Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 2)

Adventurers in Albez, digging. Adventurers in Liscor, tossing skeletons into the chasm.

Adventurers everywhere. However, it wasn’t all about them.

While they were up and spending every waking moment in search of treasure, the party that Lyonette had started was still going on in multiple cities. More than three days had passed—this was the seventh, actually. By now, Liscor’s Council was really hinting that everyone should get back to work.

Gently, though, because there certainly was profit being made here. Every time it seemed like the party was winding down, someone else came by.

In this case—Riverfarm and a host of Humans flooded through Erin Solstice’s door. So, rather than a party, it was more like a week-long festival where you could take a break from work and see something new. Instead of a [Princess]’ plan, it was spontaneous.

Today, as every day, you could wake up in The Wandering Inn, and the first thing you might hear would be the scampering of paws. Breakfast would already be hot and fresh, and adventurers and guests would slowly emerge from their rooms, trained to follow the smell and head downstairs.

Goblin and Antinium workers were already up and still looked bemused as they went downstairs, wearing uniforms with the paw print and inn logos on them. A Hobgoblin with one foot was hopping as she tried to attach a peg-leg to her…leg.

New employees. Erin Solstice knew all their names by now, but the rest of the guests were still somewhat—unfamiliar with them. Not that the Goblins and Antinium had to do more than take food out.

The power of Ishkr meant that the inn was still handling the increased waves of guests, but it was also fair to say that the Antinium and Goblins had begun to pull some serious weight.

For instance, the Hob, one of the two the inn had been sent by Rags, was used to ordering silly Goblins around. She poked one, and that Goblin got to clean the outhouses. Another Goblin got to check the basement for pests like mice or insects. A third Goblin got to draw water from the well.

Her name, or nickname, was, somewhat pointedly, ‘Peggy’. Because of the leg. She had apparently lost it in a battle; another former Redfang who Rags had decided could be of better use in the inn.

The other Hobgoblin was male, and he got a fourth elbow to the guts because he was Mountain City tribe…and he was reading a damn book. At work! He closed it with a grunt and scowled—but he would often be reading in a corner. Unlike Peggy, this Goblin, Inkpaper, was a known slacker in the Flooded Waters tribe. Rags…somewhat approved of him, but had still given him to be Erin’s headache anyways.

There were more Workers and Goblins, of course, and even some Soldiers. They headed to work—or breakfast and relaxation until their shift started.

Breaaaaakfast! I hate bisque! Bezale, do you have that [Lion’s Strength] spell I asked for? Cast it on me! I will never bisque again!”

The Minotauress sighed, but Erin Solstice started her day with a big smile for all her guests, and they were legion. Gothica emerged from the basement where she’d installed a bed, Relc stomped downstairs with one boot on, and Pisces yawned his way over to a table where Colth and the Horns were sitting.

I’m late for work! I’m late, and Captain Z and Klb are going to kill me! Where’s my boot? Can I get breakfast—

“Gothica, please stop sleeping in the basement.”

“Up yours, Ishkr.”

“Well, here’s our [Necromancer]. Day three of skeleton exploring, eh? Let’s see if we can get past those damn monsters. I swear, they’re targeting us. Pisces, want to send down the first skeleton group and see how far they get?”

The grumpy [Necromancer] flicked his hand, and the bones of multiple skeletons rose outside the pit and began to rope down as a scrying orb glowed to life on the table as the adventurers ate. Today was biscuit and gravy day, and everyone got a big pot to share and dip fresh bread into.

“Yum. Big yum, Calescent. Numbtongue, there you are. Is Octavia dead?”

The Hobgoblin looked over and hastily yanked Octavia’s face out of her bowl of pottage.

“…Octavia.”

“Huh? I’m working, Master Saliss!

She jerked, grabbed a full salt-shaker, and dumped it into her bowl. Then Octavia blinked around, looked at Numbtongue, and put her face on her plate and went back to sleep.

Erin sighed and grimaced as she wiped her hands on her pants.

“How’s Riverfarm doing? Ishkr?”

The Gnoll appeared with breakfast for their table.

“I think Liska sent over today’s negotiators and let in a bunch of guests to Liscor already.”

“Wow, they’re up early. I may go back again. How’s things? Nanette? Where’s…”

This was The Wandering Inn—the new inn’s morning. If you wanted, you could stick around and listen to Erin or wait for something funny to happen.

But why wait when there was so much outside? The adventurers were already groaning at their table. The instant a skeleton opened one of the doors, a hand had reached through and ripped off a skull.

“Facestealer! Back them up! Back them—”

A wave of monsters was pouring out the shutters. Yvlon pounded a hand on the table and almost got up.

“That’s it. I’m going down there—”

“That thing’s holding a real grudge. Hold on. Let’s grab some arrows and clear the monsters out if they’re at the bottom of the chasm. Skeleton wave two? Maybe via the trapped entrances?”

Colth was scratching at his chin and checking on how far Albez’s excavations were going. They, at least, could make consistent forwards progress, no matter how much dirt they had to move.

And the rest of the guests were heading outside. Some lined up for the door, but most didn’t bother waiting. Liska was opening and shutting the door, grumpy and yawning.

“Door has 84 people left until it resets. One hour and forty-eight minutes until reset! Priority to diplomats or important people.”

“Am I important people? I’ve gotta get to work!”

Relc tried to shove past a group heading to Invrisil. Liska sighed and changed the door to Liscor.

“Liscor’s practically no mana charge. Go on through. But hurry up anyone going—I’ve got thirteen people waiting in Invrisil! Hey! [Form a Line].

The grumpy Gnoll snapped, and the crowd actually did just that. She was Liska, and she was mad mostly because she was getting good at her job.

In fact…the [Door Gnoll] really resented her class. Door Gnoll? Doorman?

Her powers included making people wait in line, checking on how much mana Erin had, and efficiently sending people to their destination.

Worst class ever.

Anyways, she let through a few more guests into Liscor, and the crowd muttered as they saw the Goblins and Antinium—but only the ones in the crowd not from Liscor. And in the city?

They were the least notable of all, because the sights continued. The first thing that hit the visitors was the fair.

People were still buying the Antinium dolls, and a booth to paint them was letting people—children and adults—color them.

Of course, by now, it wasn’t just Antinium. Someone had just come out with a miniature image of Forount, and people were queuing up to buy paint for the fleshy skin tones and metal armor.

Quality ranged from ‘lurid’ to highly realistic. Some people just used about four colors for the entire figurine, and a few had figured out how to begin adding shading and even weathering to the armor with knives and had created amazingly vivid versions of the [Brigadier].

Behind them, the impromptu bazaar in Shivertail Plaza was turning into a larger version of Market Street. The temporary stalls had been reinforced, and a lot of families—or the [Cooks] and people responsible for meals in said families—were inspecting a lot of cheap, good-looking produce from Riverfarm.

Cleverly, the [Emperor] had decided to offer samples of products based on said food, so you could also eat if you lined up. Not to be outdone, local farmers and the [Pirate], Wailant, had also put their goods on offer.

Drakle-Lischelle Products: Fresh, Highest-Quality Mutton, Pork, on sale.

That was one of the stalls doing good business that the guests of The Wandering Inn passed by. A bored-looking Rivel and old Bamer were manning the stall, and a Gnoll and Drake were shoving each other in line.

“Krshia! You’re supposed to be at the Council meeting.”

“So are you, Lism. I thought you were ‘attending to emergency business’ before we met.”

“Well…you didn’t say you were coming here! I need to run my stall.”

“So do I. Shoo.”

Lism trying to out-shove Krshia was fun enough for some people to watch the Drake versus the Gnoll woman—she was taller and heavier than he was by a good margin. But then it started.

 

“♪ Oooooooh~ ♫”

 

A group of voices began to rise in the distance. Heads turned, and Lism groaned.

“Oh, Ancestors. It’s them again.”

Everyone looked around, and there they were, occupying a little stage that was used for speeches or performances. Even Lism didn’t try to stop them, just stared with resignation—because the Council had approved them and everything.

Worse, they were growing in number. One of The Wandering Inn’s Workers not on duty practically ran over and joined a throng of people standing together. Drakes with odd helmets, local Liscorians being branded as menaces by their neighbors, and visitors from abroad.

The Yoldenites began to sing. And the choir began, once again, to sing another mass-chorus of the Yoldenite’s national anthem. Then all the best songs, north and south, that a group of voices could get up to.

It was free music. And you had to admit—it was a good outlet for a lot of [Singers]. The fact that a Worker had joined in?

Well, that was something new. But back to the point.

“Magical amulets on sale! Straight from the Meeting of Tribes and the Gaarh Marsh tribe—never suffer a bug bite again. Or what about a bracelet? [Lesser Strength]!

“[Lesser Strength]?”

A lot of people looked over at that. Regardless of profession—the Golden Gnoll, Qwera, was unveiling another hot item. She had actually not put these bracelets out until today. She had told her customers, candidly, to check back every day or they might miss her new item.

Right now, the [Merchant] was showing everyone an astonishing price tag.

“Five hundred gold pieces per. And before you turn away, this is a bracelet on par with a Skill most [Warriors] train for! I have twenty bracelets, and the price goes up the less I have. Do I have any takers?”

She made her first sale within a minute. Whereupon the price did go up, and the rush that followed…

Well, that was just one good on display, and it was pricey, the lot of it. Qwera did stock goods for people who didn’t have lots of gold to throw around, but one of the most tempting options—a snazzy hat with [Far Sight] on it, a blue tricorne—was still twenty-two gold coins.

A lot of money, but not impossible for a good [Hunter] or someone with a lucrative job to pay for, let alone a successful [Trader] or someone like a Guildmaster. One of Qwera’s [Stall Keepers] eyed the guests from The Wandering Inn, but since Qwera was staying there, the Drake replied curtly.

“No touching—we’ve got a stock of six. Different colors. If you can’t afford it, then come back tomorrow. We’re unlikely to sell all six by then.”

If you can afford it. The tone of the Drake suggested this was unlikely, and the disappointed guests stared at the hat.

Twenty-two gold coins? A lot, a lot. But what were you to do? Not everyone was as rich as Mrsha. A lot of the fun items on display would be sold to even Goblins and Antinium for the right price. But if you didn’t have that price…

In the inn, the adventurers were after the big stuff. A monster’s corpse. In Albez, adventurers were honing in on some stairs buried deep, shifting dirt and stone—a slow process to dig a hundred feet down. Even at their fastest, with magic, they’d barely gone more than twenty feet in a day.

Which was, to be fair, a lot of down, especially through rock. Gold-rank adventurers. Named-ranks. But as two guests of The Wandering Inn looked at each other, they exited Liscor, past the [Guards] who eyed them with only mild interest. They wandered out onto the Floodplains, and one patted the other on the head and pointed past two waving antennae.

“Adventure time?”

Adventure. Yah.”

The other figure marched off, carrying the first on his shoulders. The one doing the carrying was an Antinium, and he had a tall spear and clothing, not bare carapace. Even chainmail, and the one on top cackled and waved at the surprised Humans coming from Esthelm.

He was a small, grey-skinned Goblin, and he had a necklace of huge fangs and his own set of baggy clothing, but no hat. A hat would really improve his look, both felt, especially one to complement one of the crossbows from the inn he carried.

The two had no ranks. They weren’t Bronze-rank, they weren’t Silver or Gold and certainly not Named-rank, though they had names.

Infinitypear and Rasktooth had no guild registration—but they were certainly…

[Adventurers]. The two ran out past Liscor’s walls. Or—one did.

Rasktooth’s legs didn’t work anymore. They hadn’t since the battle at the Meeting of Tribes, but he sat on Infinitypear’s shoulders, pointing out spots for the Worker to march to. Infinitypear’s spear was high-quality, and the [Shopkeeper] and the [Guards] had eyed that.

One of the Watch’s [Guards] muttered to the other at the gates.

“…That wasn’t an enchanted spear that Worker was carrying, was it? It looked, uh—shiny.”

“Maybe a low-grade enchantment?”

The Gnoll frowned at her colleague. They both stared at Infinitypear’s spear and didn’t recognize the sigil burned into the wood or the conical tip made of Adamantium.

Spearmaster Lulv had lost his spear. Right now, Infinitypear was using it as a walking staff. But it also doubled as a pretty good weapon in the Antinium’s opinion.

Adventure. What would today bring? The two had no idea what it would be, but they were sure they could find it. Rasktooth looked around. He spotted a Rock Crab scurrying across the grass, a stand of dangerous boom-trees far in the distance, and inhaled the fresh air as the High Passes began to light up with the sun.

“Want to beat up spiders, Infinitypear?”

“Nah. Let’s find treasure. Gold pieces. Seven more.”

They had fifteen gold pieces, a huge amount from previous adventures. They had bested the racoon and found a treasure buried in a pouch on their first adventure. They had picked up the fallen [Merchant]’s pouch on the run with the Titan and gotten a reward for it.

They had fought in the Meeting of Tribes and survived a war between five plus armies and had stolen Spearmaster Lulv’s spear.

Then, they’d uncovered five silver coins and an old dagger buried under the blue fruit trees where Erin got her fruits. And beaten up eight Shield Spiders.

They’d had some great adventures, hadn’t they? This time, Infinitypear took them towards the caves as Rasktooth fed him an apple he’d snatched from the breakfast table. He cut it up, handed a piece down, and crunched on one himself.

“Enchanted hat is just for me, Infinitypear? What about you?”

“I don’t know. Don’t care. Hat is good.”

“You sure?”

“Yah, yah.”

Rasktooth patted him on the head. They liked that word, ‘yah’. A combination between yes and yeah. The Goblin grinned.

“Yah, you good. But what about other Antinium? You don’t want to go to your Hive? Sing?”

He was hinting. Infinitypear took him everywhere, but he knew the [Crusaders] were back in the Hives. They were everywhere, and the Free Hive was important, and Infinitypear was hanging out with the Goblin.

“It’s okay. All Painted Antinium and Individuals have to report in the Hive. Later, later. Doesn’t matter.”

Infinitypear airily wandered away from the Hive, and Rasktooth looked down at him.

“You not bored with me, Infinitypear? You can say.”

“No. We brothers. I said I would carry you places. Liscor…other places. Far, far away.”

The Antinium [Adventurer] looked up. Rasktooth patted him on the head.

They had met during the Fellowship of the Inn, on their quest to save Mrsha. It had been chance that they grew to be friends, but Rasktooth and Infinitypear…understood each other.

Neither one had known the outside world until it came to them. For Infinitypear, as one of the Antinium who was lucky enough to be painted by Pawn’s new ways. For Rasktooth?

The five Redfangs had killed the Raskghar who ruled them and set the Cave Goblins free. When he had first looked up at the sky, the Cave Goblin had sworn never to go back to the dungeon. And Infinitypear had gazed into the wild world beyond Liscor with the Titan leading them and realized how much more there was.

“Am I heavy, Infinitypear? You’re an [Adventurer].”

“So are you.”

The Cave Goblin nodded.

“Yes. But…other lands is far. Very far. You don’t have to carry me. The inn is nice. Has lots of food.”

“I will carry you. We are brothers. Yeah?”

“…Yah.”

Sometimes, Rasktooth said silly things like that. He had paid a high price for going to save Mrsha. As high as Apista, and she was flying again. The Antinium ignored the suggestions.

They had a connection deeper than either one had figured out how to say. But they liked the words.

Brothers. A thing that Numbtongue had taught them. Rasktooth looked up and swung his crossbow up as they headed to their first cave. He sniffed the air.

[Hound’s Nose].

His Skills were different than Infinitypear’s. The Cave Goblin sniffed and muttered.

“Smells like foxes.”

“We kill foxes? Sell pelts?”

The two thought about that. Rasktooth thought he heard scrabbling and wondered if there were a family of them in there. Liscor’s fox population was small, and they had bright orange fur.

“Nah.”

“Naaaah. Want to try feeding foxes?”

“Good idea. You got food instead of this apple?”

“Dried meat in my pouch. Do foxes eat apples?”

They spent the next fifteen minutes trying to lure a fox out by tossing treats into the cave and making fox-like noises. No fox came out, but the two were heading away when Rasktooth saw a little shape dart out and grab the food. A cute little one!

This was a pretty darn good adventure already. Then Infinitypear was marching to the next cave. And his pace seemed to pick up, despite the pack he wore and the spear and armor and Rasktooth.

[Spirit of the Wild]. The further he got from Liscor, the more energized he got. Plus…

[Find Roads Less Travelled]. Rasktooth cackled as he spotted a promising hill in the distance and a crack in one of the cliff faces bordering the Floodplains. He pointed ahead and aimed the crossbow at a Shield Spider pit he spotted. Liscor was fun enough for now. But Infinitypear wanted to see the sea and everything beyond it.

Rasktooth wondered if they’d be together when Infinitypear did. He hoped so. But today, they quested for enough gold to get that hat. It was a pretty good day.

 

——

 

Rasktooth and Infinitypear were the happiest adventurers in the entire region. The Horns of Hammerad—were not.

Pisces glumly stared at a bag of shattered bones and powder that Ksmvr and Yvlon came up with. They ascended the ropes cautiously as Ceria covered their exit with Colth.

“Okay, the dungeon really doesn’t like us. It definitely knows the skeletons are foreign. How many did we send?”

“Eight. Eight, and I think I found the iron armor we put on our leader.”

Colth waved a mangled piece of metal with a hole in it. A suit of enchanted armor had punched straight through it.

Pisces tossed the scrap metal aside and shook his head.

“I’m running out of bones. At least—bones I can use for lesser skeletons. Why is this so difficult?

In fairness, the Horns had done some good work. They’d found four Raskghar camps or spots that Ceria had thought they’d used as outposts. They had expanded the map that the other adventurers had used incredibly far, if narrowly, hoping to find the inner city—

But their progress had stalled because it felt like every monster in the dungeon and Facestealer itself were after the skeletons. Almost as if…it or something else had taken notice of the intrusions and decided to do something about it.

“We could go down there?”

Ceria suggested mildly. Colth made a face.

“I don’t really want to take down that Facestealer thing when it’s waiting for us, do you?”

“Ah, point. At least it’s too heavy to climb the ropes.”

They suspected it had tried, multiple times, but the adventurers didn’t just leave the ropes attached—and the one time something had jerked the rope when Yvlon lowered it down, it had snapped it clear of the anchors.

The possibility of that horror just waiting for them to descend was a good incentive not to head down, but Pisces was getting sick of rebuilding skeletons.

“This is…I agree this is the safest, most expedient option, Colth, and you can control one or two skeletons while you’re helping me.”

The [Supporter] had been practicing and looked up as Pisces rubbed his forehead.

“However, this is extremely taxing to send undead so far into the dungeon. I have a headache, and we’ve only done two waves.”

“Maybe take a break on it, then, Pisces. The last thing we want is for you to snap or get tired. How about I do a skeleton run from the traps? Facestealer doesn’t seem to want to go through that area. It just takes longer.”

Pisces nodded, and Ceria looked at Ksmvr and Yvlon, who had less to do.

“Sounds good. I know it’s slow—so how about we take a little break? I’ll help Colth navigate. Yvlon?”

“Ksmvr and I will head to the markets, then. I want to find some good saddles. Even if we use undead horses—and I really don’t know if we want to chariot-ride across Izril—we have to have good saddles.”

“And food. I will keep inquiring as to the best food supplies to take. If we go on a long adventure into lands hither-to unexplored.”

Yvlon sighed.

“Yes, if.”

“If. Hypothetically. Theoretically. In reference to Comrade Pisces’—”

“Yeah, yeah. We get it.”

Ceria rolled her eyes, but fondly, and Pisces bit his tongue. Neither Yvlon nor Ksmvr had said they were going outright yet, but Colth glanced at Ceria and then at Pisces.

They hadn’t answered his statements about going to the new lands—but they were acting as if they would. Pisces grouched back to the inn, rubbing at his head.

 

——

 

It was odd, you had to admit, for The Wandering Inn to have a routine. Even a temporary one. Yet it seemed like some of the excitement had left, and Erin Solstice realized four whole days had passed without her causing some kind of incident.

Not to say something wasn’t happening. Oh, no. Liscor and Riverfarm were negotiating, and there was important stuff in the works for the Horns and elsewhere.

“No luck, Pisces?”

“Monsters and whatnot, Erin. Monsters and whatnot.”

“Almost makes you want a Toren, huh?”

He gave her a wan smile.

“Not quite—but I’m starting to see the appeal of a stronger undead. Maybe I should work on it. But, argh, I just don’t have the right bones.”

“Don’t you have all those fancy bones from the Gargoyles and…?”

Erin waggled her fingers, and he shrugged.

“Oh, Gargoyle bones. Yes. But I was hoping for some real, high-quality ones. You see, there’s bone and…I can see I’m losing you.”

Erin was edging towards the stairs.

“What? N-no, I’m just, uh—I’d love to hear you talk about bones for thirty minutes, but I’ve got this thing I’m going to do and—has anyone seen Nanette?”

Pisces rolled his eyes and waved Erin off as he sat down. Erin looked about, and the truth was, these quieter days were just fine.

Larra’s inn was still moving south to Liscor. The adventurers were about to get their due excitement. It was only a matter of time. The new lands waited.

Wasn’t this fine? Yes, it was. In fact, Erin only had one—two concerns, really. She wiped her hand on her apron as she walked around the inn. That one problem was—

Nanette.

Mrsha the Exceptionally Welcoming abandoned the table where she had been taking lessons on palace dynamics from Lyonette and Ser Sest. The [Princess] sighed loudly, but she let Mrsha go because the girl had a good reason.

Nanette. Like Calescent, but even more so—the witch was the inn’s newest member of the family. She was Erin’s responsibility, and the [Innkeeper] had realized she needed to be mindful of Nanette in a way she hadn’t with Mrsha.

Not just because Nanette needed support. Not just because Erin had promised. The truth was—Nanette was a pretty resourceful girl and older than Mrsha.

But that wasn’t perfect. Nanette deserved more. The problem was, ironically, that if Erin didn’t bear Nanette in mind, the young witch would take care of herself.

 

——

 

Nanette was in The Wandering Inn, but it took Erin a while to find the young witch. Mostly because Nanette stood at the highest part of the inn. Or rather—just below it. She called up the stairs into the tower as a Worker peered down at her.

“Hello, Mister Bird?”

“Hello, girl witch Nanette. Is something wrong? Are we under attack by monsters or armies?”

“No, Mister Bird. May I come up into your tower?”

The Worker considered this. He had begun locking his tower, and he had a big sign that said ‘Only Birds Allowed’ on the door. But Nanette was peering up at him, and he stared at her round cheeks and earnest face.

“You ask permission. This is good and wise. Let me see. Do you have tribute?”

The Worker sat on his tower perch, listening to the hustle and bustle of the inn below. Above it all, a bucket of arrows sitting by him as he fiddled with his bow. Nanette fished in her pockets.

“I have a speckled green egg shell I found in Riverfarm. A baby bird hatched out of it, and it was blue.”

“Oh. Oho. This is a worthy tribute. You may ascend.”

Bird grandly waved, and she came up the stairs. She presented him with the egg, in a few pieces, but glued back together, and Bird admired his gift.

“Very good. Very good. I, Bird, accept your tribute. As I am an emperor of my tower.”

“Are you an emperor, Mister Bird?”

He thought about it.

“I have too many classes as it is. So no, not an [Emperor], just a ruler of my tower. Which I must zealously guard. Did you want to survey my domain?”

He pointed around the tower, and Nanette admired the view. In all four directions, she could see the sky and the landscape of the Floodplains. Only the walls of Liscor had a better view. And the [Guards] didn’t get to sit down much.

“May I sit for a bit, Mister Bird?”

“Oh, of course. Have my seat.”

Bird stood up, and Nanette refused—but eventually sat as Bird stared out at the people coming through the gates. He said nothing at all, and Nanette watched him.

So this was Bird’s life. He sat, the wind blowing on his face, and watched it all, sometimes without speaking for an entire day. And he seemed happy.

He didn’t shoot as many birds these days. Just the ones that mattered. Bird was surprised that Nanette didn’t say much—Mrsha chattered, despite being mute. But Nanette seemed to understand how Bird liked things.

Or perhaps she was doing what a witch did and learning before judging. Yet Nanette had brought something, and she timidly offered it to Bird as she placed a kettle on the ledge of his tower.

“Would you like some tea, Mister Bird?”

“Oh? Oh. That would be nice. I have decided I am a tea person. Coffee is too fast. Also, it tastes bitter.”

“When did you decide that, Mister Bird?”

Nanette poured them two cups, and Bird took one. He sipped it gingerly—Antinium had to use straws because they had no lips, but he seemed very pleased nonetheless by the steaming cup.

“Just now. Aha. This tea tastes like what I imagine flowers taste like but they do not. They are also too bitter.”

Nanette laughed. She blew on her cup and sipped it, for it was growing cold, and she and Bird felt very, very pleased. So much so that Bird pointed something out to Nanette.

There were a number of mundane and magical birds that only a true watcher of the skies could observe. He pointed out a dove-tailed swallow, bright red, flashing through the air. He had hunted them before, but this one was performing several aerial feats.

Loop-de-loops in the air at high speed. Each one graceful, spiraling into the next. Bird pointed it out to Nanette.

“That bird is called a Redfin Swallow. It comes from northern Izril around the Vail Forest. It is a graceful bird that has a lot of friends where it nests. Unlike the Garbichug Revolter, which is the most disgraceful not-a-bird because it neither flies nor tastes good and eats waste. Which is over there.”

He indicated the nasty-looking bird, four feet tall, drooling, with teeth in its ‘beak’ and a ragged plume of filthy feathers. The garbage-eating pest was a hazard that Liscor paid Bird to shoot—but not even he would eat one.

Nanette wrinkled her nose at the famous pest, but then she admired the Redfin. Bird watched it glide in a loop over the Garbichug’s head. It insulted the monstrous bird, who would eat sewer waste or other birds or their eggs if it could climb their trees.

Tswah! Tswee—that was the kind of sound the Redfin made if Bird had to do anything as inelegant as translate bird-speak to words. The Garbichug made a sound like an explosive meal going through a digestive system in reply and snapped its mouth open.

Bird drew an arrow and loosed it. The Garbichug was over eight hundred feet away, but Bird had the Skills and aim to hit it. The arrow sped at the bird-monster—and the Garbichug ducked.

“I hate you.”

Bird shook his fist at the Garbichug, and it turned and flipped up its tail at Nanette and Bird. That gesture was bad enough—then it began to defecate.

“Ignore it. Nanette, do you know why the Redfin flies like that?”

Bird stared up at the Redfin, still swirling through the air. It was not ideal for getting anywhere, and he wasn’t shooting arrows at it. Nanette frowned. There was no visible mate, so…

“Because it wants to? For fun? Because the Redfin is happy?”

Bird looked at Nanette. He put out a hand and patted her gingerly on the shoulder.

“I see you are wiser than Erin. No wonder you are teaching her witchcraft.”

She laughed and ducked her head, and Bird and she went back to watching the landscape, ignoring the Garbichug. It was eating its own waste. It would spit it out at attackers later.

Bird had a new hobby, and he confessed it to Nanette as some visitors came up towards the inn. A Human was wearing a huge, rose-shaped hat, which really did look like a rose from above. It had multiple folds of cloth, had to weigh eight pounds, and was two feet high.

…Presumably, it was some latest style, but the woman looked about to take it off when Bird rose from his tower, cupped two hands to his mandibles, and screamed down at her.

YOU THERE!

She jumped, saw an Antinium staring at her, and froze. The guests looked up as Bird screamed down at the woman.

“I…LIKE…YOUR…HAT!”

The Human stared up at him, checked her hat, and waved back and said something neither Bird nor Nanette quite heard. Bird sat back down as she continued on her way, bemused. He stared at the sky, then at Nanette.

“I am in a quandary of thought, Nanette. Every day, I dive deeper into my new class. I am a [Liar].”

She blinked at him, and Bird went on. He stared blankly at the hatted woman.

“I lie important lies. About her hat. Which is trash. It does not even belong in a garden. Why do I lie? I have been thinking—I lie because I wish to level. I lie about the truth because the lie in itself makes someone’s day better. It must be a good lie, or what is the point?”

She listened to Bird’s philosophy, which sometimes he spoke to the Workers who came to hear him. Bird, the [Hunter]. The [Liar].

By the time Erin found them, Nanette and Bird had been sitting for nearly fifty minutes. Bird was smiling, and he looked at Nanette—then at the Garbichug edging towards the road in hopes of scaring some of the travellers for food. It was watching him—he’d fired eight shots at it so far, and it kept dodging. Bird looked at Nanette, then turned around so the Garbichug was in the opposite direction. Then he looked straight at it.

“I’m looking in the other direction. I’m looking that way.”

Nanette politely looked the way he was pointing. Bird’s head never moved—but the Garbichug eyed him, then began a waddle-charge to the road as one of the [Guards] shouted and they began to stride out to chase it off.

Bird’s bow flashed up, and he loosed an arrow. The Garbichug looked up just in time for Bird to shoot it through the head. It flopped backwards as he fired three more arrows into its head.

“That was a lie, you idiot. I lied!

Bird shouted down at the dead Garbichug. Nanette was vaguely impressed. She had no idea a [Liar] could do that.

Erin was less impressed.

“Bird, you’re not gonna eat that thing, are you? There you are, Nanette! I’m going to Riverfarm to meet the [Witches]. You want to come?”

The young witch looked over and thought as Bird gave Erin a look of horror and indignation.

“Riverfarm, Miss Erin? I might pass.”

“Oh—okay. But do you want to do anything? I could go into Liscor or…”

“I’m fine, Miss Erin. I’m sitting with Bird. He’s very kind.”

“Ah. Well—that’s great. Yeah. If you want anything, just ask, okay?”

Nanette nodded politely. Erin gave Bird a look, and he saluted her.

“I cannot read your eyes, Erin.”

“Be nice, Bird.”

Erin didn’t quite know what else to say. She tromped downstairs as Nanette and Bird sat there, peaceful. After a while, Bird murmured to Nanette.

“Do you have any good lies, Miss Nanette?”

“Hm. My mother said the worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Then the best ones must be something else.”

“Oh, interesting. Interesting. Then tell me a good lie—and about birds. You see, I am a columnist for the newspaper, and I must know lots about birds. The Garbichug was a native bird of Rhir that no one wanted. It is actually over thirty thousand years old and predates the Blighted Kingdom. No one bred it nor did they spread them to other continents because anyone thought they were a good idea. The stupid birds swim. They are clever enough to dodge arrows, and they survive too well, so every continent has them. In the Rihal Imperium, Garbichugs were cultivated as a war animal and unleashed on their foes, which earned them international censure…”

 

——

 

“Not going to take Nanette to Riverfarm, Erin?”

“Nah. She’s listening to Bird talk about bird-history. Which is like the one thing he doesn’t lie about and he’s somehow qualified to talk about. I guess I’m going alone. Unless anyone else wants to come? It’s not a two-day trip. Anyone?”

Erin looked around, but Octavia had work, Numbtongue was looking over from where Badarrow and Snapjaw were preparing for a Wyvern ride with Icecube so they could all go mining, and Lyonette was trying to run the inn.

“Do you need to go to Riverfarm, Erin? I am sure His Majesty is negotiating—delicately.”

Which means don’t mess it up. But Erin just flapped a hand at Lyonette.

“It’s not that. I’m going to speak to the [Witches].”

“Oh. Oh? Well—Mrsha might be interested. Ser Dalimont could take you both if you’re good. Mrsha?”

The girl was thinking. Either she stayed here and Lyonette gave her lessons and the inn had to do its thing or she went into the city and had fun—but Visma was busy painting her dolls. Nanette was sitting with Bird, and Gire was being an adult-Chieftain.

And what were the odds Erin did something crazy? Mrsha decided to bet on Erin. She marched on over as Ser Dalimont nodded. Erin sighed.

“It might not be that much fun, Mrsha.”

The girl shrugged. Worst came to worst, she could play with Riverfarm’s kids or see what Traffle was doing.

Traffle, the nickname for the first Elemental of Law with its glowing eye, who often glared at misbehaving people. Like Mrsha and Erin.

 

——

 

In fact, Traffle was one of the reasons Riverfarm was so popular. A strange creature like it was—all metal and magic—was enough for people to point at it. Some wanted to prove they’d been here, and Laken had begun asking Mister Helm to make, with a [Painter]’s help, little keyrings with Traffle’s likeness on it.

And he’d asked Nesor to figure out a way to make magic pictures accessible for all. If you could do a scrying spell and record that—why not an image?

Well, progress marched forwards, and Traffle scuttled on its legs, followed by a crowd of fascinated tourists. Erin saw the light it was based on flashing colors—and it was one of three already.

“Miss Solstice. Good morning to you. Are you here to meet His Majesty? He is wrapped up in talks, but if you have any—designs—we would, as always, appreciate knowing in advance.”

Lady Rie spotted Erin within minutes of her coming through the door. Well, the guards who were watching the door had probably found her.

“I’m not causing trouble! I’m just, uh, looking for a [Witch] or two, Lady Rie.”

“Ah, well then. Witch Eloise and Hedag are advising His Majesty, but may I help you find another Witch?”

“I guess. Agratha or Oliyaya?”

Rie smiled and found one of her people to escort Erin and Mrsha down the brick street. Erin huffed a bit at the implication she was going to cause trouble—but even here, people noticed Erin.

The crazy innkeeper. The one who nearly flooded Riverfarm. Mrsha patted Erin on the leg solemnly. She knew what it was like to be stigmatized as a monster who caused trouble.

In Erin’s case, Mrsha felt it might be justified.

 

——

 

“Witch Erin! My, and little Mrsha too? To what do I owe the pleasure? Come in, sit, sit.”

That bright and cheery greeting belonged to Witch Agratha, the [Witch] of normalcy and friendly cooperation.

…Which was why it was so disconcerting to hear it from Witch Oliyaya of all people. The hook-nosed stereotype of a [Witch] cackled gently as she admitted Erin, Mrsha, and Dalimont into her abode.

As Erin had noted, if Agratha was friendly, Oliyaya was her inverse and liked being the bad [Witch] in stories. However—she seemed to like both Erin and Mrsha well enough.

Especially Mrsha, in fact. The [Witch] pulled Mrsha’s cheek gently as the Gnoll somewhat respectfully climbed into a seat.

“A troublemaker after my black heart. Burned down any homes yet?”

“Don’t give her any ideas, Witch Oliyaya. Lyonette’d kill me.”

Yeah, she was a good girl! Mrsha held up a card, but Oliyaya just laughed at her.

“A girl or young woman must be free to cause trouble. Run rampant! Anyone who tells you to sit and plait skirts and mind your manners is a fool. You, my girl, if you haven’t burnt at least one house down by the time you’re a woman, you’ve wasted your life.”

She gave Mrsha a serious look, and Dalimont bit his tongue. Mrsha had to really think about this one.

“Surely it would behoove Miss Mrsha to have some manners, Witch Oliyaya? With greatest respect.”

“And what would you know, [Knight]? Did you, as a lad, ever break a window or a cup by throwing rocks? Wrestling in the mud? Pulling the tail on donkeys? Always a good way to break a jaw early.”

Oliyaya tapped Dalimont hard on the chest, and the [Knight] regretted his comment.

“…As a boy, I was indiscreet, Witch Oliyaya—”

“Then a girl should be just as much so. Especially this one. Now, let my apprentices fetch you some tea. Witch Erin—your hat is upon your head, and I greet thee.”

Then Oliyaya tipped her hat with its staring eyes, and Erin reached up and lifted a hat made of flame. Erin looked at Oliyaya and began to get a sense of what made the other [Witch] tick.

“Thanks, Oliyaya. How’s business?”

The old woman shrugged.

“I am a [Witch] of cities, now. Larger, with more emotions to use in forming hexes. Grudges that run deep—but so many people! The old magic may suffer, but I admit—gold has its uses. Just the other day, I sold a charm to attract lice to a very nice young woman.”

Dalimont winced. Oliyaya slapped his knee with a long ladle—she had a cauldron on.

“A comment from you, [Knight], and I will ask if lacing a rival’s birthday cake with shards of glass is more or less foul than my charms. And then I will eject you from my domain. Nastiness must have an outlet, and sometimes the punishment is deserved. Do you know that young woman’s reason to curse another? I thought not.”

The [Knight] decided he’d be quiet for the duration of this visit. Erin gave him a side-eye.

“Do they really do that in Terandria?”

“There’s foulest sorts of all kinds anywhere. Noble classes and squabbles means they go to extremes more often than not. Ask Eloise—or do you think she’s not used daggers while drinking tea? What can I help you with, Witch Erin?”

Then Mrsha realized she hadn’t actually known why Erin wanted to meet [Witches] again. Her last encounters, while fruitful, had been—fraught. Why again so soon?

The girl noticed Erin Solstice doing something for the third time this morning. The [Innkeeper]—who, despite her rest Skills, didn’t look as fully rested as she could be—wiped the fingers of her right hand on her shirt.

The gesture did not escape Mrsha this time, or Oliyaya. Erin lifted her hands and spoke hesitantly.

“Oliyaya, I’ve been having this, uh—problem. And I’m not positive, but—is there a way to tell if someone’s messing with your dreams? Or if you’ve been cursed?”

The other [Witch] raised her brows.

“You’ve come to the right [Witch], Erin. Only Mavika or perhaps Alevica could help you as well—tell me what you dream of. Coise, my bag of tricks.”

Her apprentice, one of three, brought Oliyaya her bag of holding as Erin hesitated.

“It’s…someone in my dreams who’s bothering me. I’m pretty sure they’re there. I don’t wanna say specifics, but it’s very vivid. And it’s been bothering me when I wake, too. It wasn’t so bad, but they’re harassing me more and more. Probably because I kicked them.”

Mrsha and Dalimont sat up and looked at Erin in astonishment, but Oliyaya was already at work.

“Ah, a bully who knows the old ways of hexing and dream-speak. Interesting.”

She took a little bag that looked like it was made of silver cloth and poured in a number of substances.

“Your inn and level should protect you as much as that hat on your head, Witch Erin. But I suppose even Belavierr could be hexed—and you don’t weave protections, eh?”

“Nope. I thought about sleeping in my garden, but I felt like that wasn’t a long-term solution. And it feels like running away.”

“Well said! You should take what’s under your hat and build some great magics.”

“You think so? I’ve been pondering what to do first.”

“Protections before anything else. If you need help, come to us—but first, let’s see how badly this interloper is meddling. Here is a little bag—but before you touch it, can you tell me what I’ve done?”

Oliyaya put the silver-cloth bag on the table, and Erin hesitated as she reached for it. Like another [Witch]’s style, Mrsha realized this was a test or teaching. And Agratha explained—Oliyaya tested.

“Hm. Well, uh, I’m not an expert, but Nanette has had a few talks with me, and I know the basics. My guess is that you put a bit of craft into an object that lets you focus your magic.”

“Like all witchcraft. What did I do?”

Erin floundered, then she eyed the bag and peered inside.

“Silver. Silver’s like a natural de-curse and purifying thingy. You put silver in here and powdered Sage’s Grass? Aloe vera…I don’t know the others.”

Erin had seen the familiar plant, but Oliyaya nodded.

“Spider plant and aloe vera—plants that purify, yes. But the trick is to have meaning as well as natural plants with such qualities. I also placed in that pouch the shoe-dirt of an honest man. Riverfarm has a number of them, helpfully. Men and women. And lastly, a piece of quartz which glows.”

She showed Erin the final lynchpin of the curse-bag, and the stone glowed serenely.

“Now put it around your head—or fingers—and we will see if it reacts to ill-intent.”

Erin Solstice did just that. She draped the silver bag around her neck, and Mrsha wondered if it would do anything fantastic or just change color after a while. Witch magic was hard to…

Oliyaya seemed to be expecting a slow reaction, so she was reaching over for the kettle of tea. So did Erin, and the two were thus very surprised by the odd smell that replaced the various herbs in Oliyaya’s cottage in mere minutes as Oliyaya was pouring tea. The [Witch] glanced up, and Erin lifted the bag and her nose wrinkled.

“Hm. I would have told you to wait until we finished a cup. Or keep it on you a day. Dump it on the table?”

Slowly, Erin did, then turned the bag inside-out. Even Oliyaya’s apprentices muttered—and the [Witch] eyed the contents of the bag.

All the herbs had shriveled up. The Sage’s Grass powder turned black, and the crystal was dead and cracked. Indeed, even the inside of the silver bag had tarnished black.

“Ah. Well. That is a curse indeed. Although…hm.”

Oliyaya sifted through the contents and, to Mrsha’s mild horror, picked up the dirt from the honest man’s shoe and tasted it. She spat and took a sip of tea—then spat that out too.

“…Not the most ill of intent. Even so, someone put a lot of power behind that hex that haunts you, Miss Solstice. Too much, I daresay. It’s both crude and well-done, as if a master-mason used expensive materials for a primitive design.”

“What now? I could send to my Order for a counteragent, Miss Solstice, but the Thronebearers would need access to the keep…”

Dalimont offered, but Oliyaya snorted.

“Thronebearers? Yonder sits a [Witch] amongst a coven of Izril’s [Witches], Ser Knight. Begone from my cottage! Although—that holds true of all of us. We do not let our own suffer hexes. Come, Erin. We’ll find Mavika and get to work on our own.”

Erin looked relieved as she stood, and Mrsha leapt from her chair and nodded to one of the apprentices with excitement.

She knew it. She knew Erin wouldn’t let her down.

 

——

 

…The ritual of the [Witches] to find out what was going on with Erin was the most boring thing Mrsha had ever seen.

Oliyaya shook a cup full of dice painted with letters and numbers and rolled them out onto a table. She organized them together into an anagram as Witch Mavika placed a crawling bug on a map of Izril and let a raven, blindfolded, peck at it until it was eaten. Then she marked the spot.

Witch Alevica was there too as a final expert in curses—if not lifting them—and she, frowning, tied a piece of string to Erin’s finger and then let it dangle with a little coin tied to the other end. The coin began to twitch in various directions as Alevica placed a compass over it.

Y’all suck.

Mrsha held up the card, and Oliyaya laughed at her.

“Did you think we were all excitement, little Mrsha? Go elsewhere, for this is fascinating if you have half a head! Look, Mavika…I’ve rolled nineteen times, and nary a one makes sense. Nineteen names, or so I glean. I recognize a few as cities and towns—”

“And so goes my chart. Izril—but it makes no sense. Either the spell is trickier than we have thought—or another trick, twicely wrought.”

Mavika hunched over her map of Izril, and it had fourteen different dots—all scattered, seemingly at random. Alevica shrugged.

“Witch Oliyaya, Witch Mavika, you’re better at location divining than I am. All I get are tugs in every which-way—but none of them consistent.”

“So you can’t locate where the hex is coming from? I, uh—I think it might be hard, regardless. Isn’t stopping it more important?”

Erin took the string off her finger. But Mavika, Oliyaya, and even Alevica shook their heads. They stood in the place where the Summer Solstice had taken place, a place of power, and while the rituals were low-key, they still had a thrum of magic in the air.

Three to help Erin, place, and none were poor [Witches]. There was magic enough here, if not showy.

Yet…

“It is not that, Witch Erin. You may not sense it as the loci, but we would halt this magic against you if we could not divine the source. The issue is—whomever has hexed you is not hiding. But we find the source everywhere. And look—this is no coincidence.”

Erin glanced at Mavika’s paper and Oliyaya’s word-anagrams. She had begun to spell out names, and each one was different—but they were proper nouns.

The names of cities. And Mavika’s crow had hit more-or-less exactly on where cities were overlaid on the map of Izril.

“…Huh?”

“Either this hex is spread across dozens of cities or there is a trick involved. The focus of it is material…but it is not moving, yet somehow diversified.”

“Weird. Weird. She—no. It’s tricky, isn’t it? I knew it would be. Beating annoying people always is.”

Erin glumly stared at the map, but Mavika scratched at her chin.

“Finding the source of this curse may be easier than we think. After all, if it does not hide or flee, the answer may be equally easy. We simply need to find the closest source.”

“Ah, then a direct locating spell, not one that lets us roam? Alevica, you would do well for a focus. You Runners go in straight lines—give us your socks or a sprig from your broom.”

Master—

Alevica backed up, and Erin lifted a hand with Mrsha.

“Can we have the broom? Not the socks.”

The next eleven minutes were infinitely more fascinating than the previous thirty-eight had been. Watching Oliyaya and Mavika steal a not-inconsiderable amount of bristles from Alevica’s flying broom was funny.

Watching them call in Eloise and Agratha for their compatible skillsets was fascinating. Because what the five [Witches] did—with Erin’s help even—was to weave a little wicker-bird out of Alevica’s broom-thistles. In the center of it, they placed the ruined bag of charms and then tied it to Erin’s fingers that bothered her.

“Now, it will lock onto the closest one of these many odd phenomena, my dear. What you find will depend on what we do next. I would advise you to bring a cudgel and perhaps some thick cloth robes. And a few friends.”

Agratha gave Erin some kindly advice as Erin peered at the bird. It kept turning so its beak faced one direction even if you tried to spin it the other way.

“A dowsing charm. Oh my gosh, it’s so cool!”

That impressed her? The [Witches] traded a glance, but Erin loved the way the little bird would always turn to face its target. Because it was not magnetic or a trick—it was pure magic.

Simple magic, but to Erin…

“If that impresses you, we could make another one so the little rascal never escapes your notice.”

Oliyaya grinned at Mrsha, who looked alarmed and backed up. Erin shook her head, smiling, and looked around.

“Well, I have a curse to find! I’d, uh—well, thank you. And thanks so much for doing this!”

She began to nod or bow—then she reached up and tipped her hat, and the [Witches] smiled because that was an infinitely better gesture. They tipped their hats at her in reply.

“Witch Erin, for a fellow [Witch], we make time. And for you, we also offer you a discount.”

“Thank y—huh?”

Oliyaya was conferring with Alevica and Mavika and Eloise, and Agratha looked interested too as she wrote down a sum.

“Gold will do, or a favor. But the gold is nice.”

The [Witch] handed Erin an estimation, and the [Innkeeper]—sighed.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice’s journey to Riverfarm did not take too long, but it was her mission after that which would get interesting. Nor did she take Agratha’s warning lightly.

At the same time as Erin was getting to work, though, Pisces was glowering a hole into a wall. Mostly because he felt like the dungeon was winning.

Facestealer haunted the halls. And it had a grudge out for his skeletons. Pisces, now with the understanding that Toren had lived for a while in the dungeon in all probability—suspected the grudge was against both adventurers and skeletons.

But what irked him was that he was a Level 38 [Necromancer], practically on the cusp of truly hitting a benchmark in power, and he could barely get a few skeletons down the corridors.

The problem was—Pisces hated to admit it, but he was rusty.

Not since Chandrar or even the Village of the Dead raid. Pisces realized that he was actually a bit—behind in necromancy.

Oh, he could raise an undead warbear or a Bone Behemoth faster than Ama could dream of. He had helped create a Frostmarrow Behemoth and could animate large numbers of the undead.

Yet—Sillias had proven that necromancy was not just mass-animating undead. If anything, that was Az’kerash’s method, and Pisces had once criticized even the Necromancer for his lack of ingenuity.

Dead gods, where had Gewilena’s spark gone? His own intelligence and wit? Pisces was scribbling on a piece of paper, shaking his head.

Skeletons. What am I, Colth?

The [Supporter] was getting on Pisces’ nerves a bit with his upbeat attitude—and the way Pisces thought that Colth was distinctly copying him and learning his tricks. As if he thought he knew real necromancy.

Well, Pisces had already come up with a few ideas now he’d taken a break and stopped following Colth’s lead. They had gotten far in four days doing the same trick…time to escalate their tactics.

Bone Crawlers. The same undead that the Horns had run into with other adventurers could crawl up the walls. Would Facestealer even grab them? Pisces doubted it could jump or climb. Then again, there might be aerial traps…

It didn’t matter. You could create undead for any situation. Speed…what about mice-undead? Yes, a lot of them! And then Pisces could make something even faster.

What if…

What if you took a wheel and attached a skeleton to it? A spinning wheel-skeleton?

No. No, that was stupid. Plus, it’d be unable to turn. Pisces drew over that concept with a frown.

“Another cup of this coffee, Ishkr? I clearly need it.”

He was furiously sketching a better undead…what if he just animated a damn horse and had it race through the dungeon? Pisces was even sorting through his bones and beginning to engineer a new skeleton off the design—

“Pisces, no undead in the inn! You’re disturbing the customers.

“Miss Lyonette—”

The [Princess] scowled at him and pointed at the other customers, who were eying the piles of bone.

“No. Your rooms or somewhere else, Pisces. Away from the inn.”

“But this is—”

No. Erin may put up with it, but I will not.”

Scowling, the [Necromancer] rose. All these impositions on his time! It would take ages to perfect a new undead, anyways.

“We are not made of time before the Albez teams come back, Miss Lyonette. I hear they’re nearly at the door to Albez, and if we lose our prize, Ceria, no, Yvlon will be—”

“Less upset than me?”

The [Princess] faced him down, and Pisces opened his mouth. He eyed Lyonette and thought about the odds of talking her down. Pisces huffed out of the common room.

His rooms, then. Damn. But he wouldn’t be able to come up with a Bone Crawler by night, would he? It would have to be mice and undead-men.

Alas. If only Colth could do more than control a few skeletons. Granted, it was impressive he could do it at that range, but Pisces had seen how well his skeletons were controlled. Dodging traps was hard enough to manipulate a skeleton into doing.

It was like…well, using the scrying orbs, as cheap and convenient as it was, was unlike how Pisces controlled his undead. It was rather like Numbtongue’s video games. The Hobgoblin had expressed an interest in taking control of Pisces’ skeletons when he saw how it was going, but Pisces couldn’t give him control.

He wished he could, but only a [Necromancer] could directly control the undead, and Facestealer was fast. Traps, other monsters…

If only he had a faster skeleton. Pisces’ feet slowed as he turned away from the stairs.

Or…help…

No.

It was a bad idea. They’d never—she’d never agree. Right? After all…well, she had one of her skeletons. Scottie? If he just borrowed that alone—

Pisces tapped his fingers together and stared at a wall as Saliss and, surprisingly, Grimalkin trooped past him for the common room. Saliss waved a claw a few times in front of Pisces’ face, but then shrugged, walked on, and stuck a piece of paper on Pisces’ back.

“I, ah, need a quick trip to Invrisil, Miss Liska. Priority. Adventuring business. And I may have one or two people on the return.”

Liska sighed—but she nodded and adjusted the dial as Pisces walked over to the door. Erin opened the door and then decided to engage Pisces in conversation. The line of people waiting groaned as Erin delayed them further. This was the problem with privately-owned teleportation services.

“Pisces! What’re you doing? How’s the dungeoning? Lose more not-Torens?”

“Sadly, yes. But I may have an—unorthodox solution.”

“The best kind? I’m going to check out a curse. I guess I’ll take you off the guard-list. Eh, I’m sure I can get someone else to help out. Maybe Tessa. But she stabs people dead.”

“Ah, good l—a what?”

But she was already wandering off. Pisces stared after her and shrugged. He waited for Invrisil—then turned as someone booted him as hard as she could.

“Mrsha!”

He glowered, and the Gnoll girl innocently pointed at Pisces’ back. He turned—and found the piece of parchment that Saliss had stuck to his robes.

It said, ‘kick me’. 

Pisces saw Mrsha innocently smirk. She turned—and he stuck it to her back-fur. Pisces watched as Mrsha looked around in horror at the crowd, and Ekirra stuck his head out of line. She fled.

 

——

 

Snatcher was not getting tired of this. It knew there was nothing in the worthless heads it took from the undead. Not like the one with purple flames for eyes.

It didn’t care. Like petty malevolence, it was destroying all the annoying undead one by one. Even as they came in groups and divided—it hunted them down.

Perhaps it was instinct. Perhaps Snatcher somehow knew they would make it angrier. But it lurked in the dungeon with the active suits of enchanted armor and didn’t even destroy them. The pitiful defender of this place, in service to Mother—the force that controlled the army of armored warriors—also knew the undead were intruding.

But where one was diligent, Snatcher was petty. And it was aware that there were…adventurers above.

But it was a long way up, and it was not unaware of the risks. It had been damaged by the blue thing. For that head, it would risk much—but not for no reason.

Right now, it was simply—if not enjoying, then welcoming attempts to frustrate the adventurers.

Like a kind of game to show them how worthless their undead were, it had even let them re-close the steel shutters. Once they passed through—the undead would die.

Two attempts this day. Snatcher did know time, if vaguely. Once, it had known so much more. Rules—all the foolish rules, its duty—

That was in the past. Now, it waited and sensed four shutters open simultaneously. So the undead were splitting up, were they? It sensed little rodent undead, and…

Twenty larger ones?

Skeletons? How was that happening? It didn’t matter—Snatcher sensed the armored figures spreading out, heading to catch the undead. They would never make it to their destination, the city within. The dungeon was wide, and the skeletons were clumsy, slow.

These were facts.

So Snatcher crept forwards, not even bothering with the heads. Not for this fake thing. And it sensed one skeleton emerging from the shutters to face it.

The unluckiest skeleton, then. Snatcher strode forwards contemptuously—until he sensed something.

Something odd and unusual. This skeleton was no living being. It had no…

Soul.

And Snatcher knew souls. This was, like the others, a creation guided by another intelligence. A [Necromancer]. Snatcher knew that too. Yet this skeleton was better-made than the others. And a foreign presence controlled it, not the clumsy one and the more adept one from before.

If anything—this was in the middle of the two’s abilities. Still weak. But Snatcher halted not because of the power behind this force—but how the skeleton moved.

It stood there, arms outstretched, as if welcoming Snatcher into a huge hug. Legs spread so confidently, jaw agape, that the last guardian of this place felt—offended.

A mocking pose. The skeleton waited as Snatcher regarded it—then it clearly decided that Snatcher was too slow. The boss monster held perfectly still.

A rectangular, uncanny silhouette in the darkness. A brown leather body with two vertical sockets with no true eyes, just wounds in the face. Long, crushing arms that made claws. No mouth. No face.

Snatcher. And this skeleton…this arrogant throwback that had no true craft or power behind it? Not like this place had once been—

Snatcher charged. So fast the skeleton jerked back. A hand shot out—and the skeleton ducked.

Snatcher missed. The skeleton rolled sideways and sprang to its feet. Snatcher turned. It hadn’t seen the other skeletons do that—

Another fist swung towards the wall, and enchanted stone cracked. But the skeleton wasn’t there.

Scottie the Scout Skeleton ducked down. And as Facestealer looked down and raised a fist, it saw the skeleton put one leg forwards and lean on it, the other leg back, two hands splayed, skeletal fingers supporting it.

Like…

A City Runner about to—

Sprint. The fist hit the dungeon’s floor, and Scottie ran. He took off, arms and legs flying, as Snatcher looked up and began to lumber after him.

Fast—but Scottie was faster. And the traps? Snatcher expected it to run into the traps—until it saw something that surprised it.

The skeleton didn’t bother to hop the complicated pattern to escape this trap, nor did it walk through the traps that would make anything but Snatcher explode from the inside out—it kept running and then veered left.

Onto the wall. The skeleton’s feet glued to the stones, and it ran for ten paces—along the wall—then dropped onto the floor. It was still running as Facestealer slowed, realizing it would never catch the skeleton by speed alone.

—Above the dungeon, a [Necromancer] was whooping and laughing at Pisces’ face. Ceria, Yvlon, and Ksmvr were watching an excited group of ‘admirers’ and Ama and Pisces. Yvlon was counting with a sickly smile on her face, and Colth was blinking.

But Ama, masked face and hood and all, was smiling. And the undead were racing through the dungeon as Pisces ruefully watched, but with a heart pounding full of excitement and yes, even fun.

Snatcher?

Snatcher began to get angrier.

 

——

 

What did adventuring mean to you? Was it a job or a calling? Was it for a purpose like finding power?

Should it be fun? Surely, it should. Or why call it that? All the danger, all the grit, the taste of fear-vomit in your mouth, and the burning of your lungs as you held in your blood through a seeping wound in your side—

If you weren’t alive then, if that didn’t mean something, why would anyone do it?

A pack of skeletons raced through Liscor’s dungeon, adventuring in a style no one in the world practiced today but that [Necromancers] of old had once used in their adventures.

A Goblin and Antinium duo happened upon a great big cave and mound of dirt along part of the High Passes, and it was so strange because it looked like a stone plug had been inserted into the top. It…thrummed as they got closer.

And the teams in Albez dug.

In fact, Albez’s dungeon was the most boring, safest, and most tedious adventure Ylawes Byres had ever had. Four days of waking up, watching Remendia’s hired diggers at work, occasionally shifting dirt himself, and, well, socializing with other adventurers.

Socializing in itself was not Ylawes’ complaint. It was the pecking order, the showing off, the competition and squabbling between teams that made him feel like he was at a social convention as House Byres among the northern nobility.

If he were at Liscor, he could train with a sword, ask even Pisces, even Numbtongue perhaps, to practice with. Here?

“Byres, come on! It was a mistake, a mistake!

The Captain of the Waterborn Raiders called out as Ylawes walked away from the dueling space they’d set up. He shook out his gauntlet, and someone caught him.

“Lad, you need a healing potion?”

“My gauntlet caught most of it. I don’t think the metal’s torn.”

“Bastard.”

Nailren’s comment was followed by a glare, but the Waterborn Raiders were mocking Ylawes. The [Knight]’s skin felt torn under his armor, but he’d dodged most of the Skill.

“Couldn’t take losing in a fair fight? Skills in a duel?”

Someone jeered at them, and the Waterborn Raider’s Captain turned red.

“Dasha, shut up.”

Insill whispered as the Gold-rank Captain glared at the Silver-rank team of Vuliel Drae. But Dasha was right, and a lot of adventurers began jeering the Waterborn Raiders’ Captain themselves.

“Anith, please tell Dasha to stop. I brought it upon myself, dueling other adventurers for practice.”

Ylawes yanked off his gauntlet and saw his skin was only a bit torn.

“What was that move? It felt like he wrenched my arm around.”

“[Riptide Cut]. Looked painful.”

Dawil offered a potion, but Ylawes held up a hand.

“Save it. It’s not like they’re that cheap.”

He grimaced, flexing his hand, and instantly regretted the comment—it was hurting more by the second. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a jar.

Pekona showed Ylawes a very…natural jar of ointment.

“Soothes pain and helps heal. Not very magical. Want it?”

“Thank you.”

The cream did have some kind of pain-numbing quality, and Ylawes smiled as he felt the pain recede.

“What is this for?”

Not healing injuries you get in practice. Pekona swears by it—apparently, healing potions are bad for training.”

“Well, she’s right there. Thank you.”

Vuliel Drae and Nailren’s team clustered around Ylawes as the conversations died down and the Waterborn Raiders skulked off. Everyone was just bored—well, the Raiders had an axe to grind—but the truth was this was a terrible adventure.

“I almost wish I were in Liscor’s dungeon.”

Insill murmured; Nailren glared, and Larr, the Gnoll teammate, kicked Insill.

“Kidding!”

The Drake [Rogue] looked guilty, as he did every time the Face-Eater Moth disaster was brought up. Ylawes was one of the few adventurers—and only Gold-rank team—that tolerated Vuliel Drae’s presence.

He felt they were properly remorseful. He couldn’t say if they’d paid for their mistakes, but they’d gone into the Village of the Dead, and he liked the quirky team.

Anith, the Jackal Beastkin, was like a Falene with more fur, very analytical. Falene had not appreciated the comparison and frozen his bedroll solid.

Dasha was not a female Dawil, because she tried too hard to play into her half-Dwarven ancestry, but she was outspoken and brave—and a fairly competent craftswoman before she’d become an adventurer. She, apparently, was a Level 21 [Baker].

Insill was the most timid [Rogue] that Ylawes had ever met, but he seemed to be the glue that held together his team—he was the one who helped other people, and he was actually adept enough to set traps.

Seborn and a lot of [Rogues] that Ylawes had met didn’t go in for setting traps that much. But Larr, their [Ranger], was also an adept multi-tasker. Notably, Larr was also a member of the Hawkarrow tribe—same as Nailren. But he was also related to the Soliest Yerr tribe’s most prized craftsman, Honored Shedrkh, and Larr often asked to send pelts of monsters back to him.

They had depth. That was the point. Get to know someone and they had depth. Like Nailren’s team, actually. They came from the Fletchsing tribe, a subclan of the famous Hawkarrow Tribe, and had fought in the Meeting of Tribes with Mrsha’s alliance. Ylawes didn’t know all the details, but Nailren had escorted the Antinium Soldier back and had plans to head to the new lands.

His teammates were all actually new, apparently. Which surprised and embarrassed Ylawes because he thought he would recognize different Gnolls—but no one really did. No wonder they weren’t the most social—after returning from Liscor, the six Gnolls had all traded places with different Gnolls that Nailren picked up. All above Level 20—which meant that Nailren was running an adventuring team scam.

Well, the Guild would call it that. The truth was that for a Silver-rank team, a bunch of Level 20+ [Hunters] was good enough. Apparently, Nailren’s team was part of his tribe’s way of training promising recruits. Their Chieftain, Eitha, sent him the ones she wanted trained up.

That made Nailren far more interesting to Ylawes. He was apparently a good enough leader to direct the ever-changing Gnoll team into keeping a rather good reputation as a Silver-rank team. And they’d gone into Liscor’s dungeon more than once.

Nailren was also fascinating in that he and Larr came from the same tribe, but Larr had never heard of the Fletchsing clan and kept giving Nailren questions about home.

“So, how is Chieftain Eitha doing?”

“Recovering from her wounds in the Meeting of Tribes.”

Nailren nodded as they sat down, and the Gnolls from the Hawkarrrow tribe all nodded. Larr squatted down, frowning.

“And your Chieftain? Of the Fletchsing tribe?”

“Hrr. Doing just fine.”

“You’ve all checked on them?”

Larr glanced too-casually at the other Gnolls, and one of Nailren’s ‘adventurers’ glanced up.

“Me? I’ve never met the Fletchsing Chieftain. I didn’t know we had a subclan until Chieftain Eitha told us.”

“Hrm. Hrrr. Interesting. Interesting.

Larr edged forwards, glaring at Nailren until the Gnoll’s nose was practically embedded in Nailren’s cheek. The Silver-rank Captain pushed him back.

“You are young, Larr, yes? Stop nosing around and go back to the Hawkarrow tribe and ask to know. Just because you are Shedrkh’s nephew does not mean you need to know everything.”

Ylawes watched the interaction with some amusement as Anith grabbed his teammate and muttered to Larr. Insill, as always, tried to soothe tensions, even if Nailren looked amused more than anything.

“Sorry about Larr. He’s just been away from home—but hey, if we get something out of this dungeon, maybe we’ll visit! Help out. I mean—we’ve all promised to visit his tribe.”

Nailren looked amused at the black-scaled Drake.

“You might not be the most welcome at the moment, Insill—but then, your team seems good, yes? Not a bad idea. If we ever get that staircase.”

He nodded to the huge hole and the teams of [Diggers]. It looked like their bucket-system for hauling up dirt had slowed again.

Ylawes hadn’t realized how deep the dungeon was until he remembered Emperor Laken said ‘a hundred feet’. A hundred damn feet down was…insane.

This secret part of Albez was clearly a secret even when the city had been intact and unburied. Digging that far down, even with magic? The deeper you went, the narrower the hole got and harder it was to excavate dirt. Rocks, soil, and roots had slowed down the teams immensely. Even with magic, the fact that they were nearing the staircase after four days showed how hard Deniusth had pushed the excavation work.

However—the Named-rank Violinist and the other Named-ranks were as happy as could be. They kept congratulating Griffon Hunt and had promised Halrac a share of any artifacts, apparently.

The same hadn’t been said for Ylawes’ team or Vuliel Drae and The Pride of Kelia, despite them helping. It was also probably why the Waterborn Raiders looked so sour.

No one wanted to leave, but they all had a feeling that if there were artifacts or relics, the other teams might get gold instead.

“Don’t mind the Raiders. I heard they’re just upset that the Named-ranks will ‘pull a Ceria’. Their words, not mine.”

“I thought Ceria was quite fair with the Village of the Dead raiders. Didn’t you all get a big payout?”

Nailren shrugged and looked at Anith. The Silver-rank Captain frowned and indicated his team. They had a few magical artifacts, and they hadn’t exactly seemed pressed for gold.

“We were paid very generously. I don’t know what he is talking about. Dasha has an enchanted axe straight from Hedault, and Pekona paid for a new sword from Drath—”

“I can’t hold the old one.”

The one-armed [Sword Dancer] was the last member of Vuliel Drae, but Ylawes didn’t know much about her other than her origins—and silence. She had lost a hand during the Village of the Dead raid and paid a higher price than most survivors. However—she didn’t complain, and she was apparently still adventuring. He thought she kept sneaking away from her team in the middle of the night, but he didn’t know if that was his imagination.

“So what’s the Raiders’ problem?”

Larr looked up, and Nailren grinned. He tapped one ear, and the Gnoll murmured.

“This is just a rumor, but some of the teams complaining have…ties. To the gangs or other interesting groups.”

Ylawes knew the Waterborn Raiders were former…[Raiders], but his scowl grew. Dawil just rubbed his beard, and Dasha copied him, much to his annoyance.

“Oh? So what do they know?”

“Word is, some of them asked Savere in Chandrar where Ceria’s relic is. They claim they don’t have it, and the Siren’s got a grudge the size of the High Passes against Ceria. So the Raiders think…”

“Ah, of course. And now they’re getting nothing for sitting around on their asses?”

“Some people are never happy, eh?”

Nailren chuckled. The truth was that was what most teams were doing, and if they got a hundred gold coins for doing that—it would be a fortune for Silver-ranks and more than anyone deserved.

“This adventure sucks.”

Ylawes was gratified to hear one of Nailren’s teammates say it. The Gnoll tossed a bit of dirt at a female [Huntress].

“Patience, Kelthe. Getting paid to sit around is also adventuring. But it’s truly boring, I agree.”

He glanced at Ylawes, and the Silver Swords’ Captain grimaced.

“Want to spar? I won’t use Skills.”

Pekona offered, but Ylawes was done for the day. Insill glanced at the dig-site.

“I hear they think we’ll reach the door by today. Deniusth and Eldertuin were going around telling all the [Rogues] and [Mages] who know enchantments to get ready to de-trap the place. No one wants to burn up the loot like the Horns did. But there might be monsters or guardians. Should we…prepare for a fight?”

Ylawes glanced at the [Rogue]. He pointed to Falene, who was reading a spellbook with Moore and working on a new spell—the constant activity of [Mages].

“Falene could cast a few buffs if we know we’re about to fight, but Dawil and I are ready. What does Vuliel Drae do? The Pride?”

His team was, admittedly, famous for their ability to charge into a fight any second. They’d survived Gargoyle ambushes where other teams would need preparation time. Nailren hmmed.

“I could dig us into the rocks above the dig site. But I don’t know what’s coming out. Plus, I doubt positioning will help us with our arrows. Not compared to Halrac’s enchanted ones or a Named-rank. Your team, Anith?”

“That would be mostly Insill.”

Everyone turned to the [Rogue], and he raised a claw.

“I could dig a hole. And put a pit trap in it.”

Ylawes stared at him. The [Rogue] colored under his black scales.

“Really fast! I just, uh—I need a hole first. Because of my Skill. [Deploy Pit Trap]. But it’s only the cover. It’s a convincing cover, though. See?”

Nothing would do for him then to show Ylawes on a tiny divot in the road. Insill had to set it up, which looked like him pulling a tarp out of midair and arranging it for about a minute or two. When he was done, a bit of fake earth only slightly noticeable if you stared at the edges would hide a treacherous…

Ylawes stepped on it, and it sank alarmingly—about a foot.

“Interesting trap. Does it work a lot?”

“Well—I got it after the Village of the Dead raid, and it’s not much use in dungeons since I can’t dig holes. Or against most monsters. But it’ll be really useful if we run into—”

Anith looked up mildly, and his lips twitched.

“Crelers? They climb holes.”

Dasha nodded.

“Ogres will just get stuck. You can’t dig a hole big enough to trap their foot, Insill.”

“Most species can climb holes.”

Larr added. Pekona raised a hand.

“Pit traps don’t kill most things.”

Stop bullying me!

This was clearly a running gag. Vuliel Drae’s humor was one of the things that kept Ylawes here. He smiled—and then heard a shout.

It’s time! Everyone up! Everyone up! We see the door!

Every adventurer looked around—and then they were suddenly all on their feet. Deniusth was standing by the entrance to the hole and bellowing.

Hold it, hold it—don’t crowd around! You idiots, you’re too fast! Back away from that door! Anyone touches it and I’ll kill them after whatever comes out does!

He was shouting down into the hole as dozens of adventurers clustered dangerously around the edge—in fact, they were in jeopardy of collapsing the edges on the [Diggers].

Eldertuin solved the problem by striking his shield with his sword.

Silence!

The gong of sound made everyone wince and look at him. The Fortress gave crisp orders as Viecel grinned—and the Selphid’s new body waggled four fingers. He’d been betting every day that this would be the day they got to the treasure.

“Everyone, stand back. [Geomancers], [Mages], forwards. We are not going down this hole. We’ll adjust it into a ramp. We need it wide, and we need to prepare. Team Captains, to us. Everyone else, it’ll be an hour yet, or two!”

He glanced at the sky.

“Plenty of time before evening.”

Excitement filled the air as Ylawes looked at Dawil.

“Looks like this is it. Get Falene and set up with Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers?”

“What about our Silver-rankers?”

“That too. Anith, Nailren, coming?”

The Silver-rank Captains hesitated and looked gratified Ylawes was including them. The Gold-rank Captain pushed forwards, and the other Captains made way for the three. But for Ylawes, Anith and Nailren would have had to hang back, so many teams were gathered around Eldertuin.

He was including Halrac, Deniusth, and, surprisingly, Jelaqua in a small circle giving orders. Behind them, Moore and other experts were reshaping the hole, burning up mana to widen it.

“We’ll have a ramp down to the entrance, but we are not going in. Whatever’s down there, if there’s monsters or anything, it comes up to us. The worst thing we can do is bunch up and make our numbers-advantage useless.”

Eldertuin was giving solid, reasonable strategic analysis to the others. Deniusth was practically dancing from foot-to-foot, but he was nodding.

“What can we expect?”

“If it’s like Ceria’s trap? Magical doors that put you into kill-rooms and an Elemental guardian.”

“Nasty. But we can beat a single elemental. However—we have to get this treasure without triggering a trap. So our best [Rogues] head down there and analyze the door. Then [Mages]. Who’s the best at enchantment breaking?”

“Uh…we’ve got an expert in the Distinguished Staves. Ylawes—where’s—Ylawes, isn’t Falene Wistram-trained?”

Everyone looked at him, and Ylawes shook his head.

“She is—but she’s a [Battlemage]. We’d defer to any experts.”

“That would be me.”

To Ylawes’ surprise, Typhenous raised a hand. The old man stroked his beard with a huge smile.

“I have seen a lot of trap spells in my time. I may not be technical enough to remove them—but I can tell they’re there. More importantly, I can usually tell if a specialist will succeed or fail at removing the trap.”

“That’s good. That’s essential. If we can’t remove the magic or trap at any point, I am willing to send to Invrisil for experts. Hedault himself.”

Deniusth was telling the crowd, and everyone agreed. However, the excitement was palpable, and Eldertuin spoke.

“Then we send down the first team. Who has [Lesser Teleport] scrolls? Deni, I know your team has them. Lend the squad that investigates the door a scroll—though it’s faster to just run up the ramp, maybe.”

“We’ll put archers with sight lines on the door, but only Level 20+ experts and above. No friendly fire! Who’s got [Stoneskin] spells…?”

 

——

 

It was a flurry of orders and contingencies in the thirty-three minutes it took to reconfigure the ramp. Moore backed up, sweating, and Ylawes heard him audibly tell Jelaqua he was ‘spent’ on mana unless he wanted to risk mana burn.

“Wow, they pushed some of our [Mages] hard.”

The hole in the ground had shifted into a long, sloping ramp. But by the looks of it, it had taken out thirteen [Mages], some Gold-ranks. Even a member of Orchestra was lying down.

“Should we let them rest before we try the door?”

That was the smart thing to do. Falene had used half her magic—but Dawil just glanced at the eager teams, including the Raiders.

“Everyone’s raring to go, Falene. Besides—I think we might be overkill. Or if we’re not, then a dozen [Mages] won’t make a difference.”

That was fairly true. Ylawes knew the Village of the Dead raid had pulled in more teams to take it on than most events in modern adventuring history—but there were more teams here. Including Named-ranks.

“Just stick together. Vuliel Drae, I know we haven’t practiced, but if Nailren covers our group, just have your team stick to our flanks. The Silver Swords are good at fighting in the center.”

“Even Mage Falene?”

Anith was surprised, but Falene was already casting barrier spells. She smiled archly.

“I am a [Battlemage], Captain Anith. If I realize I’m in trouble, I’ll teleport to safety.”

“Yes, as you can see, she’s the bravest member of the Silver Swords.”

Dawil rolled his eyes. Seborn, Typhenous, and three other experts were walking down towards the door as the civilians ran far, far back to the waiting wagons and horses. Falene reddened.

“I would like you to try fighting monsters with nothing more than enchanted robes, Dawil, then question my bravery.”

“Falene, Dawil—”

They were looking bad in front of the Silver-ranks. Dawil shot back with a huge grin.

“Done. I’ll do it in your robes—without underwear either.”

“You wretched, cave-dwelling homunculus—”

“Door’s opening!”

“What?”

Everyone looked up. It had been seconds since the adventurers went down, but the first thing Ylawes saw was Seborn, followed by Typhenous, running like a natural athlete, arms and legs pumping, coming up the ramp.

“It sensed us! It sensed—it’s a trap!”

Then Ylawes felt his skin prickle and [Dangersense] Skills began activating. The air hummed—and a voice filled with wrath echoed up from below. A recording.

“YOU ARE NOT THRESK. ALL WHO SCHEME TO PILFER THE LABORATORY OF UDATRON WILL DIE.”

“Oh shit.”

Insill raised his shield, and Ylawes’ head rose. Thresk? Wasn’t that the one who Ceria’s team found?

But there was no time to ask more. He saw a flash from the ramp’s entrance, then Halrac loosed an arrow that thumped with an explosion. The Gold-rank Captain shouted.

Elementals! Dozens of—

“What did he just say?”

Dawil looked up in time for the first howling gale of air to billow up, a Wind Elemental in full fury—followed by a raging being of flames and more of both kinds. Ylawes saw bodies of stone charging up the ramps as [Mages] began to fire, and he counted—

“Water, Fire, Earth, Wind—Elementals?

Falene looked horrified. Which told Ylawes that binding so many powerful Elementals, even if they weren’t on the level of the Gnolls’ Khoteizetrough, was far beyond her capabilities. Ylawes wavered between charging from their second line and holding. Some teams that had begun to race forwards were pulling back, but it was Deniusth who shouted.

Eldertuin, hold down the ground! Orchestra—concert time!

Twenty-seven Elementals appeared from the trapped laboratory. Twenty-seven, where Ceria’s team had nearly fallen to one. But they had been Silver-ranks at the time.

This time—they had Named-rank teams. Ylawes didn’t see Eldertuin and Viecel among the fighting as it broke out with the huge Water and Earth Elementals, each seven to nine feet tall, emerging and swinging at the nearest adventurer—but he saw them surround Variable Fortress, drawn in by Eldertuin’s Skills.

Yet Deniusth’s team, Orchestra—Ylawes had never seen them fight so far. He expected Deni to show off his golden bell, but he didn’t. Instead, the Named-rank team stood in place. Some were even sitting down.

Gores, the Trumpet of the Battlefield, and Deni, the Violinist, stood in front of their band of fourteen. Fourteen, and some were Gold-ranks or even, Ylawes had heard, Silver-ranks.

What mattered to Orchestra was how good you were with an instrument. He saw a cello-player sitting next to a drummer who held only enchanted sticks—the world was his drums.

Deniusth began playing on his violin as the first notes echoed from Gores’ horn. They played in perfect synchronization, and Ylawes recognized the tune.

The Five Families’ Ballad—Return to New Home. The tune they had played since they had come to Izril.

The first few bars of the song let the rest of the team join in. The drummer beat the first few notes on the stones as the Elementals rose. An Air Elemental conjured a deadly-looking orb of compressed air and drew an arm back to throw it.

Was it shaped like a Drake or a Human? Or a…Gnoll…? Ylawes didn’t know, because then Deni’s bow began to scream upon the violin’s strings. He played louder—and the crescendo of sound rose so fast that Ylawes’ ears popped. He saw the trumpet swing up—and Orchestra’s instruments glowed.

The next thing Ylawes saw was a hole in the clouds. He lowered his hands as the ripple continued through the air. Sound and force—

Half the Elementals in the air vanished. Orchestra’s Combined Skill was angled up, and whatever sound they’d played wasn’t directed at Ylawes, thankfully. Nevertheless, he saw the cone of projected sound clip part of the ridge over Albez.

It hit the stone, and the stones cracked, shattered to pieces, and went flying like shrapnel. Of the Elementals—the Flame Elementals just winked out. Ylawes swore he saw a crystal heart of an Air Elemental explode.

Dead gods!

“[Combined Skill — Onslaught Performance: Louder Than the Sea’s Roar]. Orchestra, get them!”

Deniusth lowered his bow with a flourish, saluted the other adventurers—then his team broke up. The Violinist leapt up, impossibly high with magic, and played on his violin.

Sharp sounds. So sharp that they cut through the flames of one of the Flame Elementals—exposing that glowing core. Deniusth caught himself on a foothold in midair, and his violin bow lanced out like a rapier, striking the core through the center. It shattered, and he whirled back.

The trumpeter, Gores, just aimed his trumpet like some kind of weapon and blew another note. It had so much sonic force that it sent another Air Elemental reeling backwards—and Halrac shot it through the heart.

“That’s Named-ranks?”

Insill’s jaw was open—until Ylawes grabbed him.

“Heads up. They’re coming!‘

An Earth Elemental charged their way, and Ylawes raised his shield, gritting his teeth.

“[Shield of Valor]!”

A hammer’s blow from a fist bounced off his glowing shield, and the three teams surrounded the Earth Elemental. Falene shot a dozen Tier 2 spells into it at close-range, but it did little more than chip at the enchanted stone. Dawil swung his hammer into a leg, cursed, reached for his broken axe—

It’s harder than regular stone!

“Arrows not working—[Piercing Arrow].”

Nailren hit it in the forehead. The Earth Elemental’s forehead cracked slightly, and the rest of his team pelted it with arrows and stared in dismay. Ylawes backed up, deflecting another blow without his Skill—

It was strong! Stronger than a Gargoyle or a Troll. The [Knight] cursed, and Anith spoke.

“[Arrows of Light]. Dasha, support Ylawes and Dawil! Pekona—”

“[Lightning Iai].”

A flash and shock along his arm. Pekona drew her curved blade and slashed into the Earth Elemental’s arm as it swung again—but like his, her cut was shallow. Insill appeared at the Elemental’s back—stabbed once, then hopped away.

It was too tough! Dawil yanked Dasha out of the way as the Earth Elemental kicked, and Ylawes hoped Falene had a better spell.

The Silver Swords didn’t need to come up with one. Nailren took one look at the Earth Elemental as his team’s arrows uselessly rained over it, and he called out.

Switch to ropes. Loop the arm! [Rope Arrow]—get me an anchor.”

His team dropped their bows, and Nailren shot one arrow under the Earth Elemental’s arm.

“[Loop Shot]—web it down.

He seized the loop of rope he’d secured as the arrow wrapped around the arm. The Gnoll seized it—and was nearly dragged off his feet. But his team grabbed the rope, and another threw a loop on the Earth Elemental’s other arm. Ylawes, blocking the swings, saw the Earth Elemental turn—but eight Gnolls including Larr suddenly were hauling on one arm. It stumbled, and Dawil pointed.

Right leg!

While Larr had the left arm, he, Dasha, and Ylawes began to hammer on the right leg, breaking it at the joints. The Earth Elemental roared like grinding stones and began to heave the Gnolls off their feet—until it nearly fell over.

“[Muddy Ground].”

It was sinking. Its other leg was sinking as Anith turned the ground to mud, and Falene conjured more bindings of light. The enraged Earth Elemental had only one arm to swing, and it flailed at the adventurers—until Insill threw a ball of mud at its face.

“Hah! Blinded! [Mud Throw]—”

He ducked a swinging arm and backed up, wide-eyed.

It doesn’t need eyes!

“Idiot. Move—[Heron’s Wing Slash].”

Pekona leapt forwards, and Ylawes leaned back as her cut sprayed his armor and helmet with shards. He got one in his eye and cursed—but he heard a groan. When Ylawes could see, he saw the Earth Elemental’s leg collapsing. It was falling over!

With only one leg to support it, the Earth Elemental fell backwards and landed on its back with a tremble. Nailren’s team lost control of the rope, but he shouted for them to drag it down and anchor it to stones. And that left the warriors with an opening to hit it as hard as they wanted.

“Good!”

The [Knight] lifted his sword and charged in.

“[Shield Breaker]!”

He swung his shield’s edge into the Elemental’s chest, where he thought the heart should be, and the stone cracked. Dawil joined him as Ylawes raised his sword for his best Skill—

Silver Swords, back it up! Back up!

The [Knight] aborted his final charge. He looked over—and Dasha ducked out of the way.

“[All or Nothing Charge]! Eld—”

Viecel the Gambler pointed, and Eldertuin the Fortress raced past Ylawes. The Gold-rank Adventurer saw the older man raise not his sword, but his tower shield in both hands—like an improvised maul, the edge pointed down—

“[Hammer of the Ogre].”

This time, the [Knight] lifted his shield and saved his face from the spray of stones. Dasha shouted in pain, but when Ylawes looked up—he saw the Earth Elemental was split in two. The pieces were stirring—until Eldertuin bent down and yanked something glowing out of the chest.

“Elemental down.”

He turned, nodded to the [Knight], and Ylawes Byres felt a flicker of envy, admiration—he saluted Eldertuin the Fortress, and the man smiled, even as his head was turning for another threat. Ylawes whirled—and there were no more Elementals.

The fight was already over.

 

——

 

It turned out that in the lineup of elementals, the Earth Elementals were the only ones who’d lasted more than a few seconds in the face of so much adventurer firepower. Air, Flame, and Water Elementals were dangerous foes that could drown you, suck the air out of your lungs, or burn even steel as Yvlon had once found.

…They weren’t much good against five Tier 4 spells hitting them at once. With Orchestra’s Skill, the adventurers had literally overwhelmed most of the others.

Mind you, that was not to say it had been a bloodless battle. Several adventurers had broken bones in the first swings of the Elementals, and one Silver-rank was so badly burned she was being rushed to a [Healer].

“Twenty-seven Elementals. And Ceria’s team only ran into one?”

“Might have been a higher-grade one in the confines of the other [Mage]’s secret armory. It apparently burned artifacts up—these weren’t that hot. Tough, though. Imagine being a single Gold-rank team and running into this many? What happened, you lot? I thought you were going to check the door.

The adventurers, in the aftermath of the fight, were harvesting the pieces of the Elementals’ cores, the only really valuable part of them. Maybe the Water Elementals’ water—but it was just mud in the ground now.

“We never got the chance. Turns out there was a huge detection spell that was scanning us for something. Probably an amulet to prove we were allowed in.”

Seborn shook his head as Typhenous peered down at the open doorway. The Plague Mage nodded.

“Regrettable—but unfortunately, we didn’t have the right angle. If we were doing this again, I would suggest tunneling from the side to avoid the spell and cloaking ourselves before approaching.”

“Well, we got the Elementals. Pretty sizable, dangerous lot. Which means this is probably a lot better than one armory.”

Deniusth was excited. He’d taken down six Elementals after his Skill, but Typhenous lifted a hand.

“As a matter of fact—no. Captain Deniusth, I think we were lucky.”

“How so?”

Typhenous pointed down where the first [Rogues] were very cautiously shining lights and spells into the laboratory of…Udatron. A name that some of the more historical adventurers were looking up as they spoke.

“I believe there were more elementals. Twenty-seven? An odd number. Look at this.”

He showed the others something odd—a sparking, but mostly dead, Elemental core. Ylawes felt the static in the air.

Lightning Elemental?

“It must not have been able to endure however long it was here. Perhaps there were other Elementals—there are a number of cores on the ground.”

“That’s worth a lot of money to Wistram. Damn—then how long has this place been hidden? How long does a Lightning Elemental last?”

No one knew, but Deniusth was eying the [Rogues], and they were very, very apprehensive about what they were doing. Yet…

Well, again, Ylawes had a sense of let-down. Not because the laboratory was not well-guarded or that it seemed to be empty—some people were staring inside and practically salivating at what they could glimpse.

No, there were just too many adventurers. Not that he wanted an honorable fight against Elementals, but they’d steamrolled the opposition.

By the same token, though…he felt badly that the Horns weren’t here. Yet they would have never found this place but for Griffon Hunt.

What had they found, though? Who was Udatron? It turned out there were some answers.

The Captain of the Distinguished Staves was a local [Historian] of sorts. He excitedly confirmed the name from a history of Albez.

“Udatron. I knew that name was familiar! Udatron and Thresk, two of the greatest [Mages] of Albez while it was a magical community. Warmage Thresk and Chronomancer Udatron were a duo who fought in the magical conflicts Albez took part in. Udatron vanished during a battle, it says, and he was presumed dead, but no one ever found the corpse.”

“Not unusual in high-powered magical duels.”

Falene murmured, and Ylawes nodded. But the Captain went on—

“Thresk, it was said, never believed his friend was dead, which led to his increasing paranoia and reclusiveness until he passed. If Ceria’s team really did find his armory close to this spot—it only makes sense this might be Udatron’s laboratory.”

“A time-mage’s laboratory? This is wonderful.

Deniusth’s eyes lit up. Dawil groaned.

“Oh no. Time magic? What kind of traps does he have?”

That sobered everyone in earshot. Ylawes Byres adjusted his sword and shield nervously, but it was in the hands of the adventurers, now.

“What do they see in that laboratory?”

“Well…a lot of magical paraphernalia. A small library—”

Deniusth’s smile grew wider with each report from one of the [Scouts] down there. The Gold-rank [Scout] was practically dancing as he pointed. Ylawes and the top-level teams stood around, listening to descriptions of the insides.

Anith and Nailren hung back, and one of the other team Captains drew them aside, perhaps to salvage more pieces from the Earth Elementals. Ylawes felt guilty, seeing the Silver-rank’s wryer expressions. And again, it was hurry up and wait because all of this had better not be an illusion—or trapped. But the Named-ranks were not about to lose this, and the [Rogues] were taking it at a snail’s pace.

“No signs of any big traps, but we’re going in slowly. Maybe…maybe this laboratory only had the door guards?”

“Elementals were Thresk’s magic. Perhaps this Udatron never set up defenses or reactivated them if he died in battle?”

“Maybe—but we can see something in the back. I think…there’s an armory back there. A laboratory, a mage’s library, and an armory.”

Everyone looked at each other, and Ylawes, despite himself, found the final reason why you adventured as Deniusth grabbed one of his teammates in delight.

The loot.

 

——

 

“They think there’s how much there? A…a lab? And how many books…? Yeah, from the age of Albez. And there were only twenty-seven—and they just found it thanks to Halrac’s team? Deni’s backflipping. Great. There wouldn’t happen to be some horrible time-magic trap that killed a few adventurers? No? I’m not wishing it on you, Revi. I’m just—well, we’ll take a share. Thanks.”

Ceria Springwalker didn’t quite scowl, but the Horns of Hammerad definitely grew quiet when they heard about Albez’s second treasure haul. The [Necromancers] looked up, agog, and Colth sighed.

“Well—that monster hide had better be good, or I won’t hear the end of it from Deni for a decade. No going back.”

Their map was expanding, but it seemed like they were tracing a kind of actual layout of the dungeon’s maze. And if Colth was plotting things out right, then they could tell where the four huge pillar-rooms full of monster nests were. Which then implied that the city and Stalker’s corpse was in the center of the four sections. Which meant…

Which meant the adventurers were really mad about all the amazing treasure that Albez’s group had dug up. Because even if they were going to get the hide of some amazingly powerful boss monster, some people wanted it all.

Fair. The Wandering Inn was abuzz with the news, and the treasure might really change things, especially the books if they were spellbooks. What kind of artifacts would Udatron, a great [Chronomancer], have? What magical equipment? Alchemical items?

No one knew, and it was all great. Udatron, a name without context in this modern age. For everyone save, perhaps, someone like an ancient Dragon—if Thresk and Udatron had ever been important enough to be on his radar. Which they had not.

Or…

Erin Solstice propped her chin up on her hand and stared silently out a window. She remembered that name. She remembered…a man, among many, summoned to safeguard time itself.

She didn’t know his story or anything else about what his laboratory might hold. So she said nothing, but at least one person noticed Erin’s wistful look.

Grimalkin of Pallass didn’t reach for a notepad. Some things he could simply remember. And besides—he’d begun wondering if the Eyes of Pallass had access to his home. He had a very in-depth security system, but there was always someone better.

He sat in the inn, thinking. A figure in repose, like some statue made to represent the physical body in all of its prime condition. Grimalkin the Sinew Magus. Grimalkin the Fist.

A famous [Mage]. A renowned one. He had fought in wars, bested [Mages] and enemy officers in combat—he had even dueled Archmage Feor. True, he had been mocked for his physical magic theory by a number of communities, but he had a lot of authority in Drake military systems.

Yet, as Grimalkin quietly sat, eating some couscous, he felt embarrassed. Here, at least. Because Grimalkin…

Felt rather as though he’d made a fool of himself. At least where The Wandering Inn and Erin were concerned.

Consider it from his perspective. He was used to people asking for favors from someone of his level. He had found The Wandering Inn very useful, if only because Erin had knowledge about health and musculature that he lacked from her world, and she was indeed engaging in her own right.

But Grimalkin had begun to keep a reserve after he felt that he was becoming one of ‘Erin’s friends’, a resource that she could call upon. He…was aware of how she could change and influence events, but he had determined that he did not want to be a piece in her game, especially because she was not, well, not important enough to keep sequestering his aid.

He had made a point to tell her that, to draw a line. He was a representative of Pallass, and she could not simply run rampant and call on him at will. That had been before she died, of course.

That had been before her body just happened to be the vessel for General Sserys of Liscor, oh, and Fetohep of Khelt made landfall on Izril and challenged the Walled Cities, in part, for her. And she learned how to post <Quests>. And let’s not forget being the best chess player in the world, the Titan’s chess partner, and she knew Foliana, Valeterisa, Larracel, the Wind Runner…

It seemed to Grimalkin that he had made a mistake. Or perhaps just fallen into a trap of his own design. From him being the person she was prevailing upon, he now felt…the opposite might be true.

And he was embarrassed. Embarrassed, because the proverbial shoe was upon the other foot, and now he had all the questions and she had answers and he saw the irony. He saw the fault in himself, and he was embarrassed.

Introspection was a virtue, but a painful one. Doubly painful because Erin was still…generating mysteries. He’d thought ever since he solved the Earth part of her background he would stop adding more questions to his list of Erin-quandaries.

But why did she know Udatron’s name? Why did he think she knew more about what the adventurers had found than she was letting on?

And did he deserve to know? Grimalkin sat there, chewing the pebbles of gluten and appreciating the dish. Imani had clearly made it.

“Well, I’m glad the Albez teams are finding treasure. I think. Hopefully no one throws open a time paradox again.”

Erin spoke lightly and turned from the adventurers hard at work. Grimalkin’s claw twitched as if he were reaching for a quill. The problem was that she was actually a very, very hard-to-read person. Chance words…could just be that.

Again?

Yet where Grimalkin before would have pressed her for answers, now the Sinew Magus had to wonder something.

Am I the unworthy one? Is she playing a game where I’m blundering around like the fool?

By rights, he should ask for her time, but he felt rooted in place. Not everyone was.

“Erin, are you done with your task in Riverfarm? I could use you making more magical foods.”

“Later, Lyonette. I’m actually going on another errand. Can I take Mrsha?”

“I—how dangerous is it?”

“Um—not very?”

“Really, then let me ask Ser Dalimont. Why do you have a bird tied to your finger?”

“It’s a charm. Geeze, Lyonette. You act like you’ve never seen a curse-sensing charm before. Say, where’s Nanette? Is she still sitting with Bird?”

The [Princess] looked about, and Grimalkin remembered someone mentioning the inn’s new guest. Again, he wasn’t regular enough to realize that this Nanette was a new part of the family.

I’m missing out. What else had he missed? Grimalkin looked around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Mrsha seemed unchanged; although, he could no longer confirm this via [Appraisal]. Saliss was lying front-first on the floorboards, possibly unconscious, the [Bard] wasn’t here, a little lamb was staring at him from the basement d—

Grimalkin stared at Nerry. The lamb ducked down. Then poked its head up innocently, as if it were playing hide-and-seek. Unlike Nanette, the inn’s second new addition was deliberately keeping out of sight. Besides, Ishkr fed her whenever Nerry needed food.

Lyonette didn’t notice the lamb snooping on them. She turned about.

“I…no. She wasn’t up there when I took Bird lunch.”

“Well, maybe I’ll find her first. Saliss? Are you dead?”

He raised one claw up behind him, and Erin shrugged.

“Cool. Grimalkin! Hi! Do you need something?”

And there it was. The Drake knew she had seen him, and he sighed. Embarrassed, he straightened his spine and nodded at her.

“Not much of your time, Miss Solstice. If you can spare it.”

She gave him an odd look, and he wondered if her new class allowed her to sense his emotions—and she had already been good at that.

“Well, I’m sorta busy, but I’ve got time. Want to find Nanette with me? Mrsha, get yourself some lunch. You too, Dalimont. Can you make me a sandwich? I think I want to chase down this curse.”

Mrsha scampered off with the [Knight] as Grimalkin rose. Erin smiled at him, and he tried one on for size.

“I notice you are up on your feet, Erin. With a [Lion’s Strength] spell.”

“Gonna lecture me about using magic?”

“…No.”

He was tempted to, but the Sinew Magus let it slide. Erin cast around the inn.

“Locate Nanette. Locate…aha. She’s in the garden. Duh. Come on. How’s it been, Grimalkin? How’s things in Pallass now that the Meeting of Tribes has ended?”

He followed her to the open door and felt a nostalgic sense as he spoke.

“Pallass has not suffered unduly from the war, culturally or militarily. I understand there are Gnollish riots in some of the other cities. Not that Fissival had many, but there were protests in Zeres. Manus had them. Briefly.”

“City of War, huh?”

“I don’t believe they were dispersed with unnecessary force.”

“Just dispersed.”

He wasn’t going to defend that. Grimalkin walked with Erin around the garden and noticed more trees growing, but Erin was looking around, and her head rose.

“Ah. She’s up. And how’re you?”

“Adequate. I have been communicating with Ferkr, mostly. She may return to Pallass—but her future seems to be among the tribes. I have been sending her spellbooks, a curriculum, weight sets—”

“Isn’t she your apprentice? I thought she wasn’t ready to be a [Mage] yet.”

“She is possibly the finest apprentice I have ever trained. And I had little to do with that.”

Erin slowed as he ascended the hill. She looked at Grimalkin, and those words were true and close to his heart.

“She did the right thing. Didn’t she? You’re proud of her?”

The Sinew Magus straightened his back once more. He exhaled and felt his chest tighten.

“Immensely. That was entirely her character.”

“Yeah, but you taught her. You get a bit of credit for that, don’t you think?”

He felt gratified by that. Grimalkin ducked his head as Erin led him up the hill. She could be kind indeed.

She could be thoughtless. Well, Erin had too much to do, it wasn’t fair to say this was entirely her fault. But…

Nanette had free rein of The Wandering Inn. She was allowed to go anywhere, and the inn was safe. The family knew about the dangers of Erin’s other gardens, but Nanette had been told about that. She was intelligent and wise enough to occupy herself.

But someone—someone really should have warned her about the hill. It had slipped their minds.

 

——

 

That was how Erin and Grimalkin found her. She had been here for a while. Head raised, two brown braids hanging down the back of her neck. Her blue robes pooled around her legs in the grass.

Nanette was sitting, looking up at someone as if her legs had collapsed. As if they had no more strength to give. Her face was not blank—but it wasn’t torn by tears or grief.

It was just—stunned. Too stunned to properly register…

Erin put her hands over her mouth, and Grimalkin lowered his head. For there, standing with one hand on her hat, peering into the distance, was a tall woman. A [Witch], looking ahead as she so often did. Stern, but not unkind.

She stood alone, next to a tree, in this quiet place where mist clung to the ground. Nanette said nothing until she noticed Erin standing there.

“Nanette. I—oh no. Didn’t I tell you—didn’t someone—”

Erin looked around, but this was all her fault. Yet Nanette just looked up.

“I realized what this place was when I found it. Bird told me.”

Bird?

“Don’t be mad at him. He said it was a good place. I just…I didn’t realize my mother was here.”

Nanette looked up. Erin gazed around, and a scampering little girl ran up the hill with a sandwich. Mrsha dropped it when she saw Nanette and the statue and looked horrified.

“Nanette, I’m so sorry. I should have told you—warned you—”

The [Innkeeper] walked forwards, and Nanette shook her head. She looked up, and her round face stared at her mother’s. Longingly. Lost…but also with a kind of relief.

“She looks like I remember her. No, Miss Erin. Don’t apologize. I’m glad she’s here. It means…it means you remember her. She should be remembered.”

“Yes. She should.”

The little witch looked at Erin, and she understood what this Skill meant…more than most. She took a slow breath as a little Gnoll girl guiltily walked over.

“I’m fine. Really. It’s just…”

She looked up, and her brown eyes shimmered a bit. Nanette wiped at them.

“I’m allowed to cry, aren’t I?”

Tears trickled down her cheeks, and Erin looked so guilty nothing could be done. Nothing—but for Mrsha to hug Nanette. Erin bent down, and the little witch cried for a while.

Then she stood and nearly fell on her butt when she saw the giant Drake. He nodded at her.

“Miss Nanette. We have not met. I am Magus Grimalkin of Pallass. An acquaintance of the inn.”

“Oh. How do you do? I’m sorry, sir.”

“Not at all. I apologize for disturbing you.”

Nanette looked back at the statue, but she had been there long enough. Erin led her down the hill as Grimalkin picked up the sandwich.

I’m so—Nanette, come on, let’s get lunch. Lyonette, uh—uh—she was at the hill. And I didn’t tell her—

They returned to the common room, and everyone saw Nanette’s red eyes. Numbtongue looked up, and Lyonette gasped. Guiltily, the inn’s family gathered around except for Bird, who had done nothing wrong.

“I’m fine, really. I’ve been enjoying poking around.”

“Well—we need to be with you more, and you need to tell us what you want to do, Nanette! I mean it. How’s your room?”

“Very nice.”

“How’s…the food?”

Calescent looked worried until Nanette smiled at him.

“It’s all fine. I can’t ask for more, Miss Erin. Truly. I know you’re busy.”

“Is there anything you could possibly want?”

“Well…”

Shyly, the girl looked around. She kicked her legs as Mrsha handed the sandwich to Erin.

“…I was wondering if there were any books in the inn. Numbtongue has a few, but I like books. Mother would always take me to a library if there were one in the places we visited.”

Books! That’s it! Let’s get books! I’ve been meaning to get them anyways!”

Erin threw up her hands instantly, and Lyonette nodded.

“I’ll give you a budget.”

Guiltily, the inn’s family rushed about as Nanette protested they didn’t need to get—Grimalkin cleared his throat.

“If you’re looking for books, Miss Solstice, I recommend Invrisil or Pallass to buy them. I could list a few titles.”

“Thanks, Grimalkin. Why don’t we go now, Nanette? You and me, huh? I was meaning to go on a trip too—we can take Mrsha and get books, Lyonette. To Invrisil, I think.”

The [Princess] blinked, but one look at Nanette and she agreed. Erin decided they’d have a quick lunch, but she looked at Grimalkin—

“You wanna come? We can talk if it’s something you need to talk about.”

He hesitated, then nodded.

“Why not?”

That was how he, Nanette, Ser Dalimont, Erin, and Mrsha ended up going for a walk into Invrisil. After a pastrami on rye sandwich.

 

——

 

“Like my new door?”

“It’s certainly a choice.”

Erin rolled her eyes as Liska operated the [Portal Door]. It worked like the last one, but instead of a cheap system with stones, it had a window that showed you what lay on the other side, and the dial was beautiful, made of metal, and swung from icon to icon burned into the wood. Invrisil’s looked like the City of Adventurers’ crest, the same for Pallass and Liscor. Celum’s wasn’t one of the city—it was a little pirate’s flag and a bit of growing wheat.

“Wailant’s Farm, see? The sigils just appeared. I think, uh—they look like what I’m feeling.”

“Ah. So Riverfarm is a crown over a stylized piece of feces?”

“…I should probably change that.”

Erin rubbed at the door’s sigil as if she could erase it. Grimalkin eyed the door and frowned.

“I don’t see more than eight symbols. I thought the old door had more connections than that.”

“Me too! But here—let’s go to Invrisil, and you can see what’s weird.”

Erin opened the door, hopped through, and they appeared in a street in Invrisil. A crowd was waiting, but as a few guests piled through past Grimalkin, Nanette looking around in delight, the door vanished.

Grimalkin turned, and to his bemusement, he saw something in its place. An…engraved stone, much like a druidic marker or some ancient waystone, was embedded in the paving stones.

“Fascinating. A gateway marker.”

“Yup! I think it only works places I know. So, uh…everywhere I haven’t been? I can’t open it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I now need to go somewhere to set up a marker.”

“Indeed. Not an upgrade.”

Erin put her hands on her hips and glowered.

“Well, guess what? You can’t steal this! Go on! Try! You can’t! People have been trying to move it all day. But only if I say you can, you can. See?”

That was useful for security, and Grimalkin gave her that. The stone was still heavy when she let him pick it up, and Mrsha and Nanette could barely lift it before he had to take it from them.

“Very useful—but again, the original door had a number of uses on its own. Yet you can transport how many people here?”

“Two hundred. Every two hours.”

“Incredible.”

Nanette whispered. Grimalkin nodded. If Erin visited more spots, she could doubtless install her gateway there too. He wondered how likely that was.

At any rate, they moved on as Erin asked where to go first. At least Ser Dalimont knew the city, and there were a number of good bookstores Grimalkin had requested books from. He was just about to direct her to the first one when he noticed something.

“Erin. Did you say that was a charm to sense a curse?”

Erin blinked down at the little wicker bird hanging from her fingers. She raised it—and Nanette peered at it.

“Oh, Oliyaya’s work. It’s moving that way. Very strongly, too.”

Erin Solstice’s eyes widened, and she saw the wicker bird pulling, pulling her down a street to her right. She looked at it, and Ser Dalimont hesitated.

“Miss Solstice, Witch Agratha did indicate this might be dangerous. Now is not the time?”

The [Innkeeper] nodded, but her eyes swung to Grimalkin.

“We do have Grimalkin. What if we just—checked? This is a big city, and I doubt, uh—I doubt it’ll be dangerous in the most dangerous of senses. I’ve just got this curse on me, Grimalkin.”

“As one does?”

Erin winced, but Nanette smiled.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing where the bird leads. It sounds exciting. And if it goes somewhere dangerous, we can turn back. You can always turn back.”

“Hey, that’s right! I’ve never done that. Well, it’s time for books and curses! Follow the bird!”

Off they went. Grimalkin realized they were going on an adventure. Funnily enough…he didn’t mind. After all, he had once resented it because it felt like Erin was making use of his power to her ends.

These days—he saw her glance at him and wondered who was going to help who.

 

——

 

The cave was…

Buzzing.

Infinitypear and Rasktooth hesitated as they saw how it had been blocked off. They had been wandering around it for a while, and save for the odd stone plug on top, clearly designed to be removed, it was sealed.

“What is this, Infinitypear? Magic buzzing cave?”

“No. Bees.”

“Oh.”

Rasktooth didn’t really know bees, having lived in a cave all his life. Thus, he wasn’t really afraid as the only bee he knew was Apista, and she was nice. Infinitypear had also never been stung by a bee—small bees would never pierce his carapace.

They were less wary than they should be. But the two [Adventurers] were debating unplugging the gap.

“Is this stupid, Infinitypear?”

“Yah. But maybe lots of Apistas stuck in there? We should free them.”

Since the plug was on top of the cave’s roof and Infinitypear had a clumsier Worker’s body, Rasktooth was climbing up there with his arms and prodding at the stone plug. The buzzing…seemed to thrum through the stone, and Rasktooth wondered if this was a bad idea.

Maybe just a peek? He wondered how secure the lid of the plug was. Slowly, Rasktooth lifted the plug and—

It popped right out. It was so light and so unattached that the Cave Goblin shifted it away from the hole instantly. He overbalanced, and Infinitypear ran around the cave to catch him—but Rasktooth caught himself.

“Hey! This plug isn’t on at all!”

“Oh? What’s—”

Then the buzzing grew louder, and Rasktooth froze. He tried to put the plug back, but too late.

Ashfire Bees blew out of the tunnel in a swarm. Nearly a hundred of them flew up in a mass, and Infinitypear looked up—

And then thought of how big Apista’s stinger was. How dangerous she might be if she were mad. Rasktooth was flailing, covering his face as they descended—

Stop!

The Ashfire Bees halted, covering the Cave Goblin, and their stingers did not jab into his flesh. They were filthy, covered in—something strange—and—

And a second swarm of bees flurried around, bright yellow and black. More Ashfire Bees as the first one retreated back into the cave.

What was going on? Infinitypear and Rasktooth froze as the second swarm landed around the roof of the cave, and the dirty bees from within crawled around the entrance. They were rubbing antennae…kissing? But who had spoken? Where had the other bees come from?

The answer appeared as four buckets were slowly placed down and a bit of sugary water sloshed between the buckets. Both bee nests descended, and a figure raised one of their hands as all four buckets fed the two Hives.

“This is dangerous. You are not Miss Mrsha. Did she hire you to take my job?”

Rasktooth blinked, and Infinitypear brightened.

“Grass Shell!”

The [Shaman] backed away as the two bee colonies devoured the sugar buckets. He looked like a plant. More grass had grown on his shell, even a flower or two. A bee landed on his shell and began to suck nectar out of it.

“The bees in this cave are angry-angry. They will sting you. The new bees don’t go in. Except if they are needed. Something bad is there. The new bees feed this one. See?”

He pointed to the ‘kissing’ bees, and Rasktooth and Infinitypear saw they were actually doing what bees did—trading nectar and food.

“You have a job feeding bees?”

“Yes. A Drake did it last time, but he overcharged, so I took his job. Is it my turn to lose my job?”

Grass Shell looked resigned to the whims of economic fate, but Rasktooth and Infinitypear assured him they were just adventuring. The [Shaman] brightened up.

“Oh. Then I am happy. I am feeding the bees. I am allowed to buy sugar and water and things bees eat and put them here every week.”

“What’s in the cave?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did new hive come from?”

Rasktooth decided he was afraid of bees—especially the Ashfire Bees who were flying around and eating from the Floodplains’ flowers. Grass Shell shrugged.

“I don’t know. They flew here? I feed them too.”

“Why?”

Both [Adventurers] had many questions, but Grass Shell just puffed out his chest proudly as he put his hands on his hips.

“Because I am a [Shaman]. A [Beekeeper Shaman].”

The Goblin and Antinium looked at each other. Rasktooth held up a hand.

“Is that a good class?”

Grass Shell pondered the question.

“I get free honey.”

“Ooh. Good class.”

“Yes.”

This adventure had nearly ended in calamity, but it turned out to end in free honey. Grass Shell didn’t collect any from the angry Hive of dirty bees, and they actually pulled the plug back into place. Rather, he knew that the other Ashfire Bees were starting hives, and so he gave Rasktooth and Infinitypear a taste of a small jar he was allowed to harvest. It was so sweet it gave the two adventurers energy to race off—after thanking Grass Shell for his treat.

So many caves! Dangerous caves. Let’s not go to bee-cave again.

“Yah, yah.”

Rasktooth agreed as they wandered on. Infinitypear pointed to a new crack in the rock, so thin he could barely squeeze into it. Rasktooth, with his skin-body, would have had less trouble, but Infinitypear wondered if he could widen the gap.

It looked like it went into the mountain and down. Down deep, if Infinitypear were right—he tapped on the crack and heard an echo deep, deep down.

“Ooh. Big crack. Think we should go in?”

“No.”

The Antinium didn’t notice how Rasktooth had frozen on his shoulders. He peered down and wondered why his [Dangersense] was humming.

“Maybe a big drop? Maybe just a look—”

“Don’t go in there.”

Infinitypear halted—and Rasktooth stared into the crack in the mountain. The Worker slowly backed up. He tilted his head up to look at Rasktooth.

“Why?”

The Cave Goblin just stared at the crack in the rocks.

“The dungeon is down there. Bad death. Death…this is where Numbtongue went. Redfangs. Shield Spiders’ nest is here. And worse things. Below.

Infinitypear backed up fast. Shield Spiders? As in the entire nest of them? He looked at Rasktooth, alarmed.

“I thought adventurers sealed it.”

“They sealed some parts. This goes to Shield Spider nests.”

“How do you know?”

The Cave Goblin glared down at Infinitypear.

“I know. I live in dungeon all my life. I know everywhere in it. Even death-death-death city. Even metal armor place. Don’t go in. Stay away. Bad things are down there. Bad…things.”

He was so adamant that Infinitypear marched away. Somewhat upset, the two [Adventurers] slowed.

Bad things had happened there. Rasktooth didn’t look like he was in the mood for adventure any more.

“We go home now?”

Infinitypear pointed timidly at the inn, and Rasktooth nodded silently. They trooped back to the city.

Some adventures were too much for them. Too dark—and they wanted good adventures. Both of them knew they might not have a choice. Erin had promised them free food for a month, and what would happen after that?

What would they do? Infinitypear had worried—but as he neared the inn, that worry coalesced. He didn’t want to abandon Rasktooth—but he was still a Worker.

“Infinitypear. Before you go to the inn, you have to come with me.”

Grass Shell was on his way back, but he wasn’t headed to the inn. Infinitypear slowed as Rasktooth, who had been silent, looked up.

“Why?”

“Because we have been ordered. Remember? We go to the Free Hive. Revalantor Klbkch wants us.”

Then Infinitypear felt his heart sink. Rasktooth looked at Infinitypear as the Worker pointed to the inn.

“Let me put Rasktooth in a seat.”

“No. I go with?”

The Cave Goblin patted Infinitypear on the head. Because he felt the Worker tremble when Grass Shell said that name. He knew what Klbkch did to Workers he didn’t like. To Aberrations.

“That is not permitted.”

Grass Shell hesitated. Infinitypear’s antennae waved.

“There is no rule against Goblins in the Hive.”

“I’m pretty sure there is.”

Grass Shell muttered, but then the three were heading into the Hive of the Free Antinium via Erin’s basement. Perchance for destiny. But it was not one they wanted.

Everyone knew how a Worker’s story ended. The same for Cave Goblins like Rasktooth. The two [Adventurers]…

They wanted something more. Something better.

But the Slayer awaited.

 

——

 

A skeleton ran past a gateway deep in the dungeon. A barred door—and barred from the outside. As if it were there to keep something in.

Armored figures and Crypt Worms halted at the edge of the tunnels. They hesitated, and a few passed the barrier.

A writhing worm lashed out with arm-whips, screaming as it tried to tag the skeleton. But the figure—flew. It was running like a track champion from another world, and as it sensed the whips coming up, someone shouted.

Jump!

The skeleton leapt, both arms rising, a long-distance leap that carried it to safety. Then it touched down and began to cartwheel forwards. It sounded like it was laughing—but that was just the voices.

“We did it! Get the maps!”

The skeleton was dancing in place, raising its arms as the confused monsters looked on. The fact that it did celebrate—was because it deserved to. That was the difference between this undead and the mindless ones who walked the dungeon.

This skeleton began doing back-flips. And the voices continued.

Make it flip them off. Look, that Crypt Worm actually looks sad. Can your skeletons spit, Ama?

“I have heard throwing feces is a valid tactic. But I have not been allowed to keep a storage unit.”

“Ksmvr—who tells you this kind of stuff?”

“Bird.”

There the skeleton stood as the monsters, even the suits of armor with no flesh to break or lose—looked up. The Crypt Worms writhed forwards uncertainly, then turned to head back to the gates. The other monsters retreated, and the skeleton’s head slowly swiveled.

The celebration stopped.

“Dead gods. That’s…a lot of them. Ama, can you outr—they’re fast. Ceria, were they always that fast?”

“I—yes? We had a hundred Raskghar, sometimes. Ama, can your skeleton find Stalker? He’s in a plaza.”

All the skeleton had to do was climb one of the buildings, but shapes were emerging from the houses. Thousands of them, bounding across the streets, screaming—

Fleshy beings with no clothing, vaguely humanoid. Filled with missing holes and red, glistening flesh.

“A’ctelios Salash looks more inviting.”

Another voice cut in, and Colth’s tones were strained. The skeleton itself didn’t waste time arguing. Nor did its controller speak as she guided it to one of the buildings. It leapt up, caught a roof ledge, hauled itself up, and then leapt onto a balcony. From there, it ran at a wall of another house, kicked off it, and yanked itself up a window. Boosting itself up higher—

This is amazing. I had no idea skeletons could move—they’re coming up. Pisces, you taking notes?

“I am.”

This building afforded the skeleton a view of the entire area, and what it showed was…a city so vast it really did match Pallass. Then, the voices were silent. Only one spoke, cool, but trembling.

“I think we’d better save this image for someone more important to review. Chaldion, perhaps. There. There’s Stalker’s corpse.”

The swiveling skeleton stopped. The inhabitants of this place were climbing, but the skeleton pointed, and its finger saw a plaza not too far from here and a familiar monument.

“This must have been the exact same door we came through. I can even sort of see Stalker’s corpse around the monument.”

Yvlon grunted.

“I can’t. No…wait, is that a bloodstain? That plaza—compare it to Shivertail Plaza. That monument. Ceria, how big is this corpse?”

“Big enough that no bag of holding is going to cover it.”

Colth remarked, and there was excitement in his tone—and wariness. But the last voice broke in gently.

“Ama. We’ve found it. But I don’t think your skeleton…Scottie, is going to make it.”

The skeleton stood there on the tower’s roof, looking down at the screaming maws of teeth and thrashing tails and limbs from the things below. Then, and only then, a quiet voice emerged from its mouth, and its jaw moved in sync with a younger woman’s voice.

“No. No, he did a good job. You hear that, Scottie? You did the best job. No one could do it. Only you. Rest now.”

Scottie the Scout Skeleton stood there, his blue-flame eyes glowing in this place, a blank undead with no personality. No soul.

But these things were still given to him. He still had a name. So, even if she made him do it, the skeleton saluted. He grinned—and then the spell in the scrying stone cut out. The first figure pulled itself up, and the skeleton swung a fist.

 

——

 

It was done. Colth let out a breath it seemed he’d been holding the last hour as a single skeleton defied all expectations. Pisces lowered his hand, and his sweating brow was mopped by Ksmvr, who had decided offering drinks and handkerchiefs was his role.

Twenty-four times. Pisces hadn’t even known you could remotely repair someone else’s undead—or that link-magic worked between [Necromancers] like that. Twenty-four times he’d mended Scottie’s broken or seared bones and amplified the skeleton’s mana.

Ceria was reading from one of the spellbooks she had, the burned one.

“[Speed]. [Speed]…imagine what we could do if I actually studied enough?”

“He had [Lesser Speed].”

That was the only thing the young woman said. Ama, the [Necromancer], sat in the middle of her coven. Oh, her apprentices tried to pretend they were just ordinary bystanders, but the Horns knew better. So did Colth, but he seemed fine on ignoring them if they helped him find the treasure.

Each one of the junior [Necromancers] had thrown skeletons into the dungeon with about Pisces and Colth’s adeptness at best. But Ama’s skeleton—

Scottie. Ama had a hood on and a mask. She’d moved the mask so she could sip drinks, but not to be outdone, she’d still had a layer of face-paint underneath to make her features as white as chalk. Now—she sat there, very still.

The Horns’ skepticism of her was by now long gone. Even Pisces hadn’t expected the first skeleton to make it that far. Colth’s whoop of joy, though, never quite came.

Ama’s pale makeup ran and dripped from her chin, past her mask. Splatters of paint-tears landed on her robes. Yvlon looked askance. She glanced at Pisces—but he had never wept for his undead.

Ama, though—Yvlon looked at the crying young woman, reached out to pat her shoulder, then coughed and put her hands behind her back. She spoke, straightening her spine, as if she were some [General] delivering bad news to a grieving widow or lover.

“Scottie did a great job. The best of jobs, Ama. I’ve never seen a better skeleton.”

Pisces opened his mouth, and Yvlon, Ceria, and Ksmvr glared at him. He shut it. Yvlon went on.

“He did the impossible and kept going, even through traps and monsters—Facestealer itself gave up on him. Thanks to him, we’ve found the corpse of Stalker. And I—we’ll definitely reward you for your help. I hope Scottie can be remade?”

“Not with the same bones. I helped make him.”

One of the coven’s [Necromancers] muttered. They looked misty-eyed too, and one of them sniffed.

It was a skeleton. But somehow, Pisces watched Ama and realized that her skeletons mattered more than his warbear and even the Frostmarrow Behemoth. Because hers had names.

In fact—her skeleton was like—

Ivery. Ivery and Bearbones. Despite Pisces’ objections at the time to the naming of the Skeleton Lord and his warbear mount, because it made no difference—it clearly did.

The only cost was the emotional damage when you lost one of the skeletons. Again, why Pisces eschewed the practice.

And yet—here sat Ama. Ksmvr went over to Numbtongue to request a dirge, and Yvlon decided to pat her on the shoulder after all. Which the Hobgoblin began to play.

“Thank you for helping us, Ama.”

Ceria offered Ama her good hand—then decided to give her the skeletal hand instead. Ama took it, admiring Ceria’s bones, and looked up. Her watery gaze tried to turn into a haughty mask, but she just sniffed instead.

“Scottie would have wanted to go out that way. He was meant to do great things. I’ll rebuild him better. With…with spells on his bones so he can go invisible.”

“Or jump higher.”

“Or explode.”

Ksmvr added, and Yvlon nudged him, but Ama smiled waterily. There it was.

Somehow, Pisces’ [Necromancer] friend had already won over his team. Pisces hovered there, caught between relief, excitement, and a kind of indignation.

He wondered if Yvlon would have accepted his magic earlier if he’d named his undead. Called his horse…Hoofbone or something.

It occurred to Pisces that he might not be good at naming things. It occurred to him that Ama was practicing a different type of necromancy than he was. She looked up, and Pisces said the first thing that came into his mind.

“Gewilena would be proud.”

Ama looked up—and smiled.

“Yeah. She would be happy. And mad at me for getting Scottie killed. It’s okay. I know he’s a skeleton. He just did such a good job—

Her voice broke on ‘job’. Nothing would do but for everyone to get her a drink—and a piece of pizza. Only then did Colth feel he could interrupt.

“Maybe we can grab his bones. Once we get Stalker. We have a route, people. The way’s treacherous, but we’ve mapped out the location of traps, and whether it’s skeletons or living bodies, we’re getting that hide. Bones and hide, it occurs to me, if that thing has them.”

Pisces, Ama, and the Horns looked up. The other adventurers listening in stirred. Colth the Supporter smiled, and his eyes shone with real excitement for the first time. However, even Yvlon looked askance.

“We’ve found the corpse, Colth, but even getting here—how many skeletons did we lose? A hundred and twenty-five?”

“A hundred and twenty-six—”

Ksmvr had been counting. Yvlon traced the long route through the dungeon.

“Even assuming we found shorter ways than what Scottie took, we have to navigate around traps, watch out for ambushes the entire way. And Facestealer…I estimate a two hour round trek. We can’t run like Scottie, and I don’t fancy losing another limb. Anyone else?”

“We’ve already taken one for the team.”

Ceria and Ksmvr waved their respective arms that had been lost. True, Ksmvr’s had grown back. They gave Pisces a significant look, and he sniffed.

“Pass.”

The Horns of Hammerad’s humor made Colth grin. But the [Supporter] had a plan. He calmly laid it out for the Horns.

“I’m no fool, Yvlon. But knowing where the treasure is and how to get there makes our life easier. It may be time to call in other teams for support—but we can do it. With your [Ice Wall] spells, we can literally block our way out. Facestealer and those monster hordes are the real threat, and transporting Stalker’s corpse. Let’s take them on one at a time…well, for Stalker, the solution is a Chest of Holding. Top-grade. I’ll ask Larra for one, which means we’re carrying it. Or using undead to drag it.”

“Hordes?”

“[Invisibility]. If not, a cloud spell. If both those don’t work, I suggest undead and summoned creatures.”

“The only [Summoner] I know is Revi. Unless you…?”

“Larra can get us in touch with a Drathian supplier who sells single-use summoning stones. I’m willing to pay for two Manticores.”

Ama was calming down from losing Scottie. She listened with one ear to the adventurers talk. Fairly enviously. Pisces was frowning as he debated how useful the Frostmarrow Behemoth would be.

This was…a lot better than sitting in the windmill carving bones, she had to admit. This inn didn’t bat an eye at her skeletons. The food was interesting, and she—

She expected to be forgotten, but Ceria glanced over and gave Ama a friendly smile.

“Don’t forget Ama. If we’re hiring help, Colth, a skeleton escort would be useful.”

Me? I’m not an adventurer. I don’t fight monsters like that.”

“Have you not registered? Are we sequestering civilian help? That comes with a markup if she belongs to a guild. Tsk, tsk.”

Ksmvr propped open the Adventurer’s Guild rulebook and began to scribble an adjustment to their records, but Colth smiled.

“Use every tool is my motto. You don’t have to do anything. If you can send even eight skeletons with us remotely—that would be a nice group to delay a monster ambush. Do you have any more undead tricks to use?”

Yvlon nodded.

“Stuff Pisces doesn’t know?”

“Hey.”

Ama had to think. She scooted over, and her coven looked at her excitedly. From meeting with Pisces as equals to helping a Named-rank adventurer—

Some days just felt this good, huh?

 

——

 

One of the [Necromancers] in Ama’s Coven was named Rodden. He was one of the ones who had first gotten Pisces’ autograph, and until this very moment, he’d been debating begging Pisces to teach him magic—or leaving Ama’s coven.

The ‘Deathlady’ was a lot better than him at necromancy, but she was controlling, snappish, hoarded all the best bones and items they scrounged, and he had expected to gain gold from scaring [Merchants] or finding lost treasure in graves.

She—didn’t do that. She was almost respectable. Just living in the overgrown farmstead, making undead with admittedly superior qualities.

Rodden had met other [Necromancers], and they weren’t like her. Except for Pisces—he would have taken what he could and found someone else.

Now, he felt like he was lucking out. Imagine what he’d get for helping a Named-rank adventurer. Pisces was a [Necromancer] in the open. This was his chance.

Maybe the Horns needed a new teammate?

Rodden was outside the inn now, heading to the chasm from which the skeletons had entered the dungeon. He was there to disassemble the skeletons waiting to go in—and to scrounge up everything he could.

To keep the monsters from coming up the pit, Ceria, Ksmvr, and Colth had fired spells and arrows down, and the skeletons had killed a few monsters down there.

Even the corpse of a lesser Silver-rank monster was worth a lot. Not that he was going down there, oh no. The skeletons were standing there, but Rodden directed them to head down on the ropes. He’d have them carry up whatever they could and then disassemble them.

That was bones for him and whatever he’d get for the bodies. Ama wouldn’t notice, he was sure. Then maybe he’d beg Pisces for a word. After all—Ama might want to reacquaint herself with her old friend, but Pisces didn’t know all of what she’d been doing while he became an adventurer.

Rodden waited as the skeletons slid down the ropes, and something odd happened. They weren’t his undead—Ama had raised the lot and divided control among her coven. But he could feel…their magical spells vanishing one by one. Followed by a sound.

Crack. Crack.

Huh? Five skeletons slid down, and they vanished in five cracks of sharp, brittle bones. Oh no—Rodden groaned.

“Did they slide off the ropes?”

Undead were stupid like that. Tell them to jump off a cliff and they would. He hurried to the edge of the chasm and looked down. He got vertigo, but he fully expected to see a pile of bones at the bottom of the hundred plus foot descent.

Instead—he saw something else. It looked like a brown…rectangle. Oddly geometric, really. It had two long limbs, and its legs dangled as two huge claws dug into the earth.

It was huge. Ten feet tall? Twice, three times, four times as wide as Rodden, and so thick he couldn’t imagine how heavy it was.

How hard was it to climb hundreds of feet with only those arms? How…mad…would you have to be to do that?

Rodden stared down as two grotesque slits in the face of the monster angled up to him. He saw no eyes beyond—just wounds in Facestealer’s front.

“M—m—”

The [Necromancer] froze up. He had seen monsters, but Ama had killed them, and always, he’d been behind a layer of undead. In that moment, he realized he was no natural adventurer.

He wished he’d realized it this morning. For the man fell back on his butt—and even in terror, he longed to get up and run. Run and scream and tell them a monster was coming. Because the Horns were in the inn…but his legs wouldn’t move.

He lay on his back, trying to move, but he was paralyzed. Helpless. The man’s eyes rolled in terror as he heard the sound continuing.

Crack. Crack…the sound of claws digging into stone. Slowly, Facestealer hauled itself up. And the [Necromancer]’s eyes leaked tears as the first bit of Facestealer’s body lifted itself over the chasm.

It turned out—it was this sort of day after all.

 

——

 

In Albez, Ylawes Byres sat with Dawil and Falene, glancing at the entrance to the laboratory of Udatron. He tried not to, tried to talk with his teammates.

“…should head to House Byres first. It’s only a few days before, uh—Ysara might not visit.”

“Not after years in the south? Is she doing well, that sister of yours?”

Dawil murmured, just as distractedly. Falene raised her brows.

“I thought I heard you two arguing.”

“Things are tense. I’m sure she’ll visit. We should head back. Maybe Yvlon would go and—and then we can discuss the south. Things.”

Falene nodded a few times.

“Things. Yes.”

The Silver Swords’ usual flow and diction was being cut off. Falene and Ylawes blinked, looked away from the laboratory, but they couldn’t help it.

The [Rogues] and [Mages] were inside. They were de-trapping the place, and a group of Named-ranks and the Gold-ranks were clustered around the entrance. Waiting.

Deniusth was a mix of patience and impatience. He was telling everyone they would not rush in and lose this haul—while looking like he had the fullest bladder in the world. He paced back and forth, he talked rapidly—and he laughed.

Orchestra, Variable Fortress, and the other northern teams were in the greatest mood imaginable. A giddy excitement that might be higher than the actual dividing of loot.

Look what was inside. Ylawes didn’t know who Udatron was—and by now, everyone was scouring the history books for his name—but it was clear that the [Chronomancer] had owned a private lair not despoiled by any treasure seekers.

Unlike Thresk, this was no private room, but a full workshop. And unlike Thresk—there was no major death-spell that anyone had found.

“Maybe he really didn’t arm his laboratory. If that Thresk set up the elementals—”

Falene looked at Dawil askance.

“Who doesn’t arm a host of traps?”

The Dwarf tugged at his beard.

“…Someone who doesn’t feel like accidentally killing himself? A [Mage] of better times, Falene? Not everyone has to play with daggers like Wistram. I’m just saying. Either there’s one last Tier 7 spell the [Rogues] are missing or there aren’t any.”

They were advancing by inches, casting spells everywhere and trying to make sure they weren’t triggering a network of spells, but it really seemed like the laboratory wasn’t highly warded. Which made sense. Did you put a flame-jet spell where you were working on your magic?

Not just magic, either. The reason everyone was so happy was that it was clear there was both an armory and library. But what got Ylawes thinking was the revelation that Udatron was one of those classic [Mages].

“Alchemy and enchanting gear. Hedault will be doing backflips. That might be worth more than any single artifact. Imagine techniques from that age!”

A few teams were standing around, saying much the same thing as the Silver Swords. One of them—this was another local team that Ylawes didn’t know—was grumbling.

“Yeah, but we’re not going to get even that. Orchestra and all the top northern teams get everything.

Sour grapes for some. Ylawes shifted.

“Did Captain Deniusth ever say how the loot’s going to be shared?”

“He made a few promises that Gold-ranks would get a pick once they sorted everything. But that’s not exactly promising. Might take weeks to argue over, but I bet you Larracel will be where they argue. And the Haven is fair. I think.”

Dawil commented. Falene nodded.

“…We should get a spellbook. If we get a single pick.”

Ylawes and Dawil looked at her. Both [Warriors] opened their mouths instantly. Ylawes coughed into a fist.

“Hold on, Falene.”

“Yeah, pointy. Hold on. I could use a new hammer. I lost my axe at Wistram, remember?”

“You can reforge it. What’s more important, a bevy of new spells or a sword?”

“Ylawes could use a new sword. He’s been dying for upgrades for ages.”

“I could use a new sword, Falene.”

A spellbook is a hundred swords! Hear me out, you two—”

“No, go ask Archmage Eldavin for a bunch of spells. Isn’t he teaching them to all the factions?”

“Only Terras, not Centrists!”

“Well, join them and throw over your lot. Ylawes, my boy, you and I need gear. That Earth Elemental proves it. This is…uh…a necessity for the team.”

Falene was turning red, but Ylawes had to cover a smile.

“I’m with Dawil on this one, Falene. Besides, wouldn’t the spellbooks be grabbed before we got a pick?”

“Not if there’s a library. Dawil, I’ll enchant your hammer.”

“You couldn’t enchant a knife to cut butter. We followed your Wistram hunch, pointy. This time, one of us two gets the artifacts unless there’s nothing—and unfortunately for you, they saw a bunch of swords and weapons inside.”

The Silver Swords bickered as Falene protested. Ylawes knew it might be in bad form—but it was just humor. He did feel for the Silver-rank teams, though. They weren’t even pushing to get a look inside—just sitting together and probably grousing.

“Captain Anith?”

The Jackal Beastkin blinked and jumped as Ylawes waved at him. The [Knight] looked sympathetic as Nailren turned.

“Ylawes. Any word on whether we’re done?”

“No. How are your teams feeling?”

“Ah—well, we’re debating. The treasure, that is. It looks like there’s a lot, but the Silver-rankers aren’t too pleased. Even some local Gold-rank teams.”

The Waterborn Raiders again? However, Anith nodded to a group of lower-ranked and local teams, and Nailren sniffed.

“A divide between north and south. I’ve seen it with adventurers from Walled Cities. It’ll be interesting…well. We’ve been thinking.”

“About?”

Anith and Nailren traded glances. The Jackal glanced at Ylawes and sighed. Nailren scratched at his chin.

“…Nothing much. I’m going for a walk. Anith?”

The Jackal hesitated, then groaned.

“Let me find my team.”

They hurried off, and Ylawes raised his brows.

“What was that about?”

“No clue.”

Nailren’s team and Anith’s Vuliel Drae were drifting towards Ylawes’ team. The Silver Swords didn’t know what was up, but Deniusth’s loud voice made everyone raise their heads.

Almost done? What’s taking you all so long? You’ve been an hour and a half and you can’t tell—fine! We’ll wait!”

They really were just checking to see if there was some final death-trap spell. Ylawes sighed and decided he needed to pee too. He was wondering if they had a latrine or if he’d have to march for a while to get out of range—and smell—of the other teams when he heard a commotion.

Instantly, half the adventurers turned, expecting the trap. This was it. There was always a damn catch—

Deniusth lifted his violin bow with a curse, and Eldertuin put his shield up. But what they heard wasn’t an alarm. Rather—one of the adventurers landed, panting.

Wasn’t that the Gold-rank Owl Beastkin strategist from the Village of the Dead raid? She pointed.

“Captain Deniusth—there’s an army coming our way! All the civilians are running for it.”

“What? What army—the Antinium?”

Deniusth looked blankly at her. But the [Strategist] just shook her head.

“No—they’re flying Remendia’s colors! The entire city’s standing forces are headed our way with Ocre’s colors too!”

“What the—”

Ylawes was already on his feet as Orchestra and all the other teams abandoned the laboratory and rushed to the edge of the pit. The Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, and other teams arrayed warily at the edge of the ruins.

Sure enough—Ylawes saw thousands of Humans coming their way. Deniusth swore.

That’s the city’s entire army. It looks like the Watch and—”

“What’s the move, Deniusth? Are they trying to steal the treasure?”

Viecel was alarmed. He bared his teeth, and the Captain of Orchestra looked around.

“They had better not try. Hey—Solar Strikes, deploy your team here. Jelaqua, put Moore up on the road. Everyone—fan out and stop them from encircling this place. We’ll go out and meet them, but no one sneaks down to the dig site!”

The other teams he knew nodded and fanned out fast. Ylawes caught Deniusth’s arm.

“Captain Deniusth, this can’t be a fight.”

“It won’t be—but we can’t let a city steal this treasure. Damn vultures.”

The Named-rank had a point, but Ylawes refused to let Named-ranks fight low-level [Soldiers]. He had seen Orchestra’s Combined Skill. It would be a massacre—and a disaster.

However, Eldertuin seemed just as determined to prevent this. He turned to Halrac.

“Got anything white? Raise a flag, Deni. We’re being peaceful.”

“Sure we are—Eld, you come with me. Ivirith, Captain Halrac—Captain Ylawes, you too, even. Might help to have some local teams. We’re being peaceful, and it’d damn well better stay that way.”

In short order, a group of adventurers, including Ylawes, were marching down the slope towards the Remendian army. It was a small army, and Ylawes bet they were under ten thousand strong even with Ocre’s help.

…But they outnumbered the adventurers by far. Deni was looking around.

“Damn. No one brought anything to impress them with? Maybe we should have ridden out. Where’s our horses?”

“Other side.”

“Well—just look impressive. Tell Moore to come with us.”

Ylawes didn’t worry about that. He was just watching the Remendian army slow down. He saw…a lot of nerves.

A very nervous Watch Captain and a local military commander who looked to be in his mid-forties halted, and there was a flurry as low-level [Soldiers], possibly even [Militia], came to a scattered halt.

Not a good sign. For them. Ylawes knew soldiers from House Byres—his family did have a standing force. This was an untrained lot. Still—the [Commander] shouted.

I am Commander Leir of Remendia! Captain Deniusth of the Named-rank team Orchestra! On behalf of Remendia, Ocre, and the town of Eesfalt, we would like to parley in peace! [A Pact of Trust]! Do we have your word?

What is Remendia doing here, Commander?

Deniusth hollered back. The Commander paused.

I would like to discuss your finds at Albez! Cordially, Captain Deniusth! Do I have your word?

“Damn. They know. Who leaked the information? One of the [Diggers]?”

Deniusth cursed, but he called back after a while.

“Yes, of course! Peaceful! We will approach!”

A small group of adventurers walked forwards as the other teams watched. Ylawes looked back for Anith and Nailren, hoping they weren’t doing anything provocative. If the Waterborn Raiders caused trouble…to his relief, he didn’t see anyone taking up archery positions.

That might have been enough for some of the soldiers to run. They knew they might be up against Gold and Named-ranks, and they stared with awe and horror at Deniusth as he stomped across the ground.

The [Commander], Watch Captain, two low-level [Negotiators]—and the head of the local Adventuring Guild—were all mounted. They dismounted, and Ylawes realized Remendia’s ruling Council wasn’t here.

Possibly Deniusth’s scowl had chased them behind the soldiers or this was a matter they thought better represented by combat classes.

“Captain Deniusth, we realize this is an…unfortunate moment. However, we felt we had to insist on this meeting.”

“With an army at your back, Commander? I warn you now—we are adventurers of the Adventurer’s Guilds of Izril. Strong-arming the treasure in Albez will not go well for you here or politically.”

Strong-arming? You—”

The Watch Captain fell silent as one of the [Negotiators] took over.

“Captain Deniusth, we are acting prudently. Legally, we have given you the right to excavate Albez’s treasures. However—we are aware this excavation is being done in part by the [Emperor] of Riverfarm.”

Was that what this was about? Ylawes stirred, and Halrac gritted his teeth. Deniusth’s face, though, was blank.

“And if it is?”

The Remendians shared a quick look. The [Negotiator] hurried on.

“…We are entirely aware of multiple forces in Albez, and it is true no one lays claim to the ruins, but we are still the gatekeepers. If there is a negotiation, we are willing to take it on in good faith. But Captain, we must insist on a share of Albez’s treasures.”

At least they weren’t trying to hide it. Deniusth’s teeth shone pearly-white as he gritted them.

“Ah. And you think this army will force us into giving over…a ‘fair share’? I regret to say, this [Emperor] merely facilitated finding Albez. Whatever shares he is entitled to are proportional. Frankly, I would have said Remendia is owed a similar due in gold—but I will not be forced into giving over a large share of Albez’s treasures, Commander.”

A quick look between the Remendian delegation seemed—confused.

“Just so long as you intend to pay us something, we’re willing to negotiate. We’ll halt here and begin the discussions if you will, Captain Deniusth.”

“At the tip of a sword? I don’t think so. Your army needs to stop now, Commander. I don’t trust them around Albez.”

The Watch Captain was purpling with anger as Deniusth glared. He burst out, despite the others trying to keep him silent.

“Well, we don’t trust you with the treasures unwatched, Captain! Named-rank or not, we won’t let you run off with everything! No matter how many adventurers you have—”

Orchestra’s leader bristled as Eldertuin frowned. The Guildmaster of Remendia’s Adventurer Guild interrupted.

“What Watch Captain Illthe is trying to say is—the Adventurer’s Guild will look coldly upon any hoarding of due shares, Captain Deniusth. I am here to negotiate in fairness between all parties.”

“Fairness? How much did Remendia pay you? When First Landing’s Guild hears of this—

Remendia’s side was getting agitated, and Deniusth was red in the face. Neither one was about to draw a blade, but the Captain of Orchestra looked ready to throw hands. But before he could, Eldertuin touched his shoulder.

“Hold, Deni. I think we’re working at cross angles on the same tree. Commander, can we clarify something?”

Ylawes had picked up on the oddities too. The Commander of Remendia looked relieved as Eldertuin, calmer by far, stepped forwards. Viecel frowned as Eldertuin gestured at the army.

“What, exactly, are you accusing Deni and the adventurers here of doing, Commander? Our assumption is that Remendia is trying to…persuade us to give them a larger share than they’re due.”

“What? No—we’re trying to make sure we get a share at all! Rather than you running off with everything!”

The Watch Captain exploded, and Ylawes felt a prickle on the back of his neck. He swung around, and Eldertuin’s brows rose as Jelaqua made a confused, ‘huh’ sound.

“Wait—Watch Captain, I assure you in the name of House Byres, we are not going to simply disappear with the treasures. Captain Deniusth was prepared to recompense every side for the artifacts recovered in gold—if not loot.”

Ylawes stepped forwards, and he was recognized. Commander Leir actually bowed slightly to him, looking relieved.

“Captain Ylawes of the Silver Swords! I almost didn’t recognize you—that’s a relief to hear you say that. You see, Captain Illthe? If an honorable [Knight] vouches for this—maybe this is all a misunderstanding.”

“I don’t understand. Someone spell it out for me.”

Deni growled. The Remendians looked at each other, and the [Negotiator] spoke up.

“We, ah—we were assured that your teams—not Orchestra specifically—but the adventurers present were intending to loot this new find in Albez and share none of it with Remendia. Or any other groups, including the Adventurer’s Guild.”

“Huh? What? Who said that?”

Jelaqua Ivirith’s eyes widened. But Typhenous was whispering to Halrac, and the Gold-rank [Bowman] was staring back at Albez. Without a word, Halrac whirled.

Deniusth gave the Remendians such a disbelieving look that even Watch Captain Illthe hesitated.

“Me? Defraud a city and the guild of…I was one of the adventurers who conquered Chalence. I paid out my dues then, and I have the coin to recompense everyone personally, even if I took every artifact in this laboratory we found! Who’s saying that? Are the [Diggers] unhappy I paid them standard rates? This is outrageous. This is…”

Ylawes Byres had begun to feel a sinking sensation the moment he saw Typhenous’ look of pure alarm. He looked at Halrac, and the [Bowman] was striding back, calling to Revi and Briganda on the ridge. Deniusth’s mind caught up with his mouth, and his head slowly turned, and Eldertuin groaned.

“No.”

Viecel the Gambler just looked back without a word. A…copper coin seemed to drop in Commander Leir’s mind, and he muttered as Viecel began running without a word. Ylawes saw him turn to the Guildmaster.

“—Who exactly called in that tip to your Guild? Guildmaster Penec?”

The Guildmaster looked at Deniusth’s slowly widening eyes, the teams on the ridge slowly turning—the Gold-rank teams mostly, and northern teams at that. He replied with a sudden wobble in his tone.

“W-we wouldn’t have taken that suggestion so seriously of Captain Deniusth from a civilian. Believe me. I had it from a Gold-rank Team. Three, actually. But the Captain of the Waterborn Raiders himself—”

Ylawes didn’t hear anything else. He was already running back the way he came. All the adventurers were. Deniusth flashed past him, and Ylawes was pounding up the slope as adventurers raised weapons.

Half of them were staring at Remendia’s forces, expecting them to charge, but Dawil roared down.

Hold your fire or I’ll break your toes! Ylawes, what’s going on?

“It’s a trick! Dawil, the lab! The lab—”

The [Knight] shouted, but he didn’t make any sense. Dawil gave him a blank look—and then Typhenous howled.

It’s a double-cross! They’re stealing the treasure!

Every adventurer looked up—then whirled to the dig site. Deniusth screamed.

Orchestra!

They charged up the slope, and now, Remendia’s army was following them. Ylawes wasn’t first by far—Jelaqua was faster with Viecel, rampaging, and Seborn, Deniusth, and the faster adventurers leapt over the slope shielding the ruins and the dig site from view. By the time the [Knight] got up there—

He saw what was going on.

 

——

 

The Laboratory of Udatron. Possibly one of the greatest hauls in Albez’s history, let alone modern times. It had never been pillaged, even when Albez was buried. Guarded only by the late Warmage Thresk, it had lain abandoned.

And it definitely had a trap, right? More than the elementals? There had to be a catch.

What if…the trap wasn’t there, though? What if you just actually, genuinely got lucky? Assuming that was true—there was loot for all. Of course, only the Named-ranks would get it and the top, new teams from the north who got to luck out just by coming this far south.

How many local Silver-rank teams and Gold-ranks might be upset by that? Especially teams who’d gotten a hefty payout—but no relics from the Village of the Dead raid?

Let’s assume you had motive. And enough teams were on board. The next question was—how would you get to that treasure before the Named-ranks? They would never give way to that kind of mass-pressure, and they were dozens of levels above the other teams.

A distraction would have to be on the size of an army. And it wouldn’t last long. But if every team in on it stayed behind, pretended to be digging in while everyone rushed to confront Remendia…that was their opening.

It didn’t take long for Deniusth to meet with Remendia’s leadership, but he had to be wary. The conversation was short, but between the posturing and miscommunications—he gave them about twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes was a short amount of time. Some people couldn’t finish breakfast in twenty minutes.

But time…as Udatron would have told you, was relative. Twenty minutes might be a sliver of time to read a book or write one.

…But to run into a laboratory? Especially one that the [Rogues] had already checked and were just pretending to check now? If you were inside, feigning casting [Detect Magic] on a rack of weapons, how much time did it take to grab one and stuff it in a bag of holding?

How many books or artifacts could you stuff in a bag of holding in five minutes? The next question was—how did you get away in the fifteen you had left?

Again, the trick was—Ylawes saw the last teams scrambling for the horses and wagons. Half were already riding out, and he saw pack animals running as figures cut their reins and made them stampede.

Stop! Stop!”

Deniusth was howling. He raced down the slopes, faster than anyone else. The Named-rank adventurer was sprinting at a group of Silver-ranks.

Vuliel Drae? No, a local team. And one of the Waterborn Raiders was slowed down, lugging what looked like entire urns into a wagon.

He’s coming! Run!

Half the teams were in flight already, but at the sight of the furious Named-ranks, the rest abandoned everything and ran.

Don’t let them escape! Get the horses! Get the—

All the mounts were either taken or gone. Deniusth stormed towards the wagon trying to head off as one of the Raiders tried to make the two mules race, but they reared in alarm, frightened by the noise. The cursing Gold-rank adventurer looked up as Captain Deniusth ran at him.

“I—look, Captain—”

The grinning Gold-rank adventurer looked for his team as they turned, riding horses in the distance. He raised his hands, turning pale as the Violinist leapt at him.

The Waterborn Raider flinched—then blinked. He looked down, and Ylawes Byres halted in horror on the slopes.

The other adventurers looked back as Deniusth shoved the raider back on the wagon. The man stumbled back—then the Violinist drew the violin’s bow he used in place of a rapier.

A string of blood clung to the bow as the Violinist yanked it out of the man’s chest. He turned, and in the deathly silence that followed, drew a dagger. Deniusth lifted it and threw.

Deni—

The dagger flew through the air at another Raider. The adventurer ducked—and the dagger swerved down into her neck. She grabbed at it, screaming—and then one of the Gold-ranks raised a bow.

“[Homing Shot]!”

She aimed a bow at a fleeing Silver-rank team on a cart. The arrow flashed out—and Halrac loosed an arrow. The two arrows collided in midair as he intercepted her.

Hold your fire!

The [Bowman of Loss] howled at her, but the first arrow was followed by a volley of magical arrows from one of Deni’s teammates.

Stop them!

Then the Gold-ranks were attacking other adventurers. Eldertuin yanked one of his teammates’ arms down, but the other teams were charging at the fleeing looters. Ylawes looked around in horror—and the other teams were now running for their lives.

Gores! Stop them!

Deniusth shouted at his teammate, and the other Named-rank halted. He raised his horn, aimed it at the closest groups fleeing, horses and teams, and spoke.

“[Cone of Sound: Brown Note].”

The ripple of sound went through the adventurers, and Ylawes saw the horses wobble in place. He saw adventurers lurch—then clutch at their stomachs and then—

That was horrific, but merciful. Adventurers slowed as web spells caught their mounts or the wheels of their carts. Some leapt off and ran—others just dropped their weapons, seeing the two dead Raiders.

The rest were running. The smartest adventurers had already been ten minutes in flight, and Deniusth was climbing onto a horse.

“I’ll kill them all. Tell Remendia to find them! Every single damn team—I want every Adventurer’s Guild on the continent to get them!

“There are dozens of teams. Dozens and dozens—Deni, stop!

Eldertuin grabbed his arm. The bloody Violinist was frothing with rage, almost literally. Spit flew from his mouth as he shouted at his friend.

I’ll have them, Eldertuin! Let go of me!

He raised his bloody bow, and the other Named-rank let go. Ylawes heard Viecel shouting at a [Mage].

“Tell them to find the other teams! All of them!”

“Who?”

“What do you mean, who—

Then the [Gambler] looked up, and Deniusth began racing his horse after the other adventurers. Ylawes, panting, looked back at the mess of the ruins, the adventurers halting with hands up—and he didn’t recognize a lot of the Silver-rank teams, or even Gold-rank ones.

And he knew this region. How many had come from Remendia? How many had he not even paid attention to?

Now he understood why they’d risked it. Deniusth had no idea who had the loot. Some of the Gold-rank teams—they had to have taken a gamble.

Relics and artifacts versus the wrath of Orchestra and the northern teams. They were headed straight south. To Celum? To Liscor? Or just into hiding? Deniusth spun and shouted one last thing as he rode at the fleeing adventurers.

Call The Wandering Inn! Tell them to catch them! Don’t let any of them through!

Then he was gone. But he had no riding Skills and…Ylawes saw the fleeing adventurers casting spells back the way they’d come at the few pursuers. Remendia’s army was joining the chase belatedly, and Ylawes Byres looked around.

“Lad. You’d better see this.”

Dawil appeared. Ylawes saw his hands were bloody—but it was from the adventurers. The two Waterborn Raiders were dead, and at least a dozen adventurers were down, crying out from their wounds.

This was—one of the bloodiest adventuring encounters ever. In minutes. The last few moments of the Albez windfall were—

Ylawes saw Dawil heading towards the laboratory. Falene was there, peering inside. Ylawes looked and saw—

Empty shelves. Strewn sets of holders for alchemical items, empty cupboards, all the neat, glorious, glowing treasures of Udatron sacked.

“Maybe there’s something in there. The wagons…Deni stopped a few.”

Viecel was standing in the center of the laboratory, looking around, clawing at his face in frustration. Ylawes saw nothing—and Dawil gave Ylawes a somber look.

“There will be blood for this.”

“There already has been.”

The [Knight] was shocked by Deni’s murder of the two other adventurers. He only hoped Eldertuin could stop the Violinist. Then he had a horrible thought.

“Nailren? Anith?”

So that was why they’d been—Ylawes turned and ran out of the laboratory. He looked for where the two Silver-ranked teams had been and saw—

Nailren’s Pride of Kelia and Vuliel Drae were sitting, warily eying the angry Gold-ranks, but sitting—along with several other Silver and Gold-rank teams. Ylawes saw Anith look at him as a furious member of Solar Strikes shouted at them.

“Didn’t warn us—”

One of the Gold-rank teams was snarling back.

“You want to try and shout while you’re outnumbered? We would have been shivved. They were watching us, and I didn’t fancy eating a [Fireball].”

Ylawes halted, panting, and Nailren and Anith turned to him.

“You two…”

Didn’t join in? Anith looked at Nailren, and the Gnoll shrugged.

“My people, contrary to popular Drake opinion, aren’t sneak-thieves. Plus, I don’t cross Named-ranks.”

“And my team’s made one mistake already. We figured it was better to avoid another.”

Anith nodded at Ylawes. The [Knight] sagged in relief—and then turned. The confusion and disastrous looting of the laboratory, the dead adventurers—

Dasha looked around and seemed to sum it up best.

“Well, there’s the catch. I knew it was coming. I just didn’t expect it to be like this, eh?”

She looked around as her team and the other adventurers glared at her. Ylawes Byres just sat down.

“I don’t understand. Anith, Nailren—why would the other teams do this? They’ll never adventure again. Even if some of them aren’t identified, the guilds might just ask you to pass a truth stone test. Maybe you could hide, but Deniusth will follow them to the ends of the earth. Where are they going?”

“Captain Ylawes. Everyone wants their big break. Sometimes—it’s hard to wait. And when you see it—”

Anith shook his head. The [Knight] supposed—he was just no thief. He understood that, at least. But not the rest.

“Where can they be going?”

“That’s easy. There’s only one place to go. It wouldn’t work as well—but it’s Liscor and Celum, and the inn’s close. Besides, where they’re going, even Deniusth won’t be able to track them.”

Nailren murmured. The Silver Swords looked at him, then saw the Gnoll staring south. Somewhere, perhaps, where even their reputations didn’t matter.

The new lands of Izril. It just depended on whether they got there. Or got caught.

 

——

 

The news of the fleeing adventurers from Albez didn’t reach The Wandering Inn for a little while. Even with the power of [Message] spells, the confusion and chase kept Colth and the adventurers there in the dark for a bit.

Of a surety, though, many adventurers were trying to get to the door. And despite his best efforts, Deniusth and the other enraged northern adventurers could only catch up later. Even the Violinist had to halt in the face of so many teams willing to loose arrows and spells at him.

What Erin Solstice did—well, that took place later.

The Horns of Hammerad were making a list of teams that might help them for gold instead of a share of their loot, blissfully unaware of Albez’s situation.

“Maybe we can just pay them since they’ll be flush with new artifacts anyways. I’d take Griffon Hunt, but I’ll take Named-ranks.”

“I can call in a favor. Eld, maybe. Deni’s a good dungeon-crawler, even if he’s tired of it. I’ll negotiate if they return. Otherwise—”

Lehra Ruinstrider was using the outhouse again. Eating so much of the inn’s food did not agree with her digestion system. Her team was idling as Saliss stared at the floor. Ama was listening to the teams talk—

And then they heard a sound. Ceria raised her head.

“Was that a horn?”

They listened. The long note was followed by another—and then another, in quick succession. None of them were local except Ksmvr, yet Pisces recognized that call.

“That’s…Liscor’s monster alarm call. What’s going on—”

Then they heard a crackle and thwoom, and Pisces leapt out of his seat.

“That’s a wall attack spell! What’s going on?”

Half the people ran for the windows. Lyonette whirled.

“Mrsha—Nanette?”

She realized both were with Erin in Invrisil. One of the Thronebearers placed himself next to Lyonette as Ushar reached a window. It was Tessa who sat up, peered out the glass, and spoke.

Monster’s coming. Bad one.

The Horns of Hammerad slowly looked up. Pisces strode to one of the glass windows and saw another bolt of lightning shoot from the walls. He felt the impact. But the horns were still blowing, and the people were fleeing to the gates. And from the showers of arrows from the walls—

Something was out there. Slowly, Pisces walked to the door.

“Pisces—”

Yvlon was drawing her sword slowly. But the [Necromancer] just stepped outside—and then he saw it from the edge of the hill. The chasm where the dungeon’s monsters came out. He didn’t see the skeletons—and he realized they’d vanished. What he did see was…a single figure walking out of a crater in the grass. Ignoring the arrows like rain.

Facestealer turned—and it held Rodden’s head in one claw. It looked around and fixed on the inn. On Pisces, it felt like. The monster began walking towards the inn.

“Oh dead gods. It climbed up?”

Yvlon muttered. Ceria emerged from the inn—and Colth. The [Supporter] took one look down at the monster.

“I didn’t expect that. Do you have a plan, Ceria?”

He looked at her, but the Horns were silent a long moment. Ama emerged warily, looking at Pisces. Then she saw her apprentice. Her face went slack with disbelief.

“Rodden?”

Pisces stared down at Facestealer, and he thought…it was smiling. It had no lips. It had no face—but he felt a malevolence from Facestealer as it walked at them like few things he had ever sensed in this world.

Like Skinner, it came for this inn. And Pisces—he saw the wall spells and arrows stop as the Watch seemed to realize they weren’t doing much good. The horns were still blowing, but the team of adventurers looked down.

“Horns of Hammerad—let’s kill this thing.”

One of them spoke, and the others turned. Colth raised his eyes, but his calm face broke into a smile like a demon’s, and he drew a pair of shortswords. His true colors?

Pisces looked around for who had said it—then he realized it was him. Ceria Springwalker turned to her friend—and Yvlon Byres clenched a fist. Ksmvr drew his blades without a word.

Horns of Hammerad—

 

——

 

“—charge!”

Snatcher was laughing indeed. In its head—the last defender of the Mother of Graves laughed. With wild abandon.

With a fury born of its wounds. A contempt for the city above.

And it had feared this? This? 

The spells barely harmed it. These were not the lashings of a Walled City. This was—

Weakness.

But there were things to be gathered here, it knew. And the same presences that had sent the skeletons into its dungeon—and the purple-flame one that had caused so much trouble—were coming for it.

Beautiful heads. There was a half-Elf. A rare head worth collecting. And that one—had metal arms. Snatcher wanted both head and arms.

There was one of the boring insects it had so many of. It wasn’t blue, but the [Necromancer]…Snatcher saw them coming.

Ice. A chariot. A roaring beast of ice and bone rose. Snatcher felt spikes of ice shattering on its body and a flaming arrow break on its front. It ignored it all.

Were they firing arrows at it? One kept hitting it in its left eye-socket, but they did not know Snatcher. From the building on the hill…from the city…

Nothing could kill it. Snatcher walked forwards as a howling giant of bone and ice ran at it. The monster felt the impact as the earth churned around it.

SOMETHING IS FAMILIAR.

The thought ran through the monster. Snatcher turned its head as it tore pieces out of the behemoth of ice and bone. The roaring monster tried to drive Snatcher into the earth, to shift it with brute force.

Its limbs cracked and broke before Snatcher did. A hill of ivory hit Snatcher—and the hill was the weaker force. Snatcher ripped through one arm and felt it breaking.

A man with brown hair stood on the hill, two swords in his hands. A grin—Snatcher looked up and recognized him.

ADVENTURER.

Words of old. He threw alchemy and magic, trying to bite through Snatcher’s hide. When he saw it didn’t work—he leapt down the hill with the woman with metal arms and the insect with two silver blades.

They danced around it, swinging swords, ducking as it reached for them. The insect began to fall over as Snatcher’s aura paralyzed it. Snatcher reached for the head—and the silver arms yanked it back. The woman staggered—and Snatcher waited for her to freeze—easy prey.

She did, the flesh of her stopped moving—but her metal arms moved. One elongated and grabbed the insect—and the others dragged them both away. She rolled to her feet with the insect and then screamed at it like Skinner.

Like fury. She raised a fist, and a barb of steel struck Snatcher.

It did nothing. More piercing barbs of steel struck it, but it ignored them.

The adventurer had seen—and he leapt forwards and stumbled. Snatcher reached for his head—and the blades whirled.

A crazed smile. He ignored Snatcher’s paralysis. As some did. He ducked one of Snatcher’s hands, and his blades stung Snatcher’s hide—

Barely cut. The smile never wavered as the half-Elf tried to freeze Snatcher solid.

She could not.

The [Necromancer] lifted a burning rapier and hurled it at Snatcher. He fired a [Deathbolt] at Snatcher as if to take its life.

He could not harm Snatcher.

Fifteen arrows had hit Snatcher in one socket, and it dug out the broken bits of metal and wood with a claw. The insect held back, but the woman with metal arms charged.

FURY.

She, like Skinner, ignored the paralysis. She punched and tried to tear—it held still. Her blows tore up the earth, and her arms made the air shake.

She could not harm it.

A sting. The adventurer drove a blade into Snatcher, and it turned. It grabbed—and the adventurer rolled. So Snatcher used a trick. It dug a claw into the soft earth, deep, a foot, two feet, six, digging down into the earth and stone—then pulled up.

The ground moved and hit the woman with metal arms and knocked her down the hill. The [Necromancer] dodged, and so did the adventurer—but Snatcher bent down to take his head.

“[Evasive Flip]!”

…Snatcher missed his leg. It turned, slowly, as ice formed around it. Walls of beautiful ice such as it had never seen in an age. Snatcher admired it as the ice coated it deep. Then Snatcher moved its legs, and the ice shattered.

The adventurer was laughing. As his kind did. Fearlessly, he stung Snatcher’s body with his blades. They were the only things that cut Snatcher’s hide. Snatcher reached for him once more—

Then the world exploded.

Snatcher—stumbled—and lost track of everything. It turned—and saw the building on the hill.

FAMILIAR.

What was it? Snatcher stared at the inn, and another force rocked it. Snatcher almost moved—and saw it.

A Drake upon the hill. He had no clothes. But he was throwing alchemy down. And the alchemy…hurt. A second one stood there with blades and shadows surrounding it.

ADVENTURERS.

Snatcher feared none of them. But it did—raise one hand to shield itself as the alchemy rained down. They could not hurt it badly enough.

“—just standing there—”

Ksmvr, don’t get close!

I cannot attack—

Voices. Snatcher barely paid attention to them. It was staring past the two Drakes. Up. Up. At that inn.

It had never seen it before. The inn was completely, utterly foreign, as was this little city. Even the land changed. All was different. Yet.

FAMILIAR.

Snatcher stared up at it, and a word rose in its memory, of long ages ago when its home had not been buried. When Mother was young. When Skinner and Stalker lived and there were more. From those days, the thought arose. Something it had seen once.

SANCTUARY.

Ah. Then Snatcher began to walk. Towards the Drakes. Towards the building. Yes. That…that was something it wanted too.

It rocked slightly. The alchemy hurt. It wasn’t enough—but its hide began to burn. And the adventurer with the blades was digging them into its back.

Them first. Snatcher feared them not. And now—more were striking at it.

Stay back! Stay back—only adventurers—

A man of cloth with a staff battered Snatcher’s arm. Snatcher caught the staff—and broke it. A thing of eyes, a Gazer, tried to hurt it. A Dwarf—Snatcher reached for her as the others dragged her back.

So many heads. But they were fast and nimble, and this was no dungeon. It should have snuck up on them one-by-one. The adventurers were always too quick.

These were not the ones who had come after Mother. These were not the armies to fear. Snatcher, even above, just had to wait for them to tire.

They could hurt it not. Yet—Snatcher needed more tricks.

Where had the woman of string gone? The beautiful head that scared even Snatcher? Her tricks were very good. Another trick?

Snatcher saw the half-Elf with her ice, and a lance of it struck Snatcher in the chest. It broke, of course—but Snatcher picked up the pieces and hurled them back.

Ceria!

…Not in pieces. Just thrown. A barrier breaking. Alive. Snatcher picked up a stone and looked around. Then it heard a voice.

“[Bane Blades].”

Aaaah. A blade pierced into its back, into Snatcher’s bone. The adventurer turned, and Snatcher threw the stone. It missed—and the stone hit the walls of the city and cracked there.

Faster, then. Faster—Snatcher began to grab and tear the air faster and faster. So fast the smiling man was nearly caught—but that smile never wavered.

A hatred upon his eyes.

“[Death Gamble].”

“[Disable Friendly Fire].”

Yes, those were the words. Pain upon his back. Acid? Snatcher—laughed.

The third adventurer was waiting, guarding the hill. Snatcher faced the woman of metal arms, the grinning adventurer, and the naked Drake now. It feared them not.

And now they were so close, kissing it with steel, and they knew it not. So Snatcher focused on the words, for it knew them too.

[Aura of Paralysis]. [Reconfigure Aura]—

Snatcher waited for their faces. For their faces to change to the ones it wanted. Then it would take their heads. The grinning man first.

They were changing beautifully, like all of the others, when Snatcher heard a shout. It looked at the building and saw a familiar Goblin with a crystal blade.

You, too. 

Snatcher remembered being trapped and felt the fury. It raised one claw and then—someone kicked open a door made of wood. A little closet next to the big building.

Snatcher saw a Gnoll. Brown fur kicking off paper. An expression of wariness and fear. It feared her not. She raised something on one arm—and Snatcher heard her cry.

—the City of Stars!

Then Snatcher froze. Then heard it, ringing through its being. A ghost’s howl—and it saw the light.

THE CITY OF STARS?

Snatcher threw up its claws. It saw the Gnoll change—and the light—the light!

A Gnoll in armor charged at it, and Snatcher screamed within its mind. It backed away as the blade kissed its hide. It did not harm Snatcher, but it began to back away. For it feared what came next. It sheltered its head from the sky, not the blade.

THE CITY OF STARS! MERSHI’S WRATH UPON US. THE SKY FALLING!

Suddenly, Snatcher was no longer unafraid. It turned—and began fleeing back home.

“—it’s running—don’t let it—”

Lehra, watch out—

The warrior of stars pursued it, howling, and Snatcher ran. It ran, sobbing, for it thought they were gone. Gone and dead.

Only when it was close to the chasm did it pause. The blade of Mershi tore its hide and tried to scratch its bone, but it was less painful than Snatcher remembered.

It hurt Snatcher less. The panting Gnoll stared at it and it stared back.

…Is that all? Is the blade no longer sharp? Where is the skyfall? Where is the army of stars? 

You…

YOU COULD NOT STOP ME WITH THAT. 

Not all the little heads it had gathered. A mountain of them, until the wrath fell upon it and mother and its city. If this was all—they would have laughed. Laughed and laughed in their warm graves.

Snatcher hesitated upon the edge of its home. It backed away from the blade of Mershi—and then it felt another lance of pain.

Colth!

Two blades dug into bone. Too many. Snatcher backed up again, and the man who smiled produced something it recognized. A burning brand, which pressed upon its hide and made the [Necromancer] howl in pain.

Then came the naked Drake, and he wore alchemy’s guise. A champion of Pallass? Too many—too many.

Snatcher backed away. It stepped back from Mershi and Pallass’ wrath, from the adventurer’s brand.

And fell back into its home. Snatcher fell and fell and struck the ground, and it hurt it not. Then it slunk away, back into the caverns. Too dangerous—and it felt the brand burning for it was marked.

It knew that name too, if only from afar. A name almost forgotten. It thought it was…

ROSHAL.

 

——

 

Facestealer fell back into the dungeon, and only then did Ceria’s ears stop ringing. Her [Dangersense] stopped making her want to puke.

The walls of Liscor were still sounding with alarms. The Antinium, the Watch—Ceria looked back at the battleground of the last…eleven minutes?

Eleven minutes of eternity. Of watching the monster take Tier 4 spells and ignore them. Stand there, as if mocking Yvlon, with Ksmvr and the warriors barely able to approach.

Her circlet hadn’t done enough. It had destroyed the Frostmarrow Behemoth! She didn’t think Facestealer had moved when the undead charged it.

What—

That was in the dungeon, and we were just partying above? Ceria’s blood ran cold, and she wondered who was more dangerous. It or Tolveilouka?

Probably Tolveilouka, because Facestealer hadn’t tagged Colth. It had gotten Ceria—her robes and barriers had saved her from it caving in her ribs. Colth—Colth had cuts and bruises from where it had hammered the ground and hit him with flying dirt and debris.

But he still grinned like a madman. Grinned—until Pisces seized him.

What was that? What was—

“Pisces? Peace! It’s gone—Lehra, come back!”

The Stargnoll was trembling despite the cheers rising from the inn. She alone had scared Facestealer, scared it back to the hole. But it was hard to say who was more terrified, her or Facestealer.

Saliss was morphing back into a Drake. The Named-rank [Alchemist] spat into the hole and turned.

“That confirms it. Watch Captain! Get the old man and post a guard on this hole and the dungeon’s entrance. You can’t stop it—but you can stop it coming up. I’m going back to my laboratory. Where’s Octavia?”

He stomped off, and Ceria thought he had seldom looked that disturbed. Yet her attention was on her screaming, cracked ribs—and Pisces.

“Pisces, what’s wrong—I’ve marked it. I need to talk to Larra, Viecel—everyone—”

It was something Colth had done. He had been a flurry of blades, but what—

What was that?

Pisces was staring at something in the adventurer’s off-hand. Colth had stowed one of the curved shortswords, and he’d used something against Facestealer. A glowing…

It took Ceria a second to figure out what it was. She’d seen the like in stables, but half-Elves didn’t bother with them. But it was, unmistakably, a glowing brand.

An odd one. A long strip of metal shaped into the brand at the end, glowing red-hot though Colth had not put it in a fire. It must have been enchanted—what Ceria noticed were two things.

One—the logo looked familiar, and her stomach twisted when she realized why she recognized it. Roshal. But the second—Pisces was white and shaking.

“You—why do you have that?

Colth’s eyes were calm, but he had Pisces’ own arm in a grip so strong he forced the [Necromancer] to let go. Yvlon, her arms cut and her skin gashed from her wild attacks, looked at Colth as Ksmvr’s blades, unused this battle, slowly came out of their sheaths again. Yet Colth just looked Pisces in the eye, and Ceria saw the brand…

Or a third of a brand. Because any branding iron was long—like a poker, to be inserted into a fire before the target. This one—was snapped off, so Colth held it like a dagger. He held it as Pisces’ arm trembled and spoke very quietly to the [Necromancer].

“Pisces, calm down. Pisces—it’s just a tool. We use every tool we have.”

That item is from—why do you have it?

Colth smiled, but not like he had smiled before, like someone courting death or the friendly, bland smile of the Named-rank. His third and last smile was perhaps the most genuine and secretive, and he spoke only for Pisces to hear.

“It does not define us. Any more than chains or scars.”

His hand tightened on Pisces’ arm—then he pushed the [Necromancer] back. Pisces, white-faced, hesitated, rapier in hand, and Colth’s lips moved.

The Horns never heard what he said—because he didn’t say anything, but Ceria saw Pisces stop—and then lower his rapier. Then they were lost in Zevara demanding to know what they thought, and Colth speaking. For Colth said two things that made Ceria think long and hard. The first was this:

“I am going to kill Facestealer. I’ve marked it—we can track it down. We’re going to kill it. On Larra’s Haven, I promise you. Once Deni and Eld get here, we’re going to take it down.”

Roshal’s brands never faded, and they tracked their quarry to the ends of the earth. That was one thing. The other? The other took Ceria a long time to figure out.

Mostly because unlike Pisces, she read no lips. But the circlet gave her the ability to replay what she’d seen Colth saying again and again, and she phonetically copied out what she thought he’d said. It was still tough because the first part of his short communication made no sense—proper nouns were like that.

But she thought he’d said:

Azam’du says hello.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: One 10k chunk, one edited chapter. One 1k chunk, one edited chapter. Day three? Write ten thousand more words.

Sigh. At least I am editing two chapters this week, but I’m tired. One more chapter until my break!

Listen, I am improving as a writer at least editing-wise. I think. It’s mental as much as technical—you know the feeling of trying to do something you’re unfamiliar with and getting exhausted? That was editing to me, and now it takes a lot less mental effort.

I’d say instead of five times as hard as writing, more like three? Editing still requires mental energy, but that’s a huge improvement. And I also know how to edit, so this is good.

Also, chapter. I am not sure I’ll resolve the arc in three parts, but I’ll try. And as always, I hope you enjoy. Enjoy…all the dramas of adventuring? Well, let me know what you think and talk to you later. Would you be the thieves or the non-thieves?

 

A Goblin by tobinkusuma! (Numbtongue?)

 

Mrsha by tatolord!

 

The Brown Tide by Brack, commissioned by Dado!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 


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65 thoughts on “Interlude – Adventurers (Pt. 2)

  1. Leave a typo for the power of treachery! No, but seriously, that was a lot of loot they stole.

    (Typo stealers: MrWiggles, Quynin, Gorexn, Litwickee, AndromedaStar, Robb, TheZorginator1, Axel Terizaki, ChronoMager, Maladal, steve)

    • ‘Bezale, do you have that [Lion’s Strength] spell I asked for? Cast it on me!’
      ‘I notice you are up on your feet, Erin. With a [Lion’s Strength] spell.’
      9.07:”Bezale, how much is a [Lion’s Strength]…?”

      “Eight hundred and twelve gold pieces. That’s the friend-discount.”

      “…Bisque it is!”
      Did Erin spend 812 GP?

    • Yet—Sillias had proven that necromancy was not just mass-animating undead. If anything, that was Az’kerash’s method, and Pisces had once criticized even the Necromancer for his lack of ingenuity. too many l in saliss

  2. For whatever it is worth, I will happily trade a revised chapter of narrative already read for 10,000 more that I have NOT any day of the week, and twice on update days, but your mileage etc. Editing is the biggest thing deterring me from committing Attempted Writing… . :8)

  3. Azarm’du?
    That’s Picses ‘s Dijnn friend from Roshal.

    The one who was freed.
    Interesting! So Colth is affiliated with Azam’du. From what he mentioned about not being defined by chains, it sounds like he was a slave of Roshal. It also sounds like he got freed too.

    Curious to see how it goes.

    • The fact that he’s got a brand and – much more importantly – a skill that lets him track the location of the branded points far more to [Slaver], [Slave Hunter], or something else in that vein, rather than [Slave].

      • his [supporter] class lends me to believe he was a [slave] and his skills have changed since, possibly to some [rebel] variant, but still with [supporter] as his main class. like whatever a high-level [rebel]-[supporter]. also it doesnt say theres a skill to track the brands, which are clearly caused by an enchantment, not a skill, just that they can be tracked and not removed/are very hard to remove.

      • His class is [Supporter], based around copying the skills of people he works with. It would practically be a certainty that he’d be forced to assist [Slave Hunters] while himsef enslaved.

      • It’s fudged up, but it could be either or both. Maybe he spent time working as a [Slave] then [Slave Hunter] by choice for his [Supporter] class. We know Named Ranks are all their own brand of crazy

      • Him being a former [Slave Hunter] doesn’t mean he wasn’t a [Slave], it wouldn’t be the first time historically.

        The other possibility is that he just partied with a [Slaver] or [Slave Hunter] and picked up their Skills. Tracking a brand seems like it could be a low level Skill and we know he has a lot if those he COULD use. With the way his Class works he doesn’t need the actual Class to have the Skill.

      • It is only a piece of a brand though, my guess is he got in a fight with a slaver, broke the guy’s brand during the fight, and took the pieces. The tracking would be inherent to the item itself.

        But this could also go sideways and Colth turn out to be a secret villain

        • “It does not define us. Any more than chains or scars. ”

          He was a slave. The key word there is “Us.” This resonated hard with me… Survivors, like a lot of those the in the mental health community, talk similarly. Sometimes. Colth using all the tools at his disposal makes a LOT more sense in that vein- he has goals, and enemies. A reason to strive for Named rank, and a task large enough that Named alone isn’t enough. Thankfully… he’s a friend of an inn. Maybe two soon? ;)

    • The fact that he sent a message from Azam’du makes me think he is related to or in communication with the Demons of Rhir and/or the Death Of Chains. Azam’du is part of the Demon’s colony in the new lands and Colth is heading to the new lands. Could be that Colth is an agent of the demons who was sent to the Haven to make friends with the named ranks. Now Colth plans to join up with his the demons and perhaps sway some of the Haven’s adventurers to the demon’s side.

  4. I would be the non thieves. Double crossing the most dangerous people on the continent while simultaneously never being able to work again in my profession of choice sucks as a concept. It doubly sucks when you consider the exit plan is to try and get to a new uncharted continent over a 1000 MILES away before the afore mentioned EXTREMELY POWERFUL ANGRY MUSICIANS hunt me down and string me up like I’m a violin. I would rather just take the pay out to do nothing but sit around watching for 5 days, get a couple thousand gold pieces for my team, then go get a drink at my local magical pub of choice.

    • They also broke the social contract of high rank adventurers or nobles not just stealing lower rank adventurers gear and saying they got killed by a monster. Obviously it already happened but this seems like it is going to cause a massive increase.

      They are also decidedly ungrateful bastards who didn’t do have any impact on finding the treasure or defeating the elementals protecting it.

      I just don’t see how they are going to hold onto whatever they grabbed. Crossing Eldertuin means the 5 families are now involved.

      • They also crossed the Horns because it was their map, all those cities that were involved, the new emperor in at least a small way, the wandering Inn if you want to stretch it and that means all the walled cities as well. Remember that Zeres kills all thieves they catch, so that is at least one death sentence.

    • Well, when faced with this choice, tha other way is not get thousands of gold but none except maybe a few gold for sitting and playing cards, for the majority of loot goes to the teams that stole it. And remember the heist involved a LOT of teams, making everybody think that they won’t be the unlucky ones that get caught.

  5. Azam’du was presumably brought to the Demon lands of Rhir after being freed by the Death of Chains, right? So does this mean Colth is either allied with the Demons and in regular contact with them? Surprised he wouldn’t have been caught by the Blighted King’s propaganda and assassination campaign to keep the Demons from gaining any allies abroad. Maybe he’s the one who ends up getting Erin to Rhir to help the demons, though.

    That said, I have an impulse to believe that anyone as consistently friendly and sycophantic as Colth has to be secretly evil. Especially, with how much he clearly enjoyed being in a fight to the death with Snatcher. I’m wondering if he’s either a very well hidden assassin for the Demon King, or if he could be something worse like he actually is a servant of Roshal, and he only knew to give that message from Azam’du because of a [Liar’s] skill. I don’t think the latter’s actually likely, but either way I feel like Colth is going to have some real dark secrets to share.

    • I don’t think Colth is secretly evil, just broken and really good at hiding his true self from his time as a [Slave]. Granted he also seems to really enjoy hurting his enemies so in a sense he is definitely twisted.

      Also it’s definitely concerning that he chose [Supporter] as his main class after his time as a [Slave]. Fitting but concerning as hell.

      • The more I think about it the more convinced I become that he was on the other side of slavery. He can track the brand, and there’s no reason for a [Slave] to be able to do that. He says to Pisces “it does not define us. Any more than chains or scars.” Whatever “it” is that doesn’t define Colth, it’s not chains or scars. That line also doesn’t make Pisces stand down. He doesn’t put up his sword until the line about Azam.

        It’s also far more interesting that way. Pisces interacting with former slaves has been done. Pisces the reformed [Necromancer]-turned-adventurer interacting with a reformed [Slave Hunter]-turned-adventurer? That’s worth seeing.

        • He could have been a [Slave] that was owned by a [Slave Hunter]. If he had to support a [Slave Hunter] it would explain his [Supporter] class and the brand, since he would have been forced to use it. I’m more inclined to think that he is evil tho. I think he is in service to Roshal as a spy, keeping track of their interests in Izril’s north for years and now moving onto the new lands.

          If anything, his time in the Adventurer’s Haven could have been a part Roshal’s attempt to enslave promising, upcoming adventurers. A whole bunch of newbie adventurers would probably visit the Haven, get Colth’s attention due to his [Supporter] class, and then might have gone mysteriously missing after a while.

          We have no proof that’s what’s going on… yet. But I’m minded to think that his Skills as a supporter, plus his use of the brand, point to him being loyal to Roshal. If he wanted a monster-tracking artifact, he could just commission one. He wouldn’t NEED to have a brand with Roshal’s name on it.

          • I am actually wondering if hes a part of the Bloodfeast Raiders, he did seem to either have a bloodthirsty or sadistic side to him. I doubt hes the Roshal Slaver member who was on the carpet though, since he seemed more like a mage of some sorts.

        • “It” would be being a slave, the chains and scars are associated with that, is how I read that. Otherwise it’s not any sort of reassurance to someone who is furious you have that, and he was trying to reassure him.

        • Colth is repeatdly noted to be able to use skills from anyone he worked with.

          him being able to utilize a slaver skill like tracking a slave brand only means he has at some point observed one or more of slavers.

          he doesn’t need to be a slaver or anything,working for one as a slave would give him the ability to use this brand, so would having ever done a job where he had to fight alongside one for whatever goal.

      • We’re all shaped somewhat by what life hands us, and I honestly don’t blame him for being a little savage in fights. If he spent time unwillingly on someone’s leash, something like taking joy in being on the winning side of a given fight is honestly on the tame side of ways he could be compensating for that kind of trauma. Secondly, in response to others saying he *has* to be a slaver to be able to track via a brand, it’s honestly more likely to be inherent to the gear.

        As for Supporter, just ask people who’ve worked customer service. Helping people on if not healthy terms, your own terms is something people qctually enjoy, when it doesn’t require them to work for unlivable wages or put up with abuse by either customers or management.

        • Yes, supporter wasn’t that weird to me – he idolizes the Haven’s previous generation, and supporter would be a path to hang out with them and adventure with them that doesn’t require being a mythic figure equal to them, just be a force multiplier for them, or make sure they can do their roles with no distraction.

  6. Terrifying!! that Facestealer!! So, the dungeon and all things underground were the work of several Wall cities doing? or only the City of Stars? hmmm. Erin did mention when she posted the quest that City of Stars did something. Is that related to this dungeon then?

    • I thought it was somewhat canonical the city of graves, I think that was mentioned in a list of old walled cities, and the center is the mother of graves. Also why they keep hinting it’s as big as pallass Interesting that the city of stars has an Ariel attack but makes sense

      If the other walled cities were built with the bones of dragons, maybe this one was built with the seamwalkers bones.

  7. “Ylawes stepped on it, and it sank alarmingly—about a foot.”
    Hah, good one)
    Question: Did it sink a 12 inch-foot deep or Ylawes’ actual foot deep?

  8. To me it makes me wonder if Colth was a born in or worked for Roshal before joining the Adventurer Haven… In much the same way Pieces wasn’t exactly the best of people until Erin helped him out and made his class accepted instead of resented within Licsor.

    Still makes you wonder what secrets he is holding due to the brand he carries, the desire to hunt Head Snatcher, and most of all the fact he may know (or lied about knowing) the Dijin that Pieces knew.

    The last bit I wonder about is what Head Snatcher wanted from the inn considering it saw it as sanctuary… Which was usually felt by goblins.

    As for the Curse hunt? That is what our ghostly queen has been doing dumbing random junk inside meaningless shops… Just relays to continue messing with Erin without having a [Witch] or something point at her exact location.

      • I thought it was just that it felt sanctuary and wanted it/longed for it. I think what mother had created was sanctuary for monsters like snatcher.

        Remember we are learning toren was not unique and undead do have feelings to, if they are taught express them and treated like a person. even noted in this chapter that a fleshworm looked sad!

        • Multiple other creatures, sentient and non-sentient have seen the inn and felt nothing seeing it as just another building. What exactly about the Inn has changed not to make it think sanctuary rather than the nearby city or anything else nearby?

          It knew of the city of the stars and it knew of other emotions yes… But it ignored everyone as it went straight towards the inn sensing sanctuary rather than trying to collect new heads (and two new arms) to add to its collection.

          That is the question I wonder about… Since none of the other sentient undead seems to care so either it felt something different, touched an age old memory, or the Inn has changed again letting it feel something it normally would not have felt.

          • Goblins feel an aura of sanctuary and safety from the inn. If Facestealer’s base race before he was changed into what he is right now was goblin, it’s possible that he could still feel the aura of sanctuary from Erin’s [Natural Allies: Goblin]. Also, if he was originally a goblin, then it’s possible that he was a goblin lord or even a king.

        • One of the gardens was broken into and destroyed. Maybe Snatcher was the one to do it. It wanted to do it again. Or this Mother once owned one of the gardens and it remembered that.

    • I’m pretty sure the head that Facestealer wanted was Xrn’s, since it tried so hard to take it last time and nearly succeeded.

    • “To me it makes me wonder if Colth was a born in or worked for Roshal before joining the Adventurer Haven… .”

      It could be something as simple as Colth once joined a party with a known slaver or slavehunter and picked up a few skills.

  9. Gosh this was a good chapter. I like getting more of Stealer’s mind set. Also, really glad that Colth isn’t a piece of garbage. I was worried he’d turn out to be some kind of secret jerk. But he seems to be a properly good fellow, if nuts.

  10. OH MY FKING GAWD!!!!

    I was on the edge of crying when Pisces called the HORNS to arms!!

    And fking COLTH is DANGER now WTF!!! alkfighaoksguoaguhsdaohsf

    The Wandering Inn is lit again!! And we’ve got old history between Mother and her CITY, with the City Of Stars and what not!! Damn!

  11. So everyone is hyped about the Colth reveal, but did we just learn that Snatcher has system access? Are these things Revenants like Khelt uses with the Mother of Graves an ancient [Necromancer] Drake who pissed off the City of Stars?

    • I’m not sure I understand how you’re getting Snatcher having system access. Was it the [Reconfigure Aura] skill?

      Snatcher’s power comes from the accumulation of heads, a necromantic process that bright the wrath of the City of Stars back in the day. That skill is the preparation it uses to make the heads useful as protection/strengthening/whatever.

      … At least, that’s how I read it

      • But it’s a bracketed [Skill] which implies system access doesn’t it? Like when Az’Kerash’s chosen fought at the inn and used spells they cast them without [Skills] because the spells and abilities were built into their frames. Same for Adult Crelers who seem like they have an aura without bracketed skills. I don’t disagree that collecting heads might make him stronger, but what if that’s a hold out ability from a [Hoarder] class or something?

        • Monsters have [abilities] of their own and have a system status and access as well. They just don’t level or gain classes. The lines between monsters, animals, and the people of the book of levels are unclear, arbitrary, and challenged by Sarient lambs most recently, but crossed by many prior characters. As Toren has gained classes and levels his monster title has evolved as well. The flower girl in Esthelm gained [abilities] as she gained monster levels. One thing monsters seem to lack is a diversity of talent in a single race, vampires seem to have a predictable profile of abilities before they steal classes, for example. I think adventurers get upset when they have to yell about unexpected skills and change tactics because they are used to monsters being predictable once identified, but it isn’t a universal rule.

    • There’s also this, which is either a really weird mistake or a possibly inadvertent confirmation: “A burning brand, which pressed upon [Snatcher’s] hide and made the [Necromancer] howl in pain.”

      • I was also confused by that. I guess when I read it I assumed the [ Necromancer] was Piecies and it was something akin to phantom pain, but Snatcher being some ancient [Necromancer] who went mad and or was changed like the [Flower Girl] could also be nightmare fuel.

        • I thought of Riqre’s jars. The city did *something* horrible enough that the Walled Cities tried to bury it, and experiments in that vein would certainly be enough.

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