10.03 Y – The Wandering Inn

10.03 Y

Day 19 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

The expedition was rapidly running out of food and magic. That was, as Ylawes saw it, a two-headed Hydra. Yes, mistakes had been made.

It was clear to him now that Merchant Yorrned had made mistakes in the planning of this expedition. Considerable ones ranging from a lack of foresight in regards to the wagons’ mobility, to not hiring [Hunters], to even the selection of foodstuffs available to the expedition.

The problem was…these were not mistakes. At least, not according to Yorrned.

The flustered [Merchant] refused to bring up the topic when Ylawes tried to get him to sit still and talk. Eventually, he sequestered himself in his caravan and sent out one of his apprentices.

“I’m sure you have work to do guarding the caravan, Captain Ylawes? Merchant Yorrned must plan out the new founding site, and he has not paid your retainer to waste time at this crucial junction.”

That was as direct a dismissal as Ylawes had gotten. The [Knight] stood there and inhaled slowly. He kept his calm; you didn’t raise your voice or snap at people even when slapped with impoliteness. That wasn’t the Byres way.

He had no idea why everyone kept telling him Yvlon had a temper. She’d always been as good as him about internalizing that teaching. If she lost a sparring match growing up, she never threw her sword on the ground or stalked off. Well, she had when she was young, but she’d stopped within a month of being lectured about conduct.

He remembered it fondly; she’d go and sit by the river if she had really lost. For hours on end, sometimes. Staring into the water. Or go hit a training dummy. Ylawes never really remembered breaking any of his, except with a big Skill, but she’d destroyed several over the years.

Poise. Calm. He nodded to the [Trader], turned, and went to bother another [Merchant].

Yorrned was one of six. The others were Tivete, [Magic Merchant], Lolsed, a [Merchant] who specialized in north-south trades via Liscor during the fall and winter, Anlam, the one with the most wagons, who had held down a lot of the farming enterprise past Remendia by buying and selling crops, and Raeta and Jobbi, a couple who had joined forces and funds to occupy a lot of the glassware importing.

Ylawes knew that because they were all convivial. Overly so, because he now knew too much about how glassware was a largely Ailendamus product, but you could get discounts on bulk imports, and everyone wanted to update to glass, right?

Chandrarian glass prices were falling due to Ailendamus’ stakes, and my word, the only time you went to Baleros was for colored glass, but that was a bit too expensive for the hoi polloi, wasn’t it, Raeta, dear? Haha, oh, Jobbi. You know, we sold over a thousand windows last year, Captain Ylawes? After this expedition we might have to build a glass house for ourselves and start a family…

Ylawes and Falene were the most sought-after members of the adventuring teams for socializing. Dawil was ironically the best conversationalist. But there was something Ylawes had learned from all that.

He knew each [Merchant]’s wagon by the look and where they hung out. After Raeta and Jobbi had mysteriously not answered him rapping on their door—and glass windows of their personal wagon-home—and Lolsed had gone for a quick jog around the caravan, then ducked into another one, Ylawes cornered Miss Tivete.

To be fair, she was the only one who didn’t run. She was talking with one of the [Guards], who Ylawes recognized as the de-facto head of the non-adventurer security.

Salamander was his name. He had scars on his arms that looked like sword wounds, a crooked nose, and an enchanted sword with a flame effect. Hence the nickname.

The [Guards] that ran escort to caravans weren’t [Mercenaries], and they weren’t adventurers. They were sort of…cheap. You didn’t always get quality with their counterparts, but [Guards]? Uh…there was a reason the City Watches of the north and [Guards] in general were lumped together and didn’t often get a good rep.

To Salamander’s credit, he seemed like he knew what he was doing, and he didn’t posture as much with the adventurers. He was also under Merchant Tivete’s authority.

“Ah, Captain Ylawes. Looking for Merchant Yorrned?”

“I believe he is resting in his wagon. Merchant Tivete, do you have time for a word on the expedition?”

Three days since they’d learned of the preservation runes failing, and the expedition’s mood had already gone south. The [Merchants] had not been happy when Larr publicly sorted the good food from the bad. In the end, they’d actually saved a lot of the ‘bad food’, but the runes of preservation?

They were failing. Falene was checking on them twice a day and topping off the remaining three wagons enchanted with them. She claimed they’d drain almost to nothing overnight, and her own mana wasn’t replenishing due to the…lack of it in the air.

Anti-magic zone. Or rather, mana-negative zone. Ylawes didn’t like it. He didn’t like that their fresh food supplies had run from a comfortable month of surplus down to two weeks—if the runes held. He expressed this, politely, to Merchant Tivete.

“—I suppose, at this point, turning around to Goisedall would be the most sensible choice. But I have not received a commitment from any of the other [Merchants]. I have pressed them on the matter. Politely.”

At this, Miss Tivete laughed. She had bright green hair, dyed, was in her late fifties, and wore, as proof of her trades, a necklace that produced a bubble of tranquility. If it was cold, the air around her warmed. If it was rainy? She was dry. He’d seen the bubble eradicate mosquitoes too.

She was fingering it as she talked to him; an odd symbol or foreign word carved out of jade. She kept tracing the pattern with one hand. Salamander stood there, jaw set, and Ylawes wondered if the man objected to him after all.

Tivete replied with a hint of amusement in her voice.

“—I never knew House Byres’ definition of polite was so different than what I expected, Captain Ylawes. You are a terror when you’re upset.”

Of all the things to discuss…Ylawes blinked.

“A terror? I would like to believe I’ve been polite these last two days.”

“Captain Ylawes, a polite voice is something anyone can employ. Knocking on Yorrned’s window and chasing him around for two hours is more aggressive than most of my peers—and we push. Nor do you back down.”

“The matter is urgent. I apologize if I seem frank. I am simply—this issue will not go away and cannot be ignored.”

At this, Salamander nodded, and Ylawes realized the man’s eyes were sliding to Miss Tivete. She chewed on her lip, and he noticed she’d put on a jacket for the first time this entire trip. The [Merchants] all had a lot of coin; her jacket looked like expensive fur and pale blue fabric, something more expensive than cotton.

Yet—she glanced back the way they’d come.

“No member of the Consortium of Enterprise wishes to go back, Captain. We’re already weeks into the New Lands—turning back now would void the effort it has taken to get this far. Not to mention, restocking our supplies in Goisedall? In the winter? It would cost a fortune.”

That he understood. Ylawes gestured to the supply wagons.

“As it stands, we have two weeks of food. Assuming we do not hunt—and we have no [Hunters].

“We may go to three if we move to partial rations. That will occur tonight. Adventurers, [Guards], and leadership roles exempted.”

This was news to Ylawes and unpleasant.

“I can’t imagine the rest of the settlers will appreciate that.”

Tivete fiddled with her necklace again.

“We—have a plan to find a place to settle and to put down a camp and have planting done within five days. Five days, Captain, and it takes ten to grow our fastest plants possible. Radishes, Captain Ylawes.”

“Radishes?”

His voice was dubious, but Tivete waved a hand.

“They grow in as short as thirty days. With [Fast Growth]—a Skill over four of our [Farmers] have—we can cut that in half.”

“It’s winter.”

Salamander added his own thoughts in a gravelly voice for the first time so far.

“‘S cold as shit too. And the ground’s frozen. Hard to dig up.”

He gave Tivete a cautious glance, and she shrugged.

“Warming spells. We do have access to magic. Spring breaks in less than ten days; we can already see snow thawing.”

It was true. The snow had begun to melt, leading to hard patches of ice as the ground re-thawed. It didn’t make movement any easier. Ylawes thought.

Assuming she was right, they’d have just enough food to last until a first harvest. Radishes. How long could you eat those until you went crazy?

“Pardon me, Merchant Tivete, but I can see why I wasn’t informed of the plans. I am an adventurer; that may sound like my team and I are used to challenges, but we tend to know what we’re doing. Acceptable risks are fine. No one can predict a battle, but we minimize danger when we can. If we returned to Goisedall, there would be no uncertainty factor.”

Salamander nodded a few times, and he and Ylawes locked eyes. Tivete began to look a bit harried.

“Salamander—my personal leader of caravan security, we do go back years—has been talking my ear off, Captain Ylawes. I suppose there’s no help for it; there’s a second factor in why we must continue onwards. The time limit on our food and expense is not the only issue.”

“Hm?”

There was something else? For answer, Tivete showed Ylawes her necklace. The beautiful piece of jewelry in her hand sparkled, but her expression was like someone who had taken a knife wound.

“You may note that I’m bundled up of late, Captain Ylawes. I—could you guess why?”

Ylawes inspected the necklace. He did feel warmer around her, but the effect was lessened.

“The magic in it is suffering the same effect as the runes?”

“Precisely. I didn’t notice at first. But I fear that within a week, maybe two, my beloved amulet that I paid a fortune for from the Empire of Drath will be nothing more than beautiful jade. The enchantment, Captain Ylawes, is dying. Not just dying. Breaking.

Then Ylawes began to feel alarmed. His hand strayed to his own gear, specifically his bag of holding.

“Breaking? Can enchantments do that?”

“If they run out of magic and aren’t artifact-grade? Do you know why we categorize some magical items as…magical and some as artifacts, Captain Ylawes?”

He had no idea. For once, he listened as Tivete explained.

“Briefly—artifacts are older magic. Higher quality. Relics are masterpieces. The line between artifact and relic is actually more vague. But artifacts? They are made with, let’s say, safeguards. I note your sword is an artifact, for instance.”

Ylawes hesitated, and his hand brushed the sword at his side. It was a Graveblade taken from Facestealer’s ‘loot’ after the battle with the monster. He had doubts about it, but his own sword hadn’t been nearly as good.

“It was appraised as an artifact by Master Hedault. My previous sword was an enchanted item.”

“Magical. Here is the difference, Captain Ylawes. An artifact will generally not fail unless truly broken. My amulet will be dead before we return to Goisedall, even if we turn around. Yours will simply be less powerful or retain its magic. Modern enchanting has no safeguards, among other flaws that normally don’t manifest themselves. But everyone else’s magical items, from Rings of Warmth to wands to…bags of holding?”

The [Knight]’s hand touched his bag of holding again. The item was good, but it was no artifact-quality one. He had everything in there; he barely thought about how much he might carry, from armor maintenance to food to even camping elements. Only the size restricted him from taking everything.

“—Is it going to fail?”

Salamander shifted from foot to foot, and Tivete nodded.

“We have chests of holding, bags of holding—the Consortium could not have gotten this far if we were weighed down by all this gear. The wagons are almost exclusively to hold the bulk items and people. If we turned around now, we would not only lose all the magic—we would find ourselves overburdened in a week’s time.”

“All the more reason to go. Now.

Ylawes was alarmed. Could they save his bag of holding? Wait, not just that. How many items on him did he have that were magic as opposed to artifacts?

Gold-rankers lived on their equipment. True, Ylawes’ team wasn’t as reliant as some, but Ylawes had put his life’s work into elements like his armor—which wasn’t an artifact.

But Tivete’s smile was grim.

“If we return, the Consortium cannot finance replacing all those magical items, Captain Ylawes. We have already lost unprecedented funds, especially my caravan. No, we continue. If we go to Goisedall, the expedition will never return.”

Now he saw it. The [Merchants] had rolled straight into a disaster no one had known about. As far as they were concerned, this expedition had to at least recoup some of the losses or they would be ruined.

“We are assured there are at least ores in the earth, Captain. My expedition isn’t just in this for a mining spot. Even setting up a waystation might be profitable. The first farms will be a foothold. Even if we were to sell the settlement, we could justify that.”

“—respectfully, Merchant Tivete, if the Silver Swords are running out of magic, our ability to protect you has just decreased measurably.”

“Same with the [Guards]. This is my only piece of magic, and it’s barely able to light a fire. Tivete, you saw those shark things. You want my boys to fight one of those with plain steel?”

Salamander offered his sword. He glanced at Ylawes and shook his head. But Tivete was adamant.

“We continue onwards, Captain Ylawes. Salamander, I want your [Guards] riding ahead. I don’t care if you need groups for safety. Three days of scouting, and if we don’t find what we want, the nearest water source will do.”

The two men traded looks. Tivete would not be swayed, and even after forty minutes of talking, she simply excused herself, leaving Salamander behind.

“—They’re not budging. I’ve seen her do this before. She once got held up by a [Bandit] group and refused to fork that necklace over. We went to combat when she set her jaw like that.”

“Captain Salamander, isn’t it? Or is that your real name?”

The other man grunted as Ylawes stood there in the cold with him.

“It’s Sal. Gonna be ‘Sal’ again unless I get this sword re-enchanted. I’m no [Captain]. Just an [Elite Guard].”

That sounded like an interesting class. Ylawes raised his brows.

“How do you get that?”

Another shrug, this one more bitter.

“By being an expendable [Guard] and not dying. Comes at Level 20. You ever see a [Rookie Guard]?”

“No. I had no idea you even got that as opposed to…[Guard].”

Salamander spat into the snow. He popped something into his mouth and offered Ylawes a sample. It turned out to be tobacco—Ylawes delicately spat it into one hand, and Salamander grinned.

“I can tell you’ve never seen a [Recruiter] grabbing a bunch of kids. If you’re young and you get no training, you get a bad class. [Rookie Guard]. [Trainee]. [Expendable Guard]. You level up fast—if you make it. Tivete grabbed me after my first two missions, and I made it to Level 20 thanks to her. I owe her, and she sometimes listens to me. That’s why I’m here.”

He said it like…Ylawes’ head turned.

“Leaving in the middle of the night would be practically suicide out in the wilds. Not to mention the caravans would notice riders or wagons departing.”

“Oh, I know. I’m just saying later—that’s where most of my lads will be. Till it gets really bad. But the [Farmers] and [Miners] didn’t sign up for this. Do you know them?”

“Not well. I’ve exchanged words with most.”

Salamander jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

“Petia and Homle are the good ones. Petia’s a [Farmer]. Homle’s the [Mining Foreman]. This isn’t sitting well with either of them. I’d have a word if I were you. I can’t tell who’ll throw hands first when the ration news breaks.”

Ylawes had that sinking sensation he sometimes got when a contract turned bad. Here came the politics an adventurer hated. But politeness—he squared his shoulders and offered a hand.

“I hope I can continue to count on your lads, Sal?”

“—I’ve heard the Silver Swords are damn good. Reckon you can, Captain. Even with that Goblin and Antinium.”

The two men shook hands, and Ylawes realized Salamander’s crew had avoided the Silver Swords—especially Rasktooth and Infinitypear—like the plague. His handshake tightened ever-so-slightly.

“They’re brave Bronze-rank adventurers. Trust me, they’re the least of your concerns.”

Salamander’s grizzled eyes locked with Ylawes’, and he nodded.

“I reckon that’s true too.”

 

——

 

Petia and Homle were not happy people. As it so happened, the [Miners] were the first to almost come to blows that night.

Salamander had reason to be grateful; the Silver Swords appeared when they heard shouting and saw his people in a tense standoff with the [Miners], led by Homle, and the [Farmers] were watching from the sides, ominously quiet.

How are we supposed to start breaking ground if you feed us half rations? I don’t see them eating less!

The [Merchants] were placating behind the [Foreman], who did indeed seem ready to hit someone—and he had massive arms. Ylawes’ presence made the [Miners] hesitate.

That was when Yorrned found the courage to appear.

“The Consortium’s decision stands! Once we lay the first seeds, we’ll have a plentiful harvest! Rest assured, we will remember this for bonus pay, Master Homle! Now please—let’s all get some sleep!”

The [Miners] eyed Ylawes, and the [Foreman] hesitated. He wasn’t an idiot; Ylawes was less heavyset than he was, but a Gold-rank adventurer, a [Knight] in armor, beat the strongest men normally.

Then again, the [Miners] had picks and spades, and there were a lot of them. Over sixty; Ylawes didn’t want anyone to start swinging.

“We can’t work like this!”

Homle snapped at Salamander, and the [Guard] shrugged, arms folded.

“We’re just travelling right now. Ask for more food once we settle. We’re the ones guarding everyone.”

From what? You haven’t done a single thing this entire—”

Homle strode forwards, and Ylawes blocked him. The [Foreman] recoiled and eyed Ylawes warily.

“Sir, let’s all keep calm. I understand your frustrations, but if we could keep it to words, I think we’ll have a civil discussion.”

Ylawes smiled, and Homle growled.

“Civil’s not going to change what’s going on.”

However, the [Miners] backed up a step. Someone called out in the middle of the tension.

“You’re not going to help knock about the [Miners] if it comes to it, are you, Captain? The Silver Swords I’ve heard about don’t act like thugs.”

Ylawes swiveled around and saw Farmer Petia watching from the side. The [Farmers] were also unhappy, but they’d stayed back—and she seemed to have authority among them. She was rather tall and gaunt with long arms and was all bundled up.

“—As far as keeping the [Merchants] from danger, that’s my job, Miss Petia. I wouldn’t want anyone to be hurt.”

Ylawes answered cautiously and was met with an inquisitive stare and a nod.

“Good. I’d hate for my belief in a Gold-rank team to be misplaced.”

Homle gave Ylawes a second look.

“How much food do we have left?”

“Two weeks. Three if we ration it. It should last until first planting, according to the [Merchants].”

Ylawes intended this to be hopeful, but Petia’s face froze over.

“Two? I was told four.

Homle swallowed, and Ylawes paused a second.

“—The [Merchants] have no intention of returning. We have four days to scout for a good spot to lay camp. I was told that even with fifteen days, we could get a harvest of turnips up. Is that so, Miss Petia?”

She gave him a cautious nod, but the [Farmers] were looking at each other.

“In theory, if the soil’s good. I heard it was salty, and I thought we had more time. It might take longer than we want, but I reckoned with the [Miners], we could make it work even if the saltwater’s bad in the topsoil.”

“How’s that? Salt in the soil? Doesn’t that kill it?”

Homle was alarmed, but Petia shrugged.

“We’ll see. I wish I had a proper [Druid] or [Witch] or one of the Gnoll [Shamans]. Or even just a damn good [Dowser] or [Well Finder]. All of ‘em know how to tell if soil or water are good. We were already contracted by the time we heard about the soil, but we know what to do. When you dig down, you’ll pull soil from a few feet below, Homle, and we’ll turn it over and plant in that.”

“Oh. That’s good?”

“That’s what my granddad did. Mind you, it’ll have to be fast, and we need enough water and warmth to thaw the ground, but we could plant tomorrow given spring’s coming. We’ll need food then if you want us to work hard.”

She gave Ylawes another look, and he brushed at his hair, thinking.

“If that happens—perhaps the [Guards] and adventurers and [Merchants] could go on half-rations? I could talk that over with Yorrned, Miss Petia.”

That earned him some goodwill, and Dawil gave Ylawes an approving nod. He kept placating the upset colonists.

“We’re all tightening our belts. Let’s not waste energy shouting, eh? Tomorrow, we’ll come by and hear you all out.”

“I think that’s fair. I’ll hold you to a longer discussion—tomorrow.”

Petia met Ylawes’ eyes with a sharp nod, and the [Farmers] began to disperse.

“I—well, damn me. This isn’t how I thought things were going to go. We’d best find something to dig soon!”

Homle spluttered, but there wasn’t much he could do, so he walked off. Ylawes exhaled hard. Politics already. But that hadn’t gone poorly. They were just counting on some good luck after all this bad.

 

 

Day 20 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

The next day, Ylawes made good on his promise to Petia and had a chat with her. It revealed some things that made him less confident in her—in a sense.

“Failed farms. Mine went under, and Lolsed offered me a contract on the new lands. The rest are either the same or looking for a fortune in the New Lands.”

“How—did your farm go under, if I can ask?”

Petia gave Ylawes a smile that lacked the bitterness he expected as they had some tea in a rocking wagon.

“Wasn’t all my fault. Prices on my corn went down hard last year—then something went and killed off our last fall harvest of crops. We were already having trouble. Farming’s rough if you can’t out-Skill the market. If I’d saved the corn for when everyone was rushing for the New Lands…I’d be rich. Instead, we got destroyed by some high-level [Farmer] up north.”

“Really. What happened?”

Petia’s lips twisted.

“Good corn, that’s what. Blue, red, sweet—and enough to make it so no one was interested in regular corn for a spell. A bunch of it, all at once? We didn’t have preservation spells, so we had two harvests where it wasn’t worth anything. That’s all it took.”

What a rough…hadn’t Ylawes had some corn like that? He shook his head sympathetically, but Petia refused to linger on the subject.

“Don’t worry, we know the job. But if you have a moment, can you send a [Message] to someone in the know about the soil? I’ll bet someone’s figured it out by now.”

That was a good idea, so Ylawes went to Falene about it, only to be met by a glare.

“Ylawes, if it helps the farmers, that’s one thing, but I refuse to keep sending [Message] spells for anyone else. I need to recharge the runes of preservation. We agree that’s the priority, yes?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then no more [Messages]. That goes for Anith as well!”

Ylawes nodded, and Falene hesitated, about to argue on the subject.

“Really?”

“I’m in complete support of that. Who wants to send [Messages]?”

The half-Elf squinted at Ylawes, then pushed up her glasses, and her eyes flashed.

“All the [Merchants] have been telling me you authorized them sending [Messages]—they’ve been checking on their affairs and gossiping about the New Lands! Selling the information about the magic problems!”

Ylawes actually closed his eyes for a second. But the thing about politeness was…

“No more of that. I’m sure they asked me at some point, which, to them, is fair. How many spells can you cast per day? Let’s say we’re fighting the Landsharks—how are you doing on mana, Falene?”

She hesitated. The [Battlemage] was Level 35; she was an experienced Wistram graduate and didn’t like admitting when she had problems with spellcasting.

“—I can fight. Today, this week. If I’m still recharging the runes, it gets dicey.”

“Are you recharging mana at all?”

She nodded.

“Anith barely is. But I do have mana regeneration Skills. It just won’t be much. Don’t expect [Eagle Eyes] or most of my usual buffing spells. Actually, I might stop riding with you and Dawil. There’s limited ways for a [Mage] to regain mana without a potion. Meditating might help.”

“Meditating? I’ve never seen you do that.”

She made a face.

“It’s something I was taught in Wistram. I signed up for ‘Magical Enhancement of the Mind, Body, and Spirit 101’ in my third year—I never thought I’d actually put anything that crazy [Tantric Druid] said to good use. I’ll give it a shot. Now, what’s the [Message]?”

 

——

 

The fact that Falene actually had a magic restoration technique was good news. The rest? Not so much.

[Message] spells were normally not something that cost much mana, but mindful of Falene’s limited supply, Ylawes added one more request to her [Message].

“Can you message…the half-Elves would be best for growing, wouldn’t they?”

Falene cocked an eyebrow.

“Do you have a name?”

“…Don’t you?”

“Ylawes, I know some of the half-Elves who went to the New Lands, but I can’t just [Message] an important member right away! They auto-block those kinds of spells. If you want, I can go back and forth with a Mage’s Guild, but please. My mana?”

Ylawes thought for a second.

“How about…can you send a [Message] to your home in Gaiil-Drome? Or Wistram? If they connect you to someone in the colony, we’ll save time on introductions.”

Falene nodded.

“Who else?”

They were in Rasktooth and Infinitypear’s wagon; the Silver Swords sometimes used it, but Rasktooth had elected to try riding a horse to give Falene room to sit and meditate and work. Ylawes squatted down.

“I want information about the New Lands. There has to be someone who’s out here that we know. Who do we know that went to the New Lands?”

Falene grimaced. She began to list other Gold-rank teams.

“Optiment’s Fighters? No, they were interested, but we never heard…the Regular Defenders?”

“I don’t know if they’re behind us. The Horns? No. The Half—Griff—”

They ran down a list of Gold-rank teams, but Ylawes couldn’t be sure of many, and Falene pointed out others weren’t capable of [Message] spells even if they had a [Mage]. Then Ylawes had an idea.

“Wait. I know someone who might be here!”

“Who?”

“Captain…Nailren. Remember we invited him, but he wanted to go on his own? He’s not a [Mage]…”

Falene frowned.

“Hold on. Let me query my friend in Gaiil-Drome. I’ll have them look up via a Mage’s Guild if Nailren’s out here. He might have a [Message] scroll?”

It wasn’t a bad idea. Ylawes went off to keep riding around the caravan. The [Guards] were riding ahead to scout for a good spot, and there was promise.

The northern section of the New Lands had become rockier, with hills rising upwards, and the melting snows were beginning to reveal oddities. Maybe it was the former seabed, but there were rolling hills, like the very waves had moved the land, and Ylawes saw stones baked into the grass and dirt.

There were even what looked to be mountains further west; if he squinted, he swore he saw patches of blue among the snow. A huge gust of wind obscured them, though, flinging wet snow at the caravan.

“Windstorm!”

Rasktooth shouted, and everyone took cover behind the caravan. Ylawes just shielded his face with his shield and felt the wind blow so fiercely that his horse shivered. It was intense—then gone after half a minute.

The wind would blow hard like that, and Ylawes shook his shield off and heard cursing from the other wagons.

We just lost our roof! Someone get—

Ylawes turned and saw one of the covered wagons lose the covering. A few people chased after the fabric, but it was already flying away. They called for a stop, but the [Merchants] just told them to repair it on the go.

More problems.

“Ylawes? I have a reply.”

Falene called Ylawes back to the wagon, and Ylawes nodded to the others.

“Keep a lookout. Spotted anything unusual, Larr?”

Larr was sitting on top of Vuliel Drae’s wagon, and he’d had to hold on tight to avoid being blown off. The Gnoll called down.

“I think I saw some of those Landsharks far, far off. But no more Corusdeer herds. This place smells like wet stone up ahead, though.”

Good? What does wet stone smell like? Rasktooth waved at Ylawes.

“Is good soil for digging, Captain-guy. Infinitypear likes.”

“Oh. Excellent? Keep it up, you two.”

Infinitypear was more cheerful now after his disastrous stew incident. He’d been shy, and Ylawes headed to the wagon, then had to stop.

“What’s good soil?”

“Loose. Good soil, Captain Ylawes. Feels warm. See? There and there.”

Infinitypear pointed, and Ylawes squinted and saw dry patches of soil. It wasn’t melting evenly, but…he took the Antinium Worker at his word.

“Well, uh, maybe you can dig in it for fun. Later.”

The Cave Goblin and Worker high-fived; that had probably been the question. Ylawes shook his head. Digging for fun. Well, he’d done it as a lad to mine for mithril.

 

——

 

“You’re in luck. I was actually connected with Lady Ruveden herself. A very prestigious half-Elf. Not from one of the villages; she’s from one of the forest cities. Very auspicious. How does ‘inquiring from a position of mutual friendship, milady’ sound?”

“…Milady sounds old-fashioned. Even I don’t know if I’d use it. ‘Beseeching you for a polite inquiry’?”

“I like that.”

Falene went back to composing a missive and showed Ylawes what she’d scribed. Her handwriting wasn’t as nice as a formal [Mage Scribe], so Ylawes had to squint, and she warned him he’d have to send big messages to cut down on time.

 

Nailren: [Message] scroll isn’t working perfectly. —s out. ??? (this is Falene, I am simply noting where the spell breaks.). 

—heard Halrac’s dead. We’re nearly a month south of you. Exploring, mostly. Vuliel Drae and the two rookies alright? How can —lp?

 

That one hit Ylawes like a gut punch. He wrote for a while.

 

Ylawes: He was a great adventurer. Moore and Ulinde too. We’re asking about whether you’ve had problems with growing plants or the local wildlife, Nailren. We’ve run into magical drain issues with our equipment. Anything with a magical enchantment is going to be dead in a week.

Nailren: Say again? —lots of new animals here. ‘Landsharks’ reported by lots of groups. Been selling to Adventurer’s Guild—

—ed giant ones. Left alone since we don’t want to eat them. Sort of friendly?

What magic—?

Ylawes: Magic. This is a mana-negative zone according to Falene. It’s draining.

Nailren: —kick my [Shaman]’s hanging b—

Ylawes: What was that?

 

In between waiting for a response, Falene touched his arm with a problem.

“Can you wrap it up, Ylawes?”

“Do you need to talk to your contact?”

The [Battlemage] gave him a half-insulted look.

“It’s not that. I can easily do multiple [Message] spells. It’s…the mana costs are adding up a lot higher than they should be. [Message] is a Tier 3 spell with a negligible mana cost…this one is taking eight times as much as I normally need. Maybe nine. And we’re doubling it with each message.”

“How so?”

Falene grimaced.

“Nailren’s sending to a Mage’s Guild who’s re-copying it to me. We can’t connect to each other.”

“Strange. That is strange, isn’t it?”

Ylawes knew enough about magic to realize that was off. Falene nodded, sighing as she began writing.

“Whatever’s draining my magic? Or Nailren is just closer to the Mage’s Guild in Goisedall than us. Either way—I’m not sending more [Messages] than this. It seems like I’ll have to go through Lady Ruveden the same way.”

Ylawes read Nailren’s reply, grateful that he’d told the Gnoll about the problem. It was worse than it appeared, then, for even basic communication.

 

Nailren: Thank you. Explains lots. No field issues for us. We’re hunting. No magic-users in our group. Lots of good hunting, I think. Can lure those shark-things with blood. Beware of packs. Scent killer—far nothing worse.

Ylawes: Thank you. Where are you abouts? We will talk later. Mana problems.

Nailren: —Sent rough idea. Let me know if—

 

Well, it was clear his [Message] scroll was failing due to the same mana problem. Falene was just impressed it was working at all.

“It must be closer to artifact-grade. He did have some suspiciously quality items for a Silver-rank. At least he’s open. Lady Ruveden is…complicated. I’m wasting a lot of mana on these back-and-forths, Ylawes.”

“Sorry. What’s wrong?”

Falene grimaced.

“She’s…asking who I’m working for. I think she suspects I’m working for a rival, which is technically true. I’ve reassured her we’re independent. She’s cautioned me to test the fields thoroughly before planting. Apparently, the colony has plenty of soil from their home, so they said taking a Chest of Holding filled with dirt from a farm would be the smartest move. Or learning a spell to help with the topsoil’s salt content.”

“Hmm. That’s not promising.”

Ylawes grew worried again, but Falene blew out her cheeks.

“Actually, given how picky some of the plants back home are, not to mention the trees, it might just be that the soil isn’t ripe for those kinds of things. What kind of spell makes farmland viable? I can’t imagine anyone would know…well, I certainly don’t have it in my spellbooks. There’s your answer, though. They’re having problems, even if they don’t want to say how much.”

Ylawes wanted to pace, but the wagon wouldn’t allow it.

“That’s not enough to get the [Merchants] to turn around. From what it sounds like, hunting is possible.”

“Nailren’s team are all [Hunters], Ylawes. He’s a Plains Gnoll.”

“True, but if he can do it, it’s an opportunity. Let’s see if anyone in the caravan has any [Hunter] skills we can draw on. And we’re in the foothills, so it’s time to prospect.”

 

——

 

No one had [Hunter] Skills when Ylawes asked. At least, nothing he judged that his team needed outside of their own skill sets. The last group he approached was the Consortium.

It occurred to Ylawes he didn’t know what they were doing all day. They had demands, of course, often of his time, but Ylawes had found a solution he felt a bit bad about: the younger adventurers.

Poke Duo, and members of Vuliel Drae, ended up running minor errands for the Consortium. It helped in the sense that the Consortium weren’t at ease with Poke Duo like the Silver Swords. So they had fewer requests.

Mind you—when Ylawes saw Rasktooth running samples of yellow grass, a green flower, and even a few bugs over to Raeta and Jobbi’s wagon, he realized that could backfire too.

“You two aren’t servants. Are they having you perform menial tasks? You should refuse those. What’s with the bugs?”

Rasktooth shrugged.

“They ask nice. Sometimes they give snacks, and is easy, mostly. No one say no to Consortium much but you, Falene, and Dawil, Captain-guy.”

That was true. The [Merchant]’s authority largely went unquestioned. Nevertheless, Ylawes went to ask why his two adventurers were gathering bugs.

“A collection, Captain Ylawes! We’re having them collect anything and everything valuable. What with the…loss of magical gear, we felt the only thing to do was help recoup. And charting all the samples of the New Lands we could is a fine way to do that. The moment we have enough to ship out, we’ll send for a Courier.”

Raeta was pinning a bug to a board of cork, and Jobbi had some grass, roots and all, he was washing and putting in a case with notes on it. It wasn’t just mundane wildlife either; they’d included soil, rocks, and Raeta was actually very positive about Poke Duo.

“I had reservations, you know; Jobbi gave them orders from the window at first, but the Cave Goblin fellow is very helpful! I think that [Innkeeper] had a point. You see? We’re all doing our part, Captain.”

She had nearly fifty varieties of insects on the board already, each with a neat pin through it, and Ylawes wondered if an [Alchemist] could tell which ones were useful. He suspected they needed a lot of samples—and so did Raeta.

“Rasktooth has been collecting as many samples of each insect as we can find. Horrible—but I can touch them if it’s worth gold, so we’re making jars of them. You’ll find some of the Consortium is more interested in that sort of thing.”

“What do other members do all day?”

Jobbi answered for his wife.

“Lolsed reads. He’s got all the paperwork between us and too many books. Anlam’s taking in the scenery. Yorrned? I think he’s mostly concerned with the prospecting and figuring out how to establish a trade route. And Tivete is using her time trying to save as much magic as she can. She’s lost the most, poor woman.”

Well, that was all very well and good, but Ylawes told the couple that Poke Duo’s time was capped per day; they happily assured him they’d limit it to an hour of their time at most, and Ylawes would have argued further, but Rasktooth said it was fine.

“We like easy tasks, Captain Ylawes. If it too much, we go take nap. That okay?”

He smiled at that.

“That’s fine. And I was told it was in the contract—

He sighed, and Infinitypear and Rasktooth laughed and poked each other. It was becoming a familiar refrain when the Consortium wanted Ylawes to do anything. One of these days, he was going to ask to read the stupid thing again. But he only had two weeks after they set up camp.

…He hoped they set up camp soon.

 

 

Day 24 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

The expedition meandered through what Ylawes had now marked in a tentative map as the ‘wave foothills’ for the next three days with increasing problems.

Problem one? The hills had too many rocks, which made travel harder. The horses did not like pulling up the hills, which increased in elevation until you reached huge, slanted hills that led to wide plateaus.

Problem two. The mana drain was increasing. Falene reported another Rune of Preservation had failed in the night; she was no longer able to keep them fully charged even if she topped them up before sleeping. She’d taken to meditating for hours on end, and Anith had begun copying her; it was the only way to restore her mana.

Problem three, and the biggest one in a sense: the prospecting for a place to settle wasn’t going well.

“Nothing. Oh, there’s some iron, lots of shale—it looks pretty easy to get into, actually. We dug down and found stone at five feet, and the soil’s deeper away from the foothills. But I’m not seeing anything magical.”

Homle showed Ylawes samples the [Miners] had found from multiple spots they had tried. They had [Prospectors], but the three men and women with [Ore Detection] and similar Skills had gone riding out and come back each day with only limited information.

“How likely is it you’ve missed a motherlode?”

Ylawes was itching to get the farmers planting, but the [Merchants] had refused to set up a permanent camp. Homle had a bunch of dirt in a bag of holding, and he’d turned over some of the stuff they’d dug up to the [Farmers].

Farmer Petia was setting up a pot, and she’d put a half-eaten Yellat into the dirt and watered it. She set it near a fire.

“Just as a test. If a Yellat won’t grow in soil, nothing will. Let me try a turnip next, see what we’re working with. I’ll dig it up in a few days and see if it’s sprouting.”

She put whole ones into two pots, testing topsoil and the deeper stuff. Homle explained to the others what was going on; he was speaking to the [Merchants] mostly, but Ylawes had become deeply invested in the expedition’s prospects.

“If they missed it, it’s not an ore, or it’s deeper than, say, fifty feet. Usually, though, the [Prospectors] can catch part of something, and we go after it. Fifty feet’s too deep to dig unless it’s something like mithril.”

“So there’s none of that here?”

Homle’s face wasn’t happy. That had to be a concern in the back of his head too. What if the New Lands had…nothing?

“We’ve barely started looking. The fact there’s iron and other minerals says it’s not empty. But iron? I didn’t come here to mine that!”

Meanwhile, the food decay was advancing at the same rate as the magical drain. Falene did have a theory, though. She caught Ylawes as he left Homle’s wagon, shaking his head.

“No luck with the prospecting again today?”

“Iron. How profitable do you think that is here?”

She tilted her head.

“Everyone needs iron. Maybe if Yorrned thinks he’ll be able to sell…?”

Her hopeful look turned into a grimace as Ylawes shook his head. Falene looked around, then motioned as Dawil stumped over. The Dwarf had been talking as well.

“Pointy, Ylawes. It’d be good if the expedition did stop just for a second. We’ve been camped around here for two days. What if we called that ‘settling’?”

Ylawes frowned at him.

“It’s hardly the colony the consortium wants, Dawil.”

The Dwarf stroked his beard.

“True…but we agreed to stand guard for two weeks. If we had a head start on that—or counted the two days, I think it’d be best. I think I’ll drop a line with Yorrned mentioning that I’m counting it up.”

“Why?”

“Just in case.”

The Dwarf was rubbing at his beard, glancing at the restless colonists. He turned to Falene.

“Remember: we’re not just the three of us. I reckon we could deal with some hunger and eat Pointy first. But what with Vuliel Drae and Poke Duo, that’s more mouths to feed. What were you going to say, Falene?”

Falene didn’t scowl at Dawil, which said she agreed with him. She fiddled with a wand that had been dying along with everything else.

“I think that mana drain I talked about? It’s bad, Ylawes. I’m not going to be able to keep the Runes of Preservation running much longer. It’s not as if they were made by Hedault; they drain faster than, say, my mana.”

“How does that work?”

She waved her hands impatiently.

“Imagine a bucket that evaporates water. I’m the bucket. The Runes of Preservation? A bucket with a little hole in it.”

“Ah. Proceed.”

Falene took a breath.

“—But the mana is going somewhere. You see? I thought it was everywhere that was mana-negative, perhaps because of Archmage Kishkeria’s spell. But…it’s not.”

She looked rather embarrassed, as if she’d underestimated the legendary Archmage of Grasses. Ylawes grew more interested.

“Really?”

“Yes. Observe. [Light]!”

Falene lifted a hand and cast a spell, but it took her longer than usual. A ball of yellow light appeared, and she held it up.

“I’m severing the mana connection to myself. Now, it’ll take a while…”

Dawil and Ylawes stared at the ball of light for a good minute in the mud and snow as Falene cleared her throat a few times. Rasktooth wandered by on top of a pony, covered in dirt.

“Hey, Captain-guy. Is good digging.”

“…Were you digging all day?”

True to their word, Rasktooth and Infinitypear had dug for fun in what they called ‘good dirt’. Homle and the [Miners] had stared at the Cave Goblin and Antinium Worker, who were good at moving dirt around, but showed no interest in the patches of land.

“Yep. Even found giant magg—er. Nothing. What this?”

Rasktooth, mindful of the stew incident, bit off the first part of what he’d said, and Falene’s horrified look made Ylawes wince. Then Rasktooth narrowed his eyes.

“Ooh. Weird. Why ball moving?”

Everyone looked down at the orb in Falene’s hand. Ylawes stared—then squinted at it, and Dawil peered for a good look—then stood on his tiptoes.

The Dwarf stared at Falene’s hand as she held it just over head height for him. He stomped on her foot. She almost cast a spell—then slapped his helmet and yelped.

At least they could still bicker. When Falene lowered the orb for all to see, Ylawes finally saw what Rasktooth had noticed.

Tiny particles of the light orb spell were breaking off and drifting away. Not aimlessly either; they were slowly, slowly moving eastwards and drifting down, not at the rate even a feather would fall.

“What’s going on?”

Falene looked smug as they turned to her.

“Not many [Mages] would notice the mana drain has a direction to it. Let alone be able to diffuse a spell like that.”

“Yes, yes. Ceria couldn’t do what you can do while balancing a ball on your nose and tap dancing. What’s it mean, Pointy? Is something taking your mana? Or someone?

Ylawes’ hair stirred, and he had a sudden thought.

“This reminds me of the way the Drakes took the Gnolls’ mana.”

Falene and Dawil stared at Ylawes, and the [Battlemage] frowned deeply.

“It’s not the same.”

“You’re sure?”

She had to think for a second and brushed her hair out of her eyes.

“Firstly, it’s not a spell. I think; I’d notice the magic. It could be a massive zone caused by a Skill, but the origin can be located. If it was ambient, it would be—this is something pulling my magic away. Let’s speculate. If this was in a dungeon, I’d say that it was the dungeon’s mana source or a trap aiming to provoke us into following it. So maybe someone left a magical spell…underwater…that Kishkeria’s magic brought up?”

She gave Dawil a look, and he shrugged.

“Monster, then.”

“More than one. Look.”

Once again, Rasktooth pointed out what even Falene had missed. Almost all of the light particles were drifting one way…but a few were holding still or even moving another way. Falene rolled her eyes.

“Multiple sources of the mana drain. Wonderful. That mostly rules out a caster or person. I suspect there are lots of them—or at least, we’re closer to one that’s affecting our magic, Ylawes.”

“So we move away from it. Or we find out what it is.”

The [Knight] liked this. If they could get out of range of whatever this mana drain spell or effect was, maybe they’d be able to salvage their gear? He turned to Falene and put two fingers in his mouth.

The whistle attracted Vuliel Drae as well as Salamander, who’d come back from a ride. Ylawes waved him over, much to the [Guard]’s surprise.

“Salamander. Falene thinks whatever’s draining magic is coming from a spot. I want her to teach Anith how to locate whatever is doing it—Anith, take Larr, Dawil, and Pekona. Falene, you’ll go with Dasha and…Insill. I want you two scouting tomorrow for spots where the mana drain is—and maybe somewhere we can replenish our magic. Salamander, if you can lend us some of your [Guards] to make up for the adventurers absence, that would be fine.”

That did cheer up the adventurers, to have a clear goal, and Salamander gave Ylawes the first grin.

“If you take one of the [Prospectors] too, we can do that.”

Ylawes nodded firmly. The only trouble was getting the plan by the [Merchants], who didn’t like two of the ‘real’ Silver Swords leaving the expedition undefended. But when Ylawes pointed out they might save all the magic items, they agreed.

 

 

Day 25 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

The first attacks on the caravan came from the sky—and not in the way Ylawes expected. He was watching the only adventurers under his command left to guard the expedition.

Namely, Infinitypear and Rasktooth. The [Merchants] had taken one look at their Bronze-rank defenders and insisted Salamander leave more [Guards] to defend them.

Most of the camp was quiet. The [Miners] had been eating half-rations with the [Farmers] for days, and the kitchen staff, [Handlers], and various other people moved around sluggishly.

Hungry. Ylawes was grateful he didn’t have to ration food, though he was keenly aware of eyes on his team. More than once, he regretted not saving more of the forever stew…at least they had water. And fire.

They could have had Infinitypear and Rasktooth standing guard, but Ylawes had observed that guarding really was standing around and waiting for something to happen. So he’d let the two dig in the ground as long as they didn’t waste energy.

It kept them entertained, and they were young. They had a pile of dirt that some people had wandered over to stare at—but whatever the two were digging up had made most people hurry away—fast.

“Is good eat. We get fire?”

“Yah, yah. Is very good eat.”

They were whispering, and Ylawes had sworn he’d seen Rasktooth munching on something. Ylawes had just had breakfast, and the last thing he needed to do in front of Homle or Petia was upchuck his meal.

But he had to know…what they were finding. Ylawes was steeling himself to walk over, but he halted with the pit just out of sight.

“Rasktooth. Infinitypear. What are you, ah, doing?”

They jumped, and Rasktooth kicked dirt over something.

“Nothing gross!”

“Nothing disgusting, Captain Ylawes.”

Infinitypear peeked over the lip of the hole. Ylawes smiled.

“Have you found anything interesting?”

“Maybe something edible. We eat? Help other people not eat.”

Rasktooth offered. Ylawes hesitated.

“…Is it something everyone could eat?”

The two conferred, eyed Ylawes, and clearly remembering the bug incident. Rasktooth called back.

“…Probably not. Is, uh…is not something non-Goblins or non-Antinium like. Tastes like…what tastes like, Infinitypear?”

“Um. Hot dogs.”

Infinitypear named the item Erin liked to sell at the inn. Ylawes brightened up. That didn’t sound—

“Hot dogs and fireplace ash.”

“Ah. Not so appetizing?”

Rasktooth was muttering as he cut a chunk of something…pale…and stuffed it into a pocket.

“Tastes like food. [Natural Seasonings] and fry up on pan? Very tasty, you bet. You want to see, Captain-guy?”

Don’t throw up, don’t throw up—Ylawes braced himself and was never more grateful for the shout.

Help! My food! Captain Ylawes, monsters!

It came from Merchant Yorrned; Ylawes whirled, and Rasktooth looked up in alarm. People were shouting and pointing at the sky.

“Rasktooth, Infinitypear, behind me. Call out if you see it!

Ylawes waited a beat for Rasktooth to pull himself onto Infinitypear’s shoulders, then they were running to find the [Guards]. Ylawes had his sword drawn and wished he had a Skill to detect enemies. There were shouts of alarm—no screams.

My [Dangersense] isn’t going off. What’s—

A flash of light burst upwards from the camp, and Ylawes thought it was a [Flare] spell—but instead, as he held a hand over his eyes, he realized it was turning. Curving…and then he saw something fluttering down.

It was…a piece of lettuce. It dropped from the glowing beacon of light, and Rasktooth aimed a crossbow up, squinting.

“My eyes hurt. What that bright shit?”

“I have no eyelids. It doubly hurts.”

Infinitypear actually put his hands over his eyes. Ylawes squinted and saw another flash—then, in the dazzled afterimages, something swooped down and grabbed the piece of lettuce out of the air. It curved past him as Rasktooth tried to track it, pulled a trigger, and shot a bolt that went wide. There was another flash—

A bird?

Yes, a small bird, nowhere near as large as a falcon, probably half as large at most—and another diving down into the center of the camp. There were more shouts—then Ylawes saw another flash of light.

My eyes!

My lunch! Shoot the wretched things!”

Merchant Yorrned was shouting. Ylawes strode past the outer wagons and saw the ‘attack’ in progress. It was funny—right up until it wasn’t.

Cook Votto was defending a cooking station, and Merchant Yorrned was trying to protect what was left of a sandwich. All around him, birds were diving down fearlessly, snatching ingredients, and whenever someone swatted at them, they would explode into radiance, their feathers lighting up.

“Creona Flashbirds.”

Ylawes instantly recognized them. They could be nothing else.

He had actually never seen one before. They were wide-chested with a stray feather with a purple dot hanging off the back of their head and bright yellow, blue, or green feathers that shone whenever they were agitated or in danger. An orange pattern around their eyes gave them a masked look—and there were probably two dozen snatching everyone’s lunch.

It was less funny when Ylawes realized it was a meal they were chowing down on. Yorrned shouted at Ylawes.

“Captain Ylawes, do something!”

How? Rasktooth was trying to wing the Creona Flashbirds, but they were dancing around in complicated arcs, and Ylawes called out.

“No one fire an arrow—you’ll hit someone! [Knight’s Challenge]!”

He raised his shield, and the birds swerved as one as he tried to taunt them. They regarded Ylawes—then scattered away from him.

Well, that didn’t work. His Skill only worked if his enemies wanted to fight. And without Falene or Larr…Ylawes shouted.

“Get inside, and they’ll stop attacking! Rasktooth, Infinitypear, grab that table. They’re Creona Flashbirds! Not a threat!”

“Did you say Creona Flashbirds? They’re worth gold pieces for their feathers! Someone get a net!”

Instantly, one of the other [Merchants] poked their heads up and began ordering the [Guards] to catch the birds. Several people in the caravans tried to, but they hadn’t a hope of nabbing the agile things, especially not half-blind.

The ‘attack’ was over as soon as the food went away, but the disgruntled [Merchants] demanded to have their lunch remade. Which led a number of people to protest they’d missed their lunch when a bird had nabbed it. One of the [Farmers] glared at the [Merchants] and [Chef] alike.

“You don’t need a second lunch. If you’re remaking it, why don’t you give it to people who’ve barely had anything, hmm?”

Chef Votto was not well liked at this moment, and the man stood back as Ylawes was left, once more, to try and make peace. The [Merchants] gave him a meaningful look. He met the eyes of the caravaners and spoke.

“Why don’t we have Chef Votto prepare what’s left for anyone who didn’t get their lunch? The [Merchants] can have a half-ration.”

“But I barely—”

Yorrned protested, and Ylawes shot him a polite smile.

“—And the Silver Swords as well. I haven’t had lunch. How’s that for fair?”

Homle grunted.

“Good enough.”

There was a disquiet among the Consortium, but one pointed look from Ylawes and the [Merchants] turned their attention to the birds.

“Perhaps we could bait one down and catch it? It is worth good money. An entire flock of them is exceptionally rare. You’d have [Hunters] lining up for even a half dozen!”

That seemed to occupy them. Infinitypear rubbed at his stomach as Votto handed Ylawes a sandwich and a half. The Antinium whispered to Rasktooth and then told Ylawes to keep the sandwich.

“We are not hungry, Captain Ylawes. Please eat for us.”

“Are you sure? Have half a sandwich at least.”

The two were only too happy to chow down, and Infinitypear sat with Ylawes, nibbling on his portion. Ylawes was touched by them trying to keep him fed, but they assured him they’d nibbled on a lot of…whatever they’d found.

“They will not catch the birds. I know this.”

Infinitypear watched as the [Merchants] tried to coax a Flashbird down with a net and some bows ready for the trap. They were using, Ylawes saw with a groan, a piece of bread.

“Why not?”

The Antinium almost never said things in the definitive. He was…timid. Rasktooth was not, but Infinitypear seemed confident in this one thing.

“Bird the Liar has hunted Creona Flashbirds before. He says he can hit the bird three in ten times. If he cannot, they cannot.”

That…was pretty compelling as statements went. Ylawes watched as one of the Flashbirds swooped down. It landed, and the [Merchants] tried to pull a net over it. The bird escaped the slow-moving net in a moment. When a [Guard] shot an arrow at it, Ylawes saw it twirl around the arrow, blind everyone, and fly away.

 

——

 

The Flashbird incident proved to be one of two interesting things that day. The second was that when the scouting teams came back, they finally had news.

The snows had well and truly begun to melt, and so everyone was muddy and cold. Salamander reported one of the horses had gone for a tumble and was limping, but thankfully hadn’t broken anything.

“I think we found something, Ylawes. The [Prospector] sensed it at the same time as I did—for different reasons. Only—we need to convene the [Merchants].”

Falene was excited and worried in equal measures. Anith and Dawil had come back with less good news, and Anith raised a paw.

“Nowhere’s free of the magic drain, Captain Ylawes. We tried going away from it, but even when it was at its weakest, there was another pull.”

“Damn stuff’s got range. What did you find, Pointy?”

The [Prospector] was mixing with Homle and the others, offering a tube of sample dirt, and Ylawes heard louder voices from their side.

“Copper? I suppose it’s something. And you think there’s a cave or something down there? Could be a good start, could be—you sure it’s not Adamantium?”

But their body language indicated disappointment. The [Merchants] murmured, shielding their mouths with their hands, but Ylawes saw the [Prospector] pointing to her.

“What did you find, Falene?”

The half-Elf looked at Ylawes, serious.

“Something very near to that copper deposit’s draining my mana, Ylawes. We were almost right on top of it. My spells were being pulled down. How far, I can’t say.”

Interesting. Ylawes blinked.

“Are there gemstones or ores that suck in magic?”

“Very few. If there are any, they’re definitely magical. Magicore won’t do that. Any ore that would is in a book and valuable.”

“Did someone say value? Our [Prospector] says you found hints of a rare item, Mage Falene?”

The Consortium was striding over, all smiles. Ylawes held up a hand.

“Falene sensed something draining her mana. Either a magical gem or stone—”

Huge smiles from the [Merchants]. Raeta beamed, and she hugged Jobbi.

“Is it soulstone? Maybe it’s magicore? That takes mana! Or—or—”

Or it’s a monster that eats magic. Living underground in a cave system, probably.”

The smiles went away. Ylawes was betting on the latter. Dawil was glancing at Falene.

“Worth a shot to dig it up and murder it either way. Could be valuable, but more importantly, if we get rid of it, we’re able to recharge our magic. Mind you, if we get too near it, our gear’s toast. Risky either way, lad.”

The [Merchants] looked at each other, and Yorrned scuffed at the ground.

“Copper. Not exactly what I was hoping to find. A sizable vein, but—copper. I suppose it’s more valuable than iron.”

Tivete cautiously glanced at the food wagon and cleared her throat.

“We must set up camp soon. There is a spring running down those foothills, so one imagines there’s groundwater…it’s not the worst idea to put the mine down and start the farms.”

“Argh. If only we had another two weeks!”

Yorrned agonized. Ylawes was insistent.

“I would like to investigate this mana-draining object or monster, whatever it is. Merchants, I believe we should head there tonight.”

The Consortium looked at him, then whispered amongst themselves. Merchant Lolsed clapped his hands authoritatively.

“Let’s vote on it. We will have a decision by tomorrow, Captain Ylawes.”

They smiled at him, and Ylawes inhaled and exhaled. Politeness…Falene glanced at him, then murmured loudly.

“That—may also be important given the other thing we found. Though perhaps I should share it with you first, Ylawes?”

She smiled slightly, and the [Merchants] turned back indignantly.

“What other thing?”

The half-Elf glanced at Insill, and her smile faded. Dasha, who’d also gone with Falene’s group, was stroking her beard nervously, and for once, Dawil didn’t fault her for it.

“The…remains of another expedition group. We think. Not all of them. And again—not all of them.”

Ylawes felt the first prickle of unease as the Consortium’s faces paled. He glanced at Falene.

“I need to see it.”

 

——

 

Forensic analysis of a battlefield was not a skill Ylawes had learned as a Gold-rank adventurer or [Knight].

Their best experts were Larr for his nose and Rasktooth, surprisingly. The Cave Goblin nodded authoritatively as Ylawes surveyed the wreckage of an open-top wagon and furrows in the ground. Also—the moldering stench of flesh.

Not much of it. The wagon was a mess of broken twine, one wheel snapped, and Ylawes saw only scraps of fabric and metal. The ground was churned up—when the [Guards] had found the spot, they’d ridden their horses over, but even if there had been tracks, the melting snow had obscured them.

“Doesn’t smell like too much blood. The wagon smells like…hrr. Well, sort of like a wagon.”

Larr looked embarrassed as he tried to scent for clues. But he sneezed when he got to the bodies.

“This smells like a monster. Think it was an attack?”

“No. Is no attack. They was dead already.”

Rasktooth denied the [Archer]’s claim, and Larr looked somewhat annoyed.

“How can you tell?”

“Because they was eaten. See? Landsharks got—and smaller monsters too. Scavengers. See all the time in dungeon. Probably—two? Three dead ones right here. They lying. Buried, actually. Then got dig up and eat. Big marks here.”

The ground was churned up, and a divot had been taken out of the earth. Now Ylawes saw it, he doubted any regular fighting would do that. Yes…if it had been a shallow grave and a Landshark came by…

“Hrr. I guess that’s true, yeah. But what’s your other clue?”

Larr looked embarrassed. For answer, Rasktooth pointed.

“Is poop. Monsters don’t poo if fighting. If they eat? Then poop.”

A frozen trail of feces indicated his observation, and Larr grumbled, but conceded Rasktooth’s point. When asked why he hadn’t identified the poo as a normal sign, he snapped at Insill.

Everyone smells like shit now and then. You get used to it.”

Ylawes just paced around the site—and stepped in something. He tried to reason out what he was looking at.

“The wagon broke a wheel here. Whoever was here decided to leave—and bury three of their own? Hmm. Or did they die in an attack?”

Dawil was inspecting the wagon, and he pointed out some of it had been destroyed as well.

“I think they needed to move on. But look, lad. Someone’s hacked out part of the wagon. Seems like they took as much for firewood or kindling as they could carry. You know what I reckon? I think they were divesting themselves of as much as possible. See?”

The pieces of scrap metal and fabric looked like trash. Which, Ylawes realized, they sort of were. A broken basket…several bags of empty fabric…even, when he looked down in the mud, a pile of stones.

“It’s a cracked whetstone. Hmm. Why toss all this stuff?”

“And why bury the bodies?”

“—Huh?”

Dawil was stroking his beard. He nodded to Ylawes.

“Think on it, lad. Most people wouldn’t just bury friends or even fellow colonists nowhere. Would you?”

“Of course I would. Or I’d try to deliver them to their families. In a…bag of holding…”

It was a grisly thought, but Ylawes had heard of adventurers doing just that. Anything dead could go into a bag of holding, and the corpses couldn’t reanimate if they were inside. But what if—Dawil was nodding.

“Unless their bags of holding didn’t work. Now they’ve broken a wagon. They have to bury these poor people quick—and chuck anything weighing them down. Either way, looks like they moved on.”

They could report that to the Consortium, but the fate of the three corpses unsettled Ylawes. He wished they’d been more intact, grim as that was, so he could tell how they’d died.

Here was the thing. He wasn’t used to seeing that many dead people as an adventurer. Death? Yes. Maiming? Yes. But three people dying seemed extreme. Then Ylawes realized what was so off about it.

I guess I’m wondering if they ran out of healing potions. But how many did they have?

He touched his belt, and his healing potion, one of two he owned, was frosted over, the liquid inside frozen when he pulled it out. Ylawes blinked at it, then pulled out his second potion. He had two, given the scarcity. One he’d bought recently from Octavia. The other…had Saliss ever given him a potion? Ylawes felt like Saliss had.

He stared at the potions. If he, a Gold-ranker, had two, then the caravan…his eyes locked onto the frozen potion. Slowly, Ylawes shook it and had a thought. A terrible one.

“Dawil. Have you ever had a healing potion freeze up?”

“Huh? Not really, lad. Most potions’ll freeze after you. I think I had one that was slush, once. I reckon you can chomp it down no problem. As long as it melts. Let me check—huh. Mine are frozen.”

The Dwarf frowned at his belt. Ylawes stared at the frozen potion he had decided came from Octavia. Then one made by Saliss, and that one was still liquid.

This cannot be happening. But it was. Slowly, he shook the still-glowing liquid and watched a swirl of purple run through a lime green color.

“Hey, Dawil. Are potions magical?”

“Lad. Do you want an answer to th—”

Dawil stared at Ylawes. Then down at the frozen healing potions, which had never frozen that Ylawes remembered. Falene glanced at them, then felt at her belt in alarm. Ylawes just sighed.

The healing potions were dead.

 

 

Day 27 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

They set up a camp past the abandoned wagon in the lee of a hill covered with grass. The [Miners] constructed a support archway, and Homle told Ylawes that if all went well, they’d be able to dig into the hillside and then down towards Falene’s mysterious mana-draining thing—and the copper vein.

“There’s some kind of opening down there. The instant we hit it, we’ll pull back and whistle for you, but I want a [Guard] or adventurer at all times. Other than that? It’s just digging. We’ll need good rations for that. D’you think we’ll make it to the first harvests?”

Ylawes felt at the one healing potion at his belt that was good, one of two in all the caravan. Well, that the regular members of the expedition had declared. The [Merchants] hadn’t said directly how much they had left. Normally, Ylawes wouldn’t have noticed; one of the younger [Traders] had cited a lack within their supplies. Not the Consortium saying it outright where you could use a truth Skill.

Argh, it wasn’t very honorable to suspect them of anything. But—it might be a bit practical to.

Healing potions were magic. And as it turned out, unless one had been made by a good [Alchemist]—they died too.

“Can your crew work on half-rations, Homle?”

“No.”

“Then neither can the [Farmers]. The [Guards] and my team will go down as much as we can, but we need to stay in fighting shape. The [Merchants] and the cooking staff and handlers have all agreed to go to half-rations. They’re not happy, but that’s all we can do.”

Homle grunted.

“Best we get to work, then. The more we dig, the more dirt there is for the fields if we need the less-salty kind.”

The irony, of course, was that if the farms didn’t turn out their first harvest, and quick, there would be no point to the mines, but neither man said that. Ylawes just nodded at Homle.

“Do you have enough to build the…support structures for the mines?”

He knew enough from House Byres’ silver mines to know you needed to brace up the walls, and Homle grimaced.

“We did, and plenty, but now we’ll have to find more timber—or dismantle some of the wagons. Now that we’re burning wood—we’ll do the best we can.”

Up till now, the Consortium of Enterprise had been using flame spells and magical devices to light fires, a huge saving in firewood. Those were dead as of this morning. Falene could start a fire, but she had asked how necessary it was.

Ylawes had made the call it was not. He was—stressed. The normally-tidy [Knight] had messed up hair from running his hand through it so much. He glanced at the mine, then looked for the [Merchants].

They were sequestered in their wagons, mostly, out of sight, letting everyone get to work. They had been seen less and less, but once they’d voted to start the copper mine, they hadn’t been needed.

Farmer Petia and everyone who could be spared was setting up a field. Falene’s magic was useful here. She’d cast a huge dome of warmth that was helping bring the soil to life, and she had prepared a [Rain] spell for the first sowing.

Ylawes had eaten his first low-ration meal, and he was noticeably hungry. Not that he was inactive; he posted Rasktooth, Infinitypear, and Dawil on mine-duty. The two Bronze-rank adventurers were less mobile, and Dawil was able to cool tempers. With Falene helping the farmers, Ylawes took the rest of Vuliel Drae hunting.

 

——

 

“Anything you can find, Larr.”

“I’m trying. It’s not like home, Captain Ylawes. I’m an [Archer]; I shoot things. I have a bit of experience from my tribe, but I don’t know what tracks to look for, and everything smells different.”

“No pressure.”

Ylawes tried to smile as the Gnoll scented around for animals. The spring had begun as far as Ylawes concerned; everything was wet, and the horses’ hooves slipped now and then in the grass.

The foothills they were in slanted downwards until Ylawes could see them spreading out over a wild plains before abruptly ending over a lip miles to the east. Whatever was there, he wasn’t sure of; the way back slowly tapered out until it met a large river. They must have missed it on the ride here. What lay over the foothills? Unknown.

Each way had the possibility of food or interesting resources, but Larr wasn’t happy for obvious reasons.

“Either we chose the worst area for hunting or there’s just not as much to eat here, Captain. There’s less grass…those bush-things back there sound mighty appetizing, but we passed that area weeks ago.”

That was the problem. The Consortium had gone higher on the basis they wanted the hills for mining, which were places where food was less common. None of the Featherball birds or Corusdeer herds were present. And when they went riding, Ylawes saw a few problems.

 

——

 

East of their position was a ridge that led over a large rift in the plains. The ground had just—split in half, revealing huge, jagged stone cliffs that led straight down so far that Insill had chucked a stone down and had to wait for over half a minute to hear the ‘click’ of sound. The gap was also wide, at least a hundred feet across.

“What the hell did this? Some kind of spell?”

“Might just be the sea floor. Remember, this was all underwater, Dasha.”

Anith corrected the half-Dwarf woman as she stared uneasily down into the rift. Larr stayed well clear of it, refusing to go even fifty feet closer to the drop.

“Even [Featherfall] won’t save you if you go over, Insill, Pekona. That only slows your fall—how’re you going to climb back up?”

The two fearless members of Vuliel Drae backed away from the edge. Ylawes, flat on his stomach to peer over the edge, stared down and grunted.

“I think I see things moving down there. It’s hard to see…what is that?”

Something horrific was moving across the ground, and Pekona came over to stare.

“It’s got eight limbs. Is that an…what’s the word for it in your language? Octopus? They live in the water, though.”

“A what? Oh, it’s gone.”

Whatever it was had suddenly vanished. Ylawes hadn’t seen it slip through a crack, but it was suddenly gone. Strange—and if he craned his neck, he could experience amazing vertigo, but also see huge plants rising upwards on parts of the cliffs.

“Interesting stuff. But I don’t think we can climb down to collect any, can we, Captain?”

Insill looked vaguely disappointed when Ylawes said no. Larr just retreated to the horses, antsy to go.

“Good. Can we go? I hate heights.”

They were heading south at good speed to check out the river that Ylawes had high hopes for when he heard a strange ripping sound. He didn’t know where it was coming from for a second. Then he felt something pressing at his side, looked down—and one of his tunics exploded upwards and hit him in the head.

It exited his bag of holding at such speed it hurt, and Ylawes recoiled as his horse reared in alarm—then heard a terrible tearing sound. Ylawes reached down as his [Dangersense] wailed—tossed the bag of holding, and shouted.

“Get d—”

Anith was fumbling with his own bag of holding when it exploded.

 

——

 

Bags of holding could fail in any number of ways. Two rules of thumb were never go over your magical interference threshold and never put a bag of holding in a bag of holding.

Ylawes had never seen one just…break. It turned out when they did, the fabric became mere fabric, and everything inside decompressed at speed.

It didn’t break everything inside—it just hurled it outwards. In Ylawes’ case, it was mostly menial objects, though a spare sword did pass right over Larr’s head.

Anith, the only member of Vuliel Drae with a bag of holding, had more trouble. Several books were in his bag of holding, and they hit the poor [Mage] at close range.

He had several huge bruises, and his poor horse suffered damage too. They had to chase that animal down. Then—figure out how to grab everything and haul it back to the camp.

Ylawes hadn’t realized how much he was carrying in his bag of holding until now. Everything from spare quills and inkpots to things he’d forgotten he had. Spare clothing, whetstones, a book he’d never returned to Falene—even some silver dust he remembered his father giving him.

In the end, they had to use some of his clothing to lash it to the horses’ backs and walk back. That left them footsore by the time they returned, only to find chaos at camp, too.

“Everything that can’t be stored goes under the wagon. Only perishable goods or something that can’t be rained on in the wagons! I need to finish drawing this Rune of Preservation. Enough!

Falene was shouting at one of the [Merchants]. Ylawes stared around at piles upon piles of—well, cargo.

All the Chests of Holding had failed. Some spectacularly too. They had been warned about the problem, but there hadn’t been any houses or structures set up, so where could things have been stored?

They should have been stored somewhere else. The worst case was all the ingots Yorrned had brought. They’d exploded out like a weapon of war, and three people who’d been near the wagon were down with broken bones.

The cure for that was a healing potion, but the caravan had only one, and the [Merchants] were upset.

“All my ledgers and my collection of books must be protected from the rains!”

Merchant Lolsed was trying to argue with Falene, but she was drawing something on a wagon. Falene snapped as Ylawes appeared.

“Your bag of holding too? Ylawes, the spells shredded some of the runes. I’m down to two left. Get this idiot away from me.”

“Idiot! Captain, talk to the caravaners.”

“What’s wrong, Master Lolsed?”

Ylawes didn’t understand—until he saw how many goods were being hauled around or lashed under tarps. There was simply…too much to store in a wagon, let alone with people needing to sleep there.

Under a wagon isn’t good enough. Mine won’t fit anything more. Some of the caravaners must sleep outside.”

The [Merchant] was trying to evict several members of the colony from the wagons. Ylawes stared at him.

“What if we put it in a chest and—”

My finances are not to be stored in a chest where there’s a chance they’ll get wet! Nor my books!”

“Master Lolsed, this is a disaster!”

Thank you, Captain Ylawes! Someone can say it! Now, what I need you to do is—”

“Excuse me while I see to the wounded. Then we’ll see about your ledgers.”

Ylawes strode past the man, grim-faced.

 

——

 

The remaining healing potion in the caravan went to the broken bones, a third per injured. Ylawes had been about to offer his potion, but he’d hesitated when the caravaners had argued over what to do.

Rather than say he had one…he hadn’t said a word. They’d looked at him, but Ylawes had held his tongue.

He couldn’t sleep that night for the guilt of it. Falene and Dawil had given him warning looks, but Ylawes had hesitated before that.

We need this potion if we fight monsters. He couldn’t imagine a scenario where they’d go into combat without one.

In fact, he’d taken it off his belt and told Dawil to hide it; the Dwarf had put it on a necklace under his beard. It was duplicitous, uncharitable, but Ylawes had seen Dawil’s look of relief and had articulated what the Dwarf was feeling.

Everything about this is going terribly, terribly wrong.

In the Consortium’s defense, a lot of things hadn’t been their fault for lack of knowing. Carrying fresh food wasn’t wise—but they had Runes of Preservation. They had relied on magic, and magic was letting them all down.

The [Merchants] had shouted and demanded people leave their wagons—then resorted to the only thing that had worked: gold. Six whole wagons had slept outside in exchange for coin; they’d piled up as much merchandise as they could underneath the wagons too, for shelter.

Ylawes sat in the wagon the Silver Swords shared with Infinitypear and Rasktooth and saw Infinitypear sleeping while sitting upright—Rasktooth was curled up next to him. Falene was sitting cross-legged, her head lowered, but hands resting on her knees—her brows were furrowed in concentration.

She was inhaling, slowly, then exhaling, as if drawing something into her. She was close enough that Ylawes thought her body temperature was higher—she was working hard to regain her lost mana today.

Dawil was snoring. Ylawes sat and resolved to head to the river tomorrow for food. Then he heard a sound and glanced up.

A patter made Dawil start, and Rasktooth opened one eye. Falene craned her head back, grimaced, and looked outside. Ylawes heard moans from the camp and sighed.

It was raining.

 

——

 

Ylawes went pacing that night. At first, he did it in the tiny wagon until Falene glared at him, and then he went outside, ostensibly to hand some oiled blankets to the poor people caught in the rain.

They, in return, offered him some water caught by their pots and pans, and he gulped some down; he’d been thirstier since they’d stopped being able to melt snow. He could have gone back to the wagon, but he went for a long walk around the camp.

No one stopped him; Ylawes wandered out from the Consortium’s camp, knowing there was a night watch, both [Guards] and Dasha and Anith, tonight.

Anything out there would be identified as a threat. Ylawes found nothing and kicked around the grass for a while. It was wet, the rain kept pattering on his head, and he found himself walking further out.

Step, step, step, kick—he uprooted a tuft of grass with a kick, revealing dirt. Ordinary soil as far as he could tell. Step, step, step, kick—

He scuffed the yellowed grass. Not hard enough, so the next time he kicked, he uprooted a huge chunk of it. Ylawes wondered if he could find…a bush-creature?

His stomach was tender, and he realized he was hoping he’d see something to eat. Obviously, he could take on any of the other animals he’d seen, and he could share it with the camp—perhaps he’d have Rasktooth cook it up, or the Consortium would demand their share first.

Step. Step. Step…the [Knight]’s kick was so savage this time he jammed his foot into the ground and nearly fell down.

Ylawes decided he was done after that. Grunting, he turned back, realizing there was nothing to hunt out here and he was wasting energy and getting soaked. He began to head back towards the wagons…then blinked.

It was dark and the rain made things harder, even in a drizzle, but Ylawes walked back a few hundred feet, staring at a line of upturned soil. His foot hurt more than he’d thought. He’d kicked a line through the New Lands.

The next day, it was still there, but when someone commented on it, Ylawes pretended not to know what it was all about.

 

 

Day 28 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

Flame spells were out. The camp ate cold, and Ylawes heard Salamander giving orders.

“I want a team of fifteen to get that wagon and haul it back. Chop it up if you need to. Someone else break down a piece of wood. Anything. We need kindling. We need trees—I thought I saw some on the hills ahead. Captain, what are you doing?”

Ylawes stared around outside. The rain hadn’t lasted into morning, but mist hung everywhere, and he saw zero fires. Someone was trying to start one with tinder and flint, but it was too wet.

“I can start one fire for the camp. It won’t last all day. I’ll begin it during the evening and let it last until just after dinner. After that, you need to burn wood.”

Falene announced her intentions and got pushback from the others.

“One fire? We need to dry things out, Miss Mage. If it’s just magic—”

One of the [Farmers] protested, and Falene shot back.

“It’s mana or wood we’re burning, Miss. Neither one is unlimited right now.”

“I’m going for the river. It’s a long ride; we might be back tomorrow if we have to camp out, Salamander. I could search for trees. Which do we need more?”

Ylawes pointed at the foothills, and Salamander didn’t even look around.

“Go fishing, Captain. Alright, let’s get to work!”

 

——

 

It only occurred to Ylawes when they were heading out that he had no bags of holding, no fishing gear, and no experience. He had to tell Vuliel Drae to head back with him.

“We have some hooks, Captain. And nets. The [Merchants] did think we’d have some…let me find it.”

A flustered [Trader] had to locate the gear, then Ylawes had to figure out how they’d bring it all back. He got them to give him a harness and a draft horse; they’d drag a sled behind them if they had to.

Larr, the best rider, traded his horse in, and they set out once more. It was a long journey to the river. Vuliel Drae’s spirits were as damp as the weather, but they did pick up when they saw the first animals near the spring.

“Look! Waisrabbits!”

Insill shot a bow the moment he saw one, but the thing vanished as it nibbled on grass, and Larr called Insill back.

“Don’t even bother taking a shot. Rasktooth got lucky; they’re not worth the meat you get from hunting them. Not enough, and not filling. You can starve on rabbits.”

There were also, Ylawes realized, bugs. Which weren’t his favorite, but he saw bright yellow beetles in the grass blending in with the soggy, yellow-green terrain, and bright red butterflies flew past him. He blinked at them.

This place is coming to life. High overhead, he saw twinkling Creona Flashbirds darting away from a bigger bird in the skies.

“Looks like a hawk. Old animals and new.”

Larr informed the group. Anith was energetically noting all this down, grumbling.

“I’d cast [Magic Picture] if I could—let me know if any of this is recognizable to you, Captain Ylawes. Once we get more magic, I’ll send a copy of this to the Adventurer’s Guild and see if any of this is valuable.”

When will that be? No, Ylawes realized they had settled down, so he had, what, fourteen more days on contract? As far as he knew—food was going to last six. The rate of spoilage had advanced with the lowering number of preservation runes.

Pekona kept glancing at Ylawes, and he tried to smile.

“That sounds like a good idea, Anith. How is Vuliel Drae holding up?”

They looked at each other, and Dasha coughed.

“It’s an adventure, uh, Captain Ylawes. We’re glad you’re leading us. We’d hate to think it was our—I mean, we’re in the New Lands and—”

“It’s miserable?”

Everyone stopped. Pekona blinked, and Insill grinned nervously—then Larr burst out in relieved laughter. Ylawes looked around with a faint smile.

“I can admit what’s obvious, you know. My bag of holding exploded. My face still stings from being hit with my own shirt.”

And I lost half my magic gear. This sucks!

Insill shouted. The rest of Vuliel Drae began shouting epitaphs. Anith waved his personal magical tome overhead.

“My spellbook is half ruined!”

Larr snarled.

“My shortbow ran out of magic! I saved up since I was a cub for it!”

“My beard-growth tonic’s not working!”

Dasha complained, then looked sour when no one commiserated with her.

Pekona raised a hand.

“I don’t have much magic gear.”

Everyone stared at her. Silently, they began tossing things at her. Some of the yellow beetles kept landing on the adventurers—they pelted Pekona with them as Ylawes smiled. He saw the team glancing sideways at him.

“We didn’t want to complain because we thought you wouldn’t, Captain Ylawes.”

Insill remarked shyly. Ylawes blinked.

“Of course we complain. I haven’t in front of you all because I didn’t want to be, well, childish. But Falene, Dawil, and I have been grousing a while. It’s bad form in front of the clients.”

“Yeah, well, they suck.”

Dasha growled, and Ylawes hesitated. Then he nodded.

“Let’s get to that river, okay?”

Please let there be fish in there. Please.

 

——

 

It was late evening by the time they got to the river, and the horses were so tired some flopped over after drinking enough water. Ylawes asked someone to rub them down, but had a problem.

Insill had claws. Pekona didn’t know horses very well. Dasha was short, and Anith and Larr had paws. The Human with the hands decided he’d be the best one to do it.

Tending to the horses took some time, and by the time he was able to ask how the fishing was going, Ylawes’ apprehensions were rewarded with the first bit of good news.

“Captain! We’ve got fish! Only—look at them.”

Ylawes peered into the river and was rewarded with a huge splash as Dasha heaved something out of the water, and it fought like crazy before snapping the string she’d tossed in.

“Hey, they go for hooks even without bait! Look at them, Captain Ylawes!”

They were big, some four feet long, others half again as long, swimming in the deep river along the bed. Ylawes had never seen fish as vertical as they were!

“What kind of fish is that?

“Reminds me of home. An, uh—uh—”

Pekona couldn’t translate, but the fish reminded her of some ocean fish that were long and moved in schools. What made Ylawes look twice was the color, not just of the fish, but of the riverbed itself.

The entire riverbed was slightly purple. Whether it was the tinting of the water or some effect from the light meeting the water and soil, the very water looked unnaturally purple. So were the fish; Ylawes saw them darting around in curious surging motions—they’d race ahead rather than left or right if they felt threatened.

There were other fish in the water too. A big fish with a pelican-like beak who kept trying to gulp up the smaller fish, several more squat fish fighting the current and nibbling on the sides of the riverbed, a huge scattering of dancing waterbugs—these were clearly prey for the longfish, who would shoot up and grab them—Insill—

A black-scaled Drake swimming like the biggest fish of them all tried to grab one of the bigger fish, then surfaced with a grin.

“Hey, Captain, I almost—”

Out of the water!”

Ylawes barked, and Insill stared at him then leapt out of the water. Ylawes snapped.

“Check if it’s poisoned first!”

Vuliel Drae looked at one another, and Ylawes stared at the purple water, aghast. The first thing you did with a river like this was test it!

 

——

 

An hour later, Ylawes suspected the water was fine. Firstly, because he’d tested the water by scooping some up and boiling it, then tasting it. Then he’d had a cup and waited, and nothing was happening.

The water lost the purple effect when you put it in a pot, which was mostly due to the mud of the riverbank. Second—and he hadn’t liked this—Insill was pretty much proof it wasn’t poisonous.

“Sorry, Captain Ylawes. It’s not that cold, though. I wonder why?”

The river was indeed far warmer than it should be, and Ylawes hadn’t minded washing himself a bit when he’d decided it was clean. After they fished, of course.

Dasha had pulled out several fish by the sheer fact that they’d never seen a hook before, and Larr had shot two who got close to the surface. But in the end, Vuliel Drae had found the easiest way to catch the fish was just…dropping a net and letting them swim into it.

Some of the longfish swam through, but they pulled up an amazing haul, and Ylawes sliced the longfish open to see if it had anything nasty inside.

“Smells good, Captain. Want me to [Message] Falene about it?”

“Go and tell her we’ve found fish, but don’t waste mana trying to describe it to anyone. Tell you what—I’ll cook a piece and have it tonight.”

Pekona lifted a hand rather eagerly for once.

“I’ll join you. I like raw fish. Does anyone have a pot? I could make rice and fish.”

Dasha snorted.

“You mean your weird dish? Wait, don’t get mad! I like it. Have you ever had su-shi, Captain Ylawes?”

Much to Pekona’s disappointment, Ylawes insisted they cook everything, and he and Pekona ate the fish. The rest of Vuliel Drae was frankly envious; as far as Ylawes could tell, it was just good fish, and he ended up eating a lot more than he should have.

If nothing else, they at least had salt and butter, and that, after frying enough on a pan and boiling some of Pekona’s rice in a pot, was not bad at all. Vuliel Drae spent the night with him cleaning as many fish as they could, and Anith cast a freezing spell over the lot just so it would remain good until the next day. Ylawes rolled into a bedroll that was slightly soggy on the ground, and he felt tired but full.

 

——

 

In the middle of the night, Ylawes awoke to stomach pains. He began to groan—then realized he’d eaten too much food and passed out again.

 

 

Day 29 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

The fish was good. The fish was good. When Ylawes woke up and saw Pekona was fine, he made the call. Vuliel Drae cheered, and their huge haul of fish from last night was still mostly frozen.

“We can haul it back to camp and get more! Let’s g—huh?”

Insill ran over to the river and blinked into it. When he peered around, Ylawes hurried over and saw the fish were gone.

The longfish had vacated this section of the river. He’d noticed the school of fish flowing down the river; it seemed like they had been alarmed by all the catching or had eaten their comrades’ intestines then moved on.

“Don’t worry. If they were here once, they’ll be back. There are still stragglers. It wouldn’t be good to overfish, anyways.”

Larr assured the others, and they decided not to ride up and down the riverbank but hurry the fish back to camp. This time, they had to lash the fish to a sled or store them, and it was a wet, messy, smelly ride back.

Keeping fish from bouncing off onto the ground—then the stupid bugs from going after them—was a huge chore. One of the adventurers ended up having to stay near the sled and swat bugs off, and trade off in shifts, but spirits were high.

 

——

 

Of course, nine hours later, they were all tired, but the cheer they got when they rode back into camp and everyone saw the fish was huge. Ylawes got a clap on the back from Dawil.

“Good work, lad. We needed a win.”

“This calls for a celebration! Chef Votto, prepare your finest fish stew—and break out a drink!”

“Sparingly.”

Falene cautioned Merchant Yorrned, but several wine bottles came out of one of the merchants’ wagons, and the cooking staff raced to prepare the fish.

“Make sure you wash ‘em. They had some yellow beetles on there, but only a few fell on the ground. Dust those off, and they’re mighty tasty, believe me.”

Dasha was proudly showing everyone the fruits of their labor, and Ylawes saw Farmer Petia and Miner Homle stopping their work to come see what it was all about.

“The river’s got fish? We might have set up a better camp over there. Seems like a long ride…well, we’re driving up foundations for the houses now. Can’t be helped.”

“Houses?”

Ylawes was surprised, but Petia pointed out that they had brought lumber. The [Farmers] had sown a lot of their crop and were now building places to stay; they had a quick design that involved driving logs of wood down, creating a rough frame of wood, then taking spare tarps and creating a mostly-cloth house.

“It’s not pretty, and I wouldn’t trust it during a heavy rainstorm, but it’ll save a lot of seeds. Salamander says there’s wood high up.”

Indeed, the [Elite Guard] had come back with good news, if not as good as Ylawes. He accepted some of the roasted fish and ate an entire piece hungrily before pointing up the hills.

“They are trees, but I’ll be damned if I know if it’s enough. Remember that blue stuff that was raining down over Goisedall?”

“How could I forget? Those blue patches…are those the trees?”

Salamander nodded.

“Huge clumps of them joined up. They’re soft wood—here, we cut down a few.”

He handed Ylawes a piece of wood just larger around than the palm of Ylawes’ hand.

“Long and swaying with huge fluffs of the blue stuff up top. They have smaller little branches, but they group up together for some reason. We could go out and harvest them, but it’s a long ride.”

“Wood won’t be much use until it dries, but it’s something. That’s fuel and food. The water’s good too, right? We’ll dig a well.”

When Ylawes told Petia all these things were true, she looked a bit cheerful for once.

“Seems like we might be in luck, then. The turnips are down—ah. Damn, I forgot to dig up the ones I buried to see how they sprout. I’ll do it tonight. Did I see wine being passed out?”

 

——

 

That night, the expedition was so cheery that Falene found the magic to keep the fire going—ostensibly to dry out the wood that Salamander had found to see how good it was as fuel or lumber.

Ylawes sat around the campfire, and Rasktooth ate enough fish to almost be sick—everyone was stuffing themselves.

“Love fish. Is very good.”

“Fish is okay.”

Poke Duo had their first argument when Infinitypear revealed he thought the fish were middling. Rasktooth sat up and poked his friend.

“Is great fish. Is perfect fish.”

“Is okay fish.”

The two had a poking match that actually got aggressive until Ylawes separated them.

“Since you two have been on guard duty so long, why don’t I take you two with me? Vuliel Drae helped secure the fish; if we go somewhere else, you two are with me. Alright?”

The two novice [Adventurers] brightened up so much they stopped fighting and nodded. Ylawes sat back—right up until he heard a shout.

“Look at that!”

He reached for his sword, then relaxed when he saw the cause of the commotion. The light was fading, but something had come down, seeking the fish.

Flashbirds! Protect the catch!

However, oddly, the birds didn’t go after the fish. Rather, they were darting around overhead, and what the happy colonists had seen were, in fact, trails of light in the air. It turned out to be…

“Ah, more bugs. Wonderful.”

Dasha glumly stared up, but Ylawes saw a green spiral of light, then an odd, flying insect. It was sort of like a dragonfly, but it seemed to glide around rather than fly at high speeds. It had a weird, cave-like body that let the air pass through a strange membrane-like structure, similar to wings, and two huge, insectile eyes.

Or not eyes? Ylawes shaded his eyes as a Creona Flashbird lit up, but then he saw the bird swoop down after a green spiral of light—and miss?

The Flashbird was as surprised as he was. It aborted the dive, swung around, looking ungainly for a second, then darted off at one of the odd, gliding bugs.

“They’re like fireflies. Neat. Only, what’s up with the Flashbirds?”

The birds were going after these strange insects—and there were a lot of them—but it didn’t seem like the bugs were being taken out. Rather, Dasha pointed, and Ylawes saw another insect light up. A curious spiral of light flashed from the ‘eyes’, and the Flashbird dove at the insect. It hit the trail of light—and missed the bug entirely.

“Oh! I get it! Look! The bugs aren’t lighting up, they’re distracting the Flashbirds! Neat! Like the old Flashy Pickpocketer!”

Insill crowed. Then Ylawes understood what was going on. The insects were producing a light that flickered ahead of them, distracting the birds. Unlike fireflies—it was a self-defense mechanism, not a mating ritual. The Creona Flashbirds were nimble and quick, but gullible. They swooped around, then seemed to become so annoyed by their ineffective hunting that they flew up and away in a spiral of lights.

The insects kept glowing as they blew in a gust of wind into the air, and Ylawes saw the green glow passing across the New Lands like a thousand messages in another language being written all at once.

“That was…”

Beautiful. For a second, the [Knight] forgot his worries and sat there. He had never heard of something like that described by another adventurer, not once. Infinitypear stared at the bugs until the last light was gone.

“That was like seeing the sky for the first time.”

“Yah.”

Rasktooth agreed. The Worker and Cave Goblin held hands, quarrel forgotten, and Ylawes looked at them, then found a cup of wine for the three. They sat there, craning their heads to see if there were more glowing bugs—and Ylawes thought he saw more telltale glimmers.

The Flashbirds were still high overhead, like a moving constellation, and as more time passed, the winter sky gave way to a night sky full of stars. So bright that the Gold-rank adventurer couldn’t remember seeing so many around Liscor and Invrisil, where magical and artificial light made them less visible.

“Look at that. Is very beautiful. Very high roof of world. Not like dungeon. I wonder how far you go to get to ceiling. And what lies beyond that?”

Rasktooth lay on his back and stared upwards. Ylawes smiled.

“Ceiling? I’ve heard [Mages] say those stars are like our sun. Far off, but a lot bigger when you get close.”

“Really? Very far, then. You sure not ceiling?”

Rasktooth was incredulous. He seemed to think the world went up and down, and the sky was another thing you could climb up to and reach another place from. He pointed, and Ylawes demurred.

“The constellations change month by month, Rasktooth. They move. How would a ceiling do that?”

“Eh…maybe it water? And these things float around in it?”

“I—well, maybe. But look, I know those signs. That’s the Guiding Dragon, there’s the Guiding Flame—”

Ylawes knew some of the stars and began to teach them to the younger duo. You could use them as a guide if you could see them. Infinitypear listened, and Rasktooth was much amused, but didn’t seem to mind the lecture.

“And that? What that?”

He pointed up, and Ylawes frowned.

“What? There’s nothing there.”

“Yah, yah. Isn’t it cool? Is different part of sky.”

Rasktooth was pointing to something between the stars. Ylawes just saw the night sky and the vivid, multi-colored stars. But he’d noticed the Cave Goblin had excellent night vision.

“I don’t see it. Describe it.”

“Right there. Is tiiiiny rectangle-thing. Different-colored sky.”

“Really? What color?”

“Well, sky is black. That color is black. Different black. Is…lots of words in Goblin for color. What do you call other black?”

“…I think I’ll take your word for it. Anything else look off?”

Rasktooth looked around.

“Nah. Maybe I see cool square star? Or maybe is weird cloud.”

Ylawes smiled. He got up as Infinitypear complained.

“I don’t see it. The stars are beautiful, Rasktooth.”

“Is okay—

They began fighting behind him. Ylawes went to see Falene. Something had occurred to him.

“Falene, I know it’s late, but would you send a [Message] for me? I know it’s high in costs, but I think one would do it.”

“I suppose I could spare the mana. This wine is slightly magical, you know. Which is why I’m having it.”

Falene’s cheeks were flushed, and she and Dawil had stolen a bottle. Ylawes smiled.

“Can you send a message…to, oh, I suppose Yvlon’s still missing. Unless they found her. She’s alive.”

Of course she was. Falene and Dawil nodded hurriedly, and Ylawes distracted himself from wondering if she were lost at sea. Ylawes thought, but it had occurred to him—they were cut off, but not isolated. If they had mana to spare…

“What about The Wandering Inn?”

Falene sat up a bit.

“What, for a social call?”

“Just an update. Ask about what’s going on. If they’ve found the Horns.”

The notion wasn’t bad, so Falene smiled, and Ylawes helped compile a brief message of what was going on. He mentioned the mana troubles and food issues, but downplayed it and said where they’d camped, roughly. He mentioned the strange floating bugs, the fish, the Flashbirds, and rounded it off with an idea.

“If you can visit us with the [World’s Eye Theatre], we’d love to show you some of it.”

“Good idea. Alright. With that, I think I’m in need of sleep!”

Falene sent the spell to the Mage’s Guild, and Ylawes thanked her and bid everyone a good night. He settled in for a good sleep—and then heard something as he dreamed.

Not a level up. But rather…Ylawes dreamed of a dark sky overhead, devoid of stars, and then a flash of silver.

It lit up the darkness, and then he was standing in the middle of the New Lands—and saw a brilliant form twisting as it flew overhead.

The Silver Dragon. 

Ylawes in his dream craned his neck back, trying to see where it landed, but he only had the impression of it passing him in the night. He looked around and thought—closer.

[Legacy: Find the Dragon’s Grave]. Ylawes woke up with a start, heart pounding. Then he went back to sleep with a smile.

Nearby?

 

 

Day 30 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

The next day, Ylawes woke to an unpleasant discovery. Not that the fish was poisoned. Or bad. Or that Salamander had brought a rare version of exploding deadwood from the trees. Rather, it was a more mundane problem, and it was this:

“We ate all the fish?”

Ylawes looked at Chef Votto, and the man spread his hands.

“Last night. I didn’t even get a chance to do a second helping for some.”

“But how? We brought back…”

Ylawes glanced at the horses they’d loaded up with fish, and the sled, then remembered how many people were in the caravan. He blinked, then raked at his hair.

“We’d better send out a bigger fishing party. Now we know it’s largely safe—we could put [Guards] on it and helpers. I’ll take Poke Duo and some of Vuliel Drae again, and we’ll bring back more.”

 

——

 

This time, they took three times as many people and pack horses, and Anith promised to freeze as much as possible. The ride there wasn’t eventful, aside from the two [Adventurers] being excited.

“Now this is adventure. We only levelled up a bit. Now we rolling in levels, eh, brother?”

“Right.”

Infinitypear agreed, and Ylawes twisted in his saddle.

“You two levelled up on the way here?”

“Yup.”

They chorused, and he was mildly jealous.

“How? We didn’t do any fighting.”

“Fighting. Psh. We [Adventurers]. Infinitypear, he is [Horrorbane Adventurer]. I am [Overlands Adventurer].”

One sounded less impressive than the other, but Rasktooth slapped his chest proudly.

“Mine is very good, Captain-guy Ylawes! Overlands. I am the first Cave Goblin to adventure from home—ever. Infinitypear has sling Skills and spear Skills. Psh. I have better Skills.”

Infinitypear nodded gloomily.

“I am just good at fighting. Rasktooth has [Nose for Something Interesting].”

“Is my big Level 10 Skill.”

Ylawes had never heard of that Skill before. He glanced at Rasktooth.

“So you smell something odd?”

“Yep. Sometimes nose say ‘go there’ or ‘try there’. Lots of interesting smells here.”

“Have you gone and found any of it?”

Rasktooth looked insulted.

“What? I have job, Captain Ylawes. Smells too far off. But you say when we have good food—then we go exploring.”

That…sounded quite good, actually. It turned out Rasktooth had a number of Skills like that. Combined with [Hound’s Nose], no wonder he could tie with Larr for tracking.

As it turned out, Rasktooth also had a Skill for movement, though it worked through Infinitypear. The Antinium could jog with Rasktooth on his shoulders and keep up with the horses, though both elected to ride.

“More fish. Am glad for expedition. Otherwise, we start eating each other.”

“Humans don’t do that, Rasktooth.”

“Yet. Anyways, Infinitypear and I eat good. The m—things we found is very good.”

Ylawes sighed. At least they hadn’t felt the pinch. Rasktooth and Infinitypear did try to eat…everything…they saw, from the butterflies to beetles.

Mind you, Infinitypear seemed to be the more prescient of the two and instantly deemed the butterfly ‘not edible’. Rasktooth chewed one beetle, grimaced, and spat it out.

“Is bitter. Prefer wormies.”

 

——

 

When they got to the river after a day of riding, the volunteers were eager to haul up fish—but they didn’t find any. Just like when Ylawes and Vuliel Drae had woken up, the fish had apparently moved downriver.

“Hm. Let’s split up and ride up and down and see if we can find more.”

Ylawes was a bit concerned when he didn’t see as many fish—he began to feel like they’d lucked out on their first haul.

 

——

 

After three hours of riding up and down the river, Ylawes concluded unhappily that the fish were either migrating due to the winter or they’d scared them off. He told the camp to put hooks out, and they did catch fish!

Just not the super long ones. The smaller fish were still hand-sized, and the biggest catch from Salamander himself was three feet long, angular, and yellow-scaled.

“Hey, that’s a meal! Reckon it’s poison? Never seen a yellow fish before.”

“Psh. Is no poison.”

Rasktooth dug around in the fish but detected no ‘poison sacs’ as he called them, and the fish tasted as good as everything else. Ylawes stretched out as Rasktooth and Infinitypear debated what ‘smelled better for adventure’.

“Big ravine smells real good.”

“Is too high.”

“Okay…mountain has good smell.”

“I don’t want to go underground again.”

“You is so picky, Infinitypear. First fish, now this. Can we be friends still?”

“Yes.”

“…You right.”

 

 

Day 31 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

The next day, the fishing did not go well. Or rather, it went as well as a bunch of amateurs could hope to expect. They caught fish!

Only, they caught fish by hook, and they moved up and down the river to do so. The irony was that the fishing group ate their catch, and by midday, Ylawes stared down at nine fish.

“Not exactly worth the haul. We’ll have that for dinner.”

Salamander nodded, keeping his voice cautiously optimistic.

“Less people. We could trade out in shifts fishing if we send a regular expedition back here? It’s still food, and water too. Of course, if it had been the schools of fish, we’d want all hands.”

If only they had an [Angler] here. Ylawes had seen experts who could attract fish in a pond with bait Skills. He weighed waiting another day, but if the expedition was counting on the fish…

 

——

 

When they got back, the lack of a haul produced a long, worried silence. Votto stared at the nine fish and licked his lips.

“Half rations again. No more of the full rations this morning and lunch.”

That caught Ylawes’ ear.

“Wait. Do we only have four days of food left? Why did we go up to full rations?”

Votto spread his hands, backing away from Ylawes.

“Yorrned thought since we found the fish—today and yesterday, we fed everyone up. Well, the [Farmers] and [Miners] needed it, but the [Merchants] decided—”

Cursing, Ylawes stormed off to talk to Yorrned. The [Merchant] looked alarmed when Ylawes told him about the failure.

“But—surely we can sustain ourselves, Captain?”

“Not without a lot more hands, and it’s a two day trip. No more full rations. Everyone who’s not farming or mining goes down to half.”

Yorrned sat there for a while, the least active Ylawes had ever seen. He took a few quick breaths, then glanced up at Ylawes as if working himself up to something.

“This is all very inconvenient, Captain Ylawes. I hope you’ll begin pulling your weight as the Silver Swords soon. If you can’t—we might have to revisit your contract.”

Ylawes stopped at the door to the wagon.

“Pulling our weight how?”

The [Merchant] waved his hands.

“Hunting down those Corusdeer! Finding game!”

“At the time, we had enough food, Master Yorrned. We have no [Hunters]—”

“Yes, but you’re Gold-rank adventurers! Miss Falene has refused to send more [Message] spells or ward our goods—all things she’s capable of!”

“She’s the only person left who can cast spells, Merchant Yorrned. Besides Anith, and he can only muster a few Tier 2 spells per day. I believe this expedition was unprepared, and we had better get those turnips now—or find some game.”

That reminded him. Whatever happened to those turnips that Petia had sown? Ylawes headed for the door, and Yorrned’s voice rose indignantly.

“I don’t appreciate the insinuation, Captain Ylawes! We did everything as we properly understood it, and I was told your team was highly professional! I may make a note to the Adventurer’s Guild—Captain Ylawes?”

 

——

 

Petia was standing at the edge of the farmers’ fields when Ylawes found her. They’d been working hard each day that he’d been there, though he’d been absent a lot of the time. Right now…he blinked as he saw them boiling water and doing something odd.

They were…putting dirt in colanders and straining water through it? Then taking the soil and packing it into the ground that had already been planted. Another group was spreading down something wet and mushy.

“Get it planted. Don’t bother with the seedlings. We might as well plant that lot on top of something else…”

The [Farmer] was putting a trio of seeds into a rather rotten piece of mushed up bread and other spoiled food as Ylawes approached. She glanced up at him.

“The fishing went bad.”

He glanced at the fields.

“Did you ever dig up those turnips? We’re running low on our food stocks. How is…how close are the turnips to being dug up?”

For answer, she pulled something out of the ground and showed him…a turnip. A tiny one. The leaves were tiny compared to what he expected, and it was small and barely the size of a silver coin. The turnip itself was a bit mangled by an insect, but Ylawes brightened up.

“Is that one of the ones on the way? If it is, we can stretch till—”

“Nope. It’s full-grown. We gave it three more days, but it refuses to get bigger. We barely got this lot grown this big.”

Ylawes stopped. He stared at the [Farmer], and she casually finished mixing the seeds into the new piece of compost and stuck it into the ground.

“Soil’s bad. Even the stuff deeper down. The bright side is—Yellats still grow. The bad side is that it’ll take a month before this lot is ready. Can we fish until then?”

He stood there as the wind blew again, and this time, it was not so forgiving. Ylawes stared at Petia.

“How long have you known?”

She gestured at the turnips.

“I got a bad feeling when I dug the ones up and saw neither one had barely sprouted. We did what we could. All that bad food? We mashed it up as fertilizer. See them trying to ‘clean’ the soil? I told them it wouldn’t work, but some of us are trying. I think the fertilizers the only reason the turnips got this big at all. Yellats? Here.”

She pulled out a pot, yanked on a tougher-looking set of green leaves, jagged and broad-bladed, and pulled out what Ylawes recognized as the half-eaten Yellat. It had regrown from that bite, and tons of small roots were spreading out.

“Slow growth, but tough. With [Fast Growth] I give it thirty days. We planted five days ago with Yellats once I sensed the turnips weren’t growing. Twenty-five days.”

“What about potatoes? Corn? Anything else? Beans?”

“Salt. I’m no expert, but it must run deep. That Antinium? Infinitypear? He kept saying it, but I didn’t get it—the ground’s pretty porous. Homle’s been saying it too. Until you hit rock—the saltwater’s gone down deep.”

“But—but the grass. The other plants.”

Ylawes had seen other plants now the snow was almost gone, though most of it had retreated for the winter. Petia dusted off her hands.

“Yep. We’ll have to see what’s edible. I think everyone underestimated that Gnoll.”

“Who? Larr?”

Ylawes wasn’t thinking. He felt something closing in on him, but Farmer Petia smiled.

“Nah. Archmage Kishkeria. Everyone saw grass growing on the New Lands and said ‘it’s just grass, innit?’ Now I think about it—it’d be a real [Archmage] who could grow grass and plants where us regular people can’t grow even Yellats well, wouldn’t it?”

Yes. It would. Ylawes felt lightheaded. He sat down slowly.

“Gnolls.”

“What’s that?”

Dawil was striding over, noticing Ylawes’ posture. Everyone knew it was about harvest time; doubtless, the [Farmers] had been encouraged by the half-formed turnips and been hoping if just a day passed they’d get bigger. If just a day…and the fish had let everyone relax. Now, Ylawes’ mind was racing.

“Nailren’s team is hunting. Gnolls don’t farm. They herd. This continent wasn’t made for…us. It’s like the Great Plains. We’re not bringing in enough food either, and people’re getting stupid. Five [Farmers] were out today.”

That caught Dawil’s attention.

“Why? Sickness?”

Petia shook her head.

“All the fish you brought back? Some weren’t gutted, so Votto did that. They went after the intestines. Bad idea. They’ve been throwing up, and that’s one thing. Salamander’s had to guard the food, and he’s told everyone he’ll lash anyone who tries to grab any. And locking the horses up.”

Ylawes missed the significance of that last comment at first. He was shaking his head. Eating fish guts…now he thought of it, he was glad he hadn’t suggested something like that. So they were bad even if you fried them up?

The only things that weren’t feeling the hunger pains were the horses and draft animals. They clearly didn’t mind the grass. Ylawes sat there and started chuckling. Then he fell silent. Petia looked down at him.

“No one’s got the guts among the [Farmers] to do a big announcement, Captain. Not me or anyone else. Someone has to break the news.”

She meant him. They always meant him. Ylawes Byres sat there a second, then looked up.

“We could head back. It took us nearly twenty days to get here. If we ride hard and hoard everything we have—we’d have three or four days of food if we cut everything. More if we head down the river, maybe. Or we stay here and try hunting and wait for the Yellats.”

“Gathering. Maybe there’s bushes?”

Dawil had slowed when he saw the turnip. He looked at Ylawes, and the [Knight] stood up.

“…I know which one I’d choose. The river can sustain us if we all try fishing. We could move in groups. The fishing group catches up—”

Two days got everyone to the river, and they could tighten their belts and rely on that. Animals had to drink water; they’d use the river to go as far east as they could. If they got closer to Goisedall, could Falene [Message] them for supplies?

Ylawes hadn’t realized how the extreme cost of sending a basic [Message] spell was leading to communication issues. Even something like Anith sending a [Message] to Falene was now a choice rather than a liberty, let alone contacting a Mage’s Guild for information at the drop of a hat.

If only we had another way to speak to people at range. Mother used to say you could gain a [Memo] Skill…I wouldn’t mind that. It’s one more reason to go.

Farmer Petia stood there eying Ylawes as he made up his mind.

“The Consortium’s lost too much. They want a base here. They’re still having [Prospectors] scouting for more good spots. Yorrned told me himself he wants our farms to have enough to feed multiple cities. I’ve levelled once from trying to grow the damn turnips. Who knows? In a few years, we might have that level.”

“We don’t have a few years. We don’t have one month. I’m sorry, Farmer Petia, but I’ll insist we pack up tonight.”

Ylawes snapped. The woman gave him a thin smile, and he realized she wasn’t arguing against him.

“Captain Ylawes, you won’t get anything from my mouth that says ‘no’, or Homle’s lot. But like I said—the [Merchants] have made up their mind.”

Ylawes didn’t get what that meant. Not right away.

 

——

 

“We are out of food, and the turnip harvest did not produce…even a tenth of what we need. Farmer Petia has done her best. I want to make that clear. But she has found that only Yellats will grow in this soil, and at a greatly reduced rate. We…will run out of food in three days, even at half-rations, and the river cannot be relied on. Based on all these factors, I have asked Chef Votto to bring us down to a quarter rations. And I am advocating—no, insisting that we strike camp and move down to the river at full speed. We will make for Goisedall and hope to find a deer herd or something else on the way.”

When Ylawes gave the speech, there was silence from the caravan. He was glad—very glad—there weren’t children. But he saw how young some of the [Farmhands] or [Cooking Assistants] were and how afraid.

Yet he felt better. He said the thing he realized he should have said the moment they felt the magic leaving them.

Ylawes was braced for anger, but Homle just took off a helmet, wiped at a sweaty brow, and nodded. Petia bowed slowly as the [Farmers] nodded.

“Soil’s no good anywhere. We should have brought a bunch from anywhere else. There was no way of knowing. I reckon even those half-Elves had problems. Though magic might fix it, or a good Skill.”

Falene let out a slow breath. She looked at Ylawes, and Dawil rubbed at his head. Everyone was notably tired—notably hungry.

Ylawes had gone through fewer days of privation than the rest due to his status, but he had noticed a slowness among people, and it extended to emotions too.

Unless anger was present. But his words seemed to spark more relief than fury. Homle raised his voice.

“No one go blaming the [Farmers] now. We would have had the time but for the magic thing. You heard Captain Ylawes. Drop everything you can’t load onto the wagons.”

A [Miner] raised her hand, voice anxious as she turned to Ylawes.

“Tools?”

“Everything that’s not a weapon or valuable. We need to move fast.”

Ylawes was warming to what they needed to do. They needed more nets. Salamander could ride ahead—he cast a glance at the man, but Salamander just stood there, arms folded. Head bowed? He didn’t look up as Ylawes glanced at him.

Petia wasn’t moving either. Something—off struck Ylawes a moment before a nervous voice spoke up.

“That won’t be necessary. We aren’t striking camp. We will continue fishing—and hunting. Everyone, back to your work. Captain Ylawes, a word?”

The Consortium of Enterprise, all six of them and their personal staff of [Traders]. Ylawes saw bodyguards like Salamander approaching the other colonists. Ylawes felt the hairs on his neck begin to rise and heard Dawil curse. Ylawes turned and nodded to the man.

“Master Yorrned. I trust you heard?”

“Yes, Captain. And that’s Merchant Yorrned to you. Employer Yorrned…your contract isn’t up.”

The man tried to emphasize ‘employer’, but he was clearly nervous. Anlam cleared his throat. They were all there. Lolsed, Tivete, Raeta and Jobbi—

They looked more animated than the rest. Ylawes eyed them. Hadn’t they been on half-rations…? He stared at Yorrned.

“With respect, Merchant Yorrned, our contract is to guard the caravan after two weeks have passed. About half of that time’s elapsed, true, but we were searching for several days.”

Under contract, your two weeks are to elapse after—after we strike camp. So by my calculations you owe eleven more days, Captain Ylawes.”

The Gold-rank adventurer began to get annoyed.

“That’s immaterial, Yorrned. I have made my decision for the safety of the expedition. I do not see a bright future awaiting any of us if we keep on like this.”

“We have your contract, Captain Ylawes. It’s been recognized by the Merchant’s Guild and Adventurer’s Guild. You’re under oath to fulfill it. Your word of honor.”

Tivete interrupted, and Ylawes nodded to her.

“I’ll return half my fee, then. We may negotiate terms later, but only when we’re at Goisedall.”

“We cannot forfeit the expedition’s profits, Captain Ylawes. You’d have us give up not only our supplies, but this entire venture. For nothing? We have the seeds. If we eat everything but the Yellats, that will give us a few days.”

“Of what? Starvation? No one’s had enough to eat! Except maybe you, somehow. I don’t know why you smell like cheese when it’s all apparently gone.”

Larr barked indignantly. He pointed at Yorrned, and the [Merchant] paled. Ylawes just turned away.

“We’re leaving. Silver Swords, strike camp.”

“We forbid it, Captain Ylawes!”

He ignored them. Yorrned raised his voice. He shouted—then went silent as Ylawes began to walk towards their wagon. Then—

“[Enforce Contract]!”

Something halted him in his tracks. Ylawes tried to take a step and felt a prickling running up and down his arms and legs. A paralysis spell? It felt—similar. But when he looked down, he saw something black and thorny twisting around his armor.

Letters. They were all tangled up, sentences of them and delicate punctuation that pulled him back.

 

I, Ylawes Byres, do promise under formal witness from the Merchant’s Guild and Adventurer’s Guild, witnessed in the city of Invrisil on the date of…

 

They pulled him back. He spun, slowly, trying to pull free of the thin binding of letters, but they were stronger than steel. And…he heard a curse from Falene.

“I can’t c—”

She choked and opened her mouth, and he saw the same sentences gripping her tongue. Then Ylawes saw the rest of the adventurers were immobilized.

Suddenly, he heard shouts as Homle’s crew experienced the same. Farmer Petia’s silence suddenly made sense.

Salamander gave Ylawes a bleak stare as Yorrned, panting, lowered his hand.

“We didn’t wish to do that. But the expedition will not be jeopardized. We—will go down to quarter-rations. You and Guard Salamander are to go hunting for anything edible, and we’ll have the [Farmers] gather plants. Is that clear, Captain Ylawes?”

The thing to do when you had an enemy who could immobilize you was to hit the enemy. Ylawes considered it. If he knocked Yorrned down or out—

His legs wouldn’t move. He glanced down, and the bindings reappeared all over his sword arm too.

—Of course a [Merchant] would have a stipulation avoiding harming them in the contract. That was just good business to prevent a double-crossing. Ylawes had never worried about that before.

Six [Merchants] pressed down on him. Not his level, he assumed, but they had a contract that was all the advantage they needed. Ylawes pulled—and the silence grew longer and longer as he struggled to move one foot. One…

“Lad.”

Ylawes was looking at Salamander and the guards around the [Merchants]. They were lower level, but most of his teammates were completely immobilized. Dawil was whispering, and Ylawes wondered if he drew his sword what would happen.

The [Merchants] saw the Gold-rank captain slowly, slowly relax and step backwards. The bindings on him vanished, and Salamander’s eyes flickered as he glanced at Ylawes’ feet. But by the time Ylawes spoke, the bindings were gone.

“—Since we have no choice, we will accede, members of the Consortium. But when we return to contact with the rest of Izril—the Merchant’s Guild will hear of this.”

The [Merchants] relaxed in a huge rush. They beamed as if they’d all suddenly grown Yellats then and there. Jobbi called out, nodding rapidly.

“We will happily settle the matter amicably then, Captain!”

The colonists were staring at the [Merchants], and the adventurers were looking at Ylawes. Rasktooth flicked something on his crossbow and grunted. Ylawes?

He just met Dawil’s eyes and shook his head. And suddenly, he was counting the days.

Eleven?

He told himself they could make eleven.

Starvation began to replace hunger.

 

 

Day 32 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

When everyone went down to quarter-rations, Ylawes felt the pinch in a way he hadn’t before. After he’d eaten, he just…stood there, and it was an effort to remember what he had to do.

Go riding? His horse gave him a look of concern as Ylawes mounted up. But on the first day, he was just lightheaded. He got strangely used to it thereafter for a while—or maybe he just had more problems.

Water was a problem. Hauling it from the river was too hard, and yet the well was unfinished.

They had been mostly boiling snow for water up till now; the water that fell from the skies was potable, but with all of it gone, Ylawes had a belated thought.

“Remember that rainstorm? We should have saved it. Put out pots, filled barrels.”

Dawil just groaned when Ylawes said it.

“Dead gods.”

“It’s not a problem normally. I can cast [Rain] and condense real water out of the air.”

Falene looked around, licking dry lips. These days, the fishing expedition would come back with more water than fish. Ylawes eyed her.

“You and what mana? If we could start fires, it would be easier.”

The problem was that striking a light—normally quick and easy—was excruciatingly hard, let alone keeping a fire burning. The wagons were still shelters, and with the thin trees—Falene just lit a magical fire.

Ylawes had tried to start one, and it had taken thirty minutes of sitting and getting frustrated as the wind blew and killed any sparks. He hated to admit it, but without a basic spell or wand, he was far less of a survivalist than he’d thought.

They needed a well, so the [Merchants] insisted the [Farmers] do that while foraging, but everyone moved at a crawl.

The [Miners] kept digging. They didn’t want to, but the contract was in full effect.

“I don’t understand. I’ve never seen a [Merchant] do that before.”

Dasha was shocked. Insill shook his head.

“Me neither, but the Merchant’s Guild has to have tricks like that. Reminds me of contracts you hear about signed in blood.”

“That can’t be legal.”

Anith’s voice was low.

“Why not? Everything by the letter of the law is fair. You heard what they said. They didn’t want to do it to us—but they’ve got us. Could you move?”

None of Vuliel Drae had been able to. Ylawes shook his head as he tried to get them to focus on looking for something to hunt.

“Focus. They had their bodyguards, and if we had to fight—eleven days. Ten, now.”

“Lad. We’re in trouble.”

That was all Dawil said. Ylawes knew he was right. That sensation of holding off the worst? He realized Petia and Homle and many of the others had been looking to the Silver Swords, the famous Gold-rank team, to find an answer. When it was clear they had no answers, the badness began in earnest.

 

——

 

On the first day of quarter rations, the [Merchants] had constructed something. Stockades. Salamander didn’t mince words when Ylawes asked why.

“Two thefts of food while you were gone—one desertion.”

There was a young [Miner] in the stockades and one of the cooking staff as well.

“Where’s the deserter? Did they run off?”

Ylawes had come back without seeing anything worth hunting. They’d taken potshots at the Waisrabbits and spotted a distant herd of something, but the animals had moved off when they’d seen the Silver Swords approaching.

Falene had been at camp; the [Merchants] had ordered her to keep flame spells going. She looked up.

“The deserter’s dead. Or bleeding. One of the [Guards] shot an arrow through their shoulder.”

Ylawes stared at her. He dismounted hard and almost fell over. When he went to find the [Merchants], none of them answered their doors.

“Go track down the deserter, Captain Ylawes. Find something to hunt.”

He tried to pound Yorrned’s door down and found those black lines on his arm. Ylawes snarled then.

Silver Swords! Mount up!

He was almost to the horses when one of them called out.

“Leave one member of your team, Captain!”

 

——

 

They left Falene behind. Ylawes took the entire team of Vuliel Drae with him and left Poke Duo behind. Larr was muttering.

“He’s got food in that wagon.”

“Who?”

“Yorrned. I smell it.”

Of course he does. Ylawes said nothing. They rode hard, letting the horses follow the scent Larr picked up on. The deserter had hours on them, but it didn’t matter.

 

——

 

“Troll’s blood.”

Dawil cursed when they saw the remains of the body. There wasn’t much. Ylawes didn’t even get down; he just stared at the churned up ground.

“Landsharks?”

“Has to be. Poor bastard.”

Dawil got down and stared at the churned ground, then up at Ylawes.

“They shot him for trying to run. Lad—Ylawes, maybe you should have had us charge.”

The rest of Vuliel Drae had been staring at the remains of the body. Insill twisted around in shock.

“Wait, you could move?”

Ylawes had taken a step back while the contract was binding him. He rotated one shoulder.

“Barely. If I activated my Skill, I’d have gotten a charge off. Dawil?”

“I could have managed a throw. I reckon Pointy’s tongue was bound, but she can cast incantation-less.”

That was the level difference. However, Ylawes shook his head.

“It would have been a fight with all their bodyguards, Dawil. Could they compel the expedition to fight against us…? If we were that slow, I wouldn’t relish a chance against Salamander.”

“You think he’d take their side?”

“I don’t know. Besides—how would we explain that? The Merchant’s Guild would call it treachery.”

As Ylawes had seen it, the Consortium was desperate. They were doing what was bordering on criminal to keep his team here. But if he attacked, the pendulum swung the other way, and the Silver Swords would fail any truth spell raised about the [Merchants].

Lose lose. His hope was to do the right thing and just—last ten more days. But he had to actually sit down a second.

“We need food.”

“There just aren’t enough animals around here, Captain. I’m sorry. I’ve looked, but I feel like we might have scared them away ourselves. That or whatever likes to live here just isn’t big enough to eat.”

Larr gestured hopelessly at the rocky terrain, and Ylawes nodded, head still bowed.

“That or the tail-end of winter is a truly stupid time to hunt for game if we’re not [Hunters]. I know one animal that’s big enough, though. And how to lure it.”

Pekona inhaled and stared down at the corpse. Nailren’s comment echoed in Ylawes’ mind.

Blood for Landsharks. 

 

——

 

The Consortium had been staying away from the rest of the expedition. So when Ylawes went to find them, he knew where to look. Five wagons, all parked close together, near the food wagon with a heavier presence of Salamander’s [Guards].

All six [Merchants] did not want to discuss the stockades with Ylawes. He was told—by Yorrned through a door—to ‘get back to hunting’.

Miss Tivete was in the open, and by now, Ylawes had gotten a read on all six. Each one was doing what they felt was necessary for the expedition.

 

——

 

Yorrned spent most mornings weighing the latest copper ore samples, calculating how much they were worth—according to his old prices—and estimating how close they were to recouping losses. He’d get the [Prospectors] in and sweatily ask when a smelting furnace was done, or demand to know which tools were most sought after.

Copper hooks! Or bronze? Can we make bronze? Master Homle, you said you found tin not too far away? That’s unprecedented. Un-pre-ce-dented. You never find the ores in close proximity. See, this—this—bronze at a steal in the New Lands! For a reasonable price, of course, but still a steal. And the purity! How close are we to finding that object Miss Falene wants? Or a monster? Some of those are worth thousands of gold pieces. Miss Falene? Miss—

He had a glazed look some days. His clothing had begun to take on a soiled look, and Homle, Falene, and members of the expedition avoided him, especially when Yorrned would argue about what they thought things were worth—it was more valuable because of their location.

 

——

 

Raeta and Jobbi were still trying to treat this like an adventure. Even after the contract showdown, they went around collecting ‘samples’ to sell later and tried to make everyone feel ‘at home’.

That meant, in Ylawes experience, a bit of food that they claimed was out of their breakfasts, just a morsel, a clap on the back, some heated stones that had been around the fire to keep the cold away, and an attempt at brighter conversation.

It worked until it didn’t, but he would often hear the same refrain.

“It’s all noted down, you know. Jobbi keeps a list, don’t you, Jobbi?”

“I do like them. We’ll be repaying everyone for the hard work. The thing about being a [Merchant] is you balance costs. We’ve taken too many on—”

“Hazards of the trade. But we’ll settle it all up. Believe you me, Miss Petia. I’ll let you get back to it, but Jobbi will carve you a new handle for that shovel, and I’m going to finish knitting that hat I promised Votto. His current [Chef]’s hat is a bit dingy after one of those Flashbirds pecked at it.”

In their way, they were less fun for Ylawes to deal with than Yorrned, because it was harder to deal with a smile.

 

——

 

Lolsed didn’t show his face most days. He sat in his wagon and read. When asked, his assistants claimed he was reading from his collection or writing letters to be sent once they had a [Courier]. He had apparently requested one via Falene earlier, but the lack of direction and the calls for many Couriers in the New Lands meant Ylawes didn’t have hope for one to show up.

At least the man didn’t mince words about their situation. He would come out to observe the camp, then head inside.

“Raising morale is not my job. We all knew we were signing on for a struggle. Put in a note with Chef Votto to break out another bottle of wine tonight. Ration the rest.”

Ylawes overheard him speaking curtly to one of his assistants before he shut the door of his wagon. From the way Lolsed met Ylawes’ eyes before vanishing, the Captain took that to mean all of this was tolerable until conditions improved.

 

——

 

Tivete, at least, did do something per day, though one could argue it was more time-consuming than helpful. Each morning, she would check every single magical object she had possessed—almost all of them dead—then pile them up.

It was complicated. She’d put her amulet on top of a helmet that had once been enchanted, Salamander’s sword—she’d even asked the adventurers for their gear, but since they needed them on, and she needed to own them, she made do with everything else.

“[Inventory: Trickle of Replenishment]. My capstone. Not very effective since the New Lands seems to drain them at a pace faster than they replenish, but there’s a bit each day. So if I do this…”

Her goal was to find the enchantment that was least mana-intensive and most valuable. If she kept the magical items together, Tivete had a theory they ‘drained slower’. Also, she could redistribute the magic among her inventory, which meant that after hours of sitting and shuffling the gear around, she could produce a Wand of Sparks that had enough fuel to light a second fire before going out.

Or—try to activate a spell scroll. Or she had the idea to hoard the magic in some of the gemstones she sold.

“Once Miss Falene has the mana nullifier gone—then I can salvage my wares. In order of priority. It’s not—we shall be making use of it, Captain Ylawes. Look! This gemstone reduced from about a half charge to one-fifth overnight! We can save magic.”

Falene had taken a look at the ‘saving’ of mana and told Ylawes she could meditate and recover that much in an hour. But it kept Tivete busy. She didn’t talk about leaving or abandoning the expedition.

“Wouldn’t it be possible for you to head to Goisedall and replenish your magical items there, Miss Tivete?”

Ylawes had thought it was worth the argument, but her face had frozen up, and then she’d given him a nervous smile.

“Some of my items are—are beyond recovery, Captain Ylawes. Some aren’t. Let’s find out when that time comes, shall we?”

He’d looked at her holding the Amulet of Tranquility she’d bought from Drath, and of all of them, the terror of knowing seemed to be what kept her making those piles of magic and worthless metal.

 

——

 

Merchant Anlam did Ylawes Byres the credit of not running away when asked about the stockades. And he was doing the same thing he’d done for days on end—he sat and wrote.

But not like Lolsed. He had been just one of the Consortium and, prior to this moment, the wealthiest, or the one with the most wagons, if not the oldest like Lolsed.

He was actually paler-haired than Lolsed, who was greying, but that was just genetics, and he had a curl of hair that he’d combed up with alchemical products. When the magic had begun fading, it had turned more into a sagging flop of hair.

That also seemed to describe the man. Everything from his bright red travelling vest to his velvet cloak had taken on dirt or begun to look worse-for-wear.

Then again, he was more mobile than the others, excepting maybe Raeta and Jobbi. When pressed, his answer was the same.

“I called for the stockades, Captain Byres. There should be laws.”

All his fingernails on one hand were bitten down to the quick; angry, red skin showed in patches, and he also had chapped lips. But he met Ylawes’ eyes.

“Some would call that a cruel punishment.”

Ylawes was angry. He didn’t even bring up the deserter, but Anlam did.

“And desertion? Before you ask, I didn’t call for Master Salamander to shoot him. Let’s say you’d caught them. Would you imprison them? Sentence them to exile? Death? No rations for a day? I think, depending on the offense…no food for a day. Exile on the second. Death for returning and continued theft.”

Ylawes just stared at Anlam.

“You’d kill a man for coming back and stealing?”

Anlam crossed something off his paper in front of him.

“That’s the reaction I got from Miss Petia…and Miss Falene. So you don’t like it.”

“I would refuse to do that.”

Ylawes met the man’s eyes, and Anlam fiddled with a quill.

“But we can’t imprison them, can we? Let’s think on someone who escaped or came back. We must have laws. I’ve been writing a…a…I suppose you’d call it a new contract, but a charter is more fair. Not a contract. Laws for this colony.”

The Gold-rank adventurer’s hostility faded a bit as Anlam clarified. There were a lot of crossing-outs and weird minutiae, but Anlam kept going.

“I understand the Consortium is in charge, but there should be laws and punishment. Rules—the kind of thing a city has. A nation. Even if we become, what, a Council? Can we sell our stake to this place if it becomes a place? There should be rules to base around. I copied Invrisil’s, but they don’t fit here.”

“—Let’s wait until the colony has a reliable food source, Master Anlam.”

The [Merchant] looked blankly at Ylawes.

“Of course. But we must have laws.”

“As far as the contract goes—that appears to be the final law, Master Anlam. I suggest any law is less valuable than how many [Guards] Salamander has under his employ and how trustworthy they are; you will always be able to dictate a new law or clarify a bad one.”

The [Knight] turned on his heels, annoyed at the entire conversation. Merchant Anlam stared at Ylawes.

“We did it because this expedition dies without you, Captain Byres. It wasn’t a good idea. In hindsight, we should have turned around.”

Ylawes half-turned, and Anlam sat there, gnawing on one thumb.

“In hindsight. The Merchant’s Guild discourages anyone from actually enforcing most contracts like that, you know. We lean on them. We’re leaning too hard.”

Is that why Miss Petia and Master Homle weren’t in outright dissent? Ylawes hesitated and tried to think of a response other than the moral one. Because what good was that one right now?

“Do you have an actual solution for the future besides a charter for this colony, Master Anlam?”

The [Merchant] stared at Ylawes, then at the paper. He held it up.

“—The charter matters if we deal with another settlement or caravan. Nothing survives without other people coming in or trading with us. Once we have the charter, we must find other people quickly. We should have stayed closer to them.”

Another moment of hindsight. The food issues—and, frankly, the magical ones—might have been noticed sooner if they had company, but Ylawes saw the downsides too.

“That might have led to more desperation and more theft. Especially in this current predicament.”

Or more teamwork. He should have said that. Anlam stared at Ylawes.

“Yes, well. That’s where a Gold-rank team would have stood out. You and I are not in our elements, Captain Ylawes.”

That, at least, they could agree on. Ylawes shook his head, then went hunting.

 

——

 

The hunt was basic. Ylawes didn’t tell the Consortium what he wanted to do. He just found Salamander.

“We’re hunting Landsharks. We’ll do it a half mile from camp and have you help drag it in once we kill it. Can you do that?”

The man wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“I reckon that’s well within contract.”

“What does yours say?”

Ylawes tried to remember to be polite…he forgot why. His eyes felt—intense, without the need to blink, and it reminded him of Yvlon’s stare as a girl. As if he was trying to stare through Salamander’s skin. The [Elite Guard] gave Ylawes a shamefaced look, then a grin of all things.

“Dunno. I can’t read that well. More’n yours.”

Ylawes looked at the man, and there was a story there—but Ylawes was too hungry to hear it. He turned on his heel and walked away. Politeness made him turn around and add—

“Thank you. I hope you’ve not had cause to regret that contract. Until recently.”

They needed to secure another source of meat. Ylawes had been feeling the pinch of hunger for days, and it had kept him up on more than one night, but he’d forced it out of his mind.

And he was an adventurer who was being fed more rations. The camp?

Ylawes was waiting for lunch when Chef Votto found something else to eat. He found a black mass of shrivelled…something and stared at it—then produced a cleaver and called for some water. Then he began hacking pieces of it up and putting them into a pot.

“What’s that?

Ylawes walked over and saw—it was the dead Lamprey Shuffler the Consortium had made him preserve in salt. It was wrinkled up, atrophied from the time that had passed, but it was meat.

Chef Votto, who had refused to even consider the bush-animals, offered a piece of boiled meat to one of his helpers.

“How’s it taste?”

“Foul.”

One of the [Cooking Assistants] replied. They took another piece, and Votto wordlessly chewed on one himself. He grimaced—then noticed the people waiting for lunch.

“Keep boiling it up. It’s got enough salt.”

As far as Ylawes was concerned, those lamprey-things were bottom-feeders in the most literal sense of the word. However, when he saw some of the black, rubbery meat on a plate, he didn’t ask questions. It was foul—but he found himself sitting and thinking he should have killed dozens of them. He saw Petia licking her plate afterwards and then drinking something. That turned out to be a thin broth that had been what the lamprey monsters had been boiled in.

Ylawes hesitated a second too long, and Votto was out of cups of it when he asked.

 

——

 

They decided to set up the trap in the only place that had any defensible terrain to fight a Landshark: one of the groves of trees with those blue tufts that Goisedall kept being showered by.

They were higher up, so Ylawes saw how the wind could blow them all the way to Goisedall from the hills. They were indeed long and thin, and they did burn—he didn’t waste time looking at them.

“Blood here. Wind’s blowing; set up…Dawil?”

The weary Dwarf looked around.

“Looks like some rocks there. Reckon that’s it?”

They were off their game. Ylawes turned to ask Falene if she had a better idea and remembered she was at camp. Vuliel Drae seemed no better, but Pekona at least looked sharp enough as she drew her sword and waited.

“Don’t you have a new sword Skill?”

Ylawes vaguely remembered that. Pekona nodded.

“[She Danced in Moonlight’s Grace].”

“How good is it?”

Pekona hesitated.

“—It improves the more I do. And at night. If the enemy slows down, I’ll be better—on offense? If not, defense.”

She struggled to describe it, and Ylawes nodded.

“I’ll challenge it. Dasha, you and Dawil hit it from the side. Dawil, how’s your hammer?”

“Magicless. But I have the edge of my axe…I reckon I can stab with that if I get in close. I wish I had Erin’s boon on me right now. I’ll toss it only if it comes to it.”

The broken axe he had won was still sharper than anything, but it was far less usable now. Dawil was wary of losing the pieces, and Ylawes grunted.

“Hit it hard on the legs.”

“I’d make a Dwarf joke there—nevermind. Where’s Anith and Insill?”

“Other side. We triangle here—assuming one Landshark. Otherwise, I draw them off here—Insill, you pull them and run. If it charges Anith or Insill, Dawil, you and I distract them.”

Anith looked nervous as he raised a paw.

“What if we get an entire pack? They go up to eight as far as we saw.”

Ylawes shook his head.

“Eight’s too much. We have to pick one off. Sorry. Let me lead with that.”

Ah. Vuliel Drae caught on at last. The trees would slow a Landshark given their size, and Ylawes reconfirmed the plan. Draw one off if there were multiple, then ambush it from three directions, boxing it in and keeping everyone but Ylawes and Dawil mobile.

Only when someone raised a paw did Ylawes realize he’d forgotten Larr. He instructed the Gnoll to stay at range.

“Am I missing any Skills that would be useful?”

Anith was largely out of power, and Dasha and Pekona were straight warriors, but Insill raised a hand.

“I could, uh…do a pit trap if you want, Captain Ylawes.”

“And I can use a rope Skill. It anchors something.”

Larr offered. Ylawes rubbed his chin.

“No pit trap. The last thing we need is for it to burrow under us. The rope Skill…try to hook its mouth or arm, Larr. Legs, everyone. Then go for the eyes.”

“Got it.”

Vuliel Drae sat back, and Ylawes settled in to wait. He found a comfortable spot on the rocks and waited…waited…

Dead gods, he’d forgotten how long hunting took. 

 

——

 

At some point he must have dozed off, because he woke up when someone whispered.

“Captain. We have animals. Should we attack?”

Ylawes sat up as Pekona shook his arm. He looked around, and she pointed and blinked.

Of all the times to find grazing herd animals, now was the time? That was irony. He could recognize irony when it introduced itself to him like that.

And of all the animals…he stared and realized why Pekona was dubious. Dawil was also asleep, but he sat up as Ylawes nudged him.

“Huh? Wuzzat? What the—shave me bald and call me a half-Elf. Lad, I’m beginning to think most of the animals in the New Lands are former sea creatures.”

“Lots, probably. Uh. Are they edible?”

The rest of Vuliel Drae were waking up and staring at their guests. The herd was coming their way slowly. It looked like they were actually after the trees, but they were inspecting the horses, which had been holding still in case the Landsharks attacked. The Silver Swords and Vuliel Drae were camouflaged in the rocks, but somehow the herd was approaching them.

Well, Ylawes didn’t bother to keep hidden. He stood up slowly and eyed a pack…a crawl? What did you call a gathering of giant…snails?

That was what they were. Giant snails. They had huge, multi-colored shells, and the biggest one had to be ten feet tall! The smaller ones were as high as his midriff, and there might have been fifty…oozing along the ground.

“Snails.”

The horses and adventurers stared, and one of the horses actually trotted forwards and peered at the snails as if as incredulous as the adventurers. Ylawes whistled, and it trotted back, but only after giving the snails a sniff.

The horses, skittish of most things, were about as fearful of the snails as Ylawes. He seriously doubted they were a threat…they moved faster than regular snails, but only at snail-velocity. So a walking pace at best.

“How did those things survive the winter? Eugh! Away, away!”

Larr was grossed out by them and backed behind Dasha, but she just snorted.

“I bet those shells are warm. Hey…is this a stroke of luck or what? Looks like dinner just came to us!”

She looked around and met dubious looks from everyone else. The snails paused, their stalk-eyes waving left and right, as if inspecting the adventurers.

“Eat them? Are you mad?

Larr was horrified. Dasha rolled her eyes.

“Larr, you’re always lecturing us that real Gnolls eat this or do that and we’re soft. This is the first thing I’ve ever seen that you won’t eat besides bugs.”

“Yeah. Because they’re snails. I don’t eat those! That’s speciesist.”

Anith looked exasperated.

“You two—hush! Captain, what do we do?”

“Eat…snails? Are they even edible?”

The thought of killing the snails was more gross than appealing, even hungry as he was. Besides—Ylawes glanced at the blood staining the trees. They’d drawn blood from the horses, and that had been a chore. Did they give up the hunt or…?

The snails swiveled around and seemed to back away from the adventurers now they were arguing, or perhaps they somehow sensed their fates might be to die here. But Ylawes wasn’t sold on the concept.

“Dawil, are they edible? You’ve lived longer than me.”

“Search me, lad. I’ve not heard of it. Anyone know? Anith? Pekona?”

The Jackal Beastkin was not enthusiastic as he eyed one ‘fleeing’ snail.

“I…vaguely recall something like that? A delicacy. Not one Beastkin would enjoy. Or was it slugs?”

Pekona grimaced.

“Does it matter? Also, we don’t eat them. I don’t.”

Anith shrugged.

“If you can eat one…”

“What if you go blind from eating them, though? I bet they’re toxic.”

That comment drew Ylawes up short. Everyone turned and glared at Insill.

“What’s your basis for that?”

Anith demanded, and the shorter Drake held up his claws.

“I dunno. Just…what if? They’re slimy, right? Could be toxic.”

The odds of a snail being toxic seemed as high as a toad…which was to say Ylawes did know some varieties were nasty. He wavered.

“Let’s—wait and see if the bait works. If not, snails.”

He sat down and quickly found himself tired. Ylawes drifted off again.

 

——

 

When he woke up, somehow, rather insultingly, the snail herd was gone. It was incredible they could escape anything at the pace they moved, and for a second, Ylawes seriously regretted letting them go—until he realized what had woken him was the sound of the Landsharks.

All of Vuliel Drae woke up when they heard the ektch-etktch sound, scratchy but huge, coming from the huge, hulking things. Ylawes sat up slowly behind the rocks and saw them coming up the hill.

Nine of them. They were huge with mouths that could bite him in half full of teeth.

“They’re as big as the largest shark I’ve eaten.”

Pekona whispered, visibly nervous.

How big a shark have you…? Larr slapped a paw over Insill’s mouth. Everyone tensed as Ylawes noted how they were built.

They had…altered somehow, and they had strange, fin-like legs and ‘arms’. They were engorged with muscle, and though the Landsharks looked clumsy, he had seen them tear up the earth fast. It did seem like they weren’t built for longevity, though; they had waddled up the hill, but when they got close to the trees marked with blood, they dove forwards, wriggling forwards at incredible speed and biting in a frenzy. But the frenzied biting only lasted for seconds at most, and they seemed notably slower afterwards.

Of course, all they found among the trees was blood, and they smashed about, hitting the fragile-looking trees, which were actually fairly resilient; a few were knocked over, but after five minutes, the Landsharks spat out the earth and seemed to realize there wasn’t prey here.

They began to waddle off, and Ylawes called out.

“That one in the back—Insill, Larr.”

The two Silver-ranks took aim at one of the Landsharks caught on a tree. It snapped a few times at the branch—then made a weird exhalation-grunt as they shot an arrow into one leg.

It didn’t howl; it didn’t seem capable of it. The furious snapping and guttural exhalations were all it made for sound. Though those were loud enough.

The other Landsharks turned when they heard the pain and smelled the blood. They bit at the wounded shark, but it snapped back, defending itself. After a few headbutts—they backed off and began to head away.

Leaving the wounded shark slower and behind. Excellent. Ylawes didn’t see much pack solidarity among the sharks. He waited until the group had gained more distance, then whistled again.

Both adventurers popped up and took a second shot. Insill missed; Larr did not. Now, the shark-monster had arrows through both knees. It wasn’t a lot of damage given its size; it was huge, and Ylawes’ stomach growled as he licked his lips.

But it did piss the shark-thing off. It went tearing around mindlessly, and Ylawes let it whuff around for a few minutes—then cautiously stood up.

The Landshark didn’t see him until he waved at it a few times, but when it did—it began waddling at him with that deceptively slow pace. Ylawes glanced down the hill, but the rest of the pack was headed away. He backed up.

“Alright. I’m going to drag it uphill and give the pack at least fifteen more minutes if we can. Slow…slow…”

Thus began the slowest-game of cat and mouse that was quite hard on him—mostly from the tension. The Landshark clearly didn’t want to burst into motion until it was within range; it was wounded, and Ylawes wanted to encourage it, so he kept about two hundred feet between them.

Fifteen minutes was a long time. He did a huge circle of the hillside and noticed the shark waddling faster and faster until Dawil signaled him. Ylawes had never been more grateful to jog into the strand of trees and halt.

The Landshark seemed to think this was its chance and dove forwards, writhing left-right along the ground in a thrashing motion that still propelled it forwards at amazing speed. It was erratic, the mouth opening and closing, and thus highly dangerous—Ylawes tried to judge the pattern as he shouted.

“[Knight’s Challenge]. [Shield of Valor]…now, now! Oof!”

The impact was so heavy it sent him back a few paces, and he grimaced. His shield was definitely not magical any more. But Vuliel Drae and Dawil charged at the Landshark as it halted, and here, at least, they were adventurers.

Dawil’s hammer cracked the Landshark on one knee as Dasha swung an axe at it. She and Insill stabbed and hacked as Anith jolted the thing with lightning—Ylawes felt a slight charge run up his arm and shouted.

“No lightning! No acid—”

The thrashing shark tried to rotate, but Ylawes smacked it in the face and stabbed with his sword, hewing off part of its snout, but he was mostly there to keep it focused on him. He was about to tell the others to draw enough blood and maybe pull back when Pekona leapt.

[She Danced in Moonlight’s Grace].

Ylawes had never actually seen the Skill—it wasn’t a set form like most Blade Arts he knew. Rather, it seemed like he saw a pale ray passing by his right shoulder, like a spotlight, and a quicksilver sword slashed down the Landshark’s side.

A curving, vertical cut that switched to a horizontal stroke followed by another diagonal—Pekona spun past the shark’s right flank, cutting fast, the [Sword Dancer]’s blade lacerating the thick hide. The shark curved and snapped at her—and she spun aside.

So that’s what she meant. Attack and defend. Ylawes took that moment to stab at the shark’s eye. He missed—but Larr pierced one eye, and Dawil hammered it across the chest. By the time Ylawes drove his sword through the other eye, it was dead.

For such a big creature, having seven adventurers go after it was still overkill, even tired as they were. Ylawes actually suspected a Rock Crab would have been a worse fight.

“It’s aggressive, but we got it. Nice going, everyone. Let’s get that signal down to the camp. I want it in the pot and cooking!”

Ylawes stared at the huge fish-monster, and humanoid attributes or not, he was licking his lips.

“Shark’s good.”

Pekona’s mouth was watering as she checked her curved blade and sheathed it. The rest of Vuliel Drae actually began carving pieces off the shark and looked to Anith for a flame before Ylawes told the Beastkin to send a message.

 

——

 

They were cooking bloody pieces of the shark over a fire when Salamander and half the camp turned up. Dragging the shark down was hard work, but they had ropes, hands—and the willpower of the starving.

The Consortium dashed out to see the kill, and Votto was wiping at his eyes as he produced a cleaver.

“I need to carve it up—does it have bones? Water. How much water do we have?”

Not as much as they wanted. A stew was out, Votto realized, so he just called for pans to be used over the single fire Falene had conjured.

All activity stopped while people gathered around for the meat, impatient despite the pans crowding around the fire. Falene snapped at people waiting.

“No, I’m not doing two fires. This is as hot as I can manage. Give me that.

She grabbed the first ‘shark steak’ and began to eat it with her bare fingers before one of the [Merchants] got it. Ylawes hesitated. He’d somewhat filled his stomach before they began hauling the shark, so he let other people get in front of him…then decided he’d better line up in case he was last.

The only people who weren’t almost brawling to get at the food, Ylawes realized, were Infinitypear and Rasktooth. The Cave Goblin was eying Falene with a look of respect as she ate so fast she almost threw up.

“Captain, you want us to keep watch still?”

“Get some food—but yes. We still need a rotation.”

The Antinium and Cave Goblin were hungry, but not like the others. Were they still eating something? Rasktooth, for some reason, seemed worried as he sat on Infinitypear’s shoulders and glanced around.

“…Bring shark back to camp is easy to cook. It, uh—only one?”

Ylawes only really heard Rasktooth after he was halfway through a scramble of pieces of meat, still steaming and scalding hot. Part of the hunger-induced fog faded—and he glanced up.

“Ah. We should move the carcass away. In case of…attacks.”

People barely heard him. They were lining up for seconds, and some people had eaten so fast they were physically sick. Ylawes half-rose and noted the light was fading fast.

Hey! Move the carcass! We need to move it—people!

All the help he’d had dragging it into camp suddenly became resistance. Ylawes shouted, and they heard, but the expedition did not listen. When he tried to drag at them and move the people carving it up away, they shoved back.

How long Ylawes took before he thought to grab the Silver Swords and have them get the horses ready to pull, he didn’t know. Too long. Twenty minutes?

That was actually a generous amount of time given how long it had taken to haul the dead shark away and cook it up, even briefly. But that ektch-call echoed, and some of the expedition’s people glanced up as they heard a strange whuffing noise in the distance.

“What’s that?”

Merchant Yorrned looked up, and Ylawes swore.

“The pack. Into the wagons. Now!”

“A pack? Well, if we kill them—”

Yorrned began, but Ylawes finally saw them as Infinitypear and Rasktooth waved in alarm, both screaming.

“Eight! Eight!

Then Ylawes saw the writhing monsters tearing down towards the wagons, and the formation that he’d used on the single Landshark—

Did not work here.

 

——

 

The fight was chaos as Landsharks ripped around the wagons, biting, and Ylawes swung his sword and tried to draw as many onto him as possible. Falene and Dawil fought back-to-back as she used up her mana to block off some of the sharks, and Dawil’s axe smashed in their teeth. Ylawes hadn’t known this, but sharks, in general, could elongate their mouths. No, that wasn’t it—they’d lift up part of their face as if a second face was coming out of their snout—then bite.

They were so big—one’s teeth glanced off his armor, and the force was tremendous, but his armor held. Ylawes saw a thrashing head come at him as he knocked the first one away, but he dodged it just in time.

Was that my [Avert Mortal Blow]? He didn’t know. Vuliel Drae was holding one Landshark off—but the problem was, the sharks weren’t after the adventurers.

They were after the corpse. And all the biggest targets not fighting back. One went smashing into a wagon, and Ylawes leapt on its back as Petia and [Farmers] fled. Homle and his [Miners] actually helped a great deal; instead of fighting, they backed up, clearly terrified, but they had pickaxes and shovels—and they’d retreated into the mouth of their mine where one of the sharks couldn’t get through.

The rampage of the Landsharks lasted minutes; they might have continued to tear through the camp, but Ylawes had wounded several, and the decisive moment in the battle came when he saw Infinitypear and Rasktooth actually pushing one Landshark back. The Worker hit the shark with a stone from his sling, which did nothing—and Rasktooth’s bolts buried themselves in its thick hide with little effect—but Infinitypear ran it through deep in the side when it tried to charge him.

“[Teammate: Side Skip]! Get it!”

The Worker drew the spear back clumsily, and Rasktooth nailed the shark in one eye. It didn’t even flinch, and the Worker backed up. Ylawes was charging for them as the shark whirled to keep biting when Infinitypear raised his spear overhead.

[I Have Seen It Die].

The air twisted around the Worker for a second, and Ylawes halted. The Skill wasn’t aimed at him, but for a second, he swore he saw Facestealer there and recoiled as the twisted form of the monster reached for him—

The reaction of the Landsharks was dramatic. They recoiled—then began to writhe away, carcasses in their mouths. They were backing off?

Yes! Not completely—they slowed to seize a pair of dead horses, and Ylawes swore when he saw them going after their real prize:

The Landshark the Silver Swords had killed.

“Stop them! Bring them down!”

His team tried, but the Landsharks writhed away and then got up and began to stagger off. Even with the [Guards] and Insill and Larr pelting them with arrows, they refused to fall over or let go of their prizes.

“Do we go after them? Captain?”

Insill was panting, blood on his scales, but Ylawes hesitated. The food—

“Captain Ylawes, I think I’ve broken something.”

Anith was clutching at his chest, and Dasha had a huge, bloody mark on her shoulder where a tooth had gone through her armor. Insill had a nick on his tail when he checked, but the deciding factor was Dawil.

“They got me in the midsection. It’s not bad, lad—”

Dawil was holding his chest. He had plate armor, if not as custom made as Ylawes’; a huge ring of teeth showed where some of the metal had torn away, and his skin was punctured badly. Ylawes reached for his potion, then remembered Dawil had it.

“If all eight turn on us—try to slow that one, Anith. Dawil, use the—”

Dawil shouted.

“I need a potion! Does anyone have one?”

He coughed, shook his head at Ylawes, and Falene gasped, face dead white.

“I’m out of mana.”

That left…Insill, Pekona, Larr, Rasktooth, and Ylawes as unharmed. Infinitypear’s shell was cracked, but he claimed it wasn’t bad.

The Gold-rank adventurer eyed the Landshark pack and heard the Consortium shouting at him. He weighed the options of a battle and wondered what happened if the Landsharks came back for a second round that night.

He stayed put.

 

 

Day 33 of the Consortium of Enterprise Expeditions

 

To Ylawes’ surprise, the [Merchants] didn’t force him to do battle with the Landsharks that night. Not because they saw his perspective, but, as Dawil theorized—they couldn’t.

“Must be a clause in that contract that you signed, lad. Remember anything about it?”

He wasn’t looking good the next day. He had several deep cuts, and they’d wrapped him with linen to slow the bleeding, but he needed the potion. So did Master Homle; he’d taken a bite that had lacerated his entire arm defending the mines.

Ylawes wanted Dawil to use the potion, but the [Axe Champion] had refused. Even this morning, he tapped the side of his nose.

“All of ours went dead, lad. I tried some of the slush; only made me need to use the latrines. But I bet you…”

He jerked his eyes to the [Merchants]. Ylawes nodded. If anyone had a high-quality potion, it was them. The problem was getting it from them.

“You really have let us down, Captain Ylawes. First you fail to take down the pack, then you don’t even give chase? Why—why, we had one meal, but we only had a portion or two! We’re worse than when we started! We’ve lost two horses and four people! And the Landshark meat! Will we have to harvest it on the spot when we do it again?”

My team will consider it. If we try that again, Merchant Yorrned. Right now, we need a healing potion.”

The [Ore Merchant] compressed his lips as Ylawes folded his arms. The rest of the Consortium was there, but they hesitated when he asked for one. Ylawes saw Raeta begin to protest, Jobbi lay a hand on her arm—Lolsed’s card face gave nothing away.

The reason he turned to Yorrned wasn’t just because he was the employer of the Silver Swords. Merchant Anlam had hesitated. The one who kept writing a charter for the expedition and seemed to believe in rules more than the rest…glanced once at Yorrned after meeting Ylawes’ eyes. But Yorrned just blustered it wasn’t necessary.

“I’m sure Adventurer Dawil will pull through. He’s a Gold-rank [Warrior], isn’t he?”

“That’s what saved him from a full bite. Foreman Homle is also injured. We don’t have a [Healer].”

They had people with healing Skills, like Farmer Petia, but the [Merchants] had clearly trusted to the healing potions. Yorrned changed subjects.

“We have even less food today, Adventurer Ylawes. I suggest you try another Landshark hunt; they’re wounded. Or perhaps the river will turn up dividends. The expedition there should be returning. And the mines are turning out copper ore, my word, yes. Once we get it smelted…we’ll have to reach out to other settlements with offers. That’s another thing. I must have Miss Falene ask for a list of the ones in the area.”

He had a glazed look in his eyes, like someone seeing a mirage. Ylawes stared at him and stalked off.

 

——

 

The fishing expedition did not return huge dividends. Falene was exhausted as the [Merchants] badgered her to ‘make contact’ with other settlements via the Mage’s Guild. Dawil was lying in the wagon, and Ylawes sat and stared at a hill.

“You, uh, trying to glare a hole in that hill, Captain? You wanted to see me?”

Insill came up, seeming apprehensive. Ylawes turned and smiled at him.

“Just thinking, Insill.”

“Sure. Sorry if I messed up last night. I should have put a pit trap down when I saw the Landsharks coming, right? I hope you’re not mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

The [Rogue] visibly relaxed and wiped his brow.

“Whew. I’d hate to be that guy.”

Ylawes gave him a puzzled look and then turned his head.

“Sit with me a second, Insill. I’ve been thinking.”

The Drake sat down and winced as he felt at the cut on his tail.

“What’s up? Are we healing Dawil? With the you-know-what?”

By now, the adventurers had decided revealing the potion might be a mistake; the [Miners] and [Farmers] had injured themselves in minor ways. But Dawil’s injury and Homle’s called for it.

A good [Knight] wouldn’t hesitate to unveil it. The problem was…Ylawes was annoyed.

He was slightly upset.

He suspected, no, he knew the [Merchants] had a healing potion between them. And he’d been thinking—and staring at the hill—about contracts.

“They didn’t force us to fight the Landsharks, Insill. Maybe they can’t, but I felt like they could compel Salamander or some of the expedition to do something. They had Homle’s crew mining, so why not us?”

“Maybe they saw sense? Hah!”

Insill laughed, and Ylawes didn’t smile. The Drake coughed and went silent.

“Sorry. So…what’s that mean?”

“What that means is…I’d like to know what I signed. I vaguely recall it. We had a lot of stuff that the Adventurer’s Guild insists on. I wish I had our handbook…do we even have one? Anyways, I think there’s a stipulation in there about not taking extraordinary risks. You can’t order an adventurer to fight a monster if it’s not attacking us, for instance, just because you want the parts.”

“Sounds…reasonable.”

“Doesn’t it? So, Insill. What I’d like you to do, quickly, is—check and see if Yorrned has the contract. And if not that, can you get in his wagon and check for something for me?”

The [Rogue]’s head rose, and his uncertain gaze turned incredulous.

“You want me to…break into the wagon?”

Ylawes felt his spine crawling at what he was suggesting. He shrugged, uncomfortable.

“I want you to—check that the [Merchants] are holding their end of the bargain up. Healing potions should be part of that.”

That was how he framed it, and Insill nodded too rapidly and happily.

“Oh, I can definitely check! Should I grab anything and bring it here?”

“Quickly.”

The [Rogue] cracked his knuckles excitedly and glanced at the [Merchants] badgering Falene. She had just enough mana for about three [Message] spells. Ylawes knew that because he’d told Yorrned this morning not to count on anything but that from her, including the fire.

He wouldn’t have done any of this but for Dawil’s and Homle’s injuries. The [Knight] saw Insill sneak into the wagon—or rather, he saw Insill stroll over, and the next time he glanced over, one of Yorrned’s windows was ajar.

Ylawes sat for ten minutes until a quiet whistle from Insill made him look up. The Drake waved at Ylawes as he walked across the camp. He held up a finger claw and made an eating motion.

Food and a potion? Ylawes wished he didn’t feel so vindicated. He glanced at the [Merchants] and made a gesturing motion, but Insill pointed.

He was headed towards another wagon. Merchant Lolsed’s, who had all the papers. Ylawes blinked—then sat down and nodded.

If he was doing this, he might as well check…Ylawes glanced at the [Merchants] arguing over something and seeming happy with Falene and sat back.

Then he heard an alarm begin ringing, a loud howling bell, and Insill went tearing out of Lolsed’s wagon, cursing.

“Shit, shit, shit—sorry, Captain! I tripped something! It might have been the contract in the chest I saw, but—”

“What’s going on? [Thief]!”

The Consortium went running, and Ylawes saw Insill was bright red. Not with embarrassment—he was glowing with some kind of powder or spell.

Of all the magical things to be active—wait, was it a Skill? It might have been, and Insill glanced around.

“Uh—uh—[Pit of Many Deaths]!”

He pointed, and a pit opened and covered itself with a thin layer of straw over it. Insill hopped in the hole and tried to hide. Ylawes just bent over it.

“Insill? Toss me the potion.”

 

——

 

The Consortium were shouting at Insill when they came to find Ylawes.

“Captain, your adventurer was stealing from my caravan and—my potion!

Yorrned howled when he saw Ylawes. Dawil stretched and felt at his chest.

“Damn good one, too. How’s the arm, Homle?”

The [Foreman] flexed one arm with a look of incredible relief. Relief that turned to hostility when he glanced at the [Merchants].

“Better’n ever.”

“Merchant Yorrned. Excuse Insill. He was just looking around for a potion. And anything to eat.”

Yorrned was shouting as he pointed at Insill, face beet red.

He is a [Thief], and we will have him tried—

“No, he’s not.”

Ylawes pocketed the potion before Yorrned could grab it. The man stared at him.

“Captain—what are you doing?”

The Consortium were aghast, but Ylawes folded his arms.

“Per the contract we signed, the Consortium agreed to give my team whatever was necessary to execute our task of guarding you all.”

He definitely remembered that kind of language. That meant food, water—and as far as he was concerned, healing potions.

“Captain, each potion is worth hundreds of gold pieces! If not more! That is one of the last ones we had—that is mine.

“I asked you if you had one. You lied to me.”

Nothing the [Merchant] could do would quell Ylawes’ displeasure, and he gestured at something else Insill had found.

“I also don’t recall your rations including so much, Merchant Yorrned. You seem to have had a private share.”

It was a spare bag of barley, half empty, and Insill had found other food, mostly eaten. The colonists stared at the bag, then at Yorrned.

“I…that was not part of the general allowance. I will not be accused of anything! Get back to work!”

Yorrned went from panic to blustering to anger in three motions. Merchant Lolsed just stared at Ylawes.

“Why was the Drake in my wagon, Captain Ylawes?”

“To check for more healing potions. I would suggest you pool them with us, members of the Consortium.”

“We aren’t obligated to. If we had any.”

Jobbi spoke quickly, and his wife glared at him with intense displeasure. She raised her voice.

“Anyone found stealing—and it is stealing—will be punished as such. Since you have Yorrned’s potion, anything else would be a violation of your contract, Captain Ylawes, and we will report that to the Merchant’s Guild. Who is, by the way, aware you are guarding us for the rest of the week.”

Ylawes glanced at Falene, and she gave him a helpless scowl. His moment of triumph over the healing potion turned sour again. Ylawes felt a pit in his stomach—but the growl came from Merchant Raeta’s stomach.

He gave her a thin smile. Politeness…he thought of something his sister, Ysara, would say.

“I trust we’ll all have adequate rations until then. My team will consider another hunt of the Landsharks—or we’ll track down some other animals we spotted. We’ll get right on it.”

He handed the barley to Chef Votto.

“Just as soon as we have a second breakfast.”

 

——

 

The barley bag might have been enough for Yorrned, but it barely made any gruel for the Silver Swords when it was distributed around the camp. Ylawes scraped his bowl twice, then used his finger and smacked parched lips.

“How’s our water looking?”

“Bad. The fishers are getting more water than fish. Good job getting the potion, lad.”

Dawil seemed a lot better. Falene looked a lot worse.

“All three [Messages] went out to the Merchant’s Guild, Ylawes. I’m sorry. They told the guild we were attempting to break contract—in more flowery language. Also, that they had a lot of copper and they wanted to sell.

“To who?

Ylawes’s voice rose, and the half-Elf shook her head.

“They’re losing it.”

“They’re not the only ones. I think I’m going crazy.”

Larr was licking the inside of his bowl. They were well and truly out of food; the fish that had come back from the river were not enough to feed everyone. Most of the [Farmers] were just staring at the fields, and the [Miners] were moving as if trapped in a [Slow] spell.

Ylawes buried his head in his hands.

I’ve heard you can live for up to three weeks without food, but we’ve been on half-rations for…he looked up slowly.

“How many horses do we have left?”

That was grim. And the answer was worse. Dawil lowered his voice.

“About eighteen.”

Eighteen? But we all rode out to kill the Landsharks. There were—”

“That’s because we needed them, lad. They’ve been vanishing every day, and Votto’s butchered three that I saw. Look.”

Dawil pointed, and Ylawes saw something really grim. The [Chef] was standing over a pot with the water he’d gotten from the fishers. He was currently breaking something into it.

“…Those are his boots.”

“It’s leather. I told him nothing treated by an alchemist goes in. Lad, we’ve got to try another shot at those Landsharks.”

“It’s too risky. One was fine—if we kill it, we can take the meat—”

“We need to kill three. There’s too many people here, Captain. We’ll eat a Landshark too fast.”

Anith interrupted. He’d clearly done some math, and Ylawes rubbed at his face.

“Three. We should have killed that entire damn snail pack. I could eat them raw. Dawil—try to save our horses. I want a watch on them, day and night. If we kill a Landshark, we have to have a horse. We can’t scout without them, and we need them.”

For the river, if nothing else. Falene rasped as she stared at the pot of stew.

“If I meditate…I can maybe try a [Rain] spell. That’ll solve water. But that means no fire tonight. Which one?”

Water.

Ylawes lay on his back. In a second, he’d get up and make a plan about the Landshark. Three…if he took one…and Dawil took another…no, Dawil got bit. If he took one and Dawil and Dasha took another…

They should have killed the snails. Then again, could the sharks smell snail-blood? The [Merchants]. Did they have more food?

Why were they here? Ylawes opened his eyes, and he realized he was boiling with fury. He tried to be polite. Then he just closed his eyes until he cooled down.

 

——

 

“He not looking so good. You think this bad idea?”

“Captain Ylawes is very hungry. Maybe we will get in trouble. But we must ask. I will do it.”

“Nah. I do. Psst. Captain, Captain.”

Two familiar voices were arguing with each other. Ylawes didn’t want to wake up. But he reluctantly opened his eyes.

“What is it, Rasktooth, Infinitypear?”

He’d been dreaming about eating a horse. Ylawes saw that his team had secured their horses—eight of them. Not all ten. Dawil was pointedly fencing them in with rope, and the horses seemed nervous. They must have smelled the others being butchered.

The rest of the camp seemed—well, Ylawes had called Farmer Petia gaunt when he’d first met her, but that was just a way of describing her face.

Gaunt was what they all looked like now. And desperate. One of the younger [Traders] was staring at another horse—just…staring. But Salamander had his sword out and was cleaning it.

Where did he stand? What did they eat after horses? Ylawes was trying to think.

Lolsed. Right. He’d sent Insill too…

“Hey, Captain. Captain…you is there? He look really bad, Infinitypear.”

Rasktooth snapped his fingers in front of Ylawes’ face, and the [Knight] blinked. Yes. Poke Duo.

Of all the people in camp, besides the [Merchants] who had probably squirreled food away, the Antinium and Cave Goblin were notably, distinctly energetic. Most people couldn’t tell, not paying much attention to the two ‘monstrous’ species, but Ylawes hadn’t seen either one flagging.

They were still hungrier than before, but Ylawes frowned at them.

“What’s wrong?”

“Is nothing wrong with us. You very hungry, huh, Captain-guy? We, uh…we wondered how hungry you was.”

“Right now, I’d eat a snail.”

It was the frank truth. Ylawes had taken a good look at his boots after Dawil’s comment and wished he had some water to wash them off. Infinitypear glanced at Rasktooth, and the Cave Goblin mouthed for a second in mental calculation, then shrugged.

“How maggots sound?”

Ylawes stared at Rasktooth for a long, long time. The Cave Goblin gave him a tentative grin—and Infinitypear looked worried.

“We did not put any in the food, Captain. But—”

“Show me.”

 

——

 

They led Ylawes back the way they’d come when they were camping out. Not far. Just a mile or two, but Ylawes was flagging by the time he stopped, and Infinitypear pointed down. Rasktooth explained.

“Is warm dirt, Captain Ylawes. Infinitypear saw. Dirt very nice here. From sea? Cool sea—but warm, eh?”

He laughed heartily, but Ylawes just grunted. He stared down into the pit that Infinitypear and Rasktooth had dug out.

“Why’s it warm?”

“…Dunno. Is all warm around here. See?”

Ylawes took off a glove and felt at the ground. The spring thaw had gotten rid of the snow, but the ground was still cold enough…when he touched the patch of soil the two had found, he grunted.

“It is warm. Why?”

“Was a big crack in the ground, which is how Infinitypear noticed. Bit wet, too.”

There was some mud in the hole. Ylawes frowned at it.

“Hot water? A hot spring?”

Rasktooth shrugged.

“Dunno what that is. Maybe this is—but probably used to be all wet. See? Like sharks used to be in water before stupid Gnolls raised it up.”

That made sense. Kishkeria had altered the land, and it seemed like the Landsharks were a product of that spell. Or maybe some species had always been there.

“So what lives in this hole? I heard you say…maggots.”

“Eh. Is sort of. Here. Let’s dig. Is lots.”

Ylawes grimly sat by the hole as the two dug down and uncovered their secret food supply. He was prepared for horrors, and what he saw did not make his stomach leap for joy.

…But it wasn’t a maggot. Rather, he stared at a huge network of interconnected…pale white cylinders. With red capped fronts.

Feathers? No, it was organic. They were up to six feet long, some of them, and tangled together, a positive colony of them. At first, Ylawes thought they were mushrooms—but Rasktooth assured him they were not.

“Is not plant. Look. See?”

He slapped one, and the red ‘feather’ retreated rapidly along with all the others around it. Ylawes grimaced.

“Is that a worm? They don’t really move.”

“Eh. Maybe? Tastes like ash, a bit. Feather stuff not taste like much good, but this?”

Rasktooth yanked one of them out and held the tube of material out to Ylawes.

“Is not bad. I put in fire, cook up long, and we eat.”

“Sorry, Captain. I didn’t put it in any pots.”

“But what is it?”

Maggots were one thing, and this…unsettled him, but Ylawes was more intrigued. They were just growing in the dirt around the warm patch. Presumably that was how they had survived; he even noticed bugs nibbling at them.

“I dunno, but I call it tubeworm. Because in tube is worm. You, uh—want? I can cook.”

Ylawes Byres sat there and wished he didn’t feel the worm-thing slowly moving. It smelled…well, actually it didn’t smell that bad, and Rasktooth had a firepit next to the…

Ylawes stared at the firepit. Then at Rasktooth.

“No one’s lit a fire except from Falene’s magical flames. How did you do that?”

The Cave Goblin scratched his head.

“Uh…with flint and tinder stuff? And grass? Is lots of grass. I could burn down all of New Lands. What, you never start fire without magic?”

He gestured around aimlessly. Ylawes had started a fire without magic…but the Cave Goblin made it sound easy. Ylawes peered at Rasktooth as the Goblin dug into the fire, swore, and pulled something out.

“Anyways, you keep ember to light next fire. See? This one still good.”

“Fuff. Fuuh. I am blowing air.”

Rasktooth sighed as Infinitypear made helpful fanning motions with his hands and less helpful blowing noises. Soon, they were tossing grass on the fire, and Rasktooth chopped up the tubeworm and inserted a dagger into sections. Infinitypear toasted one part on the Adamantium spear, and Rasktooth sprinkled something over the charring tubeworm.

“[Natural Seasoning]! Chef Votto, he laughed at me when I said I had Skill. He has [Exquisite Flavoring]. And [Advanced Cooking]. Ooh. Well, I don’t see any seasonings in his pot anymore. He eat it all. This one almost good. Captain, here, here.”

He handed Ylawes a length of tuber that had browned nicely. Ylawes held it in his hands, and it was hot, smelled like salt and pepper, and he wondered if he was d—

…It was a lot less rubbery than he thought it would be. It was, disturbingly, rather like a sausage, but all one consistency. It was like a hot dog then; pure compressed meat. There actually wasn’t as much as he thought because it was hollow.

The taste rather was like eating…ash wasn’t the right word. It was like the stuff Octavia had put into matches, but only in taste. So not great—but as Rasktooth and Infinitypear stared at Ylawes and held their breaths, he finished one piece, licked his fingers, and spoke.

“—Do you have more? That is—how much do you have?”

Poke Duo exchanged glances. Then they slapped each other on the back, and Rasktooth burst into a huge grin. Infinitypear raised all four arms.

“Yay. You do not mind it being like a bug, Captain Ylawes?”

“No—but how much is there?”

Ylawes was suddenly worried, but Rasktooth waved a claw.

“Is too much of it, Captain Ylawes. Hundreds of them. We can dig up more. You okay?”

“Yes. Yes. Let me have another piece—you’re not sick or anything?”

The Goblin and Antinium shook their heads.

“We been eating all the time. And bugs. Smaller wormies, beetles—crickets. You know, Pekona has good point. Crickets are best bug.”

“Yah.”

The two nodded at each other, and Ylawes gazed at them. Then he got up and put his arms around the two and gently squeezed.

“You two…are the best [Adventurers] I’ve met. Better than I. Why didn’t you tell me we could eat all that?”

He was shamefaced and embarrassed to realize how much time he’d wasted. Rasktooth gave Ylawes a long look. Infinitypear was startled, but the Cave Goblin answered matter-of-factly.

“Because you didn’t want any. Until now. First is gross…now you is hungry like a Cave Goblin. Eh? We are bad Bronze-rank adventurers. But good surviving [Adventurers].”

He winked, and Ylawes appraised Rasktooth a moment, then nodded.

“Well, I want you two to start cooking as much as you can. Then we’ll call our team over and tell the expedition to come eat.”

“Tell them to bring pots. And [Chef] Votto so I can teach how to properly fry tubeworm. Also, need more diggers.”

Rasktooth rubbed his hands together, but Ylawes wasn’t done. He was chewing, and his stomach, which had protested at even the hint of roach, was begging for more tubeworm. He wasn’t done.

“Not quite, Rasktooth. I want you to make as much as you can—with help. I’ll tell the Consortium…something. We’ll have Petia and her people come over and give you a few hours. Dig them all up. We’ll bundle them into a blanket or something. We might as well bring the horses over. It will stop anyone eating them. Maybe a wagon.”

He was thinking. Rasktooth tilted his head, and Infinitypear stopped digging and poked his head up.

“All the tubewormies? That’s more than everyone can eat. Even if they eat like you, Captain Ylawes.”

Ylawes nodded.

“I hope so. Because when I inform the Consortium—I intend to tell them we’re leaving. Seriously, this time.”

The two younger adventurers stared at him.

“But the contract—”

Ylawes sat down, and the pieces he’d been thinking about connected.

“A contract’s only as good as the paper it’s written on, or so my father always says. I sent Insill to rob the Consortium, but he didn’t get through Lolsed’s wagon. Lolsed wanted all his documents stored. I wonder…would he have left it behind or kept the original document with him?”

The Cave Goblin’s eyes lit up. Ylawes scratched at his chin.

“A magical contract only works so long as the contract’s intact. How long for you to harvest the tubeworms?”

Poke Duo looked at each other, and Rasktooth counted how many warm patches he’d found.

“Is maybe…if we don’t grill more than we eat, four hours? If we have many hands.”

“Do you have anything else edible? Anything at all?”

Ylawes was thinking quickly. Rasktooth scratched his side.

“Uh…you want edible this thing, maybe? Not flower. Roots only.”

He handed Ylawes a tall, green flower with bright petals and a long system of roots. Ylawes bit a root and chewed and chewed and chewed.

“…A bit like liquorice. And dirt. This will do.”

He tucked it into his belt, then hesitated.

“—When you return with the horses, be ready.”

The two nodded at him, and Ylawes sat back down.

“I’ll have some more tubeworm, please. Any thoughts on the plan?”

He looked at his teammates—and they were, he realized. Not underlings or rookies. Teammates. They had to be, or else how were they bailing him out now? Rasktooth shook his head, but Infinitypear raised one hand.

“I have a thought, Captain.”

He leaned forwards as Ylawes turned to him.

“Which is?”

The Worker glanced left and right, then whispered loudly.

“…Good. I do not like the Consortium. But I am being very polite about it.”

Ylawes blinked at Infinitypear and smiled.

“Sometimes, Infinitypear, you have to be rude.”

He touched the sword at his side.

“—They’ve used up my goodwill. Stay by the wagons. I might lose my temper.”

 

——

 

It was conceivable that someone might have caught onto the ruse, especially when Ylawes claimed they had so many roots they needed a wagon to bring them back.

“There are also crickets. We might need the space.”

“Just so long as you’re not running off.”

Tivete fixed Ylawes with a hard stare, but her contract failed to activate, and she was hungry and not thinking straight. No one was.

Mind you, someone who had a nose to the wind might have noticed the adventurers hurrying off and that Ylawes was asking for Petia and people he trusted.

But if he did, Salamander just stood there, waiting, chewing on some boot leather soup. Ylawes did a count of the camp.

The Consortium had their loyal team—[Traders] and personal staff, and with the [Guards], that made up almost forty people. There were almost sixty [Miners]…and Ylawes supposed if the [Farmers] were compelled—

He gave up. What was he, someone who counted the odds? There was right and wrong, and come what may—he exhaled.

 

——

 

“[Merchants] of the Consortium. We’ve found a food source that might last us a week. More if our best adventurers in a survival situation keep foraging. Plus, there’s the fish in the river.”

Ylawes announced as the wagon rolled back, and people stared at the tubeworms—and like him, some began searching for pans or something to eat with.

Wonderful, Captain! Wait. What is…are they plants?”

Yorrned sounded hopeful, but Ylawes explained briefly what they were.

“Worms…but there’s enough here for a week with rations included! Two if there’s more. Underground warm spots. Why, maybe some of the plants will grow there!”

“Don’t count on it. Smelled off to me. Too many minerals.”

Farmer Petia hooked her thumbs into her overalls, watching Ylawes. The [Knight] nodded.

“Either way, they will last a week. And though we’ve lost many horses—I intend to make for the river with everyone I can soon.”

Tivete glanced up, and Yorrned missed what she sensed.

“If another school of those longfish comes…yes, that will take us to two weeks easily. And that gives us a full Yellat harvest!”

“If they’ve grown as fast as you expect. And if insects or something else doesn’t strike. I don’t intend to find out. I will continue heading east until I find another food source or reach Goisedall. There’s no hope here.”

The Consortium paused—and Salamander sighed. Then Yorrned gave Ylawes a betrayed look.

“Captain, that is a violation of your contract. In nine more days, I grant you, you are free to go pending first negotiation rights—”

First negotiation rights? Falene grimaced, and Anith muttered an oath. Ylawes wasn’t surprised. He saw the Consortium nod at each other as he glanced at his team.

The Silver Swords—all of them—didn’t waver. Ylawes looked from face to face.

Pekona, Larr, Insill, Rasktooth, Dasha, Infinitypear, Falene, Anith…the last was Dawil. Some were scowling at the Consortium, others watching him. Dawil gave Ylawes a nod. The [Knight] turned, shoulders heavy.

“I tried once, Merchant Yorrned. You forced me to back down, and I thought—naïvely—you might be right. This is madness. Perhaps this venture can succeed, but I am telling you, as a Gold-rank adventurer, the risk is too great.”

Yorrned strode over to the mine, and it was actually deeper than Ylawes had thought. He gestured at a pile of dirt and stone next to it.

“Captain Ylawes, this is all good copper ore. It might not look like it to you, but it’s piled up, and Homle and his fantastic crew have been pulling it out in droves! They’re all due for a bonus—a hefty one, mind you!”

Homle nodded as his eyes ventured to the mine.

“‘S true. It’s easy to mine out. We’d make a fortune if we were back home. I think we even found that seam—it’s not a cave, so either that monster’s small or it’s not a monster that Miss Falene says is stealing magic. Can’t tell how deep it is, though, but we can go quick.”

Merchant Yorrned gestured to Ylawes as if to say ‘there, you see?’ But he’d missed Homle’s inflection. The [Miner] glanced at Ylawes, and the [Knight] shook his head.

“There’s no one to sell to. We are leaving.”

“You cannot. The Merchant’s Guild will back us, Captain Ylawes, and you are under contract.”

Lolsed replied calmly. The man was ready for an argument, but someone interrupted him with a sigh.

“Lolsed. It’s over.”

Anlam sat down slowly as he looked at Ylawes. His eyes flicked over the [Farmers], the adventurers—and the Consortium rounded on him.

“Nothing is over. We have a contract, Anlam!”

Yorrned insisted, raising his voice. Anlam just stared at Ylawes.

“The Silver Swords can run it out. It was worth a shot when we still thought hunting Landsharks was viable. Lolsed—”

The other [Merchant] ignored him and pointed a finger at Ylawes.

“Enforcing the contract doesn’t require all of us. Don’t press this issue, Captain Ylawes.”

The rest of the Consortium lifted their hands, but Ylawes gave Lolsed a thin smile.

“I believe you’ll find that there is a clause under the Adventurer’s Guild contracts that allows my team to remove themselves if we pay a forfeit of fifty gold coins or take a loss equivalent to a fifth of our valuation, whichever is higher, Merchant Lolsed. I wasn’t aware of this, but Poke Duo has a copy of the Adventurer’s Manual, and Insill confirmed that for me when he searched your caravan. Feel free to confirm that if you wish.”

Lolsed paled suddenly, and all the [Merchants] swung to him in alarm.

“There is? Lolsed—”

“One moment.”

Lolsed looked at Ylawes and backed away to his caravan. As Ylawes stood there, Vuliel Drae grinned and thumped Insill on the back.

“Good going, you stupid [Rogue].”

Larr whispered, and Insill beamed around, somewhat confused.

“Thanks! But I didn’t get a good look at it. We have an Adventurer’s Manual? Who knew?”

Ylawes’ face was straight. Anith’s head slowly turned to the [Knight], and Dawil walked forwards, sighing.

“Lad…”

“Let me handle anything, Dawil. It can’t be a bloodbath.”

Ylawes felt a kind of regret, but it was distant. He wasn’t angry…at least, he realized, not angry in the sense of punching things or throwing a tantrum.

Politeness. You kept anger deep inside, locked in a vault of silver, and maybe it eventually burst through you like it did with Yvlon. Or you let it out and just left like Ysara.

Did his father get angry? Exasperated, but now Ylawes wanted to know. He stood there, and all of his anger and frustration and words unsaid were in a single thing.

It was as Lolsed strode out, waving the contract. A furious look of triumph on his face, and Tivete swung around in sudden comprehension and alarm.

“There’s no clause like that, Captain Ylawes! Now, cease—”

Watch out!

All of Ylawes’ fury was in a hand raising, the gleam of metal—and the sharpest edge in the world. But not his hand.

Dawil raised the edge of the axe, his axe, crafted by the finest smiths in the world, broken—but still his. And the [Axe Champion] focused on the fluttering scroll and threw.

The edge of the axe tip was no longer attached to the handle, but the Dwarf still flicked it through the air, faster than the entire weapon itself. It whirled with a soft sound, and Ylawes didn’t even hear it shear through the contract. He only saw it tear in two as Lolsed recoiled in horror.

The edge of the axe went straight through Lolsed’s wagon wall and stopped somewhere in there. Dawil lowered his hand, and Ylawes nodded.

“We are breaking the contract. Don’t stop us.”

In the silence, the Consortium gazed down at the broken contract—then raised their hands. The word-chains appeared again, but they were thin…breaking as they encircled the Silver Swords. Ylawes snapped the ones on his right arm with a grimace, took a step.

“I’m going to need that piece of my axe back. Ladies, gentlemen. Don’t make this difficult.”

Dawil rumbled as he hefted his hammer. Tivete glanced around.

“You’re not the only ones under contract! Members of the expedition, stop them! Salamander, defend us!

Ylawes gritted his teeth as he saw Homle start, and word-chains dragged him forwards against his will. This is what he’d been afraid of. Salamander walked forwards and lifted his sword.

“Release them, Merchant Tivete. Or I will consider you a threat.”

The [Knight] pointed his sword at her, and the [Mechant] backed away.

“You’d murder an honest civilian in cold blood?”

“Knock you out—perhaps. If a single member of this expedition dies—by House Byres’ honor and silver and steel, you will pay for it in blood. I swear it.”

His blade felt quite cold as he gripped his shield tighter. Ylawes took another step, and Dawil strode at a bunch of [Guards] who hesitated as the Dwarf hefted his hammer.

“Lads, I’d slow down if I were you. Landsharks you’re not.”

Vuliel Drae struggled after them, but Falene drew a shortsword and lifted her staff. Which was mostly posturing—but it worked as she joined Dawil.

Ylawes walked at the Consortium, and Salamander raised his sword.

“Sorry, Captain. Loyalty’s a weird thing.”

“Did they earn it?”

Ylawes halted a good two dozen paces away from Salamander. The [Elite Guard] set himself, and he held the sword in a careful guard, Ylawes saw. He looked steady, and Ylawes had to break the word-chains every step.

Salamander’s eyes flickered, and Tivete had a hand raised, but no bonds were around his arms.

“—We might strike a fortune.”

He gazed at Ylawes with that faint light in his eyes the Consortium all had. Ylawes exhaled.

“Any good adventurer knows one thing if they make it to Gold-rank, Salamander.”

“Which is?”

Ylawes lifted his sword and saluted Salamander.

“When to run away.”

The two stared at each other as Salamander exhaled—and Ylawes leapt forwards as the man began to inhale.

[The Knight Charged With Wings of Steel]. He burst out of the Consortium’s grasp on him and came across the ground like a bolt of steel. A [Knight] leaping at Salamander, who swore and swung with a shout.

“[Fiery Arc]—”

Ylawes caught the Skill on his shield and pivoted. His sword, pale metal, drove through Salamander’s armor. If it had been enchanted still…

The Graveblade might have still hewn through it. As it was, Ylawes saw his blade pierce the man’s leg, deep, and Salamander turned deathly white. He tried to remove the blade, and Ylawes pivoted, keeping it in the leg, prepared to slice—

Argh! Aaah! St—

The [Elite Guard]’s face was draining of color rapidly. He tried to get away, shove at Ylawes—but the [Knight] pressed Salamander back with his shield. Then Salamander tried to grab the blade—and his hands scrabbled weakly at it.

“It’s cold—”

He collapsed, and Ylawes pulled the blade out, quickly, and saw red blood running down the tip. For a leg wound—the [Elite Guard] lay on his back, pale as a sheet.

The Graveblade still has magic in it? Ylawes blinked at it and saw Salamander’s face ruddying a bit, but he was breathing faintly.

“Insill. Get a bandage on that.”

Ylawes shook the blood off the blade. He advanced, and the Consortium froze up. Ylawes lifted a sword to Tivete’s chin, and she raised it.

“You—have made a terrible mistake, Captain Ylawes. You have broken your contract, and we will collect on it.”

“We’ll leave you some of the rations. Anyone who wishes to go will come with us. Hand over the contracts.”

“And if we refuse?”

Ylawes gazed at Lolsed, and the man swallowed hard, as if trying to guess if Ylawes would stab him. The [Knight] just shook his head.

“I will knock you flat then burn down your wagon. Actually—Rasktooth? Start a fire.”

The Cave Goblin rubbed his hands together as Lolsed paled. Maybe they had backup contracts. He began to protest, then run—and Falene tripped him. She looked around.

“Who’s coming with us?”

 

——

 

In the end, some people stayed. That unsettled Ylawes as much as his actions so far.

The Consortium weren’t silent. Though it took Dasha having to punch Jobbi when he tried to stop them from setting fire to their wagon. That kept them from trying to fight—but they kept talking.

“A hundred gold pieces to any man or woman who stays!”

“We will not be coming back.”

Ylawes spoke over the Consortium—and he saw the expedition split. Nearly a third, from people the [Merchants] knew personally like Chef Votto to the junior [Traders] and some of the [Miners] and [Farmers], stayed.

Homle, Petia, and the bulk of the others were ready to go. They’d have to go on foot, and as Ylawes promised, they’d left the meager rations behind. Petia pointed at the fields.

“Dig up the Yellats in ten days, minimum. Cut them lengthwise here and here—to resow. You do two halves per each Yellat. If you can make them last and fish—you might make it.”

Not all the [Merchants] were listening. Jobbi and Raeta were weeping and cursing them. Tivete had begged to save her magical items and was protecting them behind her, eyes wide and trembling. Lolsed was clutching at his chest, staring at his burning documents…Yorrned just stared at Ylawes with a twisted snarl.

Merchant Anlam was on his knees, staring at his home in flames. Anlam looked up as Salamander listened to Petia. He was writing it down on some paper that he’d asked for. Ylawes looked at him.

“You can leave.”

“Someone’s got to guard them. They could be right.”

They’re not. Ylawes just met the man’s eyes as Salamander winced and felt at his bloody leg.

“Insill, hand Salamander one of the potions you found before you torched the caravans.”

They had four now, counting the one Ylawes had used for Dawil and Homle. He’d never been as grateful for four as now. Insill hesitated—but forked one over, and Salamander drank a bit and sighed.

Ylawes offered him a hand.

“Good luck.”

He meant it. Homle scratched at his head, glancing at Petia. She was giving the remaining [Farmers] advice—and the [Miner] did likewise.

“Whatever Miss Falene wants, it’s straight down—we marked it out with some chalk. Mind how you dig…reckon it’s safer for you lot to just do a pit mine.”

Salamander shrugged, face blank.

“We’ll see.”

They were about to leave when someone interrupted them. He came stumbling after them, desperate, holding nothing but a few changes of clothes they’d let him salvage.

“Take—take me with you. Please.”

Merchant Anlam, who’d broken from the Consortium at the last moment, got stares like hard ice from most of the expedition. He looked at them, then dropped to his knees.

Please. You’re right. This expedition is not going to last without you.”

“Captain Ylawes, he’s part of the reason why you stayed! If anyone’s going to be a drag on us, it’s him.”

Homle growled. Ylawes stared hard at Anlam and remembered their limited conversations. Nothing changed the outcome—but the [Merchant] plucked at his clothes and showed them a bulging bag of coin.

“I’m still a [Merchant]. If we reach Goisedall, or anyone else, I can help buy supplies. You need someone like that.”

The coins. Ylawes had supervised the Consortium and let them save clothing and other goods like Tivete’s magical items from their homes. Nothing made of paper, and nothing they could hide a document in. He hadn’t taken the gold they’d carried; what would be the point? It was too heavy without a bag of holding.

Ylawes’ eyes flicked to the camp as he weighed Anlam’s offer. The Silver Swords were looking at him, and Ylawes thought of politeness. Doing the right thing. In the end, he decided based on one other quality.

Mercy.

“If you come with us, we’ll store your gold, but you’ll walk and only ride in shifts with everyone else. You are not in charge, Master Anlam, and you will pull your weight.”

“Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you.

Without a word, he hurried into the group, and Ylawes cast a glance backwards.

“None of the others would come?”

“We are all ruined. The moment the magic began dying, Tivete was done for. Yorrned or Lolsed could return—if Lolsed could carry all his documents back. Raeta and Jobbi? None of us wanted to return as poor as when we were [Traders].”

That was all Anlam said. Rasktooth poked him in a friendly-unfriendly way.

“Then why you come, eh?”

Anlam stared at the Goblin and replied with what Ylawes took to be perfect honesty.

“I don’t want to be ruined. But I want to return.”

That silenced even Petia’s commentary, and she nodded without a word.

 

——

 

Two wagons, fourteen horses. The adventurers mounted up, and that left four for the Consortium. Ylawes tried not to choose the weakest animals—but he had a feeling how long they might last.

“Tubeworms is in good soil. Eh—harder to see when snow melts, but we dug pits. Probably more. Probably…you eat beetles, okay? Not any but yellow ones. Only yellow ones edible.”

Rasktooth was looking at the remaining members of the expedition staying behind with a complicated expression. Infinitypear shook Salamander’s hand—then tried to pull him towards them. The man refused and stepped back.

A curse upon you, Silver Swords!

Merchant Yorrned exploded as the adventurers began to ride away. Ylawes turned, and the [Ore Merchant] stood there, a small man shouting and spitting with rage.

A pox—a fucking pox on House Byres, and you—and you will never make it out of the New Lands alive! We will bury you! Your name is mud! Tarnished! Begone! You’ll be corpses before you get two days out! We’ll tell everyone about you!”

“You and what [Message] spells?”

Falene began to call back, but Ylawes touched her arm. He turned and silently gestured.

“Silver Swords—move out. I want to hit the river by nightfall.”

 

——

 

They almost made it to the river. On foot, the exhausted settlers were slow, but they marched with a will, and Ylawes Byres traded off his horse. They ate from the Tubeworms to fill their stomachs.

“I think we’ll die of that thing [Pirates] get if we don’t get more food, but this’ll do until we can fish. I need water. It occurs to me we should have taken one of their wagons, lad. They’re probably nicer.”

Dawil was rubbing his neck afterwards. He found Ylawes sitting by a fire Rasktooth was showing Vuliel Drae how to make; Rasktooth had a pouch he was going to carry the embers in.

Survival stuff. Ylawes was thinking of what to do and the road ahead. Dawil tossed himself down with a groan.

“What a mess, eh?”

“Yes. Dawil…if I wake up tomorrow and I’ve lost…if I’m just a [Warrior], I think you should take charge. I won’t be nearly as good with most of my Skills missing.”

Dawil blinked at Ylawes, then put down the tuber he was chewing on. He spat some out that didn’t agree with him and then barked a laugh.

“Ylawes. Is that what you’ve been afraid of?”

The [Knight] sat there, resigned to it. [Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon]. A great, nay, amazing class.

“You don’t think it’s likely? I just threatened a bunch of [Merchants], broke my word—”

“—And I couldn’t be prouder of you. I often am, l—Ylawes. You’re a hard-headed idiot, though, sometimes.”

Dawil rested a hand on Ylawes’ shoulder as Falene walked over, trying to eat the strange root-plant Rasktooth had found. She sat down as Dawil went on, nodding at her.

“That’s why we’re a team, but sometimes I thought—Grandfathers, this fellow won’t stop doing the right thing even if it’s the wrong thing that looks nice. Today? You did the right thing that looks wrong. If there’s any justice, you won’t lose your class, you’ll level up, right, Pointy?”

“He’s got a point, Ylawes. I don’t often agree, but Dawil is correct. Those [Merchants] were foul. We’re not out of it yet, but I think if we’d stayed, we’d all be dead.”

Ylawes felt better at that as the other adventurers nodded, and even Homle and Petia came over to agree. Ylawes stood awkwardly.

“We’ll have to reorganize.”

“Why? You’re still a good leader.”

Anith protested, and Petia nodded.

“No objections from us, right, Homle?”

The [Miner] nodded, but Ylawes gestured to them.

“For fighting, I mean. If we go hunting, we’ll face those Landsharks again. It will be lean, difficult work even with fishing and foraging. We’re a team; we’ll get out of the New Lands if anyone can.”

That was his new vow, and it felt better than the reason he’d come here. His audience didn’t cheer; they were past that kind of thing, but they nodded. Ylawes stared up at the stars as they came out.

“Huh. More flicker-light bugs. They come out every fourth day.”

Infinitypear stared upwards. Ylawes glanced up and saw the glowing bugs in the distance past the river.

“They do?”

He hadn’t noticed. The last few weeks had been too much misery to count. Ylawes stared at the bugs—and remembered the Flashbirds.

There had to be more beauty like that out here in the New Lands. This particular expedition had ended in disaster, and it still might go that way. But when he saw the Antinium’s mandibles rise in a smile…

That was what Ylawes Byres craved. He looked around, exhaling.

Magic.

No, not magic. Not like Falene’s magic. What had Erin called her craft? Wonder, that was it. Amazement.

Real adventure. Give him some of that. Ylawes felt like he’d lost some of the spark that he’d had when he’d first gotten into this job. The faith that everything would work out if he charged an enemy.

The reward that he never asked for, but sort of hoped he’d get when he took a job for free and that was sweeter when it finally came unasked for.

Hope. Where in Rhir’s hells was his hope for this new year? Burnt up with House Byres? Perhaps…but Ylawes stood there and muttered.

“I wonder how they taste.”

Rasktooth fell over laughing, and Vuliel Drae joined in. Dawil slapped his thighs, and Petia gave another rare smile. Homle, Mrsha, and the [Miners] shouted obscenities as they saw the damn Flashbirds still trying to eat the bugs. Falene tried to look aloof—but then she snatched a tubeworm from the fire, sick of roots and—

Hold on a second there. Who was that?

A semi-translucent Gnoll girl was peering at the tubeworms and looking around. She was…flickering, and Ylawes spun as Infinitypear nearly leapt into the fire.

Mrsha?

Everyone blinked. Mrsha did a happy dance and began writing on a card. She held it up as Ylawes spluttered. How—?

Forsooth! It is I! What are you eating? I knew if I kept trying, I’d find you! Hey, why the fu…dge are you so hard to get in contact with? Huh!?

“What’s going on? Who is—is that the white Gnoll?”

Homle bellowed, but Insill shushed him. Ylawes strode over to Mrsha.

“How did you find us?”

Mrsha gave him a puzzled look and flicked her wand. It wrote in the air, faster than her quill could.

I’ve been checking every day for years—for weeks! For half a week. Ever since we got your [Message], silly! But the [World’s Eye Theatre] barely works! Every time Lyonette tries to contact someone—we got Nailren a few times. But sometimes people don’t appear. It’s as if something’s in the way! You’re sort of fuzzy.

Fuzzy? Ylawes traded glances with Falene, and the half-Elf began swearing a blue streak.

Tree rot infested with giant, fuzzy caterpillars—we’ve been blocking everyone trying to [Scry] or locate us!”

They’d been sitting right on top of the interference! Mrsha seemed smug.

Everyone gave up, but I kept trying. Because I care. Also, I was bored, so I kept looking for what was going on in the New Lands. Did you camp here? There’s not many animals here. But that big canyon is huge! And I saw these giant snails that way!

Mrsha pointed energetically as she prattled on, and Ylawes’ mind tried to make sense of…

“Wait. How did you see all that if you couldn’t scry us?”

Mrsha gave him another smug look.

I asked the theatre to go where you last were—then I ran for, like, miles that way. You can do that. The hardest part is not running off of the center of the room and falling. I did that twice. You couldn’t do that before. Erin hit Level 50. Her Skill’s upgraded! But you don’t get free popcorn if you ask. I tried that too.

She could scry the area around them? But [Scrying] spells couldn’t do that! Yet Ylawes had seen Mrsha using this Skill before, and she proved it, running around the group and then yelping and going off the edge of something and, in his perspective, into the ground.

Mrsha pulled herself back up and felt at her nose, trying not to cry, then looked around at the caravan.

See? I can’t figure out how to go down, or I’d check out the ravine and there are weird spaces where the theatre stops working and it all goes to mist, but I found you all! Hey, you look sort of bad. Hey, hey! Guess what happened at the inn! We’ve been—

Ylawes burst out speaking before she could continue pontificating.

“Mrsha, go get Lyonette. No—listen carefully in case we vanish. Go find the Adventurer’s Guild. Tell them where we were, in the northwestern foothills as you leave Goisedall. We need food—find a nearby settlement or something. Understand? Keep trying to contact us. We’ve run out of food and magic, and we are travelling along the river.”

Mrsha blinked at him and hesitated.

What? Out of food? But what are those white things? Where’s all the stupid [Merchants] and—

Run!

Ylawes barked at her, and Mrsha jumped, fell over backwards, and then ran for it, howling an alarm. Ylawes stood there, trembling, as Dawil let out a whoop.

“Dead gods! And send some more luck our way, would you? Lad—I’ve never been gladder that Erin’s a friend of ours.”

“Let’s hope she finds someone—we should have asked her to signal Goisedall for help. If they can put up the coin for someone—”

“They’ll keep contacting us. Come on, let’s figure out what help they can be. Reckon we could ask for a Knight of Solstice? Er, besides you, Captain.”

“Let’s ask for luck. Seriously.”

Larr muttered, and Ylawes blinked at him. He nodded and sat down, limbs suddenly shaking with excitement. Mrsha came tumbling back with Nanette and Lyonette, and Ylawes got up again, smiling for once.

There it was. Just a spark of it.

Hope.

 

 

[Knight-Seeker of the Silver Dragon Level 38!]

[Skill – Oathbreaker’s Repudiation: “For survival, I object” obtained!]

 

[Graduate Battlemage Level 36!]

[Skill – Mana Siphon (Object) obtained!]

 

[Horrorbane Adventurer Level 18!]

[Skill – Bug Attracting Lantern obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Proficiency: Crafting obtained!]

 

[Overlands Adventurer Level 17!]

[Skill – Hound’s Scent (Edibles) obtained!]

[Skill – Crossbow: Irregular Ammunition (Stones) obtained!]

 

 

 

 

Authors’ Note:

(See the blog post for details about the writing of this chapter! It took 13 hours which I streamed.)

Four chapters in, and we have already delved into the New Lands in what I hope is a satisfactory way. Hello, I’m having sushi tomorrow, and on Thursday, I will begin editing Book 12, to hopefully get it all done by the end of February at the latest.

Not that you’ll know. I have two more chapters already finished, so I can responsibly work on editing. And I have my weekly break, so I should be able to do all chapters owed AND edit.

…This organization disturbs me greatly, but I do know it’ll be some intense editing. It must be done. I hope you’ll find on a re-read or re-listen that the witches, especially Belavierr and Califor, are given the due gravitas that might have been lacking in the first pass.

We didn’t know them as well, or Wiskeria either. Time to keep the plot intact, but add to the insanity of witches, the magic, and the moment. But that’s the future.

The present is—rough for New Lands settlers. But not ‘rough’ in the sense a true survival book is, is it? I feel like there’s a bridge between the magic that they still have and links to the outside world versus someone dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail (Oregon Trail 3D is the best game, I will not hear of any arguments) to name a famous example.

We may get to that, but it is a choice of my own writing expertise as well as what fits the story. I hope you found this first glimpse into the New Lands compelling. It will not be the last. But who do you want to see step up to the plate next?

Nailren? Another adventuring team? A Walled City? Calidus’ all-nut colony? Let me know, and I hope you…well, maybe not enjoyed. But found it gripping.

PS. Those are legit tubeworms Rasktooth and Infinitypear found. Adaptation’s weird. Also tubeworms look gross. But I’d eat one over a roach.

 

 

Defenstration by Brack! (I learned a new word!)

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Brack_Giraffe

 

Done Geneva and Doodles by Yura!

 

Elia Arcsinger and Line-Ender Shot by 1AutumnLeaf!

 

Sanctuary Ends by Weirdling!

 

The Last Tide by Andromeda Star!

 

Mrsha Like and Mrsha Despair by Bobo Plushie!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bobo_Snofo

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/boboplushie

 

The Silver Sword Arrested by Lanrae! (No, I don’t know what the costumes are about. Seems fitting.)

 

 


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