2.03

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Pisces didn’t say. He only said that if Ceria was alive there could be others.”

“And she’s alive?”

“Yes! The message-spell-thingy said she needed help. She’s somewhere in the Ruins, down deep.”

“And with Relc and Klbkch you think you can save them, right?”

“Yeah!”

“Forget it.”

Erin paused.

“…What?”

Zevara held a wet washcloth to her head and scowled at Erin over her desk.

“I said no. I’m not sending two of my best guardsmen into that place without a good reason. You want to save those damn adventurers? Do it yourself.”

“But we need them! Relc and Klbkch—they’re Senior Guardsmen. They can fight.”

“They’re Senior Guardsmen.”

Zevara agreed as she absently massaged her temples.

“But they’re under no obligation to help non-citizens. Which is what you are. Moreover, I won’t risk losing Klbkch again. Not after last time.”

Erin opened her mouth to protest, and the Captain of the Watch stared pointedly at her.

“Not again.”

Erin closed her mouth and frowned stubbornly.

“I’ll just ask them to help on their own time, then.”

“I’ll forbid them to help you. They’re valuable assets to the city.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Watch me.”

Erin stared at Zevara. The Drake’s eyes were a light purple, and she held Erin’s gaze until the human looked away.

“You—you—”

“If you’re done, get out. I’ve got a city to protect, and I don’t need to listen to a human squawking at me.”

For one second, the girl thought about flipping Zevara’s desk over and spilling all her neat paperwork on the floor. She didn’t because it wouldn’t help anything, and because the desk looked really heavy.

Plus, Selys had told her that Zevara could breathe fire.

The girl stomped to the door and Zevara winced and scowled at her. Erin turned, hand on the doorknob.

“If they die, it’s your fault.”

Zevara’s face was stony.

“Tell that to the people who have already died.”

There was nothing she could say to that, so Erin left. She slammed the door as hard as she could behind her. That made her feel a little better.

Ryoka was waiting impatiently at the foot of the stairs as Erin came down. The taller girl was practically bouncing on her bare feet, ignoring the stares she was getting from the other guardsmen in the Watch’s barracks.

“Well?”

Erin shook her head glumly.

“We’re not getting any help from the Watch. And um, I think we should leave. Now.”

They did. Ryoka stopped a few feet outside of the squat, two-story building and turned to Erin.

“I thought you said we could get help.”

“I thought we would! But it looks like people sort of blame the adventurers for the attack. Which is fair.”

“Fair?”

Erin flinched at Ryoka’s glare. She hadn’t known the other girl long, but Ryoka seemed to have two settings: intense and brooding. And right now she was practically vibrating with energy. She would have rushed to the Ruins as soon as Pisces had come to them if it weren’t for the fact that both she and Erin were exhausted and drunk. Even so, she’d  been up at the crack of dawn demanding to be led to the Ruins.

“That mage – Pisces said that he’ll go down to look for the Horns of Hammerad. I’ll go with him now. You try to convince other people to help.”

Ryoka turned and Erin grabbed her arm. The Runner jumped and glared and Erin let go quickly.

“Sorry. Look, you want to go into the super-scary Ruins with Pisces?”

“Yes. The Horns are down there. I’m going in after them.”

“But with Pisces?”

“He’s a necromancer, right? I know he’s powerful.”

“Yeah, but he’s…Pisces, y’know?”

Ryoka just stared. Erin scratched at her head. It was only just past morning in the city and her head still felt full of clouds.

“You really care about them, don’t you? I mean, I do too, but Ryoka, this is crazy.”

Ryoka shrugged.

“I owe them a debt. I’ll go down there myself and come out with them or stay there forever.”

Now that sounded heroic and pretty crazy. Erin opened her mouth and raised a finger.

Or we could get reinforcements.”

“You said that about your two guardsmen friends.”

“I did. But I know more people. Zevara said she’d forbid Relc and Klbkch from coming. Well, she can do that, but I bet Klb’s more important than her.”

“Fine. Let’s ask him.”

Ryoka turned and began walking. She moved so quick! Her version of walking was Erin’s version of a jog. The girl made it ten feet and then turned around and glared at Erin.

“Well? What are you waiting for?”

Erin smiled desperately and looked around.

“Um, I’ve never really been to the Hive. We might have to ask for directions or find a Worker.”

“A what?”

 

—-

 

Slow people. Slow conversations. The Horns of Hammerad are alive! I should be running down to the Ruins now, but I’m stuck here with a girl who doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of haste*.

 

*Or a lot of other things, if I’m honest. She’s a person from my world, I get that. But is she just completely airheaded or does she not take everything seriously? She hangs out with talking bugs and doesn’t even blink at crazed demon midgets**.

**Goblins.

 

Time. It all comes down to time. Not everything’s a 400 meter dash, but some things come down to seconds.

This is an emergency. My frien—Ceria and the others are alive. At least she is. And she’s been down in the Ruins for days, possibly without water or food all that time. She is alive.

I have to help her. But somehow I’m stuck following Erin Solstice around. She’s fine. She’s an innkeeper. But she doesn’t seem to understand how important this is.

I had to push her to run through the streets and she stopped when she got embarrassed from people staring. We found the Hive, and the strange Worker insect disappeared inside for a few minutes before he came out with the strange Antinium.

Antinium. The murderous invaders from across the world. I could use an entire army of them, but it seems like we’re not going to get any.

“—And then she said she’d forbid you to help! Can you believe that?”

What is it with this girl and talking to people? I should just go. Now. But—

Zombies? Erin did say there were zombies, right?

Can I fight zombies? Would punching them even work?

What if I get bit?

I have to go.

Klbkch, the Antinium with only two arms stares first at Erin, and then me. I don’t like him. He drugged us last night, or slipped us some kind of magical alcohol. I took a sip of that and went insane.

What does he want? Why does Erin think he’ll help her? If he’s the Prognugator of the Hive here he should be far too important to want to deal with us.

Unless he suspects where we’re from. Or is it something else? That book said Antinium don’t have names except for the Prognugator and Queens. So why did I meet two other Antinium with names?

Focus. I have to save Ceria and the others.

“So um. Can we have a few of those big soldier guys?”

Klbkch crosses his arms and seems to think. The Worker that got him left the instant he completed his task, but Klbkch came out of the hive with the Antinium with swords. Ksmvr. He makes me just as uneasy. Is he a bodyguard? Some new form of Antinium? Or is that Klbkch? They’re not supposed to have only two arms.

At last, Klbkch shakes his head reluctantly.

“I am sorry Erin, but I cannot assist you.”

Her face falls. I heard some people wear their feelings on their sleeve, but Erin paints it on a sign and waves it around wherever she goes.

“What? Why?”

“By the agreement made with Liscor, we may bring out Soldiers above-ground unless requested by a figure of authority or in times of war or defense of the city.”

Damn, damn, damn. But I guess it’s my turn. If I could get some of those soldiers Erin is talking about…I clear my throat. Klbkch looks at me. I hate talking to strangers.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the Ruins a clear threat? That’s where these undead came from, right? Neutralizing it would constitute defense of the city.”

Not good. Two interrogative statements. I should be making declaratives and speaking confidently. That’s what good old dad taught me. Look people in the eye, speak clearly, and lie through your teeth when you have to.

Klbkch nods at me, and takes his time replying, like a lawyer building his case.

“That is true under a certain interpretation. But I believe many would see it as a dangerous precedent, especially given the failure of the Antinium to act during the undead attack.”

“No. Klbkch, we need help. Really badly. Ryoka and I can’t go down there by ourselves. Or even with Toren and Pisces.”

Whoa. Slow down. Did she just say she was going with me? And what was that? Toren? The skeleton? She wants to take a skeleton to fight against its kind? Can she even trust that thing?

Klbkch just nods as if it’s all natural, though.

“I understand. But my Queen would take Zevara’s view, I fear. I can render some aid, though.”

“Really?”

He nods. Klbkch looks over his shoulder at the other Antinium.

“Ksmvr. Go with Erin Solstice and protect her.”

The other Antinium’s mandibles spread wide, their version of a surprised expression, I guess.

“I? But I am Prognugator. I cannot—”

“Silence. You will go.”

Klbkch turns back to Erin and bows his head politely. Why do I get something of a Japanese vibe from the Antinium? Stereotypes about the Japanese corporate life aside, maybe because they’re so polite.

A single warrior from a Hive that’s capable of fielding thousands of soldiers at any given moment seems weak to me, but Erin smiles.

“So you’re not going to try and stop me, then?”

“If I told you not to go, I believe you would. You and Relc share the same tendencies.”

“That’s not a compliment.”

“I am aware.”

Okay, if that’s all, it’s time to go.

“It’s time to go. Let’s get to the Ruins.”

Erin shakes her head. Is she mule headed or does she not realize that we need to hurry?

“Not yet. Krshia and Selys might be able to help. Let’s go see them.”

Unless they’re both secretly incredible warriors I doubt it. But Klbkch seems approving. He nods to me as I hurry Erin away.

His voice is soft, but I hear him talking quietly to the other one, Ksmvr as I go. Erin doesn’t notice. She’s too busy deciding whether to see Krshia or Selys first. But I hear him.

“Protect Erin and those she travels with. Her life is more important than yours. If she is harmed or dies, I will see you deconstructed.”

Something else to think about, but not now. I keep pushing Erin, ignoring her complaints that her feet hurt. We can’t slow. I can’t stop.

We have to hurry.

I won’t be too late again.

 

—-

 

“Will you not wait a day?”

“No.”

Ryoka said it before Erin could even respond. It was incredible, but the other girl was even more hyperactive than before. She was shifting from leg to leg, checking the position of the sun and the time on her iPhone every few seconds.

“We can’t wait, Krshia. If Ceria’s down there, she might be in danger even as we speak.”

“Hrm. But it is very dangerous. That creature of skin, there may be more, yes? And even if there is not, many undead did not perish in the attack. They will all be waiting down there.”

“Will you come or not?”

Erin winced. Being blunt and rude towards a Gnoll was…well, actually it wasn’t a bad thing. Krshia snorted in amusement at Ryoka.

“Patience, young huntress. Even with Ksmvr, warrior that he is, you two and the mage and skeleton are not enough, yes? I suggest waiting because in time help may arrive.”

“Help? What kind of help?”

Krshia smiled at Erin.

“Several of my tribe come down the southern road. They will be here today, if not earlier. They are warriors all, and they will surely help find your humans for you.”

Krshia’s words sparked a memory in Ryoka’s head. She stared at the Gnoll. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Erin shook her head at Krshia.

“We can’t wait. I’m sorry, but we’re going in. Will you come?”

Regretfully, Krshia shook her head.

“I cannot. I must wait for my kin and my arrows would do little good against dead things. ”

Erin exhaled hard. She’d thought that was the case, but it still hurt.

“Okay. Okay. In that case I need to buy some stuff.”

Krshia spread her paws.

“My shop is open. I have healing potions which I will give you, and you may pay me later. What do you need? Ask.”

“Frying pans, knives…actually, rocks will do. So only frying pans.”

“Frying pans?”

Krshia looked dubious, but she saw Erin was serious.

“Very well. I have good ones of cast iron. How many do you wish for?”

“Two…three…how many do you have?”

Erin took only a minute to select the right frying pans. Then she turned and nodded at Ryoka.

“Selys, then. She might be able to help. If not we’ll go.”

The other girl didn’t move. She was staring at Krshia, frowning. Ryoka seemed to be struggling with something, and both of the other females finally noticed it. Krshia smiled at Ryoka.

“Do you have something you wish to say?”

“These other Gnolls you said were coming. They’re coming up the south road?”

“Yes. If you wait, they will be here soon.”

“No. They won’t.”

Krshia frowned at Ryoka.

“What makes you sure of that?”

“They’re dead. I saw them.”

Erin looked from Ryoka back to Krshia just in time to see the Gnoll shopkeeper go completely still. Her tail, usually gently wagging, stopped. Her ears froze and her pupils dilated. She stared at Ryoka.

“Explain.”

“I found a group of dead Gnolls on my way to Liscor. They were around forty miles away from the city, all of them killed. Something cut them apart.”

Krshia flexed her hand by her side. Both Erin and Ryoka’s eyes were drawn downwards when she did. Normally, Krshia had a paw for a hand, furrier than a human’s but generally the same. Now her claws seemed to lengthen. Maybe it was a trick of the light. But to look at Krshia’s hands at that moment was to remember that she had nails. Long and sharp nails, the kind you could use to cut someone to ribbons.

The Gnoll stared down at Ryoka silently. Her face was expressionless, and her voice equally devoid of emotion.

“Who?”

“I don’t know. But a few minutes later I met someone on the road. A woman with a large eye named Gazi.”

Erin stared in open-mouthed astonishment at Ryoka, but Krshia only nodded.

“Thank you for telling me this, Ryoka Griffin. I trust you are not lying?”

“No.”

Krshia inclined her head slowly.

“I thought as much and sense the truth of it. Very well. You must go. Save your friends.”

Erin hesitated, but Ryoka pulled her away. The two girls ran down the street as Krshia watched them go.

The Gnoll was silent as she stood behind her stall full of carefully arranged wares. Another Drake trotted up, happy to be served at last. Krshia turned to look at him and his scales turned grey and he stumbled away.

Slowly, Krshia turned and went back into her small stall. She pawed around near the back, until she came to a long, rolled up bundle placed carefully on top of a few crates. Krshia brought it back and laid it on her counter, brushing aside her display to make room.

She did not move any faster than usual. There would be time enough for that, later.

Krshia unwrapped the bow and stood it upright in her shop. She drew the string out of the bundle, checking to make sure it was still oiled and unfrayed. Then she began stringing the bow.

Across the street Lism, the waste of fur of a shopkeeper, was marching towards Krshia. Probably to complain about one of the two humans. Krshia took no notice of him. She reached into the bundle and pulled out a wrapped bundle.

Lism took one look at the huge broadhead arrows Krshia unwrapped from their wax paper covering and immediately turned around and walked away. The other pedestrians on the street took one look at the shopkeeper arming herself and made themselves scarce.

The bow was strung, and Krshia put the arrows in a quiver at her side. She was ready. She opened the side panel of her shop and stepped out.

Then she raised her head to the sky and began to howl.

 

—-

 

Selys had no better news for Erin. The Drake only shook her head and spread her hands helplessly.

“Sorry, Erin. I know this is serious but no one wants to go into the Ruins. Not after what came out.”

“But there are other adventurers trapped down there. Friends. Comrades in arms and that sort of thing. You’re saying no one will help?”

“All the best human adventurers went down with the Horns of Hammerad. The ones who are left are, well…”

“We’re just smarter than that lot, that’s all.”

Both Drake and human turned to look at who had spoken. A Drake with a sword sat with his feet up at a table, balancing on the chair with his tail. He laughed as his friends, all Drakes, started making jokes about the adventurers.

Erin stared around the room desperately. There weren’t all Drake and Gnolls in the room. Some humans were there too, but none of them would meet her eyes. Or the ones that did were laughing at the adventurers.

“Won’t any of you help? Please, they’re in trouble.”

“They should have gotten themselves out of trouble or not gone looking for it in the first place, Human.”

The Drake who had first spoken laughed again with his buddies.

“Or maybe they just ran the instant they saw undead and got themselves killed. Either way, we’re not risking our hides for a few idiots.”

“Cowards.”

Ryoka said it loudly, and it had the same effect as a knife. It cut through the sound and laughter and made the Drake who had spoken sit forwards with a thump.

The mood changed. The adventurers at the table glared at Ryoka. She glared back.

“I thought adventurers were supposed to be brave. You lot should get rid of your swords and become Runners. At least they get paid to run away.”

The Drakes at the table stood up, hissing angrily. Selys banged her hand on the counter.

“Stop that! No fighting! This city’s had enough of it!”

The Drakes hesitated. The mood in the room wasn’t on their side, and they weren’t itching for a fight in any case.

They sat back down. Perhaps it was the look in Ryoka’s eye and the rumors about a crazed Runner girl with bare feet. But it was probably because of the look Erin gave them. Everyone had heard about the human who slew the monster made of skin.

“I’m sorry.”

Selys apologized again, but Erin just shook her head. Ryoka was already leaving the Guild, and Erin ran after her with a hurried apology for Selys.

This time Ryoka set a course for the gates of the city without even talking. Erin had to walk quickly to catch up. The two girls walked through the crowds of people silently.

They heard the howling begin as they left the Adventurer’s Guild. It was immediately joined by more voices of other Gnolls around the city, so that the streets rang with the sound and Drakes and Humans froze and stared around wildly. But neither girl so much as looked up.

“Well. Ksmvr said he’d meet us at the Ruins. That’s something.”

“I suppose. Do you have anything you need at the inn?”

“Yeah. Give me a few minutes and I’ll be good to go.”

“Good. I’ll help you grab everything. We need food, water, healing potions—”

Erin lifted the bag she’d carried from Krshia’s store. She had healing potions, and the three frying pans she’d brought. Ryoka eyed them but made no comment. After a moment Erin asked the question on her mind.

“You met Gazi?”

“You know her?”

“Yeah. She was at my inn. She helped me out too, when I first met her. She was, um, nice. Do you think she really…?”

“I don’t know. But she was close to those Gnolls and she pretended not to know what I was talking about when I asked.”

Ryoka walked on and hesitated.

“She…bothered me.”

“Was it the eye? That creeped me out a bit.”

“No. It was her. I can’t explain it, but each of those Gnolls that died was beheaded. With a single cut.”

“Oh. She has…a really sharp sword.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

They said nothing more until they got back to the inn. It took them only fifteen minutes, and Erin was gasping for breath when they got there. Ryoka looked at her in way that made Erin feel certain she was judging her. She wasn’t even sweating.

It was cold anyways, not the right temperature for sweating. It didn’t feel like winter, but then, maybe they were in the equivalent of Florida or something. Erin opened the door and jumped back.

Toren stood in the doorway, holding his sword. He stared curiously at Erin as Ryoka raised her fists and stepped back.

“Toren! Don’t stand with a sword in the doorway! Come on; help me!”

Erin pushed the skeleton aside and Toren sheathed his sword and began following her around as she yelled out instructions. Ryoka watched the skeleton warily, but Toren meekly ran about, gathering a few glowing green jars, supplies, and for some reason, several rocks from outside.

“Ready!”

Erin reappeared a few minutes later with a bulging rucksack, and all three frying pans strapped to it. Ryoka eyed the bag. Well, Erin could always stay in the back and carry the food. She had no idea how deep the Ruins were. She had no idea of anything, really.

It was the worst possible way to enter a dangerous area, but Ryoka had no choice. She had to go.

“Are you done? Let’s get moving.”

“Okay. Toren will carry everything until we get there.”

So saying, Erin handed the heavy pack to the skeleton. He accepted it without complaint and staggering a bit, followed Erin and Ryoka. Ryoka thrust open the door and paused.

Several Goblins jumped back, and one screamed in a high-pitched voice. Ryoka nearly threw herself back into Erin before she remembered these were nominally friendly Goblins.

“Rags!”

Erin pushed past Ryoka as the smallest Goblin stared up at Ryoka suspiciously. She smiled at the Goblin.

“I’m glad you’re here. We need your help!”

Ryoka did a double take as Rags blinked in surprise. Surely Erin wasn’t considering…?

She was.

In a few sentences Erin described the message Pisces had gotten, and their mission to enter the Ruins. Rags listened attentively while the rest of her group stared around idly or picked at their noses and ate what came out.

Erin finished with a short plea.

“You understand, don’t you? You’ll help, right?”

Rags thought for a second, pondering all she had heard. Then she looked up at Erin and shook her head.

“What?”

Erin stared down at the Goblin. Rags shrugged at her.

“But they’re in trouble. And you can help! You’ve got a sword and your tribe. We need you, Rags.”

Again, Rags shrugged. Erin didn’t speak Goblin and Rags wasn’t speaking, but she got a definite sense of indifference from the small Goblin. What had the Horns of Hammerad ever done for her? Why should she risk her neck?

“Rags, please. They’ll die if we can’t get to them. Remember Ceria? Remember Calruz?”

Rags scowled at Erin and turned away. Her attitude seemed to indicate that if there wasn’t any food or chess to be had, there was no point in being here.

That was the last straw. Erin had listened to grouchy Zevara, surprisingly unhelpful Klbkch, Krshia and the idea that Gazi was evil, and a room full of useless adventurers. Her patience finally ran out. She snapped.

Hey!

She grabbed Rags bodily and lifted her up. The Goblin shouted in outrage and tried to break free, but Erin just glared at her.

“I’m asking you for help. You owe me. I’ve fed you and given you help and even the sword and shield! I even made Pisces teach you magic! Now I need help saving my friends.”

Rags growled at Erin and kicked at her. Erin bit back a yelp as one bare foot kicked her in the chest. Hard.

“That’s it.”

The small Goblins grabbed at the sheathed short sword at her waist, but Erin just turned her upside down and began to shake. The Goblin’s head and body bounced around wildly as Erin shook the small Goblin, shouting loudly.

“Help—me! Help—us!”

She lifted Rags up and down by the ankles, so that the small Goblin bounced up and down like a bungee jumper. To Ryoka it looked like one of the rides at an amusement park that send hapless riders down a hundred feet per second out of the sky, except here no one was amused. Except for her and the other Goblins, of course.

“I’m not gonna stop until you say yes! Say yes! Say it!

The Goblin screamed and tried to bite and punch at Erin, but to no avail. Erin whirled Rags around by the legs in a circle as the Goblin screamed. Ryoka had done that as a kid with her father, once or twice. But it had been her holding on as he whirled her around by the arms, not the legs. The way Erin was doing it to Rags was a lot faster, more dangerous, and a lot less fun.

At last, Rags screamed something loudly and Erin stopped. The girl glared at the Goblin as Rags hung upside-down in the air, even greener than normal.

“You’re going to help? Promise?”

Rags nodded weakly. Erin dropped her.

The Goblin landed with a thump in the grass. For a second Ryoka thought she was going to run, but when Rags pushed herself up the Goblin could only stagger around drunkenly.

“Run away and I’ll throw a rock at you. And you know I’ll hit you.”

Erin threatened Rags. Ryoka wondered how credible that was—Erin didn’t seem like she was the athletic type, and Ryoka seriously doubted she’d ever played baseball. Maybe softball, at best. She didn’t seem like the competitive type.

Rags glared at Erin, stumbled a few feet away, and threw up noisily in the grass. She paused after vomiting up a considerable amount of undigested food, thought for second, and then threw up again.

Erin stumbled as she turned, dizzy from the swinging herself. She nearly walked into another Goblin. Rag’s small posse was alternating between glaring at her and staring at the vomit in the grass with curiosity or hunger.

Maybe they were protective of their boss. She didn’t care. Erin glared at them.

“You wanna fight? Huh?”

The Goblins looked at their leader, still noisily being sick in the grass. They looked back at the Destroyer, slayer of the skin monster, provider of pasta and free drinks. They backed up quickly.

Rags was nearly done puking. The Goblin wiped at her mouth and said something in her scratchy language. Erin pointed at her.

“You’re helping. No arguments. You and your tribe—”

Erin hesitated and turned around. The area was already emptying out of Goblins as they ran away.

“Damn it.”

Ryoka glanced at her. The girl’s earlier amusement at the spectacle had evaporated like the other Goblins.

“We’ve got to go. Why do you want the Goblin, anyways? Even her tribe wouldn’t be much help.”

Erin disagreed.

“She’s got a sword and a shield. Plus, she knows magic.”

Ryoka paused.

“…She does?”

“Yeah, maybe not as much as you, but some. And she was the one who killed the super-evil-skin-worm monster that was leading the undead.”

Ryoka stared at her. Erin threw up her hands.

“It’s true! Why does no one believe that?”

 

—-

 

They met Pisces waiting at the Ruins. The mage was antsy, and he hadn’t brought anything but his customarily dirty robes. He didn’t have his usual sneer though, and he was nervous. Possibly the only person more nervous than him was Ksmvr.

“I would deem it far more prudent to remain behind, Erin Solstice. You are no warrior, and the Ruins are dangerous.”

“They’re my friends. I’m going in there.”

Erin glared at Ksmvr. The Antinium wavered, and then sighed.

“Very well. But remain behind me at all times.”

Rags glared at the Antinium as he looked down at her, and then at Toren.

“You have chosen an unusual group.”

“No one else would come.”

“I see.”

Ryoka ignored the two and marched up to Pisces. He looked at her with the expression of someone trying to recall her name. She didn’t care.

“Did you get another message from them?”

He shook his head.

“Possibly something is blocking Ceria. Or her mana might still be low. It is possible if she is…wounded.”

“Right then, let’s find her.”

“I suppose so. But there’s a ah, problem.”

“What’s that?”

He nodded at the vast entrance to the ruins.

“The guardsmen won’t let us in.”

After the attack on Liscor, a palisade and deep ditch had been dug, and the guards at the entrance to the Ruins were now twenty strong, armed with arrows and torches and even a Drake mage in robes at the back. The guardsman in charge stared at Erin and the others as they marched up.

“We’re going in.”

The Drakes and Gnolls stared at Erin as she stood in front of them. One of them laughed, but stopped when no one joined them. Their leader, a Drake with maroon scales shook his head.

“No one goes in or out. Zevara’s orders.”

“She knows we’re going in.”

“She does?”

“She does.”

He shook his head.

“I can’t let you in without word from her.”

“That is regrettable.”

Ksmvr called from behind Erin. He shook his head.

“We should return to the city. It would not do to stand in defiance of the law.”

Ryoka opened her mouth—for what, she didn’t know. A threat? She wasn’t sure of anything that would work. But Erin just narrowed her eyes.

“You’ll let us in.”

“Or what?”

“Or I’ll hurt you.”

The Drake stared at Erin. She glared at him. He had nearly a head of height on her not counting his helmet, and he had a spear and nineteen guardsmen at his back. All Erin had was a frying pan. But he remembered where Skinner had died and he had [Dangersense] too. The look in Erin’s eyes made him reconsider his next words.

“We will send word to the city. If you’ll wait.”

Erin pushed him. The Drake stumbled back and nearly ran into the sharpened wall of stakes. Erin stomped past him without another word, and the others followed. Ryoka stared open-mouthed at her back and then hurried to catch up.

The Ruins were dark, and the open stone doors were just as foreboding as before. But despite the ominous blackness from within, Erin knew there was no turning back. But she did have a thought.

“Um. Did anyone bring a candle?”

“[Light].”

Pisces and Ryoka said it at the same time as Rags muttered something. Three orbs of shimmering light flew upwards as all three blinked at each other.

“Good, then we’re…good.”

Erin looked back into the Ruins. Here be monsters, she thought to herself. Nasty, undead monsters. This was the place where Skinner had come from. This is the place where countless adventurers had died.

Death lurked below, waiting. But so too did the Horns of Hammerad. There was no choice. Erin took a deep breath.

“Ready?”

Pisces looked green, but he nodded. Rags scowled at Erin and Ryoka and the ground. Toren’s sword was already drawn and the skeleton scanned the dark entrance.

Ksmvr stepped forwards.

“Allow me to go first, Miss Solstice. I will scout ahead and signal you when it is safe to proceed.”

“No. We go in together.”

He hesitated, but Erin pushed past him. Ryoka blinked in surprise. Erin walked into the darkness of the ruins, and then turned.

“Well? I can’t see anything if you guys don’t follow.”

The others hesitated, but then they walked forwards. Ryoka passed into the darkness and shivered. Her tongue was in her mouth and her heart was pounding. She was afraid. For the first time she was truly afraid. Of the unknown. Of what she did not know. Of being too late.

But she had to go.

A dirty [Necromancer], a Goblin, an undead skeleton, the Prognugator of an Antinium Hive, an [Innkeeper] and a City Runner walked into the Ruins. It sounded like the beginning of a joke, but what would the punch line be?

Gazi the Omniscient sat with her back to a slope several hundred meters away. Her main eye pointed into the back of her head as she tracked the progress of the strange group as they descended into the Ruins.

Let’s see. By primary classes they were…

A Level 16 [Warrior] Antinium.

A Level 22 [Necromancer] with various mage class levels.

A Level 8 [Warrior], Level 6 [Mage] and Level 10 [Tactician] Goblin.

A Level 11 [Skeleton Warrior] carrying an ruby enchanted with [Terror].

A Level 18 [Innkeeper] Human.

And a level-less Runner Human.

A joke, then. Something about Ruins? Or the undead. They could be humorous. Gazi frowned. She’d work on it while she waited for them to come back out. She had plenty of time.

But then, she could hardly wait. She was patient, had been patient, but now Gazi was buzzing with anticipation. She polished her sword, humming quietly, waiting. A tightly sealed scroll with a glowing rune etched onto a wax seal sat in the grass next to her.

It was finally time to go home.

 


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23 thoughts on “2.03

  1. People have been complaining about me complaining about my writing. Well, I’m here to say that there will be no self-recriminations. I feel good. Not about my writing necessarily, but that’s another story.

    Really, I’d like to be able to pump out more words each chapter. I know this is 5,000+ words and that’s not bad, but I always feel like a good chapter should be LONG. But then, maybe that’s just because I like to feel like each chapter as significant amount of story has progressed. But maybe that’s not the right way of looking at things. I should just make each chapter good without worrying about speed so much. I’m in this for the long haul, after all.

    And seriously, who knows how long this could go? I said that I’ll keep writing until I get to the end of the story or reader interest drops off. That means we could end this story in a month if you all vanish, or in ten years (not ten years, but who knows how long?) I’m not sure. This might get to Worm length. Now THAT’S a scary thought, although this will be multiple volumes like a series, rather than one super-long novel.

    And here’s the first action of volume 2! Now, I read your comments and one reader thought that Pisces’s comment about ‘they’re alive’ from last chapter was about the undead minions he raised gaining sentience. I wish I’d factored that in, but those minions were strictly short-term. But there’s the kind of plot twist that could evolve…if I weren’t sure it wouldn’t work. Sorry, but they collapsed. Word of author.

    Anyways, hopefully the short story for Patreon users will be up soon. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think. Although this is all just buildup, really. Exciting buildup or just boring?

    PS: Don’t worry, it won’t always be cliffs. Someday the cliffs will get to high and collapse and you’ll have one dead author. Or a lot of dead characters. Fingers crossed!

    • God, I hope it gets to worm length, that would be incredible. I discovered this novel like 2 weeks ago and i’m hanging on your every word. The Interlude was so good I showed it to two of my friends and now you’ve hooked them as well. Don’t ever stop writing.

  2. huh, thought Gazi would follow them into the tomb. maybe she was the one that sent the message and has a way back to her place set up inside the dungeon? that would be a cruel twist.

  3. Creepy Gazi is back! Yeah

    Pirateaba, i would advice you to start posting this story on other sites. You mentioned that you wish to reach 1k dollars on patreon by the end of the year, which has only 9-8 months left, though.
    To reach this goal that fast, you would need to advertise the story much more.
    Maybe try to recommend it on well visited blogs, but rather not out of the blue.
    In my opinion, those people are just going to be ignored. For example, people talk about their most anticipated game, and suddenly you post your book. This would probably be just regarded as spam.
    So, try to integrate yourself into conversations, and then bring it up in passing.

  4. I have a possible idea as to what Erin will be using all those supplies in the rucksack for excluding the obvious combat items like the acid jars, spare frying pans, and stones. If it turns out to be correct, Erin will officially be the greatest [Innkeeper] that world has ever seen.

  5. Very interesting fiction, I am quite glad I found this, though i really can’t remember how I did that. Even better, two weekly updates! As I said, quite happy. Anyway, thanks for the chapter/story in general and I hope you continue writing for a looooong time 😛

  6. I suspect my comment applies more to the previous chapters but I wanted to toss out an idea. My platonic innkeeper is attentive and empathetic. Not necessarily a bartender who’ll listen to you bitch and moan about your hard-drunken life for hours, but one who’s aware of the mood of each patron and sensitive to what they want – more beer, a quiet spot for dinner, or just a room as fast as possible. A good innkeeper is like a good waiter and a good host. They’re sensitive to the needs of their clients. And a level 18 innkeeper in this world seems to represent at least a medium level of experience / talent.

    Now perhaps my idea about an innkeeper is different from Pirateaba’s and perhaps these skills are not representative of the innkeeper as a class but innkeepers as individuals. And Erin has not consistently shown herself to understand the psyche of others – which in itself is disappointing given how many good chess players are also excellent judges of their opponents’ psychological profiles and current states. And perhaps Pirateaba as an author did not want Erin to understand Ryoka for plot reasons or to add to character friction. It just seemed odd to me as a reader that Erin could not recognize all the obvious signals that Ryoka was not feeling sociable but rather was highly uncomfortable with everything going on at the inn and was unhappy with all the required interactions given her introverted + disgruntled nature. I guess Erin is more selfish and less observant than I would like. I guess even though meeting another Earthling was supposedly a rare and precious moment, she was too overcome with her own needs and worries to consider the person in front of her. Sigh. Hard to judge is I’m critical of some lack of realism or just disappointed in a fictional character’s lack of EQ.

    • Think about how tired Erin was at that point after the day she’d just had, when so many antinium friends and the Horns had just died. You wouldn’t be functioning too well either!

    • It’s also possible that, if Ryoka’s parents were as “traditional” as they’re often made out to be, that she has been thoroughly trained from a young age to never show any outward sign of annoyance or displeasure. It’s “impolite”. If your host suggests that it would be fun for the two of you to go muck out the latrine, you smile and agree and then simply make no move to actually go and do so. A good host won’t try to hurry you into it, that would also be “impolite.”

      Such people are difficult to read if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
      Such people also often exhibit “temper problems” when forced to interact with those who don’t know how to read their atypical bodylanguage. It kind of fits…

    • Erin has always been clueless. She’s been given a pass repeatedly because nobody knows what humans are like.

      Helicopter DeFranco has yet to show that classes/levels match platonic ideals.

      Me I see an Innkeeper like Calahan’s Crosstime Saloon, where it’s much more important in a constantly changing environment to be a jack of all trades. Erin flows like a river, and so independent of her will and personality she fits that kind of Innkeeper.

  7. I love your stories. I found you from your work on erfworld first. Always refreshing for your next post! Keep up the good work!

  8. Me and some friends have predictions, I’m very interested to see how things turn out. back when the horns of hamerad stopped by the inn and made friends with erin i felt like this was coming. I thought it was a toss up if the more over-powered characters would come (relc, gazi, krshia) I didn’t forsee ksmvr coming though.
    you have Toren an untiring warrior who can handle every small encounter without backup and without fatigue. also when they setup camp at some point you have a solid lookout.

    Pisces with detect undead means even if there are cryptlords left they won’t be able to pull off the ambush they previously had on the adventurers.

    Rags with her fire magic and tactician levels can easily be used to rut enemies and encounters.

    Ksmvr is the tank intercepting things from getting to their backliners. what better then a 4 armed warrior to hold the line.

    Ryoka’s hand to hand combat will be useful for cleaning up enemies

    and Erin is your typical ranger just with improvised weapons only.

  9. Does nobody else find it really, really worrying that Toren is leveling up so rapidly? Also, I thought he was also a tactician.

    • I wish Toren become a exoskeleto-knight or something like that and it would be awesome if he’ll gain more complex personality. I really love skeletons.

      • rescind that; Gazi specifically says by primary classes, that’s why it’s not listed.

        “Let’s see. By primary classes they were…”

  10. I still don’t get how Erin cared enough about fighting and the ability to defend herself and not getting her from friends killed that she works hard at fighting and proving herself combat capable but gets no leveling except in innkeeping.

    It’s not like she cared that much about innkeeping when she stumbled in and started cleaning it, but she gained the inkeeper class anyway and started leveling up.

    Then she gets so upset about getting her ant-friend killed that she goes out and risks her life to kill a whole nest of shield spiders by herself, but nothing happens.

    She gets combat lessons from a Minotaur, and barely gets a usable skill out of it.

    Then she jumps up on top of Skinner with a sword and starts hacking away at his head.

    Never mind all that, she just stays an [innkeeper].

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