When they removed the bandage from Ryoka’s leg, the other adventurers flinched back. All except for Ceria and Calruz, that was.
Ryoka stared down into the bloody, ripped mess of skin and once again was profoundly grateful for the numbing magic they’d put on her leg. Gerial looked pale as he gathered up the bandages. They were soaked with blood and grime, but they were still valuable.
Ceria reassured the others. She fished out a red potion and uncorked the bottle.
“That’s what happens when you move bone around. But now the leg can be healed properly since the bone is repaired.”
Carefully, she poured the healing potion over Ryoka’s leg. It was a stronger, more expensive potion so the effects began instantly once the liquid hit her flesh. Ryoka watched with nauseous interest as the flesh and sinew began to re-knit, shifting around like a bunch of worms. At this point most of the Horns of Hammerad had to look away, but she kept watching. It was her body after all.
After about a minute, the top layer of skin began to close. Ryoka saw her flesh flow together to become smooth and whole. It was the most satisfying sight she’d ever seen.
Ceria tapped the bottle for the last drops of healing potion to fall out and then tucked it away in her belt.
“Looks good. I’m going to dispel the magic now. Ryoka, how does it feel?”
“I can’t feel anything. But it looks good. Go ahead.”
Ceria nodded and grabbed the staff at her side. She muttered a few words and Ryoka winced. The words—they weren’t part of any language she’d heard. The half elf’s voice seemed to resonate, and the sounds, or rather, the meaning conveyed in the sounds made her head ache to hear them.
After a few seconds of speaking, Ceria raised her staff and brought it down lightly. Then she stared at Ryoka’s leg. All of the adventurers crowded close, alternating between staring at Ryoka’s face and her leg.
For a few seconds Ryoka’s face was blank. Then, slowly, she stood up. She rested her full weight on both legs, and then on her bad leg. She took one step, and then two. Then—
“How’s it feel—”
Calruz nudged Gerial and cut the other man off. He watched as Ryoka took another step, and then stretched her leg out. She gingerly tested her leg by taking a few forceful steps. Then she hopped up and down.
Ryoka spun on one leg. Then she jumped, and kicked out with it, before landing and doing a pivot-kick that cut the air. The adventurers blinked, impressed.
Hop, spin, kick, jump. Ryoka leapt about the grass like a monkey, or a martial artist if you wanted to be flattering. She did a cartwheel, and then a spinning back kick. At this point Gerial and the other adventures were gaping openly, and that was before Ryoka started doing back handsprings and front flips.
“I take it you’re feeling better, Ryoka?”
The young woman stopped and grinned at Ceria. She flicked some sweat off her forehead.
“I’m great. Better than great.”
This time Calruz was the one who was lost for words. Gerial had plenty, though. He stared openly at Ryoka.
“How did—I’ve never seen anyone do that.”
The other adventurers nodded in agreement, but one of the mages shook his head.
“I have. Tumblers and performers have those kind of skills. Do you have the [Performer] class, Miss Ryoka?”
She looked at him, mildly insulted.
“No, I’ve just got skill. You should see me do parkour.”
“It’s a type of running. Or—I guess you could call it a type of martial arts.”
Again, Ryoka had lost her audience.
“I’ve heard of that.”
Ceria nodded and smiled at Ryoka.
“You are full of surprises, aren’t you? And your leg doesn’t hurt? You don’t feel any twinges or pain?”
“Pisces did his work well, then. I thought he would. He might be an idiot, but he’s a competent one.”
Gerial cleared his throat.
“I’m glad. Well uh, what should we do now? It’s been a long trip and there’s the inn or Liscor…Ryoka, did you want to uh, do anything?”
The Horns of Hammerad stared at Ryoka. She was practically vibrating with energy, unable to sit still.
“I’m going to run back.”
“I’ve gotta run. Sorry but—”
Gerial and the other Horns of Hammerad exchanged glances. The male warrior nodded and grinned at her.
“We understand. I’ve broken bones before, too.”
Ryoka nodded. She was already looking at the wide, open plains. But then she looked back and hesitated.
“I don’t want to get in your way. I can probably find my way back on my own if you want to stay—”
This time it was Calruz who interrupted. The Minotaur snorted.
“We’ll follow in the cart. There’s over a hundred miles between here and Celum. Even I—you couldn’t run that far.”
She gave him a grin.
But then Ryoka paused, and tried to adjust her words.
“Um, thanks anyways, though. But if you need to rest—I know you were up all night.”
“We’ll give the horses a stamina potion, don’t worry.”
Ceria smiled at Ryoka.
“If you’re going to run, stick to the road. Monsters around here are fairly dangerous. Stay away from the big rocks. They’re actually giant monsters in disguise.”
All of the other Horns of Hammerad eyed Ceria, askance. But Ryoka just nodded. Her entire body was coiled like a spring. But again, she paused before running.
“Thank you. I really mean it.”
“Enough words. Run already!”
Ryoka nodded at the adventurers. She gave them a rare full smile, and at least a few hearts in the Horns of Hammerad skipped a beat. Then she took off.
Calruz must have had the idea to run with Ryoka, at least for a while, because he took off with her. He got ten steps before she’d left him completely behind. Ceria whistled softly as she saw Ryoka blaze through the grasslands.
“Let’s tend to the horses and get on the road if you want to follow her, Gerial. It looks like she’ll go at least forty miles before she runs out of steam.”
Gerial nodded and began ordering the Horns around, although they already knew what to do. Calruz stomped back, looking half-pleased, half-disgruntled.
“Fast. But that’s why she is worthy.”
Ceria eyed him while Gerial deliberately began fiddling with a blue potion he’d pulled from his pack.
“It’s worth repaying our debt to her, but it’s too bad we can’t stay in Liscor, Calruz. You know those new ruins are nearby. It might be worth getting the drop on the other adventuring teams and exploring it first.”
He shook his head.
“Not without a full-fighting party. There’s a reason none of the cowards around here have dared breach the upper levels yet. If we come back, it will be after we know what monsters have been sighted there and our wounded have recovered.”
“Practical, I suppose. I’m just surprised to hear that coming from you, Calruz.”
Calruz eyed Ceria irritably.
“Why? Because I am a Minotaur?”
Her gaze didn’t waver.
He snorted and grinned.
“I’m no fool, and the Horns of Hammerad aren’t Gold-ranked just yet. We will wait. Now, let us follow the quick Ryoka Griffin.”
The female mage groaned as she climbed into the wagon.
“Another day and night of riding. Too bad we couldn’t stay at the inn.”
Calruz eyed the currently empty inn and shook his head.
“Bah, it doesn’t look that inviting anyways. Let’s go!”
The Horns of Hammerad set out, travelling down the central slope and for several miles until they found the main road. They kept going for an hour before Gerial raised his head and sniffed from the driver’s seat.
“…Does anyone smell smoke?”
Ryoka ran. She ran through the grass and kicked off the ground. With every step she felt like she was being reborn. And she was running fast, perhaps faster than she’d ever run before. Her wings were back.
She crested a hill, stormed down it in half a second, and then hit the flat ground before another crest made her dig into the soft grass. The bumpy landscape of the area was perfect for muscle training, if she’d been so inclined. But as it was, Ryoka was just enjoying the feeling of running again.
She kept to the main road. Even with all the passion in her soul, Ryoka wasn’t about to risk running into whatever monsters Ceria had mentioned. She eyed the large, immobile rocks as she ran and wondered what was living underneath them.
At this time of day, the road was actually crowded with a few travelers. Ryoka either hadn’t seen them in her delirious ride to Liscor, or it had been too late at night/early in the morning. But now she saw merchants riding in armed caravans, farmers sitting on wagons, and even the lone traveler. Some were human. Most were not.
Giant lizards. Hairy dog-people. Ryoka would have stopped and stared—or discretely observed them, but the fire of running was burning her from the inside out. She ran at a good distance from the road as she flashed by the travelers. In turn, they stared at the human running by them with undisguised curiosity and amazement.
Merchants, traders, travelers, peddlers, caravan guards, farmers, and the occasional group of adventurers all travelled the road to Liscor. Oh, and one more group.
Ryoka blitzed by a party of Gnolls who sniffed and turned their heads almost too late to see her go by when she saw the group of armed Drakes. They reacted to her presence by reaching for their weapons, but when they saw it was just a lone human they relaxed. All except for one, that was.
Her legs and body were still fine, but Ryoka was thinking of slowing down to conserve energy when she saw the blur move out of the group of guardsman and chase after her. She heard the whoops and cheers of the Drakes and realized one of them was trying to race her. Ryoka looked over her shoulder.
A green blur was charging after her. It was one of the guardsman, a big Drake with a spear on his back. Another one of the bone-head types who thought they could outrun her just to show off to her friends. She increased her pace. And…so did he.
He was fast. Ryoka sensed him behind her, and then he was right next to her. She gaped as he appeared by her side, giving her a smug grin. He was huge, and he was carrying a weapon and wearing armor, but he still was nearly as fast as she was. Nearly.
Her feet dug into the soft grass. Ryoka increased the tempo of her legs, and went into overdrive. The Drake blinked as she accelerated. He tried to speed up, and for a few seconds he managed to keep pace. But Ryoka had wings on her feet and this was her first run in nearly a week. He might as well have tried to catch the wind.
How fast was she going? Ryoka saw the travelers on the road blur, and then disappear with each step. She was in a completely different world of her own now, and even the insanely fast Drake couldn’t keep up. This was her world, a world few people would ever know.
People are awesome. For a second Ryoka wished her iPhone was working so she could listen to some music or record herself running for one of the compilation videos on Youtube. But then she left those thoughts behind. She ran.
The guardsman fell behind. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t keep up with her. Ryoka turned her head and flashed him a smile for a good race. He desperately pumped his arms and his legs, but his weird speed was no match for her. And his posture was terrible.
She heard him call out after her, but Ryoka had hit the zone and she couldn’t be stopped. She ran on, and smiled into the breeze. The feeling was back. She was back.
She was free.
Relc gave up running when the human female was over a hundred feet ahead of him. Disgusted, he ground to a stop, tearing up the grass with the force of his momentum. A nearby caravan of human traders stared in amazement at him, but that was only because they were far too late to admire the runner still sprinting in the distance.
Frustrated, Relc pulled his spear out and stabbed the ground. This was a first. He’d never—well, seldom ever been outrun. And never by a human. He stared at Ryoka’s tiny back with a hint of admiration in his eyes.
Then he turned and began trudging back to the group of guardsmen he’d left. They were several miles away. Relc grumbled about the inconvenience, conveniently forgetting he’d been the one to challenge Ryoka to a race. He took one more glance into the distance, but couldn’t see Ryoka’s figure anymore.
“Humans. Huh. I wonder if Erin knows her?”
Somewhere around the same time, Erin wasn’t shopping. Nor was she in Liscor. In fact, she’d left the city several hours ago. Right now, she was lost.
Not completely lost. She knew where Liscor was – roughly. She could follow the mountain range to get to it, and therefore back to her inn. So she wasn’t lost in the grand scale of things.
But on a closer, localized level she was very lost. In fact, Erin would go as far as to say she was completely lost.
She’d left the Wandering Inn behind with her supplies and then…
It was like stepping into a maze, but instead of the walls being vertical, they were all horizontal. Erin frowned. Did that make sense?
The hills and valleys of the grasslands were nearly indistinguishable from the flat ground at a distance, and the uniform long grass made things worse. Erin had to navigate using what little landmarks she could see by.
For instance, there were helpful rocks in the distance…except they occasionally moved around and getting close to one was a bad idea. And there were patches of red and white flowers that Erin saw now and then, but she had a bad feeling about them.
At least, it was probably that. It could just be a random bad feeling, but that was pretty much the same thing when you got down to it. Either way, Erin had decided not to try and smell the pretty flowers.
She looked around as she walked through the grasslands. This was amazing. In more than one sense. For one thing, she’d just spotted a road a few miles to the left. A road. She had no idea Liscor even had a road!
Well, that probably wasn’t that big a surprise. But Erin had just realized how narrow her little world had been. She’d practically lived only in her inn and occasionally in Liscor, without exploring any other direction. And why?
Oh yeah, because of the monsters. Well…there weren’t any she could see. Erin wasn’t too far away from the main road, and Selys had said that was the safest area. She’d made Erin promise to stay close to the area the Watch patrolled.
But now Erin had found a forest, and she was going to explore it. Because it was a forest. Literally the only trees Erin had found aside from the blue fruit trees. But these looked like proper trees…except they were missing all their leaves.
This could have something to do with the season. Apparently, it was around fall, closing in on winter. Erin hadn’t believed it, but Selys had assured her it was true. Apparently the mountains made it so that the seasons didn’t hit the area around Liscor as hard or something.
“Or maybe this is like Florida, or California. No snow, no searing heat. That’d be nice.”
Erin muttered to herself as she approached the dry-looking trees. It was a lovely forest, and not too far away from her inn. Only…forty minutes if she walked straight? Okay, that was a good distance, but only because Erin was on foot.
Hm. The brown wood of the trees was definitely brighter in color than the ones back in her home. They actually looked closer in color to how trees were drawn, not how they actually looked with all the dark bark, moss, and whatnot. Erin wanted to go closer, but then a bell went off in her head.
The [Dangersense]. It had been pulsing whenever Erin thought about going close to the flowers, but now it clearly and definitely rang out in her mind. It was like a bad feeling in her gut—except in her head. And it told Erin that she did not want to get closer to the trees.
Erin quickly stepped back. Something was wrong with the forest. But what? They were just trees. But was something living in the forest? In the trees?
Cautiously, Erin reached into the bag she was carrying with her. She’d brought a small rucksack loaded with a few essentials for a day-long exploration. It hadn’t been too expensive, and she had wanted to be prepared. It wasn’t as if she were completely reckless like Selys and Krshia clearly thought she was.
Erin rummaged with one hand as she kept an eye on the forest. It was hard to feel around in her bag without looking, especially because she wanted to keep a certain item in there from breaking. Where was it…?
She’d brought a flint and tinder, which she actually knew how to use in case she needed to make a torch. Not that she planned on exploring any caves, but it seemed like a practical choice. There were also bandages, but Erin didn’t want them. Her hand rummaged through the rucksack blindly.
She also had a long knife in a leather sheathe she’d bought from the Adventurer’s Guild. They sold a number of items for adventurers behind their counter, and once Selys realized Erin wasn’t going to be dissuaded, she’d insisted Erin take one.
And a healing potion, of course. It was expensive – nearly a gold coin even for a weak potion, but Erin would have bought one regardless of the price. She’d learned her lesson.
Something smooth. That was the hand mirror. Apparently, this was an adventurer’s tool to check for injuries like poison barbs or in case of Basilisk attacks. Erin had bought it because she really wanted one, but the thought of a grizzled warrior checking out his appearance was also pretty funny.
Erin had laughed, but then Selys had told her about how some bugs could sink into an adventurer’s skin and lay eggs that would hatch and eat them from inside out. That had been disgusting and made Erin feel like a jerk for laughing. But it still hadn’t stopped her from her exploring, especially after Selys admitted those insects didn’t live anywhere near Liscor.
Selys didn’t seem to get it. Come to that, Krshia didn’t really get it either. The Gnoll seemed to think Erin was trying to avenge Klbkch. She’d offered to come along to ‘hunt’ with Erin, but Erin had refused.
None of them really understood. They thought Erin was crazy and she probably was, but her reason made sense to Erin. This was something she had to do.
Erin broke off and shook her head. What was she doing? Erin stared at the object she’d pulled out of her pack blankly. Oh, right.
She was holding a rock. In fairness, it was a nice rock. Rough around the edges, true, but a prime specimen of a rock nonetheless. Erin could hold this rock and know it was definitely made of stone. It was nicely heavy too, and it was her prime defense against anything.
Erin hefted it and squinted at the tree. Hm. She backed up until she was around fifty feet away. That seemed safe enough. Then she lifted the rock, took aim, and threw.
Erin had never played baseball as a kid. It was a boy’s game, at least where she’d grown up, and they were all jerks when it came to letting girls have a turn. But she’d played catch now and then, and there were plenty of baseball games on TV that she would occasionally watch. In short, Erin had a pretty good idea of how fast a baseball could be thrown.
The rock she tossed had about the same velocity as a fastball. Not a major-league fastball, the kind that could dent metal or kill people but—actually, this was a rock. It could totally kill people even at Erin’s slower velocity.
And it had perfect accuracy. Erin watched the rock she’d thrown strike one the tree dead center, hard enough to dent the bark. Another skill. [Unerring Throw]. With it Erin literally couldn’t miss.
The rock fell to the ground. Erin watched the tree. The branches were shaking from the impact, but nothing else happened. Maybe there wasn’t anything living in trees after all. Or maybe it was hiding, or only lived in certain trees, or somewhere deeper in the forest. Or maybe—
Waitaminute. Erin froze. The branches were still quivering long after the impact. Why were they doing that? But the tree seemed to flex and—
Fireworks. Each branch and twig on the upper section of the tree instantly and spontaneously exploded outwards like a shrapnel bomb going off. Acorns, pieces of bark, and small bits of the branch fired outwards, thousands of bullets.
Erin dove to the ground as the deadly wooden hail rained around her. She was lucky. The explosion was far enough away that most of what hit her had lost its momentum. She felt bits of wood showering her as she covered her head with her hand. Only when she was quite, quite sure everything had stopped did Erin look up.
The tree was completely denuded of bark and most of its smaller branches. It stood among its fellows, the pale yellow-green-white of its trunk showing. Around it in a hundred meter radius, bits of the tree lay on the grass.
Shakily, Erin got to her feet. She felt something trickling down her face and touched at her cheek. Something—an acorn—had cut a shallow gash down her left cheek. She looked at the blood on her fingertips and tried not to throw up.
It was only after she’d put at least a mile between her and the exploding trees that Erin stopped to call herself twenty kinds of stupid. Then she decided never to ever go near anything tree-related again without a flamethrower. Monsters were one thing, but this—
Erin sighed and sat down on a small hill. Well, that was probably why no one explored around this area. Exploding trees. Unless you were wearing armor—and even if you were—those things were deadly. She imagined what would happen if Rags and her Goblin friends tried to gather firewood from the trees and shuddered.
Curiously, her near-death experience left Erin ravenous. She opened her rucksack and fished around cautiously inside until she pulled something squishy out. She unwrapped the wax paper and revealed a slightly squashed sandwich. Apparently, Drakes weren’t too keen on bread – they had a very meaty, fishy, and sometimes insect-y diet, but Gnolls ate the stuff.
This particular sandwich had mustard, or something sweet that tasted vaguely like it, cheese, and a lot of meat. Erin devoured it and then wished she hadn’t eaten so quickly. She clutched at her stomach and then she saw the spider.
It was a large spider. A large—no, huge spider. And it had—
“Oh gods. Is that armor?”
Maybe it wasn’t armor. Maybe it was. But the silver and black pattern on the spider’s back made the thick layer of…carapace look even more sinister than it was. It looked like armor, especially in the way the plating covered the giant spider’s legs and the top of its body. Erin was pretty sure it was armor.
The spider clicked its mandibles together as it approached Erin. She froze up, but then grabbed her rucksack and scrambled away. The spider scuttled faster, and Erin backed up even faster.
She turned and ran. That was, until Erin’s [Dangersense] went off like alarm bells. She stopped in place. What was—
It was nearly too late. Erin was just about to take another step when she noticed the odd way the ground seemed flimsy in front of her feet. She took a look behind her – the armored spider was still a ways away. She kicked at the ground, and it collapsed.
A huge pit opened up in the ground in front of Erin. The fake earth—in fact, some kind of green amalgamate of dead grass and sticks fell down and Erin stared down into the face of hell. A nest full of spiders. And eggs.
They were everywhere, tiny spiders, big spiders, and eggs. So many white egg sacs that lay on the ground and walls of the massive cavern like obscene fungi. And as the trap ground fell in, they all surged into frantic motion.
Spiders began scurrying all over the huge nest, scurrying all over each other as they searched for the prey that had fallen into their nest. Meanwhile the prey standing at the edge of the nest backed away in horror.
It was only when she heard the scuttling of the other armored spider that Erin remembered it was behind her. She turned, screamed, and ran around the edge of the pit. It followed her but interestingly, the other spiders in the cavern below didn’t. They were still mindlessly swarming around the ground, protecting the eggs and searching for something to eat. But the large one was still hunting her.
She ran. It followed. Slowly, quietly. Even after Erin had run several hundred meters she could turn around and still see it approaching. And then she realized it wasn’t going to stop. It was a premonition. The spider was going to follow her until she stopped.
So Erin slowed from her run to a walk. She turned around, and took the rucksack off her back. Erin reached inside and pulled out two things. A rock and a small jar stoppered up extremely thoroughly.
It was stupid to go exploring. Selys had told her that a hundred times. Krshia had said the same thing, but she’d suggested coming along with Erin with a few more Gnolls. But Erin had shot down both ideas. She had to do this alone.
And maybe it was going to kill her. But Erin had woken up screaming and crying every night since Klbkch died. So she didn’t run. She picked up the rock and aimed at the spider.
Its head was black and Erin couldn’t make out any eyes or features really. She expected the spider to have large jaws or something but it was just blank and horrific. She hurled the rock at its head.
The stone smashed into the spider’s head. It reeled back and emitted a high-pitched noise that Erin could only half-hear. For a second she thought it had worked and the spider would run. But then the spider ducked low to the ground and advanced.
It wasn’t even bleeding. Not that Erin knew if spiders bled. But the armor covering the spider hadn’t even cracked from the rock. Erin stared at the spider. It was coming.
Huge. Nearly half as tall as she was. Every instinct in Erin was telling her to run. But she didn’t. If she ran, it would follow her.
If she ran far enough, maybe she’d be able to get to the city before she ran out of energy. Maybe she’d run right into another pit trap. But either way, someone would have to kill the spider. If not her, then a guardsman. Relc, or Pisces. Or even Rags. Someone would have to fight in the end, and someone might die.
So Erin didn’t run. She held her ground and stared at the spider. It would kill her, or she would kill it. She knew that would be the case, and she didn’t run. Because that was the reason she was out here.
To never see someone die protecting her. To never hold them in her arms and hear their last words. To never cry and feel guilt without end.
To never be weak again.
So instead of running, Erin picked up the glass jar she’d dropped in the grass. She threw it at the charging spider.
The jar broke and the acid covered the armored spider. Again, it screeched and this time Erin saw smoke rising from its armor. The acid bit into the spider’s armor, but again, it wasn’t enough. The spider curled up on the grass as smoke rose from its armor, and clawed frantically at its ‘face’. But then the smoking eventually stopped and the spider got up.
Erin waited. She’d blinded the creature, but now she was fighting a half-blind spider covered in acid that ate away flesh. It approached, and she saw the delicate silver and black plated exoskeleton was pitted with the green of the acid flies. But it wasn’t enough.
Erin reached into her pack and drew out the knife. She threw it and the blade spun through the air and bounced off the spider’s head. Useless. Erin emptied the rucksack and wrapped it around one hand. She walked forward, slowly.
Her ears were pounding. Blood and her crashing heartbeat drowned out everything else. The spider hesitated as Erin walked towards it. It touched at the ground delicately with one foreleg and tried to circle. Erin didn’t. She walked towards it. Her eyes stared at a monster scarier than anything else she’d ever seen in her world. But she didn’t run.
Erin stopped a few feet away from the spider. Her pulse was electric; her stomach was missing. She looked down upon it, and the spider hesitated. Erin spoke to it.
“I’ve held a dying friend and known pain. Try and kill me. You can’t eat a broken heart.”
She raised her fists.
“Come on. I’ll bury you deep.”
A wind blew down from over the mountains. It was a strong wind, but tired. After hundreds of miles the gale that had blasted across the sea was no more than a whisper. But it was enough. It carried smoke and burning on the wind.
The female adventurer stopped and looked to the north. The wind blew the dreadlocks of her hair, and she brushed at her eye. The smoke was irritating, but she had learned long ago to see even in sandstorms.
Still, it was curious. So the adventurer walked towards the smoke. She didn’t bother drawing the large sword at her side. She had no need of it yet. Her confidence was not unfounded either.
She wore armor made out of some dark metal. Not dark in the sense of jet-black iron or the lightless color of obsidian—just dark, orange-brown metal. From afar, it almost looked like rust, but the armor wasn’t rusty. In fact, it was fairly clean—it was just the metal that gave off that impression.
The female adventurer wore it like a second skin, and it did not impede her movement as she strode towards the smoke. But she stopped as she saw the spider.
It was crawling up from a hole in the side of a hill. Burning wood had been placed around the gap, but the spider was determined. It shoved its way past the fire, screeching horribly and smoking. When it saw the female adventurer it reacted instantly. The spider lunged.
The adventurer drew her sword and cut twice. The spider fell to the ground, legs and abdomen severed. Yellow pus oozed from its backside as the adventurer studied it.
“Kingslayer Spiders? No—Shield Spiders.”
She left the Shield Spider where it lay. The adventurer continued onwards and upon reaching the top of the hill, she saw the source of the smoke.
A large pit was giving off black smoke. Orange sparks and a terrible red glow lit the edges of the pit like a gateway to some abyssal plane. But that wasn’t what drew the adventurer’s eye.
A girl was sitting by herself at the edge of the smoking pit. She stared into it, ignoring the small campfire on her right. She was hugging at her knees as she stared down. She did not see or hear the second spider crawling up behind her.
It lunged. The adventurer gripped her sword, but the girl at the edge of the pit moved like lightning. She rolled sideways even as the Shield Spider launched itself at her back. The momentum carried the spider over the ledge and into the smoking hole. The adventurer heard an agonized shriek from the spider as the girl went back to sit at the edge of the hole.
Cautiously, the adventurer approached. Not out of fear for herself; but she was studying the girl with a great deal of confusion. Her eye narrowed as she appraised the girl. And she was a girl, especially to the adventurer.
As she moved closer, the girl looked up at her. She was human. She didn’t stand up, but merely angled the thing at her feet more precisely.
A small mirror lay in the grass in front of the girl, reflecting the landscape behind her. It was propped up on a small backpack, or what remained of one. In truth, it was more like a pile of cloth scraps.
The adventurer eyed the girl. She seemed unharmed. But she also didn’t appear inclined to chat. So the adventurer cleared her throat.
The girl didn’t glance up. She hugged her knees and stared down into the smoke. Curious, the adventurer drew closer. Her hand wasn’t gripping her sword, but neither was she unwary.
Now that she was only a few feet away she could feel the heat radiating out of the pit. It was intense, but it was a fire in its final stages. Clearly, the fire had been going for quite some time but again, that wasn’t what drew the adventurer’s attention. No, it was the many shapes that lay curled up at the bottom of the fiery pit.
They lay in droves, their armored carcasses smoking and burning horribly in the flames that danced around the edge of the hole in the ground. Some had tried to climb. They hung, dangling, their legs still planted in the dirt walls where they had perished.
The adventurer blinked her eye at the girl.
“Did you do this? By yourself?”
“May I ask how?”
The human girl paused. She rocked back and forth for a while before responding.
“I closed off all the entrances with dried grass and wood. Then I started tossing burning branches into the pit.”
“Where did you get the wood?”
“There’s a forest over there. Bunch of trees and lots of dead wood.”
The adventurer glanced over in the direction the girl was pointing. She nodded.
“Krakk trees. They do burn well, but you were lucky none of them exploded. They do that quite often and the shrapnel is deadly.”
“They did explode.”
The adventurer raised an eyebrow. She looked at the girl with one eye, and then opened several more to study her more fully.
“I threw rocks at the trees until they exploded. Then I picked up the branches. It’s not dangerous if you make them explode first.”
“I see. Clever.”
One of the adventurer’s eyes glanced over to her right.
“Did you do that as well?”
“Few could best a Shield Spider with their bare hands.”
The girl shrugged again. She clutched at her arms unconsciously.
“It wasn’t hard. I flipped it and started stomping.”
“You have a skill. [Lesser Strength]. Even so, I see you were injured.”
The girl – no, the adventurer saw her name was Erin Solstice – rubbed at her arms. The adventurer could see patches of regrown skin, almost invisible to any eyes but hers covering her forearms.
“Yeah. I had a healing potion.”
“If you’d been bit the potion would have done you little good. Shield Spiders have a decently strong venom.”
“Lucky I wasn’t, then.”
More silence. The adventurer was slightly surprised. She was used to silence, especially on longer journeys, but she was also used to conversation when she met people. At the very least, she expected questions about her appearance, but the girl had only glanced at her once. She was still staring into the burning pit.
“Shield Spiders are considered to be a Silver-rank threat. A nest of them though…I wouldn’t be surprised if a team of Gold-rank adventurers were dispatched to handle it.”
“Okay. Thanks for telling me.”
“You are an [Innkeeper], Level 11, are you not? I am surprised you were able to accomplish such a feat, much less that you would risk something like that.”
“How do you know that about me?”
“I see it.”
Erin stared into the pit for a while. She rocked back and forth.
“I wanted to see if I could fight. And the spiders—they were going to follow me.”
“Shield Spiders are notorious for tracking and killing prey across thousands of leagues. You were wise not to run.”
“I guess. But I wanted to fight. To see if I could.”
The adventurer sat next to Erin. She felt the heat, but was not bothered by it. Her eye stung, though.
“And? What have you learned?”
Erin was silent. She stared into the burning tunnels. Amid the crackling flames she could hear the spiders screaming.
“…That I’m good at killing things.”
The adventurer was silent. Erin rocked. Back and forth. Back and forth.
“It’s strange. Up until this point I never realized I was a murderer.”
The adventurer raised her eyebrow.
“Murderer? That’s an interesting word. I would not use it to describe you.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
“Murder is the sin of taking lives that matter. We who fight such monsters are exterminators. Killers perhaps; murderers no.”
“I’m not like you. I’m no adventurer. And I don’t want to be. That’s what I learned.”
“Oh? Then why fight? Innkeepers don’t level from fighting monsters.”
Erin laughed shortly and without mirth.
“You guys all say the same thing. It’s always about leveling with you. That’s not what I meant. I—I’m a killer. But I don’t want to be. And I don’t want to be a warrior, either.”
The adventurer leaned back on her hands. She studied Erin with her eye.
“Then why fight? Why not run?”
“So I can defend myself. So I don’t get people killed for trying to protect me.”
“Ah. But you have done more than that. This nest was a threat to many. You eliminated it. You spoke truly: you do have a talent for fighting.”
Erin stared into the pit.
“I don’t want to be a killer. So I guess I’m stuck as an innkeeper.”
“You have talent in killing things. You might be a good adventurer, especially since you wiped out a nest by yourself.”
The adventurer broke off as Erin laughed harshly.
“Killing? That’s a terrible thing to be good at. No.”
“What a waste.”
Erin slowly turned her head. She stared at the adventurer, and the adventurer felt another mild surprise. There were few who could meet her gaze for long without flinching.
“My apologies. I didn’t want to offend you.”
“Too bad. This—this isn’t something to be proud of.”
Erin pointed down into the burning pit. She gestured at the spiders and the white egg sacks slowly burning away. The adventurer could still hear faint shrieks coming from inside the resilient webbing.
“I killed them.”
Erin whispered it.
“I killed them all. And they—they scream when they die.”
“They would have killed you.”
Erin stared as one of the egg sacs below opened up. Small spiders frantically clawed their way out of the webbing and shrieked as they found themselves in the burning pit. They scuttled down across the embers, burning, dying.
“Spawn. They are dangerous as adults in numbers.”
The female adventurer shrugged.
“You might call them that.”
Erin looked down into the pit. She was silent for a minute. The spiders were running about, but the heat from the fire was less. They were dying, but dying slow. She saw one spider caught in the egg sac, frantically trying to escape.
“If you like I can end them now—”
The adventurer turned to Erin to offer. She blinked as Erin leapt into the burning pit.
The smoke obscured Erin from visual sight for a few seconds, but the adventurer could still see her moving around in the pit. She saw Erin fighting through the flames, reaching for something. Then she was dashing towards the edge of the pit.
The girl scrabbled at the dirt and managed to get a foothold. But she was hindered by her burden. She managed to pull herself up to the ledge but couldn’t get any higher up. The adventurer stared down until she heard Erin speak.
“Are you going to pull me up?”
The adventurer reached down and effortlessly pulled Erin out. The girl was burned, but not badly from the few moments she was in the pit. She opened her left hand and showed the adventurer what she held.
A baby spider struggled and bit furiously at Erin’s fingers. She’d captured it from the top, so it couldn’t really get at her, but its sharp legs still scrabbled at her fingers.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“Dunno. I could raise it.”
“I wouldn’t. It would bite and consume you first chance it got. Shield Spiders cannot be tamed. Unless you had the [Beastmaster] class, this child will eventually take your life.”
“Yeah, probably. This was a stupid idea.”
Erin stared down at the spider in her hands. It was trying to bite her.
“…Sorry. Really, I am.”
She held it for another second until the spider’s legs cut open more of her fingers. Then she hurled it back down into the pit. The adventurer studied her. A tear rolled down Erin’s sooty face as she watched the baby spider burn.
“What a curious human you are.”
“…Is that your way of saying I’m an idiot?”
“Not at all. But I have met many humans. Many humans and many races, but never one as curious as you.”
“Thanks. I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“I am part Gazer. It is in my ancestry. You may call me by the name others not of my race give me. Gazi.”
“Oh? I’m Erin Solstice. A…an [Innkeeper].”
“Yes, I saw.”
Gazi held out her hand. After a moment, Erin took it. It was odd for her to shake Gazer’s hand. For one thing, she had odd arms with another segment to them. And only four fingers. But her skin was soft and smooth, even if it was reddish-brown. Really, even her hair looked pretty normal, black lengths tied into dreadlocks. It was only her face that really set her apart.
One huge eye stared out at Erin over a mouth filled with sharp teeth. Gazi had no nose. And around her central eye four smaller eyes opened and studied her with interest.
“I am pleased to meet you Erin Solstice, Innkeeper. I am an adventurer wandering through these lands.”
“Nice to meet you. Again. I’ve got an inn nearby. Would you…do you want something to eat?”
“That would be most welcome.”
“Okay. Okay then. Follow me.”
Erin picked up the mirror on the ground. She left her sliced up rucksack behind and began walking away from the burning pit. Gazi stared down into it and back at Erin.
“Don’t you want to claim the bounty on the Shield Spiders before you go? Their carcasses will not burn up in the flames.”
Erin paused. She turned around.
“…There’s a bounty on Shield Spiders?”