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“Come here, Cade. Don’t look. Leave him alone, okay?”
The little boy toddled back towards his mother. But not without another look at the silent [Marksman]. He looked concerned, but he didn’t cry. He was his mother’s son, and Briganda had taught Cade when he needed to be quiet.
Yet there was no danger here. Not anymore. Still—Revi, Typhenous, and Briganda, the members of Griffon Hunt watched the silent [Veteran Scout], a former soldier, now a Gold-rank team captain.
Halrac Everam was known as ‘Halrac the Grim’. A title that Todi had started more in jest than actually a name like the ones Named Adventurers received.
At the same time—Halrac was a name among the Gold-rank adventurers of northern Izril. His team had been the most renowned Griffin-slaying team a while ago. But either way—the name existed because it fit.
Halrac seldom smiled. He was eternally grumpy, as Revi described him. But by the same token he seldom showed his temper.
He was angry now. But—coldly so. His team kept back as their captain stared at the small village, a hamlet resting in a windy plain.
This was his home. The boy from Windrest had returned only a few times over the years. But he had come home each time to find not much had changed, and too much.
Lost loves. Families and friends moved away. Sickness, war, monster attacks—it had all done what it could to hurt his home and he had done what he could to protect it. More than once the Silver-rank adventurer had come back, or the Gold-rank sent something.
This time, he had been too late.
Windrest was ash.
“It wasn’t the Goblins who did it. It must have been the wildfires we heard about. I heard someone set them. Drakes.”
Revi twisted in her saddle, as the Gold-rank team rode away from the scorched ground and burnt remains of houses that was all that was left of Windrest. Halrac said nothing. He led the way, riding ahead, his invisible bow drawn.
He did not want company. So the others rode behind. Briganda was riding her mare while Cade sat with his legs curled around the saddle horn, solemnly playing with his Box of Wonders. The [Shield Maiden] nodded.
“Drakes. Some kind of attack in retribution for Liscor. You two know anything about that?”
Typhenous stroked at his beard, silent. Revi just shook her head.
“No. But Liscor wasn’t exactly the heart of the Drake lands. If it was Drakes…”
She glanced at Halrac’s back. Not sure what to say.
“They could be alright. Didn’t you hear that most of Windrest had gone to Riverfarm, Halrac? That place is still standing.”
Briganda called out. Halrac didn’t reply. His face was set. Not merely ‘grim’, but gaunt. Bleakly dangerous. He rode forwards. And woe to any monster he might meet. Revi hoped there were villagers at this ‘Riverfarm’.
They were nearly there. As they rode, the Gold-rank team spotted another one of the strange monuments that had puzzled Halrac. He knew his home. And the totem of wood planted near Riverfarm was…new.
It was no Goblin artifact; they didn’t do this. Perhaps a [Shaman]—but it hadn’t been magical to Revi or Typhenous. It was carved with eyes, a crown, symbols of wheat—not magic, but glyphs indicating fertility. Protection.
Another symbol of how Halrac’s home had changed. As the adventurers took to the road again, they looked ahead. And they were spotted. Halrac kept looking around, searching for an ambush, although he didn’t feel danger. He just felt like he was being watched.
“Someone is coming. A group of four. No—five. Two women, two men, and a child. I think they’re Gold-rank. They’re more…impressive than anyone I’ve felt in a while.”
The musing voice made the entourage of people stop. They looked at the blind man as his head turned. The [Emperor] rested lightly on his cane, using it out of reflex more than anything else. They had told him it didn’t fit his august personage; a simple white cane, however odd the material of it was.
He had, in a genial way, told them that since he wanted to use it, they had better get used to it. The walking cane remained. Besides, one with jewels or something would have been heavy.
“What should be done, your Majesty?”
One of the followers asked that. It was one of those stupid questions that immediately spoke to the character of the asker. Vocalizing a question that was already implicit without adding anything to the actual moment.
Laken Godart didn’t mind, but the [Lady] accompanying him did. Rie Valerund tsked and the former [Mayor] fell back, reddening.
“I believe this group should be welcomed. Some of the Blacksky Riders—four—should greet the group on the road. If they are friendly, they will ride back and we will greet them appropriately. Five Families willing, this is the adventuring team his Majesty requested.”
Her tone was pointed. This was how you should do these kinds of things. The others, listening, took note. Lady Rie looked to the [Emperor] and he nodded.
“Very diplomatic, Lady Rie. Thank you. I’ll greet them if there are no complications in time. With me, everyone.”
The [Lady] smiled, although the [Emperor] had not so much as glanced at her as he replied. Since that was normal, she nodded to the luckless [Mayor] who hurried off to arrange that.
The group walked on. It was about a 3:2 split in terms of men and women, not that anyone was counting too hard. About seventeen people though, which was large to all be following one man.
But they were necessary. It could have been forty hangers-on, or sixty sycophants, or a gaggle of good-for-nothings. Laken Godart had trimmed the number and Mister Prost, the weathered former [Farmer] leading the way with his sensible work boots but rather finer clothing than he was used to wearing, had found jobs for the people who just wanted to be around the [Emperor] rather than be helpful.
The remaining seventeen were made up of two sorts: leaders and followers. Well, that was endemic of the Human species, but it was especially the case here.
Prost, Rie, Helm, and Ram were all present at the moment. A [Steward], a [Lady], a [Royal Smith], and a [Head Farmer]—soon to be [Master Farmer] if he hit a few more levels, according to Rie.
They were all people who ran Riverfarm, the Unseen Empire, now a rather sprawling area. There were others of course, like Beycalt, the [Construction Supervisor], or [Witch] Wiskeria, Beniar, the commander of all mounted forces…
The rest were followers. A few former [Councilmembers], and the [Mayor], and yes, they had been leaders, but they were more like subdivision heads. They could, at any moment, take a job like welcoming the adventurers Laken had sensed. Others were just fast on their feet, like a former City Runner who was ready to run a verbal message anywhere Laken wanted.
One of them was Gamel, the [Knight] and bodyguard for the [Emperor]. One of three, now. The other two had a wand and bow, respectively. A weapon for any occasion.
They were touring the land around Riverfarm, hence the procession. People working the fields waved, or bowed, or saluted as they thought appropriate. Laken Godart waved back, a single motion of the hand. But he was working or else the other busy leaders wouldn’t be with him.
Of late, Laken Godart had begun sensing the individual…strengths…of people. He was blind, and had been blind his entire life, but his power as an [Emperor] had given him an…aura-sense. That was what Lady Rie had termed it, although Laken could tell there was a weed in front of him, how many people were bustling about Riverfarm—better to call it an empire-sense.
An [Emperor]’s senses, obviously. Laken could feel the new Gold-rank team coming up the road. They felt strong. One of them especially. Stronger than Beniar, one of Riverfarm’s best.
Not as strong as Mavika, though. Not individually—but close. That was Gold-rank, was it? Laken would be interested, if other teams ever came through his lands, to see how strong they got.
For now though, he put them out of his mind and expanded his senses. Laken Godart walked forwards, grateful for the shade even though they weren’t under a forest’s canopy. Gamel was holding a parasol up for him. Laken barely noticed these small luxuries these days, but he was properly grateful for them when he recalled them.
“Here we are.”
The [Emperor] announced as the small crowd stopped. He pointed. Almost exactly…
“There’s something here. About…eighty feet down? Quite a long ways, but I definitely sense something structural. Buried.”
“Mark the spot. A dungeon, your Majesty?”
“No…Not big enough for a dungeon. At least, I can’t sense more than…I’d guess it’s a home?”
“Buried that deeply?”
“Perhaps a cellar, or some other structure. I can’t tell. That’s the limit of my abilities.”
Laken shook his head. Prost had a flag planted and a [Councilwoman]—Beatica—turned to Rie.
“Lady Valerund, should I begin excavation?”
“Go only twenty feet down, Beatica.”
Rie inclined her head. Beatica, a [Councilwoman] from Lancrel, nodded and hurried to do just that. She had once been at Rie’s throat, but after the drama in the spring, she had jumped into Rie’s camp for protection as much as the opportunity to be given a trusted position.
Laken found that—troublesome. It was the kind of duplicity, the willingness to swap sides and compromise yourself for political gain, that he distrusted in the extreme. Lady Rie however, had assured him that Beatica was too valuable to just cast aside.
“She may not be trustworthy, your Majesty, but a reliable snake is better than one wandering about. I can put her to good use and so long as Beatica knows she is being managed—she will be an asset.”
The group moved on. Laken Godart went hm after walking for about ten minutes and talking to Prost about the crops that were shooting up like, well, plants, thanks to lots of water, Skills, expert tenders, and absolutely no pests thanks to the crow population.
“Here’s something. Groundwater—about four hundred paces that way. Looks relatively uncontaminated.”
“Good for a well, your Majesty. I’ll mark the spot.”
“Do that. Oh—there’s a cave that way. Blocked by some rocks…doesn’t look like much is alive in there, but I think I sense something not—rocklike. Some kind of ore, or mineral? Master Helm?”
“I can check it out, your Majesty.”
“Send a [Scout] or [Forager]. No need to go yourself, Helm. But as I said—the Goblins have most of the iron ore.”
“Of course, sire.”
Master Helm bowed. He cast a dark glance to the northeast, the base of the mountains. Some of the others muttered.
The Goblins. Their area, or the ‘Goblinlands’ as they were becoming known as, were heavily walled off. Guarded by a token force and disliked by most of Riverfarm’s population. They tolerated the Goblins as ‘his Majesty’s project’, or ‘the Emperor’s strange interests’. But they no longer slept with weapons under their beds these days.
It was a start.
“A true pity all our valuable ores and minerals just happen to be in the Goblin’s territory, your majesty.”
“Pity, Lady Rie. Who could have predicted that? Step lively. I think I found something else buried.”
Laken Godart ignored the look Prost and Rie gave each other. It was a busy day for him. He was busy, well…cheating. To improve Riverfarm.
The ability to ‘see’ in the way he could had been a blessing to Laken. A fulfillment of a wish. That was often how Skills worked; when you leveled, you got what you wanted. Or something random that tied into your class.
The [Emperor]’s senses had been impressive to begin with. Laken could spy on anything in his domain and now ascertain threat levels. But he’d had an even better thought a while back, and it was this:
If he could sense everything on his lands…what about stuff below it? That had led to a few interesting decisions. And today—
Laken Godart was cheating. Or doing something as unfair as Skills got, really. He was walking his lands and pointing out every buried object, possible dungeon, or just ores or groundwater supply for his people.
He couldn’t sense everything underground. A hundred feet was pretty much his upward limit and that was if he was standing right on top of it. Still—it was the kind of Skill any leader wanted. It was one of the reasons why he had sent for a Gold-rank team. And it did more than find a nugget of gold or something…
The group halted as Laken held up an urgent hand. He had walked into the forest neighboring Riverfarm. Now his head snapped around.
“Thirty-some feet down. I think there’s a nest here. Crelers. Get me Beniar.”
Everyone leapt away from the spot Laken was pointing to. Rie’s face went pale. Prost turned to bellow—then lowered his voice to a hushed whisper.
“Go! Get Beniar!”
The City Runner gingerly walked off and then burst into a sprint. Gamel’s sword was already drawn.
“Your Majesty, we should move back now.”
“I doubt they can sense us, Gamel. They’re…growing. I sense only fourteen shapes moving. They’re…I’d bet those ones are eating. The rest are still.”
Even so, Laken backed up slowly. Prost blanched.
“Fourteen moving? How many are down there, then?”
“At least two hundred. And more eggs. It’s a hollow space—I want every [Mage] here. No—no, keep them back. Keep everyone back. Crelers sense food, don’t they?”
“Yes, sire. Demon-spawn’ll go for you. I say let’s keep well back until we burn them to ash.”
It was Ram who replied. The [Head Farmer] mopped at his forehead. Laken Godart nodded.
Thank goodness for Skills. This was just a nest of infants; in another decade there might be Juveniles, an Adult, ready to emerge and eat everything here.
“Let’s keep moving.”
The others stared at him, but the [Emperor] was walking off as Beniar galloped over to confer and plan. Laken Godart was busy using his Skill to benefit his empire. He’d located clay for [Potters], discovered a tunnel network of some kind of creature—Rock Mites, sourced alchemical plants for Wiskeria and the others—
And now this. Laken was proud of using his ability in this way. It was a good idea. And best of all—it had come from him. Not all of the moves which had propelled Riverfarm further had. Master Helm’s new class, for instance, had attracted a slew of expert-artisans who wanted a new improvement on their class. Laken hadn’t known you could do that. Until someone had told him.
Now, Riverfarm had wealth. It had land. And despite the wildfires which had nearly consumed the growing town—it had kept growing. The village that had been Riverfarm wasn’t a city—yet. But it was most definitely a town. And the domain of the Unseen Empire now included a number of towns and villages.
The streets ran with milk and honey. Someone had collided the wagon with the valuable sweet from the beehives. Laken Godart, on his return trip to Riverfarm, was greeted by the [Beekeeper] who was under arrest.
Mostly to protect the inept [Driver] from being murdered by the angry bee-expert, whose valuable work had been ruined.
“Damn. Is there anyone who can retrieve the honey without scooping up the dirt? Mistress Ezerre?”
Laken Godart had been looking forwards to the honey, which was a valuable trade crop. Miserably, the [Beekeeper] shook her head.
“Not that I have, your Majesty.”
“I’ll investigate at once. This is too much gold to be lost!”
Rie hurried off. The [Driver] was speaking to Prost; the [Steward] was handling the discipline. Laken Godart sighed.
“Maybe a [Mage] could…siphon it up? And we could strain it…someone get Wiskeria? Or Eloise, Hedag? Nannette? Not Mavika.”
“Honey! Who spilled all of this? Dead gods!”
A voice cried out in dismay. Laken turned, hearing the booming voice. He smiled.
“Laken! It’s a disaster! Look at all this honey! And the bees!”
Durene walked around the honey spill, ignoring the bees that were sending everyone else running for cover. She was panting.
“I just got back. Just—did the first leg of the delivery. That salt…was sort of heavy. But it helped the horses.”
“How far did you go?”
To the [Emperor], Durene was just standing there. But everyone else could see the sweat staining the half-Troll girl’s tunic. Durene wiped her cracked, grey skin.
“You dragged a wagon thirty miles?”
“Yup. I’m building muscle. Like those Humans and Drakes.”
The [Emperor] laughed.
“Durene, we could buy you a weights set! I have one on order already, in fact!”
The [Paladin] shrugged, abashed.
“Yeah, well…they look light, those weights. And it’s not like we need to waste money on me. Hey, I heard we have Crelers? Let me get my shield and club and I’ll help smash them.”
She strode past Laken before he could object. And there went the Emperor’s consort. Durene the [Paladin]. People talked about her more than the Goblins, actually. But no longer in the same terms as before. They might dislike her—but Durene was mostly over it. And of late—
The former farm-girl had found a purpose. And a mentor. When she walked these days, some people walked wide of her. For Durene patrolled Riverfarm by night with the woman who had taken her under her wing.
Hedag. And no child but called for help in Riverfarm without Hedag being there a moment later. The merry [Witch] appeared now, with her classic, booming laugh.
“What a spill! But let’s not fret. Something of this sort can be mended quick as crying over it! Just give me a moment, Emperor—Agratha!”
She bellowed a name and a [Witch] with a little red pointed hat hurried over.
“Witch Hedag, please don’t shout!”
The [Witch Teacher] winced. Agratha was not one of the most powerful [Witches] who had come to Riverfarm to make a deal with the [Emperor]. But her coven was large, and she herself had come with nearly a dozen [Witches]. The first wave of them to make good on the [Emperor]’s bargain.
They had cornered the market on occult charms and magic in general. Moreover, even if they didn’t sell something, they came because they were protected from harm by the [Emperor]’s laws. A [Witch] would be punished for committing a crime—not for existing.
“Oh, a spill. The honey! I see, I see. A little sweeping spell should do it. Come on apprentices, this is a good test for you. Stand back, please.”
A few younger [Witches] joined Agratha. Laken listened and ‘watched’ as Hedag, Agratha, and four other [Witches] grabbed brooms. Hedag had to borrow one. They walked over and swept the honey back up into the overturned vats.
It wasn’t easy. The [Witches] grumbled and cursed and two had to borrow mops. Moving honey was hard work! The street was dusty, the honey didn’t want to move—but Agratha and Hedag marshaled the younger witches and eventually got it into the jar. Hedag yanked it upright, slapped a lid on it.
“There. Done as done! We wouldn’t mind a bit of that ourselves, your Majesty. Fair share for fair work!”
She winked, although Laken couldn’t see it. But Hedag had a wink in her voice.
“Your Majesty! That’s not fit to eat! It’s got too much grit and—”
The [Beekeeper], Ezerre, protested loudly as Laken Godart walked over, ignoring the milk which the [Witches] hadn’t bothered to sweep up. He opened the lid and Ezerre gasped.
The honey sat in the large, clay pots, without a speck of dust or grit in it.
“But I saw—”
“I find that staring at [Witches] isn’t very helpful, Mistress Ezerre. Happily, it’s not a problem for me.”
Laken Godart’s voice was dry. The [Beekeeper] hesitated and then blushed at the laughter that ran around the square. The [Emperor] nodded to Hedag.
“A pot, for your troubles, Witch Hedag, Witch Agratha. It is much appreciated.”
“Ah, what a fair ruler of men! Well, let’s have that honey. This pot. Agratha, I think we need biscuits.”
Hedag laughed again. The red-hatted [Teacher] bowed slightly to Laken.
“Thank you, your Majesty.”
The other [Witches] tipped their hats or copied Agratha. Hedag did not bow, but she touched the brim of her worn, brown hat. Laken Godart smiled.
Where would you be without [Witches]? Well, in much the same world, but perhaps a poorer, less interesting one. The unique spellcasters offered interesting solutions to problems. Wiskeria, for instance, had heard about the Creler-problem. She met Laken as he walked towards her—and the four individuals making their way into the town.
“Laken. I heard about the nest. If there are that many, we could try shaping the earth. We have enough [Witches].”
“To do what, bury the Crelers? I thought they were like cockroaches. Impossible to bury.”
The [Witch]-[General] shifted her hat. Wiskeria’s spectacles glinted in the light as she looked at Laken.
“They are. So let’s sink a cauldron. Poison the entire spot. It’ll kill everything there for three years—but better that than letting Crelers live.”
Laken grimaced. Wiskeria was good with poisons. However—he didn’t like that idea.
“Would it kill them?”
“No. Not Crelers. But it would kill a few, and weaken the rest. Your Majesty, if a hundred Crelers—even infants tunnel upwards, people will die. Even the Darksky Riders can’t handle so many swarming ones. The [Witches] will help but Crelers resist hexes.”
The blind man nodded. It was a tricky problem.
“I see. I’ll consider it, Wiskeria, but happily, a more expedient solution may have presented itself. I think…we have an adventuring team.”
Wiskeria’s eyes widened. Laken nodded with a smile. At last. He’d put out that ‘adventurers-wanted’ notice a long time ago and someone had only answered now. Of course he’d known it was a long shot. But he couldn’t pay Gold-rank teams the retainer they would want—or rather, he didn’t want to.
And he wanted a group that would take an offer like the one he had made. Especially the part about Goblins.
Griffon Hunt surveyed Riverfarm, the Unseen Empire, the location of the first [Emperor] on Izril in living memory’s abode…with dismay.
“An [Emperor] lives here? It’s a nice enough town—looks like it needs a lot more paint—but…seriously?”
Revi looked at the wooden houses with dismay. Riverfarm was just now building out of quarried stone, but the first influx of people had demanded quick housing. They were good buildings, made by professionals, but paint hadn’t been high on the list of priorities so color was being added only now.
“We knew it was a risk. But if this is a hoax, I’m going to hit someone with my axe. Don’t copy mommy, Cade.”
Briganda jiggled Cade and he sleepily protested. Halrac said nothing as Typhenous enhanced his eyesight to peer at the village.
“First impressions often betray, Revi. I suggest we be polite.”
“I wasn’t going to be rude.”
“Ah, then you’ll keep quiet while we introduce ourselves?”
The [Summoner] reached over to punch the old [Mage] and nearly fell out of her saddle. The [Marksman] just stared at the village.
“Goblins. An [Emperor]. No wonder no team even considered the mission.”
The other three Gold-ranks nodded. Who would accept something like that?
Payment is minimal per week and may be negotiated, but a share of any treasure recovered will be awarded to the team. Food and lodging will be provided for free, as will most mundane supplies.
Minimal per week was not appealing. Negotiation was not appealing to most teams. What was peculiar was ‘a share of any treasure recovered’. That sounded confident.
It also sounded like bull’s crap used to entice a gullible team. The proclamation had carried all the warning signs. However, Halrac had accepted it on a hunch.
Because it mentioned Goblins. Also, because it related to his home. And his team had come with him.
At least the visit justified itself partly the moment Halrac rode into the village. They had given their names to the four [Riders] who’d somehow known they were coming. Now—Halrac heard a roar, a bellowing voice.
“Halrac, my lad!”
The [Scout]’s dark expression cleared. He saw a huge [Blacksmith] loping at him. Master Helm grabbed Halrac up in a huge hug as the man slid from his saddle.
“Halrac! I knew you’d find us! Dead gods, lad, but you haven’t changed! And you brought your team? His Majesty will be delighted! I would have reached out to you, but I thought you were in Liscor!”
“Master Helm! I went to Windrest, but no one was there. I thought—”
Halrac gasped for breath; Helm was middle-aged, but he was a [Blacksmith] and felt stronger than the last time they’d met.
“They’re alive. Most of them. Old Kessy bit it with the Goblin raids. A bastard put an arrow in her—and we’ve lost a few. But Eldrim’s alive, and so is Turc—he’s married now. And Talaya wrote that she was fine—”
Revi saw Halrac’s face change at the last name. But the [Scout] composed himself. He opened his mouth—
And was instantly swarmed by more of Windrest’s villagers who had heard he was coming.
“Halrac’s here! Look at you! Still thin and unmarried, aren’t you?”
“You don’t [Message] us nearly enough! Fancy Gold-rank and you can’t even bother to spend a few silver on your village? You must meet his Majesty!”
“Who? I—hello, Miss Cena. I’ve been in Liscor—”
Revi and Typhenous enjoyed the sight of the stoic Halrac looking flustered as, without reservation, he was slapped on the back, hugged, and someone even tried to put him into a headlock.
“Are these your old friends, Halrac? You look relaxed.”
The [Summoner] grinned down at the Gold-rank adventurer, a local hero to his small village. Halrac gave her a glare, but Revi had reminded the villagers that they existed. The lighthearted mood turned into curiosity.
“Are you all Gold-ranks?”
A boy breathed up at Revi. She grinned, although she noted eyes on her stitching and looks of shock. Humans who’d never seen Stitchfolk before, let alone other species.
“That’s right. We’re Halrac’s team. He’s our captain.”
“Captain? You never said, lad!”
Helm was beaming like a madman. Halrac was swamped again. Briganda carefully handed Cade to Typhenous before getting down. The boy squirmed to be on the ground, wanting to run for the excited crowd. Revi and Typhenous more sedately waited for the chaos to stop.
As they understood it, Halrac’s family was dead. He had been an only child and had enlisted in the army where he had met Ulrien before becoming a Gold-rank adventurer. He didn’t speak of his home, but it was clear that they didn’t hold him in any reserve of emotion.
Master Helm seemed as proud as a father—despite having children of his own. Amid the scattered introductions, catching up and asking about the dungeon and whether Halrac had any treasure, the Gold-ranks picked up some information.
“So you all came here to serve an [Emperor]?”
Halrac looked at Master Helm in disbelief. The [Blacksmith] ran a hand over his almost completely-bald pate.
“It didn’t work exactly like that, lad. It was more of us running for our lives with that Goblin Chieftain on the rampage. Then—well—Riverfarm’s been good to us. There’ve been attacks—a Goblin Lord nearly overran us. We think it was a Goblin Lord, but his Majesty dealt with her right quick.”
Revi gave Typhenous a strained look. Goblin wasn’t the word of hatred it had used to be. Briganda on the other hand…had only met Numbtongue. But Helm’s next words made her pull an ear off to check it.
“His Majesty’s got some of them, though. In their own spot. The Goblinlands. A few hundred. Bastards have their own wall, but they’re almost civilized. We’d got used to them, which is an odd thing. But they have all the good iron, so we have to trade with them. His Majesty’s orders.”
“Won’t let us kill them. It’s this entire thing, lad. Emperor Laken Godart, although it’s just Emperor Godart. I hope you’ll be respectful. He’s done right by Windrest’s folk, just you remember that. Myself as well. I’m a [Royal Blacksmith] now. Got myself a handful of new Skills, including [Perfect Temperature Control]! Won’t overheat my steel ever again!”
“You, Helm? A [Royal Smith]?”
Halrac’s eyes were almost wide. He looked around as some of the others began shouting about the things Laken had done.
“He’s got [Witches]. Good [Witches]! And he made a bee-place. Lots of bees—they stung me.”
“His Majesty can see everything! I’ve got one of the totems in my room, for protection. Did you see them? He can see everything, including bandits! Durene and Beniar smashed a group that came into our lands last week! They never saw us coming!”
“Halrac! Halrac, is that an invisible bow? Can I shoot it? Huh?”
The [Scout] was letting the father pry his daughter off Halrac’s back as he guarded his enchanted arrows when someone shouted.
“His Majesty, Laken Godart of Riverfarm!”
And everyone went silent. Halrac Everam, Revi Cotton, Typhenous, and Briganda Rishaw all turned to see the blind man walking towards them, followed by a [Lady], a half-Troll girl, a former [Farmer], and a gaggle of people. They stared at him. At Durene.
Then Bismarck plodded past with Frostwing on his back. He was lapping at the milk on the ground. Halrac stared at the Mossbear.
A problematic fact about Bismarck? Laken had tried, but the Mossbear still wasn’t housebroken. He pooed everywhere.
Laken Godart walked away from Bismarck’s pile of…well, suffice it to say he walked upwind to greet the Gold-rank team. He was impressed that they seemed to take Bismarck, Frostwing, even Durene and the chaos in stride.
“Your…Majesty? My name is Halrac Everam. Captain of Griffon Hunt. We’re here about your request.”
“Captain Everam. A pleasure.”
Laken extended his hand, which surprised the adventurer, he could tell. Most people were unnerved by his ability to shake their hand—as if it that was hard, even if you were blind. But Halrac had noted Laken’s closed eyes and the young man’s poise was uncanny.
He had met crazier Humans. But not as impressive as…an [Emperor]. Laken Godart seemed quite down to earth; he certainly wasn’t dressed in royal clothing. Then again—he had a bearing. And an air about him almost like Erin’s. As if the world turned on him. But where Erin made that happen with chaos, cakes, and luck, Laken Godart would insist on it.
“Master Helm informs me that you are actually a former villager of Windrest, Master Everam.”
Revi made a face behind Halrac. Oh great, they were going to be asked for a discount. Briganda and Typhenous elbowed her.
“That’s correct, your Majesty.”
“Laken will do, Captain Everam, if I may address you as ‘Halrac’. By all means, catch up with Windrest’s folk. I regret that their village was lost, but most of the inhabitants made it here safely.”
“So I understand. Thank you…Emperor Laken.”
The young man shook his head.
“It was only necessary, Captain Halrac. I’m grateful you’ve accepted my request—or at least come to investigate. No other Gold-rank team has thus far, and I have no need for Silver-ranks at this moment. Are all three of your companions your team? And the…child?”
He knew about them? Revi felt a chill run down her stitches as she saw the face with the closed eyes turn unerringly towards her. How was he doing that? A spell? But she didn’t sense magic. Typhenous looked puzzled as Halrac introduced them.
“…Cade is Briganda’s child. He comes with us, but we would leave him behind if we travelled into any actual danger.”
“Ah, I see. A [Summoner]? And a [Shield Maiden]—some kind of [Warrior] class? By any chance, does the class happen to involve…longboats? Water?”
Laken wondered if the class was related to this world’s version of Vikings. Something Scandinavian, at any rate. Apparently not, because Briganda laughed.
“I wish. I can’t even swim! Er—your Majesty. Bow, Cade.”
“Why? He doesn’t have a crown, Mom. You said he’d have a crown.”
The [Emperor] smiled as he heard Briganda trying to hush her son. He spoke to Cade—he hadn’t been able to tell it was a boy from afar.
“Crowns are heavy, Cade. I’ll have one made when I have time for one. Maybe a circlet. Welcome, to all of you.”
Now the introductions were done, the [Emperor] hesitated. Because he wasn’t sure what the etiquette was for negotiating with Gold-rank teams. But that was why he had helpers.
“Captain Halrac, his Majesty welcomes you, as does the Unseen Empire. Let us offer you refreshments, lodging—and then perhaps after you’ve finished your reunions, we might speak about a contract with your team?”
Lady Rie swept forwards as Laken looked towards her. He let her handle the Gold-rank team, just as he’d let Prost announce and greet them. It was inconvenient, especially since Laken just wanted to get to business. But that was an [Emperor]’s dignity.
As Laken waited, he reviewed the carrots he had to offer Halrac and what he thought of the man. Halrac seemed reserved, but he could just be a serious sort. Certainly, he wasn’t brash or incautious, like Beniar had been when Laken first met him. He seemed professional, which was good. But Laken wanted to trust him if Halrac was going to benefit Riverfarm. It would be a mutually beneficial relationship if he could be trusted. But first…he had to be certain.
Helm described Halrac in glowing terms once he’d broken away from the reunions.
“He’s a proper sort. Never got arrogant, sent money back—even came back to hunt some monsters when they cropped up, your Majesty. An expert with the bow. He could always hit targets well, and that was when he just hunted, before he went to join the army. He was a team with Griffon Hunt for a long time—hunted Griffins. With dogs. Griffons. That always confused me…”
Lady Rie’s impression was more reserved.
“Griffon Hunt is no stranger to its share of troubles, your Majesty. My investigation found that they caused the Griffin Plague two years back. A terrible incident. A spell or disease they unleashed to curb a Griffin migration got out of control and thousands died. They’ve also lost members; at least three. They might be desperate, but Halrac Everam is said to be capable—he’s known as ‘Halrac the Grim’, apparently.”
Laken turned to a [Witch] for the last piece of advice. Prost, Durene, Beniar—all had opinions, but the [Emperor] wanted a unique opinion.
The old [Tea Witch] was thoughtful and took her time with her cup before replying.
“They have at least one strong artifact. An invisible bow on that Halrac’s back. And they seem honest. That boy Cade is the key, your Majesty. Did you hear him?”
“Yes. What should I have been hearing?”
The [Witch] smiled.
“His laughter. He laughed, talked—even to you, your Majesty. If he had cried, or been sullen or quiet or afraid—that would have spoken more about the team than anything else. A poor team would not bring a child with them, or treat the boy well.”
The [Emperor] smiled and nodded to her.
“Wise words, Eloise. You’re correct. Send them in. They’re the only team that’s come, anyways. I’ll test them on the Goblins and then see if they’re willing to demonstrate their abilities. If they are—we’ll see.”
“Your Majesty, the issue of Goblins shouldn’t be a sticking point. Let’s entice them first—”
Lady Rie’s voice was pained, but Laken held up a hand, silencing her. He valued Rie’s opinion. As she had said—better the snake you knew than the one you didn’t.
And he was almost certain she was the one who had ordered the attack on the Goblins and tried to kill Magnolia’s [Maid]. Ryoka had put the idea in Laken’s head, and it made sense. He was still investigating why carefully, but she hadn’t ever led him wrong, exactly.
He put that out of his mind. He wanted to know what the team’s reaction was to the Goblins. They didn’t have to like them—just tolerate them. Laken was braced for their reaction. But he was still surprised.
“…and we can offer you all independent housing. Food—materials like arrows or repairs to non-enchanted gear along with the weekly stipend.”
Lady Rie finished the presentation. Halrac saw the [Emperor] sitting on his throne. He had been silent, letting the [Lady] do the talking.
She’d done a good job. It was already impressive, having a [Lady] working as the negotiator here. Halrac wasn’t underestimating any of that.
It was just—well, no matter how you dressed it up, it came down to the amount of coin. Lady Rie had placed it in a bag, to make it more impressive, but Halrac didn’t have the memory of a goldfish. And he could do basic math.
“The sum is very low per week, Lady Valerund. With respect, few Gold-rank teams would consider such an offer.”
Typhenous murmured politely. Lady Rie smiled—and Halrac let Typhenous speak as he watched Laken and the room. ‘Few’ teams was putting it lightly. Todi would have left the moment Lady Rie announced the sum. It wasn’t worth it.
However, Halrac was polite since anything less would have upset Master Helm. He had to stay here at least a few days. There was a dance to this, and the [Emperor] seemed to know it too.
“Lady Rie, my thanks. I shall speak a moment.”
The [Lady] bowed and the [Emperor] stepped forwards.
“Captain Halrac, you’ve been quite silent. May I know your thoughts?”
The [Scout] stirred. Revi looked at him and grimaced; he nodded at her and Briganda, who was giving him the same look. As well as an entreaty to be careful. Which he was in his reply.
“Your Majesty, your offer is…intriguing. However, I don’t believe this sum is enough for me to justify entering a contract. Frankly speaking, we cannot afford to take work that cheaply.”
Laken opened his mouth but Rie jumped in hurriedly.
“Even without needing to act as law enforcement in any major capacity, Captain? I can assure you, our Blacksky Riders can handle most [Bandits] and monsters. You would only be called upon for large-scale threats and investigation.”
That was tempting. And if Halrac had twenty more years on him, this kind of semi-retirement would be a hefty lure. But Halrac as he was now wanted success. He didn’t miss Laken’s flicker of annoyance as the [Emperor] waved the lady back.
“Captain Everam’s complaint is valid, Rie. Captain Everam, am I correct in assuming that you would require…at least four times the amount offered to consider a stay of any duration?”
“That would be correct, your Majesty.”
Five times and he’d really think about it. But the fact was that keeping a Gold-rank team was expensive, even if they just sat around. And Halrac doubted they’d do that for a rural place like Riverfarm, no matter what Rie claimed. Fighting monsters without a bounty all week wasn’t anyone’s idea of a good job.
The [Emperor] nodded. And his next question caught Halrac off-guard.
“Let’s assume you accept my offer, Captain Halrac. Do you recall my request as it pertains to Goblins? Could your team accept a Goblin presence so near Riverfarm?”
Was he going to insist they work for him? That would be messy. Halrac saw Rie’s concern and Revi and Briganda glance at him. Typhenous was too busy making eyes and stroking his beard at the old [Witch], who was studiously ignoring him.
“Goblins are not a problem, your Majesty. We would not be…compelled to attack them.”
“Really? That is good, Captain Everam. My largest concern with a Gold-rank team was their attitude towards Goblins.”
“If I may ask, what do you intend to do with the Goblins, Emperor Godart?”
Silence. Revi licked her lips. But Halrac…thought of some Hobgoblins and had to know. Laken thought and then shook his head.
“I’m still not sure. Allow them to live in their lands as they wish, for now. Trade with them, perhaps. They’ve begun mining and smithing; Master Helm is a better smith, but he needs their iron. I hope we can trade with them. Honey, perhaps.”
“Trade? But it’s your land, isn’t it?”
Revi spoke up. Halrac sighed. She’d done well guarding her tongue thus far. But the [Summoner] had her limits. She looked challengingly at Laken.
“Are you going to kill them? Or use them for mining? That’s what Halrac means, your Majesty.”
“Adventurer Revi, isn’t it? I don’t intend to kill the Goblins. I rather regard Riverfarm as one of the few places they can exist without being slaughtered. If I thought they wouldn’t be hunted down the moment they left Riverfarm—I would let them go.”
Laken turned his head towards her, giving her a close-eyed ‘stare’. Revi hesitated.
“But why are you doing this?”
“Because not all Goblins are monsters, Miss Revi. And I had to learn that. So must Riverfarm.”
Halrac started. It sounded like…he saw Typhenous glance at him and mouth a name. How strange. But this was what had drawn them here. A curious turn of phrase.
No Killing Goblins.
Laken Godart let the silence linger a moment before he turned to Halrac.
“Captain Halrac, I will suggest a compromise. Inform me if this is not to your satisfaction. I would like you to stay a week; I am sure Master Helm would appreciate it, as well as the people of Windrest. I will offer you five times the sum for this week only to justify your stay. After the week ends—if you accept—I would employ you at the initial sum, or some lesser, agreed-upon number.”
Halrac was surprised. That was a generous offer. He had been about to suggest working for a week before politely leaving.
“Your Majesty is quite generous. We accept.”
The blind [Emperor] smiled thinly.
“Good. I hope I can convince you to stay, Captain Halrac. But do not thank me just yet. Because I fear you will earn your sum. The first problem of my lands—and quite unexpected—is a nest of Crelers.”
Halrac’s hand tightened. It felt like everything was happening again. Only this time—it was his team. Revi sat up. Briganda looked worried.
“I want the nest destroyed today. You are free to refuse, of course. But I will be eliminating the Crelers one way or another. My army, the [Witches]—the Crelers cannot be allowed to continue. What do you say, Captain Everam?”
The Gold-rank Captain was silent for a moment. Then he nodded.
“One week, your Majesty. As for the Crelers—we’d have destroyed the nest even without pay.”
Revi sighed and Briganda nodded. Typhenous bowed towards Witch Eloise.
“Some monsters are the duty of adventurers to fight at any cost.”
He gave her a winning smile. She failed to tip her hat in reply.
Eliminating the Creler nest was…interesting. Halrac, Typhenous, Revi, and Briganda found that Laken Godart had not been lying.
A small army surrounded the place where the nest apparently existed. What fascinated Revi was the fact that no one had seen the Crelers.
“Wait, it’s buried thirty feet down and you just ‘know’ that?”
She looked skeptically at the Silver-rank [Cataphract], Beniar, as the rest of her team watched the dig site. Some volunteer [Diggers], including the half-Troll girl who was apparently the [Emperor]’s wife—were digging very gingerly, ready to run at any time.
“His Majesty said so, so it has to be true, Miss Revi. He knows everything that happens on his lands.”
Beniar gave Revi a smile. She just stared at him as if he were insane. Which he might be. Silver-ranks.
“This is one weird place, Halrac. Do we have to do a week? A week of fighting monsters?”
“If it’s troublesome, we’ll politely leave after three days. It’s etiquette, Revi. We don’t need to offend a [Lady], much less an [Emperor]. Now, get ready.”
“Adventurer Everam, what’s your plan for taking out the Crelers?”
Beniar rode over to Halrac. The [Marksman] was checking his bow; he had an arrow nocked. Typhenous was leaning on his staff as Briganda flanked him. Four of Revi’s glowing Stitch-Warriors were waiting.
It was a defensive line, ready to fall back. More [Soldiers], a trio of [Witches] including a weird one with a bird-like look about her, and Beniar’s riders were all waiting behind the adventurers. Halrac looked up.
“You said there’s a nest of about two hundred?”
“Yes. And more eggs.”
“Then we’ll launch the first attack if they’re not woken up. Dig twenty feet close; any closer and they’ll go for you. Typhenous and I will attack while Revi and Briganda cover us. If we fall back, we’ll all be fighting.”
Beniar nodded uncertainly. He gave the Gold-rank teams a dubious look. After a second, Beniar coughed.
“We could flood the hole. Divert the river; it wouldn’t take more than an hour or two…”
Revi saw Halrac adjust his grip on the arrow. She sighed. Silver-ranks. They thought they knew it all. She gave Beniar a fake smile.
“Crelers swim. We can handle it.”
“Hole’s done! We got about fifteen feet away. I think I hear them. Or maybe that’s just the dirt. What do we do, Beniar?”
A low rumble came from Durene. The other [Diggers] had hopped out and retreated past the defense line. The hole was encircled.
“Leave it to us. Typhenous—get ready.”
“If there is even a nest.”
Revi grumbled. She doubted this ‘[Emperor]’. Beniar watched as Griffon Hunt approached. He was clearly uncertain.
He needn’t have been. Two hundred Crelers was a lot. But they were apparently babies. And most crucially—
The adventurers had time to prepare. There was a motto among some teams that, with enough time, they could kill anything.
It was ambushes, crisis situations, where they fell apart and got in trouble. Since that wasn’t the case like with the Horns—Griffon Hunt had picked their fight and they knew their strengths.
“Do it, Typhenous. Revi—”
“Prepared to intercept. Just get back, Typhenous. Briganda?”
“Ready. I just better not get bit. I hate Creler venom.”
Halrac nodded. He had an arrow with a glowing tip aimed down at the hole. Apparently, the sloping tunnel would lead right to the nest. Laken had given the [Diggers] specific instructions; he was waiting from far behind the army. Now, he pulled back, not all the way—just waiting.
The outline of the invisi-bow as Revi had been taken to calling it to annoy Halrac shone in the setting sun. But the real light came from the staff.
Typhenous was preparing his spell. The [Mage] took his time, partly to show off, partly to gather his mana for the most efficiency. He could cast faster—but he was an expert. He didn’t rush. And when he cast the spell, the first huge ball of magic sailed with pinpoint accuracy down the tunnel.
The first explosion chewed out a huge amount of dirt and caved in part of the tunnel. Halrac shot an arrow and blasted the hole deeper. Typhenous conjured another comet; he had a ten second delay. Revi stared into the hole. Smoke, dirt, dust, was clearing.
“I don’t see them. They had to have felt that. Maybe—”
Movement. Glowing bodies swarmed out of the dirt. Revi yelped.
“Never mind! Here they come! Crelers!”
The watching warriors reacted to her shout. The half-Troll girl swung a huge club up—but she never got the chance to strike.
“[Speed Spell – Valmira’s Comet].”
Typhenous fast-cast the next comet. The first wave of Crelers disappeared in a flash. And on the heels of the detonation, Halrac fired an arrow.
Fiery oblivion followed the spell. The Crelers ran into both explosions. And the ones surviving, before they could even register both detonations—heard a voice.
Halrac the Grim aimed his enchanted bow into the hole, into the nest, and shot two enchanted arrows. His control of the Skill meant that he could fire them one slightly after the other. They hit the nest and detonated.
Typhenous threw another comet. Halrac drew an enchanted arrow and waited. The Crelers, massed together, with only one fast way upwards, had no chance.
Griffon Hunt took them apart at range. Only a few got past the explosive attacks—and that was just because Halrac stopped firing his enchanted munitions to save gold. He shot one with a regular arrow—and Revi’s summoned warriors attacked the remaining Crelers without fear.
Briganda smashed one down, hacking with her hatchet, and knocked another one away as Typhenous hurried back. And then? Well, it was just cleanup. That was surprisingly easy, thanks to the [Emperor].
“Whoa. They’re so good.”
Durene watched as Griffon Hunt mopped up the stragglers. Laken was impressed too. The Gold-rank team had proven exactly why they deserved their rank.
More than raw power, they were just…smart. They had taken the Crelers down with minimum effort. They’d barely even gotten to the adventurers.
“Your Majesty, we need to make sure there’s not a single egg in the nest. We’d like to ask a [Mage] with [Sense Life] to help us, if there is one. Or a [Witch]. We could buy a scroll, but that’s more expensive.”
Halrac approached Laken. The [Emperor] inclined his head.
“Happily, Captain, I can do the work of a scroll. I sense fifteen Crelers left, not including the eggs bunched together. I will inform you of the locations—one is burrowing away at speed. Here…”
The Gold-rank team blinked as Laken casually followed one of the Crelers, which was fleeing through the dirt. Prost hurried after the [Emperor].
“Shovels! Not a one of those Crelers gets away!”
It took another hour to track down each Creler and destroy the eggs; the adventurers scorched everything in the area just to be safe. But they’d been impressed by Laken’s abilities, not just for finding the nest but the stragglers trying to hide or ambush them.
He in turn had been pleased by their abilities. So the next day, he decided to try out his true plans for them.
“Investigate a cave? What are we, Silver-ranks?”
The next day, Revi was annoyed by the order, but she just liked to complain. Really, she was intrigued. The [Emperor] had known about the nest.
But this? It was just a cave.
“His Majesty needs adventurers to investigate anomalies on his lands. Ensure everything is safe. He could use [Soldiers] or others of course, but he believes Gold-ranks are the most capable of handling any eventuality. This would be the bulk of your duties.”
The [Steward], Prost, informed the Gold-rank team. Cade was safely in the village, playing with some of the children. Briganda raised her eyebrows.
“It’s not the worst. Just dirty work.”
“We do have some open-air baths. Upon your return. There are three spots his Majesty would like you to investigate.”
“I see. Well, we can look into this cave, Mister Prost. I’d advise you to return to the village in case we do find something and need to retreat.”
Halrac’s tone was dry, businesslike. The [Steward] nodded.
“Once you finish, our resident City Runner can direct you to me or the next location.”
He indicated the young man waiting at the cave. Revi raised her eyebrow.
“You have a City Runner on call? What about that Centauress?”
“Ah, Miss Charlay. She’s a valued guest.”
With how much she’d been drinking and eating, she had better be. Well, if the [Emperor] was trying to impress Griffon Hunt with his generosity, it still wouldn’t work. Griffon Hunt saw the [Steward] off and then investigated the cave.
“Halrac, this place is weird. I don’t have anything against the [Emperor]…much. But [Witches]? His ability to see underground?”
“I know. Master Helm had nothing bad to say about him, though. Keep quiet—”
The team moved forwards. Only when it was safe to whisper again did Revi grin.
“That was worth the trip at least, to hear someone calling you ‘lad’.”
Briganda snorted. Halrac ignored them as he led the way. The [Scout] was working. Typhenous was next—because he was actually quite deadly with his dagger—followed by Revi, their weak link in an ambush. Briganda brought up the rear, keeping watchful. The Gold-rank team investigated the cave, which stretched deeper, deeper…an area hollowed out by water over millennia…
They found nothing. Well, in point of fact the adventurers found several monster-animals, including a really aggravated Rock Slime and some Rockmites, and a bug-thing that tried to take a chunk out of Revi’s leg.
Nothing threatening or really dangerous. Sometimes a cave was just a cave. Actually…most caves were like that, devoid of grand adventures and containing just a few critters and dirt.
“Well, that was fun. Do this all day? Why don’t we just sign up?”
Revi walked out of the cave, brushing cobwebs out of her hair. Halrac shook his head.
“If we were paid like this every week, I might think about it, Revi, so long as we could go on other adventures and bounties as they came up. That [Emperor] seems confident we’ll stay, though.”
“Yeah. About the Goblins…do you believe him?”
Halrac looked at Typhenous. Revi bit her lip.
“What if he’s…using them for something? Like, I dunno, target practice?”
“We’re not about to cause an incident, Revi. We’re not the Horns. Or the Silver Swords.”
“I know that. But maybe…we should look into it?”
“You’re that worried about Goblins? Look, I know you went to that inn, but how much did being in Liscor change you all? Did you all hit your heads? Or did someone replace Revi’s brain?”
Briganda stared at her teammates, askance. Typhenous wiped at his beard.
“Remember all the stories we imparted to you, Briganda? Consider that we didn’t use hyperbole once.”
“We didn’t exaggerate anything.”
“…You’re lying. Halrac, that can’t be true. Hey, Halrac! Wait! Typhenous is lying again, right…?”
The next spot was…interesting. It was barely outside of the village. Again, the [Emperor] had found something and he had ordered his people to dig.
“It’s about twenty more feet down, Captain Everam, sir. My people didn’t want to dig further until you got here. [Emperor]’s orders.”
Beycalt, their [Supervisor], was waiting for the Gold-rank team. Bemused, Halrac gave her the go-ahead. Revi found herself sitting on a stool, sipping on some fresh milk as the team dug towards whatever it was. She was still dirty, but this was odd adventuring.
“Alright. Last five feet. Adventurers?”
“On it. Briganda, take the lead.”
“If I start screaming, yank me up.”
The [Shield Maiden] went into the shaft, grumbling. She had her buckler ready, and took the shovel. Revi heard cursing as Briganda and one of Revi’s summoned warriors dug. They could have just sent Revi’s summons down, but the [Shield Maiden] had volunteered.
“If I don’t pull my weight, what’s the point of rejoining the team?”
She shoveled dirt up—and then Revi heard a shout.
The digging team heaved and the Gold-rank Adventurer shot up. Briganda’s face was pale—but not with alarm.
“It’s fine! It’s—well, come and see! But watch out—the body might come back to life.”
Slowly, the dig team and adventurers descended the dug shaft and found…a little room in the ground.
It was a cube of space. A neat, bricked-off room just…sitting there in the earth. Inside of it was a number of objects. Corroded coins, a mildewed painting, chair smashed to bits—and the body.
“What is this place? Why is there just…a room in the middle of the ground?”
Beycalt was pale as the adventurers brought up the mummified body. Or rather—Revi’s summons did. The [Summoner] had a motto:
‘I don’t have to do anything.’
The corpse was a mystery. But Revi saw that it had fresh boots and a belt that was unworn despite the deterioration of all the other clothing. Enchanted gear. She didn’t touch it, of course.
“It looks like a safe room. If I had to guess—this poor soul was a [Thief], or a gentleman—or woman—with a taste for privacy. Something must have gone wrong.”
Everyone looked at Typhenous. The [Mage] explained, with his background of knowledge.
“It’s a common tactic used by er—people with a need for privacy. One simply digs a hole in the ground—it need not be this elaborate—or finds a secret spot. Hollows out stone, for instance. And then you anchor a spell such that you can teleport into the space.”
“A perfect hiding spot. I’ve heard about those. Like them fancy vaults you have to teleport into.”
Beycalt nodded, eyes wide. Revi sighed.
“Those aren’t that safe, actually. [Mages] love trying to get in. In Chandrar…but it looks like this idiot made a mistake. See?”
She showed them a few details. The room had actually been broken in one spot. The bricks removed. And the dead person had been right there, submerged in the dirt.
“My guess is that this idiot didn’t charge the teleportation spell, scroll, or whatever it was. They ran out, and were trapped underground. Then they either suffocated, starved to death, or were buried alive.”
The Humans shuddered. That was a bad death.
“But what are the odds one is just here?”
Briganda stared at the dead body—and then at the bag of holding on its side. Or rather—box of holding.
“Eh. Consider how much time’s passed. There’re places like this everywhere. Sometimes you can’t walk two feet without tripping over a lost dungeon. Zeikhal—the Great Desert in Chandrar—has lots of that kind of stuff. It’s just finding it that drives [Treasure Hunters] crazy. But with an [Emperor]…”
The [Summoner] investigated the body—with her summons. They’d have to appraise the belt and boots and whatever was in the box of holding—but this was a haul.
And they’d made it a day into Riverfarm! She was about to celebrate—when she realized.
“Aw, damn. This is on the [Emperor]’s lands, isn’t it?”
The rest of her team sighed. But then—Emperor Laken Godart strode up.
“I take it you’ve found something. Excellent! I had hopes.”
Halrac Everam turned to Laken Godart. The [Marksman] hesitated.
“Your Majesty knew the artifacts were down there?”
He wondered if Laken was going to justify claiming it that way. But the young man waved it off.
“Not at all. I sensed something, but I didn’t want to investigate. Monsters, curses—magical traps—my people can handle some of it, but they aren’t experts. Adventurer Halrac, thank you for finding this body…”
He sniffed and coughed.
“We will look into the remains. And some of the [Witches] are quite adept at curses. When we appraise the value of the objects, I will decide what if anything, I would like to keep, rather than sell. Most objects I believe we will keep unless they are cursed. You may, of course, negotiate for your half.”
The [Emperor] smiled, though he couldn’t see Halrac’s expression.
“My request was clear. Any treasures found will be shared. It is dangerous, but since I know the locations of all these sites—anything of worth will be split. Half to the Unseen Empire—half to your team, Captain Everam. If you would claim something worth more—we can negotiate. Or bank the value against a further discovery.”
The Captain blinked at Laken Godart. And then he saw the carrot the [Emperor] was waving at last. It had been invisible to all the teams who’d looked at his request. But if you framed it that way…
Revi looked at Laken and then around at the verdant landscape. All aboveground, of course. She cocked an eyebrow.
“Your Majesty. Exactly how many ‘investigation places’ have you found on your lands?”
Laken thought about that. His expression was coy.
“Well, I do add to the number as I level and Riverfarm grows. But if you would like to investigate further—I doubt all of the spots are so bountiful. There may be quite a lot of nothing. However…if you would like to visit the third site, we can end your work by midday. Just in time for our new open-air baths to be tested. Not without purpose either; if Miss Revi would lend us some of her summoned creatures, we could put them to use—assuming they can be remotely controlled?”
Briganda whistled. Her eyes lit up and she looked around. Typhenous was stroking his beard and looking around, murmuring to Halrac. Revi just stared at the [Emperor].
It was true that Griffon Hunt could offer Laken Godart a lot. But it seemed he was more than just talk. Briganda was looking towards Riverfarm.
“Cade’s making friends, Halrac. All I’m saying…”
“If we worked for a month…even once a month, Halrac…”
The old [Mage] was staring at the boots. Halrac glanced at the find, and then at Laken Godart. He hesitated. The [Emperor] was smiling expectantly. Halrac looked around and then nodded.
“On one condition, your Majesty.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
They were making weapons. Tools. Of course, it was hard work. But some of Pyrite’s old tribe knew how to move metal.
But the Goblins would admit that making iron weapons wasn’t as fun as taking free steel stuff. And the Humans were willing to trade for the iron.
It was…subject to debate. The walls were high. There was food. They hadn’t died yet. So—maybe?
Some Goblins refused to forgive or forget. They prepared. And that was fine. But others were looking at it a different way.
They had time. Perhaps death was coming. But give a Goblin time and they might be able to build their way out of death. Enough escape routes, enough weapons—
The first Goblin baby had been born here. In the Goblinlands, a name which the Goblins liked, even if the Humans meant it as an insult. Pebblesnatch had stared at the baby which Ulvama helped deliver.
Now, on a day like any other, the Goblins were there. Working. They had gotten bored of being depressed. So some were mining for fun, a few others were working on traps, weapons.
Leafarmor was training with some of the Redfangs.
And if you looked towards the center of the Goblin…village? Settlement? Fortifications? You could see a strange Goblin, even among the rest.
She had a dirty, mangled, but slightly poofy white hat. And she was working on her latest pièce de résistance—
An oven. Forget food. First you had to make the thing that made the food! Pebblesnatch was working with bricks the Humans had traded for some iron. She was ordering a [Craftsman] Goblin around with a ladle and he was ignoring her.
The little Goblin looked up as she heard a warning horn from the walls. The other Goblins had seen someone coming. The ones in the settlement looked up, warily, but just making sure where the weapons were. They heard the horns now and then but nothing had happened.
Yet—this time, the horn was more urgent. It signaled three short blasts. That was the code for big danger.
Adventurers. Or an army. Pebblesnatch saw the Goblins moving in a frenzy. Raidpear charged out of his hammock.
When the Gold-rank adventurers moved to the edge of the no-person’s zone and stared up at the Goblin-wall—there was an army of Goblins there.
“They have the high ground. And those are some nasty fortifications. They look like Goblins. Let’s go back now, shall we?”
Revi’s voice was muffled from the six summoned warriors she was hiding behind. Briganda was warily holding her buckler, but she hadn’t drawn her axe.
Neither had Halrac. Typhenous was leaning on his staff, but he was trying to look innocent about it. The [Scout] stared up at the wall.
“Go away. Humans smell. Go bother [Emperor].”
Leafarmor shouted down at them. She didn’t recognize the Gold-rank team. But there was a susurration as some of the Goblins stared down.
The Cave Goblins didn’t recognize Halrac. Or Revi. Certainly not Briganda. Humans looked alike and if they seemed vaguely familiar…well, you couldn’t be sure.
But Typhenous? He had a cool beard. Goblins remembered beards like that. They pointed. And then—a poofy hat rose. Revi stared at it. She pointed. Halrac’s eyes widened.
“Halrac. Halrac. Isn’t that—?”
The little Goblin shouted wildly and waved. Halrac the Grim’s eyes fixed on her face. And the hat. The other Goblins stared. And then they heard a little Goblin laughing.
In delight. And the Gold-rank team…
Decided to stay for a while.
One last thing. Ulvama, the Goblin [Shaman] didn’t hear about the Gold-rank team at first. She wasn’t going to be pleased. But she would definitely think about it and how it could benefit them. After all—she was from the Mountain City tribe. And they knew Humans.
But for the moment—she was busy. Investigating something.
The owner of the crude door had forgotten about it ages ago. And while she’d been upset about losing her precious stone—she’d given up on it because she couldn’t find it.
But the [Shaman] now…she squatted in front of the door. And her eyes gleamed crimson.
“One, two, three…”
She counted the little gems imbued with magic that the Goblins had dug up. They were tiny, fingernail-sized. She had charged them, but she wasn’t sure about how much magic they contained.
Yet she thought it might be enough.
The certainty had been growing in her. Ulvama stared at the glowing stone set in the door. Something had happened a while ago. And the weak connection had grown stronger.
Perhaps…there was only something missing. Not on her end. The [Shaman] heard the commotion and slowly stepped back from the crude door in her hut. She didn’t know if this was it.
But it was something. The crimson stone was glowing. The door was opened. She just had to wait for the right confluence of events. If it was going to happen…the [Shaman] grinned. Then she left her hut and saw a little Goblin trying to hug a scowling adventurer. Her face went blank.
Author’s Note: Day 4, and we’ve left interlude territory. Also. The Last Tide is out! If you have money to spare, please consider purchasing it!
Not just because it gives me money, although I will admit that is a good reason for me. But because you buying the comic encourages Cloudscape to continue putting money into making the comic! It’s like…incentive!
I’m going to shout about it on Patreon, the Public chapter tomorrow, and other stuff. But if you can tell people about it—it’s a great way to enter into The Wandering Inn that doesn’t involve going through 6 million words, and it’s just great art! Everyone’s worked hard on it and I want it to sell well so more stories about Solca Vis can come out.
That’s all from me today. I’m going to feature two pieces of art today: the first The Last Tide fanart of Solca Vis, already drawn by Miguel, and Enuryn’s Creler art, with gross anatomy! Give them love and thanks for reading and making all this possible!
Solca Vis by Miguel!
Crelers by Enuryn!