Ceria and Pisces froze. They turned and saw a scarred adventurer, part of Pelico’s team, look over. Pelico, the [Rogue] and leader of Hauntgheist, was right behind him. Pisces nodded tightly, but then put a smile on his face.
“That is correct. And you are, sir?”
The guild waited. The scarred adventurer looked Pisces up and down. Then he grinned crookedly.
“Desril. I ran with a [Necromancer] once. Back in the day. My gang and I were [Raiders] far north of here. ‘Round the Eldessale Foothills. Bitch’s name was Smola. I hated her guts. But my gang got used to the smell of her fucking corpses. And they made great shields. You know her?”
“Not personally. I can assure you I will not use any corpses of people. And refrain from using necromancy unduly. I know more spells outside my field.”
Desril shrugged, grinning crookedly. Yvlon glanced at Pelico and the [Rogue] nodded at her.
“Don’t bother me. I like having bodies in front of me in a fight.”
“What happened to this Smola, may I ask?”
“She got knifed in the middle of the night because she was a damn [Thief].”
“Ah. A common hazard among [Necromancers]. This is why I prefer the company of the undead.”
Pisces’ face was completely straight. The joke made Desril laugh. And it even got laughs from some other adventurers, out of shock more than anything else. But it eased the tension again. Desril squared his shoulders, eying Pisces up and down. The [Necromancer] looked just as interested.
“So you are a former raider, Mister Desril?”
“It’s just Desril. ‘Mister’ makes me itchy. That’s right. But I’m reformed now. Pelico and his lot took me in. Hauntgheist’s totally law-abiding. We even wipe our asses. You know any more [Necromancers]? I met a few. Did some jobs for them back in the [Raider] days.”
“I have met a few. But I don’t associate with most of them. My class does attract a somewhat unsavory group at times.”
“You should meet [Raiders]. Half of my gang got these worms one time. Fucking most disgusting thing I ever saw. Right in the groins. That’s when I quit—”
To Yvlon’s relief, the conversation was interrupted by a sharp rapping sound. The adventurers turned and saw Tekshia Shivertail. She’d come down from her office. The Guildmistress didn’t just demand silence; she hauled it over the table and dropped it at her feet. The Drake clearly knew the score too, because her first glare went straight for the group of adventurers and the Horns.
“I see you’re all playing nice and wagging your tails. Good. I thought I’d have to stab a few idiots who decided to start a brawl in my guild. Everyone read the bounty on the [Necromancer]? Yes? Good! Anyone trying to take it in Liscor gets stabbed, got it? We don’t recognize a group of upstart idiots with wands shoved so far up their behinds they think they own this city.”
She glared around at the adventurers. A few of the Drake and Gnoll teams nodded slowly. Tekshia paused. Then she pointed at the Human teams.
“Now, if you’re all done gossiping, you have work to do. Get moving!”
The teams needed no further instruction. They began filing towards the doors. Yvlon felt a surge of relief as she turned, nodding to Ceria. Tekshia’s voice rang out, stopping the Horns in their tracks.
The team turned back apprehensively. Tekshia stared at Pisces and Yvlon felt a cold chill. But then the Drake glared at the rest of the team and jerked her head towards the door.
“You’re not getting paid for yesterday since you had ‘broken bones’ and you were ‘resting’. Necromancer, next time you let my granddaughter get hexed, you’d better kill whoever did it or stay out of my Guild. Get lost, all of you!”
The trip to The Wandering Inn and then the Bloodfields was unremarkable. In fact, the only thing of note was the adventurers grumbling that it would be easier to muster in the inn rather than have to walk there to use the magic door.
“We should have that guild moved closer since the inn’s so important. Why not?”
“The inn’s only been here a hot minute, Sekil.”
“Yeah, well, since the city’s renovating the guild, they should move it closer.”
There was one Liscorian team among the Human teams as it turned out. The Drakes and Gnolls were Bronze-rank, new to their jobs, but made up of former [Guards] and [Warriors]. They seemed more casual around Pisces than the Humans, having seen him around. And seen him fight.
Erin was present in her inn as well. She waved the adventurers through the door, calling out to the Horns.
“Hey! Pisces, Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr! You’re going to the Bloodfields? Want some cookies to go with you? I’ve got a special deal! Mystery cookie bag! Each one’s different! You could eat something nice—or nasty!”
She waved a bag of cookies that Lyonette was selling from a table for gouging prices. All the adventurers looked interested, and Ceria caught a bag Erin threw at her. She opened it and peered inside.
“Each one’s a different flavor. We’ve got vanilla, lemon, um—fish—it’s a game!”
The half-Elf was shaking her head as she sniffed a cookie. But there was no time to gossip with Erin. She walked through the door and came out into the sunlight.
The Bloodfields were there, in the distance. A red stain on the earth. But unlike last time, Ceria and her team weren’t getting lessons about the Bloodfields. And the grassy landscape was hardly empty. The Horns stared as they found nearly a hundred people hard at work. Gnolls and Drakes were tearing up the earth, and more were pouring dirt down, pounding it flat with mallets.
Creating a road. Just like that, in the middle of nowhere. No—Yvlon turned and saw there was already a road! It stretched nearly a thousand feet already! Nothing fancy—just a wide stretch of dirt in the grass, wide enough for two wagons to travel comfortably at once.
She stared. Captain Kam looked up from her bag of cookies. She was sniffing a freebie normal cookie.
“Looks like they’ve made good work since yesterday. Dead gods, but those [Builders] work fast. We’ll catch up, Ceria. Whistling Bows, to me! We’re on watch!”
She led her team past the Horns. Walt and his group tromped after Kam. Walt was exclaiming.
“These things taste good! They’re sweet!”
“Dead gods. What did I eat? This one’s spicy.”
One of his teammates spat out his cookie as his fellows laughed. At a loss, the Horns looked around. Ceria called out to Pelico.
“Wait, where are we going?”
The [Rogue] looked at her, blinking. His team was already moving off towards a group of [Scouts], some on horseback.
“Right, I forgot you weren’t here the last two days. Ceria, go find Master…Reikhle. Yeah, Reikhle, right? He’s the one in charge. Gnoll. He’ll tell you where to go.”
He glanced over his shoulder and his team nodded. They pointed towards the [Workers] near the road. The other teams began dispersing. Ceria looked around. Pisces was glancing about, Yvlon gagging on a cookie. Ksmvr was happily discovering his had acid flies in them.
“Okay, then. I guess…”
The first Drake pointed Master Reikhle out to Ceria. The Gnoll was standing on a small bluff, giving orders as he looked around with a small vision-enhancing monocle.
[Master Builder] Reikhle was a Gnoll. He hailed from Pallass, and he was all business. He didn’t even blink as he turned to see the Horns of Hammerad.
“New team, yes? One moment. I will find you a place to work.”
“No, we were part of the scouting party. We had an—incident so we couldn’t work the last two days.”
The Gnoll raised his eyebrows. He looked Ceria up and down and then focused on Pisces and Yvlon. He stiffened when he saw Ksmvr, but he must have been warned, because he just sniffed warily.
“Ah, you’re that team. The Horns of Hammerad? Well, if you’re working here today, I’ll make use of you. What are your unique abilities? Anything you can do to help with the construction will be welcome. Except fire. I’m not burning down everything around here just to clear my road, yes?”
Ceria was surprised by the question. The Gnoll rolled his eyes impatiently, gesturing at the Gnolls and Drakes hard at work, sweating under the sun. Yvlon saw a few unhappy adventurers were actually helping them, like Walt, being forced to haul some heavy bags filled with dirt and swearing at everyone in earshot.
“Liscor has given me a number of [Builders], [Diggers], [Laborers], and so on. No Antinium; they have rules about them leaving Liscor and I wouldn’t want to work with…them. Even if they’re apparently excellent at their jobs and they work without complaint and follow orders perfectly—but no. So I must improvise, hm?”
Reikhle shuddered, paused, shook his head, and shuddered again.
“Anything that speeds up the labor. Are any of you [Geomancers]? I will pay you three times—or five times the daily rate—if you can cast [Shape Earth]. But you must be willing to listen to orders, yes?”
“What is the issue with [Geomancers], Master Reikhle? Surely any architect would hire one wherever present. I am surprised one wasn’t contracted. Unless there are none in the region.”
Pisces was interested. Reikhle shot him a look. He grumbled to himself, shaking his head.
“A good [Geomancer] might be able to create a road, but do they know where to place it or how to build it so it will not disintegrate in the next rain? No! They love casting spells without consulting anyone else. Many of their walls have basic flaws in the structure! Ask them to make a wall and guess what they make? A straight wall. Not even rooted deeply in the earth! You could push them over yourself!”
He glowered at the adventurers. Pisces nodded and so did Yvlon and Ksmvr. Ceria just looked blank; she didn’t understand the problem.
“Hrr. Well, ideally we would work together, but Pallass’ two [Geomancers] are both on contract working to excavate mines. I may be able to acquire one, but not yet. Now, enough wasting time! Time is money, yes! If you are not [Geomancers], what are your talents?”
“Well, I can cast ice magic. Make walls, ice floors…”
Ceria gestured, conjuring a bit of snow. Reikhle nodded and scribbled on his clipboard and papers.
“Might be useful for moving heavy objects. Or creating temporary supports. We’ll add you to our lists. Does Miss Human here have a powerful strength Skill?”
Yvlon smiled crookedly as he eyed her up and down.
“No. And I have orders not to use my arms much. I can fight, but lifting isn’t my specialty to begin with.”
“Fine. Hrm. And the—the—”
“Hello, Master Builder Reikhle. I am Ksmvr.”
Ksmvr held out a hand. Reikhle retreated in alarm. The Antinium lowered his hands and bobbed his head helpfully.
“I am an Antinium, but my ability to dig is somewhat hampered. I specialize in mobility.”
“So not a Worker?”
The Gnoll sniffed again, eying Ksmvr warily. The Antinium shook his head.
“I possess the body of a Worker, but my designation was Prognugator. However, I was cast out of my Hive for extreme ineptitude—”
“He’s not a Worker.”
Ceria cut in. Yvlon patted Ksmvr on the shoulders and Reikhle blinked a few times. Then he looked at Pisces.
“And a [Necromancer].”
Even he knew Pisces. The young man nodded stiffly, but then he tried to smile. The Gnoll eyed him, then nodded.
“Scouting it is. Report to the [Scouts] over there.”
He gestured, and strode away. The Horns looked at each other. Ceria shrugged.
“That could have been worse. How do you feel, Pisces?”
“Aside from hot? I must confess, slightly relieved. Guildmistress Tekshia did us a favor. And we are here to work.”
Pisces spoke after a moment, sounding thoughtful. He eyed the [Scouts] that Reikhle had indicated, following Ceria as she led the way. He stared at the Bloodfields in the distance.
“So these are the Bloodfields in bloom. I travelled this way last year. Purely to see the Bloodfields, but even dormant, I refused to move any closer.”
“We saw a demonstration of the Bloodfield’s dangers. I can recite the content if you would like, Comrade Pisces.”
“That would be welcome, Ksmvr. But later.”
Not all the adventurers were assigned to guard the main labor force. Over half the teams were actually on patrol, eliminating threats and finding the best place for the road to be built around the Bloodfields. Yvlon recognized the Drake who was waiting for them. He introduced himself to Pisces; Thunder’s Solace was already waiting.
“My name’s Hissle. Please don’t laugh. I’m working with your team today.”
“Hi there, Yvlon.”
Alais gave Yvlon a cautious nod. Yvlon nodded back and stared at Caddin. Then she listened to Hissle. The other adventurers, wearing chitin or wood armor, glanced at Pisces, but then turned to the [Scout]. It was indeed all business, and they had a lot of work to do.
“The city decided on an eastern route, along the route we scouted on the first day. So the [Builders] and so on are beginning to clear a road. Some adventuring teams will be guarding them or helping make the road. We will be clearing monster nests and looking for threats. Follow me.”
Hissle led their team at a fast march past the road. To Yvlon’s amazement, the workers had already done nearly a dozen feet more of space. They were working fast. Master Reikhle must have had Skills, or his team did. Probably both.
“So, what was the scene with the Wistram [Mages]? I heard a bit…”
Alais was the first to speak up. She drifted over to Ceria as they walked ahead of the others. The two Captains put their heads together. The rest of their teams looked at each other and stayed apart. Yvlon knew some of the adventurers in Thunder’s Solace, but not well. So she turned to Ksmvr and Pieces instead. None of them had trouble keeping the pace; if anything, Ceria and Alais were having the most trouble in robes and as [Mages] who were less used to exertion.
“It’s not too bad, huh, Pisces?”
“Within Liscor. I fear I’ll have a less welcome reception elsewhere.”
Pisces smiled crookedly. Yvlon looked at him. He was holding up well. As well as could be expected. She glanced back towards the already-distant team working on the road and cleared her throat. A thought struck her.
“You know, undead would be pretty useful in digging and clearing stuff like we did at Albez.”
Pisces and Ksmvr both looked at Yvlon. She shrugged.
“It would. Why didn’t you suggest that to Master Reikhle?”
The [Necromancer] raised an eyebrow as they began to climb a bluff. Yvlon knew Caddin was staring at her from the side. Ksmvr turned his head and Yvlon nudged him before he could whisper ‘dominance’.
“Yvlon, I don’t believe Master Builder Reikhle would appreciate undead. Or any of the other workers, frankly. Would you accept that sort of help given Liscor’s history and the…allegations made against me?”
“I suppose not. But they are useful. How many could you animate and make work if you had to?”
Pisces blinked. He looked at Yvlon, but she genuinely wanted to know. He shrugged, awkwardly.
“If I had some source of mana to sustain them? At least…a hundred?”
“I’ve never tested my upper limits. Undead are costly to maintain. They require…sources of mana. I work in small groups that I can personally direct. Realistically, could have two dozen working without doing more than depleting my personal mana.”
“And they don’t stop and they work fast. It’s something to consider. Didn’t you once tell me that undead were better than regular [Laborers]? I know a lot of continents don’t allow undead, but is there any place they do?”
Pisces hesitated. He stared towards the sky and replied slowly.
“It is true that the undead are a valuable labor force. Cheaper than Golems or other constructs, or summoned beings. Some nations have used them in place of regular workers. Some still do, like Khelt. But it is also true that the undead can…lose control. Even experienced [Necromancers] risk that. And I have certainly experienced the same.”
“Huh. But under your direct control?”
“Never. Even so, I imagine they would be unwelcome. I will refrain from using undead unless it comes to battle. And then, Bone Horrors.”
The whisper came from the side. Yvlon looked up and saw a young woman in Thunder’s Solace look away quickly. Pisces paused, but then nodded.
“I can animate Bone Horrors. They are completely under my control.”
Thunder’s Solace stared at him and looked at each other. Caddin muttered something and they moved back a bit, marching even further from the Horns of Hammerad. Yvlon clenched her jaw and flexed one arm.
“It’s safe, Caddin. It’s like having a [Summoner] on the team. Relax and stop being such cowards.”
Alais glanced back over her shoulder. Ceria glared at Yvlon, but the stinging words did make Thunder’s Solace drift closer. Yvlon turned and saw Ksmvr staring at her arm.
“The [Healer] said you should not exacerbate your arm, Yvlon.”
“True. Are you well enough to fight, Yvlon? I inspected your arm and the bone supports are stable. Your flesh on the other hand…”
Pisces eyed Yvlon. She shook her head impatiently.
“She said it might provoke the infection—or cure it. It’s a risk. Either way, if I’m wounded, I’d rather use a potion than die.”
“But you could rest—”
“And do what? Sit around? It’s just a minor infection, anyways. That’s what she said.”
“But it may get worse. What if it does?”
“Then it does. Ksmvr, there’s no fixing my arms. Short of visiting someone like the fabled Healer of Tenbault.”
“There may be a way to remove the metal from the bone. As I said, it is beyond me at present, but I have hopes that at Level 40, it may be possible…”
“Well then, we adventure until then. Hey, Pisces, you saw the other teams, right? I’ll have to introduce you to Captain Kam. You noticed the scales on the side of her face? She’s got a Drake mother, but don’t bring that up. And Pelico’s team, with the [Raider]? They’re a bit shady—they’ll take contracts that aren’t sanctioned by the guild, but they’re decent. I know Pelico. Well, my team had issues back with his in the day. Thefts. But we sorted it out. Still, watch your coin purses…”
The Horns began chatting, relaxing as they continued marching. In time, Ceria drifted back with them and they adopted a moving, sometimes chattering, sometimes silent pace as Thunder’s Solace did the same. It was nearly two hours before Hissle called a halt. He’d received a [Message] on the portable scroll and he pointed.
“Another team’s found a nest. We’ve been asked to help in clearing it. This way.”
The adventurers felt a spike of excitement flood them. Yvlon nodded to Ceria and checked her sword. They hurried after Hissle, suddenly ready for a fight. It was a familiar feeling to the career adventurers. Guard duty like this was tedium filled with moments of danger.
But this time it wasn’t an ambush or a sudden fight. Another team, the Hauntgheists, had discovered one of the threats to the new road in a series of natural dirt entrances in the hills. Pelico and the [Scout] came back, stealthily sliding back down the hill to all three teams.
“We’ve got monsters. And not docile types either.”
“What’ve we got?”
Alais was checking her staff, electricity running down it. Yvlon sidled away; the [Aeromancer]’s control was poor and her lightning was trying to earth itself on her armor. Pelico grimaced.
The Drake [Scouts] and the Horns swore. Face-Eater Moths. Not all had died at Liscor. Some had fled. And a group of survivors had set up a colony in the slopes bordering the Bloodfields.
“They have to go. They’re aggressive, too near where we might build the road, and they reproduce fast. We have three Silver-rank teams here. Do we need reinforcements?”
Hissle asked the three Captains. Ceria turned to Pelico. The [Rogue] shrugged.
“I’ve never fought them. How dangerous?”
“Silver-rank threat. Alais is perfect against them, honestly. But they swarm and that’s Gold-rank. How many are there? That depends on whether we can take them.”
Ceria turned to the other [Scout]. The Drake frowned.
“[Foefinder’s Scan]. I’m getting a fairly small colony. About…twenty three adults, but lots of eggs and smaller moths.”
“What do you think, Ceria? Your team had to fight off the ones attacking Liscor.”
Ceria glanced at Yvlon and got a swift nod. The [Cryomancer] turned back.
“Twenty three? I say we’re fine. We can seal the nest, funnel them and kill them. Hissle?”
The [Scout] was writing in his [Message] scroll.
“I will ask for permission, but I agree.”
The adventurer teams waited only five minutes for the go-ahead. Then they began making a plan of attack. None of them got near the caves, but they began outlining who would move first.
“I’ll seal the other openings. I can get at least half, but if the moths swarm out, that might be a problem. Alais, can you control your shock magic?”
“No. It might arc to any metal. My team can stand in front, though.”
Alais grimaced. Pelico nodded.
“My group’ll be in back, then. We all have ranged weapons.”
“Hold on! Twenty moths versus my team? We can’t hold, even if Ceria gets all the tunnels!”
“My team doesn’t have a [Mage] who can do barriers. Just a [Swamp Mage]. She’ll poison our weapons, but that’s not great in a fast fight. She could throw some light poison inside—”
“Can she run fast? Moths are quick. Hey, listen.”
Ceria looked up from the conference. She glanced at Pisces, and then looked around.
“I’ll get my [Mage], Pisces, to help me sealing the tunnels. He can use [Bone Wall]. And as for the moths and the front line with Alais’ team—I say we let Pisces pull up his Bone Horror and put it in front.”
The two adventurer captains stiffened. Alais opened her mouth.
“A Bone Horror? Ceria!”
The half-Elf glared at Alais.
“It’s under his control. If you want to risk your team fighting the first wave of moths, be my guest, Alais. But Yvlon and Ksmvr will guard the flanks, not hold the breach. No one else can get in range of your lightning.”
That was true. Alais bit her lip. Pelico raised his hands.
“Bone Horror’s fine by me. It’s your call, Alais.”
The [Aeromancer] hesitated, but one look at her team and the tunnels made her nod.
The adventurers watched as Pisces let bones flow out of his bag of holding. They shuddered when they saw the Bone Warbear that Pisces summoned. But as it lumbered forwards, Ceria saw even Caddin looked relieved as it took a position in front of them. Desril whistled.
“Fucking hells. Smola couldn’t do that!”
Pelico called out in a low voice. The three teams nodded. Ceria raised her wand and her bone hand. She was sweating. It was all on her. Pelico gave her the nod. She looked at Pisces. He’d drawn his rapier. Ceria took a breath, and shouted.
The adventurers raced up the slope. Alais’ team was in front, Yvlon and Ksmvr on the sides. Thunder’s Solace crouched low, bracing behind their shields as the Warbear took the largest entrance. Hauntgheist scrambled up rocks, taking positions to fire at the opening.
Ceria ran forwards. She pointed her wand, shouting, as the moths noticed the intruders outside. There was a thrum of wings, sounds from within. The half-Elf pointed.
“[Ice Wall]! [Ice Wall]!”
Ice shot up from the ground, blocking openings in the hillside. It was quick! Grimalkin’s training had paid off, but there were a lot of gaps and the walls had to be thick. Ceria saw Pisces conjuring a wall of bone, but slower than she was. She began sealing entrances, reinforcing the ice. But the first moths were already moving.
One hurled itself against a wall of ice and cracked it before Ceria could complete it. Sweating, she created another one. Almost done—
A moth, huge, far larger than a Human, flew out of the cave, circular mouth gaping, ready to tear flesh with its jagged limbs. Ceria flinched, but a dozen bolts struck the moth.
“Seal the entrances! We’ve got you!”
Pelico bellowed as his team reloaded. Ceria conjured the last ice wall, watching it run up and seal an entrance. Pisces [Flash Stepped] backwards, three walls of thick bone sealing his tunnels. The moths buzzed around inside. Then, realizing they only had one way out now, they swarmed the main tunnel.
“Here they come! Thunder’s Solace, I’m casting!”
Alais shouted. She raised her staff and everyone wearing metal ducked away from her. The Face-Eater Moths poured down the tunnel. Alais cast her spells as the adventurers shot.
Lightning and arrows flew. Ksmvr calmly dropped one moth while electricity crackled around the Bone Warbear. The Bone Horror took a lot of the uncontrolled spell, but the moths got the rest. Eight dropped from the bolts of lightning flying from Alais’ staff, charred to ash. The rest jerked, but came on as Alais, panting, fell back.
“Alright! Hold the line! Take them down!”
The [Warriors] rushed forwards as the moths attacked the Warbear. The bone monstrosity took the first charge, tearing a moth down and savaging it, then biting another and crushing its abdomen. The Face-Eater moths swarmed it, until they realized the undead had nothing they wanted and was almost all bone. They turned, but the ranged adventurers were firing into their sides. Thunder’s Solace held back the moths as they tried to fly past them as Yvlon and Ksmvr rushed forwards.
“Take them down!”
Caught in the narrow gap by Ceria’s ice walls, the moths never stood a chance. The ones still in the air were brought down by the adventurers with melee weapons. Yvlon hacked the largest moth apart with one slash and Pisces blasted two more with flames, rapier at the ready. But it was a total massacre.
Two minutes of fighting more, and then the last moth was twitching on the ground, burning from Ksmvr’s dagger. The adventurers caught their breath, looking for enemies, and then realized they’d won. A few of them cheered; the rest just grinned, high on battle fury.
“Nice work! Anyone hurt?”
“I have a piece taken out of my armor!”
“Dead gods! One took a chunk out of Calico’s arm! Healing potion!”
But that was the worst of it. The adventurers had fought the Face-Eater Moths off with barely any wounds. But their work wasn’t done. Hissle pointed to the cave, and the adventurers reluctantly looked at him.
“Full extermination. We can’t just seal this nest off and hope they die out. Face-Eater Moths can dig.”
The harder part was actually clearing the cave. Only Pisces and Ceria knew flame spells and theirs were weak. Armed with torches, the adventurers headed into the cave and began igniting the eggs or just stomping on them. The half-formed moths came out of their eggs, biting and making screeching sounds. It was ugly work and Ceria needed a bath when it was done.
Everyone did. Yvlon cursed as she tried to scrape goo from her armor. Ceria obligingly showered her with some water, but even that didn’t help. Tired, disgusted, the adventurers were relieved when Hissle announced they were done for the day.
“There’s no point in continuing the scouting tired. We’ll head back, let you take a break, and get clean. Good work, Humans.”
He led them at a slow trot back towards the road. The adventurers moved in weary silence, a few speculating about leveling up, or muttering jokes. Talking. They were all more easy around each other, having fought together. Ceria was complimenting Alais’ spells. The [Aeromancer] grinned.
“Your [Ice Walls] put my [Lightning Bolt] to shame, Ceria. That’s a great new spell. Lots of utility. And fast.”
“Well, I’ve been practicing. You have to, you know.”
Behind her Yvlon snorted. Ceria turned red. Alais glanced at the Horns, and then, to Ceria’s surprise, addressed Pisces for the first time.
“So, you’re a [Necromancer]. Pisces, right? We talked in Celum’s Guild. Before the brawl.”
He looked up from a conversation with Ksmvr about the Bloodfields. Pisces nodded.
“That’s right, Captain Alais.”
“Why’d you ever want to be…you know? I mean, it’s it disgust—isn’t it—”
The woman gestured at him uncomfortably. Pisces paused. Ceria knew everyone was listening in. She hoped—
But she didn’t need to. Instead of answering Alais with a sniff, Pisces nodded, keeping his face open and polite.
“Personal preference, Captain Alais. You prefer lightning magic, do you not? I have an affinity with death magic. And to be honest, I enjoy [Necromancy].”
“How? Don’t you find it—I mean, those are dead bodies. No offense, but I can’t imagine using people as tools. Or making zombies.”
Alais was struggling to express herself and Ceria knew how she felt. Pisces paused thoughtfully. He looked around, pausing as he met Ceria’s eyes.
“I believe there is a certain elegance to [Necromancy]. I understand many find it abhorrent. And I do not personally enjoy the presence of rotten corpses. Zombies, Ghouls, Fleshwalkers—I do see the inherent horror on them. Which is why my specialization is bone. That may not make my abilities more appealing, but [Necromancy] is not all just raising the dead.”
He reached for his side and produced a white bone, a femur. Alais shivered, but Pisces lifted it. The bone spun in the air, shedding bits and pieces, changing, the fragments moving to one side. Yvlon stared. Pisces was sculpting the bone! He spoke casually.
“It is true it comes from death. But there is a beauty in it. Like so.”
The pieces of bone fell away, revealing a flower in its place. A rose, made of bone. Sculpted, nearly perfect in detail. Pisces presented the flower made out of bone to Alais. She stared at it and hesitated. She nearly reached for it, but Pisces withdrew it, much to her visible relief.
“That is one of the abilities that many do not associate with [Necromancy]. The Bone Horror was made in much that fashion, Captain Alais. It was made solely from bear bone, by the way. Does that make you uncomfortable?”
“No. Alright, bears are different from skeletons. And that Bone Horror was sturdy. We might have gotten hurt but not for that. T-thank you. Even so…”
Flustered, Alais looked unsure of herself. Pisces didn’t press her, and a thoughtful silence accompanied the adventurers as they looked at Pisces on the way back. Yvlon leaned over, still scrubbing at her armor.
“That wasn’t half-bad. Good on you for not pressing Alais.”
Pisces’ eyes flickered and he nodded at Yvlon, smiling slightly.
“I simply took a…bit of advice I’d been given. In the past, I would have pressed the point. But that would have been at Wistram. We are encouraged to debate until our point is emphatically proven. The real world is not so simple. Nor do opinions change overnight.”
Yvlon looked at Pisces, surprised. He was trying. After a moment, Ceria stepped over. She grinned at her team, tired from the spellcasting and nodded the way they’d come. Hissle had told them they’d have to check the caves later to make sure something wasn’t eating all the moths they’d killed.
“Not bad. It wasn’t pretty, but it beats, rats, right? I could do this. How’re you feeling?”
“I am very content in exterminating the moths, Captain Ceria. I have fulfilled my obligations and am not a waste of existence.”
Ksmvr smiled, raising his mandibles. Yvlon agreed. And Pisces nodded as Ceria turned to him. He couldn’t resist one sniff, but he’d done well all day.
“It was somewhat menial, but I will admit, I see the value in it. For now, I consent.”
“Good. I mean, we can’t do much. And with Montressa and her team around—”
Ceria paused. The Horns looked at her. At last, Yvlon brought it up.
“So what do we do about them? They’re not going to stop, you know, Ceria, Pisces. And now Pisces has a bounty on his head.”
The half-Elf sighed. She looked at Pisces.
“I don’t know. Maybe Erin can help? She said she was going to try to talk to the Centaur. Palt. I’d like to talk to Montressa myself. See if we can come to an understanding.”
“After what they did? I’d settle for beating the lot of them into pulp and stripping them of their gear.”
Yvlon glowered. Ksmvr nodded. He raised a hand as he walked, turning to Ceria.
“Captain Ceria, if we exclude the Selphid and barrier mage, Montressa, I am reasonably certain I am capable of killing any of the other three [Mages] in a surprise attack. One, certainly.”
“Ksmvr—we’re not killing them. They’re protected by Liscor’s laws, same as us.”
“So, no preemptive strike?”
The Antinium looked disappointed. Yvlon patted him on the shoulder and looked at her team.
“If it comes to a second fight, I’ll go for my sword. If they don’t steal it away again. What do you think, Ceria? They won’t try to get us in Liscor, will they?”
“I can’t imagine they’d want to go against Zevara. Or Erin. But we need to watch our backs. We’re probably safe out here, with other teams and people from Liscor—but you’re right. If we can’t talk to Montressa, we’ll have to fight them.”
Ceria bit her lip. Pisces nodded. He put a hand on his rapier.
“And next time, it will not go their way. Yvlon, we may purchase a charm for your sword to prevent it being stolen. However, I will admit, I would rather not fight all five [Mages] at once. They underestimated our abilities the first time. The second—could prove fatal. At the very least, we will have to kill them to avoid being killed in turn.”
The Horns looked at Pisces. Ceria’s face went pale. Yvlon glanced at Pisces.
“They’re that dangerous? I know the Minotauress is strong, but you seemed confident you could take that Drake. And Erin and her friends stomped the rest. What can they do that any other [Mage] can’t? What’s Wistram got that you and Ceria don’t, Pisces?”
“Linked spells? Homing magic? Magical fields? Their understanding of spellcraft is more advanced than ours.”
It looked like it cost Pisces to admit that. Yvlon and Ceria and Ksmvr all stared at him. He turned around, flushing slightly.
“There’s someone better than you at magic, Pisces?”
“I am attempting to be realistic and…humble. And frankly, Montressa proved she had more advanced spells than either Ceria or I can command. She allegedly blocked a bombardment spell from Liscor’s walls. Her [Five-Fold Arcane Barrier] spell is Tier 5.”
“What? No. [Arcane Barrier] is Tier 4, Pisces.”
“And five of them, layered together? She blocked a siege spell, Ceria. That’s what formal magical training does. Isceil, the Drake, is a poor duelist. But a single breath attack could kill all of us if he used it. If we do battle, I would be forced to kill him. That is what I am referring to. There can be no mercy given their abilities. Montressa herself could kill us all with [Chain Lightning].”
The [Cryomancer] bit her lip. Yvlon silently agreed with Pisces. If it couldn’t be peacefully resolved…she put a hand on her sword. Aside from Montressa, she doubted the other [Mages] could block a full swing from her Sword of Weight.
After a moment, Ksmvr raised one hand.
“What is linked magic, Comrade Pisces?”
The others relaxed. Pisces smiled.
“Combining their magic. Recall what I did with Falene during the Face-Eater Moth attack? Imagine how much more powerful a spell can be if they combine their mana pools. It is an advanced technique.”
“Can you do it, Captain Ceria? Comrade Pisces?”
Ceria looked embarrassed as she shook her head.
“No. Falene can, but I can’t do any of the advanced stuff. Homing spells are something Wistram teaches. That’s what Illphres said. You can get a Skill, but it’s true they have more magical experience.”
“And we have more battle experience. It evens out. But can you talk them out of it? Ceria? Pisces? I know what happened with Montressa. But is there a chance you could persuade her?”
Ceria looked at Pisces. He stared back, and their history lay before them. After a moment, the [Necromancer] sighed.
“It is unlikely. Perhaps Montressa’s friends can be persuaded. They are all from different factions, or so I believe. Perhaps some might be swayed. The Selphid, this Centaur, Palt. But the Drake, the Minotauress, and Montressa…doubtful.”
“But we’ll try. Otherwise…”
Ceria trailed off. The adventurers looked at each other. Then they silently glanced around. Thunder’s Solace, Hauntgheist, were chattering as they neared the road, already moving up into the hills.
Master Builder Reikhle was shouting that they needed a smooth, gentle slope for the wagons, and so the Drakes and Gnolls were terraforming the hills, swearing as they broke stones, pushing dirt into place, pounding it down.
The Horns looked at each other, thinking of the uncertain future. Then they got back to work.
The Horns worked around the Bloodfields, but keeping clear of the deadly red stain on the earth. In Liscor, Montressa’s team did their form of work. Enmities aside, everyone had to eat. But one member of the Wistram [Mages] wasn’t selling her wares.
No—his, now. Ulinde sat in a chair in an inn that wasn’t The Wandering Inn. He had been banned, and unlike Palt, hadn’t tried to get in Erin Solstice’s good graces. The Selphid wore a slightly rotten body, of a heavyset man who had died of a heart attack.
It…wasn’t a good body, even for a desperate Selphid. His muscles were atrophied, and he stank, even with Ulinde’s best attempts to make the body not smell. The Drake [Innkeeper] had charged him just to have a seat. Ulinde had paid that, but he was visibly upset. The blubbery face, slightly bloated with the dead man’s gasses being released, crinkled into an expression of grief.
It was an ugly sight. And no one, Drakes or Gnolls, wanted to sit anywhere near him, hence the corner booth. Yet, someone was sitting with Ulinde, as he made faint crying sounds out of the dead man’s mouth.
“It’s not fair. I wanted to be friends with Miss Ivirith so much. But now she hates me. Why did Montressa have to pick a fight? I didn’t want to do it! I thought Pisces was a criminal! I never wanted to fight anyone else or get in trouble! I came here just so I could meet Miss Ivirith and now—”
His nose didn’t run, since there wasn’t any mucus left. Instead, a squelching noise came from within the Selphid’s body. That was gross too. Honestly, it was hard, even for someone who knew Selphids to be around Ulinde’s current body. But Moore did his best. He gingerly, very gingerly, patted Ulinde on the back.
“It’s fine. I’m sure Jelaqua will forgive you. I did.”
“But she was so mad.”
Tearfully—or rather, tearfully if her body still had unrotted tear ducts—Ulinde turned to the half-Giant. Moore had a drink in front of him. He’d had two so far and he waved for another now. A Drake [Server] rushed up, dropped the drink, and rushed away. Moore couldn’t blame him.
Ulinde was a mess. Moore had found him curled up in front of the inn like this. The Selphid was so distraught he couldn’t manage his body properly, and that was a problem, especially given that his current corpse was beyond decayed. Moore had experience with bodies and he knew Jelaqua would have considered this vessel an act of sheer desperation to inhabit. But Selphids needed corpses and Ulinde had run out.
The half-Giant cleared his throat, looking around the mostly vacated inn. The [Innkeeper] mouthed ‘get it out’ across the inn’s floor. Moore waved a hand at him and the Drake stormed away. Ulinde had paid the Drake in gold. That was surely enough.
“Miss Ulinde. I’m sure Jelaqua will forgive you. But please pull yourself together.”
He meant it literally. The younger Selphid groaned.
“I’m trying! But—but—she was so—it hurt. I had a bit of healing potion, but—she hurt me! It hurt so much!”
Moore nodded. He didn’t know what Jelaqua had done, but he’d been told Selphids could fight battles with their real forms. And whatever Jelaqua had done, Ulinde was still recovering. He turned to him, face wretched.
“I know I deserved it! And I’m so sorry about attacking you—”
“It’s fine. You’ve apologized many times.”
Moore rubbed at his chest, murmuring. Ulinde shook his head.
“It’s not fine! The Halfseekers are my heroes! And I—I—”
He made another blubbering sound. Moore tried another pat on the shoulders and realized Ulinde might not have the nerves to feel it. He spoke soothingly.
“I forgive you, Miss Ulinde. You were fighting with your team. You must simply apologize to Jelaqua. And Seborn.”
“I will. But it’s not enough! I wanted you to like me!”
The [Spellslinger] wailed. Moore winced. After a moment, the half-Giant took another huge gulp of his drink.
“How did you know about our team, Miss Ulinde? We’re not famous.”
At least, Moore didn’t think they were. The Halfseekers in their glory days had been a good Gold-rank team, but Ulinde hailed from Baleros. Yet the Selphid looked incredulous.
“What? But you’re like, famous among Selphids! All the ones I know, at least!”
Moore blinked. Ulinde nodded rapidly, coming out of his funk.
“Definitely! Don’t you know? There are so few Gold-rank teams that aren’t pure Selphid! Let alone on other continents! When I heard there was an opportunity to meet you, I just had to! And Miss Ivirith is famous too! She was a Silver-rank adventurer in Baleros.”
“She mentioned that. She’s…older than I am.”
“She’s over five decades old, I think. I really respect her. She started as a Bronze-rank adventurer and made it to Gold-rank! With a team of non-Selphids. I really admire that. And—I wanted to talk to her because I have a…relative of hers. Well, my—parent? Knew her, growing up.”
Moore blinked. Ulinde nodded a few times and took a sip of his drink.
“We’re not related, because it’s complicated with Selphids how we…make new Selphids. Not babies. But I had a progenitor who said they knew Miss Ivirith; they were both coiled together in the same body!”
The half-Giant frowned, recalling Jelaqua speaking of it once. Ulinde gestured at his body.
“It’s a thing baby Selphids do when they’re um…born? Split, really. You get a bunch of little Selphids and you put them in a body so they figure out how to…do things. They can’t be outside, but they can’t work a body; no one’s big enough. So you work together for a few years until you can do it yourself.”
Moore’s stomach roiled a bit, imagining it. And it wasn’t hard—he knew what Jelaqua looked like. Ulinde nodded, then slumped in his chair.
“Now she hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you. She…”
The half-Giant trailed off. He couldn’t lie well. Ulinde looked up at Moore.
“I am so sorry. Again. If there’s anything I can do—I’ll do it. I want to make amends. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine. It’s interesting you say you’re a fan of the Halfseekers, though. We don’t have fans.”
“You do among Selphids! I know a bunch of others who were so torn up when we heard about the Halfseekers dying. And—and I am a huge fan. I’m sorry, I’ve heard stories about Moore the [Green Mage]! If you have time, I’d love to talk to you.”
The half-rotted, middle-aged man edged over in the chair, looking up eagerly at the half-Giant. Moore scooted away quickly. Ulinde’s face fell as he glanced down at his body. Flustered, he moved back.
“Oh. The body. I’m so sorry. It’s just that I don’t have many—it’s hard to import them even at Wistram, and my other two got maggots. In the bag of holding. People think living things can’t survive in bags of holding, but really, that’s just because the spell doesn’t let air in. So I didn’t catch them and when I checked the bodies out, there were so many maggots that I couldn’t eat all of—”
She saw Moore’s expression and stopped. The half-Giant paused.
“It’s just the rot. I’m familiar with Jelaqua, don’t worry. But even for me, it’s difficult.”
“I know. I am so sorry—”
“It’s fine. Do you—do you have any other bodies? Or can you find any? At all?”
Ulinde slumped in her chair.
“No. And it’s really hard getting a good body. I mean, every city has people that die, but Drakes and Gnolls don’t know Selphids, so few of them will even think of selling a body—if I can’t get a good one, I’ll have to live in a squirrel or something until my team can find one. My good body’s gone, the Halfseekers hate me—”
The Selphid was really down. Moore hesitated. He couldn’t bear the stench any longer, but he felt for the Selphid, he really did. The half-Giant cleared his throat, thinking carefully.
“Miss Ulinde. Or—no, Ulinde. I…do know where Jelaqua has a few bodies. She has a large number after the Raskghar incident. Maybe I could speak to her. Explain the situation. Even though you’ve made her angry, you are a fellow Selphid.”
“You’d do that for me?”
Ulinde’s eyes went round. She looked up at Moore. And he couldn’t help but think that it was a pity she wasn’t wearing the female Drake’s body. He nodded slowly.
“I could ask. Or—I know where a few are. In the inn. I could speak to Erin. Jelaqua might not be happy, but if you paid—”
“Absolutely. Thank you, oh, thank you, thank you—”
Ulinde bounced up. Moore looked at the [Innkeeper] and the relieved Drake was nodding and waving them off. They headed for the door—and a [Rogue] appeared in the doorway. Seborn glared up at Moore as Ulinde halted in his tracks.
“There you are. Where have you—”
The [Rogue] spotted Ulinde and the human half of his face turned instantly hostile. The Selphid instantly retreated and Moore raised his hands.
“Seborn, listen. Ulinde is terribly sorry for what she’s done. I’ve been talking with her—him. I’m sorry. And he wants to apologize to Jelaqua. And you. ”
“That’s right! I’m so sorry. If there’s anything I can do—”
Seborn ignored Ulinde. He was glaring at Moore. The half-Giant winced. He knew the [Rogue] was in a poor temper since Jelaqua had begun dating Maughin. He lowered his voice, although Ulinde could probably still hear him.
“Seborn, look. Ulinde is truly sorry. And Jelaqua did something to him. I was thinking. We could bring him to the inn, get one of Jelaqua’s bodies. I mean, look at him. His is all worn out. We’ll talk to Jelaqua, patch things over, let her have—”
“What? Give away—you idiot!”
Seborn hissed at Moore. He dragged the half-Giant towards the door as Ulinde watched them anxiously. The Drowned Man glared up at Moore.
“You are not giving away Jelaqua’s bodies. Do you know how much each one’s worth? And stop talking with that Selphid! She nearly put a hole in my chest!”
He jabbed at Moore’s own chest. The half-Giant glowered; the flesh was still tender.
“He’s genuinely sorry, Seborn! It wasn’t his fault he had to fight—he has orders! A team! You know how it is. And you did stab him first.”
“I didn’t try to kill the [Mages]. If I did, they’d all be dead. I don’t care if this Selphid says sorry a thousand times. Stop listening to every pity story you hear—”
“Why don’t you listen just once?”
The two arguing Halfseekers glared at each other, Moore out of patience for once. He glared, leaning on his replacement quarterstaff. A tremulous voice interrupted Seborn and lifted his claw-hand.
“I am so sorry. Can I make it up to you somehow? Please?”
The [Rogue] turned. The younger voice coming out of the half-dead body belonging to a much older Human was hard, even for Seborn and Moore to deal with. But Ulinde was pleading.
“Anything. Anything at all I can do to make it right, I will. I can get you some scrolls. Beza sells them. Or—can I trade you some artifacts? I sell them from Wistram. I’d be glad to do anything.”
“You don’t need to give us anything.”
“Shut up. And you, Selphid. Why do you care so much about meeting us?”
Seborn glared at Ulinde. The Selphid gulped.
“You’re—I’m a fan of the Halfseekers.”
“We don’t have fans. You don’t know anything about us.”
Seborn glared at Ulinde, echoing Moore. Ulinde shook his head, eyes wide in protest.
“No! I do! Seborn Sailwinds, a former [Pirate], right? I’ve heard stories about you! You were the [Rogue] who slew the Cyclops by yourself when your entire team was downed! I heard it took you five minutes to take him down! You’re a hero.”
She stared at Seborn. The Drowned Man blinked. Moore blinked. They stared at Ulinde. Moore looked at his teammate.
“They tell stories about us?”
“All the time. In Selphid communities. You don’t know?”
Ulinde was wide-eyed. She looked at the Drowned Man as he wavered. Ulinde spoke hurriedly.
“Please, I’d love to ask the real legends what it was like! I grew up hearing tales of how your group fought through the Caverns of Eils! And how you rescue people who are—are different. Like Selphids! Can I buy you a drink? Please.”
The Drowned Man hesitated. He looked at Moore, then at Ulinde. After a moment, he looked around the inn, and then wrinkled his nose at Ulinde.
“Your body is disgusting. Even Jelaqua would let you have a body. I suppose. You can borrow one of hers. So…what have you heard about our team?”
He led the way out of the inn, much to the Drake [Innkeeper]’s relief. Behind him, Moore rolled his eyes, a rare look of annoyance on his face. But they both felt it. A sense of wonder. They had…fans?
Lyonette du Marquin stared out the window of Zevara’s office as Moore, Seborn, and Ulinde passed by. She’d spotted them because, well, all three were fairly noticeable. She nearly fumbled getting the last coin out of her belt pouch, but caught it before it could tumble off the desk. She placed it down with a flourish.
Zevara eyed the three gold coins. She nodded briskly and swept them across the desk.
“That’s nineteen so far. Your bounty is nearly half-paid, Miss Lyonette. But why not have that Human pay it all for you? I’m sure she can.”
She eyed Lyonette. The [Princess] was sitting in Zevara’s office. She had just stopped here to pay off more of the fine on her artifacts, but to her surprise, Zevara had invited her into the office. The Watch Captain had a small stack of papers, but she’d clearly made time to speak to Lyonette.
The [Worldly Princess] smiled at Zevara. She didn’t try to be charming, but she did try to charm Zevara, as naturally as possible. The Watch Captain was someone she could respect, and she had actually been hoping to meet with her. She felt at her belt as she replied, conversationally.
“That’s my salary. I haven’t asked Erin to pay off the rest of it. She could, but frankly, she needs it all for her inn’s renovations. The taxes also ate into her funds.”
Zevara nodded. She and Lyonette had a civil relationship, far better than she had with Erin. The two respected each other in fact. Zevara glanced with interest as Lyonette pulled a little bag out and put it on the table.
“You manage Miss Solstice’s coin? That’s unusual for a [Barmaid].”
“Well, I’m a bit more than that for the inn. I have to be. Erin’s a good [Innkeeper] in some ways—poor in others. For instance, she manages her finances as well as Mrsha in front of a street vendor with hot food.”
“I can only imagine. What’s this?”
Lyonette smiled as the Drake prodded the bag with a claw. She pushed it forwards.
“Cookies. The Wandering Inn is selling them. It’s an assorted bundle; each one’s different in taste and texture. It’s actually meant as a game since some of the cookies don’t taste good, but I labeled all of these. It’s a little gift.”
Lyonette smiled sweetly at Watch Captain Zevara. The Drake stared down into the bag and slowly removed one cookie. She inspected the little piece of parchment wrapping it.
“Lemon cookie. Sour. And this one says…beans? Baked bean cookie?”
“They’re different, but most are tasty. Stay away from the one made out of dirt.”
“And this is for me?”
“That’s right. It’s just—”
Zevara pushed back the bag.
“I don’t accept bribes.”
Lyonette’s face fell. Zevara glared at Lyonette and gestured to a covered tonic bottle on her desk.
“Bribes. I’m a Watch Captain. I don’t accept gifts or bribes, Miss Lyonette. I appreciate speaking with you and your candor about the situation in Miss Solstice’s inn. But I’ve received one bribe from the [Mages] this morning. I didn’t want it and I don’t want this. I cannot have my position compromised.”
She said that, but she eyed the treats in the bag with clear reluctance as she tossed the cookies in and pushed it back towards the [Princess]. Lyonette put a smile on her face. She recited a few lines from memory. Who knew what her mother had taught her would be so useful? She really should have practiced. Or taken any interest in politics growing up.
“Watch Captain Zevara, it’s not a bribe. It’s just a gift as thanks for doing so much for the inn.”
“That sounds exactly like a bribe. Even one that incentivizes me to do my job is one that sways my opinions, Miss Lyonette.”
Zevara folded her arms, narrowing her eyes at the young woman. The [Princess] sighed and shook her head.
“Watch Captain, you surely have your own opinions about Erin and her inn by now, don’t you? I wouldn’t expect a bag of cookies to sway you, unless I’d enchanted the gift or used a Skill. And I haven’t. This is just a gesture of thanks. I understand your neutrality matters, but no one is truly neutral. It would be a poor thing if I couldn’t offer a Watch Captain some food in gratitude for stopping a dozen disasters, wouldn’t it? I imagine the [Mage] who gave you the potion—Miss Montressa?”
Zevara nodded grudgingly. Lyonette nodded. Du Valeross. She was familiar with the family, but she wished she had her family’s genealogy of bloodlines to look them up. She was careful around Montressa; she hoped her red hair wouldn’t give her away, but she also felt there was potential there.
“I imagine Miss Montressa said the same thing as I did. A token of gratitude—or apology—is not the same as a bribe. I know this may be different to you, but as Lady Montressa and I hail from Terandria, I can assure you we don’t mean anything significant by it.”
But a gift was a gift, and it didn’t hurt to give some to people in authority. Lyonette kept the pleasant smile on her face as Zevara eyed her. After a moment the Drake sighed.
“If I tell you I don’t want it—”
“I won’t take it back. I’d imagine Miss Montressa was the same, wasn’t she?”
“Yes. And I couldn’t get rid of her. ‘Wistram must make some reparations…’ bah. Very well. I’ll take it. And as thanks…”
Zevara reached for her own belt. Lyonette blinked as the Drake spoke absently.
“The law must be flexible, and yet never bend where it matters. Here. That’s probably the price, isn’t it? Your inn costs a tail and a leg, you know.”
She slapped four silver coins on the table. Lyonette’s smile vanished. Zevara eyed her.
“I asked about the price of the tonic I was given. Miss Montressa will be receiving the cost by Street Runner. You’ll get the same if you don’t take the coins now. I can be just as stubborn. Thank you for the cookies.”
The [Princess] opened her mouth.
“You don’t have to—”
“Take the coins or I’ll make sure you get them. Congratulations on your sale, Miss Lyonette.”
Zevara blandly reached into the bag and inspected the cookie she pulled out. Lemon. Lyonette opened her mouth, saw the glint in the Drake’s eye, and curtsied, embarrassed. She’d lost this verbal spar.
“Thank you for having me, Watch Captain.”
“As you were. Thank you for the cookies and the update on Miss Solstice’s inn. And telling me that the crazed Human with the axe is an [Actor]. It does help to know these things, even if I’m aware of Miss Solstice’s antics.”
The [Princess] retreated. Zevara watched the door shut and smiled to herself. Pricey as the cookies were, it was worth it to score a victory for herself. And she did have the cookies now. She began chewing on the one she’d taken out. Her brows rose and her tail curled with satisfaction.
“Mm. This is good. Sour. Sweet. Soft.”
The Watch Captain was inspecting the bag—which was generously laden with all sorts of cookies, some foul, but mostly good in different flavors, when there was a rap at the door. Zevara looked up and heard a familiar, growling voice.
“Watch Captain, I have a report from Senior Guardsman Klbkch. I was wondering if you had a moment to confer?”
“I suppose I do. Come in. What’s the matter, Beilmark?”
Zevara sighed. She pushed the cookie bag to one side and watched Senior Guardswoman Beilmark march in. The Gnoll saluted.
“I have word there’s a new player in Liscor, Watch Captain. Senior Guardsman Klbkch came across a meeting with Mister Soot and a new Gnoll named only as ‘Bearclaw’ while on patrol. He believes she may be a known criminal in the other cities.”
“What? Damn. Another one?”
The female Drake sat up, her good mood vanishing. Beilmark nodded.
Her eyes lingered on the bag on the desk. Zevara glanced at her sharply.
“Did this Bearclaw have anyone else with her?”
“Not that I know of, Watch Captain. But she was new to the city. She nearly attacked Senior Guardsman Klbkch. But for Mister Soot, she might have.”
“That damned [Fence]. If we can get him—Bearclaw, you said?”
Beilmark nodded. She glanced at the bag of cookies again. Zevara’s eyes narrowed.
“I haven’t heard the name. But I’ll send word for the Mage’s Guild to inquire about her directly. Why didn’t Senior Guardsman Klbkch try to arrest her?”
“Relc wasn’t on duty, Watch Captain. Klbkch was with two Junior Guards.”
The Gnoll coughed. The Watch Captain bit her tongue.
“Ah. Well, in that case—Ancestors, Beilmark. Do you want a cookie?”
The Senior Guardswoman brightened as Zevara glared at her. She approached the desk as Zevara shoved the bag towards her.
“If you insist, Watch Captain…hrm. They all smell so different.”
“Just take one. They’re a new thing from the inn. Which I paid for.”
“I wouldn’t trouble you, Watch Captain…”
“Take the cookie before I roast you.”
Beilmark did without any argument. She inspected the parchment and then bit.
“Baked beans. Mm. This is very good.”
Zevara shook her head, eying Beilmark dourly.
“If you’re done? I assume the Mage’s Guild is already inquiring about this Bearclaw?”
“Yes, Watch Captain. I’ll have the report on your desk when it arrives. But she may be a criminal among Plains Gnolls. If so, I’ll inquire, but it will take longer.”
The Gnoll looked a bit embarrassed. Zevara glowered, and then stood up.
“Good. In that case, I’m going on my lunch break. Hold down the fortress until I get back, would you?”
She grabbed the bag of cookies. Reluctantly, Beilmark nodded, licking crumbs off her paw. Zevara was grabbing her actual lunch when someone else rapped on the door and it opened.
“Watch Captain, I have a report—”
A Gnoll entered the room, a scroll of parchment in paw. He was sniffing the air, but he paused, seeing Beilmark and Zevara. The Gnoll [Guardswoman] coughed into one paw. Zevara’s eyes narrowed.
She grabbed the bag of cookies and stalked out of her office, ignoring the suddenly very interested Gnoll [Guards] who wanted to chat with her. That was the problem with Gnolls in your workplace; forget people simply stealing your lunches, they knew exactly what you ate and when it came back out. The worst ones were the ones who told you how bland your meals were.
Escaping with her treats mostly intact, Zevara hurried down the streets of Liscor. She moved fast, and came to the prison in only five minutes, puffing a bit. Her lunch break wasn’t that long.
The [Guards] on duty in the jail straightened when they saw her. They were both Drakes, and attentive given the easy job. But then, they knew why it mattered. Zevara nodded at them.
“I won’t be long. Amulet?”
“Here, Watch Captain.”
One of the Drakes fumbled over an amulet that was linked to the cells inside the prison to Zevara. She put it on, and strode down the cells.
The jail had few prisoners, and most of them didn’t want to attract the Watch Captain’s ire. And few were serious. But there was one cell at the far end which held a familiar face. He was lifting a barbell, a strange device made out of iron, when Zevara arrived. Calruz looked up.
“Watch Captain Zevara. Good morning.”
“Calruz. Sorry I couldn’t make it yesterday. How are you holding up since that Minotauress visited you?”
Zevara took a seat. There was a chair in front of the cell. The Minotaur kept lifting the barbell after a moment. A rat, grey-furred, was balanced on his head, while another tried to climb his horn. Zevara was used to both rats. And indeed, to Calruz, because their conversation didn’t waste time.
“I am fine. She only spoke the truth. What’s that you have?”
“My lunch. Have you been fed?”
“In that case, I’ve got something to eat. Here.”
She showed Calruz the bag and took two cookies out of it. She passed two across the force field. Calruz gingerly accepted the cookies; the magical barrier was dangerous to him, not her. He stared down at the soft discs.
“What’s this? It says…carrot cookie. And…blood cookie?”
“Damn. That must be one of the strange ones Lyonette warned me about. They come from The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice. Here. There’s probably a better one…here’s ‘boring vanilla’.”
“It’s fine. Thank you. Watch Captain, you need not visit me every day.”
“Who else does? Besides the half-Elf. I generally eat alone. The Watch Captain shouldn’t be one of the regular [Guards].”
The Drake shrugged self-consciously. Calruz looked at her.
“Nor should she be overly familiar with prisoners accused of murder and treachery.”
The Drake paused, and then nodded.
There was nothing more to say than that. But both acknowledged the truth. Honor and duty. They understood each other in that. After a moment, Zevara dug into her meal. Ground beef and sauce, mainly. And some bread. She made whatever she could for a meal. Calruz began eating one of his cookies, sharing crumbs with his pet rats.
“I can’t stay long. I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“Will I take Bezale’s instructions, do you mean? Fear not, Zevara. I would stay alive to spite her. But—she is a Wistram [Mage]. They all are. They found no spells on me. Doesn’t that confirm everything?”
Zevara scowled, shoveling down her meal.
“Not if I don’t trust the [Mages]. And none of them are [Enchanters] or specialists in mind-altering magic aside from the Centaur. And I wouldn’t trust him with—”
“Zevara. If you do not trust him, who can tell my innocence? Not Grimalkin of Pallass, apparently, and not a [Mage] of Wistram. So then, how long? You keep the law, Watch Captain. Why am I the exception?”
The weariness in the Minotaur’s voice made Zevara look up. She hesitated. But Calruz was looking at her, from his small cell. It was a conversation they’d had before. She hesitated and lowered her fork.
“…I suppose I am biased. But I also trust my instincts. And they say I’m not wrong. Look, Calruz, we do have an [Enchanter] scheduled to visit the city. I trust his word. But I also trust my gut.”
“And if he finds nothing?”
“Then I make another judgment call. But it is my choice.”
Zevara looked at Calruz. He stared back. She knew how he had to feel. So Zevara hesitated, and then leaned forwards.
“Don’t worry. You won’t be in here forever. There’s something I have planned that might help with your wait. Entirely legal.”
The Minotaur’s eyes narrowed.
“Zevara. I would not want you to compromise your own integrity—”
“I won’t. What I intend to do is honorable. Just wait, Calruz. But believe me when I say that I don’t see the monster that I witnessed in the dungeon. There is something wrong with you and I will find out what it is.”
Zevara pointed her fork at the Minotaur. And he almost smiled. He picked up the cookie and let Rhata nibble at it. Then he finished the cookie in a big bite.
“I’m glad, you know. That someone believes in me. And thank you. For visiting. And the food.”
The Watch Captain coughed. She waved a claw, counting down the minutes of her lunch break.
“It’s not hard. Have another cookie. How’s the blood one?”
Calruz tried it. He frowned.
“Salty. Why is Erin Solstice making them?”
Zevara paused. She chewed, gulped, and then shrugged.
“I have no idea.”
Salt was an ingredient in potions. So was Sage’s Grass—the red, glowing stuff that tasted horrible—magical salamanders, Corusdeer horns, and all kinds of insects. Numbtongue had a list, and it included…well, almost everything when you got down to it.
Ironically, the one category of items that didn’t usually make it into potions were traditional foods, like pumpkin, or carrots, or green peas or so on. According to Octavia, that was because alchemy wasn’t cooking. She’d referenced Erin’s abilities as being an example of someone who could unlock the potential of food.
“But that’s a different kind of creation. It’s really magic-intensive. I saw Erin making her Scale Soup—which tastes like melted three-day old butter mixed with pond slime by the way—and she doesn’t use an [Alchemist]’s methods at all.”
It was also harder to cook magically, and you often needed more expensive items or Skills to make it work. But alchemy was theoretically possible for even amateurs, although good [Alchemists] could make potions or simplify recipes. Nevertheless, Numbtongue was learning how to make healing potions.
He was also having lunch with Octavia. He chewed down one of the blood cookies Erin had made. It was an acquired taste, according to Erin, but Numbtongue liked it.
Octavia did not. She looked up from her actual sausages and shuddered.
“Do those…actually taste good?”
“Better than bugs. Most bugs.”
The Hobgoblin shrugged. He chewed, swallowed, and reached for the next mystery cookie. Octavia took another and eyed it.
“What do you think this one is?”
Numbtongue eyed it. He’d seen Erin hard at work in the kitchen so he had a good idea which ones were which, despite Erin’s best attempts to hide their nature.
“Ooh, I’ll have that.”
Octavia took a bite. After a minute of chewing, she looked up.
“So what’s the worst cookie in the bag here?”
Numbtongue thought for a moment.
“Dirt cookie? Or acid fly cookie. Too crunchy.”
Octavia paused mid-swallow. She eyed the cookie, and was relieved when she saw the almonds baked into the insides.
“…Why’d Erin make these again?”
“Huh. And she’s already cleared up all of the damage from the fight with those [Mages]?”
“Yup. She fixed the tables. With her Skill.”
“So all that happened while I was in my shop?”
The [Goblin Soulbard] nodded. Octavia shook her head.
“I’m sorry I missed it. Then again—probably not. Do you think they’re dangerous?”
“What’s—what’s Erin going to do about it?”
“Make friends with the Centaur. Probably. I won’t. So I’ll sit here. Want a cookie?”
Octavia refused a second helping. She glanced sideways at Numbtongue. He was a semi-regular guest now, and they often entertained each other, he with his guitar, her with alchemy lessons. But the Goblin was restless, today. He kept glancing back towards the door that led to The Wandering Inn, though it was inactive for the moment.
“Something wrong, Numbtongue?”
He started and then shook his head.
But that was a lie. Octavia had seen him come in this morning as if he was escaping something. Until Erin had closed the door, he’d kept looking over his shoulder. As if something kept grabbing his attention. Whatever it was, he clearly didn’t like it. The [Alchemist] opened her mouth, saw Numbtongue’s hunched shoulders, and decided against. Instead, she hefted the bottle she’d been working on while they chatted.
“Hey, want to taste this potion? I’ve been experimenting with some ruby dust. I’ve mixed it with the strongest flameproofing potion I know; I bought some ingredients by selling some of the stuff you gave me. But this is proof of all the work.”
“What does it do?”
Numbtongue eyed the yellow-orange potion with swirling liquids mixed around inside. Octavia frowned at the mixture; she’d had a heck of a time dissolving all the stuff she wanted into it.
“Make you breathe fire. Probably. I tried it on myself, so it’s not deadly. Again, probably. But I’ve tried three samples and each time I just belch smoke. Want to try?”
The Hobgoblin hesitated. But Octavia was sure she’d made something that ranked on the ‘safe’ end of trying things. Otherwise she would have fed the mixture to a rat or trusted in her Stitch-Person body to help alleviate the worst of it. The truth was she didn’t like anything that had to do with fire.
After a moment, Numbtongue accepted the bottle. He drank down the liquid, not even grimacing at the taste. He smacked his lips, and then tried to exhale flame.
Nothing happened. Octavia’s face fell.
“Damn. What do you feel?”
“Hot. In mouth. But nothing—”
The Hobgoblin mumble. Then he went cross-eyed. He swished something in his mouth, then leaned forwards and spat suddenly.
The flaming saliva landed on the table. Numbtongue let it drip out of his mouth. It wasn’t burning him, but the fiery liquid instantly caught flame in the air. He opened his maw and Octavia saw the entire inside of his mouth was on fire!
“Dead gods! Don’t spit at me! Water, water! Does it hurt?”
The Stitch-Girl leapt up in alarm, backing away from the fire. Numbtongue hastily swallowed, and then his eyes went wide with alarm. He prodded his stomach—but the fire resistance nullified the heat.
“It doesn’t hurt. But it feels hot.”
“I’ll say! Look at that spit!”
Octavia and Numbtongue watched the superheated liquid slowly try to ignite the table while it burned through the metal top. Octavia raised a finger.
“Okay, that’s close. But—help me put out the fire, would you?”
Numbtongue experimentally smothered it with a finger. The flaming saliva refused to go out. Alarmed, Octavia got a flame-retarding powder and sprinkled it on Numbtongue’s fingers and the table from a distance. That put out the flame, but the saliva was still hot.
She shuddered as she shook her head.
“Dead gods, I hate fire. But this would sell really well. Especially among Drakes. They’ll make me rich! And it only needs rubies and a tiny bit of gold.”
“It could be useful. But it feels hot. Inside. Like Erin’s soup, but hotter.”
Numbtongue agreed. He prodded at his stomach.
“Don’t worry, the flame resistance will last a lot longer than the fire effect. That’s just common sense. And I can actually brew a flame resistant potion for you whenever you want.”
Octavia assured the Hobgoblin. Numbtongue nodded. He sighed as he smacked his lips, letting a bit of flame escape. He coughed—stood up.
“Oh, sure. Got it. Let me know if the saliva-stuff gets unbearable. I can give you a nullifying potion. But if I just tweak my process…”
Numbtongue wandered into the bathroom as Octavia bent over her formula, trying to figure out what she’d done wrong. Or right. After a few seconds Octavia heard the Hobgoblin shout. It turned out saliva wasn’t the only liquid that was now fiery.
Octavia’s toilet caught on fire.
Fire danced along the inside of the cave, sending Fortress Beavers fleeing to their nest. They tried to put out the flames, desperately, cowering in fear as the skeleton danced. Ijvani laughed, throwing flames in the air. Her body did a jig in the floor.
“My master wants me! He loves me! He needs me! So he said! I am wanted!”
At last, he had reached out for her. And so Ijvani, one of Az’kerash’s Chosen, celebrated. She twirled about the small cave, sending the Defenders of the Cave fleeing. Fortress Beavers and Shield Spiders hid from the horrible intruder who was death. They did not try to dislodge her; they just hid. Because Ijvani was more terrible than any Creler.
She was death. But she had not left. She had lain in this cave for days, unmoving, pausing only to roast the errant animals or spider that came near her. But now she stood. She cried out.
“Master! I am sorry! I will obey you! Because you love me!”
Joy. Simple, pure, joy rang in her tones. Her skull, always grinning, rejoiced. And the golden lights in her eye sockets flared. The skeleton danced and the Defenders of the Cave fled. But the Healing Slime could not. It wriggled and trembled in the bars of its cell. It watched as Ijvani threw fire, seeing the hands raise and flames shoot across the cave.
The Healing Slime was imprisoned. Inside Ijvani. It had kept trying to sneak away, so the skeleton had eventually stuck the slime in her ribcage. The black-metal coated bones were nigh-on impenetrable to mundane weapons, and with a judicious application of the standard [Forcewall] spell, the slime found itself in a cage with no escape. It rolled against Ijvani’s ribs, pressing up against an invisible barrier. Ijvani was too excited to notice.
After a while, she calmed herself. Ijvani stood, perfectly still, and her exuberance faded. Her voice, a hollow echo, grew more thoughtful. She tapped a finger against her jawbone, in an imitation of Az’kerash herself.
“Stay here and watch, though? Why? Watch the [Necromancer]? And the inn?”
Az’kerash had contacted her, indeed. But not to demand Ijvani’s immediate return. After some lengthy questioning in which the skeleton had squirmed and stammered answers, her master had given her very specific instructions. Ijvani paused.
“Pisces Jealnet. Montressa du Valeross.”
The names meant nothing to her. They were flies to Ijvani. Apparently there was a team of [Mages] from Wistram here? And her master wanted this ‘Pisces’ monitored. With the perfect memory of the undead, Ijvani recalled his words exactly.
She had to set up a proper observation incantation, not some instant [Scrying] spell. Her master had taught her proper magic, and Ijvani knew that instantaneous spellcasting was far, far weaker than what could be accomplished with time, material, and effort.
The trickiest part would be making everything undetectable. Regular people wouldn’t be able to detect the magic, or even most [Mages], but if you knew how to look, you could detect even invisible eyes and follow the spell back to the source.
“Wistram [Mages]. And the Drake. Grimalkin.”
The skeleton paced down the length of the cave, looking for a good place to trace the runes. It would take her hours to set up. And it was arduous work. Boring work. So it was a good thing Ijvani didn’t get bored. And she was high on…unlife.
Her master had forgiven her. And he wanted her back. The skeleton took the little slime out of her ribcage and tossed it up and down happily, ignoring the terrified creature.
“Wait? I will wait! And cast all the spells you wish. For you, master, I would destroy that inn and everything in the city.”
She had doubted him. She had wavered. She had been weak. Ijvani saw that now. But the instant her master had touched her mind, all of Ijvani’s doubts had vanished. She had realized how much she missed him. How much she needed him. He might have a…flaw. But she had missed him. He had made her. And she lived for him.
Now, the skeleton got to work, faithfully carrying out Az’kerash’s orders. The shadows grew deeper on the wall as the skeleton prepared her spells. The undead creature flawlessly wove the magic as she had been taught. Creating a temporary nexus of power to fuel the magic. To draw upon if need be. And accordingly, the spell was stronger, no temporary thing but an enduring spell that could do far more than a quick magic.
To watch. To observe. And also—a teleportation rune. So she had two diagrams to trace on the floor. The skeleton mage decided that the teleportation rune would be better to do first. She bent, inscribing a circuit of magic into the stone floor. She’d need to ideally fill it with magicore. And she had some components in her bag of holding. But first was the task of shaping the magic.
Ijvani began the arduous task of programming coordinates towards her master’s lair. Or rather, just to the west of the Bloodfields, as far as the [Teleport] spell could take her. It would be faster to walk, but when it was done, she could send herself that far in an instant.
Or someone else. Az’kerash had ordered her to design the spell so that it could be used by two people. Another mystery to Ijvani, but she would faithfully watch and report to him. She had the authority to contact him, via spell! And he would answer at any time!
The power made Ijvani giddy. But she had one more thought, so she paused in drawing the teleportation rune. Her master had given her three instructions, actually. To watch, via divination magic. To prepare for a return, using runecraft, the height of magical theory, teleportation magic.
And to prepare for combat. The skeleton whispered a word, holding out one skeletal palm upright.
“[Bound Spell – Blackfire Fireball].”
A fiery orb appeared in her hand. It was a contained spell, but it blazed with such heat and ferocity that the animals and spiders fled from it, sensing the death within. The Healing Slime tried to press itself into a corner of Ijvani’s ribcage as she concentrated on the spell. Feeding it. Giving it power.
She was forming the [Blackfire Fireball] into her palm. But not preparing it for immediate use. No, the fire compressed into a pinpoint, the fury of the Tier 5 spell condensing, stabilizing. It was far, far more difficult than simply casting the spell.
Ijvani’s eyes dimmed despite the steady mana flow coming from her master. And she devoted all of her energy and focus to controlling the spell lest it activate prematurely. Bound spells were a powerful magical technique; usually a Skill, but Ijvani had none, so she had to rely on pure magical craft to accomplish the same result.
It took nearly forty minutes of straight concentration, but then it was done. Her most powerful spell was ready to be used at once. Ijvani stared at the glowing marble-sized orb of fire. Then she put it in her jaw, just behind the teeth. Ready to fire.
She sat down, doing the mental equivalent of panting. But after a few minutes, Ijvani got up, and kept drawing the teleportation rune. Then she hopped over, did a bit of work on the observation spell.
She couldn’t stop moving. She was giddy! She was going home. Az’kerash, her master, had promised it. But not yet. She had to wait. Wait and report. On the [Mages] from Wistram. On this Pisces. Wait and see what they did. If they attacked him. If he attacked them. For some reason, the Necromancer wanted to know about this Pisces’ fate.
Ijvani didn’t. She was content to wait, though. Because her master was going to check on her every day.
Ijvani grinned happily, and patted the slime. It would be really too bad when she had to leave this cave. But orders were orders. If she didn’t use the [Blackfire Fireball] she’d set it to detonate when she left. To get rid of evidence she’d been here. It would be too bad about the slime; she was enjoying it, like a simple Oom. But orders were orders.
And Ijvani was ready to obey again.
“Adventurers. And [Mages]. You know, why can’t we have one quiet month?”
“It’s never quiet in our line of work. And it’s never quiet at The Wandering Inn. You know the crazy Human. What I can’t believe is that the [Necromancer] isn’t being run off. Did you see that bounty?”
Bevussa looked testily at Keldrass. They were standing and talking. All the adventurers were gossiping about the latest news. But the two team captains were reserved enough to voice their opinions only to each other. The Drake was glowering, but Bevussa was more thoughtful. She shrugged.
“I saw it. But—look, we’ve been around this Pisces fellow for ages. He even fought for Liscor! Against the moths, Skinner—”
“He’s a damn [Necromancer]. How can that [Innkeeper] tolerate him?”
“Get over it, Keldrass. You know her. She likes the [Necromancer] so he stays. Just like the Hobgoblin, the Antinium—frankly, it’s one of the reasons why we don’t go there every time.”
“My team as well. I just can’t sit across from that Hobgoblin.”
“Hey—you saw them fighting the Humans.”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong about how you feel, Keldrass. Dead gods, I’ve fought Goblins as much as you. But all I’m saying is—it’s her inn. Her rules. And there’s such a thing as variety. Not all Goblins are bad. That’s what I’ve concluded. And if that’s so, why not all [Necromancers]?”
The Drake hesitated. He folded his arms, growling.
“I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to. But let me ask you this: who helped you get that flashy armor, huh? Did I hear you complaining when you got it? Or when Erin said she could help us rescue all those Gnolls and kill the Raskghar? Oh, wait, I did. But we all trusted her and thanks to that you have the shiny armor you’re wearing.”
Keldrass hesitated. He threw up his claws at last.
“Okay, fine. I’ve benefitted from her. And so has Liscor. But she’s not always right.”
“I’m not saying she is. I’m just saying—look, Wistram attacked the Horns first. You think Ceria and Yvlon and that Ksmvr were criminals too?”
“Guilt by association?”
“That doesn’t fly in Pallass.”
“Fine. But he’s Antinium—”
Bevussa smacked Keldrass. Her wing hit him on the head since his magical armor covered the rest of his body. He cried out.
“Don’t be a Lizard, Keldrass. I’ve talked to the Antinium. Like Bird. Variety. They’re not all monsters. With that said, yeah, I’m not relaxed around them. Another reason I’m not at the inn all the time. But let’s focus on Pisces.”
“Fine. Damn, you cut my scales.”
“Poor hatchling. You want me to spit on you and make it better?”
Keldrass edged away from Bevussa.
“Why are you so angry today?”
“Why are you so stubborn? I’m talking about a team we’ve worked with. The Horns. Wistram’s after their [Necromancer]. What do you think’s going to happen?”
“Well, the bounty’s out. They’ll have a target on his head. But they could always leave him outside a city. Still, that’s no life. Frankly, it makes me a bit uneasy.”
“A bit. Wistram slaps a bounty that Ceria says is way over-exaggerated. Two thousand gold pieces. Most Silver-ranks would kill for that.”
“Gold-ranks won’t. But I see your point. Okay, it’s wrong. But what do we do about it?”
“Nothing. I just—”
“You like that team.”
The Garuda admitted, leaning against the stone wall of the dungeon. She and Keldrass were behind one of the barriers the adventurers had installed to guard safe zones. They were relaxing before returning above; they’d had a profitable day of killing monsters for their body parts. Keldrass sighed, rubbing his jaw.
“I get you. I see those Silver-ranks and sometimes I remember what it was like, running about. But I’m not getting involved in adventurers fighting adventurers. Or [Mages]. That’s a bad scene. Look, why don’t we go to the inn later? Talk.”
“You can handle the Antinium and Hobgoblin and [Necromancer]? You sure? Need a second set of armor?”
“I. Get. It. I’ll be civil. Look, it’s just—I grew up when the Necromancer’s armies came south and hit Pallass.”
“So did I. Just be civil, Keldrass. And I’m not saying we interfere. I just want—Ancestors. I’d just like someone not to die this time. A month without a disaster. I think Erin deserves that, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Although, Bevussa. Have you considered it might not be her?”
The Garuda paused. She looked back at Keldrass.
“How do you mean?”
“I was talking with Nailren. You know, the Silver-rank? He says that all the Gnolls in his team are uneasy about the little Gnoll in Erin’s inn. The white one. Apparently, they believe she’s got a Skill or a…a curse. That’s attracting bad luck. Disaster, even. Now hear me out. I know it’s Gnollish superstition, but you have to admit—”
The two adventurers walked off, Bevussa arguing loudly with Keldrass. After a second, the sound of her slapping him with a wing and an outraged shout echoed back down the dungeon’s tunnel. But no one heard it.
No one, except for the skeleton standing on the other side of the barrier. Toren stopped pressing his head against the wood-and-metal wall the adventurers had set up. He took a few steps backwards.
Erin. It was the fourth time he’d heard her name today. The skeleton stumbled back. He looked around. Then he walked over to a wall, drew his head back and smashed his skull into it.
Erin Solstice. Was. Alive. On the fourth impact, Toren felt his skull crack. He stepped back, feeling the magic in him automatically repairing the crack. The skeleton stared at the wall. Blankly.
She was alive. Unless they were all mistaken? Maybe it was someone else named Erin Solstice. It had to be. It couldn’t be…
The skeleton sat down on the ground. He took off his skull and stared back at his body. Erin Solstice was alive.
It had been over a week since Toren had heard her name. Since then, he’d been…him. She wasn’t coming out. He wouldn’t let her. He hadn’t put on the mask. Rather, he’d been skulking, shadowing the adventurers. Listening for her name.
He kept hearing it. But he didn’t believe. Erin was alive. But she couldn’t be. She’d died. He’d felt the link break.
Or he thought he had. Maybe she’d just severed it. Maybe she’d—
She wasn’t alive. She couldn’t be.
Why would they say her name? What were the odds?
Erin Solstice was a perfectly…normal name.
It wasn’t. She was alive.
Maybe she’d nearly died?
Toren heard the voice in his mind. It wasn’t her. It was just another him. Telling the rest of him what he didn’t want to think of. But here were the facts.
Someone named Erin Solstice was above. She ran an inn. The Wandering Inn. She was an [Innkeeper]. She had a Goblin guest that the adventurers didn’t like. And an Antinium. And a white Gnoll. She was up there. And she was definitely alive.
Unless she was a ghost. Maybe she was a ghost! Toren sat up, brightening with the idea. That would explain all of it! She was just a ghost, so that meant—
She’s not a ghost. Adventurers kill ghosts. She is alive.
Toren paused. Then he bent over, hunching. No. It couldn’t be. Because if she was alive, that meant only one thing.
She’d severed the bond with him. She’d tried to kill him. She’d tried to kill him and she was alive. And if that was true—
Rage flashed through the skeleton. Rage. It made him shudder, made his bones shake. He shook, so hard that the Flesh Worm slithering down the dungeon took one look at the skeleton and paused. The skeleton looked up. Its eyes flashed and the Flesh Worm slowly writhed backwards.
SHE IS ALIVE. SHE TRIED TO KILL YOU.
The skeleton reached for his sword. He shook and then—suddenly, his rage flickered out. Like a spent torch. He lowered his head again.
Toren sat there a long time, too…tired…to even stand. When he eventually moved, it was only because a shadow had blocked the faint light coming from behind the adventurer’s barricades, where they’d placed [Light] spells. Toren looked up and saw a lumbering shape.
A Crypt Lord. It stood silently, surrounded by the lesser undead. It was not a mindless creature. Something—a primitive awareness lurked in its gaze, more than the feral minds of the Ghouls and zombies and skeletons.
Intelligence. A different sort than what animals or people had. But it was there. And yet, the Crypt Lord held still. It was ‘looking’ at Toren, the rotten eyes in its body focused on him. Subservient. Its left side bore many, numerous cut marks in the flesh. It had been…disobedient. But now it stood, awaiting orders from its leader.
It looked down at the [Undead Leader]. And the undead waited too. At last, Toren did stand. He peered through the adventurer’s barricade. There was real light beyond it.
It wasn’t hard for Toren to remove the barricade. Not for a thinking creature to do so. The adventurers knew that, which was why they conducted sweeps; the barriers only held back monsters as a stopgap. The skeleton shoved the barrier aside after unlocking it and he led the undead forwards. The Crypt Lord, ghouls, zombies, all followed him silently.
The adventurers had left. They’d travelled up from the abyss that led into the dungeon, climbing ropes upwards. Now, sunlight shone down, and the robes were gone. Toren stood in the opening, staring up at the blue sky, a small thing high above.
He had to see her. Knowing, not knowing—he had to see her to believe it. And then? Toren looked at his sword. Part of him said no. Never. But the rest of him—
She killed him. If he was alive. If she was alive, then—
The skeleton stood silently, listening to the screaming voices in his mind. And his bones felt heavier than they ever had in his life. He looked up and thought of the inn. He felt his bones, burning magic. He couldn’t go up there. Not for long. It was death.
But he had to know. The mask at Toren’s side whispered to him. It spoke of what he had learned. What she had experienced. Of teammates. Friendship.
Toren looked at the mask. He looked up. And the skeleton slowly lifted the mask. He inspected it for a moment, turning it, admiring it. Then, without a word, he tossed it on the ground.
She pulled his arm out, reaching for it. Toren pulled back. He resisted her. And slowly, fighting her, he raised a foot. And brought it down hard.
The mask shattered. The dry chitin, held together with webbing cracked, splintered apart. Toren screamed, silently. She lurched backwards—
And he caught himself. Toren looked around. At the silent undead. He stared down at the broken mask. Listening for her. But there was only him. Perhaps…perhaps there had always been only him. Maybe she was what he thought Erin was. Or maybe she was real.
But not right now. Right now, Toren only had one thing in mind. It overrode everything. And that was the thing. He could be anything. He had tried to be anything, a friend to adventurers, a skeleton who created rather than just killed. He could learn. Level. Grow.
But one thing had anchored him. Given him purpose. He had rebelled against her, hated her, and loved her too. In his way. She was the center of his being. The reason for his creation. There was one thing that gave Toren purpose, rooted him. Held him back, and pushed him forwards.
And that was Erin Solstice. She had so many things, so many people she loved. For others, she had dared death and given all that she had. But she had never extended the same to him. He, alone, had never had anything from her. He alone had always been a thing. And she had turned the bugs into people and saved Goblins.
But he, he alone. He had nothing from her. And he had tried to let her die. Perhaps it was fitting that she had tried to kill him from afar. If it was her.
And if it was her? Toren leaned against the wall and looked up. He had been a poor servant. But he had just wanted something from her. Something he’d never had. He couldn’t name it. The skeleton supposed that he’d just wanted something like the way she smiled at the people who came to her inn. But that had been denied.
Perhaps she was dead. And that would be a terrible thing. For she had defined his world. He could still remember the song. But perhaps she was alive. And she had tried to kill him. And if so, if so—he would go above and find out.
Silently, the undead waited. Toren reached for his sword. He touched it, and then looked at the mask. It lay silent on the ground. And Toren felt an empty part in his being. He’d remake it. He’d change. He’d…do something. But only if she was dead.
And if she lives? If she is alive?
Toren knew so little. But he knew this. If she was the inspiration, the living, beating heart of the inn who acted according to her heart, he was her dark shadow. Erin was resolve, courage, and the audacity to do as she pleased, what she thought was right. And he? He was the dark side of her triumph. He was the mistake that had never died.
He was the consequence.