“When did it happen?”
He leaned on the pommel of his horse’s saddle. A rich saddle, high-backed and made for long-distance riding. Padded subtly, and enchanted so you had even less chance of slipping during a ride.
All the things he didn’t want to show the youngsters. All the things he had never had when he was young, because he hadn’t really needed them.
Deniusth the Violinist looked at the saddlehorn.
“This year. It feels like it’s been disaster after disaster—great events happening. People dying. The changing of an age. I know that’s probably why—but what started it?”
Eldertuin, Viecel, and Gores were the ones he was addressing. Orchestra was there, but they were the Named-ranks. Gores had been with Deniusth from the start, when he’d carried a rapier and the two just played musical instruments for fun.
“The King of Destruction waking up?”
Eldertuin scratched at his chin; he’d gotten rid of that stupid-looking beard from a few years back. Odd, how it felt like just a moment ago that Deni remembered seeing it.
Odd, to think Valeterisa was wandering about the inn as if she hadn’t been gone eight years. Eight years. And he hadn’t woken her up.
Not that he’d known. But they’d known. Not that they were the best of friends—but they’d known each other. It was just counting the adventurers who’d vanished, even Couriers, and hearing Larra stop sending people to ‘check on her’.
It was standing at her mansion after dodging the artillery spells and looking into that doorway and feeling his [Dangersense] tingle.
It was—being afraid. He’d never told anyone that he’d gone. Then some City Runner did the impossible and woke her up. Saved Salamani, too.
Was he intimidated by them? The rowdy Gold-ranks, riding ahead of the ones who’d chosen a wagon, the Silver-ranks he didn’t know, who were staring at him?
Or was it the feeling in his bones? Deniusth shook his head.
“It’s not just the King of Destruction. It feels like—of course him waking up had something to do with it. But all these recent events. Why did you come south, Eldertuin? You’ve got a family. Kids. You’re a Terland.”
“I’m just married into the family. Alorelle and I discussed the matter, and she knows House Terland will be needing representatives in the south.”
Eldertuin murmured, shrugging his broad shoulders self-consciously. Deniusth had never been married—oh, he’d been standing with a ring on his finger twice. Before he’d fled the altar—or the second time, someone had broken into the wedding and eloped with the bride.
But never married. Yet even he, the constant philanderer in his friends’ eyes, the one Mihaela could never let up about his dyed hair, as if that were the greatest vanity in the world—
And Alorelle just let you go? To the new lands of Izril, an entire continent’s journey away? To danger and death and perhaps glory?
Eldertuin was the [Farmer] who had a swing that could knock an Ogre flat, who’d risen to become a Named-rank, married into the Five Families. A real roots-to-riches story. Literally. He’d grown turnips or something. The man who’d gotten everything you could ever want.
He didn’t really talk about his wife. His children, yes. But she seldom visited the Haven…three times over their entire marriage of a decade and a half?
It was one of those things you didn’t talk about. At least, not out of the blue.
At night, after all the laughing and reminiscing had been done, while you were nursing a drink and everyone had gone to bed, or over the campfire in the midst or at the end of a journey together—that was the time.
That was the time to bring up all the names of the dead and the things you couldn’t say under blue skies. Because it was too personal.
Deniusth had adventured for a long time, and nothing had ever been as rewarding. Nothing had made him feel as alive, not any drug or experience. Yet he also quite liked the experience of being a famous celebrity in the north.
“Not just that.”
He murmured as they rode to Albez. How long had it been since he had been here? Forty damn years ago, elbowing aside [Treasure Seekers] and civilians digging in the dirt when it was first uncovered, a snot-nosed Bronze-rank with a practice sword he’d sharpened up? Deniusth began to speak, and the other Named-ranks and older adventurers listened.
“I first realized it when Maviola El resigned.”
A few heads rose, and he saw the Halfseekers looking at him. In fact, some of the Silver-ranks, what—the Pride of Kelia, those Gnolls, the Flamewardens, Drakes riding the wagon—they looked at him oddly.
Oh, right. Hadn’t she come down here? Deniusth stared back in time.
And he was old enough to remember the [Lady] of House El when he’d first become Gold-rank and gotten invited to those parties. Already old. Well, she’d been in her nineties when she passed, hadn’t she? Red hair gone mostly white like Mihaela’s was—but a blazing tempest of ideas, arguing with other [Lords] and [Ladies], setting fire to things.
“It wasn’t just that she resigned. It was who she put in her place. Deilan El. You know, he’s a progressive in House El?”
“I thought he was just good at manufacturing stuff.”
The other Named-ranks were up to date on a lot of politics in the north. Deniusth snorted.
“He is—but House El would have loved to replace Maviola with a more conservative pick. Someone who went back to their basics, manufacturing crossbows, providing magical goods—not a radical who continued Maviola’s Kaalblades and Valeterisa’s projects. I heard she was considering Desinee El, her niece. She would have been stable, stepped down after a few years—instead, you got someone who believed in her vision. That kind of thing is what I mean. It felt like it was happening around the world.”
He looked again at Jelaqua Ivirith and wondered what the Minds of Selphids were. A friend had told him something had just gone down in Baleros—they were sorting out the aftermath, but it had warranted some kind of long-range Tier 7+ bombardment from Drath.
And the Blighted Kingdom.
What was going on? It felt like things were shaking. Shaking so hard that all the old constants were moving. Even Named-ranks like him felt it.
Insecurity. He had not been at the battle in Ailendamus or seen ghosts himself. Deni still didn’t know what that King of Khelt, that undead ruler, had called the alarm about.
Yet—he had looked upon a Revenant with his very own eyes for the second time in his life and been reminded that there was a nation ruled by undead. That was probably why Terandria had sent that crusade. Dead gods, you had that in the same year the Gnolls claimed the Drakes had stolen their magic.
And last year, someone had said that the Slayer of the Antinium was dead, and Deni had been toasting the news in Mihaela’s guild.
Maybe that was the start of it all. The world was shaking, and Deniusth thought of Seamwalkers in his mansion in Colosset, one of the lovely harbor cities of the north. Despite all his comforts and blankets and riches, that made him cold.
It was not the only reason he’d come this way. But the Named-rank adventurer looked around and felt like the others had sensed the same thing he had.
A calling, perhaps, among the best. A sense that if they wanted to remain Named-ranks—they had to go.
The New Lands called him. Called him like a song, a stage, and a waiting audience. Deniusth felt an almost erotic urge, and he had never lusted for anything or anyone like that. Young and old, just like Mihaela always said.
“Albez. There it is.”
They’d been travelling fast from Celum. The mad rush of adventurers had largely changed to a group’s travel. A few had raced ahead, but Deniusth knew that Eldertuin had the actual map they’d been cross-referencing with older details.
“I can’t believe Ceria Springwalker gave you that.”
“She must think she owes you a favor for the Village of the Dead raid. I can’t believe you went.”
Even Viecel the Mad Gambler had called it a bad bet. Eldertuin shook his head—he’d come back covered in glory, but it was temporary, and he hadn’t gotten that much out of the raid.
“A friend asked me to help. An old friend. I didn’t go in half as hard as they did.”
“Young idiots. Charge a death-zone with Revenants—”
Deni began and then closed his mouth. Some of Orchestra, his team, looked at him, and he looked so aghast the younger members began to laugh.
“Dead gods. Did I just say that?”
It was the exact kind of thing he’d heard older adventurers say of him. The Named-rank stared up at the sky. Then he turned in his saddle.
“…Think we’ll find anything in the ruins?”
“Who knows. But it’ll be a good warm-up. What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll bet you we find something interesting within the first hour. Wager a finger on it.”
Viecel flipped a coin up, and Eldertuin groaned.
But it was too late. The Selphid caught the coin and grinned.
Named-ranks. They were so different from Gold-ranks that even older adventurers like Jelaqua and Halrac were watching and listening to them.
For one thing, they were older, by and large. Colth and Lehra were outliers by far. Named-ranks, though…they were that because they did the impossible.
Orchestra was the team that cleared the dungeon, Chalence, and made a fortune beyond fortunes. Saliss of Lights, jokester and nudist or not, had killed entire swarms of monsters by himself.
Every single one had more than one story about them. Eldertuin the Fortress had held down half a dozen Trolls in single-combat. Viecel had famously killed one of Terandria’s [Dukes] in an honor-duel that had ended a war between Baleros and Terandrian kingdoms.
They were larger than life—and surprisingly normal. They roughhoused at the Haven like kids, but Jelaqua was curious.
What made the Named-ranks so different? She had seen Eldertuin and Elia from afar, but this was her chance to see them in a more natural element than a raid. And…she glanced at her team.
How far and how long away was that rank, if they would ever reach it? Jelaqua glanced at Halrac and sighed and knew he had to be thinking the same thing as he looked her way.
“A lot’s happened in a year, yeah? Garen and…”
She trailed off as Moore and Seborn looked at her somberly. Jelaqua stared up, then back the way they’d come and grinned.
“…And we still keep coming back to The Wandering Inn. We’ve leveled, but will we ever change that much? I wonder. We’ve got Ulinde now, and you got Briganda, Halrac. Did you get much new loot from Riverfarm? That [Emperor] okay with you riding off?”
“We did ask, Jelaqua. As for gear—Halrac’s wearing his Boots of Balance. That’s about it. What’s with that flail?”
Revi eyed the blue-tinted metal flail at Jelaqua’s side, and the Selphid laughed self-consciously.
“Oh, we got that from the Meeting of Tribes. And a few other things. I’ll show you how it works if we run into any monsters.”
Revi shuddered, eying the scythe edges of the flail instead of spiked balls.
“Just so long as you do it well ahead of me. As for monsters, maybe we’ll get a few zombies, but with this lot—what could stop us?”
She indicated the sea of adventurers, and Typhenous chuckled.
“Revi, are you tempting fate?”
“Someone’s got to. Come on, aren’t you curious?”
Revi indicated the Named-ranks, and Jelaqua knew what she meant. She did wonder…what kind of a threat would challenge all these Named-ranks? An Adult Creler? Worse? Even with Albez and Liscor’s dungeon for that matter—
What could go wrong?
Elsewhere, in Liscor, a group of Councilmembers were adjusting their clothes as they waited for a door to open to visit Riverfarm.
An [Innkeeper] was already over there, introducing Larra to an [Emperor]—right before an angry street-light chased her around for causing so much trouble. A coven of [Witches] were equally as bemused, but more than one was considering a shopping trip to Invrisil.
But that was their side-quest to have. The real adventure was already taking place.
The Horns of Hammerad, Colth the Supporter, and Stargazer’s Promise were the three teams in The Wandering Inn who hadn’t raced off to Albez. Of course, there were a lot of Goblins lingering about, but Colth looked as cool as could be.
“So, you’re gonna grab this Stalker’s corpse? Want, uh—want a paw?”
Lehra looked excited at the prospect, but her teammates elbowed her.
Their [Monk], Emper, looked disapproving.
“Etiquette, Lehra. It’s their treasure.”
“Technically, it’s no one’s…”
Elgrinna murmured. Lehra whined in agreement, but Emper and Suxhel were steadfast.
“The Horns have been fighting in that dungeon for ages. If they want help—”
The Horns of Hammerad glanced at each other. Ceria scratched at her hair.
“Tempting, but I think we’ll try it alone. With Colth, I mean.”
“Aw, that’s fair. But if you need the hide processed, I know a guy.”
Lehra was the most reasonable of adventurers despite her clear desire to be included. In fact—amazingly so.
The other adventurers who hadn’t gone to Albez and weren’t part of this exciting moment could just listen in. And that was Saliss of Lights, Tessa, and even Glitterblade, Jewel’s team.
“Damn. Do you think we could just go down and find…?”
Jewel’s teammate, Hilten, looked at Toimt and Jewel, and she kicked him. Hard.
“You want to get in more trouble, Hilten? Besides—that’s a Vengeance Dungeon. You don’t just waltz through it. We have no maps from the adventurers who’ve scouted the traps. We’re not geared up for it, and there’s a boss monster on the loose.”
Some teams had all the luck. The Horns were that team as far as Glitterblade were concerned. Although that ‘luck’ might have come from the [Innkeeper]—that was what Jewel was betting on, and it was why they were volunteering their time as effective bouncers for the inn.
Also, they were curious to see how Colth and the Horns would tackle this issue. Because—of a surety—Glitterblade was going to blab about Ceria’s revelations if any of the other teams came back from Albez. Them or the other guests who’d been listening in. More than one avaricious ear had been snooping on Ceria’s comments, and there were even some [Lords] who’d hurried off upon hearing about the fantastical corpse in the dungeon.
That meant that the Horns had a day or two—or less if the Albez rush didn’t stay all night. They were on a time limit, and Ceria was outlining the problem.
“I think I could rely on my memory if we got to the Raskghar camp—the problem is, I have no idea where that is anymore. Or all the traps Calruz took me past. Nor do we have any guides. Numbtongue, do you remember anything about how to get through the dungeon?”
The [Bard] glanced up.
“What about a guide? Damn—Bevussa left.”
Yvlon cursed. The Wings of Pallass and Keldrass’ Flamewardens were some of the most experienced teams who’d made a habit of continuing to explore the dungeon. Well, that was half the issue. The other half was—
“So this inner city has a bunch of fleshy humanoids. Do they attack with any kind of acid? Any…magic?”
Colth was frowning as he tried to parse the threat. Ceria hesitated.
“No. They just overwhelmed even the Raskghar with sheer numbers. I think they might regenerate—Calruz kept ordering the Raskghar to hack them up.”
“What kind of numbers? Hundreds?”
“Thousands. The longer you stayed, the more arrived. He estimated there might be tens of thousands or more. Hundreds? It’s a huge city. Pallass might rival it in sheer size.”
“Pallass? You’re joking.”
Ceria was closing her eyes shut, and her fingers were pressed to her temple.
“I never thought of it before—but it was vast. That hole in the center…we were hours in it, but Calruz always retreated before we were overrun. And the Raskghar—well, they were Raskghar, and they had artifacts. They still had to flee.”
“We’ll call it massed monsters, then. And assume there’s more dangerous types or surprises. So, from the opening—here’s the dungeon maps the Adventurer’s Guild had. No one has a route to this inner city yet, but it’s going to be a long journey through a trapped dungeon with monsters everywhere.”
Colth was plotting the route out, and Yvlon and Ksmvr, even Pisces, were listening in. Colth the Supporter had already proven he was an analytical adventurer.
This was a lot of variables. Traps, monsters, Facestealer…Ceria Springwalker, for her part, was thinking.
She had the circlet on. She knew she was being empowered by its effects, intelligence being the most obvious one and her increased spellcasting abilities. And what her mind was telling her—
Well, even without the circlet, Ceria was pretty sure she would say that this was a terrible idea.
Horns or not. Even after clearing the Village of the Dead—no, especially after running into Tolveilouka, she should know how stupid it was to go in without preparations. How would she tackle this?
What’s Colth going to say? Ceria waited, and the Ultimate Supporter looked up with a smile.
“Alright. I’ve formulated my plan. Do you want me to share it, Captain Ceria, or do you have a preference?”
“Me? I was going to say we’re not getting to Stalker’s corpse without a lot of unnecessary risk. Frankly, I’d ask for two more Gold-rank teams as backup at minimum, especially with Facestealer in the mix.”
Ceria sighed. Lehra looked up excitedly. But Colth just rubbed his hands together with a smile.
“You think so? I won’t rule it out, but I think we can begin now—and possibly gain intelligence about our route and even recover Stalker before Deni and that lot get word of it.”
All the adventurers looked at him. Even Saliss turned to Tessa and tapped the side of his head. She shrugged, but Colth was a Named-rank. His eyes glittered.
“Us Named-ranks need to prove we’re worth more than the title. Let me show you how a professional takes down the dungeon.”
He winked at the others to show them he was just kidding, but—Ceria’s brows rose. And what separated the Named-ranks from regular adventurers? Well…she had to admire it.
Albez was just past Remendia, half a day’s ride out. If you had Skills or magic, you’d get there faster—and the adventurers had plenty of both.
Actually, Remendia still slowed them up because half the city wanted to meet Deni and the other Named-ranks.
Bronze and Silver-rank adventurers were flocking to Albez even an hour into the first part of the dig. They rode up, stopped, did the wide-eyed and whispering thing, then approached and asked, meek as kittens, if they could help join the search.
Deniusth lifted an arm and wiped sweat off his brow, then cursed as he got dirt on his forehead. He was holding a shovel and tossed it to the huge, scarred [Thug] who’d become a Silver-rank.
“You want to dig? We’ll give you a share of whatever we get, but Orchestra and Variable Fortress have a claim on any relics—with a share to the other Gold-ranks that are here. Deal?”
“Yes, sir! It’s an honor to meet you, Adventurer Deniusth.”
The famous duelist smiled wanly, then retreated. He had dirt all over his cloth armor, and he removed one glove and stared at the blisters.
He did not reach for a healing potion, but he did stop digging. The first hour…the first half hour…
The first fifteen minutes had seen him going into Albez and choosing one of the spots they’d thought hadn’t been searched and digging like he was a young man. Then he’d quickly lost his patience and energy.
An hour in and he was done. Deniusth went over to sit, drink some water from a flask, and watch the other adventurers at work.
“We barely need diggers—not with [Geomancers].”
He watched as Moore shifted a huge mass of dirt with a spell, but the half-Giant had to be careful and work around the crumbling ruins he was excavating. It was all too easy to bury more of what they wanted to get at—hence the tools for specific unearthing of doorways.
More adventurers were sitting about, but the majority were down there, checking different spots as Eldertuin and the other Captains traded off Ceria’s map.
Deniusth was being watched by Anith of Vuliel Drae, Nailren of the Pride of Kelia, Jelaqua, Halrac, Keldrass, Bevussa, and a bunch of other teams. What they noticed about the Named-rank was his impatience an hour in. The first thing that made Named-ranks different?
“Damn this. Hey! Harper!”
He shouted at one of his teammates. And yes…she was a harp-carrying adventurer. She seemed to be a ‘junior’ member of Orchestra, a Gold-rank. But then, his team was rated as Named-rank as well as having two adventurers.
“Contact Remendia. Tell them I want to hire [Diggers]. And get more [Geomancers]. We don’t have to dig ourselves. Get a hundred.”
The other adventurers turned and blinked. Hire diggers? The cost of a hundred, especially if they had a guild, would be hundreds of gold pieces! More!
…But the Named-rank Adventurer didn’t even seem to consider the cost of that, even if they found nothing. Nor did his teammate.
“Want them here in the hour?”
“Sure. Get the Driver’s Guild to transport them. Hey, Eld! I’m calling in diggers! Stop wasting your energy—this stupid ruin’s deeper than I remember!”
One of Keldrass’ teammates shook her head when she heard that and lifted the shovel she was using.
“Fucking incredible. That’s a Named-rank for you.”
“He’s got the coin. This isn’t fun anyways.”
Keldrass didn’t know if he was defending the Named-rank on principle or because he saw Deniusth’s point. But the Violinist certainly had leadership of the other adventurers. A lot threw down their tools when they heard that—but more kept on going.
“Hey, the armory of that [Mage] that the Horns found is practically excavated already. Should we take a look down there? I bet you they cleared it out. But maybe there’s a few gold coins that weren’t melted?”
An adventurer joked, pointing to the section the Horns had gone into. It was, in fact, very neatly excavated. In fact, someone had even marked the place off with bright paint, and a few confused adventurers were pointing at the others.
Some of the teams present were from Invrisil, and so the Waterborn Raiders, a less…upstanding group of adventurers, had also come to see what might be dug up.
They were staying far, far away from Moore. Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, a lot of teams had become famous from the Village of the Dead raid. Not theirs. Not enough.
Why, even the Distinguished Staves looked like they’d upgraded some of their gear from the payout. The Waterborn Raiders still felt like they’d been cheated of the true haul of goods—but it had been coin in their pockets, despite losing one of their own. They should have gotten more given that.
Old Geni had, at the raid. The Distinguished Staves looked smaller, despite the shiny new staff one of the [Wizards] was using.
None of these Named-ranks even knew her, beyond a passing name. These northern lot had sat on their asses, and now they were taking charge of this? Well, they weren’t going to get their way.
Spoken Vow, the team that had gone with the Horns, was still mourning one of their downed teammates. Well, most of them were.
A [Knife Fighter] named ‘Riz’, no other full name or last name given, glanced up as she heard the Waterborn Raiders’ comment. She turned to her captain instantly.
“Hey. Didn’t the Horns run into some kind of trap down there? Think there are any runes left? I know someone who’d pay a lot for them.”
“I bet any [Merchant] would.”
Her Captain blinked, then brightened up with sudden interest. The Waterborn Raiders looked up, and Spoken Vow and their team traded glances.
“…Those Named-ranks look like they’re having brunch. Say, Spoken Vow. You just stay here and we’ll take a look for you and report back, huh? If there’s something, we’ll cut you in.”
The Captain of Spoken Vow, Mickey, was not an idiot. The Waterborn Raiders were sixteen strong, and Spoken Vow was down a member, but they were also a numerous Gold-rank team. Both groups eyed each other—until Riz interjected.
“You can’t pry runes off the wall without gear. Any excavation will take a while, and it’s a trap room, idiot. Unless you cracked the walls. Then, maybe, we’d be able to grab something, but that much stone will fill all our bags of holding. Let’s go down together. If there is a profit—two teams are better than twenty.”
The Waterborn Raiders’ leader hesitated and eyed her. She gave him a big smile, and he blanched.
“Right you are. Stop growling, Orelo. Idiot. Come on.”
He shoved one of his teammates, and Spoken Vow relaxed, surprised, as the Waterborn Raiders glanced around, then both Gold-rank teams sliiiid towards the opening in the dirt.
The sight of two Gold-rank teams disappearing into the ruins might have gone unnoticed as the other adventurers were still working, but not to most [Rogues].
“Oi. Viecel. Did you see that?”
The Selphid looked over as the [Rogue] in Variable Fortress glanced over. The Selphid’s eyes followed a pointing finger.
“Two teams just headed into that place the Horns cleared. Might be they think there’s something valuable.”
“Oh, really? Well in that case—get Eldertuin and Deni. Anyone have an hourglass?”
“Nevermind. It’s been an hour.”
The Gambler sighed again. Then, as Insill came over to offer the Named-rank adventurer a flask of water , the Drake [Rogue] saw the Selphid produce a belt knife—and press it against one of the three fingers on his right hand.
He cut the dead finger off and tossed it to the ground. Insill froze, and the Selphid looked up.
The [Gambler]’s face was blank—and then he smiled.
“Is that water for me? Thank you—don’t mind the finger. I knew it was a bad bet, but imagine what I’d have won?”
He kicked the finger aside, and Insill was motionless until Viecel reached for the water flask. He took a huge drink, then waved to Deniusth. Insill saw him glance at the Drake.
“N-no problem, sir…”
Insill backed up, and his team had seen the entire thing. Pekona wasn’t digging—she only had one hand. She sat, quieter than she even normally was as Dasha, Anith, and Larr all took a break.
“Did you see that? Guys—guys, did you see—”
“Yep. Stop staring, Insill. He’s a Selphid. No wonder they call him the Mad Gambler. I bet you he does that all the time.”
Dasha was trying to play it cool, but she was gripping her beard hard with one hand. Anith shook his head.
“A bet? He bet we’d find treasure—what happens if he wins?”
Insill didn’t know, but he knew what happened if Viecel lost. The Selphid’s missing fingers suddenly made sense, and the Drake saw the [Gambler] waggling his two fingers—forefinger and thumb—at Eldertuin. He didn’t hear what the Fortress said, but Viecel lifted his two fingers and spoke loudly enough for even Vuliel Drae to hear.
“[Double or Nothing]! Something by tonight. Two fingers—”
“Selphids. Dead gods.”
Some of the other adventurers were mildly horrified despite being veterans. One of them looked sideways at the others.
“Not the craziest thing they’ve done. Did you hear there was something in Baleros this morning…?”
Before they could gossip, Vuliel Drae saw Deniusth leap to his feet and go running to the place where the Waterborn Raiders and Spoken Vow had disappeared into.
Naturally, half of the other Captains ran after him. But before even the Violinist could get into the secret lair of Warmage Thresk…they heard a shout, and then Spoken Vow, the Waterborn Raiders, and a third adventuring group emerged from the tunnel, arguing.
All three had pickaxes and tools, but the third adventuring team looked like they had been working harder than the rest. And they were clearly confused—their Captain stared around at all the other people present.
“—the hell? What map? We’re not sharing anything, so back off—Ceria Springwalker’s contracted our team to grab those runes, and if you want them, you can talk to her. We’ve been here a damn month and—”
The Silver-rank team of Gemhammer made Deni’s mad dash slow. The other teams looked up, and Jelaqua’s mouth opened. Nailren spotted the familiar face of Earlia, with a mining helmet on, and her team—and realized why he hadn’t seen her about since coming back to Liscor.
“She did what?”
Captain Earlia spotted the Named-ranks and went white. But her team was wearing bright, shiny new gear, and they had marked off Ceria’s dig-site—
And they’d been harvesting the runes. Ever since Ceria got back from Chandrar, in fact. Deniusth slowed as he realized why Ceria might have been eager to give away the map in the first place.
“You’ve been dismantling the trap room? You didn’t say, Ceria!”
Yvlon was outraged to hear about it, but Ceria just rolled her eyes.
“I was going to let you know—once we had all the runes harvested. Some are broken or fragile, and besides, I hired Earlia’s team. They get 30% of whatever we sell it for.”
“30%? That sounds low.”
Yvlon was astonished, but Ceria just smirked as she contemplated the disappointed adventurers.
“She leapt at the offer. She knows how much all that’s worth, especially for a Silver-rank team. Earlia told me it’s not even hard, assuming no monsters are in the area. I promised we’d help clear out any nests, but she’s just been carefully pulling the runes out.”
“How’d she do it without getting caught by the spell?”
The half-Elf tried to remember.
“Earlia claimed they’d do what we did—toss a bunch of soot and cloud ash down there. Apparently it’s a fire that bakes ash to the walls. They are professionals.”
Ksmvr’s mandibles were still open, but Yvlon realized what Ceria had done.
“You mean—we just gave all those excited adventurers a treasure map when Earlia’s team has been taking the only valuable thing in Albez out for ages?”
“We didn’t promise them that. But yeah. It’s pretty funny when you think about it.”
The half-Elf snorted. Yvlon just gave Ceria an odd look, but after hearing Colth’s idea, she couldn’t rightly complain. Because what sounded to Yvlon like a bit of skullduggery…both made her feel like she was emulating Ylawes.
And frankly, it seemed like a real Named-rank move. After all, the Horns were about to enter Liscor’s dungeon with only an hour of prep time.
Colth was standing at the edge of the chasm, looking down into the pit. Yvlon knew there were steel barricades in place down there, which had to be unlatched to let adventurers through. She tensed, despite herself, and Ceria turned. Pisces was standing with Colth, looking—surprised. Even awkward, but the other teams gathered around to watch saw the ropes begin to lower.
“Ready! Let’s do this!”
Colth was strong enough to lower the ropes himself, but Yvlon hurried over to help, and the first being began to descend into the darkness.
Into the dungeon of Liscor, where the last protectors of the dungeon waited. They had battled the Antinium, even with the Small Queen’s advance. They had husbanded the depleted monster populations—and the dungeon had reconfigured against the tireless adventurers.
In the darkness, troops of enchanted armor patrolled. Hordes of monsters, Crypt Worms, and undead stayed clear of the Free Hive’s trapped entrance and waited.
Snatcher sensed the first body dropping into the chasm and turned from counting heads. So few heads.
No monster heads. The Raskghar were gone. The Goblins were gone. Less adventurers—and it hadn’t gotten the blue thing’s head.
It had tried. The being of thread had given it a chance, and it had tried—but the last of the three great protectors hadn’t been able to take the most valuable part of its collection.
Light had burned it. Magic had nearly…nearly killed Snatcher. But the head.
So many heads had eluded it. The little white thing. The five green ones. The adventurers.
Was Snatcher angry? Such an odd emotion to have after all this long while. Pain was a rare thing for it. Names, pain, duty…those were so long ago. It still remembered what it was supposed to do.
…But it had long since given in to its desires. Taking heads. It had Stalker’s face, and it would have taken Skinner’s—if Skinner had ever had a head worth taking. This should have contented Snatcher, for its home was decorated with its trophies.
But was it…angry?
WAS IT ANGRY ABOUT THE PAIN? ABOUT THE INTRUDERS? WAS IT ANGR—
Something walked the dungeon, and Snatcher prowled out of its lair, and monsters fled before it. It knew danger and death—but if this intruder had a head worth taking, Snatcher would have it. It wanted more. More and more, and it was starting to wonder how many heads lay above.
How long did it have to guard Mother?
Was she even still down there? Oh…yes.
Did she have a head worth taking?
The Horns entered the dungeon, and the whispers began at once.
“Okay, we have no idea where we’re going. So—let’s try the routes on this map that Bevussa’s team used and go from there. If we find an old Raskghar camp, I might be able to navigate to another one.”
“We should have asked Calruz for help.”
“…No, we shouldn’t have.”
Ceria’s voice and Yvlon’s were very distinct as the team crept forwards. The metal barricades that demarcated ‘danger areas’ and safe zones had several layers due to Facestealer and the other monster threats. The first layer was around the opening of the chasm. It took some doing to lift the heavy metal bar and open the door, and the Horns were arguing the entire while.
“Dead gods, I hate this place.”
Pisces muttered as Colth kept silent—for now. Ksmvr’s voice was a whisper.
“Captain Ceria, Comrade Yvlon, please keep quieter.”
“Right, Ksmvr. Damn lever. Okay…there’s a trap left here. Left!”
The scream was just in time—a body slammed into the wall and avoided a magical trap. Instantly, the team began arguing.
“Say that earlier, Ceria!”
“I said left! Why are you going left?”
“I just heard left!”
“Well, listen to the context in my voice, Pisces. Any monsters ahead?”
The whispering team fell silent, and Colth called out.
“None that I can see. Let’s call out the traps—show Pisces ahead of time, maybe?”
They moved ahead, and the adventurers slowly navigated around the traps. They were…too casual.
“Dead gods, I need a snack.”
“Ceria, keep your voice—”
“Movement on our left. What’s that?”
Everyone froze…and something crawled away from them. Colth murmured.
“It looks like just a small scavenger insect. Bile maggot. Bigger than most I’ve seen. I hope they don’t…hatch.”
“Dead gods, how many monster species are down here?”
Yvlon was disgusted. Pisces replied.
“Let’s not go that way if possible. Just on chance.”
“Fair point. Alright, we’re going ahead. Watch for traps—and if you hear any rumblings, remember the Shield Spider avalanche?”
“Dead gods, I hate this place.”
The Horns of Hammerad were not enforcing silence or cohesion as the figure in front stumbled forwards warily, head swinging left and right. In fact, they were trusting too much to the map. If a monster jumped them…
Lehra Ruinstrider was watching the Horns’ progress with Colth. She would be the first to admit her team had poor adventuring discipline. She’d realized that after their final battle with Dragial, actually.
The Halfseekers…that was a professional team for all they were fun and relaxed. They had excellent teamwork; Lehra’s did too, but their team tended to support the Stargnoll.
But the Horns? Lehra had heard they were good enough to take on the Village of the Dead raid, but their banter right now was the most unprofessional stuff she’d heard of—and she did know dungeons.
The Ruinstrider tribe didn’t do dungeons, mostly, but the distinction between ‘ruins’ and dungeons sometimes got too close for comfort. You kept quiet, you took few chances, and you didn’t trust the map.
The Horns were doing a lot of stuff wrong, and Colth didn’t seem inclined to reprimand them. If anything, he was observing them and even bantering with Pisces.
“You know, for a team that did the Village of the Dead raid, I can’t imagine this dungeon is much worse.”
“It’s traps. I hate traps. I have had entirely too many experiences encountering hunters’ snares or traps in forests.”
The [Necromancer] grumbled. Colth gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder as Lehra watched.
Unprofessional. Chaotic. Too loud by half—Ceria was chomping down on some fries, and Yvlon was eating them too. Dead gods, they even had Mrsha in between Ksmvr and Colth watching it all.
It would have been the most irresponsible dungeon crawl ever—if the Horns were actually down there.
The view of the dungeon lurched, and Ceria winced.
“Pisces, can you keep the view steady?”
“I can’t tell if the skeleton trips. What’s that on our left?”
The adventurers were crowded around…a scrying orb. And the orb was giving them a wide-angle view of a dungeon, two swinging skeletal arms, and a very faint light as a skeleton awkwardly navigated the maze. Ksmvr was drawing a line down their map as they reached the last point Bevussa had been to. Mrsha was hugging Pisces’ arm as they saw an axe swinging in front of them.
“Dead gods, an actual swinging axe trap.”
“Yeah, well, this one shoots spikes out the sides if you get too close. Pisces, can you make the skeleton roll?”
“Stop heckling me. This is hard enough to do at range!”
Pisces hissed. The skeleton hesitated—then did a few steps, and the viewpoint spun—and everyone heard a crash and snapping sounds.
“Good job, Pisces.”
At this, the [Necromancer] threw one of the napkins at Ceria. He pointed at the scrying orb as Colth stirred.
“Is the undead dead or…?”
“I believe I can reassemble it. Hold on. The further we get from our location, the more difficult this will be to project my mana. So I need less distractions and more guidance, Ceria.”
“Sorry, Pisces. I’d make it a Frostmarrow Skeleton if I could—but I don’t know if you can control it. Here, have some fries.”
Everyone sat back as Pisces went to work, and Lehra turned to her team. Suxhel’s mouth was still open, and they all sat there—including Jewel’s team—with a kind of—of voyeuristic shame hanging about them.
“Is this even legal? This feels like cheating!”
“Cheating who, exactly?”
Elgrinna was smiling, but Lehra felt like someone should be holding up one of those yellow cards in that soccer game she’d watched.
“It’s just so cheap!”
The skeleton got back up, and the Horns went back to directing Pisces forwards, but more quietly. Lehra gestured to it.
“Look at them! They get to explore the dungeon with a skeleton, and they’re not even—people have died and—that’s Named-rank adventuring?”
Colth had come up with the idea. He looked quite pleased about coming up with the concept—and he was even extrapolating ideas.
“Adventurers have tons of items that do the same thing. [Beastmasters] would use mice or birds—canaries in the mines, you know? But a skeleton is so…expendable. I may see if other teams bite at the idea if I can copy the spell once we’re done here.”
“The scrying orb’s a great idea. We never had orbs—let alone ones to burn.”
The reason why they could use an ‘expendable’ scrying orb was mainly due to Palt and other high-power [Mages] capable of casting the scrying enchantment. Ceria was jotting down a note—if you could make a free scrying orb out of a glass orb, that was a spell to learn.
Lehra’s team was used to scouting, but they felt this was a bit too easy. However, another adventurer disagreed.
“It’s cheap, underhanded, and as safe as can be. That’s Named-rank for you. What, did you think we played fair? Rookie.”
Saliss of Lights was watching the Horns with one sardonic look at Colth. He glanced over at Lehra and kicked at her lightly.
“But Adventurer Saliss! You don’t do this!”
Saliss pointed at his chest.
“I don’t do that?”
“You fight with potions! This is…”
Lehra ducked as Saliss actually threw another napkin at her face. He looked genuinely annoyed by her comment.
“Listen, kid. Lehra. Rookie. Newbie. Peon. Uh…child.”
Her team looked unsure whether or not to take offense, but Saliss pointed a claw at Lehra.
“—Shut up. If you ever say that to me again, I’ll have Tessa kick the fur off you. You sound like some kind of wet-behind-the-ears Bronze-rank.”
“You shut up too, whoever you are.”
The Drake pointed at Emper, and the [Monk] fell silent. The Drake stabbed a table with one claw.
“Adventurers don’t play fair. You want to know the last ‘fight’ I had outside of the Meeting of Tribes? I fought a room full of high-level [Rogues]. And what I did is—I inserted a Potion of Acid Clouds into the room and closed the door.”
Lehra fell silent and blanched. Saliss glared at her.
“If it was Crelers, I’d do the exact same thing but add fire as well. When I hunt monsters, I don’t walk up to them and give them a shake of the claw and wish them a sporting match and agree not to hit them under the belt. I ambush them when they’re sleeping. If I need to, I dig a hole and put sharp sticks at the bottom. If I think there’s a fair fight, I run away and come back later.”
“But you fought Belavierr and the armies—”
He grabbed her arm and hissed at her.
“That’s not adventuring. That’s idiocy. This is real adventuring, and if you had any sense, you would have taken out that Wall Lord who was hunting you the first time you beat him rather than let the Halfseekers clean up your mess.”
Chastened, embarrassed, Lehra ducked her head. In fact, Colth turned to give Saliss a long look, which the Drake returned with a middle finger.
“I don’t want to hear it, Colth the Upstanding. She’s a rookie, and she needs to hear this. Or she won’t live another year.”
Lehra shrank down at her table and stared at her plate. That was until Saliss stomped off to ask Ishkr how annoyed Laken Godart might be if Saliss showed up. The Drake was really unhappy to learn Laken was blind.
“Saliss has done a lot of heroic things against overwhelming odds. Like his defense of Pallass. He’s looking out for you. Don’t take it the wrong way; he is right that you and your team need to work on surviving before being heroes.”
Colth got up from the table where Pisces was walking his skeleton into a wall. Lehra glanced up.
“I know that—it’s just, I don’t feel like a Named-rank all the time. Most of the time.”
Colth was sympathetic. He patted Lehra on the shoulder.
“Completely understandable. I made it to Named-rank, oh, six years ago, and you’re younger than I was! But you need to remember something, Lehra. Even if you don’t feel like it—your threats will be Named-rank. If someone goes hunting you, they don’t take a band of [Thugs], they bring an army. Same for adventures. You’ll be the highest-level person there, and you can’t be the one who folds.”
His words struck Lehra harder than he could have known. She had been at the Meeting of Tribes. If she had been able to use the Blade of Mershi properly or…
“Watch your back! Watch your—”
The scrying orb went dark, and Yvlon stopped shaking Pisces as the snarling, red-eyed monster leapt. Pisces jerked back in his seat.
The monstrous child-mimics that pretended to be children had snuck up on Pisces. Colth groaned and hurried over as the Gold-rank team began arguing over what had gone wrong.
“I thought you were a duelist, Pisces. Why’s your skeleton got all the grace of a drunk Palt?”
Palt looked hurt as he trotted past them. Pisces protested.
“I may be able to control it—but I am not used to seeing through a scrying orb. I hope we haven’t lost it. We should enchant a plain piece of glass—and I need you to stop shouting in my ears!”
“Right, sorry. What if…we sent the skeleton in armor?”
“We’re not losing good armor.”
“Okay, then, what about a Flask of Fire? Or something to defend itself?”
“How about a [Haste] spell? Or [Speed]. I could cast [Speed], and we could give the skeleton a shield. Frankly, we should probably add [Light] to it as well. Sneaking around in the darkness made it harder to navigate, and the monsters clearly took notice it was there.”
Colth sat down, and the Gold-ranks conferred as they went over the issue. Lehra glanced up at them and sighed.
“Why’s it feel like the Horns are closer to Named-rank than we are?”
“Maybe they are if they combined all their levels, compared with ours. No—that’s definitely the case.”
Suxhel knew their team was Gold-rank, but she eyed Pisces and compared his probable level to Lehra’s. In levels, the Horns might actually be superior to Stargazer’s Promise.
But what made Lehra better? Well, aside from sheer levels like Colth or Saliss, the answer was one thing. Lehra glanced down at the gleaming bracelet on one arm.
Relics. The first monster encounter at Albez was fast—but stronger than anticipated.
“Lich. Undead horde. Liiiiich!”
It was a throwback to the first monsters that the Horns had ever encountered at Albez. Namely—an undead spellcaster.
The body of a dead [Mage] emerged as the first civilian diggers caved in a hither-to unexplored tunnel. A Lich rose out, shooting lightning bolts and [Fireballs], and hundreds of undead poured after it.
The ruins of Albez had been a magical community, so the dangerous undead variant made sense. It was more than a match for most Silver-rank teams with its sheer magical killing ability.
…But not that many Named-ranks and Gold-ranks. In fact, the first bolt of lightning never even hit the terrified woman running screaming away from the Lich.
“[Accident Protection: Monsters]! Get out of there!”
Earlia’s [Mining Captain] Skill made the first bolt of lightning swerve. It was such an odd Skill that even the other adventurers were surprised. But then the adventurers were charging into the fighting.
Frankly, it was overkill, and half the teams didn’t even get into the opened pit. The adventurers were in more danger of hitting each other, and Halrac loosed one enchanted arrow that detonated on the Lich’s barriers before he heard a shout.
“No area of attack spells! Damn it, get out of the pit—nevermind, warriors in!”
The sensible thing to do would be to stand back and hit the undead in the pit with [Fireballs], but the adventurers had gone in—and more monsters were awakening from the fighting.
The undead horde had, apparently, been sharing space or competing with huge, burrowing…pigs. They had huge tusks that rose upwards with shovel-like ends, and their mouths were cilia, waving tendrils that feasted on dead meat.
The angry pigs were as large as boars, and they slammed into the undead, and the adventurers in the pit were facing their charge as well as the corroded weapons of the undead and the Lich’s indiscriminate magic.
It was overkill.
Eldertuin the Fortress slammed a sword against his shield, and the Lich whirled. A bolt of lightning, orb of acid, and fireball all shot towards the Fortress’ shield, and he hunkered behind it.
“I’ve got a bead, Captain. Want me to take a shot?”
The [Archer] of Variable Fortress, his team, was aiming at the Lich. Halrac loosed another invisible arrow, but it had shields up, and it was surviving the first volley from adventurers confident enough not to hit the adventurers below.
“No. Let it attack.”
Eldertuin held his ground, and the shield barely vibrated as more spells lashed it. He glanced over—and Deniusth had his sword drawn, but Orchestra was also standing at the top of the pit. Casually, the Named-rank swung his bow through the head of a climbing Ghoul, but that was all.
Orchestra had a huge attack radius, and so the adventurers who’d jumped down—Dasha, Jelaqua, the Waterborn Raiders, and a host of others—would have been hit. Deniusth was eying the Lich, but he saw Eldertuin and knew there was no point to showing off.
After all—the Fortress’ shield was beginning to awaken.
Eldertuin had a tower shield, huge and square, curved to protect a lot of his body even when held at his side. He could cover his entire form with it, large as he was, and it was the one relic-class item he owned.
A gift from House Terland upon his marriage. It was decorated with their motifs, a beautiful relief on the front, but the real secret was the object in the center.
An eye. And the eye was normally closed until enough magic hit it. Whereupon it slowly began to open…
The Lich only sensed something was wrong when it saw a gemstone eye of the Golem Shield open. Then it saw the eye’s pupil glow white—and the undead began to fly back.
Too late—a beam of light lanced across the ground, and Halrac threw up his hands to shield his face. He saw it pierce the barriers and hit the Lich—when he lowered his hands, a flaming shower of ashes was falling.
“Dead gods. Now there’s a shield.”
Briganda swore in admiration. She hadn’t gone down into the pit, but she was ready to leap. No wonder Eldertuin had held an entire part of the Village of the Dead raid on his own!
“I hear it’s got other effects. Like a localized earthquake. None of the Named-rankers going to show off? Viecel’s just sitting there.”
The Selphid was indeed, as were Orchestra. But then—Revi blinked down into the pit of adventurers and saw a few teams shouting.
“Hey! Let us back out!”
The Waterborn Raiders were climbing up. They had been mad enough to leap into the fight after realizing that Earlia’s team were taking the runes, but they were backing out. And indeed, even the other Gold and Silver-rankers in the pit were climbing out.
It had been barely forty seconds. What was—Revi looked into the pit, and her jaw dropped.
Hundreds of undead. That was not an idle thing. Vuliel Drae or the Pride of Kelia could conceivably take down that horde, but if they leapt into that pit, they had good odds of never coming out. They would require planning, traps, chokepoints—but Nailren was sure he could have taken the undead down with enough arrows and time.
…Yet that was the difference between his team and, say, a Named-rank one. Saliss of Lights could eliminate that horde in five seconds, he was sure.
Now, the Gnoll saw something that made his heart skip. Because if that was true—
Then how fast was one adventurer taking down this horde? Even Deniusth had fallen silent, and the other teams, from Spoken Vow to the Raiders to even teams like the Silver Swords, were shocked. Ylawes backed up—shield raised despite himself—
Because Jelaqua Ivirith’s flail wasn’t stopping.
Demas Metal. It was whirling, blades coated in water and gore, and the metal edges swung through Zombies and Ghouls so fast that the [Steelforged Whirlwind] barely stopped moving. She didn’t riposte, parry, feint, or do anything so slow as take the undead on one by one.
Her flailwork was that of a Gold-rank adventurer who’d done this for ages—but it was a careful dance of hammering her opponent, pulling the flail back, and hitting them again. Death by a thousand strikes.
This? The Selphid herself was caught off-guard by the lack of resistance. She slashed through a zombie’s corroded chainmail and into its chest, whirled the Demas Metal flail around—
The only thing that lasted more than a second was a Crypt Lord. That horror appeared, and Jelaqua’s flail slashed at its sides, its ‘face’, and bloated body—it swung at her, and she danced back—then the Crypt Lord stared at its missing arm. It went down so fast Ylawes wondered if he could have done that with one of his Skills.
“Dead gods! Ivirith is tearing them up! Was she always that good?”
An adventurer from the north exclaimed shakily. Ylawes saw Dawil reaching down and swung himself up the crumbling dirt walls.
“It’s like that metal was made for her. Look at her!”
Dawil was beaming, and Ylawes smiled despite himself—although he felt frankly envious. When Jelaqua halted, the Selphid was panting. Her dead body’s chest rose up and down, and the Selphid looked around.
“What the—did I do that?”
Everyone looked at her team and then the minced bodies. A Ghoul crept up, cradling a severed arm, and leapt at Jelaqua. She turned with one hand raised to punch it—and the Ghoul vanished mid-leap in a blaze of magical missiles.
“How many was—”
Ylawes lowered his arm as dozens of arrow-spells hit the Ghoul mid-jump. Falene broke in, breathless.
“Sixty-one. How did he—”
She looked up, and Moore lowered his staff, blinking. The Silver Swords looked up, and then Ylawes saw what had changed about the [Green Mage].
That staff he held was made of dark metal, reminiscent of iron, but infused with sprinkles of light, like it was some kind of gemstone ore embedded in the metal. And the tip was a set of sapphire claws clutching an orb that glowed with power.
“…Did Moore always have that staff?”
Ylawes was almost certain he had not. The half-Giant lowered it, and Falene’s mouth worked. Then she pointed.
Wall Lord Dragial’s personal staff and the gift from the Demas Metal tribe glinted among the Halfseekers’ personal equipment. In fact, Ylawes thought Seborn had a new cloak, and Ulinde seemed to be wearing boots adjusted for a Drake…
“They looted the Wall Lord. They looted a Wall Lord of Fissival? And got away with it?”
Deni couldn’t take his eyes off of the Halfseekers’ gear.
“Apparently, they split some of it with the Stargnoll’s team. Did you see that flail? That’s…what tribe was selling that metal? It’s not even enchanted, and she tore up that group of undead. We could do that. Obviously. But—”
The Named-ranks reacted to the Halfseekers’ performance in the pit almost more strongly than the lower-rank teams. Because they saw what that meant.
That staff might not be relic-class, but if it wasn’t, it was as good as anything Deni or Eldertuin’s [Mages] had. And gear?
Gear was what separated Named-ranks from Gold-ranks. Levels too, but gear?
Saliss of Lights was a kind of exception in that he could manufacture his own gear, and it was a limited supply. But those items changed everything.
Eldertuin the Fortress had no fear of a [Warrior]’s worst nightmare: hostile magic. Similarly, each Named-rank Adventurer tended to have an object or objects that put them above ordinary members of their class.
For instance, Deni had heard that Three-Color Stalker had a pair of blades that would kill almost anyone she stabbed—and there was nothing more terrifying than a contest where the first blow ended everything with the world’s best [Rogue].
There was something else Named-ranks had that other adventurers didn’t, and that was exemplary gear that wasn’t based around combat.
In fact, as the [Diggers] got back to work and the adventurers decided to make camp around Albez’s ruins, Deni went to chat with the Halfseekers. He had noticed Griffon Hunt’s Captain had an invisible bow, too, and in exchange for being allowed to inspect both, he showed them his scarf.
“My instrument is obviously custom-made. An old enchanted violin from the Rihal Imperium, apparently. Whatever that was. It’s got a host of magical effects.”
“It’s that old? So your team plays magical effects? Like a group of [Bards]?”
Ulinde was nervous and excited, but you needed a rookie like that, and Deni let her admire the bow of his violin—while cautioning her to be careful, because it was sharp.
“Exactly. Magic, swordplay, and music all in one. But we have a lot of tools for every encounter. For instance, this saved my life.”
He tugged at the scarf with a grimace, but the huge wound in his neck running into his chest didn’t hurt. He just…felt it.
“That’s a death-wound if you don’t mind me saying so, Captain Deni.”
Typhenous observed quietly, and the Named-rank’s lips twisted.
“I was just lucky enough my team got to put it on me. Someone else might have died of shock. It’s the fourth Relic-class item between our team.”
More than most. Briganda whistled as Deni let them touch it.
“A Scarf of Wound’s Relief. We bought it after Chalence. Half a million gold pieces, and that was a steal.”
“Half a million—”
“It’s worth four times that or more, by now. It’s saved our lives so many times I can’t even count. No wound will worsen or bleed with it on—and it’ll slowly heal. Slowly…I’m not risking a healing potion. The damned axe might have been poisoned or putrid.”
His only other option without the scarf would have been to rush to the Healer of Tenbault and beg her on hands and knees to save his life.
Gear made the team. Deni wondered if the Halfseekers would consider an offer on any of their artifacts. Then again—even for someone rich off of Chalence’s loot, there was a limit to how many Relic-class items you could buy.
“No one’s getting the Helm of Fire. I mean, none of us. It’s a huge bidding war between nations, still. The Walled Cities versus that Emir from Roshal…damn shame. We’re the ones who could use the items and get them!”
Deni groused as he stared at the dark ruins. They had found nothing tonight, but he wanted to find something.
Relics. They were worth thousands of gold pieces spent on diggers, ten times that. If he had a proper set of legendary armor or…there was nothing else for him to buy. Potions? Maybe a few rare ones.
Expensive homes, security, connections? All these things didn’t matter when a monster had you in its claws.
Relics. Deniusth wondered how many were buried in the new lands. And—he thought of the Blade of Mershi. How many Named-ranks might be made by a single Relic alone?
Assuming, of course—you could hold onto it.
Three more skeletons died in the dungeon of Liscor that night. One ran into a trap. Two were taken out by monsters, but in their journey, they managed to get further ahead than any adventurer ever had.
Nevertheless, Pisces’ head was sore from trying to move the skeletons, and Colth was encouraging, but practical.
“This method works. The problem is—we might run into Albez’s treasure seekers, but they’ve apparently camped out for the night. Good for us. Let’s try to refine our strategy tomorrow.”
“Er—pleasure to be working with you, Colth. Do you want to stay here…?”
“If you’ve got a room, I’ll take it. But let’s go over Ceria’s memory again. We have to plot a route to this city. Sorry, boss, but this is the only thing we can do while Pisces rests. We could do more dungeon runs, but I think we shouldn’t agitate it.”
He was meticulously making maps of Ceria’s own memory and comparing them against other blueprints of the dungeon. In fact…Colth seemed to be coming to the conclusion that they needed more intelligence about the dungeon’s layout.
Which he suggested meant a visit to Calruz. Ceria didn’t know if that was wise, but she had to admit, Colth’s methods had been zero-risk, all potential reward so far.
By contrast, the restless Lehra had gloomed off, and Saliss and Tessa seemed unaffected by the search for treasure.
“I don’t do dungeons. Tessa, this nostalgic for you?”
“Hm. I killed people. I only did a few dungeons.”
“Right. You eating well? Erin feeding you?”
“What’s ‘mhm’? Yes, no? Give examples.”
Saliss poked Tessa until she drew a blade on him—but then he just poked her with a spoon.
They were a different kind of Named-rank than Colth and the Haven’s lot. Less focused on the adventure, at least for the moment. Saliss had once claimed that any adventurer who made it to Named-rank was crazy in their own way, and Lehra might qualify.
Colth…Colth was professional, intelligent, and oddly sycophantic at times. He had taken to calling Ceria ‘boss’, and she’d heard he did act like that. Well—sometimes the madness wasn’t obvious. Sometimes it was.
Viecel the Gambler tossed the last two fingers on his right hand into the fire. Eldertuin had adventured with the Selphid for a long time, but even he winced as the Gambler removed the digits.
“Enough damn gambling, Viecel. This is meant to be fun. The odds are we’re not going to find—”
Deni snapped at Viecel, but the Selphid just looked up with a flat expression. Then he smiled.
“Want to bet on it? Come on, Deni. Put some gold on the line. Life’s no fun finding just a small treasure.”
“We don’t all have fingers to spare. We’re not all damn Selphids.”
“Fingers aren’t worth much, that’s true. In that case—I wager a real wound. Blood or treasure, even up.”
Eldertuin grabbed his arm, but the Gambler was relaxed. He spread his arms.
“It’s just a wound either way, Eldertuin. And besides, it’ll add to whatever we get if I win. I’ve got to send something back to the kids. Especially now.”
He looked earnestly at the Fortress, and Eldertuin looked like he wanted to argue—but all the Named-ranks had heard about Baleros.
Besides, these were old arguments. Viecel had bet worse and more before.
Perhaps they should have stopped him long ago. The Gold-ranks were talking with Silver-ranks and Bronze-ranks about stories, and some of them were asking, enviously, how you reached the level of Horns or beyond.
“It’s not luck. It’s taking a risk. A calculated risk. You always, always play it safe, rookies, but sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
The Waterborn Raider’s Captain was more genial than expected when they were sitting with full bellies around an open fire, but other adventurers cautioned him.
“Don’t say that to the younger adventurers. Then they just take risks. Figuring out what’s a calculated risk in the first place—that’s how you make it.”
“The higher-level you are, the less risk you have to take. I didn’t make the rules.”
The Waterborn Raider’s Captain defended himself with a glance at Deniusth. The Violinist pretended to ignore it—but then he stared into the distance.
“Risk. You say that now, Captain Foeer, but I’ve got a mountain of risks I never took. Friends who I never backed—and never saw again. The Archmage of Izril was just some kid when I was a Bronze-rank, you know? We were never friends in the sense that we were that close, but she sometimes helped us out. And for eight years, she was lost. Colth, Eld, Mihaela even—we’re the last ones, but when I look at you all, I knew this many adventurers growing up.”
He gestured at the gathering of hundreds, and the Violinist took a cup of warm cider. He drank it and felt the warmth seeping into his bones and a painful nostalgia.
“Eighteen. Eighteen adventurers from the Haven’s days are all Larra knows. Eighteen originals. That’s how many make it, you know. Eighteen ever retired or made it to our age.”
He looked around, and the younger adventurers fell silent. Yet Deni didn’t mean to dampen their spirits. He looked around, then sprang onto one of the barrels he’d paid for from Remendia.
“I don’t know if it was worth it—but I never was able to quit adventuring. Even after I made my fortune. It drags me back again and again, and when I’m here—I see a new chance. The new lands of Izril.”
He looked at them, and they all stared up at him, some with eyes shining, others as jaded as his. Deni took a huge drink.
“Never touched. Never explored! A new era upon us—this is a rebirth, friends. A new chance! Everything I’ve failed at, this time, I’ll do it right. I’m going to head into Izril’s new lands like a Bronze-rank and start afresh. And when I do, any adventurer I meet will be right there with me. We’ll team up, Bronze-ranks and Orchestra. Will I see you there?”
He looked around and received a wild cheer from most. The Violinist grinned and felt that excitement calling him on as he tossed more wood on the fire.
“A new start, with all the gold and artifacts his team’s got.”
Seborn muttered sardonically to the Halfseekers. Ulinde broke off from her admiring stare of Deni, and Jelaqua stretched out.
“Let him rile the young ones up, Seborn. I thought you were all about hope these days?”
“Faith isn’t blindness. He’s going to get some of them killed.”
The Drowned Man eyed the food from Remendia, and he didn’t recall Deni starting that fire. Halrac seemed to share the same opinion.
“If the Named-ranks are going south, I hope they’ve brought more provisions than a regular adventure. We’re not going. Are you, Jelaqua?”
“Ah, I have things in Pallass to think of—and we’re flush from recent events. We’ll…think on it. The real question is who here is going. I’d have thought that Griffon Hunt would go.”
“We’ve got a contract with Emperor Godart, and that’s almost as good as new lands.”
Revi put in, and Typhenous and Briganda nodded. The Halfseekers raised their brows, but Halrac’s new boots obtained at practically no danger spoke to that.
Their two teams were more content than almost any other group. Vuliel Drae, the Pride of Kelia, even the Flamewardens were raising tankards to Deni’s speech.
“Relics in the new lands. Or more? What could they find there that they couldn’t find in a dungeon here? Even tomorrow?”
Jelaqua wondered sleepily. No one had an answer, but perhaps…Halrac looked at Deni and thought of Ulrien and his own team of Griffon Hunt. When he looked around, he saw Revi and Typhenous, still ‘new’, and Briganda.
Perhaps, the [Bowman of Loss] realized, it wasn’t about objects to Deniusth and the older adventurers.
Perhaps it really was about…who.
Everyone was asleep, and it was, apparently, some damn [Witch]’s hour as a [Necromancer] stomped through the underbrush, swearing as his robes got caught on every conceivable branch. Pisces Jealnet was up late, and he’d been walking for forty minutes.
Forty minutes at midnight. Plus, the new [Portal Door] that Erin had set up was a huge, huge problem for clandestine meetings like this.
“You want me to keep it here? I guess…and you can still adjust it. See? The dial system is even there! What, you want to go somewhere, Pisces?”
He had to give her a lie about an early-morning Players of Celum performance, and he was sure Erin hadn’t bought it. But she had put it out, and then?
Well, let’s assume you got to Invrisil unseen. Which was already uncertain. Then, Pisces had to walk the quiet streets and hopefully not get mugged. A real possibility, even for a Gold-rank adventurer—someone might not know who he was, and that didn’t stop a club from hitting the back of his head! He’d elected to cast [Invisibility] the entire way.
Then he had to get out the gates, and the [Guard] didn’t exactly just let anyone out—or back in. Pisces had decided just to jump off the walls. Getting up? Well…he felt like he could [Flash Step] past a [Guard] when the gate opened.
This wasn’t a Drake city—Invrisil had low walls and little paranoia about saboteurs. But then Pisces had realized he wasn’t anywhere close to the place he’d been shown on the map. So here he was, hiking for forty minutes to some alleged ruins near a forest.
He was mad. He was, in fact, not having fun at all or feeling like this was a productive use of his time. It felt like another lifetime…living in a dirt cave around the Floodplains, not washing, ever, and occasionally waking up with centipedes in his hair. Let alone skulking around in the middle of the night.
Pisces didn’t know how you did it. Part of him suspected that you just got used to the privation. After all—he slowed as he saw some old stonework long since abandoned. It looked like a mill and farmstead, literally overgrown by trees.
It was…too nostalgic for him. The [Necromancer] saw no movement around the ruined windmill, but one look told him that was where anyone would be sleeping since it was the most intact building.
The [Necromancer] was still invisible. He saw no less than six figures, two apparently watching from the ruined walls of the farmstead and four inside the windmill.
Not that he’d have done much better. If someone were trying to detect you…well, Pisces at least could cast invisibility. Something occurred to him, and he tried another spell.
Ah. Suddenly, Pisces noticed a lot of other signatures…in the ground. He stopped, because buried in the farmstead’s ground were no less than thirty-four skeletons—and two undead gargoyle-skeletons.
And an undead giant cat.
Now that…that was a trick he hadn’t ever pulled, simply because he didn’t run with hordes. But it was the oldest [Necromancer] trick in the book. Any [Bounty Hunter] or Bronze-rank adventurer coming out here wouldn’t have much proof these vagrants were up to no good.
And if they did force the issue, they were going to have an unpleasant surprise.
Did they dispose of people after them? Did they attack [Guards] or were they just robbing corpses? He had defrauded—well, scared people out of money. How did they get food? Robbery or…
Pisces shook himself as he stealthed forwards. It wasn’t his responsibility. And yet—
He knew the person he was going to see.
Ama, the [Necromancer] from the very first days of Pisces learning magic, had changed markedly. He still remembered her—and himself—as gangling…ganglerous teens. Yes, that was a suitable word for it.
Oh, they’d been studying magic and raising undead, but there was something about their youth that had been too much pretense. Everyone, really. It reminded Pisces in an unhappy way of Gothica. But where Gothica was seriously a [Goth], whatever that meant, some of what the young [Necromancers] had been had really just been rebellious, hanging out with undead because they knew it was ‘wrong’.
Well, jokes or not, they had all paid for it with their lives. And the real [Necromancers], Feren, Gewilena…
They had been Pisces’ age now, even a year or two on him still. Now, he realized how they must have seen the new acolytes and [Necromancers]. Feren had been always concerned about being found, hoarding money—and getting Az’kerash’s undead-farm to work.
As Pisces had observed, it hadn’t really gotten off the ground. The rotting zombies made people sick and stank—and fell apart. None of the [Necromancers] understood farming, and so they also stole and caused trouble and pretended their undead were something more than putrid corpses. In that sense, they might have been no better than a group of [Bandits] with undeath magic—
But for Gewilena, the artist who made sculptures out of bone and gave them life. She and Feren had been a cut above the others. While he was more pragmatic and a good fighter—he had even tried to teach Pisces [Flash Step]—
Gewilena had been able to make powerful undead out of bone. Her undead creations had been on par with a Bone Horror, Pisces suspected.
This was all ancient history, of course, but Pisces remembered it all. He hadn’t ever been caught. His father had made sure of that—and the local [Lord] had put the others to the torch.
He’d thought no one survived. But Ama…Pisces remembered her. Another student of Gewilena, obsessed with cats. By the looks of it, she had reached Gewilena’s level in artistry.
If not common sense. It was odd, going back down memory road now. Pisces had always remembered himself as being the best [Necromancer] behind Feren and Gewilena. Which was…possibly true? Ama was just one of the kids who didn’t have his touch, his magical ability. His fencing grace.
Dead gods, I was insufferable. The younger Pisces had been constantly after Feren or Gewilena. Good thing he had adopted a measure of gravitas and dignity after Wistram. Yes, that was how he was going to think of it and not remember any embarrassing moments ever after that at all.
But Ama, think of Ama. Pisces walked past the undead, listening. He could hear quiet murmurs and shushes from the hidden figures. They were about as good at this as…well. Kids playing at being outlaws.
Ama must have set up the undead like this. He could sense her magic strongest of all. She was the new Feren…and these were the new Pisces and Amas.
So why are you doing this, Ama? Didn’t she learn the lesson he’d learned in Ailendamus? They would hunt you down.
He didn’t know, but this was his first chance to talk to her since the battle against the monsters. She’d told him to meet her here and that they would be waiting.
Well, to be precise, he’d had to meet with one of her acolytes twice in Invrisil, who, both times, had told him that she was ‘thinking’ and ‘investigating’ his background. After the second meeting during a gibbous waxing moon, he’d been told to come here.
“…think he’s going to show up, Deathlady Ama?”
The windmill was denuded of the actual blades, but the door was intact. Inside, Pisces could see a bunch of pallets to sleep on, some mismatched cooking supplies, and a lot of bones.
It wasn’t the worst campsite, he supposed, and he heard a scraping sound—which turned out to be the four [Necromancers] carving bones inside.
They had little curved knives, and they were carving some of the Gargoyle bones to better fit new undead. Even, Pisces saw, painting them. One was using a very crude water dye and painting…whiskers onto a cat face?
Yep. That was Ama. It looked like she had not only salvaged the last cat undead he’d partially destroyed, but was making a new one. This one had a movable jaw, but looked like one of those tigers from the books of Baleros. And, apparently, it would have orange and black stripes. A lighter yellow-orange for whiskers.
Ama didn’t notice Pisces, despite her eyes focusing on the view out the windmill’s open door. She was watchful, even as she patiently cut slivers of bone off what would become an articulated cat’s leg.
“Do you think he’ll join the cabal, Deathlady?”
“We’ll see. He’s a Gold-rank adventurer now. He hasn’t tried to turn us in…”
“He must be over Level 30! At least! He could lead us to greater magic. Teach us—”
“Lead the cabal? Haven’t I done well enough? Are you trying to replace me, Rodden?”
She turned, and the carving knife gleamed under the moonlight. One of the younger [Necromancers] froze and stuttered.
“N-not me! I’m just saying, he’s a famous—I’d never do that, Deathlady!”
Pisces rolled his eyes. Well, Ama didn’t seem to need to establish a rule of fear if that was all it took. They were kids, the other five [Necromancers]. Young…teenagers to young adults.
Strange. Ama appeared far older now, watchful—and he recognized the burn scars on her arm and face. Nor did she seem entirely unskilled with the dagger.
Time had not been kind to her. Well, nothing for it. Pisces paced back to the forest, stepped behind a tree, and unraveled his invisibility spell. He emerged and heard, even from afar, a cry of alarm. He raised one hand and wondered what the hell he was going to do.
“What are you doing here, Ama?”
He only asked her that when they were alone. It took twenty minutes—the younger neophytes, the ‘Apprentices of Death’, the [Necromancers] didn’t want to leave Pisces be. They were agog and incautious. More than one like Rodden told Pisces their real name by accident—then tried to pretend it was an alias.
By now, Pisces had figured out the entire organization of this cabal. He’d participated in a few, but never really fit in…this was a less-harmful version of the stereotypical necromancer living in a dark castle and raising undead.
Sometimes, they allied with bandits or were part of a gang. Other times, they were individuals—Ama’s group was made up of locals around Invrisil. They stole bones and corpses, dug up valuables, and, Pisces suspected, sold their undead to gangs.
Still, they were pests not even worth having adventurers go after. Their theft of the Gargoyle bones really was the grand heist of the year.
Ama folded her arms and scowled at Pisces.
“It’s been what—eight years? Seven, and that’s the first thing you say to me. You show up, a Gold-rank adventurer, without even apologizing?”
“For what? I saved you from being attacked by Vaunt’s soldiers—what were you thinking, trying to rob them? Attack them with an undead? There were Gold-rank adventurers out there, and any one of them could have wiped out your entire group, Ama. I have a friend who could punch that cat to death with her bare hands.”
Ama sneered—and grew angrier.
“You must be crazy. That’s an [Artisan Bone Construct], my Sillias. He’s chased off Mothbears and killed Corusdeer!”
“Is he a Bone Horror?”
Pisces was sardonic. Ama, outraged.
“Bone Horror? He’s better than a mismatch of bones—didn’t you see how he moves? Like a cat! He can even flex his back like a cat and—”
“I meant in terms of combat ability.”
“Combat ability, what are you, Feren?”
She sneered at him again, and Pisces blew out his cheeks. This was not how he expected his first conversation to go—which really meant he’d forgotten how [Necromancers] were. Each one thought their undead were the best.
“I’m not talking about aesthetics, Ama, I’m talking about sheer killing ability. Yvlon Byres can take out two Bone Horrors with her hands. I saw her smash in an Adult Creler’s head with a broken sword. Do you want to see what happens if your cat makes her mad?”
Ama hesitated. She swallowed a bit as, perhaps, she hadn’t realized how close to a hostile adventurer she’d gotten.
“That’s just a rumor. Your team didn’t really kill an Adult Creler. You did? You?”
She gave him an incredulous look that Pisces felt was slightly warranted. He just sighed and scrubbed at his hair.
“It’s been a long time, Ama. I didn’t recognize you at first. Only that cat gave you away. Gewilena would have been proud.”
He expected that to bring them back to the start, but Ama’s face went white. Then she raised a hand and tried to slap him.
“How dare you bring her up!”
Pisces stepped back, and she overbalanced. He saw her right herself and kick out—he stepped back.
“What are you doing?”
The other [Necromancers] were watching from afar. Ama caught herself, and then she raised a wand.
Pisces saw the tip glowing fiery-red and moved before he thought. His rapier rose and knocked the wand aside. Ama froze as he held it past her head.
“What is wrong with you?”
The [Deathbane Necromancer] snapped. He was furious now.
“I gave you those Gargoyle bones—I let you and your cabal go, and now you’re trying to hit me?”
“You think that makes up for what you did? You sold us out, Pisces. Gewilena, everyone—everyone died but Feren and me. All because your father figured out where we were hiding!”
Ah. Suddenly, Pisces’ fury went out, and his arm lowered as if a heavy weight were upon it.
“…I never told them anything.”
“So they just found us without you doing anything?”
Ama spat. Her cheeks were white, but a flush was creeping back into them. She turned, and the same fury that had propelled Pisces up till Liscor was still in her. Only in her—now Pisces understood.
He sheathed his rapier.
“I didn’t, Ama. Truly. Believe me, I wanted to stop it, but the first I heard was that Lord Ecte was going after the farm—from my father. He beat me half to death, and when I arrived—all I found was ash. Then I saw them execute Gewilena and the others.”
Ama listened, eyes wide with disbelief—but flickering.
“That can’t be right. They found us without a warning. No scouts—the first thing I saw were those [Knights] marching in. Feren told us to run, but we were still eating lunch when they attacked. Gewilena’s undead got two, but everyone else’s…Feren had to kill a [Knight] to get us out.”
“I didn’t know that. I thought he was burnt. No one mentioned casualties. I…I didn’t tell them.”
“They must have followed you.”
The other [Necromancer] was still angry, but it was draining out of her, replaced by old grief. It was a long, long time ago. This felt like opening a wound up, but Pisces had already thought of Gewilena before. And Ama…
“I don’t think they needed to. They just needed to know we were there. It wasn’t as if the farm was that well hidden, Ama. Once Lord Ecte got wind of it, how hard would it have been to cast [Detect Life]? I could tell you were all here—and the undead in the ground.”
She looked up, alarmed, and then her face twisted over.
“Feren never believed you sold us out. He thought they tortured you.”
“Feren’s alive? Is he here?”
Pisces latched onto that. The most skilled [Necromancer] had been in his mid-twenties, no duelist like Pisces, but able to cast [Flash Step] and [Deathbolt]. He had also wanted to be like Az’kerash and even tried dying his hair white in imitation of his mentor. Pisces had always thought that if anyone had been able to make it…
“No. No, we parted a long time ago. He’s still in Terandria. Working with Ailendamus.”
“…What? You have to be kidding.”
“I was with him for a long time. But he’s obsessed with creating a huge cabal and an undead army. He wants revenge—but Ailendamus hires him to cause trouble with other nations. Raid villages, attack people—idiot. He was up to something big the last I heard of him.”
Pisces shook his head.
“You’ll need to tell me more about that. And you? How’d you get to Izril?”
“The same way you did. I just—left Terandria. Izril was closest, so I went to a port, but there’s almost nowhere safe. I should have gone to Baleros or Chandrar, but I couldn’t afford it. I finally found a place to make my undead here. And it’s been going well. Sillias is my finest creation—no matter what his ‘combat capability’ is.”
She had to actually raise the undead from the ground to show him off. Pisces saw the cat flex, roll over, and even pretend to wash a paw with a bone tongue of all things.
It was impressive and reminded Pisces of Gewilena…but it was also amazingly useless.
“How long did you spend on making that tongue?”
“Uh, five months. It was hard figuring out how to move it properly. Want to see him perch on a ledge?”
Ama was excited to show her cat off, but Pisces was glancing at the sky.
“I’ve got to get back to the inn. I just—I wanted to know what’s going on, Ama. What’s your cabal doing?”
“Learning necromancy. What else? This…this is art. And I’m happy without your help. Those Gargoyle bones will make great protectors and fuel more projects. Thanks for that. You’re a famous Gold-rank. I can’t believe those damn adventurers don’t stab you. What else is there to say?”
She looked at him like a stranger, and Pisces glanced around the ruins. He imagined living in that windmill, and looked at the kids.
“Do you rob people for money?”
“No. What are you, trying to make sure nothing comes back to you? Believe me, I won’t try that if we run into an adventurer.”
She said it too fast, crossing her arms. Pisces huffed.
“I’m not—we’re old friends, Ama. At least, we were. I just don’t want you to get in trouble bothering the wrong people. Do you need money?”
She shrugged defensively.
“We get by.”
He dug in his bag of holding.
“I bet. Here.”
He held out a handful of gold, and the [Necromancer] stared at it. She almost reached for the gold, then her face turned paler, and she swatted at his hand.
“I don’t need that. I don’t need you.”
“It’s just a gift.”
“Well, I don’t need it.”
“Fine. I’m trying to be helpful. Clearly, I wasn’t needed here or anywhere else! Let’s agree to part on that.”
Pisces lost his temper and turned on his heel. He stalked off—but Ama called out after him.
She caught up to him, and he turned. The angry [Necromancer] saw Ama hesitate. She looked back at the cabal, then whispered to him.
“You…my cabal is small. Since you’re such a high-level [Necromancer], will you raise a Bone Horror or something for them? I had to tell them we knew each other.”
He stared at her, and she flushed. Pisces bit his tongue, and Ama whispered.
“They’re causing no one harm, but they want to all level up and earn lots of gold. They’ll run off to another cabal—the Gargoyle bones are huge. It’s better if they don’t.”
“There are other cabals about Invrisil?”
She gave him a long look.
“Not Invrisil specifically. But there are some bad ones out there. Please, Pisces. Getting involved with Izril’s gangs is a bad idea.”
Without a word, Pisces looked at the [Necromancers]. He sighed…then fished in his bag of holding. He spilled a pile of bones onto the ground and, with a flourish, clicked his fingers.
“Will…this do? It’s just a bear.”
The two-headed warbear rose—or at least, a simulacrum of one. The original bear and his Skeleton Lord were back on Chandrar, so Pisces just used the Gargoyle bones for this one.
…The bear head looked stupid with bone fragments crudely making it up. Pisces supposed he should alter the design or carve some bones up to make it look better. But he knew Ama’s method took forever. Maybe some paint? But that flaked off in combat. Maybe it could do more than lumber about.
He expected Ama to sneer at his creation, but the [Necromancer] gasped, and the other five practically sprinted over as the warbear rose. Pisces looked at Ama.
“It’s not nearly as functional as your cat. My original was lost…what?”
“How—how did you do that?”
“Do what? Oh, I had the warbear’s template saved.”
“No, animate a Bone Horror like that? It takes half an hour for me to raise one, and you—”
Pisces blinked at Ama.
“I’ve always raised undead that fast. It’s harder with creations above regular skeletons, but—I’ve practiced.”
“Practiced? Who practices animation speed? You had no ritual, and the bindings—the bindings are terrible.”
Ama walked around the undead, and Pisces bristled.
“It does well in a fight.”
“It probably only lasts as long as it fights. Ew! Is this how you articulate the joints? Look, it’s paw barely does more than go up and down!”
Ama fearlessly wiggled the warbear’s paws as it reared up, demonstrating a classic swipe. Pisces grew defensive.
“That’s all it needs to do.”
“Yes, but you could make it actually adaptive. This thing just charges and bites, doesn’t it? You know, bears are more clever than that. Have you inlaid the bones with more strength or speed?”
“N—not everyone has time to make a custom undead. I, in fact, know how to make a Skeleton L—”
Pisces hesitated and closed his mouth on that. Ama hadn’t heard.
“Classic Pisces. You make undead like Feren. No customization.”
“I made a skeleton with a crossbow in its chest!”
She gave him a blank look as he furiously poured bones out of his bag of holding. Pisces neglected to mention that he hadn’t used that combat skeleton in almost any battle—he really did just raise skeletons or the warbear or the Bone Behemoth.
Frankly—when you had a Bone Behemoth, most problems got squashed. Aside from armies of monsters. But Ama just sneered at his skeleton.
“Hey, raise the Scottie the Scout Skeleton. Bring him over here.”
“Scottie the Scout…you name your undead?”
Pisces forgot how Ama was. Actually, Gewilena had named all the zombie laborers. She just gave him an arch look.
“Yes, I do. And I have [Personal Undead] Skills.”
“That’s a Skill?”
“That’s a Skill? Ahem.”
Pisces froze as he heard a voice that no one else did. Ama flicked her brown hair out and pointed.
“Death Apprentices, clear some space. Let me show my peer what he’s forgotten. Scottie—dance!”
The skeleton was just a normal one, although for some reason he had an jerkin and pants on. Clearly new clothing, not the stuff the skeleton had been buried in. For a given value of new—it was tattered stuff. The skeleton with its bright yellow eyes did a jig in place with surprising nimbleness.
That was…actually somewhat impressive. Skeletons had mobility but not dexterity. Pisces could get his to run, but a dance? He refused to look impressed as a voice spoke in his head.
“Young Pisces. It seems appropriate that now I reach out to you. At your…convenience, we must speak.”
Pisces was sweating suddenly, and he wished Ama didn’t look quite so smug given her audience. She took his expression for mockery and glared.
“Not good enough? Okay, Scottie—flip.”
Scottie the Scout Skeleton backflipped. Pisces’ eyes bulged. It wasn’t even an amateurish backflip; Scottie curled up into a ball and then landed with both arms raised.
“That’s quite impressive.”
Even Az’kerash sounded mildly intrigued. Pisces stared as Scottie kept dancing.
“You can make a skeleton do that? Did you just say—[Personal Undead]? I’ve never heard of that. And believe me, I, uh, I’ve been studying from the greatest tomes of undeath.”
Ama just laughed at him.
“Why would they have anything to do with Skills? And you don’t know how fast skeletons can move? Scottie can run on a vertical wall. Hey, make Scottie do a wall run for Pisces.”
The other [Necromancers] herded him off, but Ama stepped forwards.
“Just between us two, I suppose I’ll share that since you showed us your bear. Not a lot of [Necromancers] know about [Personal Undead]. I know, because Gewilena did it.”
“She never told me about that.”
Pisces felt hurt, and Ama shrugged.
“Maybe she didn’t have the Skill. Not a lot of [Necromancers] named their undead. They treat them like disposable tools. Feren hasn’t named a single undead he’s ever raised. I bet you haven’t either. If you don’t treat a skeleton as valuable, of course it’s not going to do anything.”
Pisces and Az’kerash stared at Ama in silence. She smirked.
“You’ve never named a single skeleton, have you?”
“I, uh—had one of my skeletons named Toren.”
Pisces neglected to mention who named it. Ama folded her arms.
“Well, there you go. It’s like pets. [Personal Undead] can gain useful Skills—Sillias mends himself from scrapes, so I don’t have to keep repairing him—even your damage is gone.”
“Archmage Chandler? Is this true?”
Pisces had to ask. Surely, in the two hundred years of Archmage Chandler’s existence…the great Necromancer of Terandria was silent.
“I have not needed to nickname any undead without personality. Nor have any of the apprentices I ever taught expressed such odd behavior…undead were servants and protectors in my time. Interesting subsections of magic exist everywhere. As for imbuing bones with additional power, that is something I practiced when necessary. However, this cat…undead is overdone in every respect. Does it have a purring function?”
Pisces looked at Ama, and she gave him a triumphant look, as if feeling she had won something. Which…she had. He stood there as she exhaled.
“I wish I’d had Sillias when we were back at the farm. We might have gotten everyone out.”
“I’m sorry, Ama. I…I am sorry.”
She looked at him bleakly, then turned away.
“You’re famous, and you have a team now. I’m glad. Listen, we’re not always going to be here, but if you want to come by, I can teach you how to make a Scottie. Did you—ever learn how to cast [Deathbolt] or other spells? Finding tomes or swapping spells is hard. I feel like I could learn it now, but Feren never got around to teaching me. Or any other spells.”
“I might. I’ll think about it. Right now, I do have to run. I’ve got to go get some sleep, Ama.”
She nodded at him, but when he turned, she held out her hand. He reached out to take it, and Ama curled her fingers.
“I could take some gold. If you’re giving it away.”
He gave her a slightly irked look, but produced a handful of gold coins—and then another. Ama hurried it into her own bag of holding, and the two stood there, not quite sure how to continue.
“—How is the, um, adventuring going, anyways?”
“Oh, we’re exploring a dungeon. With Colth the Supporter, no less.”
Pisces snorted mildly, but Ama looked stunned.
“A Named-rank? How does he fight? Isn’t he one of Izril’s most eligible bachelors?”
“Possibly. He’s not that charming.”
Ama gave Pisces a long look.
“And you’re the judge of that? What’s it like, anyways? Is he the best fighter in the world or something?”
“I don’t know. We haven’t even gotten into the dungeon. I’ve actually been exploring it via a skeleton. I have to control one and send it down hundreds of feet and miles into the dungeon, past traps—to navigate through it. Sensible, but slow.”
“You can control it that far?”
The [Necromancer] was impressed, but this was more familiar to her, so Pisces described the orb setup and how Colth had come up with the idea. Only here, far, far away from the inn and prying ears did he say what he suspected the rest of the Horns had thought.
“It was a novel idea coming from someone who’s never worked with a [Necromancer] before. Very sensible, safe, and practical. Colth is about as adept as, ah, a junior [Necromancer].”
She laughed at that. Colth had been very pleased by his idea, and Pisces had forbore mentioning that they’d used expendable skeletons in Albez—and spiders, here. Colth had tweaked the concept and made it more useful, but it wasn’t that original.
“So he’s smart enough to be a [Necromancer]. That’s better than most meatshield adventurers I’ve run into.”
“True, true. He is a dangerous man. I don’t know in which sense, but I do know that. I wonder how these Named-ranks will act in Drake lands…ah.”
The ah was because the giant cat, Sillias, was padding over. Pisces backed up, but then he saw it twine around Ama, like an oversized, affectionate regular cat. He wasn’t sure if she’d commanded her undead to do that or if it was just created to do that at odd intervals.
Either way—the [Necromancer] stroked its head and scratched it under the chin, smiling, and Pisces had to admire that.
“…It is a work of art. He is. Gewilena would have been proud.”
Ama colored a bit and nodded at him.
“You really don’t make art anymore, Pisces? You? Gewilena taught you to carve bone as well as I did.”
His head lowered. Pisces stared at the ground, then felt a burning itch around his neck. His skin crawled on his back, and he looked up—and Ama’s smile went away.
“No. I do admire Sillias, Ama. But…my undead, as many as I can raise, as strong as they can be—they’re still not enough. I abandoned artistry to make them strong enough to kill monsters. And they’re not capable of killing real horrors. Not yet.”
Uncertainly, Ama glanced at the direction of his warbear, still being inspected by the junior members of her cabal.
“Is that why you’re adventuring? How many monsters are there in the world, anyways? How many Creler nests? I’ve never seen one and I live out in the wilds.”
She laughed uncertainly, and Pisces looked somberly at her.
“The bad ones look like people. They are, in my experience, the most difficult to kill.”
Ama stopped laughing and gave Pisces a longer look. Then she did nod, ducking her head to hide her face behind her long bangs.
“Yeah. They are. I stay away from them, but you and Feren…how many more have you met?”
“I met a number on Chandrar. Then I was rescued…I ran away. I left some good friends behind.”
Pisces whispered, like a confession. He looked at the cabal and Izril—safe. Despite the monster hordes. Ama watched her old friend’s face, and she saw Pisces look over his shoulder.
Again. She had thought he was impatient and wanting to be gone. Then she wondered if he was looking…southeast. Following the distant connection of death magic she sensed coming out of him. Impossibly far away.
“Chandrar’s a long way away.”
That was the only thing she could think to say. She had never seen the continent of deserts and old kingdoms aside from scrying orbs. It was just an idea to her, like Khelt or Az’kerash himself.
But Pisces…he nodded, then said something he hadn’t told his team or even Erin. A conclusion he’d come to.
“It is. It is, Ama. It will be a long journey back, and an ordeal. However—I have left too much unsettled with foul men and abhorrent deeds on Chandrar. I abandoned noble folk. I hope they can wait. Either way, I must return and bring them here. Or be damned.”
His eyes stared into the distance, and then he looked nothing like the boy with the practice rapier who she remembered, eagerly sitting around with the other young [Necromancers] and playing at undead. Then, she could see how he’d become a Gold-rank adventurer. And though neither she nor Pisces could see it, nor hear his voice…the Necromancer could see them and hear.
The Archmage of Death smiled, like a man named Perril Chandler once had, when he breathed and held Silvaria’s honor in his hands. Like an older mentor seeing a worthy pupil on his long, treacherous road.
A path so dangerous even he would have hesitated before stepping upon it, for he knew Roshal and Chandrar’s treachery. But—the Necromancer’s lips moved, his thoughts focusing, thinking. Wondering what he could give his successor for the trials ahead.
And while Az’kerash watched Pisces, the Tyrant of Cloth, the great ruler of those lands who knew both Roshal and Chandrar better than any other—she watched Az’kerash.
Nerrhavia smiled too.
Nothing much else happened that night. Aside from one person getting a very…suitable notification that made this morning fall into context. A decision had been made, or possibly, a threshold crossed.
Two points on a dataset made a line. A cluster, a trend. Well, if this were going to continue—if this were more than a hobby—what would it become? A voice measured the choices thus far and spoke:
[Prankster class obtained!]
[Prankster Level 8!]
[Skill – Convincing Lies obtained!]
[Skill – Pardon the Joke obtained!]
[Skill – Mischief Bank obtained!]
[Mischief Skill – Wings Upon Ice obtained!]
A half-Elf flailed around in her sheets and then landed on the floor. Ceria Springwalker couldn’t believe it. A new class? Now?
Was this comeuppance or…? She couldn’t tell, but after some thinking—and especially analyzing that unique Skill—she decided this was a good thing. The [Cryomancer] was tempted to run outside, but it was late. So, instead, she just tiptoed outside, saw a sleepy little Mrsha being led to the outhouse by Lyonette—and froze their door lock solid.
She did not level, much to her dismay.
The next morning, Pisces wondered why the normally friendly Lyonette served Ceria a burnt piece of bacon on some untoasted bread with a scowl. And she had, apparently, personally burnt the bacon.
Mrsha was also slightly bleary-eyed and scowling at Ceria, but forgave the half-Elf when Ceria promised to teach her some magic.
“Quality over quantity, I guess.”
He had no idea what she was talking about. But then, Pisces himself was, ah—low on sleep. He was very, very grateful for Erin’s [Twofold Rest] Skill, because he had had an unpleasant night.
Ama was one thing. But his night hadn’t ended with her. He had had…a very interesting conversation with Az’kerash.
The Archmage of Death was—chatty of late. He asked Pisces about his studies, his team, and his return from Chandrar. Even Erin Solstice.
Was he aware of Erin’s quests? Perhaps he was regarding Pisces more and more as an unofficial apprentice.
Pisces was, of course, as polite as possible, but the Necromancer hadn’t contacted him to impart any magic or purely for social politeness.
“Young Pisces, I have reached out regarding the new lands of Izril. It is my understanding your team has not decided to enter the new lands. Is this so?”
“N-no, Necromancer. They have made no such commitments.”
Pisces began sweating the instant he heard this. Az’kerash’s mental tone, however, was pleasant. Even conversational. Pisces wasn’t fooled.
“My interests tend towards the new lands of Izril also. In the pursuit of your own levels and your career as an adventurer, I suggest you embark there as well.”
“To…assist you in your goals, Archmage? My team has commitments, and while I am sure there is a wealth of opportunity there, I cannot force my Captain, Ceria, to do anything.”
Pisces replied swiftly, and Az’kerash paused.
“Naturally, but I would assume you have no little weight. I happen to know there is a great opportunity in the new lands—the <Mythical Quest> aside. If not what, it will be invaluable to all, or so my source assures me.”
He sounded displeased, so Pisces clarified.
“Naturally, then, Archmage. You—you think it is that important?”
Az’kerash took his time replying, and when he did, Pisces’ heart sank.
“Just as I have taken your side against Roshal, young Pisces, so too do I assure you that the new lands have an opportunity you must not miss out upon. Consider this a friendly piece of advice.”
Pisces swallowed. Well.
“In that case, Necromancer, I will begin my preparations at once.”
“Properly, young Pisces. Properly. But your foresight in accepting my guidance is noted.”
Pisces’ forehead rested on the table. He wondered what he was going to do.
Well—obviously, go to the new lands. He’d known from the start that the Necromancer’s help had consequences. Now, he was calling in the favor from Chandrar.
And it had been a favor worth having at the time. But could he endanger his team? Pisces shook his head.
What…what would Az’kerash ask of him? Perhaps just to find whatever this was. Either way, the favor had been called in, and Pisces was only grateful he hadn’t missed all the hints Az’kerash was dropping.
His wrath…would not be pleasant. But Pisces looked at Ksmvr, who was gobbling down just toast with butter and cinnamon for breakfast, and Yvlon and Ceria…and he spoke as Ceria was munching on her single piece of burnt bacon.
“Everyone, I have decided I will be joining the expedition to the new lands. Purely as a matter of self-improvement. You need not accompany me, nor do I expect it. I am quite self-sufficient, and frankly, I can understand if you would prefer we split a time.”
It was—harder to say like that. Pisces tried to sniff and sneer at the same time as he gave his team an arch look. Yvlon nearly spat out her breakfast porridge.
“You what? The new lands? Where is this coming from, Pisces? We haven’t discussed it?”
He raised an arch eyebrow.
“No, indeed? Well, I have decided. For myself. Last night. I’m sure you can form your own opinion, Byres, but I’ve made up my mind. Again, your attendance is not mandatory.”
She turned red instantly, and Pisces waited for a punch or a snap. Instead, Yvlon exhaled hard.
“Did Ceria freeze your door locks, too? I’ll…well, it’s not like the idea isn’t appealing. But this is a team-decision, Pisces. Some forewarning would be appreciated.”
The [Necromancer] shrugged, trying to keep his brows arched.
“Again, Byres, this is my personal decision. You need not join me. I am announcing my intentions to the group as a whole. What you decide isn’t my concern.”
This time, her fist clenched hard on the metal spoon, and it began to bend. Yvlon gritted her teeth.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were deliberately saying it like this to annoy me—”
“Comrade Pisces, Yvlon, please. Pisces is simply letting us know his intentions efficiently.”
Ksmvr looked worried and patted Yvlon and Pisces on the shoulders. She calmed down and shot Pisces a quick—hurt look.
“Yes. Well, I’m determined.”
Pisces felt his stomach clench and guilt shooting through him. He turned to Ceria, and the half-Elf was propping her head up on her chin.
“The day gets weirder and weirder. Why are you so certain, Pisces? I thought you’d be keener on going back to Chandrar, not Izril.”
He flinched. The [Necromancer] avoided Ceria’s gaze and mixed truth with half-truths. The best sort of way to lie.
“First the new lands, then Chandrar, perhaps. W—I am not ready for Chandrar. Suffice it to say, my mind is made up, and if you all would prefer to stay here, I understand. Now—are we going to investigate this dungeon or not?”
He got up swiftly and backed away from his team. He hoped Yvlon would look angrier, but she just—gazed at him, and Ksmvr looked hurt and Ceria too perceptive. Pisces whirled away, not sure what he wanted.
But he didn’t want to lead them to their deaths.
“What the hell was that about? Silver and steel, did Pisces sleep on rocks or something?”
Yvlon whispered to the other Horns as Pisces stalked off. She was upset—not just angry at his sudden announcement, but at how uncharacteristic it was.
“He did come back to the inn quite late. Perhaps his sleep was less than adequate? He is upset, not at us.”
Ksmvr tilted his head left and right. Ceria and Yvlon frowned at him. But they had forgotten.
The [Teammate] folded his arms smugly. [Sense Affection (Platonic)].
“Now that’s interesting, Ksmvr.”
Ceria murmured as she watched Pisces’ back. Her eyes flickered, and Yvlon muttered.
“It’s not like I haven’t thought about the new lands, but where’s this ambition coming from? Do you think it’s about Roshal? Does he want to level up that badly?”
Her hand clenched, but Ceria shook her head. She looked at Ksmvr, Pisces, and then nodded to herself.
“…I bet it’s that favor he called in for Erin.”
Ksmvr and Yvlon looked up. Ceria scratched at her head, thinking hard.
“There’s no reason for Pisces to be this dramatic about it—or unpleasant. It was like he was baiting you, Yvlon. Or else he’d try to persuade us all by being smarmy or debating it. I think he doesn’t want us to go. But he has to.”
“What? He’s being threatened—”
Yvlon half-rose, and Ceria clarified.
“Favor called in. Sort of different.”
“Then we must go with him. Is it because we did not obtain the Helm of Fire?”
Ksmvr looked agitated, and the half-Elf shook her head.
“Impossible to say, but I bet whomever Pisces is in debt to isn’t happy about that. Promised a Relic-class item and it gets put up for auction?”
“Who is it, do you think…?”
They hadn’t asked, and Yvlon had probably assumed, like Ceria, it was a ‘contact’ on the level of some local [Bandit Leader] or whatnot. But when you thought about it—Ceria’s eyes narrowed, and her mind began racing.
“Could be a [Lord] or [Lady], could be something…else. You meet powerful people by chance, believe me. The question is—are you guys up for a journey to the new lands?”
Yvlon’s mouth opened, and Ksmvr stared at Ceria. His mandibles clicked, and Ceria looked after Pisces. The Horns of Hammerad hesitated a moment, and Yvlon’s chin came up. She began to nod, and Ceria was smiling when Ksmvr spoke up.
“For Comrade Pisces, of course. But I do not see the point. What do these new lands have?”
Ceria and Yvlon twisted in their seats and saw Ksmvr staring blankly at the map of Izril and the new butt appended onto it that Gothica had scrawled there, hanging on a wall. His antennae waved, but the eager adventure in his voice? It was not there. Ksmvr scratched at his chin and then sighed.
The Horns’ quiet mood was not really noticed with the rest of the bustling inn. And when the Named-rank came down the stairs, the energy returned to maximum.
“Colth! I thought I sensed someone sleeping up here. I missed everything yesterday. Mrsha said you were doing something in the dungeon?”
Erin Solstice was getting out of her wheelchair and stretching. Colth bowed to her.
“Just a bit of careful dungeoning, Miss Solstice. How’s Larra doing? I’m sorry I missed the [Emperor]. How did that go?”
“Um, it’s going. Well, everyone’s mad at me, but we’re doing the introductions-thing. It’ll take a bit, but I guess we’ve gotta do it. I’m going over to Riverfarm now to be nice…and negotiate a deal.”
Relc rubbed at his earholes as he chewed on breakfast. He looked over, and Erin shook her fist at him.
“Hey! I can too negotiate! I’m getting cheap, unlimited eggs. Since Mister Ram is a [Rancher]. Deal of the century.”
Lyonette rolled her eyes and whispered to the others as she passed by the table.
“She’s neglecting the door transport fee, Liscor doing trade negotiations and all the other cities, tariffs, oh, and Wailant is trying to declare his farm a separate entity that everyone has to deal with—Ceria, did you actually eat that toast? Mrsha sneezed on it! I have real breakfast. Let me get it.”
The half-Elf didn’t appear affected by the news. She turned back to Pisces and raised her brows.
“Ready for another day of skeleton-explorations, oh Captain, my Captain? Since you’re making all the decisions. We’ve got time. But let’s look into who else is going to the new lands, eh? I wonder if the other teams are working with a group or a nation.”
Pisces slowly nodded and, with a sigh—got back to work.
Unlike other days, neither Liscor nor Albez were bearing immediate fruit. Which was not to say there was no fruit possible!
The civilian [Diggers] were hard at work by the time that Ylawes Byres got up. Unlike the other teams from the north, he was used to sleeping on hard ground, and Falene even had a few tricks to make the ground soft and keep them warm in the autumn.
…Which was why he objected, slightly, to the sight of a magical tent being deployed by one Gold-rank team and Orchestra’s actual house.
“Is that a house, Dawil?”
“Lad, that’s a house.”
Even the Dwarf didn’t have a smart remark in the morning as the two swished tooth-cleaning liquid in their mouths and spat it. It looked like a colorful cabin—with reinforced metal doors and windows.
And arrow crenellations. Someone had mixed a fortress’ defenses with the homey design.
“It’s one of the Haven’s specialties. Must be that Larracel either made or loaned it—you know, a deployable resting spot? I’ve heard that you can weather monster swarms in it.”
“I wonder how it works against Shield Spider avalanches?”
Ylawes had to admit—the sight of that cabin did not make him feel better about his own sleep. Nor did these Named-adventurers frankly.
Ylawes liked to think he was a…a…good adventurer. He tried not to overcharge people in need. He fought well, he thought, for his level and rank. His team made a difference.
It just felt like that commitment to the Silver Swords’ ethos was leaving them behind. The Halfseekers, yesterday, had proven what a massive spike in power their new gear afforded them. Griffon Hunt? Well, Halrac’s team wasn’t as notably different—but they were in the employ of an [Emperor], and to hear Halrac talk about it, it had its perks.
What had Ylawes done for the Silver Swords? The [Knight] felt like it was what he hadn’t done for them. They hadn’t done the Village of the Dead raid. They hadn’t gotten much from Wistram, just a few secrets. Big ones, but non-actionable ones at the moment.
He…even his latest level up hadn’t rewarded him with a Skill. He’d survived an encounter with a horrific Golem in the academy and hadn’t gotten a Skill.
Oh, and his sister, Ysara, didn’t have one kind word for him after years of not seeing her. If there were one upside…no. Even that wasn’t a direct benefit, just a worry.
Ylawes only felt more weight and a kind of competitive pressure he didn’t like. And he saw the same feeling among the lower-ranked teams.
“Dead gods. So that’s Named-rank.”
Captain Nailren of the Pride of Kelia had been at the Meeting of Tribes, but even he seemed surprised by Orchestra’s fame. He turned as Ylawes walked over.
“Captain Nailren. Good morning to you, sir. Do you know if there’s a breakfast?”
“Orchestra’s apparently paid for it for everyone. Not sure what we’re doing, no? All the civilians are digging for us. Just stand around and eat.”
The Gnoll wasn’t too familiar with Ylawes and vice-versa, but they were both teams who’d gone into Liscor’s dungeon and thus cordial. Ylawes saw skewers of meat being roasted by a [Cook]. A cook, instead of camp provisions!
Nailren noticed Ylawes’ consternation and grinned.
“I wonder how they’ll do in these new lands. Is your team going?”
“I…don’t know. Perhaps. It’s a large commitment, and we may be needed in the north. What of your team?”
The Gnoll’s reply surprised Ylawes, but Nailren just stared south.
“I wished to come to The Wandering Inn to ask Erin Solstice for advice—and to stock up on supplies and deliver the Antinium, Antherr. But the new lands? They are my people’s lands, no matter if every other power in the world is going. A real, true adventure. Of course I must go. I just fear I’ll be outmatched by the competition.”
He gazed at Orchestra and shook his head. Ylawes found some real sympathy in his heart for the Gnoll. When he did think of it like that—
“It is not fair that the Gnolls’ lands are being taken. I can agree with that, Captain Nailren.”
The Gnoll looked surprised by the comments, but he nodded at Ylawes.
“You’re kind to say so.”
“It’s just words. Can I grab something for you to eat?”
“I have to get my team’s food—let’s go and see, hrm? I smell…oatcakes. Geh. Maybe I’ll just have the meat.”
The Gnolls did not appreciate a hot oatcake dipped in a bit of honey. Then again, it did sit a bit heavy in Ylawes’ stomach assuming he’d be doing something strenuous soon.
Not that it seemed like that was going to happen anytime soon. The instant a new or old passage was uncovered, a team would head into it and clear whatever monsters there were and report it had already been searched.
Albez wasn’t like Liscor’s dungeon; the endemic monster population was incredibly small. Undead were often a more common threat because they could just stay buried for ages; a living monster had to eat.
Anyways. Ylawes re-introduced himself to some of the Silver-rank teams being ignored with all the Gold and Named-ranks about.
“Captain Anith of Vuliel Drae? Your team made it out of the Village of the Dead raid, then.”
The Jackal jumped and gave Ylawes an odd look before bowing. He was reserved, dignified—and his team was completely ignored by most of the Liscorian teams.
“Captain Byres. Mostly unscathed. Pekona lost a hand.”
Ylawes bit his tongue because he’d forgotten one of their number, the silent Drathian [Sword Dancer], had lost a limb dueling the Revenant. She just nodded to him as Dasha waved at Dawil. Dawil pretended not to see her.
“Not inclined to trade stories?”
The Halfseekers and even Griffon Hunt were talking shop with a lot of the northern teams, but Anith, Insill, Larr, and Pekona looked uncomfortable.
“We’re…not that welcome among some of the teams. After the dungeon incident. With the moths.”
“Ah. Of course.”
Ylawes had been there, and he knew that was their fault. Still…there was such a thing as forgiveness, and they’d fought in the Village of the Dead raid. He studied Pekona’s severed wrist and wondered if she could use the long, curved blade with only one hand. Actually—it looked shorter. Perhaps she’d switched out the sword for a one-handed version?
Katana, he thought the name was. Which meant the shorter blade was a…
“My team is having breakfast with the Pride of Kelia. Why don’t you sit with us?”
Vuliel Drae had been eating alone, so they brightened at the offer. Dawil and Nailren gave Ylawes a longer look, but they were cordial as they made room. Falene, of all people, scowled as she finally emerged from her tent.
“My sleep…would have been better at the Adventurer’s Haven. Perhaps we should have reconsidered our position, Ylawes. I don’t think this joint dig will yield much reward even if we do find something.”
She hinted, strongly, that they should return, and Ylawes nodded.
“It’s good to be sociable though, Falene. We may run into many of these teams, and watching a Named-rank one is a sight. I know Orchestra, and I’ve seen Variable Fortress fighting—let’s mingle. I don’t think Deniusth has the inclination to stay more than a day.”
He was certainly pushing the civilians hard. And impatiently—Ylawes suspected that the map Ceria had given the adventurers hadn’t yielded anything good.
If he were a suspicious sort, he might actually suspect Ceria had checked those locations with Gemhammer already. No, she was quite…honorable? At the very least, she was no rogue.
“You’ve seen the Named-ranks fight?”
“I grew up in a noble house. And any boy follows Named-ranks about whenever they’re in the region. I begged my father to take me to some of their dungeon crawls—and watched from afar.”
Ylawes was embarrassed, but he did know more about the Named-ranks than Falene and Dawil, who were Terandrian.
“In fact…Orchestra’s had a lot of teammates over the years. Crowdcaller Merdon was a member of their team, and they’ve even journeyed with Barelle the Bard.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. Aren’t they a bit of a contentious team, though?”
Dawil grunted, and the Silver-ranks looked surprised. Anith frowned.
“Contentious, Captain Ylawes?”
“Dawil’s exaggerating. Mostly. They just tend to be a polarizing force in the adventuring community. Lots of rivalries for an adventurer with as much history as Deniusth. It’s political—the Silver Swords don’t often get tangled in that sort of thing.”
“Like Walled Cities teams and Gnoll adventurers. I get it.”
Nailren sighed through his nose. Ylawes hunted around for an interesting factoid about Orchestra or Variable Fortress.
“I…hm. I even know they have a rival group. Or nemeses.”
“What, a team that wants them dead?”
“Not an adventuring team. No. More like a group of mercenary-assassins. They call themselves Symphony. Orchestra and Symphony who like to fight each other—I didn’t come up with the names.”
Everyone was giving him a look like he was lying. Ylawes was adamant, though, he’d heard the rumors! Dawil just chuckled into his beard.
“Well, at least they’re consistent with their enemies. If we ever pick a fight with them, we’ll have to change our names to the Silver Tambourines.”
The laughter at that was pleasant, and Ylawes ended up feeling better about that morning than last night’s fruitless excitement.
…Deniusth was not so pleased. The Named-rank was watching the digs and complaining loudly when Ylawes walked over to see if anything was happening.
“That’s almost all the rooms we’ve seen on the map. Is Albez tapped? Colth never showed up, damn him. I think something’s up in Liscor.”
“Give it until midday or evening, Captain? We’ve paid for a lot of help…”
“We might as well see it through. Anyone else have any hints about Albez? Can we send more [Rogues] to check out the tunnel the Horns found?”
Deni gave orders despondently as Ylawes marched up to where Halrac was sitting. Jelaqua was showing off her new artifacts with her team.
“Ylawes. Enjoying being back around Liscor?”
“My back isn’t—nor Falene’s. But I was glad we made it for the Orefell attacks.”
“Good job. We would have gone, but I didn’t think we’d make it to Invrisil then Celum to Orefell. We might have with a carriage, but the odds looked grim.”
It was rare to hear a compliment from Halrac. But he didn’t tend to prevaricate—which meant it was genuine. Nor did he make excuses.
“Briganda has a child, doesn’t she? It’s entirely understandable.”
The [Bowman] didn’t say anything else, just grunted. Ylawes found a seat as the two watched the adventurers milling about.
“How is the job working for an [Emperor]?”
“Relaxing. But rewarding. Boots of Stability.”
“That’s…quite good for not embarking on an adventure. Or did you? How did you get them?”
Halrac relayed the experience of first doing favors for Laken Godart as Ylawes listened.
“Not that we’ve gained more artifacts of the same quality, but it makes our job very consistent. We can take down [Bandits] or monsters, and the pay is low—but it has perks like housing, food, and so on. I’m still tempted by the new lands, but not much. It’s too far for Briganda, and Typhenous is old enough to make it a long journey. Revi’s the one who’s itching…”
“She won’t quit the team, will she?”
“I think she won’t. She’s more loyal than you think, but it’s her choice. Actually, I had a thought—well, having access to Erin’s door means we can still go abroad.”
It was certainly the largest convenience Ylawes had ever found. He was about to talk about Wistram and his feeling of failing Erin—or perhaps his sisters—when Halrac glanced at the dig.
“This is a waste of time, though. Albez is huge, and we’re either looking for one spare room amidst all the others or digging in the wrong place. This was a city—unless we uncover the entire hillside, there’s no chance we’ll find anything more since Ceria’s map is a dud. I’ve been doing a lot of digs, and the amount of earth you have to shift is insane.”
“Plus, [Treasure Hunters] and [Geomancers] already scoured the region. If there is anything valuable, it must be beyond them. Shame your [Emperor] doesn’t own Albez.”
Halrac paused. His lined face flickered, and his eyes shifted.
Suddenly, he got up and motioned to Ylawes. The [Knight] blinked, but Halrac was already walking over to where a group of three were playing cards.
“Do you have any Mages?”
“Nope. Go digging.”
“I don’t want to. I can tell that card’s going to shock me.”
They were playing with a magical deck, and Revi was complaining as Typhenous indicated a pile of cards you pulled up. She put a handkerchief on her hand as Briganda and Typhenous scolded her—until Halrac squatted down.
“Ylawes just had an idea.”
“Ylawes! Pull up a seat and pick up some cards. Want to drag the Silver Swords over and talk? How was Wistram?”
Briganda grinned up at him, and the [Knight] squatted next to them, but Halrac made an odd gesture where he pointed a forefinger forwards then dragged his thumb around.
Instantly, Griffon Hunt fell silent, and Typhenous whispered a spell.
“…[Hush]. There we go.”
Again, Ylawes was reminded that this was a professional team that knew hand-signs. The [Bowman] spoke louder as the magic settled over them; it felt like a bit of cotton was inserted into Ylawes’ ears.
“Revi, Typhenous, do you know anything about Albez? Who owns the ruins?”
“Halrac, not me?”
Briganda protested, and he looked at her. She lifted her hands.
Typhenous’ eyes sharpened as he glanced at Ylawes, and Revi whistled.
“Halrac! You’re not thinking—wait, that’s smart. But no way we can buy Albez. Even Laken wouldn’t go for that.”
“It depends on whether or not it needs to be bought. Typhenous?”
“Halrac has a point. Technically, Remendia sells permits to Albez, and so do Ocre and a few other settlements—they split the profits. But no city owns Albez. That would imply they’re accountable for monster attacks and incidents here. I wonder. Are you thinking we try a totem?”
“Contact His Majesty first. But have you got one?”
Briganda patted her bag of holding.
“Sure do. Eight five-foot sized ones from the prospecting trip we did. I’ve got three in my bag, and Typhenous, Revi, and you should have the other five. Think it’ll encircle Albez?”
Ylawes was incredulous.
“Excuse me, are you suggesting the [Emperor] claim the ruins? Can he do that?”
Halrac just grinned—and he did have a mirthless grin.
“Temporarily. If it’s unclaimed land, he can put down a stake. The eight totems we had were from him inspecting the hills. We set them up—it can cover about five hundred feet—and he checks if there’s any minerals. He was trying to buy a goldmine.”
That felt like it was exceptionally underhanded to Ylawes. Especially if the owner of a patch of land didn’t know how much that was worth. Still, Typhenous was already sending a [Message] off, and Griffon Hunt didn’t have long to wait.
“As long as it’s not disturbing anything…he’s interested in trying.”
“Well, let’s set up the totems. We’ll tell the others if we find anything—Ylawes, want to join in?”
The totems being hammered into the ground didn’t escape some adventurers’ notice, but Halrac didn’t explain what was being done. Typhenous just lied about it being a kind of dowsing, and all Ylawes saw was the decorated totems of the Unseen Empire being arranged and then Typhenous and Revi relaying what the [Emperor] said.
“…He’s busy, so he’ll relay it via Rie’s [Mage] when he can. He says no good here.”
“Is it claimed?”
“…Temporarily, but he says it looks ‘dark’ except for the people above the ground. Can we try the edges of the ruin, over there?”
Griffon Hunt began to yank up the totems and move them as Dawil whispered to Ylawes.
“Now that’s a kind of Skill usage I never thought I’d see. Smart.”
“You don’t think it’s odd, Dawil?”
The Dwarf shrugged.
“Lad, it’s making use of all your tools available. If you’re going to say it’s cheating or unethical to do what you can—that’s like saying it’s unfair to have a map and compass rather than the stars and your own memories.”
When he put it like that…Ylawes decided to help move the totems. It wasn’t hard; he just helped clear a hole and hammer them in about five feet, and that was enough for the [Emperor].
“No good. Keep moving towards the exit.”
They had to redeploy them twice, then hammer them five feet deep before the [Emperor] figured out the problem. Revi cursed to Vuliel Drae and the Pride of Kelia, who were also loitering around.
“It’s a no-go, Halrac! He just said he sensed dirt—right at the edge of the ruins! Damn! Snap my stitches. It’s all dark in this area. Looks like he can’t see into a dungeon.”
She kicked a totem and hopped around angrily, but it was real disappointment in her voice. Ylawes exhaled a bit.
He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or not, but apparently, the [Emperor] could claim this land because it was up for grabs and very deliberately no one’s property…but either magic was suppressing his Skill or it was somehow accounted for.
“Dungeons can’t be explored via an [Emperor]’s Skills? I wonder if that’s because they are still inherently part of whatever they used to be. Well, at least we know the edge of Albez is here.”
Typhenous kicked at the crumbling edge of the pit, which indeed was where the excavation ended. Halrac began to tug up one of the totems and nodded to Ylawes.
“It was a good try. Guess that’s it.”
Ylawes Byres nodded. The Ruins of Albez were old, anyways. When a place like this was known, it got explored to every conceivable part, and it was rare for someone like Ceria’s team to catch a break.
Now—true secrets—those were rarer. More dangerous. He rubbed at his face. He had always dreamed of finding a clue to a real treasure and quest like that, like Liscor’s dungeon, actually, but…it was harder to be simply given a task with no goal.
How was he supposed to answer a call to arms? Even if it came from everything he knew and held dear. Why not his father? Why was he the ‘only one that could be found’? Had that really been…
A ghost of House Byres?
He didn’t know. He didn’t know what was true or the scope of the threat described—and it would have been very helpful to hear that his family had a buried armory. Or even where he should begin his quest.
“…Perspective. Boundaries. Even a continent would narrow it down.”
“What’s that, lad?”
Dawil looked at Ylawes, and the [Knight] jumped.
He hadn’t told Dawil because even his friend might think Ylawes was crazy. The [Knight] had been wanting to pay a visit home to look up the name, at least, before he told Falene and Dawil.
“The Silver Knight of the Skies is no more. Yderigrisel is dead in body and soul. His spirit joins the legions of the brave and damned in the lands of the dead. This war is lost. But we have dealt a blow to the enemy. Now, House Byres must rise to the call.”
Ylawes barely heard the voice at first. His head was still ringing—the small cabin of the ship deck he’d been allocated was a poor place to fight. But he had fought in close-quarters before.
His sword lay on the ground, and the ghost aimed a blade bearing a familiar crest down at the [Knight]. He had disarmed Ylawes—
“Who are you?”
“Yrendiev Byres. Has our house grown so small, [Knight] of the modern day? You are the only one I could reach. Another journeys with the might of Chandrar—the other lies on lands claimed by the enemy. So to you—I call you to arms.”
It was a harsh face, half-remembered, as if the person bearing it had begun forgetting what they looked like. But the armor…the armor was silver, translucent, and the face was visible, though even the hair and eyes were forgotten—the scars stood out.
The sword never wavered as it struck Ylawes harshly on the shoulders, as if knighting him a second time. Then a hand grabbed his shoulder and forced him up.
“What do you mean?”
“Prepare for war, [Knight]. Resurrect Byres’ arms and forces. Our oldest foes are not eradicated, and these new ones fear no enchanted blades. Find the corpse of the Silver Dragon and pledge yourself to Byres anew. Then—scour Izril of its tainted foes. Down to the last child and drop of blood. Poison every river and well this time.”
“Poison? What poison?”
The hand released him, and Ylawes inhaled, choking. When he looked up, the [Knight] was turning his head.
“Damn them all. Seamwalkers and monstrous consumers of soul. To arms, House Byres! To arms and glory! Silver and steel and death!”
He raised his blade as he turned, seeing some unimaginable foe in the distance. Once, that head looked back, waiting for an answering roar from his descendant across the ages. But all he saw was—a confused stare.
He had bruises on his throat after that—and chilblains from where the ghost had grabbed him. That was proof enough, but Ylawes had still wanted to investigate that name. But the thing that had halted him—had thrown him into doubt was something the ghost had said.
Wells? Rivers? Poison? Ylawes knew Yderigrisel was dead. Was his corpse still…somewhere in the world?
What war? What battle? How was he supposed to…
He should have felt honored, chosen. This was the moment in every story that a [Hero] was called forth. A champion needed.
…But that ghost had no face, and the wrath in his voice was so murderous it had made Ylawes’ skin crawl. And for once—Ylawes had wondered if he were doing the right thing.
Or if not the right thing, the practical thing. First, he had reconsidered Goblins and Antinium as dread foes.
Then he had seen the [Crusaders]’ power, which he so envied. Now? Now he looked at the other teams who had somehow advanced past him. Silver and steel, honor and duty. These things were good and constant—so why did Ysara shout-whisper at him in the night that she couldn’t bear to be in their family’s home more than a day or two whenever she returned?
That she was glad Yvlon was no [Knight]?
…Yrendiev Byres. A name was more than anything else. A record that he existed was surely in the Byres history books.
That would at least prove something, be a starting point for a decision, but Ylawes had rushed to Orefell, and now he was here. At least Erin’s door would make the journey faster. Maybe he could head from Riverfarm. That was only a three-day ride!
Ylawes brightened up, and then something occurred to him. He glanced at the ruins…and at the totem poles and wondered if Halrac had thought of that.
Surely he had. Ylawes was not the man you went to for an underhanded or even cunning plan. The [Knight] opened his mouth and hesitated.
“Ah. Halrac. Wait a second before you dig up those totems.”
The Captain turned to Ylawes, and Dawil glanced up. The [Knight] hesitated.
“It occurs to me—well, I don’t know much about how all this works, but is it conceivable there’s one use you could use the totems for? With Albez?”
“Like what? We—Laken—can’t tell what’s down there.”
Revi folded her arms, but Ylawes was shaking his head.
“No, this is true, but I just thought—boundaries. Even if it’s just confirming what we allegedly know, isn’t that useful in and of itself? Even if you can’t see what you’re aiming for, if the imprint is there—then you’d know something is there or not there. Does that make sense?”
It did not, and Revi gave him a look like he was mad until Ylawes managed to explain what he was trying to think of. Then—Dawil was slapping him on the lower back.
“Lad, that is the most intelligent thought I’ve ever heard of! Pointy! Toss away that staff because Ylawes is taking your class!”
Even Halrac gave Ylawes a quick smile. The [Knight] tugged up a totem pole as Briganda had to have Typhenous explain it.
“Wait, we can’t see the dungeon…”
“Ah, Briganda, we cannot. But it occurred to Ylawes there in a stroke of genius that if we cannot see the dungeon—we can still have His Majesty confirm the dig site encircles Albez completely. And perhaps…if there are any buildings not hither-to uncovered.”
Then Briganda got it, and even the Pride of Kelia and Vuliel Drae were excitedly planting totems around, moving the eight like a net, dragging it around Albez much to the amusement of the other adventurers.
“Hey, Griffon Hunt, Silver Swords, if you’re bored enough to play plant-the-stick, come on over and let’s compare artifacts!”
One of the Waterborn Raiders was shouting as the other teams worked. They ignored him, and Ylawes got into the rhythm.
All Laken needed was a moment, so Typhenous would hold up a hand for five seconds once the totems were planted, get the ‘all clear’, and they’d switch four totems to the next spot, moving in 500-foot chunks. It was fast—but Albez was huge.
They were two-thirds around the entire pit in an hour as they got into a real rhythm, and Ylawes feared they’d find nothing after all. Still—he’d be satisfied with that and feel like they’d truly plumbed every depth of this place.
Then, Revi halted as they were picking up the totems and put a finger to her forehead, smudging her cloth-skin with dirt. Typhenous looked up suddenly.
“Wait. Go back. Back—”
All the adventurers looked up, and Ylawes found his heart skipping a beat. Typhenous tugged Nailren back, Insill ran back, and they replanted the totems. Revi frowned—then pointed at Ylawes and Briganda, whose two totems were next to the pit.
“Hey, bring those two up! Bring them—over here!”
She gestured away from the pit, and the two warriors lugged their totems over. Then Revi told Nailren to do the same, and Halrac planted his totem in a huge rectangle…
…Four hundred meters away from the edge of the excavation. Rather near where Earlia’s team was working, actually. Revi gestured to Briganda as Typhenous murmured a reply.
“Drive the totems deep. Deep as they’ll go.”
“Got it. Aw, damn—”
Briganda began to split one in half from the repeated impacts, but Revi just urged her on. Ylawes drove a maul into the head of another totem and clumsily buried it deep. Then everyone was crowding around Typhenous and Revi.
The [Mage] held up a hand, and then his eyes widened. He smiled, and Revi suppressed a whoop—then groaned and looked at the other adventurers. Halrac just waited, but even his foot was tapping.
“That’s it. We’ll let you know, Your Majesty—and the other teams will be all over it. Thank you. Guys—we can either pretend nothing’s up and come back later—”
“Revi. There’s no way the other teams will let this slide. Even if they haven’t noticed us. Spit it out.”
Halrac nipped the idea in the bud and Revi cursed, much to Ylawes’ relief. Typhenous was the one who pointed straight down.
“Well, Captain Ylawes, Halrac, I believe then we should talk to Captain Deniusth and the others. Because His Majesty claims that while he can’t tell what’s too far down—given our small totems—the highest point is right here. It’s apparently buried, but there’s actually an empty pocket below—nigh on a hundred feet down. No wonder most [Geomancers] and [Treasure Seekers] didn’t find it.”
“Find what? What, Typhenous?”
Briganda almost shook him, and the Plague Mage smiled.
“Well, he cannot be sure, but he is certain this complex connects to the rest of Albez. As for what we’re standing on—he says they look like stairs.”
Ylawes’ head rose, and Dawil let out such a whoop that the other dispirited and bored adventurers turned. Deniusth’s head turned like someone hearing that call to adventure, and everyone looked down.
The digging began in earnest.
Author’s Note: It’s gonna be an arc! The people have voted, and what they said was–adventurers over Khelt. And I answer.
All the side-story options were arcs coming up, but this is the one we’re dealing with first. And again, I am editing Volume 1 and it is kicking my butt. But I did 3 chapters of V1 that I’ve edited while writing this chapter, so the system is working.
…This system will never happen again. This is actually a grind on par with Volume 8’s ending in terms of how much work it feels like. Okay, 70% of how hard it was to end Volume 8. Still a lot.
But the prize is a rewritten Volume 1, and I think there are substantive improvements–plus we might be able to put it into print. I don’t, uh, know if Andrea will re-record Volume 1. Seems like a big ask.
However, we are making progress. In other news…I’ve got nothing. God of War: Ragnarok is coming out soon. I feel like in an alternate timeline, I wouldn’t be a writer, just angrily reviewing most games for their stories. Which often suck. God of War has a, uh, 50-50 chance of being good. The last God of War was good–but it has some flaws.
I’ll start my career as a reviewer later. Writing for now! Get ready for some old and new plotlines mixing together like soup. Or some other analogy here.
Pirate Plushie by kalmia!
Erin and Ryoka and Belavierr by Deepsikk, the [Lazy Artist]?! I didn’t call them that.
Erin, the Greatest Chess Player by froggias!