2.00 H

Ceria woke up in her own bed. She also woke up alone, which was vaguely disappointing.

But not really. She still had mixed feelings about Olesm, and last night had been—

Disappointing. Mostly for herself.

“Am I still a pointy-eared kid fighting over a boy?”

Ceria conjured a bit of snow and then melted it in a bowl. She splashed some of the water on her face and sighed.

“Zevara.”

Ceria was over sixty years old. Not young for a half-Elf and certainly not old for an Elf as far as she knew; she was barely older than a teenager by her people’s standards, and she’d heard that Elves could live for over thousands of years which made her…what? A tadpole?

She’d be lucky if she ever lived past three hundred. Half-Elves grew about one year to every three a Human did. They also died from stupid things just like Humans, so the average half-Elf died before they hit a hundred years. And yes, that meant she was barely twenty by Human standards, but that was also a stupid comparison.

Ceria was over sixty. Some days she felt like the older females, Human, Drake and Gnoll who shook their heads at the youngsters running about. She’d lived and loved and seen countless things over the years, far more than anyone else she knew.

She was old. And not old. Other days Ceria still felt like marching for eight hours, camping in the cold and wet, and then getting up to duel a Mothbear in the morning. It was an odd feeling, being caught between both states.

But that was being a half-Elf for you. It had the advantages of both races, but the flaws as well. And that meant Ceria often had Human jealousy and Elven detachment.

She assumed it was her immortal (or close to immortal) heritage that made her eventually push away anyone she liked, but it was a consequence of aging. People, normal people, had no idea of how hard it was.

Some children grew up in days, like Goblins or children forced to fight or provide for themselves or their families. Half-Elves grew up quick too; despite their long lifespan, they didn’t stay as squalling infants any longer than Humans, and they grew to a proper size pretty quick too.

But with that said, some things were different. Ceria had matured to her adult body when she was in her twenties, but puberty had still hit her hard. She’d spent ten years dealing with the worst of hormonal imbalances, uncontrolled magical outbursts and the like.

It was her Human side. Elves didn’t go through puberty, but Humans did, and it messed up her biology. As a consequence, Ceria had quite a lot of experience with failed relationships. She just didn’t want Olesm to be one.

But maybe he should be. Ceria sighed as she combed at her hair with her fingers. She didn’t have money for a comb and she’d lost hers in the crypts.

“Captain of the Watch or Silver-rank adventurer, hm?”

To his credit, Olesm hadn’t seemed particularly interested in both last night. He’d tried to excuse himself while Ceria and Zevara had traded barbs, and then eventually, run for it. He’d locked himself in his house which meant there hadn’t been a happy ending for anyone but him.

Another sigh. Ceria stared at her face in the water’s reflection and felt her stomach rumble. She looked out the window, but it was still dark outside. The sun would crest the mountains soon.

He’d saved her life. And he was nice and considerate and not Human, all of which were important considerations. But he also liked Erin, he had at least one persistent stalker, and he would die long before she did. Assuming Ceria didn’t die at the hands of a monster.

She liked him. But…

The half-Elf shook her head. But she had her own life. She had something she needed to do, and she’d been putting it off staying at Erin’s inn and fighting over Olesm. She raised her skeletal hand and stared at it.

She still felt something. Ceria could flex the bone and sense the magic moving her hand, but her skin and arm…

“What a price to pay, huh, Gerial?”

For a second Ceria’s face crumpled. He was just another dead Hu—no. He’d been her companion, her friend. Now he was dead. So were Calruz and the others. She’d lost everything, again.

Could she stop? It was a tempting thought. Ceria looked around her room. It was a lovely place. Erin’s inn might not be fancy, but she ran it with care and attention. She’d offered Ceria a place to live as long as she wanted, and that was tempting.

She could become a barmaid. Maybe. At the very least, she could learn to cook or help Erin out in some way. She could abandon her dangerous lifestyle, try to build a life in the city with Olesm. She could do that.

But it would never be enough. Ceria sighed and shook her head. It still burned in her, after all. No matter how much she denied it, she had more Human in her than most of her fellow half-Elves. She stared at her dead hand and felt blood pumping through the rest of her body.

“One last time.”

Her hands—both of them—clenched. Ceria opened her window and tossed the bowl of water outside. She took a deep breath of the cold air, letting it freeze and wake her at the same time. She spoke to the lightening sky.

“One Horn of Hammerad still remains. Death before dishonor.”

She turned, and strode downstairs. To breakfast, and then to glory. That was how the Horns of Hammerad lived.

 

—-

 

Yvlon woke up. She stared dully at her face in the hand mirror she’d received from her mother, a long time ago.

It was one of the few possessions that had survived the crypts. Rather, it had been returned to her when the guardsmen had discovered it and the identification magic had pointed it back to her.

They probably would have kept it; it was an expensive thing, spelled for protection and backed with pure silver with further magics that would identify curses and hexes and so on—but the Byres family had put a lock on the mirror. It wouldn’t reflect anything if it was held in a non-Byres hand. If you wanted it, you’d have to dispel all of the magic on the mirror, which wasn’t worth the cost.

And now that it was back in Yvlon’s hand, it could reflect all of her faults. She gazed into the smooth surface and saw her imperfections.

Staring back up at her from the glass surface, Yvlon saw proud features, sharply defined, fair skin, blonde hair—

And the faintest trace of a horrible scar across her left face. She grimaced and touched the faintly discolored skin lightly.

The healing potion had done its work too well. When Yvlon had downed it to regain her strength and help Selys, it had replenished her damaged skin as well. She hadn’t wanted that.

Yvlon put the mirror on her dresser in the Adventurer’s Guild and began dressing for the day. She moved quietly, so as not to disturb her neighbors. Now that she was healed, she’d been moved out of that room and into the few rooms the Guild kept for adventurers down on their luck.

It was a small, cramped space barely large enough to sleep and store a few items in. But it was all Yvlon needed and less than she deserved, so she didn’t care. But the walls were thin and she knew her neighbors were sleeping, so she tried not to clank as she began putting her armor on.

There was another irony. Yvlon stared at the polished silver plate armor as she laboriously put on each piece. She had no coins left to her name. Not a one. But she was still rich, by any standard. Her armor, sword, and shield were the highest-quality steel, an alloy of steel and silver, in fact, a Byres specialty. It wasn’t much silver, but enough to ward off some monsters and aid in beneficial magics.

Plate armor. A longsword made by a Level 32 [Blacksmith], and a shield of the same quality. It was the armament of a [Knight], even though Yvlon was only a [Warrior]. She wasn’t deserving of the [Knight] class in any case; she was merely the daughter of a small aristocratic house with merchant roots. And she was a failure.

She’d left her people to die. She’d let them die because of her incompetence. And she’d only survived because she’d been guarding the rear. Countless Silver-rank adventuerers, good men and women who she’d known personally – had died in the crypts.

And she could not lay even one bronze coin on their graves. All her fault.

If she had been weaker, Yvlon would have considered falling upon her sword. But that wasn’t the Byres way. Honor mattered to them, and it would be a dishonor to the memories of the fallen if she didn’t continue.

She needed coin. Not just enough to survive on; enough to make the smallest of amends to the families of all the deceased. That was why she had to keep going.

Yvlon bucked her sword to her belt and picked up her shield. She walked towards the door, barely feeling the weight of the armor she bore. That was not what was heaviest.

“I am weak.”

She whispered the words as she pushed the door open. There was no time for breakfast at the Guild; she didn’t have any money to pay for it anyways, and she didn’t want to indebt herself to Selys or the Guildmaster – Selys’ grandmother – any further.

It was time. She’d lain in bed, grieving and dwelling on her failure, for too long. She had to act. Yvlon only hoped she could rise where she had failed once before.

She strode out the Guild doors, through the streets, towards the southern gates. She had one more chance. The Silver Spears were dead, even their Captain. But perhaps she could start again, humbly, in a group that would accept her despite her sins.

She could only hope.

 

—-

 

Pisces woke up, looked around the small den he’d made for himself in what had been a bear’s cave and scowled. He had few concerns, but money was one of them.

He hated the smelly, cramped den. Even though he’d reinforced the entrance and warded it with a few spells, it was horribly exposed. And it was a miserable place to study magic. That was why he needed money, and hence the reason why he’d decided to become an adventurer.

Pisces scowled as he stood up, brushing at his dirty robes vaguely as he looked for something to eat. He vaguely recalled taking a few sandwiches Erin had made last night, but he must have forgotten where they were because he couldn’t find them. Another irritant.

If only that annoying Drake – Selys, that was her name, wasn’t it? – would recognize his talents! He had far more important things to do than clear out sewers or erase insignificant threats.

Pisces stumbled outside, glaring up at the sky. It was too early for this, but he’d promised Springwalker, and she got snippy if he was late.

Pisces stomped through the snow, wiping at his nose and sniffing, and grumbling under his breath. Part of him still hated everything, and resented everything. But another part of him was still the same young man who’d dreamed of greater things. Maybe that was why he’d agreed to her proposal.

Or maybe it was because he’d lost his way. Just a bit. Pisces had labored for years, sacrificing everything—and he’d created what he’d always dreamed of. Toren, the skeleton Erin had taken and named was a pinnacle of magical achievement. But he was…wrong.

Pisces couldn’t explain it. Only that he no longer felt the same burning passion in his breast when he looked at his skeleton. Toren was powerful, adaptable, and by the looks of it, he’d actually managed to assimilate some of the magic in the gemstone he’d been storing in his head. All of that was beyond the mage’s expectations, but…

It was just that he was lonely, sometimes. He’d forgotten, but for the last few days—well, ever since she’d arrived, really—he’d been sitting in Erin’s inn. The girl was unkind to him of course, and the food she served was often substandard – except for the hamburgers. But there was something there, something that drew Pisces back again and again.

He didn’t know why. But he sometimes wondered what would have happened if he’d pursued other fields of magic besides Necromancy. Maybe then the annoying Drake at the Guild wouldn’t turn her nose holes up at him. Maybe then—

Pisces sneezed, wiped his nose on his robes, and walked on through the snow. Enough, enough. He’d do his job. That was all. He was a [Necromancer] to the core. But he couldn’t help remembering the past as he walked through the snow. More spells than just ones revolving around death flowed into his mind. [Flame Rapier], and of course [Flashstep] for backup. Once he’d been different. If he’d taken a different path—

The mage tripped and fell in the snow, but his mind was burning with memories of the past. He was no adventurer, no great hero. He was despised, and his magics were unappreciated. He had no friends, not even in Springwalker, not really. Not anymore. But it hadn’t always been this way.

 

—-

 

Erin flipped pancakes and yelled at Toren and Lyon. She couldn’t tell which one bugged her most some days, but at least Toren was efficient. When he was around. The skeleton disappeared too much for her liking, and he kept wearing that stupid armor. It was cool-looking, sure, but what was the point when you were serving food?

She burned herself on a pan and yelped. Maybe that was the reason. She really, really wanted some maple syrup. At least she had butter.

Mm. Butter.

 

—-

 

Three adventurers walked into a bar. To be more specific, a [Necromancer], a [Mage] specializing in ice-magic, and a [Warrior] walked into an inn. Actually, the [Mage] had been there the entire time.

But they sat close to the bar, at one of the tables as a sulking Level 1 [Barmaid] brought them food. The adventurers eyed each other.

“Why are you covered in snow already, Pisces?”

The [Necromancer] sniffed. He stared hungrily at the stack of pancakes in front of Ceria and licked his lips.

“Never mind that, Springwalker. I assume you’re paying for breakfast? And since we are gathered here, I would venture that we are indeed set upon this course of action…?”

Ceria scowled at him and Yvlon raised one eyebrow.

“You never pay for anything anyways. Eat. I guess I can trespass on Erin’s generosity a while longer. That goes for you too, Yvlon.”

“You’re too kind.”

The adventurers looked up as Lyon flounced over. They weren’t alone in the inn, but somehow they’d been unlucky enough to have her visit their table. Two seats over, Halrac was sitting at a table, staring at Toren. The skeleton was holding up a menu – a few items on a piece of parchment – and pointing to it.

Lyon was more direct.

“What do you want?”

She stared—glared, really—at the three adventurers. Pisces sniffed, Yvlon politely met Lyonette’s eyes and nodded, and Ceria stared until the girl looked away.

“I will have this pizza dish, a hamburger, the pancakes, a glass of milk and any alcohol on tap—”

“Erin says you can have what she makes. The half-Elf has her food. What about you?”

“Pancakes for me as well, I suppose. Thank you.”

Yvlon watched Lyonette stomp back into the kitchen as Pisces sank back in his chair, sulking. Ceria sighed as she began to cut into her pancakes. Her stomach was already growling happily.

“That’s a charity case if I’ve ever seen one. I don’t know how Erin puts up with her.”

“She reminds me of children of the aristocracy.”

Ceria eyed Yvlon.

“Like you?”

Yvlon shrugged.

“If you want to put it that way, yes. My family isn’t as rich so I never grew up that way, but some of the richer houses…I wonder where she’s from.”

“I don’t particularly care, so long as she brings us food before I starve to death.”

Pisces grumbled as he saw Toren walk over to another table and point to the menu so the startled Drakes and Human could order. It was rare to see other people in Erin’s inn, but she’d been having more and more customers of late. Not many, true, but he supposed she was earning something.

Yvlon had noticed Halrac now. She stared at the [Scout], who looked over at her and then back at his drink, expressionless.

“Is that…?”

“Don’t stare. I think he’s got a Skill that can tell him when he’s being watched. Yeah, that’s Halrac of Griffin Hunt. Apparently he likes this place and Erin serves some kind of drink he loves.”

“Will wonders never cease?”

Yvlon shook her head in amazement as the innkeeper of The Wandering Inn came out herself, balancing a hot pizza on a platter.

“Pizza? Which one of you wants the pepperoni? How about the sliced fish…?”

Pisces raised his hand, but Erin ignored him and went over to her other table of customers. He scowled, but then Lyon was walking towards them, holding a plate full of pancakes awkwardly.

“It’s heavy. Here. Take it.”

She nearly spilled the plate on the table, but Pisces and Ceria both pointed, and the dish stabilized before it could spill its precious cargo. Lyon sniffed.

“There.”

She walked off. Pisces and Yvlon began to eat, and then there was silence for a few minutes. Ceria looked at the two, and after she’d eaten her second pancake she cleared her throat and spoke.

“I’m not sure if it’ll work. That’s all I’m saying.”

Pisces snorted into his meal. Yvlon eyed him with a frown.

“Why wouldn’t it work? You have two mages and a competent warrior. We should be able to deal with any number of monsters.”

“You say that, but you’ve never been an adventurer, Pisces. Yvlon and I have, and we both know that a good team needs more than three people.”

“Safety in numbers? Bah.”

“Silver-ranked adventurers are often called on to clear entire infestations or caves by themselves. You want to fight an entire pack of Carn Wolves with only three people?”

Pisces stopped chewing and eyed Ceria with momentary concern.

“That’s a Silver-rank threat?”

“Surprised?”

Ceria smiled at him, although privately she considered that it would be rare for a single Silver-rank team to try that alone. The Horns of Hammerad would have stocked up heavily and maybe even teamed up with another team or a few independent adventurers before trying that.

The Human mage swallowed and looked thoughtful.

“Ah, well, perhaps you have a point. But increasing the numbers is by no means a guarantee of success. Smaller parties do better, they have less loot to split, and they can perform the same task as a larger group if they have the prerequisite levels.”

“That’s a bold statement to make.”

Yvlon looked at Pisces skeptically, but he only sniffed.

“Not at all. I attended a class in Wistram which looked into adventuring trends among other things. Smaller groups of higher leveled warriors are better than a large group. Why do you think most Gold-rank teams are comprised of six adventurers or less?”

Yvlon opened her mouth, and fell silent. Ceria sighed.

“Assuming you have a point, I still say the optimal number of people is four. We need another party member. Someone who doesn’t rely on magic, preferably.”

Pisces shrugged.

“You may be right. But who—”

He broke off as Erin bustled over, this time carrying several mugs. She beamed at the table, or rather, at Ceria and Yvlon.

“Hey, it’s great to see you all! Here’s water, Pisces. Do you want something stronger, Ceria, Yvlon?”

“I’m fine, Erin.”

“I as well. Thank you, Miss Solstice.”

“Oh, call me Erin. Just call if you need anything, okay?”

Erin smiled at Yvlon. Then she looked towards the stairwell and her tone altered.

“Lyon, I told you that you can have one break. One. And not for an entire hour!”

She bustled off. Pisces glumly looked at his hot water but drank it anyways.

“As I was saying, very well, a fourth member – assuming they are able-bodied and sound of mind – may be useful. But unless I miss my guess, aren’t we in more dire need of arms and supplies?”

Both of the other women nodded reluctantly. Yvlon tapped the table with one finger.

“That’s a serious concern. We might have the levels, but I’ve never gone on a mission without healing potions, and I don’t have the coin to buy even a poultice. And Ceria, I know you broke your wand—”

“Not an issue any longer. Turns out I can still cast magic.”

Ceria held up her skeletal hand with a rueful grin. Pisces stared at it with interest.

“Any reduction in magical ability? You were using quite a cheap wand before, but it was attuned to ice-type spells.”

Ceria glared at him.

“Hardly. I can cast at the same level of efficiency—possibly even higher. There’s no latent boost to the mana I can draw on without a wand of course, but I can still cast with the same speed.”

“Fascinating. But of course it would also help with the backlash on direct-contact spells, wouldn’t it? I imagine you wouldn’t have to incorporate the shielding effect when using [Icy Grasp] for instance…”

“That does help with the mana, but I can still freeze my skin. It’s not something I’d recommend freezing your skin off for, but you’d never believe how useful it is to have five digits. You can actually simultaneously cast the [Icy Shard] spell among each finger and the mana cost—”

Yvlon cleared her throat politely as the two mages began to engage in magical discussion. They looked at her, and she politely nodded.

“I’m sure this is important, but if we can stay on focus?”

Ceria looked abashed and even Pisces nodded reluctantly.

“Sorry, Yvlon. You’re right. Well, like I was saying, I can still cast magic.”

“What about you? Ah, Pisces, was it?”

Custom dictated that Yvlon would use Pisces’ last name, but he didn’t seem to notice the invitation to introduce himself fully. He nodded.

“Do not worry yourself. My magic is fully unhindered by my lack of a wand.”

Yvlon looked at Ceria. The half-Elf explained.

“He has a skill. But I worry about equipment, too. I’ve got my robes and they’re enchanted with good magic, but Pisces has no items whatsoever.”

“I could use a robe like yours. Something with defensive enchantments might be nice.”

“And something that resists stains.”

Ceria stared pointedly at Pisces’ dirty robe, and the mage sniffed.

“Very well. Healing potions, mana potions of course, and magical items. How, pray tell, will we pay for that? I have a few silver coins to my name.”

“I’ve got some money from helping Erin with the inn.”

Ceria sighed as she pulled out a very flat money pouch from her belt. She upended it and came up with one gold coin and a few coppers.

“That’s one potion and supplies for a few days, maybe. Not nearly enough. Pisces?”

He stared at her. Ceria stared back.

“Your pouch. Come on.”

“I don’t see why I have to contribute my savings—”

“You’re the one who wanted to join up. We’ll reimburse you.”

“Naturally.”

But even with Pisces’ coins, they only came up to just less than two gold coins. The three adventurers stared at the money.

“Well, if we take a few safe jobs…”

“Risk is not something I enjoy, Springwalker.”

“A loan?”

“Do you want to have to repay one of those merchants?”

“How much do we realistically need?”

“I’d say…fifteen gold coins for a full supply? That would do for a fourth adventurer as well. We’d have potions, one or two magical items…at the bare minimum, probably six gold coins.”

“Wonderful. And we have no mounts, should I mention that detail.”

“That’s limiting, yeah. Jobs around here are scarce with all these new adventurers.”

“What if Springwalker sells her robes? That would more than cover the startup cost?”

“What if I hit you?”

“I see I’ve touched a nerve. Well, you two sort it out. I must occasion to the outhouse.”

Pisces stood up and pushed back his chair as Erin reemerged, holding an overly-frothy mug of beer that she gave to a dismayed Drake. The mage wandered over to the door, turned, paused, and looked back at Yvlon and Ceria.

“Ah, I should mention this fact. I’ve been informed that any raising of the dead using bones of Drakes or Gnolls will not be allowed while I reside in Liscor or the surrounding area. So unless you plan to slay the monster and have me reanimate its corpse, I fear many of my spells will be unavailable to me.”

Ceria didn’t look surprised, but Yvlon frowned. Pisces walked towards the door and left the inn as the two adventurers talked.

“Sorry about Pisces, Yvlon. I told you he was annoying, but words don’t really cover it, do they?”

The blonde-haired woman shrugged.

“I’ve worked with difficult adventurers before. But I’m concerned. You said his main class is [Necromancer]. If he can’t use most of his spells, can he really fight with us?”

“Unless he’s lost his touch, I think he’ll be fine, even without magical items.”

Ceria replied drily as she took a drink of water and grimaced. Hot, boiled water wasn’t exactly her idea of a good drink. Yvlon looked towards the door to make sure Pisces hadn’t returned and lowered her voice.

“Is he any good?”

“Pisces? He’s an excellent mage, as much as I hate to say it.”

“Really?”

Both adventurers jumped. Erin was standing behind them with another plate of pancakes.

“Oops, sorry, sorry! I just overheard…what’s this about Pisces being good at anything?”

Ceria smiled as Erin put down the plate and pinched the topmost pancake for herself. She shrugged.

“Look, I know you two have your doubts, but Pisces is a strong mage. He’s got more levels than I do.”

“Yeah, but he’s…Pisces, y’know?”

Erin looked skeptical as she hovered next to the table. Yvlon had the same expression on her face, although she was polite enough not to say anything. Ceria sighed as she tore the pancake into chunks and popped them into her mouth.

“Look at it this way. He might be an arrogant loner who scared people out of coin, but he survived by himself for this long, didn’t he? How many people do you know who could live by themselves in the wilderness of Liscor?”

Erin raised a hand, and Ceria smiled and Yvlon had to laugh.

“Yeah, but I mean alone. I don’t know when he got to Izril, but he must have made his way to this spot pretty much by himself. He got past bandits and monsters and I know he killed at least a hundred undead in the battle for Liscor. Olesm says he even downed a Crypt Lord by himself.”

“That’s impressive, but not exactly difficult for a [Necromancer].”

Ceria nodded. And then she made a face again.

“Look…he’s nothing special now, but he was once, alright?”

She looked towards the door, but Pisces still hadn’t returned. Ceria sighed, and looked back at Erin and Yvlon.

“Okay, no jokes or sarcasm. Pisces is a powerful mage, especially for his level. His focus is [Necromancy], but he knows a lot of other spells; far more than I do. And he can use them well. He was an excellent duelist back in Wistram. One-on-one battles are his specialty. He knows a Tier 4 spell – [Invisibility] and he can conjure a small army of minions. He’s a better Silver-rank adventurer than we are.”

Erin’s jaw dropped. Yvlon’s eyebrows rose, but she didn’t oppose Ceria’s statement.

“Well then, why hasn’t he become an adventurer before? And why didn’t you want him on our expedition? I recall—”

“I know. But he wouldn’t have joined, and he’s not a good adventurer to journey with. The only reason he’s with us now is that he’s desperate for money.”

Ceria scowled into her drink. Then she looked up.

“The problem with Pisces is that he doesn’t obey people he doesn’t like, and he won’t follow any orders he thinks are stupid.”

“Will he obey you?”

The half-Elf grimaced.

“He’d better. But Pisces makes his own decisions. That’s why he’d have never worked with Gerial and Calruz. But we might be able to get him to cooperate. Maybe.”

“Oh—”

Erin looked up. Pisces walked back in, washing his hands with some snow that he casually tossed back outside as he shut the door.

“Back to work! Where’s Toren…?”

The innkeeper left and Pisces took his place. He looked at the two.

“Talking about me?”

“Just wondering if you can pull your weight without a zombie to do it for you. Look, okay, maybe we get enough money somehow. Erin might spot us some coin.”

Yvlon hesitated.

“I’d hate to bother her—”

“What choice do we have? We can offer to repay her double, but we need potions. And items. Hey, Erin!”

Erin poked her head out of the kitchen and walked back over.

“What? Need anything, Ceria?”

“Maybe. You wouldn’t happen to have some deadly weapon in a bottle we can use, would you?”

The girl stared at the half-Elf as suspiciously as the others at the table.

“…Like what?”

“I don’t know. A deadly poison? Some kind of spell scroll?”

“Why would I have anything like that?”

Erin propped her hands on her hips, but Ceria was unmoved.

“At one point you were selling jars of acid to Goblins. And you built your house out of a tree that explodes when anything gets near it.”

“Oh. Right. Well, I don’t have any more acid, but you could get some of that boom bark.”

“Boom bark?”

“Krakk trees.”

“Ah.”

“Aside from the fact that I’d prefer not to carry around an unstable explosive like that…I checked. Looks like someone cleared out the entire forest.”

“Weird. Huh. But I don’t have anything else. I’m sorry.”

“Hmm.”

Ceria shook her head. Erin hesitated.

“I know you guys are going to adventure again. You know, if you need help that bad, I could lend you Toren…”

Ceria looked over at the skeleton. She thought for one second and then shook her head.

“No.”

“I also must refuse.”

Yvlon looked at Toren as the skeleton walked across the inn, sheparding Lyon by poking her repeatedly in the back. Pisces just shrugged.

“He is quite competent, but I will abide by the majority vote. Unless your objection is because you doubt my abilities as a [Necromancer], Springwalker?”

Ceria shook her head and sighed.

“Unless you’ve created one of your freakish leveling undead that you keep saying is possible, forget it. Even a regenerating skeleton won’t be that useful when we fight something like a Rock Crab.”

Pisces sniffed.

“No need to mock. Toren is a perfectly capable construct. Very well though. If not him, then who?”

Erin thought.

“Ryoka?”

Hah!

Ceria laughed out loud and even Yvlon smiled. Erin looked confused.

“Why? What’s wrong with her?”

“Frankly, Erin, even Pisces is a better choice than Ryoka.”

“Thank you for that.”

Yvlon nodded.

“Capable though she may be, she has no levels and her skills at fighting aren’t adequate for killing monsters. No.”

“Then how about me?

This time Erin was the one who jumped. She looked around at blinked.

“Olesm? When did you get here?”

“Just now. I uh, was dodging Zevara but I knew you were going to discuss this today. Ceria mentioned it.”

The Drake looked proud as he took a seat at the table. Erin went back into her kitchen for more pancakes and Ceria covered her face with a palm as Pisces and Yvlon glanced at her expressionlessly.

“I mentioned that? When?”

“Last night. I…want to join your group.”

Pisces raised an eyebrow as he took a drink. Yvlon was silent, but Ceria could read the mood. She sighed. This was hard.
“Olesm—”

The Drake looked around the table, and he raised his voice slightly.

“[Tacticians] are very useful! Didn’t I prove my worth down in the crypts?”

“You did. I’m not saying you’re not useful. You can save lives. It’s just—”

“The class of [Tactician] is quite useless in small groups. Your skills are best used to aid large formations, not individuals. Unless you have adequate combat skill, you are relatively useless.”

Pisces delivered the explanation flatly while looking away from Olesm. The Drake stared at the Human.

“I want to become stronger.”

“Then by all means, join an army or play games of chess. But I would vote against your inclusion into any adventuring team.”

Yvlon sighed. She didn’t look too kindly at Olesm, but she nodded.

“So would I. I’m sorry Olesm, but Pisces is right. Rude, but right.”

“Ceria?”

She couldn’t meet his gaze.

“I—you’ve got your job, Olesm. This is what I do for a living, but you—I’m sorry.”

Olesm looked hurt and angry. Ceria’s heart hurt. Without a word, he stood up.

“Hey Olesm! I’ve got pancakes! Well, some are more like crepes, but—”

Erin paused as the Drake turned and strode out of the inn without another word. The innkeeper looked at the table, confused.

“What happened?”

“It’s nothing. We just…Olesm can’t be an adventurer. He took it hard.”

“Oh.”

Erin paused, and then set the pancakes on the table. Pisces grabbed another one, and Ceria sighed. The silence lengthened.

And then the door opened again.

Ceria looked up hopefully, expecting to see Olesm coming back. She could apologize—

But it wasn’t Olesm. It was an Antinium who walked in, but one Ceria only vaguely remembered. It wasn’t the one called Pawn, or the one called Klbkch. Erin recognized him. She gasped.

Ksmvr? What happened?”

The Antinium was wounded. He stumbled into the inn, bleeding green. Ceria half-rose from her table, the spell for [Ice Spike] coming to her mind as Yvlon did likewise and Pisces shoveled down his pancake. Halrac had turned in his seat, and the party of Drakes and one Human had frozen.

Ksmvr didn’t appear to hear Erin at first. He stumbled a few more steps into the room, pausing as she rushed over to him. Toren was at her side, but the skeleton was clutching the sword hilt at his waist.

“You’re hurt!”

Ksmvr nodded. He had several deep cuts in his exoskeleton, but the worst of his injuries was his arms. One of them was missing. His lower right arm was a jagged stump of exoskeleton. It had been patched with some kind of grey goo, but traces of green still seeped around the bandage.

“I have been…relieved of my duties.”

He wavered, and nearly collapsed into the chair as Erin rushed him to a table near the three adventurers. Ceria and the others turned back to their meal, but everyone was listening as Erin and Ksmvr spoke.

“What happened? Did something attack you?”

Ksmvr half-nodded and shook his head as Erin snapped for water and cloth. A shrinking Lyonette brought the items to another table and Erin began making a messy tourniquet.

“I am no longer the Prognugator for my Hive. Or rather…I am, but I am no longer required to fulfill my duties.”

The Antinium said the words dully as Erin fussed over his injures. She looked at him with genuine concern in her eyes. Ceria had trouble doing the same; despite his wounds and the Antinium she had met, she still had a hard time forgetting what they had done. By the looks on Halrac’s and Yvlon’s faces, they felt much the same.

“What? So there’s no Prognugator? But I thought that was important.”

“Revalantor Klbkch will fulfill my duties in the interim. He…is far more qualified than I.”

“But what did you do? What happened?”

“I failed to hold the line.”

Ksmvr said nothing more as Erin bandaged him and offered him food – raw meat and fish, the things Antinium could digest. Ceria eyed his injuries. It looked like he’d been in combat from the wounds, but something was missing. What was it?

His weapons. Yes.

He was missing his two swords and daggers. Without them, Ksmvr looked naked and smaller.

“Looks like the Antinium have their own battles. Intriguing.”

Pisces didn’t even bother to lower his voice. Ceria glanced at him in irritation, but the mage was studying Ksmvr with interest. The Antinium was nodding as Erin hovered around him, asking if there was anything he needed.

“I am fine. I am…fine. I have no purpose. I came here to…to…”

Ksmvr looked at Halrac.

“My Queen will begin negotiations for the immediate excavation of the ruins. The entrance is known to the Antinium. There are many…many monsters guarding it.”

Halrac hesitated. He frowned at the Antinium, but eyed Erin and just nodded.

“We might talk.”

“Good. That is good.”

Ksmvr sat in his chair, head bowed. Ceria tried to talk more with Yvlon and Pisces, but her attention was totally on the conversation the two were having.

“So, uh, first missions? Where should we go first?”

Yvlon shrugged.

“If we can, I’d like to find a good job here, but the odds are slim. We’d have to go either north or south.”

“North.”

Pisces said it firmly.

“I have dealt with Drakes and Gnolls; they don’t trust humans. Given that we are almost all human, or have human heritage, we will find better employment north of here. In Esthelm, perhaps.”

“It’s a long trip, though, and it will take a while to get off the ground. We’d be earning only a few silver for the safer quests, and there’s not even a guarantee of getting a decent-paying one against tough monsters. Either way, it will be a struggle. What do you think, Ceria?”

“Hmm? Yeah…”

Ksmvr was talking to Erin. Ceria’s ears were better than a Human’s, and she could hear him as he spoke in a low voice with her.

“I came here to find you. You gave Pawn purpose and Klbkch thinks highly of you. I…don’t know what to do. I am a failure.”

“Don’t say that! You’re got tons of skills! Like…chopping things off. I mean, you can fight, right?”

“Revalantor Klbkch is by far my superior, despite his reduced levels. I am worthless. I cannot—”

“Springwalker? Are you even listening?”

Ceria looked around.

“What?”

Pisces gave her a pained look.

“Money. Where will we find it, pray?”

“I have no idea. The last mission the Horns of Hammerad did – well, before the ruins – was digging through the Ruins of Albez, near Celum.”

“Albez?”

Yvlon wrinkled her brow.

“That’s a risky endeavor. There’s not much to find there and a lot of strong monsters. Was it worth it?”

Ceria smiled.

“Pretty much. We got a few enchanted items – mundane stuff, like spelled cooking equipment, and an old recipe book and a few really expensive plates. It was enough to cover the healing costs and put us ahead in quite a bit of gold. But it’s risky.”

“Still, if we knew there was treasure…”

“We don’t. I’ve led several expeditions, and I’ve come up empty-handed often as not.”

Yvlon shook her head regretfully.

“If we’re going to risk taking a dangerous mission for rewards, I’d like better odds than that.”

“Yeah.”

Ceria looked back at Ksmvr and Erin. She was talking intently to him, but glancing over at their table every few seconds. What was she…?

Just as the half-Elf was frowning, Ksmvr stood up and followed Erin over to their table. Ceria looked up at him, unsure.

“Ksmvr?”

“Greetings.”

He nodded politely at Yvlon and Pisces. The mage just grunted and Yvlon inclined her head stiffly. The Antinium’s early unsteadiness was gone; he seemed stable on his feet again, despite the blood loss and missing arm.

“Erin?”

The young woman smiled nervously at the three.

“Um, well Ceria, I just had a thought. You’re looking for an adventurer, and Ksmvr sort of got kicked out of his Hive for a while, so I thought…y’know, why not? He’s a fighter, and he’s pretty good.”

All three adventurers sitting at the table exchanged a long look. Pisces coughed and shrugged. Ceria fiddled with a fork, and Yvlon frowned. It was the blonde-haired woman who spoke.

“No offense Erin, but your friend Ksmvr is injured. And we’re looking for a capable fourth member, not—”

“I am considered to be a Silver-rank adventurer’s equal within my Hive.”

Ksmvr looked at Yvlon. He indicated his missing arm.

“This will not slow me down. I am capable of using many weapons.”

“Like a bow?”

Ceria was still frowning, but she stared at Erin and then at Ksmvr, thinking hard. The Antinium nodded.

“Archery is among the skills I have acquired. I have no Skills, but I am competent with every common bow type.”

“But you got kicked out of your Hive because you weren’t good enough.”

Again, Pisces was as blunt as a mace. Ksmvr hesitated, and Erin jumped in.

“Yeah, but he says it was because he’s not good as Klbkch. And that’s not exactly fair, right? I mean, Klbkch is Relc’s partner, and Relc—”

“The Drake is at least the equal of any Gold-rank adventurer.”

Pisces frowned and nodded.

“I saw him dueling one of those adventurers before. He managed to force him back without any magical equipment. If that is the standard—”

He eyed Ceria. She could tell what he was thinking, but she wasn’t entirely sold. Yvlon was still frowning too. She sighed. Just when they needed something, Erin came up with it, albeit in the oddest way possible. She usually had good ideas, but—

An Antinium? Really? Ceria had journeyed with Calruz, and that had been fine, but the memory of the Antinium Wars still sent shivers down her spine. She hadn’t been on the continent, but she’d heard the stories.

Freaks. Monsters. But wasn’t that what people said about half-Elves? Ceria was still frowning when she heard the shouting from outside.

“Tree rot, what is it now?

She stood up as a Drake burst into the room. He was panting, and wild-eyed. He wasn’t wearing armor; in fact, he wore what looked like farming clothes. He stared around the room.

“Please, is there any adventurer here? There’s a Goblin army attacking our village!”

Halrac was on his feet at once. Ceria blinked—she’d nearly forgotten he was here, but now the adventurer was a focused arrow. He strode towards the Drake.

“I’m a Gold-rank adventurer. Lead me to your village.”

The Drake nodded gasping with relief.

“Please, hurry! One of my friends is gathering the Watch, but there are hundreds of them!”

He ran out the door. Erin wavered, staring at it. Ceria grabbed her by the shoulder.

“Don’t even think about it. Close up your inn. Get upstairs and have your skeleton guard the door. Pisces, Yvlon—”

“You can’t be serious!”

Yvlon scowled and grabbed Pisces by one arm, lifting him up.

“This is our job. We defend people from monsters, even without a request. Come on!”

He grunted, but yanked free of her arm and moved towards the door with surprising haste. Ceria was going with them when Ksmvr spoke.

“Please, let me help. I am bound to defend Liscor in any case.”

She hesitated.

“You have no weapon—”

“Here! Here, take this!”

Erin burst out of her kitchen, juggling several bottles and a knife. She handed the knife to Ksmvr.

“It’s sharp. And these are the potions I have. Two healing potions—”

“You might need them.”

“Take one, at least!”

Ignoring Ceria’s objections, Erin thrust the bottle into the half-Elf’s hands. Ceria hesitated for only one more second and then nodded. They might need it.

“Thanks, Erin. Stay safe.”

She looked at the others. Yvlon was already at the door, her eyes following the Drake and Halrac as they sped across the snowy landscape. Pisces was waiting too. For all he groused, the mage wasn’t evil, and he was serious for once. And Ksmvr—

The Antinium held the knife, looking as poised as an arrow. So different from when he’d come in. What had Erin said to him? There was no time for thought. Someone was in trouble. Goblins. An army?

Ceria took a deep breath. She opened the door.

“Let’s go.”

 

—-

 

Everything an adventuring party was depended on their group composition. You had to move as a team; Ceria knew that. The Horns of Hammerad had been built for close-range engagements and rapid movement; Calruz had formed the group out of warriors and mages who could keep up. This new group was different.

Yvlon was quick and fast, and Ceria had known that she would be an excellent member of any party. It was one of the reasons why she had decided not to join the Halfseekers; she had the makings of a strong team already. Pisces was another powerful mage, possibly better than she was, but he was out of shape and gasping as he ran through the snow. But Ksmvr—

The Antinium plowed through the deep snow like a horse, relentless and tireless. Ceria eyed him warily as she ran. He was an unknown quantity, but they needed every hand they could get. Halrac was already far ahead of them, but if this was a Goblin army, all they’d be doing was getting their attention and running for their lives.

The village appeared in the distance as the four crested a hill. Ceria shaded her eyes and Pisces muttered a spell as both mages surveyed the scene.

“That’s no army.”

Yvlon couldn’t see the details, but she nodded.

“It’s just a raiding party. Two hundred, possibly three hundred Goblins.”

“Oh, wonderful. Nothing to worry about, then.”

Pisces snapped as he stared at the mass of Goblins fighting in a large village. From this distance, Ceria could see some defenders trying to hold them back, but they were woefully outnumbered, and the Goblins were trying to break into the houses.

“What are we supposed to do about that, pray?”

“Help as best we can. We’re not alone; look. There’s the Watch.”

Ceria pointed left, towards Liscor. The Watch had deployed fast and in serious numbers. She saw at least eighty guardsmen approaching the small army of Goblins, led by a familiar female Drake. Something—someone shot out of the group as the Goblins turned, and a huge Hob in the center raised his sword and pointed at the guardsmen.

A blur of green motion sped through the snow. Relc crashed into the warband and then leapt away, and two Goblins fell down with holes on their torsos. Ceria saw him dodge away as arrows flew.

“Damn. There’s even a Goblin [Shaman] down there. Look at the lightning!”

“Let’s get into it as well. Those people still need help!”

The Goblin raiding party had split up. The vast majority was charging the Watch, who’d taken up a stationary position while Relc dashed back towards them. Arrows and magic were already beginning to fly, but a large number of Goblins were still trying to kill everyone in the village.

“Come on!”

Ceria ran towards the village, aiming for one of the houses. Pisces, huffing and puffing, caught up to her and shouted in her ear.

“There’s too many! Are you insane, Springwalker!?”

“We have to do something! And Halrac’s nearby! Look!”

She pointed. Across the open expanse of land, nearly three hundred meters out, she could see the [Scout] and the Drake who’d led him here. The Human was kneeling, but he had a bow in his hands. Even as she looked at him, he raised it and fired.

Ahead of her, a Goblin breaking through a closed window spun around and fell down, an arrow in his chest. His fellows looked up and around, screeching, and saw Ceria and her group. But another arrow caught a Goblin in the eye, and they turned and saw the lone [Scout] in the distance.

Again, the Goblins divided. A group went charging towards Halrac, but started collapsing, arrows sprouting from their bodies like magic. Halrac had to have a Skill, because Goblins were falling left and right.

For a moment Ceria thought he could take care of all the Goblins himself. Halrac had taken a distant position and he was downing Goblins fast. But then something odd happened.

One of the Goblins shouted, and the warriors suddenly bunched together and raised shields. Ceria blinked. Shields?

But yes, these Goblins had shields, and even armor! It wasn’t high-quality; some was rusted and a lot of it was iron or bronze, but they were all armed. They looked like an actual army, not just a raiding party.

The Goblins started advancing on Halrac, using their shields to block his incoming arrows. He still found gaps in their armor, and Goblins stumbled back and fell as he caught them on the arms, legs, and pierced through weak spots, but they were still moving towards him.

And the rest were looking at Ceria. They weren’t all Goblins; she saw a Hob among them, a huge Goblin as strong as most Silver-rank adventurers. But Ceria also heard the Drakes screaming inside their homes. So she raised her skeletal hand.

“[Ice Spike]!”

The shard of ice caught a Goblin in the chest and he fell down, his last breath emerging as a scream. Yvlon stopped next to Ceria and raised both sword and shield. Ksmvr did likewise, as Pisces tried to raise himself, still panting.

“Here they come.”

Yvlon’s face was grim. Ceria counted. Nearly…sixty Goblins. Some were still fighting the villagers, but there were far too many to take on.

“We’ve got to slow them down. Buy time. Pisces stop gasping and help!”

“Oh…of…course…let me…”

The [Mage] gasped for air, and then stood up. He inhaled deeply as the Hob leading the remaining Goblins pointed at Ceria and shouted. Another group peeled off and marched towards them, leaving the defenders behind, pressed further and further back.

“[Ice Spike]! Pisces!

“Just a moment, Springwalker. I’m looking for the best place to—ah, there.”

Pisces pointed and Ceria saw a place where several Goblins had fallen from Halrac’s arrows. The tip of Pisces’ finger glowed purple, and his voice became deeper, resonant.

Oh fallen Goblins. Rise from your graves and seek my enemies!

Eight of the Goblin warriors that had fallen jerked and slowly rose upwards, eyes glowing blue, not red. They immediately fell upon their friends, who turned and screeched as they saw the undead.

Ceria felt a chill as she saw the undead getting up, and felt Yvlon shudder beside her. Pisces hadn’t used to be able to do that. When they’d parted, he hadn’t been able to reanimate more than a single corpse, much less—

The undead slowed the Goblins coming at the group. That was enough time for Ceria to continue firing [Ice Spike], heedless of the mana it was burning up. She didn’t have many other long-range spells, and while [Ice Shard] might kill a few, it would only work at close range…

The undead were hacking at the Goblins, heedless of the vicious wounds they were taking as their former comrades hacked them apart. The armor they were wearing was suddenly a disadvantage for the Goblins fighting them.

But there were many Goblins and the undead were a crumbling wall. Ceria gritted her teeth and cast [Ice Spike] again, but this time the shard lodged in one of the Goblin’s shields. Now the Goblins came at the group, running in a staggered formation, shields up, weapons at the ready.

“Formations? What the hell…”

“Get back! Ceria, cover me!”

Ceria saw Yvlon charge, and then Ksmvr was right on her heels. The two warriors slashed at the front ranks and then fell back as Ceria hit the the front rank with ice spells. Pisces raised a hand and pointed.

“[Frozen Wind].”

The air froze around his hand, making the first few Goblins slow and shout in agony as Yvlon and Ksmvr dodged out of the way. Pisces grinned and threw a fireball, and the Goblins had to slow and raise their shields or be caught by the two mage’s crossfire.

“Aw hell. Another Hob!”

Yvlon slashed left and then right, and then fell back, dueling a Hob that had joined the Goblins. Pisces looked at her and raised a hand.

“Back.”

She tumbled away and the jet of flame seared the Hob, making him roar in agony. But he charged through the flames at Pisces.

“Now would be—”

Ksmvr launched into the Hob from the side, stabbing fast and quick with the knife Erin had given him. The Hob threw him to one side, and Pisces shook his head.

“Springwalker?”

“[Icy Floor].”

Ceria pointed at the ground and then the snow crystallized. The Hob’s foot slipped, and Pisces raised a hand again.

“[Shock Volt]!”

It was another Tier 3 spell. This one was a shock of electricity that burst from Pisces’ hands, arcing towards the Hobs’ metal armor. The big warrior screamed as he fought to get up. He raised his mace, and a shard of ice burst out of one eye like a red flower.

Ceria lowered her hand and exhaled hard.

“Damn it, I hate Hobs.”

“Get back, they’re forming up!”

Yvlon pointed, and Ceria saw the Goblins were charging towards them, a group of thirty this time. The half-Elf immediately pointed at the ground.

“[Icy Floor]!”

It was hard to cover a wide stretch, even in the winter. But Ceria saw the area in front of them freeze up, and the Goblins immediately split their group to circle around the frozen patch of ice.

“I’m nearly out of mana. Pisces?”

The other mage nodded, wiping at his brow.

“I have enough for more spells or undead. Should I?”

“Do it!”

Yvlon took a position as the group moved back. Ceria unsheathed a dagger; she was acceptable with it, and her robes would help, but she didn’t want to fight if she could help it. Yvlon pointed towards the other edge of the ice patch.

“Ksmvr, I need you to take one side.”

“Affirmative.”

“Pisces, if you can slow them down—”

The mage was focusing, his eyes narrowed. He spoke slowly.

“I can do a bit better than that.”

He pointed.

“[Animate Dead].”

Across the distance, the Hob sat up. Ceria gasped, but the massive undead was suddenly on his feet, and turning towards the Goblins. They screamed as he charged towards them, mace raised.

After that, it was more watching than anything else. Ceria and Pisces stood behind Ksmvr and Yvlon, a last line of defense, mana exhausted. But it didn’t come to a melee; the Hob that Pisces had reanimated ended the battle by himself. Immune to injury now, he smashed Goblins left and right until they brought him down by weight of sheer numbers. And in the meantime, Yvlon and Ksmvr harassed them from the flanks.

Yvlon killed two more Goblins, slashing off limbs and inflicting deep wounds without ever letting them get close. She had no activatable skills, but she more than made up for it with competent swordplay. No blade even touched her armor; she turned away every cut with her shield and used it to ram Goblins, knocking them off balance and keeping the rest at bay.

Ksmvr had abandoned Erin’s knife and seized two swords. He hacked Goblins while his third arm held a shield which he used to defend himself. He took wounds, but they were only light ones that didn’t penetrate his carapace.

And then it was really over. The last Goblins fled, and Ceria turned and saw a trail of dead Goblins leading up to a pile of them where Halrac had been. The [Scout] was advancing towards the village, bow raised, picking off fleeing Goblins with careful shots.

And the Watch—

A group of them came running into the village, led by Zevara. She halted when she saw the other Goblins had fallen, and eyed Ceria and the other adventurers oddly.

“You took care of them all?”

“Mostly. Halrac got the majority.”

Ceria pointed, and the [Scout] shrugged and grunted. It was true; over half of the dead Goblins in the village had been killed by arrow, and the leader of the Goblins was slumped in the snow, three arrows protruding from the eye slits in his helmet.

“Good work.”

Zevara said it oddly, as if she wasn’t used to having adventurers assist the Watch. From what Ceria knew of Drakes, that might actually be the case; the local militias often did more work than adventurers in the south.

“How did it go with the others?”

The Drake hesitated, and then grimaced.

“We lost a few good soldiers, but only a few. Those damn Goblins fought well, almost as if they’d been trained. They didn’t break until the last.”

“And the Hobs. There were a lot of them for a raiding party.”

“Yes. There were.”

Ceria and Zevara exchanged a look, and then the truce or whatever had passed between them ended. Ceria coughed.

“I’d like to claim partial salvage rights on the dead, unless you object?”

“Partial salvage…? You mean loot them?”

“It’s an adventuring thing. We helped, so we’d like to collect items and equipment.”

Zevara shook her head, but waved a claw.

“Go ahead. Do whatever you want. I’ll have my men strip and burn the rest later.”

Ceria nodded. She turned to Halrac. The [Scout] hadn’t even spoke to Zevara. He was going from body to body, collecting arrows he could reuse.

“Halrac? Thanks for covering for us out there. We’re requesting salvage rights? Do you want…?”

He shook his head and grunted.

“Go ahead. Nothing I need.”

Custom dictated that the adventurer who was highest in rank, or level, or who’d done the most work got first pick. But Ceria had doubted a Gold-rank adventurer would waste his time with that anyways; she was vaguely surprised he was even recovering arrows.

She walked back to the rest of her party—and it was a party now—exhausted. Pisces was sitting on the snow, and Yvlon was talking to a Drake—an older woman who had tears in her eyes.

“Don’t know how we can thank—”

“It’s nothing. Please, it’s our job. Are there any wounded?”

“The Watch has potions. But thank you! If it weren’t for you and that other Human—”

It was odd. Sometimes it was like this after a battle, but usually it wasn’t. Ceria couldn’t remember the last time the Horns of Hammerad had intervened to save a village, but then, they often got requests and seldom saw a monster attacking out of the blue.

Usually, adventurers took their pay and left, often having to wrangle it out of the suddenly not-so-grateful head chief or council of villagers. But the Drakes here were amazingly grateful, and Ceria found she and the others were the target of praise and adoration.

“It’s nothing, really. Pisces, we’ve got permission to check the dead. Do you have any mana…?”

“[Detect Magic]. There, there, and…the Hobs.”

He pointed. Ceria excused herself from the mob to walk over to the bodies Pisces had identified.

“Ah, this one was the Goblin [Shaman]. Looks like a wand of some kind and this feather amulet.”

“Careful. You never know what types of enchantments—”

“I’m not an amateur, Pisces.”

Ceria carefully picked both up with a piece of cloth and stowed them away. Then she investigated the other bodies.

“Magic rings? A necklace? And this sword is pretty good. Ksmvr!”

The Antinium walked over and Ceria handed him the sword. He studied it.

“This is a superior blade for a Goblin. Curious. My knowledge of Goblins indicates that this would usually be the equipment of a Chieftain, not a normal Hob.”

“Could this have been a tribe, do you think?”

Yvlon shook her head as she investigated another corpse, finding a gold ring.

“No children, no pregnant females. This is a raiding party, but it must be a huge tribe it came from.”

Ceria exchanged a look with Pisces. They were both thinking the same thing.

“Could it be that Goblin that Erin lets visit? Rags…?”

He looked troubled, but shook his head.

“I taught the Goblin a few spells. She is…intelligent. She would not be so foolish as to attack when the Watch is nearby, and these Goblins are different. Note the armor and the markings here and here.”

He pointed, and Ceria saw these Goblins had notched ears.

“That’s a different tribe.”

“Where did they come from?”

“South. That is what the villagers informed us.”

Everyone looked at Ksmvr. Ceria stared in that direction, worried. Yvlon nodded.

“They came from the south. From the Blood Fields. There must be a new tribe down there, a dangerous one. If this is a raiding party, what must their actual tribe look like?”

Something lurched in Ceria’s stomach. She breathed one word.

“Ryoka.”

 


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53 thoughts on “2.00 H

  1. Ah. Sometimes, sometimes I think I’ve made a terrible mistake. Sometimes, I think I’ve written too much, added too many characters, or I’m just taking this story too slowly.

    But then I remember, if I was you’d all let me know, loudly and repeatedly in the comments section. Right?

    Eh. I want to learn how to economize violence so I can convey the fraught lives of an adventurer without telling you for five pages how it felt as Yvlon locked blades with a Hob. This is my best foot forwards.

    Maybe I’ll even let people vote on whether they want a Ryoka, Erin, Rags, Toren, Horns of Hammerad, etc. story next. It’d be interesting to do once maybe, and I can always change plot elements to go slower and faster; I regard writing as organic, and if you can’t mess with the plot, that’s probably a problem.

    Too much talking. Sorry! Thanks for reading!

    • Wow, third comment I’m posting, busy day up in here. First off, you have my support (and likely the vast majority of readers) in taking the story any which way you wish, including the introduction of Religion to the Verse. I just want to express my extreme gratitude for you not only spending time and effort to write this masterpiece, but for putting it online for free as well.

      P.S.
      I think Ryoka and Erin are still the real MVPs of the story.

      P.P.S
      More Clown.
      Hahahahahahahahahahaha

    • Thanks a lot for the story, it’s beautiful. The number of characters vs plot advancement balance is just about right as of now, I’d expect deeper advancement on about half the major characters that the readers are already invested in, while sporadic updates on the other half, while the notable side characters keep up their cameos.

      Overall, it’s going very well, I’d avoid any newer character investments in the near future, I can provide my personal investment rankings as:

      Priority 1: Erin, Ryoka
      Priority 2: Hammerrad, Rags
      Priority 3: Toren, Klbkch and his hive, The Larger Picture.

      • I would like to see more of Pisces. He has really been neglected for a while, with the exception of this chapter. Quite a shame, given that he is, in my opinion, one of your best characters.

        • Pisces is one of my favourites as well.

          __
          Pirate, I appreciate the chapter length. Even if I didn’t, I could just skip/scan parts that I’m too impatient for.

          I don’t mind the pacing or number of characters either.

          Thanks for creating chapters that I’m happy to read and support.

      • Hey, pal, maybe it’s your opinion, but I think you underestimate such a cool skele-dude like Toren. But maybe you just have bad sense of humerus…

    • Instant Adventure Party- just add goblins.

      I do like the compact fighting. They were well storied earlier in this adventure, so any mention of ‘battle’ brings the previously made images to mind.

  2. To make me shut up, leave a typo!

    (Silent readers: Lightwavers, lume, despree08, Zira Nei, Excited Reader, 5HourLethargy, Tim, John, Phaeth, [[]], Avocadolph, Kartho, Rin, The Outrider)

    • I don’t want you to shut up, but here’re some typos!

      (Typoes got. Thanks!)


      It’s interesting that Pisces didn’t brag about Toren being a leveling undead. I’d have assumed he would.

      The party is formed! Hopefully this one won’t get team-wiped in the climax :/ I’m also not sure why Erin’s trusts Ksmvr. He was forced to help her rescue Ceria but has he really done anything that would suggest to Erin that he’s not just a torturer who abandoned Liscor when it needed help?

      Overall, a nice chapter. It’s set up more pieces for the sure-to-be-epic book finale and I’m excited!

  3. I feel like Ceria feeling simultaneously old and young at sixty (twenty-ish converted to Human) isn’t as rare as she thinks. Lots of people feel that way when they hit twenty-ish (sixty converted to half-Elf). And then do so for the rest of their life, even. It’s similar to when people achieve moderate to high success in their careers and start thinking, “I was lucky and don’t belong here.”

    The lengthened age span though, yeah she has to deal with that being unrelatable.

  4. Out of all the large fights (I’m not counting the goblins vs. Klbkch fight as one of those!), I enjoyed the writing of this fight the most.

    I’m a little disappointed that Toren won’t be adventuring with the new Horns. I thought it would be pretty great for him — and provide an opportunity to stretch him into a more social person.

    This chapter was great. The pacing is, here and otherwhere, great (well, everywhere except the first couple chapters).

  5. The average amount of words is seemingly really around 10k. It’s hard to imagine that it was once 4000-6000.
    I’m curious if we going to see 20k chapters in the future.

    How long do you even need to write such a gigantic chapter?

      • It’s not that I’m telling her to write 20k chapters, but I simply noticed that they keep increasing, until they maybe reach such a massive number, not that 10k isn’t that already.

    • I don’t believe I’ll ever move past 10,000 words, and I might try to bring it back down to ~6-8K words in the future. It takes me roughly 7 hours to write a 10K chapter, and I often do it in one sitting if I’m out of time, which is again usually the case.

  6. They weren’t alone in the inn, but somehow they’d been unlucky enough to have her visit her table.
    They weren’t alone in the inn, but somehow they’d been unlucky enough to have her visit their table.

  7. Smiled when I saw 2.00H 😉

    Who cleared out the Krakk trees?
    It had to be the Antinium right?

    They have to be plotting something.
    First releasing the history records of Liscor (I think) to get adventurers to come a 2nd time, and then offering to dig up the entrance once a good amount showed up.
    Even the Skinner thing seems suspicious.
    Endanger the city and then save it to earn goodwill?
    Steal something important in the chaos?

    Or maybe the underground undead are simply trying to exterminate the underground ants hmm.

    Or maybe Rags has the boom bark, and the goblin raid was just to draw the Watch away from the city so she can blow up Relc’s house?

    It’s almost impossible to predict with how alien ant and goblin minds are.

    I need to stop watching Game of Thrones.

    • Hey, fellow reader here.

      I believe that the Boom Bark was cleared out by Rags and Co. and then used to kill/destroy/mangle the Animated Suit of Armour which chased Toren out of the dungeon.

      Also, with the Antinium, we did learn that they had found and fought multiple Skin Worms in their excavations for the Hive, and that was one of the reasons their Warriors were delayed, as they are constantly defending the underground connections to the Crypt and other Ruins.

    • While the minds of the Antinium are inherently alien and their overarching goals in Liscor are vague; their goal regarding the ruins/dungeon has have already been explicitly stated. The queen said she wanted the artifacts in the center of the ruins in 2.20 and she is considering using the adventurers to help clear the monsters.

      If the Skinner incident was designed to create goodwill they really screwed the pooch on that one. Not only did they not defend the city at first which led to a significant increase in civilian deaths and destruction which was a direct violation of their agreement with the city, but also the queen was incommunicado when it came out and the prognucator was entirely unprepared for the undead attack.

      I’m pretty sure the records were in a town hall of some sort and the only Antinium capable of infiltrating such a place are the prognucators who were busy doing other things. The Antinium are fully capable of weaving intricate plots, but we haven’t seen any evidence that they have any spy types in Liscor if they even exist.

      The goblin’s minds are fairly easy to understand in this instance. I’m guessing rags noticed how well the boom bark worked against the enchanted armor and so they collected the rest in order to use it in the fight to subjugate the other goblin tribes. We already saw that she tried to use it against the wolf riders and she didn’t have time to collect it while being hounded by them.

  8. Have you considered to ask for a new person, who would like to do the Audiobooks, as Lucas James stopped doing it.
    Maybe make a little contest out of it. All participant speak for several minutes, then you post the best…5-10? and then the fans vote.

  9. I’m just hoping there’ll come a day when Erin gains a skill that lets her inn transform into a kickass golem of ass kicking. Maybe complete with a whole suite of ranged weaponry. As plus, her inn can then do some proper wandering! 😀

  10. Hi! While I’m glad that you’re doing well enough to support donater chapters (Since that means you’re likely to continue to write XD) It’s kind of hard to tell when a free chapter unlocks. Like I almost missed today’s because of the two locked Antium chapters ~_~

    Could you make a status page or something? Also are the antium wars going to be available for non-donaters?

    • The table of contents on both the main page and the link at the top will show all available chapters in order. Also, the RSS feed not marked (Patreon) updates with the latest chapter.

      As for the Antinium Wars, they’ll be released at the end of the month as with all side stories.

      • Would it be too much to ask you to reorder the side stories and the Antinium Wars when they get released publicly, or make an announcement? It’d be a lot easier on us non-patrons.

        • I can’t reorder them if you’re clicking on the links at the top. That moves you from posts chronologically from when they were published.

          The links at the bottom and the table of contents are correct plot-wise. I also mention when they come out in the comments and publish the chapters on Royalroad and Reddit. Any of those notifications, checking the table of contents or the RSS feed for Royalroad should alert you.

  11. author, you wrote in chapter 1.05 R : “Ceria Springwalker had lived for forty years, but she hadn’t ever seem someone as desperate as Ryoka.”
    In this chapter, though, it was said that she is over 60 years old.
    Which age is correct

    • I don’t know how old half elves become in your story, but if it’s similar to DnD, then an over 60 years old half-elf is already considered to be in his Middle Age.
      IF you use their criteria, then Ceria is quite old. (a bit of an exaggeration).
      I think it would fit more for her to be 40, to be kinda considered as Erin’s, Ryokas’ peer

  12. Random thought: the lasses are actually wrong about Olsem. Should Pisces get a squad of undead Hobs under him, he’s going to need somebody with a tactical mind-set to help him deploy it effectively in the field. 😛

  13. Hi, it’s my first time posting, and I got to say, I love love love your story. You nailed the pacing right and you made me love your characters. Congratulations.
    I just have a few questions though. First, do you have an ending planned for this book? An overarching plot resolution? And how long do you estimate will this webnovel be? Second, about the elves, the characters mentioned that elves died long ago, like a thousand years, and Ceria is half-elf and she is only 60 years old, I feel like there’s something wrong here. Could you please explain, or will it be spoilery?

    Anyway, love your work and I’ll be following this til the end. 🙂

    • Hey, thanks for posting and reading! I’m glad you like the story, and you’ve got some questions I can answer in vague but hopefully helpful terms!

      I have the overall plot in my head, but the journey might be longer than I thought at first. That’s a good thing! The story is sometimes organic and takes twists and turns I didn’t predict, but there are a lot of things I do factor in to each chapter as I write.

      In terms of length…it really depends on readers. I love this story and I could write one as long as the famous web serial Worm — or even longer! On the other hand, if interest declines I can begin the wrap-up phase sooner, so it will depend on whether I can continue to tell a great story all the way through.

      In terms of Elves, yes, they died out thousands of years ago. Not telling how many thousands, but a long time. And Ceria is 60 years old which is young in terms of a half-Elf’s lifespan (~300 years max), but she grows up fast like a Human would. So she’s old and experienced, but still young, caught between the perceptions of two heritages.

      Hope that helps! Thanks for reading!

    • I for one am still a bit uncertain about the half
      -elves, but as an expert rationalizer🤓my working theory is that there is a continuing population of half(and other fractional) elves that either by preference or their outcast status have mostly coupled with their fellows with part elven blood. Hence their continued existance long after the possibility of having 2 pureblood parents of each race has gone away. Rather like Aragorn’s people in lotr; the half elves here are probably gradually becoming more and more human with shorter lifespans as the result of the occasional marriage outside of their own kind.
      Hopefully that explanation is not to far from the author’s vision here.

  14. More Ceria is always nice! And I’m hoping Pawn won’t become a fanatic but more of a moral/propose guide to his fellows

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