Wielding the Blade, Part I

Note: This is a rough draft, and subject to editing. Heck, even the title is probably going to change before it gets published.

I’m assuming you’ve read the rough draft of Choosing the Blade. Here’s a summary of the minor-but-significant edits.

Chapter 1:

Get it off of him!”

The sound of several thuds made it clear that my team was taking care of the Rodent of Unusual Size that had knocked Basil down, so I could continue sneaking along towards the nest.

No, that’s not what they’re called around here. Everyone calls them granmouchen, because ‘giant rat’ is used for rats that get to be two or three feet long. Like how ‘Greater’ Swarming Spiders are, for the most part, only a bit bigger than your head.

(Those have got boss versions bigger than your chest, but only a few for each swarm. Fortunately. Not that the smaller ones don’t have enough venom to melt you into bio-slurry for them to gorge on, mind. My first tunic lost all its resale value because of a splash of that venom; I’m lucky that I got it off before the stuff ate all the way through.)

Anyway, some of the monster names around here are tricky to remember. I’ve been thinking of them as RoUS’s because that part of the movie scared the crap out of me when I was six. No, I didn’t notice that they were actors scrambling around on hands and knees. At least, not when I was six. These things are just as big as the ones in the movie, too. Another reason to use that name for ‘em.

And maybe I’d been expecting to run into giant rats sooner or later, but I would have been happy with the local version of giant rats, the three-footers. These ones, according to the Tenant farmer who’d told us about them, were probably driven out of the Grimwust last fall, found themselves a likely spot to burrow, and settled in to hibernate for the winter.

But now they were awake and they had newly birthed young to feed, and tenant farmers don’t have the time to flush out a nest of granmouchen again and again until the mothers drag their young too far away to bother your fields and flocks. Hell, no farmer has time to spare during spring planting, but when you’ve got rent to make and you don’t want to give your Holder more reason to call your debts due, you definitely don’t have time to take away from planting season.

That’s where me and my team comes in. We go after the problems that farmers don’t have the time for, or maybe aren’t dumb enough to risk their lives over. And we don’t charge much, either, ‘cause we’re doing it for the experience. Or at least I am. My crew are all local renters’ sons (and former n00blet outlaws) and if they don’t help out their families might never get out from under their debt burdens. It’s, uh, complicated.

Anyway, we couldn’t just drive the rats off, ‘cause we had to make sure we didn’t cause trouble for the next farming family over. Likely as not they’d be our next clients and have troubles of their own. So, we needed to kill the RoUS’s at the source.

Which was why my team was keeping the bucks occupied but trying not to kill them right away. While they were doing that, I was crawling through the burrow towards the does’ nest, with my stealth field up so that the does wouldn’t feel or smell me coming. It’s a prana knack called Vanish (and enhanced with Shadow Creep) and it’s the only reason that a bunch of amateurs like us could hope to deal with the problem on our own.

Turns out that when you’re doing this video game RPG shit for real, mobs don’t all aggro you as soon as you enter their threat radius. They’ll run if they think they’re in danger and if they’ve got a way out. So as soon as we killed a couple of the bucks or someone got too close to the pups, the does would pick up as many as they could and make a break for it. Then we’d have to start all over again instead of going on to the next quest.

More experienced adventurers would have better knacks. Maybe they’d scout out all the burrows and collapse them, with traps at the few entrances they’d left open. Maybe they’d mix up a vapor to sink down into burrows and get the nest before the granmouchen realized there was any danger. Maybe they’d have three or four other ways to do it. But they wouldn’t send in a mostly-invisible kid to try to cut the throats of does before they realized the nest had been infiltrated.

I’m pretty sure of that.

It’s still all we had and anyway when you’re in charge (sort of) you do what you gotta, so I kept crawling until the tunnel opened up and there were the dams and pups. Thank goodness for Darksight, because if I had to carry a torch there’s no way I could have gotten down there undetected. As it was, the dams were clearly paying attention to the battle outside, their ears cocked and their noses constantly sniffing.

Vanish is complete bullshit, by the way. Even with everything that led up to it I’m glad I’ve got it. I’ve heard that invisibility was so OP that, way back in the prehistoric days before computers, the guys who made up RPGs had to come up with all sorts of rules why someone might notice an invisible dude anyway. So I’m really glad that those guys weren’t the devs for the world I was now living in. My invisibility could pop if I wasn’t careful, but despite the name it covered all the senses, especially if I took the time to move slowly, carefully, and tried to keep to cover.

Which I was especially careful about once I reached the does’ nest and could crouch, rather than having to crawl on my hands and knees. I had to get right up next to them and if they popped my Vanish this would all be for nothing. So I crept up, carefully, as close as I could to as many as possible, and slowly pulled my seax from its sheath.

I’ve heard that ‘swashbuckling’ was about letting your sword rattle as you drew it, as a way to warn people that you were annoyed and now holding live steel. That the dangerous guy was the one who drew his blade as quietly as possible, so his victim wouldn’t have any extra warning.

Today, I was trying to be dangerous.

Managed it, too. And hell, I’d get my ass kicked if I didn’t keep my seax sharp enough to cut through anything softer than metal. So even though Vanish popped as soon as I attacked, I’d lined my knife up pretty well and managed to chop one head practically off, get all the way through the throat of a second doe, and get a good nick on what had to be the jugular vein of a third, the way she bled.

Got a ton of blood all over me, but adventurer laundry services don’t even blink at that sort of thing, so neither did I. Besides, there were still two more does to take care of.

One had flinched back, but the other was already trying to pick up one of the pups, so I quickly stabbed her before she could get a good grip on it and make her escape. Then I pounced on the last one as she kept hesitating, and from the way she started trying to claw at me that had been enough to make up her mind, but my tunic caught most of it and fifteen inches of sharp steel did for her before she could catch me in her incisors.

The pups weren’t happy at all, but they were still blind and unable to look after themselves, so I pulled out the bag that’d been tucked inside my tunic and started collecting the lot. Looked like we’d caught ‘em all, too. The team was going to be real happy about that: The bucks and does would be some welcome meat for their families (apparently food can be scarce in spring, ‘cause forage doesn’t start to be good until summer since everything still needs to grow), but live granmouchen pups meant we might be paid in more than just experience.

We kinda needed that. Most of the pests we’d been clearing weren’t worth bringing in for a bounty, but according to my notes people could get some use out of the pups. If they were willing to deal, that is.

But I’d burn that bridge when I came to it, so I put a smile on my face as I scrambled back down the burrow I’d come in through, dragging the squeaking bag of plus-plus-plus-sized rat babies behind me, until I was close enough to the surface that I could just stand up and push through the last few inches of dirt above me.

Then my triumphant grin died as I took in the scene.

No one was dead or dying. Well, aside from the granmouchen bucks, but they were supposed to be dead so that was all well and good. My teammates were all alive, and that was even better.

But half of them were clawed up, Basil worst of all, and pretty much every tunic had been taken off and was being used to try to stop the bleeding.

I winced. “You washed all those out with wine first, right?” Because if they hadn’t then sepsis-

Until we ran out, yeah,” Cecil told me. He didn’t have any more experience than the rest, but we’d worked together for as long as I had with any of them, and he wasn’t an idiot. Good enough for my second-in-command.

Or my boss. He gave more orders in a fight, that’s for sure. I was usually too busy sneaking around for that. Hadn’t mattered yet, he’d been the first I’d recruited for this program of would-be heroism and we both agreed that it was something that had to be done. Boss, 2IC, or shared command . . . whichever way he saw it, I was grateful that he’d been willing to work with me.

Anyway, I nodded and held up the bag. “Got all the pups, live,” I told them, and got a ragged cheer. “There’s five does down there, so if three of you can go fetch them we can have one for luncheon and send a buck or dam home with everyone.”

The next cheer was slightly more heartfelt, and the three that weren’t sporting deep scratches started down the tunnel. While they did that, Cecil and I cleared out a patch in the ground and got some deadfalls put together for the fire.

That was closer than I’d like,” he admitted quietly. “Wish Myles were still here. Sort of. That is, if he wasn’t-”

I know,” I interrupted. “When something went wrong, he could fix it. Maybe a couple of us injured, at worst, and that took those demon pigs to do it.”

Cecil snorted. “When are you going to get it through your head that those were perfectly ordinary feral hogs?”

Yeah, that’s what everyone insisted. But if normal pigs are that badass then how the hell did we ever work up the nerve to try to turn them into bacon?

(Tasty, tasty bacon, I admit. It’s obvious why we kept it up once we tried it, but what kind of sane and sensible caveman takes a look at half a ton of enraged boar, tusks out and heading his way as fast as a galloping horse, and thinks, “I wonder what that tastes like?” Seriously, it’s like starting a recipe off with, “Step One: Fillet the tiger.”)

These rats probably weren’t going to be anywhere near as tasty. Didn’t have anything to season them with and they were wild so they were probably going to be gamy. But it’d be meat, and it’d be meat we’d killed ourselves in battle, so it felt kinda hunter-badass as we got the fire started and sticks whittled to poke through lunch and hold the meat over the fire to cook.

I miss him too,” I admitted quietly, as I picked out the smallest doe to skin and cook (so that no one would have to take it home to their families). “If he could be here to lead us, I’d follow him in a heartbeat. But this has gotta get done, and we’re the only ones who can do it.”

Only ones who will do it,” Cecil corrected, and I didn’t contradict him. Hell, if we could I’d want us to gather back together once the rats were dropped off so we could clear another quest this afternoon, ‘cause goodness knows there’s plenty that needs doing. But with us out of wine for disinfecting wounds and making sure the water we drank was safe, going back out would be chancy for the five of us who’d been clawed up by the granmouchen bucks. (I was lucky. The dam that had tried to claw her way free hadn’t quite broken my skin, for all that I could feel where she’d tried.)

Questing is not a sanitary pursuit; open cuts are begging to get infected if you don’t take care to keep them clean. We couldn’t afford bandages – cloth is damned expensive around here – so we’d been using the wine as a disinfectant and trying not to get any of us hurt badly enough to need it that often. Except now we’d had a bad go of it and had to use it all up.

No, we wouldn’t be doing any more quests today. And we needed to make sure those cuts were healing cleanly, but we didn’t have time for everyone to wait around and heal up.

Trying to get that fixed would be up to me.

***

Lunch was quiet. The meat was tough and gamy, and we’d needed to cook it all the way through to make sure it was safe, so we were all too busy chewing to talk much.

But finally we were done, and half my teammates were groaning as they tried to stand up and found that they’d stiffened up after the fight. No surprise, as their cuts scabbed over.

Look,” I said, “half of us have been hurt today, and that’s worse than any other quest we’ve cleared so far. Let’s call it an early weekend. If you can, help your family with the planting. Everyone else, take a couple of days to rest and recover, and I’ll try to get a priest to come around on Spiritsday. Then we’ll get back at it Sunday morning. Sound good?”

The additional groans weren’t what I’d call enthusiastic, but at this point I’d take what I could get.

***

My name is Thomas Norten. Tom, or Tommy to the local adventurers. Can’t blame them much: They’re either lean whipcord or slabs of beef, whereas I showed up looking like a scrawny twelve-year-old. Anyway, I’m from Earth, which this place isn’t. After I was grounded for letting my newest videogame hurt my grades, I was rooting around the attic for stuff that I could sell on Ebay so that I could buy some of the summer titles I’d been drooling over.

Instead I found a genie in a bottle. He was so pissed about being stuck there for however long it had been that he’d decided to skip the whole granting wished (or boons, I guess) business and just kill whoever let him out. Seems like bad PR to me, but go figure. Except he realized that I hadn’t let him out to try to use him, so we went with a loophole where he’d kick me off Earth instead of kill me. Still gonna have to kill me if I go back, so I won’t until I’m badass enough to kill him first.

That’s probably gonna take a while.

See, I could have asked for a world where everything’s made with replicators, medical science can rebuild you into whatever you like, and personal spaceships are free for the asking. Instead . . .

I blame my video game addiction. I’ve always liked going around and doing all the quests to fix the world. Being a hero. Paragon, if you like. Closest I’ll get to being the bad guy and liking it is when you get a chance for some poetic justice towards an asshole who really has it coming.

That’s what had been on my mind all spring and that’s what I asked for. A world where I could have a fair chance to level up and be a hero. And I’ve been wanting to kick myself for being an idiot ever since I realized what I could have asked for instead.

Instead of getting everything handed to me because anything I could think of was free, becoming an adventurer had quite literally required selling the clothes off my back. As for being a hero? Well, so far I’d brought down a bandit army after it tried to conscript me into the revolutionary force they’d been building. Yep, I’d sided with the Redcoats over the Yankee rebels, and I’m pretty sure it was the right choice.

I hope it was the right choice. The Tenants, farmers who had to rent their land, were getting squeezed more and more as years went by, less and less able to afford to send their sons and daughters to become adventurers and gain experience before returning to the farms. And believe me, with the Grimwust nearby you want some levels, ‘cause sooner or later something nasty will try to move in and you’d better be able to handle it before it kills your livestock, ruins your crops, or makes off with your family.

The bandits, led by a ‘Lord’ Liberio, said they were going to change all that. Free the Tenant class from Holder practices and conspiracies that kept them poor. Except I spied on Liberio and found that he were going to ruin the Tenants who were prospering, to make sure that his revolution was the only hope they had.

I led the authorities to them, but not before the veteran bandits managed to kill some farmers.

And the team I was working with? Like me, they’d all been recruited by Liberio. We’d all been baby bandits.

***

I headed back to Mistleten by myself after lunch. More than a bit slower than usual, with the sack of baby rats to carry. They kept squirming, all of them shifting around, so that made it worse. But at least I didn’t have to carry one of the adults back for my supper. Abby wasn’t about to let me go hungry.

She’s the Secretary General for the Mistleten Adventurers Guild, and without her help none of this would have been possible. See, maybe my teammates had thought they were doing the right thing, and sure, they’d been clearing quests that their parents had given up telling the town about, but they were still outlaws. The Enforcer class, all of them, and like all the captured outlaws their classes had been sealed. (Although it’s more of a temp job for the higher level ones.)

The only reason it hadn’t happened to me was that the bandits thought I was a Scout, and tried to crush that out of me and make me a Footpad instead. Except I’m a Jack, the scrub class of this whole adventuring system, and my class specialty is being able to learn anything if someone will teach it to me. Apparently, an outlaw initiation rite counted.

So technically I was never an outlaw.

My team wasn’t welcome inside Mistleten, but I was allowed as long as I stayed close to Abby. Which meant hanging around the guildhall and helping her with all the paperwork that I’d landed on the town. (She’d assured me that she wasn’t mad at me for finding the bandit army, but it was still a lot more administrative overhead than she was used to dealing with.) Basically my parole was a lot looser than my teammates’, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t under suspicion. I still had my outlaw knack of Vanish, after all.

And since I had to stick close by her to be allowed in town, she had to meet me outside Mistleten if I was going to be let in at all. It’s a good thing I still look like I’m 12, cause if I looked my real age there’d probably be some nasty rumors starting up.

Anyway, our schedule that day was that I’d meet her after lunch, report on the morning’s activities, then head back out to do more quests in the afternoon. One reason for that was the sack I was carrying: If we happened to find any loot drops that we could sell, she’d be our agent. So far we hadn’t netted much, but today the loot wasn’t bad.

She was a bit farther along the road than usual, and I saw her relax when she saw me trudging towards her. Her oldest son is 11, she’d taken one look at me when I showed up and started mothering me – albeit adventurer style – and she was still feeding me double servings of vegetables at every meal.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing, but most of the time I envy her kids for getting to grow up with her.

What’s in the bag?” Abby asked, once we got close.

Got those granmouchen pups you said you had a buyer for. Cleared out a nest of the grownups, had the smallest for lunch,” I told her, brandishing the hide of said lunch with one hand and offering the sack of pups with the other. “I know they weren’t at the top of the list, but this morning’s quest turned out to be a nest of them. Still haven’t opened their eyes, so they aren’t too hard to handle.”

She took it and looked inside, then nodded. “I’ll take these straight to the shop. And don’t worry about completing the list in order, I know you’re doing quests as they come up. Most years the buyers would just have to wait for the summer rush anyway.”

Abby paused and looked over my head. (She’s tall and again, I look like I’m 12.) “Your friends should probably show themselves, though,” she then called out.

My-?” I started, but then heard footsteps and turned to see Cecil and the other two who hadn’t gotten hurt, approaching from where the ground dipped towards the nearest stream.

How’d you follow me without my noticing?” I asked them, feeling a little annoyed. I was supposed to be the one with the sneaky knack, after all. Plus they’d had to get their meat home before they could start to catch up with me. I know I’m not nearly as strong as they are, but had the sack slowed me down that much?

Grew up knowin’ this land,” Cecil pointed out. “Not hard to catch up with you when we already knew where you planned to meet the Secretary General.”

But why did you wish to join us?” Abby asked him. “Until we can hold the trials properly, you’re all still under parole. Even if I am turning more than a blind eye to what Tommy’s doing, to give you all a fair chance to demonstrate your continuing good intentions.”

He grimaced. “With better’n half of us hurt, weren’t gonna be questing together the rest of today, tomorrow, or Spiritsday. We were hopin’ you might have something we could do instead. Town’s got quests from all over, ain’t that right? None of this door-to-door to find quests one at time?”

She frowned. “We do, yes, but most quests we get are based around the Grimwust. Farmers don’t bring in quests suitable for novice adventurers until shortly before each seasonal rush.”

That’s ‘cause they don’t ever get done!” one of the other two burst out. His name was Claude, and usually he didn’t talk much. One of those big guys you figure doesn’t have a lot going on behind his eyes. Back home he’d have been one of the football players that didn’t need to make a lot of decisions, just stand in line and keep the other team from doing anything. Whatever those guys are called.

I’m afraid so,” Abby agreed, with a pained expression. “New adventurers willing to risk their lives without so much as a single higher-level adventurer to keep an eye on them tend to die, and those lucky enough to survive soon move on to more rewarding challenges. Tommy’s being very brave, acting as your leader.”

I flushed, but not just because I didn’t feel like the real leader. “It’s easier to get away with that when I hide from monsters until I’ve got a good opening.”

Nonetheless,” she went on, “for matters to change we need two things: Quests need to be brought to Mistleten, and the adventurers there need to be willing to take them without the protection of someone with more experience. So at the moment you’re all doing the best thing you can to help all the farmers, by showing that adventuring off-season is possible.”

Be easier if Dominate weren’t sealed,” Claude grumbled.

Abby’s expression darkened. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to waive the initiation fee for all of you, but if it’s found that you’ve tampered with your sealed knack that will be seen as breaking your parole. Improving your skills the hard way may be slower, but that’ll at least aid you when the time comes to select your class.”

Doing that frees up class resources, then?” I asked. “If you already know how to fight before becoming a Warrior, can you get extra maneuvers instead?”

It didn’t matter for me, since I wasn’t planning on going for Warrior once I was ready to parallel class, but it had occurred to me that if I got a windfall when I became ready, dipping into a few levels of a fighting class might help me survive while I went for the kind of power that I’d need to squash a genie. My team was another matter: They’d all been picked for Enforcers under the outlaws, so most of them were probably going to end up being Warriors if they got the chance.

It can,” she agreed, “but in your specific example, you’d have to already know every weapon family known by the Warrior class to choose techniques instead. But if you know how to fight, you can spend the combat skills granted by your class on other weapon families you’d like to learn, or on backup skills.”

Backup skills?” Cecil wanted to know.

I guess, since they never expected to get the chance to be legitimate adventurers, my team hadn’t learned that much about how it all worked.

One way to defeat an enemy is to disarm him,” Abby pointed out. “Sometimes it’s even the easiest way, and it gives you a better chance to take a prisoner, too. And you’ve only been fighting monstrous beasts so far, but if you ever face something intelligent it might settle for capturing you. So you may be very glad to have backup weapons hidden on you, or even know how to fight barehanded.”

Claude grunted. “Don’t think there’s any of us who don’t know how to wrassle, ma’am.”

She gave him a level look. “You can’t say you know how to wrestle unless you can grapple with a River Rat and come away without crushed joints, gouged-out eyes, or bitten-off ears.”

All four of us winced.

Is that another outlaw class?” I asked, still wincing. Does that kind of wrestling even happen in America these days? You’d think it’d be a great way to get the police to come crashing down on your underground MMA ring if you let fighters suffer those kinds of injuries. Guess you could do it in districts that have made it clear that they’d rather have thugs instead of cops, but would they have the kind of prize money you’d need to offer to get a steady stream of guys willing to risk getting killed or crippled? (Maybe it’d work next door to Hollywood. Money and an endless stream of would-be movie stars getting hungry enough to be desperate. I dunno.)

Abby gave me a long look – I guess I’d given more evidence that I was from somewhere really sheltered – but nodded. “Many do consider them an outlaw class, yes. Mistleten doesn’t offer it, but we aren’t on any major rivers. I understand that it’s easier to initiate into than Sailor, so someone looking to stick to a river and never go out to sea might think it’s a bargain. And while we’d never permit a known Buccaneer inside the walls, I’d probably be willing to look the other way if a River Rat came through but didn’t cause trouble.”

Being a sailor was a class in this world? That’s-

My confusion must have been obvious, ‘cause she smiled at me and went on: “And yes, Sailor is a class. You don’t need it to work on a ship, just like you don’t need to be a Warrior to pick up a weapon and fight. Still, it’s a lot easier to learn to survive the sea if you have a mariner class, so most reputable ships will insist that their crew be initiated.”

Heard about that,” Cecil said with a nod. “Some even let you indenture yourself for the initiation fee, ‘cause there ain’t much of a chance to run off while you’re on the open water, and they can watch you in port. Thought about trying that myself, before Clifton showed up with what seemed like a better chance.”

Rather not lose an eye or an ear to some mariner outlaw,” Bertie, our other unwounded parolee, agreed lightly. “Hells, if I knew that forming a gang and mobbing beasts would have us earning a class from town, I wouldn’t have bothered being an outlaw first!”

That would have gotten you killed last year,” Abby told him, very seriously. “Liberio’s men were already scouting these hinterlands, and they would’ve considered you competition to be disposed of.”

One of those men was an old boyfriend of hers, before he got tired of waiting for a chance to be an adventurer himself and ran off to seek his fortune. The town didn’t have any deaths laid to his feet yet, but since he’d expected to be hung once captured instead of exiled, it was probably only a matter of time. The core of experienced outlaws that Liberio brought wouldn’t have been picked for their scruples, ‘cause he had no problem with murder. Not if he could get something from it.

I should know, I was very nearly one of the ones killed as a sacrifice when he’d been discovered and went to ground in-

If you three want more experience,” I said, turning back to Abby as inspiration struck, “couldn’t we try going into Lulach? I don’t know how many lives Liberio offered to the dungeon before you captured him-”

Three,” she interrupted, stone-faced. “Farmer Augustus, and his children Rees and Fanny, brother and sister, ten and twelve. Old enough to offer as yearling sacrifices, too young to put up much of a struggle once they were caught and bound. That alone will be enough to see the bandit ‘king’ hanged!” she finished with a growl.

A brother and sister. Who were same age as her two oldest children, or close enough. No wonder she hadn’t volunteered that before. Two kids that I’d been too weak-minded in the face of Liberio’s Charm to save.

I don’t know why she let him surrender, if she caught him just after he’d butchered them, but . . . I swallowed and moved on. “If Lulach has been primed, won’t there be more of those, uh-”

Tulpaic apparitions?” she finished for me. “Yes, that’s quite possible. So you want the experience of facing them?”

I, uh, already did,” I admitted sheepishly. “Before the bandits found me. Gilander said it was a good way to figure out if a dungeon might still have loot, if it had been used enough recently to still make those tulpy monsters.”

Of course that man did,” Abby replied, suddenly sounding thoroughly exasperated. Which made sense, as the apothecary was the man who’d encouraged me to push just a little further than what she herself had considered safe.

(No, we hadn’t told her when I started to tiptoe beyond the mostly safe fetch quest she’d arranged for me to do. We should have. If she’d known, then when I went missing she might have been able to find traces of what had happened, and that could have exposed the bandit army then and there.)

But we could all use that experience,” I quickly went on. “They weren’t too hard to kill, once I fought back, but it was a surprise when they attacked me. And they aren’t like animals, either. Wouldn’t it be best if we don’t get complacent about what we fight?”

Many monsters that trouble the farmers come from the Grimwust, so it’s true that you can’t count on them to act like normal creatures all the time,” Abby agreed. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. I ought to survey Lulach soon anyway, to see if there’s any indication of escaped bandits taking shelter there.”

Didn’t you get us all?” Cecil asked.

We hope so,” she replied, “but we can’t be absolutely certain. All the new conscripts have been accounted for, yes, but it’s always possible that some of Liberio’s veterans managed to slip away in the confusion.” She shook her head. “Normally we wouldn’t bother trying to clear out every last bandit in the region, but bandit armies aren’t something we can afford to ignore. Every last one of his crew needs to be accounted for.”

So we’ll go in and look for signs that someone’s been hiding out, and if we get into too much trouble with the dungeon you’ll shoot it off us?” I asked, to confirm.

Abby nodded again. “Yes. Now let’s hurry, I’m far too busy this afternoon as it is!”

***

Ma’am, is it alright for us to use Darksight in the dungeon?” Cecil asked as we caught our breath before entering. We’d jogged the whole way, and I was in a lot better shape than when I’d been a scrawny gamer couch potato, but it hadn’t been easy. Especially towards the end.

But at least I was still improving. The stamina bar that I couldn’t see – because a status screen is expensive magic and I don’t think anyone living in Mistleten could actually afford one – was a lot longer than when I showed up from Earth with nothing more than the clothes on my back. (I’m still annoyed that I hadn’t been wearing shoes at the time. Maybe that’ll go away once I can afford something better than sandals. Be a while, though: Shoes are even more expensive than clothes around here, and there’s always stuff to spend money on.)

Abby nodded as I fought to catch my breath. “Don’t worry, I made sure your sealing didn’t block it when Tommy recruited you. It’s such a common prana knack that most adventurers won’t even think twice about you having it.” She paused. “But try not to rely on it too much. Trespass deep enough into a dungeon, get too close to where it joins with the Grimwust, and your Darksight will become unreliable.”

I blinked, straightening up as I finally stopped gasping for air. “The dungeons all connect to the Grimwust? Which you warned me in no uncertain terms to stay out of?”

Yeah, everyone knows that,” Cecil told me. “Only reason they haven’t been closed off and sealed up.”

Uh-”

You didn’t think we liked havin’ ready-made havens for outlaws to lurk in, did you?” he went on. “The forest would open up new paths out, and we wouldn’t know where to ward them off until the real monsters started pouring out.”

We’ve handled the Grimwust for generations, but that doesn’t mean it’s tame,” Abby elaborated for me, nodding again. “It doesn’t appreciate being contained or harvested, either. Which is why its dungeons will shelter bandits and reward their sacrifices: They prey on those that the forest has reason to resent.”

I half-wanted to say something about being crazy and living next to an angry forest that wants to kill you for harvesting it . . . but I literally asked to come to a place like this. So I don’t have the standing to say anything about how crazy other people might be.

Instead: “Gilander didn’t say anything about that. Is there anything we need to know about going inside one of these dungeons?”

No, we won’t be going that far in,” she assured me. “We’ll stay close enough to the entrance that we’ll only have to worry about tulpas trying to kill us.”

Only. Dammit, forget what I said, the people living around here are crazy.

***

Going inside was easier than ever. Darksight doesn’t give you color vision, and it blurs out after a few dozen feet, but it was easier to see everything than it had been when I was tying the local version of fireflies to sticks and trying to see that way. I’ve got to say, I’m not looking forward to meeting what the locals call lightning bugs, assuming there are any. It’s likely to be just as literal a term.

I pointed out the side-tunnel to the fireflies as we passed it, with a warning to stay away from them without fire-proof pouches and a butterfly net. (Turned out to be a handy spot to stash the sack of rat pups, after Abby tied the bag so they couldn’t escape on their own.) Could’ve used a net when I was catching them for Gilander, but I couldn’t exactly afford a fireproof one. Hell, I could barely afford the tunic I ended up having to replace!

Once the rat pups were secure and out of the way, our babysitter cautioned us to be quiet as we went into the room where I’d been ambushed by the cave’s monsters the first time. Makes sense, she had to have been in here a lot before, and beyond that the town probably has records on how far in the dungeon you can go before it starts using whatever nasty tricks it has against you.

But it was still a hell of a jump-scare when the first monsters came into focus, charging at us. I hadn’t gotten a good look at them the first time, before the Footpad knacks were forced on me and I was doing the firefly-on-a-stick to get some light. So, I don’t know how they’d look in actual light, but to Darksight they looked like cut-out voids, so darkly black that you couldn’t see their features, like that Vantablack stuff back on Earth.

Like the dungeon was already saying that using Darksight was cheating, so we weren’t allowed to actually see its monsters.

Anyway, we all jumped in shock when they came running at us, except maybe Abby. Makes sense, if she’d gone down in these dungeons a bunch of times already. There were a lot more this time, too. At least half-a-dozen, when I’d only had a couple come at me the first time.

On the other hand, this time there were also five of us, and Abby likes to carry a repeating crossbow. So as one of the monsters slammed into me, I heard her quarrels being loosed one after another.

I had my seax out, and as soon as I could I was doing my best to stab the hell out of my ‘tulpa’. But it was harder to kill it than the two I fought the first time put together. I could feel it tightening its grip on me as I kept stabbing, and it was pushing my head back – exposing my throat, I could feel its hot breath on my skin! – when it finally shuddered and collapsed.

I looked up as it started to dissolve, to see the other three guys going to town with their clubs, beating the shit out of their monsters. Unlike me, they’d had no trouble dominating the fight. (I’m stronger than I used to be, but these guys were raised as farmers. Ox-and-plow farmers, at that. They’re probably stronger than most athletes back on Earth.) I only finished first ‘cause I had a blade and they didn’t.

And it wasn’t more than a few moments later before their tulpas had enough and started to dissolve as well.

Abby relaxed slightly, and walked over to retrieve her bolts, lying there where she’d shot the extra monsters. “I’m afraid these weren’t solid enough to leave behind reagents, but at least that means my quarrels aren’t corroding away.”

They get stronger than that?” I asked, suddenly feeling a bit nervous.

She gave me a bemused look. “Do you think dungeon tulpas would be anything to worry about if anyone with a club could beat one down? Fortunately, this close to the surface they’re rarely much stronger than this.”

Think there might be more of ‘em?” Cecil asked, switching his club to his off hand and rotating his shoulder. I guess he got a little too into beating the shit out of his monster. “Been years since dungeon monsters raided our farm, but if Liberio was feeding the dungeon they might start coming out at night again.”

Was anyone hurt?” Abby asked. “We can go in a little farther, and try to find another fight, but if you’re already taking wounds-”

The other three quickly declared their good health, while I felt where that thing had tried to claw at me. Turns out I wasn’t bleeding, at least.

I’ll need to stitch up my tunic again,” I said, “but it didn’t have time to break my skin.”

She gave me a narrow look. “Next time, try not to get between me and your tulpa. It was getting ready to tear your throat out, and I wasn’t sure I could get a clear shot first.”

I nodded. I wanted to protest that I hadn’t been able to do anything but react when it attacked . . . but I had been able to kill it. Even though it was stronger than the first couple I’d fought put together. The entire group would have torn me apart, of course, but I hadn’t planned to come back to this place without talking it over with her first to begin with. Plus, I needed to learn to keep my head clear enough in a fight to act and not just react.

We moved on. Abby led the way through the rooms with the confidence of experience, showing us side rooms that I hadn’t ever noticed, even when I’d had Darksight and come in after Liberio. Not that I’d gotten to explore very far, but this was a lot like having a friend show you all the cool tricks in a game that they’d figured out or looked up online.

Turns out that dungeons can make a few lives go a long way, by the way. Yes, we got attacked again. Twice.

 

If you like what you’ve read, feel free to comment.

Unfortunately, at the moment I’m trying to get a new job to pay the bills (at least until I’ve got these up on Amazon and hopefully bringing in a bit of money). So, I’ve got to be crass and mention that I’ve got a donate button set up and I could really use some tips right now. So if you want to Donate, that will be very much appreciated.

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Choosing the Blade Afterword / Wielding the Blade Preface

Welcome back, everyone! (No, this hasn’t been forgotten.)

I’m finally moving forward again on getting CtB ready for publication – that’ll be on Amazon’s Kindle, for 2.99 American dollars – and there’s been a couple of changes that y’all should be aware of going into the sequel:

1) I better defined the Outlaw class ‘Quack’. Here in the real world it’s an insulting term for an incompetent or fraudulent doctor. Comes from the Dutch ‘kwakzalver’, or ‘hawker of salve’. (Although I think it’s mostly fallen out of use in the 21st century.) In any event, in this setting Quacks make ‘medicines’ with a theme of deception. Their low-level outlaw hax knack is called Panacea, and the concoctions made with Panacea can make you feel good no matter how ill or injured you are. Yes, addiction can be an issue. Sometimes a deliberate one, given the compromised ethics of most outlaws.

Anyway, at higher levels their salves and tinctures can aid with other forms of deception, including hiding an outlaw’s class. So until Abby had Tommy checked professionally, she couldn’t be completely sure he was still a Jack and not just faking it.

2) Andre feels lost, doesn’t know what to do, but hasn’t left to try to go home. Rupert isn’t terribly impressed by his ordeal.

3) I chopped out most of Abby’s ex’s rant in the last chapter. His complaints about the system will show up later.

4) I came up with the title very early, and honestly I thought Tom would be making more of a choice in terms of being/staying an adventurer, which his seax would symbolize. It’s been suggested to me that the title didn’t turn out to be as appropriate as I expected. So now I’m trying to come up with a better title, and I’m open to suggestions.

I want to give thanks to Ward, Mizu, Gabe, SSM, Dude, and Elise for commenting here, and a particular thanks to John Oga.

That said, onto chapter 1 of book 2!

Choosing the Blade, Part X

This is last chapter of Choosing the Blade. Soon, it’ll go up on Amazon. In the meantime, tell me how I can make it suck less.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part VIII
Part IX

I’d like to think that if I hadn’t been caught, I could have explained everything to her and she’d have been willing to keep it more-or-less quiet. Oh, sure, she’d have dragged me to the Class Stone anyway to check that I was still a Jack, that I hadn’t gone along with having my class crushed and replaced by Footpad or another outlaw class.

(Hell, I’d like to think that if Jack had been crushed out of me she’d have still had faith in my good intentions.)

But I was trying to get her to mobilize, then I had my little breakdown, and the Eamon busted in and she had to go all official Secretary General. Which meant that thirty seconds after he came in I was in restraints that were magicked to block any use of outlaw knacks. Even Blindsight, ‘cause apparently the fact that it came from Clifton’s little ritual instead of learning it from an adventurer was enough to make it tainted as far as the magic rope tying my hands together was concerned.

Still, Abby relaxed a little bit after they hauled me to the Class Stone and verified that I was still a Jack. Enough to hear my explanation that Myles had thought I hadn’t had a class at all, that according to him I’d been training up to take Scout.

I might have recommended that, if you’d had enough trade goods or specie to live on until summer came,” she admitted, although her voice was cool and remote.

Wait,” Eamon put in. “If Myles was a higher level Enforcer who could pass as a first level Warrior, their band must have a Quack mixing them potions for concealment.”

Abby took a sharp breath. “That’s true,” she acknowledged, very quietly. “So Thomas could still be a Footpad after all.”

I swear I’m not!” I protested. “But that’s not the important part! They’re going to kidnap and kill farmers today, and if we don’t-”

Is that why you came back this morning?” she asked emotionlessly. “A bit of theft was exciting, but murder still turned your stomach? That doesn’t speak too badly of you, I suppose.”

I gaped at her. The implication – that I’d been having a grand adventure being a lawbreaker – made me want to break down and cry again. Because it wasn’t true . . . except that it was! Aside from the spiders, which Abby had tried to keep me away from once she knew about them, all my actual quests had come from the bandits.

Still, if we move quickly we ought to be able to intercept them,” she went on after a moment. “Rupert can damned well leave off playing foreman today. If we’re going to run them down, we’ll want him guarding us. Thomas, I’ll have more leeway to be lenient if you guide us to where the other bandits were camping last night, so that Eamon can track them from there.”

Of course!” I agreed immediately. “But who else are you bringing? We need to set out right away, but-”

Rupert, Eamon, and myself should be more than enough to disrupt their attack today,” Abby told me, her voice still cold and remote. “Bandits rarely survive long enough to get above tenth level, and even a gang of a few dozen won’t be able to overwhelm Rupert. Not when they’re recruiting novice outlaws.”

But it’s not a few dozen!” I protested. “It’s a few hundred!”

Eamon snorted. “Don’t be silly, boy. Even in the Grimwust they wouldn’t be able to hide that many bandits.”

No, they’re spread out,” I told him. “There’s at least ten small gangs, each led by a Mountebank, and-”

Abby cut me off. “Thomas, are you trying some sort of trick? Mountebanks don’t work together. They know all too well how dangerous their Charm is, even on each other.”

I know that!” I replied fervently. “But there’s one who’s higher level than all the rest, and he’s in charge of them all. His name is Liberio, and his Charm is so powerful that when I was presented to him I thought he had to be a prince in exile, trying to bring justice to a new land.”

They looked at me skeptically.

He doesn’t make them work together!” I insisted. “Each Mountebank has their own camp, if you trespass they just might kill you even though you’re all supposed to be allies, and he doesn’t explain what he’s planning until it’s almost time to do it! That’s how I found out what was going on, I was playing around with Shadow Creep and ended up spying on a meeting that was for Mountebanks only!”

Eamon and Abby exchanged a long look with each other.

Finally she sighed. “Tell Rupert to bring everyone. We might need them after all.”

***

I told her everything I could while the adventurers were gathering. How I’d been captured and conscripted. How the holders were making sure the renters never prospered quite enough to rid themselves of debt and become independent, and how there’d been room for what amounted to a rival guild to set up in secret, because no one from Mistleten was willing to do any more quests until the summer rush, and the farmers who needed those quests done the most couldn’t afford to spare the time from planting.

Merciful gods!” Abby breathed, once I’d managed to explain the scheme. “When I was younger the farmers would band together if there were quests that needed to be done in springtime. Has that changed so much?”

It looks like some of the holders use quests to set up tenants for ruin by letting them be done sloppy,” I told her. “They probably don’t encourage anyone to rescue unfortunate neighbors. It’d defeat the purpose of sabotaging them in the first place.”

Then I went on to describe the plan of kidnapping, murder, and scapegoating that was to take place today. Which made me want to cry again, because how much time had we wasted already-!

I was trying to blink it all out of my eyes when Abby suddenly pulled me in for another hug. “I’m sorry, Tommy,” she murmured. “If you were all recruited by the promise of being heroes . . . and to learn that adventuring isn’t a game when you’re still so young! I wish you hadn’t, yet.”

I pulled away just enough to look up at her in surprise. “I’m not the only one who acts like-?” How could this world possibly know about video games? The technology was medieval!

She laughed sadly and pulled me back in. “That’s one of the secrets of adventuring that children never believe. Because it is like a game, a grand diverting pastime, until you find yourself with someone else’s hope riding on your deeds. And then one day you fail a quest, and if you’re lucky it’s on their dream that dies. If you aren’t-”

She broke off, but I didn’t need her to continue. I knew what was going to happen, and even if we saved most of the farmers who were being targeted today, it was probably too late to stop all of the deaths.

Then Abby let me go. “I hear them coming back,” she whispered. “And I’ll be able to treat you better after all this is done if it doesn’t look like I’m favoring you.”

I nodded quickly, and started blinking again, this time to try to conjure up the appearance of tears instead of getting rid of them, as a group of the strongest adventurers in town entered the room.

Get anything useful out of the boy?” Rupert demanded, at the front of the group.

She nodded. “How they’ve managed to stay hidden, and why they think they can get the support of the renters, to remain hidden through the summer rush.”

Are those farmer lowlifes that ungrateful to us?” someone in the group demanded. Couldn’t remember his name, but he was one of the beefy Warrior types.

It’s more like they’re becoming the wife whose husband beats her,” I said.

Which got all the eyes on me, and I flinched at the sudden attention.

Explain that, Thomas,” Abby ordered, her disapproving mask back in place.

Liberio’s going to kill some of them, the ones won’t stay silent about him, and that’ll set an example to the other farmers if they start to get cold feet.” I paused. “Or maybe it’s more like a pimps and his whores? Punish the ones he has no use for, favor the ones supporting him, make it clear that their only hope is in keeping him happy?”

This time the attention was more than a little disturbed. Except these were adventurers, they had to know about villains-

Oh. Right. I still looked too young to know about any of that.

The point is,” I quickly went on, “if we don’t save as many of them as we can, the rest won’t dare speak up against Liberio or anyone who tries to follow his example!”

Thomas says he can lead us to where the bandit army feasted together last night,” Abby announced. “From there our Scouts can follow their trails. The new outlaws still believe they’re heroes serving their families and their friends’ families, and at most they’re second level, so they won’t be much of a threat to us. The ones we need to track down soonest are the veteran outlaws carrying out the murders of renters that they don’t trust. So let’s be off!”

***

They didn’t unbind me for the trip. Instead Rupert carried me as the advance party ran down the road. More than a bit mortifying, but apparently everyone in the lead had knacks for running faster than I could hope to manage, so I didn’t complain out loud.

Then we arrived at yesterday’s gathering site, and found that about half the gangs hadn’t bothered to leave. Apparently the veteran outlaws who’d been left behind to be in charge had given up after organizing a few questing parties, and decided to let everyone else just take a day off. (And be ready for when vigilante ‘justice’ was to be demanded that night.)

I wish I could say that I got to do something cool during the short battle that followed, but Rupert pretty much dumped me onto the ground and left me there while they all went to fight. Which pissed me off, and even worse, I had to take it because I had been consorting with outlaws. But nobody was there to see me snarl, at least. Hell, I barely managed to get to my feet in time to see Mistleten’s strongest adventurers show why a single bullshit outlaw knack didn’t make up for the versatility that proper adventurer classes gave.

Or maybe just show why a crowd of mostly second levels had no business facing an advance party where the lowest level member (aside from myself, and I didn’t count) was eighth or ninth level.

Funny thing is, they were even being nice about it all. The AoE attacks that I saw were all stuns and disarms and entangles, and I don’t think there were any deaths at all. Everyone was kept alive for trial.

Another good thing about capturing them all was that Abby had an excuse to take the binding rope off of me. They needed it for one of the veteran bandits who almost managed to sneak away in the direction Liberio and his officers had headed. And since I’d led them straight to the camp, according to her I was probably trustworthy.

Then the rest of the adventurers arrived, and she and Rupert handed out orders for handling this first batch of prisoners.

Thomas, do you know where any current camps are?” she then asked me, once they were secure and marching towards Mistleten, with a detachment of the lower level adventurers to guard them.

Bad idea, I’d say, except all the veteran outlaws had their knacks suppressed, and trying to Dominate from a position of weakness would be pretty hard for second level Enforcers to pull off against the fourth and fifth level adventurers guarding them.

I can show you where Louie’s camp was, but they have a lot of traps guarding their treehouses,” I replied. “And I didn’t see Andre with the prisoners we already caught, but I know where he and the rest of his team have been doing quests for tenant farmers who can’t afford to wait for the summer rush.”

Abby nodded. “I’ll send you with some Scouts to the camp, then,” she decided, “once you give directions to where the others were . . . questing.”

Which I did, and then I was sent off with several adventurers. Scouts, yeah, and some Warriors and Marksmen as well. By their dark looks in my direction, they didn’t seem to want to speak with me, so I just led them to where the women’s camp was.

We stopped when the Scouts started pointing out traps that I’d never noticed, but by then we were close enough that it didn’t exactly matter. I pointed up into one of the trees that had thick foliage. “That’s one of their buildings up there,” I whispered. “I think their Netters use it to build traps.”

The leader of the group – I’d heard his name back when working construction, but I couldn’t remember it now – grunted and had one of the Marksmen shoot a knotted rope up into the branches. “Keep a hand on him,” he told one of the Warriors before the rest quickly climbed up the rope.

I scowled as the guy who’d been left behind grabbed my arm and held on tight. “Do you gotta do that?” I grumbled.

Maybe you ain’t steered us wrong yet,” he replied, “but that don’t mean you’re clear, not when you ran off to the outlaws in the first place.”

I shut up at that point. Didn’t want them complaining to Abby that I’d been trying to escape. So we stood there and listened to various shrieks, curses, and footsteps chasing each other through the treetops above.

But it didn’t take that long for the noise to calm, and then after a minute or so of quiet a rope pulley was lowered and the first bound and gagged prisoner descended. My minder stepped up to take charge . . . then stopped and gave me a rather odd look.

Didn’t think to tell anyone that this was where the lady outlaws stayed?” he asked.

I-” My mouth snapped shut as I realized that no, I hadn’t. I mean, I’d told Abby, but not these guys, and Louie can be a boy’s name. “Oops? I didn’t think-”

Can tell that.” He rolled his eyes and let go of me. “Help me get them in formation. Can’t do it with just the one hand.”

I had no idea what he meant, until he tried to pull her into position and she did her best to be dead weight. Only got worse as more of the prisoners were lowered down, too. Turns out that the guys may have known they were beaten, but a lot of Louie’s women tried to struggle. Maybe that’s because they knew the Mistleten adventurers were less likely to beat the shit out of them? I dunno, but Abby hadn’t sent along any of the very few lady adventurers that hung out in town, so it started out as a pain and got worse from there.

And that’s even with them tied up to the point where they couldn’t escape unless we were really dumb about watching them. Oh, and by the time they were rounded up the other adventurers giving me looks almost as dirty as the glares from the prisoners who recognized me.

I swear, I told Abby that Louie ran the women’s camp!” I protested, as the last of the prisoners came down.

Doesn’t matter, if no one saw fit to tell us,” the leader pointed out. Then he sighed. “We’re not going to be moving them without more trouble. You two, take the kid back to their main camp and round up enough to handle this lot.”

***

Runnin’ low on people as it is,” the guy in charge back at the big camp grunted. “And if Abby knew, she probably expected you to treat ‘em like any old prisoner.”

Right, we’ll just go back and smack ‘em around until they behave,” one of my escorts replied sarcastically. “And then never get the time of day from any woman for a hundred miles around, once word gets out. Thank you, but no.”

Why are we running low?” I asked.

The guy in charge shook his head. “Turns out you were right, a lot of the new bandits were out doin’ quests. Almost like they were real adventurers and not kneebreakers, if you can imagine it.”

Not only can I imagine it, I was helping them do it,” I pointed out. “Because tenant farmers can’t afford to become adventurers, and couldn’t spare the time from planting even if they had classes and levels like they’re supposed to, and no one in town is willing to give it a go without a higher-level adventurer playing nursemaid.”

His eyes narrowed. “You watch your tone, boy. Half the veteran outlaws we’ve captured are already in the rolls for their thieving ways. Just because they were playing at hero with their new recruits don’t mean they weren’t goin’ to show their true colors sooner or later.”

I know that-!” I started, but he’d already turned away and was stomping off, calling out names to come over. For the reinforcements needed to handle the women with kid gloves, I’m sure. Equally sure I wasn’t welcome to join that group.

So I just started wandering around, trying to get a picture for who’d been taken alive. I mean, I didn’t know hardly any of them, but I’d been working with Myles team a lot, and I was hoping they’d had the good sense to surrender instead of try to fight it out.

Which ended up with more betrayed glares when I found Andre, Cecil, and the others, gagged and hands tied behind their backs, waiting to be marched to Mistleten. Made me want to run and hide, but who could I hide behind? Abby wasn’t back yet, and she was the only one who didn’t seem to think I was scum.

Knock it off,” I told them. “Liberio’s a Mountebank with a strong enough Charm that we all thought he was a prince.”

Which didn’t exactly change their expressions, but if I was going to try to explain I couldn’t stop there. “He took all the captains to go kill tenant farmers that weren’t willing to sign on with his revolution. I heard him tell them the plan. They were going to blame the murders on other tenants, ones who were close enough to becoming independent that they wouldn’t need his help.

And then he was going to have us be the ones to execute the people he was planning to frame. You were all going to be killing your neighbors for the crime of not needing to depend on Liberio for help!”

That made a few of them flinch, including Cecil, although Andre looked away. But they were still gagged, so they couldn’t exactly reply or ask questions. I just kind of stood there for a few minutes, feeling awkward and not knowing what to say-

And then I was rescued by the noise of a bunch of people marching back to the big camp.

Turned out, when I went over to see what was going on, that a new batch of prisoners were being hauled in. A bigger group than any of the other adventuring Enforcers-

Because they were the Mountebank captains and their lieutenants, as I realized when I spotted Louie and Primula at the edge of the group. They saw me at about the same time, and I was never happier about the prisoners all being tied up, because by her death-glare Primula was ready to march over and shank me on the spot. Louie didn’t look much happier, for that matter.

With the Mountebanks all captured, the plot was pretty much over . . . except I didn’t see Liberio. Or Clifton and Myles. Or Abby, for that matter.

Where’s the Secretary General?” I asked Rupert, as soon as I saw the foreman and hurried over to him.

That’s not your concern,” he growled. “And you’d best keep away from these. Any of them escape, and not even bein’ her pet will save you.”

No, he wasn’t willing to listen. The town’s adventurers were already shorthanded, and with the higher level prisoners to deal with suddenly everyone was too busy to take a moment to talk to me.

Which was frustrating as hell, because if the bandit king had gotten away with at least some of his support, we could capture everyone else today and be in a ton of trouble tomorrow. They hadn’t faced Liberio, they didn’t know how terrifyingly charismatic he was when he used his Charm, and the best we could hope for was a mass prison break.

I mean, I’m sure they’d have anti-Charm protocols in place, but start with something like, “Any rules that say you should ignore me were just a test, which you passed. Now, take me to your boss.” Rinse, repeat. Maybe the others weren’t strong enough, but I’d be willing to bet Liberio himself was at least level twenty. If anyone could pull it off, it’d be him.

And if he’d gotten away with Clifton and Myles, I had a good idea of where they’d be. I mean, it’d been a guy from Clifton’s company that had been in Lulach, so that’s the dungeon he’d be familiar with. That had already accepted him. That would be stronger after he ‘primed’ it with prisoners.

And all I had, since Abby still hadn’t returned, was Vanish and the Shadow Creep upgrade. Against three higher level outlaws, if they were there.

Honestly, I kinda hoped I was wrong.

***

I tried not to be a complete idiot about it, by which I mean that once I’d gotten away from the big campsite I dropped Vanish and started to leave a very obvious trail. Hopefully everyone was so busy that Abby would be the first one to pay attention to the fact that I was missing. Hopefully it’d get me another audience with her, without anyone keeping me away on the grounds that she was too busy or something.

Hopefully nothing would go wrong, but the hopefully’s were starting to pile up.

And no one had caught up to me by the time I got the Lulach’s entrance.

I hesitated for at least a minute, staring at the tunnel leading inside. Because if I’d guessed right there was no way I could stand up to Myles. And without backup I couldn’t-

Then I realized I didn’t actually need to face them all. Just confirm if they were hiding out in Lulach, and then retreat back to the entrance and wait for the adventurers to track me down.

Feeling a little better about that, I went inside and pulled Vanish up. Nothing spawned to try to kill me, so either the dungeon had decided I was one of Clifton’s, my stealth was enough to keep it from noticing me, or it had already exhausted itself. I didn’t know which, but as long as I could get in and out without getting caught, I’d be fine.

But then I reached a room further than I’d ever gone before, and Clifton called out.

I was just about to go back, to wait for Abby to show up, when I had another thought. Myles was made for combat, but Mountebanks like Clifton were focused on scams. He was surely good enough to beat me in a fair fight, but this world didn’t use hit points. If I could take him out in one blow, then I wouldn’t have to hope that it was the Secretary General who came looking for me. That’d be one hopefully I wouldn’t have to worry about.

And facing Liberio as a raid boss would be easier for everyone if I took down one of his adds, right?

So I got closer, and did my best to ignore Clifton when he turned on the Charm and did his best to make me feel rotten for siding against him. Until I was right on top of him, and I thrust-!

And he still turned quick enough that I only managed to get his side, my seax bouncing along the ribs and not managing to bite deep enough to take him out. Then something slammed into my side and everything went dark.

***

. . . too busy, we should slit ‘is throat ‘ere an’ now!”

That was Myles’ voice. So they were both here. Damnit, I really wish I hadn’t guessed right.

No,” Clifton declared. “We were counting on more lives to prime Lulach. He’s an adventurer, so at least he’s a better offering than just another farmer.”

No much better.”

Well, no. But take hold of him, he’s starting to come to.”

I almost threw up as Myles grabbed me and picked me up. Then I held very still as the tip of a knife poked my jaw. “Best not be movin’,” he growled into my ear. “Best be still as stone.”

I quite agree,” Clifton said, holding a wad of cloth at his side. “So what made you turn traitor, little boy?”

I glared at him, but kept my mouth shut.

If he doesn’t answer,” the Mountebank told his lieutenant, “you can take an ear as a trophy. He won’t need that on the table.”

Gladly!” Myles snarled.

Your meeting this morning!” I blurted out right away. “I was following Louie, ‘cause I wanted to see Liberio again!”

Clifton gave me a measuring look, then started to laugh tiredly. “And you weren’t ready for the harsh realities of leading people to freedom. Like we were worried about, for all of you.”

You were planning to blame the murders on the farmers who were closest to gaining their freedom!” I snarled. “You aren’t liberators, you’re pimps killing off the competition!”

He gave me a slow smile. “That may be the most apt description of nobility I’ve ever heard. Perhaps I should have made you a Mountebank, instead.”

Then the smile vanished and he slapped me across the face. “I’m going to enjoy watching Liberio feed you to this dungeon. Once Lulach’s apparitions are fed, they’ll be far-”

He suddenly cut off, gasping soundlessly, as a crossbow bolt buried itself into his chest. Then, as he was crumpling, Myles yanked me around so that I was between him and the direction the bolt had come from.

Don’t even twitch,” he shouted, “or th’ runt ‘as my steel jammed right up ‘is jaw!”

Then he grunted, and the knife – my seax! – fell from his hand onto the ground, and I turned around to see him fall, another bolt right between his eyes.

Abby stepped out of the shadows at the entrance, where she’d been just beyond the range of my Darksight. “Hard to use someone as a shield when you’re about a cubit taller than they are,” she said, giving the two corpses a rather satisfied look.

Then she looked at me. “Is this what you were trying to tell Rupert about? That trail you left made it seem like you wanted to be followed, but no one noticed you were gone until I returned.”

I nodded. Or tried to, it was more of a spasm. “I-I-I-” I began, but my teeth were suddenly chattering too much to speak, and then I was shaking all over and-

But then Abby had crossed the distance, and was holding me as I dropped to my knees. “Shhh,” she murmured. “It’s fine. You’re safe now. They can’t kill you anymore.”

L-Liberio?” I managed to ask. “Is h-he-?”

We haven’t caught him yet, but our best Trackers will find his trail sooner or later,” she promised me.

N-no, I th-think he’s h-h-here,” I got out, still shaking. “Pr-priming-”

She took a sudden, sharp breath. “Tommy, stay right here. I’ll be back in a little while.”

I nodded as she let me go . . . but then before she went any deeper into the dungeon, she pulled out a little vial and poured a drop of something onto my head. “If you’re right,” Abby told me, “that will protect you from his Charm.”

Then she marched off, cranking her crossbow as she went.

***

I mostly sat there and shook while I waited for her to come back. That had been . . . the spiders I could at least outsmart. If I was too slow to dodge their acid, it meant I’d misjudged. But going up against Clifton, when Myles had been close enough to hear and be alerted? It’s like the difference between single and multi-player. Real-world opponents are smarter than any computer, and they’ll crush you without mercy if they have the chance.

Except in the real world, losing meant you died. And I’d lost, except I’d left enough of a trail behind for Abby to follow me.

A little while later, she marched Liberio past me with her crossbow planted in his back. He gave me a speculative look, but then kept going when she jabbed him. I slowly got up and followed, although my legs were still shaking and feeling weak.

I was maybe halfway to the entrance of Lulach when Abby returned. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

I don’t think I can do this,” I told her. “I-I almost died, and I can’t stop thinking-”

Once again, she wrapped me in a big hug, although this time I managed to stay standing. “Don’t worry, Tommy,” she murmured. “Everyone is scared, when they brush against Death for the first time. You’ll learn to handle it, we all do.”

H-how?!” I demanded. “I couldn’t-”

Against adventures ten levels higher than you?” Abby asked. “Of course you couldn’t. But I saw how the one was favoring his side. You almost had him, didn’t you?”

He turned at the last moment,” I mumbled. It did feel nice, being held. I’d just about stopped shivering, even.

So even at third level to his thirteen or better, you almost had him. Tommy, that’s not the work of a coward. You’re shaking because you’re still a new adventurer, not because anything’s wrong with you.”

Then she let me go and grabbed me by the shoulders, glaring down at me. “That said, young man, if you try to take on senior adventurers by yourself like this again, I’ll make you wish you’d stumbled into the Grimwust!”

I-”

Do you know how terrified I was, when I saw that Enforcer holding your own seax to your throat!?”

This time I was the one who threw my arms around her, doing my best not to cry.

Not just because of how she felt, or how I felt.

What about my parents?

Okay, so I hardly ever saw them. Even when they slept at home and not at their offices I might get five minutes at breakfast, and then if they came home they were too tired or busy to listen to me. I was used to it, and I guess it wasn’t all bad, with the money they made, but I wouldn’t have minded a little less money if it’d meant a little more time for me.

But even if they didn’t have time for me they cared enough to get angry if I didn’t do well enough in school. So I meant something to them, even if it felt like they never showed it.

So how had they felt, when I vanished off the face of the Earth?

The genie swore that if I returned, he’d have to kill me. But I was going to be a hero, and one day I’d be strong enough that I could kill him first. As long as I didn’t wimp out, at least.

I didn’t know how long it’d take, but I was going to let Mom and Dad know that I was alright. Someday, and somehow.

So I dried my eyes on Abby’s arm – because I was still chest-high compared to her and that just wouldn’t be right – and looked up at her. “Is that all of them, now that he’s captured?”

She nodded, and we left the dungeon together.

***

Clifton and Myles weren’t the only bodies that had to be retrieved for burial. Liberio had sacrificed a farmer in Lulach to ‘prime’ it, and there were four more who’d been killed, three farmwives and another farmer, before the Mistleten adventurers had caught up with the outlaw raiding party. And there were casualties on both sides from the battle, although not too many deaths before the Mountebanks had started to try surrender.

I don’t think they were happy to find out that Abby had been warned about them and had brought along that vial of whatever potion it was that countered their Charm.

But all in all, the sun hadn’t set before we were all back at Mistleten. The field on the eastern side was full of outlaws and adventurers guarding them.

Are we just keeping them here?” I asked. Abby had given me strict orders to stay by her side for the foreseeable future, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t ask questions.

First we’ll bring in the parents of the conscripted farm boys,” she told me. “If they can vouch for them, and find the farms that you’ve all been doing quests for . . .” She trailed off and shook her head. “They’ll still need to have their outlaw classes sealed, but if they haven’t been committing any real brigandage, we can release them on parole to their families.”

I tried not to flinch. At least some of the quests had been Robin Hood types, robbing the holders to give to the tenants. That probably wouldn’t fly. “What about the rest?”

Our jail won’t hold them all,” Abby admitted. “Most bandit gangs are three dozen at the most, but this time that’s the women’s camp alone! They’ll have first call on jail space, I’m sure, aside from the Mountebanks.”

You’re taking special precautions for them?”

She nodded as we walked along, inspecting the camp that was slowly organizing. “You never let a Mountebank use his Charm, unless you want to wake up one morning and find out you’ve lost everything you have, and they’re already halfway to the next town and laughing at you’re gullibility. No, Liberio and his minions will stay locked up and secured until we can arrange the trials.” She shook her head. “And the holders will be demanding a say as we make-”

Then she suddenly stopped short and stared at one of the prisoners that we were passing by.

He must have felt the heat of her expression, ‘cause he raised his head with a snarl on his lips. “Whaddya want? Come to gloat, you townie bi-”

The man cut himself off as his eyes widened and the blood drained from his face. “Abby?” he croaked.

John?” she replied softly. “Is that you?”

You know him?” I asked. “How?” ‘Cause, well, we weren’t next to the prisoners who were new recruits, after all. And even if there’d been some mix-up, he didn’t look young, either. I’d have said forties, or at the youngest a hard-living thirties.

Because I was hoping to court her, back before that townie asshole got his friends to level her up so she’d let him get his cock wet,” the outlaw sneered.

Abby’s eyes blazed. “Well! Now I know I wasn’t wrong, not to wait for you.”

Hardly!” he snarled. “We could have made it work, if you’d waited like you promise. But no, one bad harvest and you were taking other callers, and then only going to townie dances with all the other harlots!”

She stiffened, and for a moment I thought she was going to slap him. Or even pull out her crossbow and put him out of her misery.

But after a moment she took a deep breath and marched on.

Weren’t just me you condemned to this!” John shouted after us. “We’d have been proud to break new ground, all of us, and it would have meant everyone’s chance. Fernie, Sam, Lowele . . . they’re all dead now, and Mathi’s due to hang with me! All we needed was a fair shot, but you were too eager to whore yourself out to . . .”

His voice slowly faded as we marched double-time away from the prisoners.

He wasn’t in any of the camps I spent time in,” I said. “So I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t know you’d know any of them. I’m sorry.”

Abby was quiet for a long moment, before she sighed and slowed down. “I don’t think I ever truly did know John. Not if he could live with himself as an outlaw. I’m just grateful that you were clever enough to stay a Jack the way you did, so I had reason to listen. The conscripted, I’d have known them when they weren’t much more than toddlers, back when I was still going to farmer dances and I thought John hung the moon. Having to deal with them after they became hardened like he did would have been awful.”

What was he talking about?” I asked. Then, very quickly: “Not the whore part, that was obviously just him being jealous-”

Was it?” she asked softly. “Some adventuresses do carry on with a new man whenever one catches her fancy. And grateful adventurers can be very nice when they appreciate you.”

Uh-” I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. But, “Your kids all look like Caleb’s their daddy. So it doesn’t look like you, uh, carry on the way some women back home would.”

She gave me a ghost of an amused look. “Nobles,” she then murmured, shaking her head.

I didn’t try to correct her. What was the point?

I stopped going to dances at all, at least at first,” Abby went on. “It wasn’t just one failed harvest. His family had a poor harvest the year before that, too, so there was no money to send John to town to become an adventurer, or even offer as a bride portion to help buy a farm plot for us in one of the safer areas. They were going to need time to recover, and when I tried to come to a farm dance he was too ashamed to show his face. As if I’d already declared that I wouldn’t be waiting for him!”

You don’t have to tell me any of this,” I said, feeling very uncomfortable.

Maybe I don’t,” she replied, “but you kept faith with Mistleten and the Guild. With me. So I want you to understand that John’s as full of shit as if he’d stumbled and fallen into a cow patty!”

Oh. Okay.”

Abby shook her head. “There wasn’t a great deal more to it, honestly. I tried to write him a letter, but he returned it unopened. And even then I was determined to stay true to him. Except Caleb said that if I was going to stay by myself when all the other adventurers were celebrating at the guildhall, he and his friends would keep me company. And they did. So I started going to the town fetes, just so they wouldn’t miss out.”

She shook her head again. “And then Caleb offered to help me level, so that I could go assarting a new farm with John and his friends if that’s what I truly wished. And I knew he admired me, that he was courting me despite what most adventurers would sneer at as ‘farm prudery’. But I also knew that John wouldn’t be able to have his own farm without someone helping him along, and I told myself that’s what would happen.

But by the time I was close to tenth level – and if you’re clearing a new farm close to Mistleten you don’t want to be anything less, especially if your spouse hasn’t had a chance to level up a class themselves – I heard John had left to go seek his fortune. I wrote him another letter, but I never got a reply, even though his family said they’d sent it on to him.”

Abby paused and took a deep breath. “He never came to Mistleten to choose a class, but if you pledge yourself to a noble for a term of service they’ll give you a soldier class. That’s what I thought must have happened. There wasn’t any need for him to become an outlaw!”

Wow. And now your childhood friends are all dead or condemned to hang.”

She blinked, then started laughing. “Childhood friends? Tommy, I didn’t meet John until my first dance, when I was fourteen.”

But-” I really wasn’t sure how to continue. Back on Earth, everyone at school knew each other all the way back to pre-K. Or at least, everyone who’d grown up in the district. There were some families who’d moved in. “What about the children you grew up knowing?”

They’re like brothers and sisters to me!” she exclaimed, still laughing. “You don’t court and marry someone you’ve known all your life! Unless . . . I hear that a lot of nobles arrange marriages for their children. So perhaps you did grow up thinking you knew who you were going to marry.”

I blushed. “Not really,” I muttered. None of the girls at school had ever given me the time of day. But I was shorter than just about all of them, even the freshmen girls after I became a sophomore. Hell, it’d been like that in middle school, too, when my classmates first started being silly around each other.

(Not that I wouldn’t have minded some silliness directed my way, but I was tiny, I was scrawny, my voice is still cracking, and all the really pretty girls were making cow eyes at the varsity teams.)

But if Abby was right, that growing up around someone meant you shouldn’t marry them, maybe that was why everyone seemed to break up with each other all the time. Hell, none of them made me feel all funny the way some of the girls in my handheld did, when they smiled at me. And I mean RPGs, not the games you’re probably thinking about!

And I still liked Zelda more, even when she bitched about Link always following orders and was all snooty like some of the girls in AP classes. As least she has a nice smile. And her voice is way classier!

Isn’t there anything you could try to do for him?” I finally asked. “I mean, it sounds like you were in love with him, even if you fell out of contact. If he never came back until recently-”

Oh, John’s been back for at least a few years, almost assuredly,” Abby said heavily. “Liberio needed men who knew the area, who could make contacts with the tenant farmers and not have it be reported to Mistleten. But that also means doing away with anyone who tried to report him, so he doesn’t just have foreign blood on his hands. I expect he’ll have killed people he grew up knowing, at least by sight. So I can’t argue for his exile, no. Not with local blood on his hands.”

But if he’s been back here for a few years, how come he never tried to meet you?” Honestly, I didn’t care that much about what was going to happen to him. Hadn’t even properly met the man, but Liberio and his top crew were all horrible people. It would be a relief when they were buried, but I guess I was playing devil’s advocate. Or at least I wanted to know why he’d been so bitter, if he hadn’t even tried to reconnect.

If he asked about me, he’d have heard that I was married and with five children,” she pointed out. “There’s not too many as would just pick up and leave that kind of life. Not unless their man was a threat to their little ones, and sometimes not even then. And Caleb’s always been a good husband, so John wouldn’t have been rescuing me from anything.”

Abby closed her eyes for a moment. “Besides, once I agreed to marry Caleb I’d have cut my acquaintance with John, Lowele, and all the others. You don’t keep contact with men who’d courted you once you trade your vows with another, not unless they’re in his circle of friends as well. That only leads to heartbreak or worse.”

I nodded slowly. Heartbreak was one way to put it, at high school. But a couple of times in my freshman year, the cops had gotten involved. They wouldn’t tell the rest of us what had happened, and the biggest rumors were too silly to be the truth, but if Abby was still about high school age when she got married, it’d make sense.

Might even be part of their religion. Their gods did stuff for them, it made sense that they’d actually listen to their preachers instead of ignore them like everyone does back on Earth.

Hell, around here the preachers probably didn’t get caught with their pants unzipped all the time. After all, piss off the gods while you speak in their name and they might just pull out the Old Testament smiting and stuff.

Even still,” I said, before pausing and trying to figure out the uneasiness wiggling at the back of my mind. “Even still, he should have had other chances to court and marry, and then settle down. If everything was so bad that he had no chance-”

All he had to do,” Abby interrupted softly, “was come to me and ask for help. I certainly wasn’t going to charge him. And he could have always come to town as a classless hireling until he had the Guild fee saved up.”

Yeah, the way Myles assumed I had. But adventurers look down on you if they think you aren’t one of them, and a lot of guys hate it if they’re stuck at a lower rank than their sweetheart. Which John would have been until he could save up for his initiation, and then he’d have to level up quickly somehow if he wanted to catch up to her. Foolish pride on his part, yeah, but it’s pride I could kinda understand.

Hell, part of me is kinda glad that Abby isn’t close to my age or single. Sure, I had a bit of a crush on her, but I knew it was silly and hopeless, and it was better for both of us to let her be the cool adopted aunt.

But I’d finally found the problem in the whole setup. Because if John had swallowed his pride and come to Mistleten to hire out, he would have wanted to level up as quickly as he could. And I knew what it was like these days during the off season.

Was there a rush at the start of each season, back then?” I asked. “Or is this recent?”

Oh, no, the seasonal rushes here have been tradition for generations,” she assured me. “There’s hardly any point to a higher-level adventurer living here year-round. But at least junior adventurers do have the chance to gain levels during each rush!”

Yeah, but we don’t exactly need to wait until a rush to level,” I pointed out, feeling confident in my conclusion. But would she get where I was heading?

Abby smiled wryly. “Yes, Tommy, you’ve proved that, but you could have gotten yourself killed more than once in the last few weeks. You practically gave me a heart attack when you ran into Bebehn to try to draw out the spiders, and ever since then-!”

And nobody wants to die, so nobody goes adventuring once the rush is over,” I concluded for her. “So everything Liberio’s been saying about what’s going on with the tenant farmer is right, even if he was using it instead of actually trying to fix it.”

Farmers aren’t helpless,” she pointed out, giving me a funny look. “Even the ones who never take a class spend enough time drilling so they can handle it when something dangerous comes around.”

Yeah, but what happens when trouble comes around during the spring when they have to plant?” I asked. “Or during the fall when they have to harvest? Because no matter what else ‘Liberio’ was doing, the farmers who signed on with his plan got adventurers when they needed help. Outlaws, maybe, but still men and women willing to risk their lives to deal with trouble.

With adventurers helping them, it didn’t cost planting time to have their problems dealt with, and their crops weren’t ruined by waiting until summer when a group from Mistleten would finally get around to dealing with their problems. Liberio didn’t ask much as quest rewards, either, so the farmers who needed help weren’t being ruined by it, either.”

Abby gave me a narrow look. “No, he was just going to have them killed if they tried to resist him, or did too well on their own without his ‘help’.”

I know!” I assured her. “But John’s family had a bad harvest a couple of times in a row. And any normal farm could be ruined by having trouble pop up right after the rush ends, the high-level adventurers leave, and everyone at Mistleten stops caring about your problems.”

Her breath caught, and she froze for a moment.

Tommy,” Abby then said very quietly, “are you trying to say that ‘Liberio’ kept his plot hidden for so long because of me? Because I didn’t post the right quests, or send low-level adventurers out into the hinterlands to risk their lives?”

No, you just inherited the problem,” I replied, equally quietly. “But is risk really something we should avoid? I know you don’t like to see Magicians go off and get killed, but even a Jack like me can practice and get ready to fight.

Besides,” I quickly went on, “you haven’t had quests from the farmers to post, once the rush ended each season. They gave up on that generations ago, from what I’ve heard. As far as everyone’s concerned it’s normal to let problems wait until the next rush, or deal with it yourself if that’s what you have to do.

But I think that’s gotta change. Even if we don’t get another bandit king plotting to set himself up as a lord, the farmers who needed help aren’t going to be happy to see it go away, not after a year or two of finally getting it. They need to know that they can submit quests to Mistleten. And I guess once they do, you’ll need to push adventurers out to do them, just like you said.”

But how will we get them to send notice to us?” Abby asked. “You know better than the rest of us, how upset they are. How they’re hardly even grateful to have their sons and daughters spared from judgment! Why would they trust us after this?”

They won’t, at first,” I agreed. “But when I asked to come to Mistleten, all I wanted was a fair chance to be a hero. So can I ask you a question?”

She nodded curiously, and waited for me to ask.

***

Farmer Gavin?” I called, as I approached the man working the field.

He gave me a hard look, then went back to tilling the soil. “Don’t have anythin’ t’ say to Mistleten. We’re quit of those bandits as kidnapped m’son, an’ that’s an end to it.”

I winced. Maybe coming around in new clothing gave the wrong impression, but my old tunic was so far gone that I hadn’t had much choice but to buy a new one. At least I’d been able to get one that had more room for me to grow into, now that it was confirmed that I was starting a growth spurt.

(Caleb had even given me a discount for it. Exposing a bandit army by joining it apparently wasn’t how adventurers were supposed to go about things, so officially I wasn’t getting any reward. Unofficially Abby was sharing some of what she was due. Which was great, ‘cause if this worked out I might be able to afford real shoes in a few weeks.)

I’m not here on behalf of Mistleten,” I told him. “I was the Footpad who snuck up on the mole king and pulled it in so that your son could help kill it.”

Farmer Gavin blinked, and he looked me up and down. “An’ then how is it that yer walkin’ around, free an’ armed?”

I shrugged. “I wasn’t ever really a Footpad. But here’s the thing, sir: Your son Cecil, he wasn’t tried for anything. Liberio had us conscripted outlaws playing at being heroes, ‘cause he knew most of us would quit if he ordered us to act like real brigands.”

Been told that, aye.” He turned back to his work.

So did Cecil want to be an adventurer?” I asked. “And maybe figured this was his only chance?”

Hmph. Who doesn’t want a few levels, farming this close to the Grimwust?” Farmer Gavin didn’t even look up. “He’ll have no such prospects anymore, even if we could afford it.”

Right. But the thing is, don’t you all still need adventurers willing to work outside the rushes? I mean, we took care of the moles, so your farm is fine, but what about the other farmers?”

He stopped and gave me another look. “You ain’t strong enough to adventure on yer own, boy. Need a dozen more levels for that, I reckon.”

You might be right,” I agreed, “but I wasn’t thinking of doing it on my own. There are a bunch of new Enforcers, like your son, who were doing an honest adventurer’s work. Think maybe they might like to keep on doing it? Think your son might like to get back out in the field and help people? Maybe even save up enough to send your daughter to town, if that’s what she wants to do in a few years?”

Farmer Gavin blinked. “They’ll never let a gang of outlaws . . . did you say you weren’t a Footpad?”

I shook my head. “Mistleten made me an adventurer first, but the bandits didn’t know they needed to crush my class before initiating me. So I’m an adventurer in good standing,” sort of, but Abby was cover for me there, “and I checked with the Secretary General. She says I can hire whoever I like, as long as they aren’t exiled. People may not expect someone with an outlaw class to follow the law, but Cecil and the others were all paroled.”

Won’t be allowed to advance while they’re still outlaws,” he pointed out.

I nodded. “That’s gonna be tricky, yeah. But most of what we’ll face we can handle with enough numbers, and if I have to I can send to the Secretary General for help. So do you think Cecil will want in? And do you know I should approach next, for work that needs doing?”

***

Farmwife Euphemia?” I asked, when the door opened and a tired-looking middle-aged woman looked out at me.

Aye, that’s me,” she replied.

Farmer Gavin says you’re in need of an adventurer’s aid, and well before summer rolls around . . .”

 

To be continued in Wielding the Blade, Book 2 of Jack of all Heroes.

Choosing the Blade, Part IX

This is from a work in progress. When I finish it, it’ll hopefully go up on Amazon shortly thereafter. In the meantime, tell me how I can make it suck less.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part VIII

When I was told the name of my new knack – or maybe it’s just an extension of Vanish, I’m not quite sure – the image that popped into my head was teleporting from shadow to shadow, like you see in a lot of games when the protagonist has The Powers of Darkness™!

That would have been really cool.

Instead, as I found out before going to bed that night, Shadow Creep makes it so that if I have cover, I can move almost normally with Vanish up and not risk popping it. Luckily, a lot of stuff can count as ‘cover’, including standing in the shadow of something else.

But I discovered one nifty part purely by accident, when I stepped on a branch that I hadn’t noticed and cringed, hoping no one was paying close enough attention to notice me-

And the snap of the breaking wood echoed all around me, sounding like it came from everywhere at once. Except then when I started walking again, Vanish popped almost immediately.

It took a bit of experimentation to nail it down. I could either have it cover my movement or hide the sound I was making. Not both at once (although I was hoping I could get that in a few more levels), so if I was hiding where my voice was coming from I was stuck creeping along at the old pace that Vanish permitted.

Honestly, that use felt weirdly out of place. There’s this lame old movie called The Shadow that my father saw when he started dating, all the way back in the 90s, about this guy who can turn invisible and likes to laugh at crooks before punching them out. It had really dumb acting, and the kind of bad special effects that were supposed to be cutting edge back then, but Dad liked it enough to have a DVD of it, and he made me watch it when I was too young to realize how stupid the movie was.

Anyway, that’s sort of how Shadow Creep works in alt mode. Noise I made sounded like it was coming from everywhere, even though I couldn’t figure out the reason for having that mode.

Until, that is, I managed to find Louie and ask her.

Silly boy!” she mock-scolded me. “You can use Shadow Creep to hide where you are when you’re sending a message.” Then she took knocked back something that smelled like cheap wine, only a lot stronger. Brandy, I guess.

Learning how to be a proper sneaky outlaw?” she then asked, grinning and winking conspiratorially. “Ready to help look for evidence while I keep the holders and their families distracted?”

Evidence of what?” I asked back. “I didn’t see what you’d copied out two days ago, I just hid it in my tunic.”

That’s true,” Louie agreed solemnly, “and it’s not your place to question that.” Then she hiccuped, and took another shot of her brandy. “Shouldn’t be asking questions at all!”

I wasn’t asking questions about that, I just wanted to know more about how Shadow Creep works!” I protested.

She put an unsteady hand on my shoulder and grinned at me. “That’s the spirit, Tommy! Don’ go asking queshtions, not until Prinshe Liberio thinksh yer ready!” Then she giggled, as if she’d told me something particularly funny.

I nodded. “Okay. I’ll get in some more practice before I go to bed, then.”

Louie’s grip on my shoulder tightened. “Can’ have you running off, Tommy. ‘S not safe, not thish late in the . . .”

She trailed off for a moment, then shook her head. “Better to stay here, be shafe.”

But I need to practice,” I protested. “Prince Liberio’s counting on all of us recruits to do our best!”

That made her laugh uproariously, and throw back another shot of her cheap alcohol.

Practishe?” she finally repeated. “Then practishe shneaking off t’ bed, sho I know you aren’t shneaking around like a-”

Whatever she was trying to compare me to apparently escaped her recollection, and a few moments later Louie shook her head. “Help me up!” she demanded. “Have to, get you to-”

Of course, she’s several inches taller than me, so helping her stand up wasn’t easy at all. Not with her leaning so much on me, apparently to keep from falling over as she swayed, trying to get her balance.

Alright, I’m alright,” she finally got out, slurring a bit. “I’m shtanding up!”

Great!” I replied, and tried to pull away a bit.

Except she wasn’t having that. “No running off!” Louie demanded, her arm around me tightening. “You’re shticking wi’ me tonight. Keep you shafe.”

I gulped as she leaned on me a bit more. This was more contact with a woman than I’d ever had, and that includes the ‘how is my only grandchild?’ bearhugs I got from my grandmothers when they visited. Except Louie wasn’t related to me at all, and when she wanted to she could pass for just a few years older than me. (I mean, I’m sure she’s at least thirty, but that poutyface makeup she used to go visit Holder Mellors was pretty convincing.) And now she was demanding that I stay with her tonight.

I can’t practice Shadow Creep while I’m hanging on to anyone!” I protested, my voice cracking a bit.

Yesh you can, shilly boy!” she corrected. “Tell the shadowsh to cover me, and we’ll be able to hide together.”

Oh. So there was a third mode for my new knack (or possibly just extension of Vanish). It occurred to me that maybe she was drunk enough to think I was higher level than I was pretending to be, but when I hit Vanish and directed the shadows to swirl around us both, it did seem to work.

Which meant I got to slowly walk to the bedroll of a woman who was tall enough that my cheeks were about level with her breasts, while she was all but draped over me, and she was demanding that I stay with her. And being very clingy.

Sure, she seemed to be doing that because she was drunk, but I was hoping that it just meant that she was feeling protective towards me. If that’s what was going it, I figured I didn’t mind. It sort of reminded me of how Abby had been concerned about me. (Aside from the Guild Secretary being a lot less clingy!) But the hiding together, the staying the night together, the implication of – gulp! – that maybe happening? Even if I was ready, and I’m not saying I was but I’m not saying I wasn’t, she was still drunk as hell!

Although I did file away the idea of using Shadow Creep to hide a second person with me, even if it meant needing to move at the old slow pace. After all, if you’re sneaking off with a girl to make out with her, once you’ve found a good spot the two of you don’t need to move around all that much. Not if you have a knack that’ll keep you both safely hidden.

But now we’d gone into the little cluster of bedrolls where most of the outlaw women had gathered, I’m guessing for mutual protection. (So probably traps as well? But we didn’t spring any, as Louie maneuvered us to her spot.)

Then I was glad that it was nighttime and she was probably using Darksight, ‘cause when Louie pulled off her dress and stood before me in what looked like this really thin dress I blushed bright red. No, she wasn’t naked, but I could see the outline of most of the curves under her gown.

Take yer tunic of, sho it’ll air out,” she reminded me. Except if I did that I was asking for it!

I should do that at my own bedroll,” I pointed out.

But Louie grabbed me before I could run off. “No eshcapesh!” she insisted. “Can’t go shpeading word . . . shtay here wi’ me an’ we’ll have the besht time . . .”

With that she dropped down to her bedroll, pulling me down with her and pushing my legs out from under me when I tried to resist. Oh, and popping my Vanish. “Shtop fighting me, Tommy. Eashier thish way-”

Shh!” I interrupted, quickly throwing Vanish back up and pulling the shadows over her again. “If anyone noticed that we’ll be in a lot of trouble,” I whispered urgently. “Stay quiet and don’t move!”

Ash long ash you don’ run away again,” Louie whispered back, wrapping both arms around me and holding me close to her. “Here, look a’ me.”

I tilted my head a bit towards her face – I was a few inches ‘higher’ than I’d be if we were standing up, so I was too ‘high’ to moterboat her tits through the dress but not quite eye to eye – and my ‘reward’ was a sloppy open-mouthed kiss.

Which, for my first kiss on the lips that wasn’t from relatives or the result of dares and the certain birthday games, was pretty gross: Her breath smelled like the cheap wine that the brandy she’d been drinking was distilled from. Also, I think she was trying to do French kissing, but I guess she was too drunk to do it right, and I didn’t exactly know how to lead, as it were. So it was more like she slobbered across half my face.

Shh,” I repeated when she pulled back a bit after a few moments. “Let’s stay quiet for just a little while longer.”

See, what I was hoping was, if Louie was drunk enough that she was having a hard time walking, maybe she’d fall asleep and then I could try to get out of there and back to my own bedroll. Or rather, spot in the dirt where I was supposed to curl up, since I didn’t have a sleeping bag yet.

(Which was an argument in favor of staying right where I was, if she did go to sleep quickly enough. It’d be softer, warmer, and cleaner than staying by myself. Besides, once she was sober I’d probably be safe from her again, right?)

The choice was taken out of my hands, though. Louie muttered something that was too slurred for me to make out, then rolled over until she was mostly laying on top of me, before tucking her head on my shoulder and against my neck before starting to snore. There was no way I could get loose without waking her back up, I was pretty sure.

So I did my best to ignore the noise she was making and how her breath smelled, and tried to get to sleep myself.

It took a while.

***

Ugh!”

The moan was just loud enough to bring me to the edge of consciousness, and the sudden disappearance of the weight that had been pressing down on me all night finished the deed.

Did I really drag the kid to my bed?” Louie muttered, sounding slightly appalled. “Silly girl, you’ve got to stop drinking so hard during these fetes.”

There was a quiet sniff. “But at least this one didn’t take advantage after I blacked out,” she continued. “Probably still too young for that.”

She paused again. “Eh, he’ll be fine here. The girls know he’s not a threat by now, they probably won’t hurt him when they wake up. Ugh, I need a drink before Liberio’s meeting.”

I’d intended to interrupt, as least to protest that I hadn’t tried to get laid because she’d been really drunk, not because I couldn’t do the job. Although that would get awkward pretty fast, and don’t people with hangovers dislike too much noise? So I just lay there while she patted my forehead, spread her blanket over me, and headed off.

Then I put Vanish back up again and used Shadow Creep to quickly get myself out of there. If her company knew she was drunk and spent all night sprawled out on top of me, they might decide not to give me the benefit of the doubt. I wasn’t going to risk it, that’s for sure.

Besides, I still needed to practice my new ability, and here was the perfect opportunity to get three things done at once: I’d sneak up on the meeting for practice, I’d get to see Prince Liberio in action, and I’d find out if my knacks had a chance to keep me hidden from higher level outlaws.

So I quickly look a leak and got myself some small beer to wet my throat, and then headed in the direction that Louie had gone to wash up. I managed to catch up with her before she left for her early-morning meeting, and with Shadow Creep up she didn’t even look in my direction.

It seemed to be a meeting of just His Highness and the captains, ‘cause on the way I’d seen Myles still asleep, and I think I might have seen Otto as well. (And if I wasn’t worried about falling behind I’d have been mighty tempted to try to pull another prank on the asshole.) I saw Clifton coming from a slightly different angle, and it looked like there were about a dozen people altogether who converged on the spot that they were headed for, a small glade that wasn’t exactly hidden, but would let them see anyone coming.

Aside from a Footpad who was being very careful to watch for anything that might make noise if he stepped on it, and was being equally careful to stick to the shadows so that Shadow Creep would give him maximum concealment. Didn’t hurt that the sun wasn’t even up, yet. Plenty of shadows for me to work with.

And there, in the middle of the glade, Prince Liberio stood waiting for his captains.

I’d been a little overwhelmed yesterday from his presence, so I don’t know if I could have given a proper description of him. (Aside from his sheer royal presence!) But as the others came up to him I noticed a few details that weren’t overwhelmed by his charisma this time:

He was taller than most of his captains, and probably almost as tall as Myles, although not nearly as broad-shouldered. His hair looked light brown in the moonlight, so maybe dirty blond in better light. A trimmed beard framed his aquiline nose and lent his face royal dignity, as he waited for the gathering to complete.

Have all the conscripts been accounted for?” His Highness asked, once his captains were in a semicircle in front of him.

Various nods and murmurs assured him that this was so. Except-

The little Footpad wasn’t sleeping in his patch, when I checked my company,” Clifton said. “Did anyone have an extra? Or was Otto looking particularly smug? I know he doesn’t get along with the runt.”

You don’t need to worry about Tommy,” Louie reported, amusement clear in her voice. (Obviously she’d found some something for the hangover while I was emptying my bladder.) “He came to me last night with questions about Shadow Creep, so I let him practice by sneaking me off to bed. He was still pinned under me when I woke up, so he’s accounted for. Primula will stop him if he tries to wander off.”

Well, no, she hadn’t. The lieutenant must not have noticed me trapped under her boss when she went to bed. Probably because I’d had Vanish up to avoid having Louie’s company take offense to me ‘taking advantage’ of her while she was passed out!

(Sure, it had probably popped sometime after I went to sleep, but between the snoring and the breath smelling of cheap brandy, that took a little while. Long enough for everyone else to fall asleep first, I guess.)

Isn’t he a little young for you?” Clifton was asking.

Louie snorted. “I was keeping him out of trouble.” By getting me laid, if that drunken attempt at a kiss was anything to go by, but she might not have remembered that part before passing out. “We both had our clothes on when I got up, so if he’s managed to grow up enough he’d probably been dreaming of drunken bandit princesses all night.”

Oh?” Prince Liberio interjected. “And I thought I was the only one he outed as royalty.”

Clifton snickered. “Is that where that’s from? Guess he’s a little softer in the head than I’d have guessed, watching how he stood up to Otto.”

Well, we are the natural leaders of outlaws,” His Highness declared. “And he’s surely never met another Mountebank as high level as myself. Little wonder that he broke so quickly in the face of my Charm: He’s merely a Footpad, after all. Clever, if I read him correctly, and even determined, but little true resilience of mind, especially when taken off guard.”

Prince Liberio then smiled broadly. “And I find I rather fancy a royal title. Once I’m the lord of this region, we shall have to begin crafting the tale of my highborn past and the kingdom that was robbed from me.”

You think we can compete with true nobles, ‘Your Highness’?” one of the other captains asked. “They have their social classes, while we’re still outlaws.”

I sat there, hidden in the shadows from the attention of the gathering of . . . if they were the natural leaders of outlaws, did that mean they were all the same class? I’d figured Louie for something like Con Artist or Grifter. Was Mountebank the same thing?

She’d said that she didn’t want me following her around like a love-sick puppy, and that’s not quite what I had been doing with Prince . . . with Liberio, but I had been struck by sudden hero worship. I’d treated him like he was a prince, because I thought I knew that’s what he had to be, because his presence was so strong.

We were being led by a bunch of con artists, and their boss was using his flavor of bullshit to make us all stupidly loyal to him. It was horrible-!

Or was it? We’d all been doing good work, and the farmers we’d helped hadn’t had anyone to turn to who wouldn’t ignore them or take advantage of their plight. The only people we were looking to screw over were the holders, who were all too happy to profit from the misfortune of their poorer neighbors. Surely they were the real villains?

And if you wanted to do good with a bunch of people who were naturally villains? (Because these outlaw classes sure seemed like they were mostly for cheating, robbing, or hurting other people, even if our knacks could be turned to heroic uses.) If you wanted to get natural villains all lined up and cooperating with each other for the good of other people, you probably needed a lot of mojo to make that happen.

Explains why they were meeting in secret, too. If my reaction to realizing that I’d been whammied by Liberio’s Charm was anything to go by, the other outlaws would end up rioting, and for what I’d usually say was a good reason.

Man, this questline plot twist was seriously cool. Evil methods to make evildoers do good, because rich evildoers were getting away with whatever they wanted, and the designated heroes either didn’t know or didn’t care.

And we weren’t all heroes ourselves, either. After all, we let creeps like Otto stick around, because he was useful to the cause. I didn’t know how Liberio planned to handle him, but the senior Thief had been creeping on Abby and no one seemed to be doing anything about his plan to rape her if he ever got the chance. Maybe he was all talk and no action, but it was still skeevy as hell.

But didn’t someone once say that a lot of nobility got started by being the best warlords? By carving out their own territory in unfriendly lands? Or at least protecting people from invading Huns, Viking, Moors, and so on? Wasn’t this close to being the same thing? The rich were using their power to make themselves stronger and their potential rivals weaker, and Mistleten didn’t seem to care, so weren’t conditions ripe for someone to move in and make things better for everyone?

If the genie had set this up, I had to hand it to him, this twist was making me think.

Except now Louie was speaking, and I realized that I’d been ignoring the reports that the other Mountebanks had been making.

. . . out to be precisely who we needed to collect information from,” she was saying. “Fortunately, that means I didn’t have to go sniffing up to Holder Hosmir.” She paused. “Is there any reason we need to keep him around? That odious twit is far too impressed with his recent inheritance, in my opinion.”

I expect we can arrange for him to take some of the blame for the disruption that our necessary actions will cause,” Liberio told her. “Unless he proves to be a valuable tool, of course.”

He won’t, I’m sure,” she replied. “But as I said, Mellors’ records were exactly what I needed. He keeps track of which farmers might have the drive and imagination to pull themselves out of the cycle of debt the holders like to keep their tenant farmers trapped in. And which of them don’t have children currently living in Mistleten as adventurers.”

Excellent,” her boss declared, his eyes gleaming. “Their neighbors resent them, I assume?”

Holder Mellors thought so,” Louie agreed. “Of course he thought they were being silly. After all, there are so many things that can happen to give a farmer a run of poor luck just before debts are called due!” She giggled. “If they were truly a problem, I’d simply persuade that darling man to deal with them a little sooner for us. He could have almost been a Mountebank himself.”

Wait, the holder had a list of low-class farmers who were to be ruined for having the gall to try to get out of debt? And she liked him for that?

Suddenly, the memory of that drunken kiss she’d tried to give me made me almost want to puke.

Men who are assuredly being frugal with their coin, as they try to rise above their station?” Liberio mused thoughtfully. “Yes, they’ll be resented by those who are less austere. If we arrange it correctly, these upstart farmers will make the perfect scapegoats, and we need to begin teaching our neophyte outlaws that not all farmers are to be trusted or protected.”

We’re doing that already?” Clifton asked. “I thought we’d want to cement their loyalty to you a bit more before we start asking less heroic deeds of them.”

Oh, they’ll not be participating,” came the reply. “Not until the demand for ‘justice’ comes from the very farmers who are so happy with their present efforts. No, we shall allow one problem to take the blame for another, but we must step up our efforts.”

We already have our recruits working all day,” another Mountebank captain protested. “What more do you want?”

Liberio spread his hands. “You know who has been reluctant to support us, in each of your areas. Who is most likely to go bearing tales to Mistleten as the true adventurers return for the summer culling. These are the ones that we must silence as soon as we may. And the list from this Holder Mellors will tell us who we shall arrange to pin the blame on.”

He gave them all a very serious look. “You aren’t to involve your neophytes until it’s time to deal out ‘justice’ against the ‘murderers’, but that identification must come from our allies among the farmers, and it needs to come swiftly. Keep your neophytes busy today, but take your most trusted veterans and lieutenants to see that the job is done properly. And then, when you bear the dreadful news to our ‘allies’, it will be time to unleash your Charm, so that they don’t think to ask inconvenient questions.”

My eyes were wide, and this time not in any admiration for what I’d just heard. You could maybe argue about the morality of acting against people who were going to report you. Informers have been getting punished for snitching for a long time, maybe even all the way back to the dawn of human history. And if they didn’t think they could stand up to the might of Mistleten once it assembled – and yeah, I could totally see the whole setup getting treated like a bonus seasonal event by veteran adventurers – ‘silencing’ farmers who were going to rat them out protected us and the farmers we were helping out.

But it sounded like they were going to kill them and the pin the blame on some people who were unpopular just because they were trying to save money and maybe give their children better lives. These were people that were nearly on the cusp of independence for themselves, and if we decided to be the good fortune they needed we might help them make it all the way!

Instead, we were going to be killing them. That is, we baby outlaws were going to be murdering them, as a way to toughen us up.

And probably make sure there was no lingering hope of ever going back. Set it up right and the Mountebanks could tell us that we were seeing justice done, but if it came to light we’d be charged as murderers. They’d have that hanging over our heads for as long as they needed, until we were too hardened to care that we’d become monsters.

. . . might not even need to kill them all,” one of them was saying.

A sudden bolt of hope shot through me. If there was a case for being merciful, maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked?

Do enough damage to set them back,” he went on cheerfully, “an’ they’ll become our most loyal supporters, if we show ‘em any mercy at all. Just have to make sure they don’t identify those in the mobs coming after ‘em.”

That hope turned immediately to horror.

An excellent notion!” Liberio agreed enthusiastically. “By all means, let us be seen as the hand of mercy where we may. But only so long as these independently-minded tenant farmers are not so foolish that they try to defy our benevolent guidance. So be sure to have fresh reasons for a new bout of mob ‘justice’ should they grow unruly again.”

We might want to take some prisoners alive,” Clifton suggested. “If there’s hope that they might be rescued, that should make the mobs easier to work up. And it’s getting closer to summer, so we might want to start priming our hidey-holes in Lulach and the dungeons that the rest of you have gotten to accept us.”

If you can, yes,” came the authorization, after a moment of thought from their leader. “Summer is approaching, true, but right now it’s most important that we avoid being discovered. No captives unless you’re absolutely able to carry them off without being caught. Veteran Footpad and Poacher partners for that, if you have them.

We’ll need to move fast, and the camp will be waking up soon, so-”

I didn’t pay attention to the rest, because I knew that I had to get out of there before Louie came back and found her bed empty. Thank goodness I’d just gotten Shadow Creep, and had plenty to work with in the gloom of the coming dawn! I wasn’t loud as I moved away, but as soon as I was far enough that I didn’t think I’d be heard over Liberio’s final instructions, I broke into a jog and curved around the bulk of the camp until I was close to where Louie’s followers were.

Primula was already up, carefully tending a sizable pot in a bed of coals, and occasionally looking around. I pulled the shadows around me for maximum concealment, and slowly stepped between sleeping figures until I was back at Louie’s bedroll. I lay down and cautiously rolled underneath the blanket, and closed my eyes as soon as I tucked myself in, breathing slowly and evenly so that I’d seem to be asleep as I let Vanish pop.

***

Is the stew ready?” our Mountebank captain called a little while later, as she approached. “We’ll all need a quick breakfast today, even Tommy.”

Tommy?” her lieutenant repeated in surprise. “He wasn’t bunking with us last night.”

He’s not?!” Louie asked, suddenly sounding alarmed. “I told him not to sneak away-”

She broke off as she (at least I assume it was her, my eyes were still closed) snatched the blanket off of me, and sighed in relief. “Oh. You just didn’t see him there after I left.”

No. I didn’t,” Primula replied flatly. “I could have sworn there was no one there.”

Our boss giggled, and a foot prodded my side. “Tommy? Wake up, boy, you let your Vanish lapse!”

I twitched, and put Vanish back up right away. Sure, they knew I was, but it seemed like Louie thought she knew what was going on, and it seemed like a good idea to go with that.

Don’t hurt me!” I whimpered. “She made me sneak her here for practice, and then wouldn’t let me leave.”

Of course I didn’t!” she agreed cheerfully. “The only way to keep a silly young Footpad safe is to sit on him.”

I opened my eyes, dropped Vanish, and gave her a dirty look. “And I thought you said I wasn’t supposed to hide myself around your girls!”

Louie laughed. “But I told you to do it this time, so everything is fine. Now, come and sit next to me while we have breakfast, so I can make sure you don’t sneak off this morning, either!”

I got up and sat next to her, and she immediately put an arm around me and pulled me in for a close snuggle.

My heart was beating fast: Had someone noticed me after all, when I left from spying on the meeting? I didn’t think so, but if she was playing some sort of game with me-

Then she leaned over to kiss the top of my head, before ruffling my hair fondly. So no, I don’t think she knew I knew, she’d just taken a liking to me and was acting like I was a . . .

I don’t know. A pet? A toy? Was this how big sisters were? Or aunts?

I think I like Abby’s style better. (And not just because Abby wasn’t planning on kidnapping and murder later in the day!) She’s a lot less overwhelming, but also less disturbing. Unless I was being too twitchy ‘cause I wasn’t used to it.

Kinda wish I had aunts and uncles. Maybe then I’d know if a cool aunt is supposed to be more like Abby or Louie.

Murder aside, I mean.

What are we doing today?” I asked. “Am I being your sentry again?” Arguably a dangerous question to ask, ‘cause if she took me up on it there was no way I could sneak off, but I already knew the answer.

No,” Louie replied, ruffling my hair. “I need a more experienced Footpad, so I’ll bring Primula along with me.” She paused. “My girls will be preparing more traps today, I think, so it’ll be best if you go play with your Enforcer friends again today.”

Play?” I repeated, tilting my head to look up at her. “We’re helping people.”

She smirked down at me, and the glint in her eyes made me want to shiver. “Oh, I know, Tommy. You’re all learning to be heroes, and soon I’m sure you’ll have a chance to prove it.”

I nodded quickly and looked back down, so that she wouldn’t see how appalled I suddenly felt. The thought of turning us all into murderers today seemed to more amuse her than anything!

I had to get out of there as soon as I could.

***

Primula was the major problem. She’d caught me going to town once already, so she had to think I wasn’t going to do it again. Not that I had any reason to, but she’d seemed suspicious about me suddenly showing up in Louie’s bed. If anyone was going to keep track of me, it would be her.

Except she was leaving on the expedition to kidnap and murder troublesome farms (and pin the blame for it on other troublesome farmers!), so all I had to do was stall until they both left. So I played up the part of the shy foundling pet, cuddling up and enjoying my breakfast, and using my small size to cadge seconds so that it’d take me longer to eat.

Louie laughingly indulged me, but eventually told me to finish up quickly, because she needed to be off soon. And once they were gone I turned to Maude.

I guess I should be going now. Uh, are there any new traps I should avoid?”

She shook her head. “No, not yet, but we need to hurry back to camp so that we can make the new traps Miss Louie wants. And before some of the men notice we’re a bit light on protection.”

Okay!” I nodded, polished off the last bit of stew, and stood up. “I guess I’ll see everyone tonight, then.”

I made my way over to where Andre, Cecil, and the other baby Enforcers were, while I went over the lie I was going to tell them. It’d be easier if Clifton was already gone, and hopefully Myles as well, so I put Vanish up as I approached and made sure the captain and his lieutenants had already left before making myself known.

(Which was a little funny, when I let Vanish pop and half the guys there jumped at me appearing out of nowhere.)

Louie says I should tell you, she wants me to stick with her company today, so I can watch for trouble and give them a little extra warning,” I said. “So I guess you all get to quest without me.”

Andre rolled his eyes. “Figures. We figured they were plannin’ somethin’ today, but Clifton got back from that early meetin’ an’ suddenly all the Poachers an’ Footpads with at least a handful of levels are pulled out of the line.”

We don’t even know who’ll be leadin’ us today!” one of the others complained. “Clifton’s already off, an’ just one of ‘is lieutenants left to watch us-”

You lot, yer Myles’ group, eh?” a grizzled man demanded as he stomped up to us.

That’s right, Rowland,” Cecil told him. “All here, but Tommy says he can’t stay.”

Oh? What is it now?” the veteran outland demanded, glaring at me.

Louie wants me to help keep an eye on her camp,” I said, repeating my lie. “Since she’s taking all her experienced Footpads, and it won’t be as safe for her girls as she likes.”

He rolled his eyes. “Of course that bint’s rogering this up for us. I should go with you an-”

Uh, they’re making new traps today,” I quickly interjected. “That might be a bad idea.”

Rowland’s scowl deepened. “Her whores don’t hunt, don’t quest, an’ she puts on like they’re doin’ their part when they won’t even spread for-!”

He broke off with a snarl. “Fine, but you tell her that tomorrow there’ll be words had! I’ll send this straight to Prince Liberio if she don’t start playin’ nicer wi’ th’ rest of us!”

I nodded and made a quick escape.

***

So now the women’s camp thought I was with Myles’s bunch of newb Enforcers (although I guess they were Rowland’s bunch today), and Rowland thought I was going to be with a bunch of women who were feeling less secure than usual. Which mean quicker to escalate on the countermeasures.

Unless something went horribly wrong, it should be a day or so before anyone noticed that I was AWOL.

And I had a lot less than a day to do something before innocent people were murdered.

So as soon as I was far enough away, I put Vanish up, told it to cover me, and headed for the road. I kept listening, ‘cause the worst possible thing that could happen was for someone to notice and follow me. But all the experienced Footpads were busy, and the veterans who’d been left behind were busy trying to put together questing groups with no scouting classes to go around, so I figured I’d probably gotten away clean.

And if I was wrong, I’d know soon enough, when I was cut down on the road for trying to make a break for Mistleten.

***

Part of me wanted to sprint all the way there, but my invisible stamina bar wasn’t going to let me do that. A jog, I could manage. Maybe a little faster than I should have gone, but I kept repeating to myself that innocent people were going to die if I didn’t get to Abby in time.

I still had to slow down to a walk about a mile out from the city walls, panting and sweating, with my heart going faster than I could ever remember. I just couldn’t keep running, not without a breather. I let myself have about five minutes at a walk, and then tried to jog the rest of the way.

Then the walls were coming up, so I could send a guard for-

Aw, shit!

Primula had been visiting contacts in Mistleten. If I showed up, and if they made a fuss about the missing child being found, those contacts might get the word out before I could get Abby to take action. That couldn’t possibly turn out well for us.

Which meant I had to sneak in and get to her office before anyone else saw me. Heh. I had the best possible tool for that, and it’d been the outlaws who’d forced it on me.

Except the guards looked more alert than usual, as I approached under the cover of Vanish. I’d need to tell it to hide me especially well, and creep in slowly so they had the least chance to notice me there.

Which could mean the difference between someone dying and getting there in time to save them. So no. I put myself in the shadow of the gate, wrapped the shadow around me, and moved as quickly as I dared.

Hey, what’s that-!” one of the guards said, but I didn’t slow down. I was committed, I couldn’t let anyone stop me, I just had to get to the closest street and I’d have more shadows to work with-

And I made it, despite the guards cursing behind me. I don’t know what they thought they were chasing – they didn’t yell at me to stop, so I guess Vanish gave me at least a little cover – but once I was around a corner I darted to the next intersection and turned again, and then again.

Do we raise the alarm?” I heard one say, sounding disgusted.

No, everyone’s already on edge after those three disappeared. If they turn out for a false alarm . . . no. But go spread the word to the other gates, so they know to stay extra alert.”

Oh. Oh, yes, it had only been a few days since Myles and Andre and I had all gone missing. With the pace of questing we’d done, it’d almost felt longer than that. But maybe Abby was still holding out hope for us turning up alive?

(I hoped so. It made my eyes prickle to think that she might believe we were dead.)

***

The guildhall was empty as usual for the morning, with everyone off doing construction make-work, so I might not have even needed Vanish to slip inside unnoticed. At least until I got to the Secretary General’s office.

She was sitting there with a map spread out on her desk, and little statues – I’d call them meeples if this was back on Earth – had been put on top of the drawings of caves around the town. It looked like three of them were about where Gilander had showed me the dungeons where, that I’d visited. Her eyes were, well, it looked like she hadn’t gotten as much sleep as she should have, the last few nights.

Abby?” I asked, softly, as I dropped my Vanish.

Not now, Tommy,” she told me, shaking her head wearily. “I have to-”

She broke off and looked up, eyes wide and incredulous, and I gave her a weak smile and a little wave.

Half a second later I was being crushed against her chest. Speaking of overwhelming. (But I still think I’d prefer her over Louie, even leaving aside that the bandit princess was happily heading off for some murder, kidnapping, and pinning the blame on more innocent victims.) I’m looking forward to getting strength buffs from leveling up, ‘cause until I could she was going to smother me.

But then Abby pulled away, just far enough to give me a good shake as she glared at me. “Where have you been, young man! We’ve been worried sick about you, and as best we can tell your two friends went haring off after whatever foolishness you’d-!”

She broke off as she looked me up and down. “You’d gotten your tunic burned and torn up?! What have you been getting yourself into, Tommy!?”

I looked up at her helplessly. I’m not a little kid, dammit, I’m not-!

But my eyes were prickling up again, and what had I gotten myself into, and this time I was the one holding her tight as I tried to blink the tears away.

They’re going to die!” I wailed. “This isn’t a game, and they’re all going to die if we don’t save them!”

A game-?” Abby repeated, but she quickly went on. “Who is going to die, Tommy? Did Andre and Myles get into trouble, when they went after you? How far away are they? We need to know where to go looking before we can do anything to rescue them.”

Yeah, a game. How I’d been treating this all along. Even after almost getting my back melted off by magical dire spiders, getting burned by fireflies, having a fight in the dark with those two goblin-things that got spawned like this was a video-game and then dissolved like mobs when I beat them . . .

Was that why I didn’t-

Tommy!” Abby shouted, shaking me again. “Focus! We need to know where-”

Right at that moment, Eamon and three guards burst into the office. “Secretary General, we’ve found traces of an outlaw knack used to infiltrate Mistleten!” he stated in urgent interruption. “And the trail lead us straight to this office-”

He broke off and stared at me. “When did your foundling-?” Then broke off again, eyebrows rising.

I cringed, and there was no possible way that Abby missed it.

An outlaw knack?” she repeated, her expression turning extremely serious as my face went pale. “Tommy, what have you done?”

 

Continue to Part X?

Choosing the Blade, Part VIII

This is from a work in progress. When I finish it, it’ll hopefully go up on Amazon shortly thereafter. In the meantime, tell me how I can make it suck less.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

You’ll do for an errand boy, I suppose,” my new boss told me, when she inspected me before lunch. “I’ll be putting you to use this afternoon, I think.”

Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “What do you need me to deliver?”

Nothing,” Louie told me, raising one eyebrow elegantly. “You’re a Footpad, so of course I’ll need you to Vanish.”

I frowned in confusion. “Ma’am, I may not be a complete idiot, but I’m missing something.”

Oh?” She paused. “I’ll be calling on a recent acquaintance of mine, a Holder Mellors. He seems quite taken with me, although his wife isn’t quite so happy to have my company.”

Which I could understand. Louie’s outfit was as elegant as her expression, and she’d done something that I swear made her eyes look twice as big as they’d been when she got up that morning, while her lips were . . . I think they’re called ‘rosebud’ lips? Where they look like she’s either pouting or getting ready to kiss you? Anyway, she looked sweet and charming, and probably didn’t even need her bullshit hax power to wrap men around her finger.

You,” Louie went on, “will be looking out for the good Holder or his wife, when I contrive to slip away from him to search his study. Vanish will allow you to hide in what ought to be plain sight, and give me a few more moments of warning than I might otherwise enjoy.”

Oh.” It made sense, except- “That didn’t go too well when Otto had me do the same thing. I mean, he got away, but I didn’t get any warning when he did.”

You’d have gotten one if he’d wanted you to,” she assured me. “I told you, that man’s scum, even for us outlaws. And we’ll be going over the codes you’ll need to know. I expect you to have them memorized before the end of luncheon.”

I gulped. Memorizing stuff? But this was for a mission, so maybe I could treat it like a raid pattern?

***

I sort of had them memorized by the end of lunch. Barely enough to satisfy Louie, at least as long as I stuck with it while we traveled.

I half expected her to pull a carriage out from somewhere for us to ride in, but after we were done eating and washed up, we started walking. Still haven’t seen horses getting used. Even the farmers, from what I’d seen, used bulls instead. Hopefully I’d get some fast travel knacks sooner or later, but at least for now I was glad to have the extra time to get my ‘homework’ done.

Anyway, once I had the phrases and handsigns memorized to her satisfaction, we picked up the pace and made it to the Holder’s plantation while it was still early afternoon. His men were working the fields, leaving Holder Mellors to greet us himself. Which, by the way his face lit up when he saw my new boss, wasn’t something he minded at all.

Lillias!” the man called happily, before rushing over to give her a welcoming hug. “It’s wonderful to see you! Although I regret to inform you that Rosalin departed this morning to visit her sister.”

Did she?” replied Louie in a breathy voice. “Oh, that’s so disappointing! I was hoping for the chance to spend more time with her, and get to know her better. However shall I keep myself occupied?”

I might have an idea or two,” Mellors told her with a sly wink as he led us towards his manor. “It’s a bit late for luncheon, but may I offer you and your boy some refreshment?”

That sounds lovely!”

Which was how I ended up getting to sample the local version of afternoon tea. (Not that I know how it’s done in England.) It was watered wine and little cakes, so at least the Holders weren’t hoarding the secret of tea or coffee from the rest of the locals. The cakes were quite a bit sweeter than anything I’d had since showing up, so I guess sugar is still a luxury around here. In any event, I didn’t actually get to sit down with the two: I was the one bringing them food from the kitchen, and it wasn’t until they were served and I was told that was all that the cook then gave me some cakes of my own to eat. Along with a mutter about a growing boy needing to eat all the time, and better to be given something than be tempted to filch.

By the time I got back, though, my boss and her mark had left the little dining room, and I didn’t know where to go. Except I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew exactly what Holder Mellors was hoping would happen while his wife was away. A suspicion that was confirmed when I found the bedchamber they’d relocated to.

I didn’t think it was the kind of information that Louie had been after, but I Vanished and took up position as she’d told me, watching for people coming by who might have to take notice of what their employer was up to.

(Would they care? Maybe not. Would they tell his wife? I dunno, and you hear all sorts of stories about rich couples having quiet ‘understandings’ about ‘friends’ visiting. But just in case, there I was.)

They took longer than I expected, though. And, uh, Louie got a bit noisy. So when she finally came of the bedchamber, with a pleased grin, a tousled look, and a saunter that kinda drew the eye to her hips, I was blushing bright red.

It’s always a pleasant surprise when a powerful man proves to know his way with women,” she told me with a grin that did not help! “Did you learn anything?”

I was watching for servants coming along, not peeking inside at you two,” I muttered, blushing even harder. “Didn’t expect it to take so much time.”

Then take that as your lesson: If she isn’t repulsed by you, a woman appreciates it when you take longer with her.” Louie then yawned and stretched up on her toes, and when she came back down she was suddenly all business. “It’s also a bad idea to fall asleep just after entertaining company. You never know what they could get up to while you nap.”

We’re still going to be doing that?” I asked, just to make sure. “You didn’t use up too much time with him?”

I expected it to take twice as long, merely to mollify his wife,” she told me. “This is the kind of fortune you can never count on having: He’s asleep, his wife is out, and since this is a working farm those who who aren’t out in the fields will be occupied in the kitchen preparing supper for all. I shall be able to be thorough this afternoon.”

She led me to his study, showed me where I was to take up position and Vanish, and went inside.

***

My vigil as her sentry proved fairly quiet: A servant came by only twice, and neither time made to approach the study. I kinda wondered why no one was concerned about their boss’s guest disappearing, but the second time the servant showed up she muttered something about hoping the master and his guests stayed asleep until supper, so that they’d only have to air out one room.

Well, that definitely answered the question of whether the servants knew what was up with our respective bosses. (Except for the cringing thought that they assumed I’d been involved!) And it also explained why they weren’t on the lookout for Louie: She hadn’t left a trail of sex stink from the little bedchamber to the study, so everyone thought we were still there.

Which raised the question of why she didn’t smell like she’d gotten laid and thoroughly enjoyed herself, but the answer there seemed pretty obvious after I thought about it: Some bullshit con artist knack, maybe to put on a disguise really quickly.

Once I realized that, and that we were pretty likely to get away with the mission, it actually got boring. I mean, that’s a good thing for a stealth mission, ‘cause I don’t think the real world resets alertness and aggro very quickly, but I could have used something to do to pass the time.

But eventually, there was a soft knock on the wall behind me, in a pattern that Louie had taught me earlier.

Keep these in your tunic,” she said, handing over some papers filled with writing. “Now, lead the way back to Mellors, but carefully. He’ll be waking up soon, and it’s best if everything thinks I’ve been by his side the entire time.”

I almost got lost once, but Vanish made it easy to check around corners, and we got back to the bedchamber without anyone seeming to notice. Whereupon Louie stretched up on her tiptoes again, and when she came down once more she was suddenly disheveled and looking – and smelling – well-bedded once more.

Use of bullshit confirmed.

Then I froze up as she grabbed me and gave me a bear-hug. Which was kinda nice, but I had no idea how I was supposed to respond.

There,” she said, releasing me and stepping back. “Now you’ll smell enough like my recent activities that everyone will believe you’ve been close at hand the entire time.”

I’m just glad she wasn’t looking back to see me blushing again as she disappeared into the bedchamber.

***

Once he woke up, Holder Mellors pressed Louie to stay for supper after they washed up, although it didn’t take much convincing. I ended up getting scraps, but there were quite a bit more of those than the term suggests. Wouldn’t surprise me if the cook had done that deliberately, but I didn’t ask.

Gotta say, these people were surprisingly nice, compared to how everyone had been badmouthing holders. Was that just Mellors being an exception to usual holder attitudes? Maybe. But now I wanted to see what Privett’s household was like.

The holder offered to let us stay the night, although he warned that his wife was likely to return that evening or the next morning. Well, technically he encouraged us to stay in order for ‘Lillias’ to make up for the missed chance to visit with Rosalin, but after their bouncy-bouncy that afternoon I’m pretty sure he was hoping we’d leave, despite the deepening shadows.

Which we did. And once we were out of sight of the manor, Louie did another knack-powered shift and we started jogging back to camp. Made it most of the way, too, before I had to stop and catch my breath. Could not have managed that when I first showed up. Probably wouldn’t have gotten in shape so quickly without the bracelet to heal me up each night those first couple of weeks.

Why didn’t I do jogging back on Earth? It’s not a team sport, you can at least listen to music if you’ve got a good set of earbuds, and it would have made things a lot easier on me once I got here.

Well, anyway, Darksight meant it wasn’t a problem once the sun set. So we made it back to the women’s camp just fine.

Well done, Tommy,” Louie told me as I fished out the papers she’d handed to me to keep for her. “That was easier than I expected, but you didn’t make any serious mistakes on your end. Feel free to do as you please for the evening, although of course you’ll find yourself in difficult circumstances if you use Vanish to spy on anyone.”

I haven’t forgotten that,” I replied. Then I recalled parts of sex-ed, and how that went together with what she’d been doing with Holder Mellors, and it wasn’t hard to bring a blush back to my cheeks. “Uh, is it okay if I take a walk for a while? I-I think I need to clear my head.”

She looked at me for a moment, then smirked. “Still worked up about that? Are you sure you didn’t peek while I was distracted?”

I’m sure!” I yelped, my cheeks growing even hotter. “But you were . . . noisy.”

A man of rare talent deserves to know he’s appreciated.” Louie giggled. “Why, I might even keep him by my side, after all this business of hiding in the woods is over with.”

Can I please go for that walk now?” I croaked.

She giggled again, then waved her hand in dismissal. “Go, go. Clear your head as much as you need to, just find a stream to wash up in before you come back.”

***

I’d like to think that it’s obvious what I did next: As soon as I was confident that I was away from any possible traps, I headed for the main road and from there I started jogging towards Mistleten.

It was already night, so by the time I got there just about everyone should be asleep aside from those on watch. I’d have to sneak past them, but that’s what Vanish was for, right?

The only problem there turned out to be how slowly I have to move to keep Vanish from popping. I got as close to the gate as I could before I’d have to come out in the open, but it still felt like it took me a good half-hour to cross the rest of the way while avoiding the attention of an admittedly very bored guard. I guess the disappearance of Andre, Myles, and myself hadn’t been any great cause for alarm.

The thought stung, and I found myself wondering if that was true professionally, or if Abby still cared enough about me to worry personally. I didn’t want her to worry, but the thought that maybe she didn’t felt pretty bad too. But I couldn’t go to her home and explain everything, not unless I wanted to blow the bandits wide open right away. And maybe I should have, but dammit they were getting quests done and Mistleten’s adventurers weren’t!

The guildhouse was dark as ever during the nighttime, almost everyone sleeping there passed out in a drunken stupor. Which at least made it easy to get by and over to the room where the Class Stone was.

But once there, I hesitated. This was the moment of truth, as it were: Was I still a Jack like I’d been counting on, or was I in truth the Footpad whose knacks I’d gained?

But the longer I hesitated the more likely it was that someone would wake up and maybe notice me, so I took a deep breath and put my hand on the Class Stone.

Thomas Norten

Level Three

Level Two Jack

Jack Warrior Magician Scout

The line declaring that I was still a Jack, that Clifton’s ritual hadn’t crowded out the least of the adventuring classes, made me sag in relief. I could still come back! (If I needed to, that is.)

But the proof that I’d leveled – which wasn’t much of a surprise, gathering fireflies had been getting me slow xp, and over the last couple of days I’d been part of four different quests – made me feel relieved all over again for a slightly different reason. This Liberio and his lieutenants probably knew exactly how much questing they needed to send their new minions on before leveling, and we had to be pretty close to the limit. Which probably meant another round of initiation, since leveling up in town required the Class Stone.

If I had a free level when that happened, I might pick up an outlaw class for real. But here I could take a third level in Jack and then hopefully I’d be able to pick up whatever a second level Footpad got from leveling up.

So I suited deed to intent and started sneaking back outside the guildhall.

And right after I got outside and around the corner, my heart just about stopped when someone grabbed the scruff of my neck and dragged me into the shadows.

What did you think you were doing in there, little boy?!” Primula hissed, as I found myself face-to-cowl with her. Face-to-dagger, too.

I-” My mind blanked, as I stared at the sharp point just a few inches away.

Thinkin’ to run t’ town, were you?! Give us up, try to buy clemency?!”

N-no!” I protested. “Have you been shadowing me ever since Louie let me go?”

She let you go,” the cloaked bandit repeated flatly, lowing her hood to glare at me.

Well, not to go here,” I admitted. “She was doing her thing with Holder Mellors, and even when it got noisy I didn’t peek, but when she came out she was-”

Strutting like a cat who’d just caught her canary,” Primula finished for me, nodding. “Yes, I know how she is if she ruts with a mark who knows his way around the bed.” Then her grip tightened and the point of her dagger got a couple of inches closer. “But what does that have to do with sneaking into Mistleten?”

She said, since I was still flustered, I could take a walk instead of coming into camp with her!” I quickly hissed.

The bandit snorted. “I suppose you’re young enough, at that. But Mistleten?”

I-” I broke off, gulping, as I eyed the point of the dagger. “When Clifton initiated me, it wasn’t anything like how it works with the Class Stone. I just wanted to know if I am really a Footpad.”

Her grip eased a bit. “You’re one of the ones Myles brought from here? Yeah, if Clifton knows his business he’ll have crushed your old class right out to make room for the new. So you wanted to see if that’s the case?”

Y-yeah,” I agreed. “His way didn’t let me look at anything for myself. Does his boss have a better setup for that?”

Primula let me and sheathed her dagger. “Not likely,” she told me, shaking her head. “That kind of arcania is expensive. It’s why we do things the way we do, it’s much easier our way.” She paused. “Anyone could have told you that you wouldn’t have Vanish unless you were a proper Footpad, but I reckon you might doubt us a bit, since we say you can’t go back an’ all. Convinced now?”

I nodded. “I wasn’t sure until I saw what the Class Stone said, but now . . . now I know, I suppose.” Or at least I had a little more time to decide what to do. But if I had to keep sneaking into town to level up properly, I’d get caught sooner or later.

Hell, I’d been caught already. It’s just that she thought she knew what was going on and she didn’t, quite.

So what were you doing in town?” I asked as we started slinking through the shadows towards the gate.

Seein’ to some as we deal with in these walls, who fancy themselves clever ‘cause they’ll deal with you when others won’t.” Primula spat. “Handy, but have a care not to trust that sort. Take your coin in one breath and turn you over to the guard the next, if they reckon they can manage it.”

I nodded.

An’ to see if there’d been any hue and cry raised when Myles disappeared with you lot. Knows his business, he does, but best to be sure.” She gave me a sly smile before putting her hood back up. “Seems like you all got away clean. Just a few more adventurers silly enough to risk themselves before the rush, who paid the price for it.”

I flinched. That’s almost exactly what had happened to me, although I was trying to keep my options open for at least a little while longer. But even so, it hurt to think that Abby had cared so little about me that she’d shrugged and gone back to work without even trying to recover my body.

I’ll not go bearin’ tales to Louie, this once,” Primula continued. “Surely hasn’t been what you expected, so I can see needin’ to confirm it ‘fore you throw your lot in with us completely. We’ll jes’ say I ran into you on my way back, and decided you’d had enough time walking it off.”

The rude gesture she employed wasn’t any I’d seen on Earth, but the meaning was clear, and I blushed bright red once more.

You ain’t-?” she started, but broke off as we arrived about as close to the gate as we dared get. “Can you creep past with Vanish?” she whispered.

If I’m careful,” I whispered back.

Be careful, then. Don’t want to get caught in town with outlaw classes.”

I know, I know,” I told her, before firing up my knack and setting out.

The trick was to have enough shadows available that I could make sure Vanish was still up whenever the single guard by the gate looked around out of boredom. And then get to another likely patch before he got bored again.

As stealth sections go, doing it the second time wasn’t that hard.

Primula rejoined me once I was through the gate and ducked to the side enough to put the wall between me and the guard. But she waited until we were a good distance away before she smirked. “Ain’t ever, have you? Not surprised, young as you are. Louie’ll figure you jes’ needed th’ extra time to figure out how to get along with yourself.”

My blush was back. “Could you not tease me about that?” Already knew I’d need to grow and level a bunch before I had a chance with anyone, especially an adventuress. Who were more fit than civilians, so were closer to how we decide what’s pretty back on Earth. So yeah, I’d probably be looking to adventuresses, once I was old enough.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t get frustrated here and now!

Primula snorted. “If you don’t learn to stop blushing at every little thing, you won’t last. Hell, if you were older Louie’d be thinkin’ ‘bout takin’ you to her bed for a few nights, ‘till you could keep a clear head no matter what.”

My eyes widened. Disguise or not, the head of the women’s camp had a rather pretty face, and her figure was nothing to sneer at. “You think she might?” And surely she’d know what was good to do in bed and what was silly rumor, out of all the lore that got whispered between the grades when teachers weren’t paying attention.

Pshwa! An’ you not even closin’ in on fourteen? I’d say wait a year or two, but by then you’ll find some sweet farmer’s daughter lookin’ to offer you a hero’s reward. We’ll all have earned ourselves some respectability, by then.”

My mind immediately went to Cecil’s little sister, who’d kissed me (if only on the cheek) just for being there and being part of the party who were helping their father out. My escort was probably right about me getting laid sooner or later.

Still, I gotta admit that I though about admitting that I was already fifteen-and-a-half (or nearly!), as we walked back to the ladies’ camp. Decided not to, ‘cause no one who saw me thought I was my actual age, so why would they believe me now?

And, okay, the thought that Louie might drag me to bed anyway – on the grounds that if I was going to claim to be old enough I obviously needed to learn to ‘keep a clear head’ right away – was actually a little scary. I don’t know why, ‘cause she was a perfect fit for the Hot Older Woman fantasy. Still, it felt like I ought to run away if it looked like it might happen.

***

Myles showed up the next morning as I was having breakfast.

The runt available?” he grunted. “Got a quest, could use a Footpad’s help.”

Louie gave him an amused smile. “I thought you were leaving him with me because he couldn’t stay with you silly men.”

The Enforcer snorted. “You know I’ve little love for Otto, even if I ain’t got th’ grudge some o’ your lasses have. Man’s tightfisted ‘bout ‘is Poachers, too. Could use one o’ them more, but Tommy will do well enough.”

I’ve an appointment to visit my dear friend Holder Mellors this afternoon, so I’ll expect you to return my errand boy to me unharmed, Myles.”

Won’t be a problem,” he grunted. “‘Less the boy mucks it up.”

***

If you’ve been wondering when we’d ever get to face giant rats?

Well, keep wondering. For all I know they were hunted to extinction by eager adventurers generations ago. This time it was pigs, and Myles told me that it was more important than ever to keep my Vanish up.

For pigs? Little piggie-wiggie waddling bundles of bacon?

Oh, hell no. The daddy ‘pigs’ were half-ton deathbeasts spawned directly from Hell itself, ‘cause there’s no way they could get that size naturally.

(Except according to the farmer we were taking the quest from, they were just normal feral hogs. Bullshit!)

Anyway, the farmers tended to have fences good enough to keep pigs in most of the time, so the feral hogs hadn’t been their highest priority. But this spring they’d gotten into the marshes with all of their piglets, and were tearing up the banks.

My job was to find them without spooking them. A Poacher could do it easily, but I was going to need to Vanish and creep around so that I could find them.

***

I did not get back to camp in time to escort Louie to her next booty call with Holder Mellors. Maybe a Poacher could have gotten the job done by lunchtime, but feral hogs don’t cooperate when you’re trying to clear ‘em out. Fortunately, I could put Vanish up whenever one of them decided I was the problem that needed clearing. Just like Myles had warned me to.

In fact, that’s how we ended up handling a lot of them. I pulled, I Vanished to drop aggro, the hogs ran past me looking for the source of irritation, and the Enforcers went to work as soon as they entered the killbox. Only three of Myles’ minions were seriously injured throughout the day, and he promised that they’d all recover completely.

Still had me about ready to throw up, when one of them got gored. Games leave out those kinds of injuries for good reason, but we don’t have hit points to take damage for us, and it turns out that hogs are pretty mean when fighting.

Hangin’ in there, runt?” our team leader asked me, after the latest pull was beaten down and our casualties were disinfected (from a flask of hard booze he’d been carrying for just that event) and bandaged up.

I-” I threw my hands over my mouth as my stomach tried to rebel again. “They were just a moment late attacking it, and it-”

Yeah, that’s hogs for you. Mean critters, ‘bout as mean as they come ‘round these parts as didn’t wander out o’ th’ Grimwust. Can’t give ‘em a heartbeat, or they’ll turn on you in a snap.” Myles nodded grimly. “They’ll know not to wait like that again.”

I winced. “Isn’t there anything we could do to make this safer?”

Safer?” He shrugged. “Aye, quite a bit. But it’d all take time, an’ that’s not somethin’ we have much of, see?” He paused for a moment. “Probably thinkin’ how Mistleten has things, aye? No one takes their chances ‘till the stronger adventurers come by t’ keep ‘em safe. Can’t afford t’ wait like that, not if we’re hopin’ t’ do these farmers any good.”

But now your minions are starting to get hurt. What happens when you run out of them?”

We won’t, don’t worry ‘bout that,” Myles assured me. “Ain’t found a god-talker we can trust, most of ‘em as would deal with us outlaws truck with darker powers, but we got healers of our own, aye? Th’ lad’s will be walkin’ around in a few days. Mebbe a bit longer than they would in Mistleten, but they’ll not be left t’ fester an’ rot on their own. Liberio planned better than that, y’ can be sure!”

I nodded. It lined up with what I’d been thinking, more or less. Going out and adventuring did mean risk, that was obvious. And real life is like an ironman run, with no saves to revert to if you die, which is a big part of why the adventurers at Mistleten didn’t go adventuring without someone higher level to keep an eye on them. Hell, Myles was doing the same thing with us, even if I’m pretty sure he wasn’t that much higher level than we were.

But adventuring is risk, even if the risk is a lot higher in real life. And if you want to level you have to get that experience, even if it might hurt you. Or kill you.

Was that the problem with towns built around adventuring? That most people didn’t really want this kind of life, they were just pushed into it by society? Or drafted into it, if we were talking about the new outlaws that Clifton and the others had conscripted into this. But soldiers get time to learn, and I’ve heard military people claim that boot camp is more about training your mind to be a soldier than teaching you the basic skills.

That’s something we hadn’t gotten. My training in Mistleten had been mostly on my own initiative, even if Abby had started pushing me harder after the spiders. Seeing people get hurt for real wasn’t something I’d been ready for. Spiders and moles and mini-raptors weren’t the same, by a long shot.

Are there smart monsters we’re going to fight?” I asked. “This was . . . it’s not easy to watch someone get hurt. But don’t we need to know how to fight other people?”

Y’ do, aye,” Myle agreed soberly. “But there’s little such as that in these parts, as don’t live in the Grimwust. Goblins an’ th’ like, they know they’d face a swift end ‘round here. Th’ town would respond, aye? They’d have to, else they couldn’t pretend t’ be protectin’ the hinterlands. ‘Cept the monsters what can think have stayed away for longer than livin’ memory, an’ Mistleten’s grown complacent. Wouldn’t be here to try our luck, if there weren’t need for outlaws like us to play at bein’ heroes.”

I nodded again.

But don’t worry, fightin’ monsters is almost as good as stickin’ a man for bloodin’ you lot. Now, get back out there an’ find us th’ next hog, while I line these layabouts up again!”

***

We were all filthy, and the sun was starting to go down, by the time I couldn’t find any more feral pigs to pull towards the rest of the party. It was bad enough that I hopped into the closest pond that looked clean enough, and figured I’d just let my clothing drip-dry that evening.

The farmer that we were helping had grabbed the first hog we’d killed, and promised to turn it into a feast once we finished. He hadn’t sent over anything for lunch (I’m guessing wild meat takes a while to cook), so we were all pretty hungry.

Feral hogs taste pretty good, if you know how to prepare them! I hadn’t expected that to be true, but the meat we got had a lot more flavor to it than burgers or pork chops back on Earth. And then, once we’d stuffed ourselves, we got loaded down with as much meat as we could carry to take back to our respective camps. Some from that first hog, and a lot more from our second kill.

(That second kill had been smoked, and it looked like a lot of it was still being smoked when we left. I guess we got the parts that could be smoked quickly? I don’t know how that works.)

Anyway, it was a lot of meat, and I got extra portions to carry for Louie’s camp. Just glad I’d been exercising, ‘cause it was enough to make me stagger. No way I could have handled it when I first showed up.

The women’s camp was happy to get their delivery, at least. Everyone had already had supper, but they were throwing cooking ideas around as I slipped off to wash up again and then collapse into bed. Maybe I hadn’t done much fighting, exactly, but it’d been a busy day.

***

Hey, brat! Wake up and get dressed!”

It was Primula. And also a lot earlier than I’d had to wake up yesterday morning.

What’s going on?” I asked blearily.

Liberio’s coming,” she told me. “Heard from Louie he was takin’ a look at the new outlaws, and since you’re here he’s coming early to get a look at you an’ not be late to the rest.”

Liberio. The mysterious bandit lord who’d organized all this. Coming to inspect me, personally. Time to panic.

Except she dragged me off to wash up before I could really get started. I still wasn’t used to washing up in a camp full of women, but at least they weren’t freaking out about me. Another good reason for them to think I was younger, I guess. Even so, I rinsed myself off as quickly as I could so that I could put my clothes back on.

Such as they were.

And then Primula hustled me over to Louie’s chamber, and I didn’t know if he was the good guy after all so I didn’t know how I was supposed to react-

Like the President had appeared out of nowhere just to say hello. I don’t know how he did it, but it was like waves of sheer presence were coming off him. I wanted to kneel, I wanted to put my hand over my heart, I wanted to salute, I wanted . . .

Was it any wonder, I thought vaguely, that in a world of magic, the royalty would have ways of making you know it? Mistleten may have thought me an exiled noble’s son, raised in sheltered luxury, but surely here was an exiled prince, looking after the lowly and helpless any way he could!

Well, if his reaction is anything to go by, you won’t have any trouble with the new recruits,” Louie comments, amusement clear in her voice.

No trouble,” I agreed, still feeling dazed. “Your Highness, it’s an honor to meet you!”

Prince Liberio laughed. It was amazing to think that I’d managed to saying anything funny, and completely by accident, but I could tell his amusement was genuine. And he wasn’t mocking, either. His laughter was like warm sun in early spring.

The honor is mine,” he replied warmly. “I’ve heard the reports, Tom, how you’ve accepted the risks of a hero in order to do the quests that needed to be done now, and not put off until summer. Even as a novice, even though there is much that you still have to learn, you’ve surely been an example to your fellow recruits.”

Thank you, sir!” I choked out, feeling overcome by the praise.

And I understand that you’re nearly ready to level,” Prince Liberio went on. “My lady, do you have need of him today? I was thinking that if he works with Lieutenant Myles again, they should all be ready tonight.”

Today will be a day for maintaining my acquaintances,” Louie replied, “but my company will have use for him once he’s leveled. So by all means, take him away today!”

Excellent.” Prince Liberio kissed her knuckles and murmured something that had her laughing softly. Then he turned to me. “Is there anything you need to collect before we depart, Tom?”

I shook my head. “I’m wearing everything I own, Your Highness.”

Appropriate to our present circumstances,” he commented. “Then let us be off!”

***

I didn’t realize what ‘being off’ meant until we were down on the ground and out of the trees.

Then Prince Liberio crouched down. “You won’t have any travel knacks yet, of course, so climb on my back and we’ll be off.”

My eyes widened in shock. “S-sir?” To think that he was lowering himself to carry a nobody like me-!

Come now, lad! This isn’t a time for the kind of formalities that stewards and secretaries love so dearly. I’ve many camps to visit, and we’ll make much better time at my pace than yours.”

It’s a good thing that he wasn’t surrounded by lackeys! If anyone had been there to see the assault to his dignity-!

But we were alone, so after a moment to work up my nerve I did as he said, and then we were off.

His pace, even with the burden of carrying me, was far faster than I could have managed. Like he was trying to beat the time on long distance running thing, and had a good chance of doing it. I don’t think it took even half an hour to reach the next camp.

I hadn’t met any of the outlaws at this camp before, but all the recruits gave me awed looks for showing up alongside our prince, and even the veteran outlaws seemed a little impressed.

His business didn’t take long: All the novices presented themselves to him (and I had to smile a little, to see them practically stumbling over themselves to make the best impression possible, just like I had). Then there was a short meeting with the captain and lieutenants of the camp, and then Prince Liberio whisked me off again.

***

The next camp was where Clifton and Myles had both relocated to, and it was good to see the novice Enforcers I’d worked with. Maybe I wasn’t quite one of them, but they knew that any threat they faced, I would be facing first as I scouted it out. Sure, as long as I didn’t screw up Vanish I was safe enough, but as long as they didn’t screw up Dominate they were safe enough.

The three guys who’d been hurt by the hogs seemed to be doing okay, at least. Their wounds weren’t getting infected, and according to Andre the healer that the outlaws had access to was good enough that they’d recover a lot faster than they should. It wasn’t RPG-tier healing, but at least it was something.

Prince Liberio wants us all to level today,” I told them, once they’d presented themselves to His Highness and been dismissed so that he could confer with Clifton, Myles, and a couple of other lieutenants. (Otto, thankfully, was not in this camp!) “So we’re going to get to do more questing one he leaves.”

That’s good,” the ex-Warrior replied, looking a bit dubious, “but we’re three Enforcers short until they heal up.”

Hell with that!” one of the wounded exclaimed. “I can still swing a club, just don’t put me in front to take the hits until these bandages come off!”

We’re not letting His Highness down!” one of the other two shouted enthusiastic agreement, while the third injured Enforcer settled for a emphatic nod.

Glad t’ hear that,” Myles announced, making us all jump as he approached. “There’s quests today for all o’ you, even th’ runt, so let’s have a quick breakfast and be goin’.”

***

My first quest that day, it turned out, was collecting some plants that the outlaw healer wanted more of. I guess he was expecting more injuries. Fortunately, he didn’t need any star jelly, so at least I didn’t have to mess with that nasty stuff.

Unfortunately, what he wanted us to get him was in a thauma locus that was inside a patch of marsh. It was also quite a bit further out from Mistleten, which I guess explains while Gilander hadn’t tried to send me to it. Well, that and the scary-big mosquitoes that seemed to consider it their personal territory.

Ain’t theirs,” Myles told me, in a low voice so that he didn’t attract their attention. “Mistleten will clear these out come summertime, but for now they’re havin’ what we need. Blood thickeners for th’ wounded. Go find th’ blood sacs they make for their young, an’ bring back as many as y’ can!”

I found myself wishing for a way to move a bit faster without making Vanish pop. Creeping through the mud slow enough to stay hidden was almost boring, except for the threat of getting myself drained down to nothing by the blood-suckers. Which was definitely possible, going by the drained animal carcasses I saw along the way!

But I did manage to find several clusters of blood sacs, like I’d been told. About the size of strawberries, only they looked and smelled a lot grosser than that. But then a couple of giant mosquitoes found one of the clusters I’d already raided, and from how they reacted to getting robbed I figured I’d better get while the getting was good.

Scariest ten minutes of my life to date, slowly sneaking out under Vanish and desperately hoping none of the now very active creatures bumped into me and made my stealth pop.

But I made it, and once I was out of the marsh I made a break for where a couple of more experienced outlaws were waiting, well out of the aggro range of the monsters.

Thought you were a goner, there,” one remarked, as he took the harvested blood sacs and stowed them into a bag that was lined with soft, thick cotton. “When they started buzzin’ ‘round like that, I mean.”

So did I,” I admitted. “Every heartbeat that I stayed was a chance for one of them to pop my Vanish, so I figured I’d better get out while I could.” I looked up at the sky. “Still plenty of morning left, though. Do you know where Myles and his crew are?”

The other grunted. “Yeah, follow me an’ I’ll lead y’ there.”

***

Myles already had himself a Poacher spotting for his Enforcers, but they were both happy to see me.

You’ll be headin’ out where I say,” the Poacher – whose name was Gwilym – told me, “so I’m not riskin’ my neck when I should be makin’ sure th’ boss knows if trouble’s comin’!”

And I did. We were facing weasels this time, ‘cause they’d been going after the eggs that the local farmers were depending on. And we, specifically, were facing them because they’d been too clever about getting away, so they were probably being led by a magical weasel.

Don’t know yer lore?” Myles grunted, when he saw my expression.

I was studying herbs and practicing,” I reminded him. “What do magical weasels mean?”

Bad luck, if they confront you,” Gwilym told me. “An’ they will, if they smell one of us. Got some traps, so you’ll sneak up and place them where I tell you th’ burrows are, so there’s no bad luck t’ fall on us!”

So I slowly crept up on the weasel burrow, where he told me the entrances were, and placed the snares as he’d directed. Then I positioned myself by the farthest exit of the burrow, so that if there were any magical weasels there, when they tried to flee I could hopefully kill them before they had time to use any magic against us. The Enforcers would take care of all the regular weasels sent out as a distraction. (Not as easy as it might sound, either.)

Apparently this was something the Poacher had been working on for a few days, ‘cause he already knew how many magical weasels there probably were. Three, as it happens, and it wasn’t until the fourth burrow we exterminated that we managed to find the first one.

The plan worked, even, although I had the worst luck actually killing the little monster once it was caught in the snare. My tunic caught on everything, my braies were yanked half off by a tree branch that I could swear moved when I wasn’t looking, and my seax managed to stick in its sheath, before flying out of my hand once I finally managed to yank it loose. None of which helped it when I picked up a nearby stick and brought it down on my target. Sure, the stick broke, but so did the weasel that was giving me the evil eye.

And once it was dead my luck cleared right up.

***

We had lunch after that, and then it was back to finding and killing the other two magical weasels. Which we did in time for supper, but when we got back to camp we were surprised to see what had to be a couple hundred outlaws waiting for us.

Including Prince Liberio.

Myles chuckled at our awestruck expressions. “We’re well back from any o’ th’ holders, so ‘imself decided to bring us all ‘ere tonight, an’ level th’ lot o’ you personal-like.”

We would all get the honor of being leveled by our prince? Amazing!

All except myself. Because I’d been holding back from Clifton. From Prince Liberio, pretending that I was a loyal Footpad when I was still nothing but a lying dirty Jack.

I would have said something right there, except His Highness called us all to feast, and there wasn’t time.

And then, after we’d all eaten, when they lined us up and our prince went down, deigning in his generosity to anoint us by hand, I was so ashamed of my duplicity that I couldn’t choke out the words of my betrayal. I tried to work up the nerve as he approached, but I found myself repeating what I’d thought the last time.

Footpad knacks Footpad knacks . . .

It seemed to work. Or at least His Highness didn’t say anything. Maybe he was trusting me enough to come clean on my own?

I resolved that I’d go find him and confess the very next morning!

***

I guess I should find another Footpad and ask him what I got this time,” I said to Myles, after we were all dismissed.

He chuckled. “I don’t mind tellin’ you, runt. Tired of having to barely move when y’ sneak, I reckon?”

I nodded.

Well, that’s in th’ past now. Shadow Creep, is what y’ have now. When you Vanish, you can call t’ th’ shadows t’ cover you while y’ move. Go on an’ play w’ that tonight, for we’ll be puttin’ it to good use tomorrow!”

I nodded and set out to do exactly that.

Continue on to Part IX?

Choosing the Blade, Part VII

This is from a work in progress. When I finish it, it’ll hopefully go up on Amazon shortly thereafter. In the meantime, tell me how I can make it suck less.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

One way that Footpads are like Scouts, I guess, is that both get to go out in front and look for trouble. Even fakes like myself. In this case, I was looking for the boss monster while Myles and his baby Enforcers played whack-a-mole.

Literally. The monsters were oversized moles.

Turned out that they’d been moving into the edge of the fields since a couple of days after the spring rush ended. The father of the household – the only one there with a class – had been dividing his attention between trying to drive them off and getting the planting done. It’d make for a reduced harvest come fall, but if he waited for summer to bring adventurers willing to help he’d have lost even more of his crop.

But since we bandits (and pseudo-bandit) were on the scene and willing to do the job, the farmer was going to be able to focus on planting and make up for some of his lost time.

Anyway, clubbing the moles when they popped out of the ground was good practice for the Enforcers, but if we didn’t find their ruler, who was apparently the anchor for the magic that made them larger, it would just find more for its horde and go back to taking over freshly-tilled soil. And you could play whack-a-mole with the minion moles, but if the boss mole thought a threat was coming then it would retreat.

Which made me wonder, how would real adventurers handle it? Because the way we were handling it was to send me out creeping along under Vanish, trying to get close enough to where the boss mole would be that I could shank it before it had time to flee. And since I didn’t have a bow or crossbow – or for that matter enough training to use one accurately – I was going to have to get right up next to it.

I still didn’t know what forbidden magic bullshit Enforcers got, but it probably had something to do with making enemies keep fighting. Or at least they seemed to be doing a good job of holding the attention of the moles while I crept towards the center of where the dirt looked the most disturbed.

Don’t worry about it smelling you out,” Myles had told me. “We call it ‘Vanish’ because we pay more attention to what we see than what we smell, but the knack hides you from all the senses. Only thing is, if you make noise on your own then it doesn’t do too good a job o’ hiding that. So don’t go steppin’ on twigs if you can help it.”

Probably something similar about why I had to move slowly if I wanted to keep it from dropping. Well, in the middle of plowed-and-then-hollowed-out earth there weren’t a whole lot of twigs for me to break. Mostly just really soft dirt, and keeping from making noise on that stuff wasn’t too hard.

Forward, slowly, gently, ignore the chitters from the moles as they got swept up in Enforcer hax-

A deeper version of the squeaking finally told me where in the center the boss mole was squatting. Slowly, slowly-

Well, all that ended when the ground I stepped on collapsed, and I dropped into a little burrow that the boss mole had dug for itself. Vanish had popped, of course, but the thing flinched back when the sunlight hit it from above.

Which was a good thing, ‘cause its claws were huge! And the snout looked like it could take my arm off if it got hold of me!

I really wanted to scramble up out of the hole I’d made, but I couldn’t. Not quite yet, not if we wanted to take care of the actual problem.

See, the farmer – his name was Gavin, it turned out – had tried to handle the moles on his own. And he’d known that if he could take care of their boss the rest would be easy enough to clean up.

It doesn’t like being startled, it’ll retreat for a few days if y’do. But get its attention an’ it’ll come after ya for a bit. Gotta poke it good, though. Clubs don’t get through that hide too well.”

Clubs not powered by Enforcer beatdown hax, anyway. Or at least Myles didn’t see worried about how hard it was supposed to be to hurt the boss mole.

Jes’ bring it to us,” he’d told me, once he had the rest of the squad lined up and ready to advance. “We’ll handle it from there.”

So instead of just running away, I had to get its attention first. Which meant poking it in as many places as I could manage, ‘cause Abby had drilled it into me during practice that to slash with my seax I needed to get close, and if I did that with anything a lot bigger than me I was going to get myself killed. Stepping into grabbing range was only for when I was trying to kill it with one blow, and for that I was probably going to thrust instead of swing anyway.

Closest thing would have been that big snout, but the way it was complaining about the intrusion of the burning Daystar I pretty much had my choice of throat, shoulder, forelimbs . . .

I tried for the throat, just in case I could stab something important and solo it with a critical. Probably woulda been worth lots of xp, and never mind that this world didn’t bother to tell you how many you had or needed to get to the next level.

No such luck, though. But I definitely caught its attention. And maybe the minion moles were cute when they squeaked, but this thing’s bellow was more of a roar.

But hey, I’d done the job I was supposed to, and I didn’t need any taunt knacks to do it!

Scrambling up the steep dirt slope out of the hole was . . . well, I’m just really grateful that Abby’d gotten after me to exercise and practice as much as she had. Earth-me would have never managed it.

So yeah, the baby Enforcers were playing whack-a-mole, and suddenly there I came, running like a bat out of hell with the giant boss mole scurrying after me.

(No, I wasn’t screaming like a little sissy, and never mind what anyone else might say!)

Anyway, when they noticed me Myles got them bunched up and ready in a snap, and when the boss mole followed me through the small crowd of Enforcers they were ready.

Still don’t know what their knack is called. It could be that they have a taunting knack along with their forbidden Enforcer knack, the same way Footpads got Darksight along with Vanish. Seems likely, even. But yeah, their forbidden knack was something about delivering a beatdown, ‘cause once they started whaling on the boss mole it didn’t take them long at all before it was a bloody smear on the ground.

Myles gave it on final blow to the head that pretty much burst the skull like watermelon, then gave it a nod and a grunt. “Pity we didn’t have a Poacher to spare, coulda’ harvested somethin’ from this.”

Then he looked at me. “Go fetch Farmer Gavin. Let’s show him we’re serious, and he can decide if he wants to try any salvage.

In the meantime,” he suddenly roared at his other minions, “you lot keep at the rest of the moles! Make sure they’re good an’ scattered!”

***

When I found him, Farmer Gavin had a visitor, another middle-aged man who looked about as weathered.

Mole king’s down and dead,” I reported. “Boss wants you to come and confirm.”

The farmer nodded and set out with me, his friend coming along with him.

The Enforcers were bashing the last few moles that hadn’t managed to run by the time we came up to Myles.

How’d Cecil do?” Farmer Gavin asked gruffly, looking around at the dead moles on the field.

Yer boy? Well enough, especially for ‘is first time. They’re all provin’ t’ be likely lads.”

Glad to see some are willin’ to do good work,” the farmer said, in tones of grudging admiration. “This here’s Ellis. Knew he was in a bad way, so I thought you could help him too, if your lads still need experience.”

That they do,” the lead Enforcer agreed. “More moles, or somethin’ else?”

It’s hanchinrongur,” Ellis replied. “Holder Privett had ‘em cleared out last fall, but they must have missed a few. They’ve been at my seed, and-!”

He broke off, then continued anxiously: “Gavin said you’re not demanding payment? I don’t know how I’m going to afford more seed as it is, but if I can’t finish planting-”

Yer friend ‘as the right of it,” Myles assured him. “We’re outlaws, aye, but we’re not here as thieves. Yer Holder seems to be doin’ fine there all on ‘is own, aye?”

Ellis’s eyes widened. “Holder Privett’s a hard man, but he’s never robbed us!” he protested.

Oh?” The Enforcer’s smile was quite cynical. “‘E hadn’t reason to let Mistleten’s lot be sloppy when chasin’ down those scaly rats? Doesn’t insist you buy yer seed from ‘im direct an’ all?”

The farmer went white.

Myles nodded. “Thought so,” he continued knowingly. “Mebbe we’re not here to be thieves against you an’ yours, but mebbe your high an’ mighty Holder’s another matter, aye? Could stand to learn a bit o’ humility.”

***

Okay, those hanchinrongur, the ones that Myles called ‘scaly rats’? I thought they’d be big, scaly rats. So even though I’d pulled aggro on the boss mole less than an hour ago, I just about got the shit scared out of me when they turned out to be more like tiny velociraptors.

I’m just glad they were only about a couple feet long. If they’d been full-sized, like you see in the movies, we’d have been dead. Of course, we probably wouldn’t have been sent up against the real thing, since aside from our squad leader we’re all supposed to be n00blet outlaws, but still!

I was also really glad that Vanish is magical bullshit, ‘cause I’m pretty sure they smell things a lot better than us mere humans. And it took me a bit of time to calm down when I managed to find their nest.

Which wasn’t all that hard, thankfully. It doesn’t seem like there’s hardly any paving in this world, outside of towns and major roads, so once we spotted where the raptors had been getting in to Ellis’ grain storage, all I had to do was follow it back, and then pull up Vanish once the trail led into the nearby woods and there were enough shadows for me to keep moving without dropping my stealth right away.

Turned out to be a lot easier than creeping up on the boss mole, honestly.

Then, once I had the mini-raptors located, I managed to step on a branch while I was trying to get out and go fetch Myles and the baby Enforcers. Naturally, that popped my Vanish, and I barely got it up again before the velociraptors charged my general direction.

Little suckers can move, too. Maybe even faster than the movie version. But I guess they could only do that for a little while, ‘cause once they left the treeline the Enforcers were able to pounce on ‘em and beat ‘em down pretty quickly.

And I gotta say, I was pretty impressed by how good a leader Myles was. Sure, he’d pulled off his disguise as a novice Warrior back in Mistleten, so he was obviously smarter than he looked. And being an Enforcer probably came with all sorts of skills and knacks for ordering people around, once you had a few levels to work with. But he was still a better commander than a lot of online guild leaders I’ve had to raid with.

And raids are easy mode, if you think about it. Sure, you have to do exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, but if you wipe on a boss you just respawn and can try again until you get it right. Myles was running our party for real, and he was making sure we got it right the first time. Pretty sure most raid guilds back on Earth couldn’t begin to do that, and especially not the ones who lord it over everyone else because of their awesome gear.

But once the mini-raptors were dead, the question was, how were we going to handle the seed corn that they’d already pilfered?

***

Holder Privett’s buildings were quite a bit more extensive than Gavin’s and Ellis’s humble abodes. Which included multiple grain silos.

(Well, they called the buildings silos. They didn’t look much like what we use to store grain back on Earth.)

The problem was, we didn’t know which one held the seed grain that Ellis needed if he was going to keep planting and prevent his farm from having a disastrously light yield this year. The other problem was, even a Holder’s personal farm was more than just a family farm, and there were at least a dozen grown men working it from what we could see.

Finally Myles shook his head. “This is a job for Poachers and Thieves, to find the seed grain and take it. We’ll not be gettin’ it done ourselves, not without raising more fuss than we ought.”

With that, he led us all out of the thicket that we’d used to get as close to Holder Privett’s lands as we could without being seen, and we all headed back to camp.

***

Clifton sent a runner for Otto as soon as we made it back and Myles told him what was going on.

The Thief, when he arrived and had everything repeated to him, just snorted. “Finally found me a job that you can’t trust to jes’ anyone? Yeah, I’ll get it done, an’ easy as pie. But I’ll want the new Footpad with me.”

The bandit leader gave Otto a skeptical look. “What for? He ain’t no Thief.”

The asshole smirked at me and then our boss. “Need a lookout. He’s the only Footpad you can spare, ain’t he? Put ‘em close to the manor, he can holler if we get company.”

Myles pulled me aside before we headed out. “Wanna leave that knife behind?” he asked. “Wouldn’t put it past Otto to do what ‘e can while yer all away an’ outta sight.”

I nodded. “My guess is he’s putting me in the best place to get caught if the alarm goes up, but claiming my seax as a trophy would probably suit him too, yeah.”

Good,” the Enforcer grunted. “Yer learnin’.”

***

It was getting well into the evening when Otto made his move. He’d already had one of his crew, a Poacher, do something with seed grain that let him pinpoint which silo held more of the stuff. I thought that kinda thing was supposed to be superstition and magic, at least back on Earth, but being the next thing to invisible shouldn’t be possible without magic either. And I guess it makes sense if that’s the bullshit hax that Poachers get, to find anything as long as they know what to look for.

Anyway, Otto ordered me to go up to the buildings after the farmhands went in for supper. If I spotted them coming out while he was Purloining the seed grain, I was supposed to make a disturbance so that they’d know to skedaddle.

But I wasn’t sure about this, and my doubts only grew as I headed to where Otto had told me. For one, if I made a disturbance I was going to have a pretty hard time getting out of there without getting caught. Sure, once twilight ended I’d have a big advantage in Darksight, but I didn’t know the layout of the buildings or the fields and the farmhands would. A little bit of trickiness on their part and I could find myself herded into a trap I never saw coming.

The other thing that was troubling me, though, was how quick we were being to just take what Farmer Ellis needed. Yes, he did need it, and probably didn’t have long to wait if he wanted to plant his crops on time. And Holder Privett had at best been sloppy about not getting the mini-raptors cleared out all the way. At worst . . .

At worst he’d done it to make Farmer Ellis go into debt to him. Or maybe more into debt. Didn’t shit like that used to happen with sharecroppers and company towns? Hell, I’ve heard that you can’t clear student loans even when you declare bankruptcy, so someone who borrows for a degree and then can’t find a better job than bartending can find themselves paying and paying until they hit 65 and then even their social security has to go towards paying.

(Maybe I miss some of the comforts of Earth, but at least I won’t ever have to deal with that nightmare!)

Anyway, it might be that this was simple Robin Hood justice, taking what Farmer Ellis needed from the man who’d tried to ruin him. Maybe. But we didn’t know one way or another. We were just doing it, because Ellis was under our protection as one of the lower-class farmers we were trying to get support from, and Holder Previtt wasn’t.

It might be justice. Had a decent chance of it, even. But for all we knew, it might not be. Flip of a coin, and we hadn’t tried to check before resorting to larceny.

If I did go back to Mistleten, I wasn’t looking forward to explaining this to Abby.

I spent some time trying to think about how I’d tell her what had been happening since I disappeared, but I didn’t get very far along when there was some noise. I looked up, and farmhands were coming outside. To put their tools away before going to bed, it looked like.

I tensed up as some of them approached where I was loitering in the shadows. I knew I should be all but impossible to spot, but if some of them had class levels and Darksight, they might see me despite Vanish being up and-

I froze, not even breathing, as one went by about two feet away. But he didn’t seem to notice me at all, just kept going about his business, and when he was too far away to notice I exhaled as quietly as I could and looked around for more potential trouble.

Trouble to us, I mean. Since if you look at it right, we were already the trouble for them.

Once they put their tools away and went back inside, I kept watch. But eventually all the lights in the buildings went out, and I made my way back to where we’d approached the farm.

Only to find that everyone else was already gone.

Otto is a complete asshole.

***

Getting back to camp wasn’t all that hard. We’d been back and forth a couple of times already, so I knew the way, and Darksight may wash out all the color but I could still see well enough, at least within the range of the knack. Was there a way to extend it? Probably. Something I’d want to do eventually, that’s for sure.

But if Otto abandoned me, then they wouldn’t be expecting me back. Probably assumed I’d been caught by the Holder’s men. Maybe it was time to turn around and making a break towards Mistleten? I already knew enough to lead Abby and some of the higher-level townsfolk back to where the bandits were camped out, after all.

Except I still needed to know if I’d stayed a Jack or become a Footpad. And if I didn’t show up at camp soon they’d think the worst had happened. If I went back to town right now I probably couldn’t go back to the bandits, and if I was stuck in town as a Footpad it might go really badly for me.

Besides, I still wanted to know if this was more Robin Hood or the Weathermen.

Eventually, I decided to head back to camp. Didn’t take long after that, but when I got there people were packing everything up and putting out fires.

I found Myles directing his minions in the midst of the chaos. “What’s going on?” I asked him.

The brawny Enforcer glanced at me, then did a double-take. “Runt, you’re free?!” he demanded.

I nodded. “Yeah, Otto and his crew left me behind, but once everyone at the farm went to bed I was able to get away and come on back.”

There was a pause while he thought that over. Then: “Clifton!” he shouted, scowling ferociously.

The bandit leader trotted over. “What’s the trouble over-” He broke off as he noticed me. “Thought th’ runt was captured.”

Nope, just left behind,” I assured him. “Or at least if I was leading anyone here to save my skin, I’d like to think they’d have attacked once I showed them the most dangerous men in camp.”

Clifton gave me a sharp look, then quickly scanned the wilderness all around. That must have satisfied him that I wasn’t pulling a Judas, ‘cause he relaxed after making sure the coast was clear. “Otto said you never came back when he gave th’ signal, so you must have been spotted before you raise an alarm. ‘Bout time for us to be clearing out anyway. Once that Holder notices his grain gone they’re like as not to beat the woods looking for us.”

He jerked his thumb at me, but addressed Myles. “I’m thinkin’ it’ll just lead to a fight, if ‘e goes off with Otto’s crew.”

The Enforcer nodded. “Won’t need ‘im where I’m takin’ the lads. Send ‘im to Louie, mebbe? Doubt he’d be trouble, there.”

The boss bandit smirked. “Might not, at that. Or ‘e might get an education. Which wouldn’t hurt ‘im none, if they took a shine to ‘im.”

Myles snorted. “An’ they might give ‘im some polish. A’ight, we’ll drop him off along the way.”

***

So, does Louie lead another gang of outlaws?” I asked cautiously, once I had what very little I owned ready to go.

Naw, Louie’s a lieutenant, jes’ like Clifton,” Myles told me. I was following him as he inspected his minions. “Otto’d be the one t’ give ya polish, if ‘e hadn’t taken such a dislikin’ t’ ya. But Louie can’t stand ‘im either, so you’ll do well enough with ‘em, I reckon.”

Then he turned to his baby Enforcers. “A’ight, lads, we’ve a ways to go before we sleep! So no rest for the wicked, aye?”

He got a bit of laughter at that, and we all headed out.

***

Hey, Tommy,” Andre murmured as we made our way through the night. “Is this what it was like, facin’ those spiders?”

What, me poking something too dangerous to handle and leading it back to someone else?” I shrugged. “Close enough, yeah. Although Eamon did it better, drawing them out for Abby to shoot.”

Well, ‘e’s got th’ knacks for it, eh?” The once-Warrior shook his head. “Kinda miss what I used to ‘ave, but Dominate makes up for it all. Warrior’s no comparison, ‘least if I don’t gotta worry about bein’ hit back.”

Yer sayin’ that bein’ an Enforcer’s better than bein’ a Warrior?” This came from one of the other baby Enforcers. I think he was Farmer Gavin’s son, Cecil.

Well, I do miss some of it,” Andre repeated. “Goad was a good knack to have, an’ so was Block. Didn’t mind learnin’ to fight from the class, either. Dodge, parry, attack, it was all covered. Was plannin’ on getting Guardian’s Gambit when I made third level, too.”

Really?” I asked. “I was thinking, if I went Warrior, that I’d go for Sudden Flank.”

He laughed. “Jes’ goes t’ show you’re a natural Scout, lookin’ to get behind ‘em and stick ‘em where they can’t see to dodge. Or I guess Footpad, now.”

Yeah, I guess,” I agreed. “Even tried to stick the mole king, see if I couldn’t get his jugular or windpipe. Didn’t work, though.”

Cecil was the one who laughed now. “We saw, kid. Got your dagger bloody, at least. An’ ‘e wasn’t lookin’ to hurt us until we brought our clubs down on ‘em, an’ after that ‘twas too late. Mebbe Warriors get more knacks, mebbe they learn t’ fight for free, but I like Dominate. Don’t know as I’d trade now, even if I could.”

That’s the spirit!” We all jumped as Myles was suddenly beside us in the gloom. “Ain’t no one in Mistleten gonna give a fresh start t’ the likes o’ us, not we wicked outlaws. An’ remember, a fair fight’s for adventurers an’ fools. We fight smart, so we all live t’ enjoy our prizes. A’ight?”

A’ight!” we repeated as one.

***

I didn’t see any camp nearby when Myles brought us to a sudden halt.

Ye all wait ‘ere!” he commanded. “Try to follow me an’ th’ runt, they’ll have yer cocks fer sausages!”

His minions looked confused, but suitably cowed, and with that he led me away.

Where are we going?” I asked. “Shouldn’t I see a camp? Or hear it? Or smell it?” Not like our last camp had been clean. Hell, I still hadn’t had a chance to wash up. Not that I was complaining: We’d cleared three quests in one day, even if Otto’d tried to leave me to rot for the last one. And maybe I was still iffy on that last one, but if the Mistleten were doing their jobs the local farmers wouldn’t have any quests to hand out to bandits looking to play Robin Hood.

None of which had anything to do with this Louie fellow I was getting brought to, why I couldn’t get any sense of his camp, or why Myles was snickering at me.

Still ain’t figgered it out?” he asked.

I shook my head, and then my jaw dropped open as he rapped on a tree trunk. It made a strangely deep sound, almost like the tree was hollow, and a few moments later the end of a rope dropped from above, and a slender figure slid down it to land in front of us, cloaked and concealed.

What is it?” the figure demanded in a hoarse whisper. “We’re all sleepin’, already, ‘xcept the lookouts!”

Gotta foundlin’ for Louie,” Myles told the figure. “Footpad, but didn’t get along with Otto. Needs polish, an’ Louie can give ‘im that.”

Even with Darksight I couldn’t really see inside the figure’s cowl, which was frankly a bit unnerving. But I got the distinct impression that he was looking me up and down.

Finally the figure shrugged. “We’ll see what Louie says.”

Myles grimaced. “I’ll wait ‘ere, then. If th’ answer’s no.”

The figure nodded. “Take the rope, boy, an’ hold on tight.”

I did, and a moment later we were getting whisked up into the branches above. Quickly, too, almost as fast as those Batman cartoons.

I hadn’t thought to look up, but it turned out that there were paths set up, once we went through some leaves that I guess made it harder to spot everything from the ground.

Is the Grimwust like this?” I asked. ‘Cause some tree-top dungeons would be really cool. Way too dangerous at my level, but still awesome.

Parts, yes,” my companion rasped. “Where we got th’ idea. Now follow along, and don’t make noise. We’re all tryin’ to sleep, right now.”

I nodded and followed, and damned if he didn’t lead me to a friggin’ treehouse tucked into the branches of one of the bigger trees in the area.

Stay here.” The cloaked figure went inside for a minute or two, before coming back out. “Footpad, weren’t it? Got Blightsight, then?”

I nodded.

Good. Go in, I’ll wait out here. Louie’s awake an’ ready for ya.”

Inside everything was dark, which for me now meant everything was in black and white. Still got a fair amount of detail, just no color, for about a dozen yards or so. Which mean I could clearly see the person waiting for me inside, sitting on the bed and wearing a light robe.

Including that she was a woman.

I’m Tom. Are you Louie?” I asked. “In that case I’m guessing they sent me here ‘cause you don’t get along with Otto.”

She chuckled, but there wasn’t any real mirth to it. “None of my girls get along with that cad,” she told me. “All men are dangerous, but he’s never worth the prize.”

I, uh, don’t know what you mean by ‘the prize’,” I told her.

Oh, the right man is the prize, but there’s precious few of those.” She paused. “Do you think you’re one of them, to come in at night and steal the heart of a bandit princess?”

This was not how I’d expected my interview to go, even when I got a good look at Louie and started to figure out that this was a girls’ camp.

And for the record? The little boy who rides along with the cheerleaders and runs errands for them does not get lucky. They go make cow eyes at the varsity players when they’re in the mood for that.

I think I-I have some g-growing up to do, first,” I replied, trying not to stammer and almost managing it. “And a lot of leveling, too.”

Louie chuckled again. “Keep that in mind, and you might get along here. Footpad, was it?”

Yeah. First level,” or hopefully still second level Jack, “but today we cleared out some moles, then these scaly demon rat things with a long name-”

Hanchinrongur, you mean? That took guts, facing them down as a Footpad.”

I grimaced. “I only scouted them out. Myles and his baby Enforcers did the killing, while I stayed safe under Vanish.”

Ah.” Louie nodded. “Then you aren’t so foolish as I might expect from a little boy. If you know not to break Vanish unless there’s true need, I can get some use out of you.” Then her eyes narrowed. “But if I find you’ve been using your knack to abuse my hospitality, I’ll throw you to Otto with my blessing for his grudge.”

By that I’m guessing she meant that I was forbidden to go invisible and play peeping Tom. As it were. And yeah, I can see why she’d want to warn any Footpad working with her. Pretty much anyone would at least think of what they could get away with if they were invisible, even if they never did it. But if I didn’t like it when Otto used Purloin on me, it’d be rotten of me to use Vanish against anyone who was supposed to be my ally. And that’s on top of it being a creeper move in the first place.

So what knacks will you not use on me?” I asked. Hell, I didn’t even know what outlaw class she had, let alone what new bullshit hax it might give her.

She paused for a moment, then laughed. “Don’t worry, little Footpad. I’ve no wish to see you following me around like a lovesick puppy.” Then she raised her voice. “Primula!”

A moment later the figure who’d escorted me came inside. “Yes, Louie?”

Find this Footpad a corner to curl up in. We’ll see what use we can put him to tomorrow.” Then her nose wrinkled. “But first, see to it that he washes up. His rags too, if they can be salvaged.”

Yes, Louie.” Primula turned to me. “Come on, then.”

She led to another building in the trees, where there was a smell of soap and water. “Wash up in there, yer clothes too. Don’t dawdle, but make sure ye get it all. Don’t want us revealed ‘cause someone smelled us out.”

And again there wasn’t light for me to see by, but Darksight made up for it. Doubt they’d want anything like candles up in a tree, at that. The water was pretty cold, but by then I was happy to get anything to wash in, and washing my clothes was almost as nice.

Except, of course, that I didn’t have anything to change into, and they didn’t have any towels for me to use.

Don’t worry ‘bout that,” Primula scoffed, when I called out the question to her. “Ain’t got nothing we ain’t never seen before, an’ bigger an’ better on a grown man, too!”

I didn’t really have a reply for that. I mean, no matter what I said she could probably come back with something withering. Popular girls don’t change their minds about you, not from anything you say to them. Besides, if Louie wasn’t bluffing about a knack that’d make me into a fool for her, and if she wasn’t the only one with it . . . maybe it’d be best for me to keep to myself as much as I could.

I held my tunic and braies in front of my waist as I left the little bathhouse, though. There’s not worrying about things, and then there’s being an ass.

Primula smirked when she saw what I was doing, but led me to a little platform where I could hang my clothing to dry and lay down out of the wind. Although I made sure to curl around my seax in its sheath: If someone grabbed my clothes as a prank I could probably get something to cover me, since this was a camp full of women. Doubt they’d be as quick to cough up a replacement weapon, though.

It wasn’t comfortable, but I was tired enough that I dropped off to sleep pretty quickly.

***

Whose brat is that?”

The voice wasn’t terribly loud, but it wasn’t that soft, either. And the sun was coming up, or at least it wasn’t dark against my eyelids, so I guess I’d been able to sleep all night.

No one’s,” I said as I cracked open my eyes and looked up where my tunic and braies had been hung up to dry. They were only a tiny bit damp, so I quickly grabbed my braies and started putting them on. However the women felt about having a teenager in their camp, it wouldn’t help anyone if I popped a stiffie just ‘cause I thought one of them looked cute.

Then whatcha doin’ here?” the woman asked, her voice not terribly friendly.

Since I was now at least bathing-suit decent, I sat up and looked over the side of the platform. And, well . . .

I wasn’t going to have to worry about reacting to this woman, whoever she was. You know those cheesecake pics where the model has this nasty expression, like someone just let out a pizza and beer fart and she thinks you did it? (I don’t get how other guys can find that hot. A whole lot of models have that expression, though, so I guess that’s a thing for some people.) Well, this lady wasn’t ugly, but she didn’t have the cheesecake bod or face that went with the disgusted expression.

I got sent over ‘cause this creep of a Thief decided to mess with my stuff,” I told her, “and they figured I could learn from Louie as well as I could learn from him.”

She scoffed. “Louie don’t need no Thieves! Anyone can tell when Purloin’s used, ‘specially when you’re still first level. These farmer have levels themselves, too many of ‘em.”

Yeah, well, I’m a Footpad. So if you need someone to hang around unseen while Louie does whatever it is her class does, that’s what I’m good for.”

The woman gave me a suspicious look, then turned around and marched off, in the direction of Louie’s bedroom. To check my story, no doubt.

And in fact she was back with the boss by the time I had my ragged tunic back on and was buckling my seax around my waist.

What’s this Rhoda says about you using Vanish to sneak around on us?” Louie asked. “Thought we cleared that up last night, Tommy.”

I said I was a Footpad, not a Thief. And didn’t you say you’d catch me if I tried? Doesn’t that mean you can use someone with Vanish?”

She gave me a narrow look. “That’s all you meant?”

Uh, yeah. I mean, be kinda stupid to try to get my jollies Vanishing around here when most of you are higher level than me. And even if you don’t have combat skills for some reason, I’d still be horribly outnumbered. Plus you’d make me go back to Otto’s crew.” Unless Myles wanted me to help pull for him again. But he’d probably think I deserved to get punished.

We’d just have to kick you out of the trees,” Rhoda retorted. “You can crawl back to Otto if you survive that.”

Fine! I just want to get along until this plan, whatever it is, gets us out of the woods and into a decent place to stay.”

Figured that out?” Louie asked. “Well, at least you’re no slouch.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s not like Clifton didn’t make it pretty clear that we’re trying to go legit, doing the quests that Mistleten ignores but still need to be done.”

Well, if you can be clever like that often enough, you might be worth training after all,” she told me. Then she gave my ragged tunic a dirty look. “First, though, you need to get that repaired. We have an image to uphold.”

And that’s how I ended up having to learn how to sew that day.

***

So how many bandit gangs are there in this alliance?” I asked my sewing teacher, an older woman who went by Maude. She was heavyset in a way that didn’t really go with the fit look that adventurers – including outlaws – tended to have, so my guess was that she was more like a retainer than an adventurer herself.

Not that she wasn’t quick to correct me when I managed to screw up getting my tunic patched and fixed. But half the time she didn’t need to, ‘cause my screw up would get my fingers poked with a needle. How did women do this all the time, before sewing machines made it safer to put clothes together?

Not an alliance,” Maude told me. “We’re all one army. Miss Louie and Master Clifton are captains to the commander.” She shrugged. “Or close enough. Liberio doesn’t owe commission to any lord, of course, but it’s more than a little like my Bryn’s old company, may he rest in peace.”

Uh, I’m sorry for your loss?”

No, don’t worry about it. ‘Twas years ago, and before Miss Louie found me and took me in. But we’re all in detachments most of the time, to keep us spread out.”

Oh. Doesn’t that make us vulnerable, if someone finds a detachment? Couldn’t we defend ourselves better if we were all in one group?” If I did decide to go back to Abby and tell her everything, it’d certainly be a lot easier to clean up the bandits if they were all bunched up together.

That’s the plan, in the end, once we have the farmer’s good and steady behind us,” Maude told me, nodding. “When Liberio can raise his standard as a lord, for them to swear to. But we’ll need a good stronghold for that. Mistleten won’t be happy, that’s for sure.”

No, they wouldn’t.

And while we’re still building support, it’s best to spread out the burden,” she went on. “We need to keep from hunting out any one area, and keep the holders from noticing us. Staying hidden is our best security. But now that we’ve done our recruitment, Liberio will be having you all move quickly, that’s for sure.”

I gave her a questioning look.

Maude’s return look was rather serious. “Gotta make sure our support’s strong enough that we won’t be snitched out come the summer rush. Our captains and their lieutenants are strong, but not enough to face all the higher-level adventurers who come to farm the Grimwust. So you can expect to be busy for the next several weeks.”

I nodded. “It sure seems like there’s quests going undone. But what about hunting. I’ve, uh, I’ve never done it, but-”

Oh, don’t worry about that,” she assured me. “The other camps have their Poachers, but Louie prefers Netters. Couldn’t make this treetop camp of hers work without them, and they trap all the meat we need. Still early for forage, of course, but we do some of that too, to keep off spring fever.”

I nodded again. Abby had been stuffing me full of vegetables at every opportunity, but I doubted anyone here was going to be that mindful of my nutrition. Which kinda sucked, especially if it meant that my growth spurt might slow or even stop. Hopefully not.

Netters are good with traps?” I asked. “I didn’t notice any coming here.”

Well, they wouldn’t be good traps if you could,” Maude pointed out. “But if the Holders or their men start stumbling into our traps, they’ll sniff us out quick enough. So right now it’s mostly lures in the fens and marshes, enough to see we don’t starve.”

Okay.” Then I paused. “Uh, is there a reason you and Louie sound a little more educated than everyone else?”

She grinned. “You mean, like a noble brat like you?”

I blinked, and managed to stab myself again with my needle. “Ow! What do you mean, noble?”

Louie had it from Clifton’s Enforcer who brought you here. Noble brat, or some rich merchant’s bedwarmer. But you don’t look haunted enough for that, so noble. Escaped when there was a coup against the family, maybe.”

Dammit, no matter how snobbish my parents could be, they weren’t nobles! That’s just not an option in the US. Hell, people lose elections when they have too many relatives who’d had office before them. But trying to explain was pointless.

I can’t go back,” I admitted, “but I do miss some of the luxuries from back home.” I paused. “So were you a noble once yourself?”

Maude chuckled. “No, but my Bryn was bucking to become a lieutenant, so he needed to sound educated. He needed he wife to sound educated, so I studied alongside him. And Miss Louie needs to get along at the highest levels herself, so she’s studied that herself. Made me keep studying, so I could come with her wherever she went and not give the game away.”

Oh. So what is her class?”

Her chuckle became a laugh. “Tommy boy, she’ll never tell you. Don’t need to know it, and she’s happier when she can be anything she wants.”

Which probably meant that there was some sort of Grifter or Con Artist outlaw class, and its flavor of bullshit hax was all about bamboozling people. Maybe it was easier to resist if you knew not to trust her, even. I’d have to keep that in mind.

Here!” Maude demanded, interrupting my thoughts. “You’ve done about what you can, for a rank beginner. I’ll do the rest, so you’ve got time this afternoon for Miss Louie.”

 

Continue on to Part VIII?

Musing 001: Perilous Exploration

In order to make exploration perilous, there needs to be peril. And it needs to be something that increases (or sometimes decreases) as a result of what the players choose to do.

Originally much of that peril was caused by the random encounter checks that were supposed to happen every turn of gaming, which was about ten minutes of in-game time. The problem is, those wandering monster checks were such a pain in the butt that they were one of the aspects of the game that Dungeon Masters routinely ignored.

This has contributed to the present railroad situation in WotC D&D where everything that happens does so at the speed of DM fiat, because everything is a prepared encounter. Fourth Edition was of course the epitome of that, but it’s hardly improved with the Fifth Edition. It’s all still just a story that the players experience, rather than one they help create.

But there’s a tabletop game that goes by the name of Dread where there’s mounting tension caused by playing Jenga, and when the tower finally collapses the referee takes the gloves off and starts bringing players to their horrible end. Likewise, in Betrayal at House on the Hill the accumulated Omens eventually cause the game to shift by triggering whatever horror movie scenario is indicated.

While an RPG largely takes place in the imagination of the players, we do make use of physical tools to help keep track of important information. So in a session where perilous exploration is a major focus? Something that will cover a lot of dungeon exploration? Or something that might just need to be pulled out for a quick run into unfamiliar but dangerous territory? Tools to help out might be exactly what’s needed.

It may be tempting to create one mechanic, to just abstract everything of peril and tie it to that mechanic, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. It leads to the kind of situation in Fourth Edition where everything non-combat was tied to an abstract skill challenge system that was stretched to cover everything and didn’t do it well at all.

Still, some central mechanics might be devised that can help things move along, that can anchor other mechanics and help tie everything together in a functional manner.

The passage of time is an obvious thing to keep track of when exploring. The players are assumed to be using supplies to navigate, whether that’s food for overland or torches in the darkness, and unless they stumble across something that rouses immediately, the peril of the place they’re exploring should be something that rises as they spend time there.

The following mechanic is suggested for the passage of time: Whenever the player characters do something that is going to take a few minutes, what would normally be considered a ‘turn’, you roll the dice. This would be the random encounter roll in classic D&D, but we’re checking for reaction, escalation, and depletion.

Depletion is handled by putting a token in a pile where the players can see it. Each token is about ten minutes, and once six tokens are piled up that’s the passage of an hour. Use as needed to handle stuff like spell duration, torches going dark and lamps running out, the chance of location shifting, and so on.

Alternately, each resource being used up has a die that represents how many more turns it’ll last, and every turn they have to be set one value lower. But that would take more time to do. If we can centralize the mechanic, that’s what we should try for.

Now, here’s something completely new: A low result is usually a bad thing – the encounter happens, if you will – but you can also say that if the ‘random encounter’ roll is high enough, the player characters have done really well and get a ‘free’ turn, one where you don’t add a token to the pile for time passage. They haven’t created time out of thin air, of course. They’ve just acted efficiently enough that they accomplished more than usual. (Needless to say, after this free turn they probably shouldn’t be allowed to check again for another free turn. Not without serious mojo going on, anyway.)

The other part is reaction and escalation. Reaction is what happens if the encounter dice rolls low: Something has happened as a result of the actions of the player characters. Something in the perilous environment is responding to them. Precisely what that something is should be based off of where the player characters happen to be. A single abstract mechanic for the reaction doesn’t make sense to me, so that’ll have to have its own article.

Escalation is generally going to be something that is begun by a reaction, but will continue to grow on its own. This may be according to the passage of time, or it may be according to further reaction to player characters. How the escalation grows will be specific to the nature of the escalation.

An example of an escalation that grows according to time might be a monster out scouting who then notices the player characters. If they don’t notice it back and deal with it, it might then retreat, gather allies, come back, and try to find the player characters and confront them from a position of strength. There would be short track behind the DM screen, with checks as appropriate to determine how many turns certain steps take. Sensory information would also be given out to player as clues that something’s going on.

An example of escalation that reacts to the players would be a spirit that notices them and begins to interact with them. (How it would escalate would depend on the nature of the spirit, but there are plenty of horror movies to provide inspiration.) Another example might be the alert level of a community: As player characters draw attention, the leaders of the community commit to increasing response.

Escalation that builds according to further player character actions should also be matters that can be deescalated if the player characters decide to behave appropriately. Something that novice players will rarely do but veterans will tend to choose a little more often.

If a second die is thrown that either matches the first or is close enough (depending on how busy the perilous location is) then a neutral encounter might also take place: This would be the inhabitants going about their business as appropriate to the location of the player characters. It might or might not stay neutral, depending on how the PCs have been behaving, but it should start that way. At least at the beginning of the session.