This is from a work in progress. When I finish it, it’ll eventually go up on Amazon, hopefully shortly thereafter. In the meantime, feel free to tell me how I can make it suck less.
“The four of us should go out and get a couple of the simpler quests done,” Cecil told me the next day. “Already had a day of rest yesterday, after all.”
I’d seen Brother Bailey like he’d wanted, first thing after breakfast, and during the short talk he suggested that I go out and visit my crew again, to check on their recovery. It made sense, and Abby didn’t get a lot of office time most Spiritsdays – adventurers like to take the entire day off, not just a half-day, and the guildhall can get rowdy – so off I went.
Everyone seemed to be doing well, no one had gotten feverish and the cuts were healing cleanly, so Cecil’s idea was probably a good one. Give the five more wounded ones another day to recover, but the other four of us could still get work done that needed it.
“Thanks for agreeing,” he told me as we set out for the next teammate on the route. “My sister had all day yesterday to chatter, and I was startin’ to feel like it was driving me mad.”
“She’s that much of a pest?” I asked. I hadn’t spoken to her much, but she hadn’t seemed like a brat the way Claire was.
“She’s keen to hear about adventuring,” he replied, “and I think she’s already counting the days until she’s old enough to go to town and do it herself.”
“Oh. That’s normal though, right? Everyone wants to go adventuring from what I hear.”
Cecil scowled. “Ain’t sayin’ you’re wrong, Tommy. But she’s barely fourteen, and ain’t the strongest her age besides.”
“She’s probably stronger than I am.” She’d looked sturdy enough the one time I’d met her, anyway, and on a farm there had to be plenty of hard work that needed doing.
“Sure, well, the only classes that don’t need strength are Magician and the like, and everyone says that’s a good way to die.” He shook his head. “Needs to chatter less and work more if she wants to be a Warrior. Told her that and she still kept talkin’.”
“Maybe try to push her towards Marksman, like the Secretary General?” I suggested. “And at least you’ve got a couple of years to get the initiation fee taken care of, right?”
Cecil just grunted.
With only the four of us – Cecil, Claude, Bertie, and myself – and the rat hides still being worked on, we stuck to scouting for monsters: Easy quests where someone had seen or heard something and they wanted us to find out if there was anything still lurking around or if whatever it was had moved on. I’d call it boring work, ‘cause we didn’t find anything that needing killing or otherwise taking note of, but it sure didn’t feel boring at the time. Even with Vanish up, trying to stay on the lookout for something that might be anything made me jumpy, and it was a relief when we called the third area clear and decided it was too late to properly search a fourth.
Honestly, I was pretty worn out. This wasn’t trooping along a road, we’d had to check everywhere and even when the ground was mostly level there was too much vegetation to see very far. Not as bad as the Grimwust, the way those fraught woods didn’t let me peer very far into them when I’d limped along the road towards Mistleten (just after the genie dumped me here without letting me so much as find my shoes!), but the foliage broke up line of sight and without knowing what monster signs we might need to look for we had to look for them all. And being the one with Vanish meant I got to be the scout and scramble over the roughest ground.
Luckily, Claire grabbed hold of the conversation at supper that night, so Ed didn’t get a chance to turn the subject towards adventuring again. Which meant I could focus on eating and not falling asleep at the table.
No fighting that day, but I was still wiped out. Funny how that works.
“How’s everyone feeling?” I asked the next morning, after our last teammate showed up. “Are we ready to go kill more monsters, or should we ease into it with a few more scouting quests?”
“I’d say scoutin’,” Cecil stated, “and give us all that one more day, but we don’t have the time. Got word this mornin’ at breakfast, there’ve been wolpinhar fewmets spotted.”
Everyone else reacted with various expressions of dismay, while I tried to look like I had some idea of what was going on.
“How many?” Basil asked, rubbing his side where the granmouchen had managed to claw him up. “‘Cause I’m ready to quest but maybe this one ought to be done by real adventurers.”
“Only enough droppins for one, so far,” my fellow team captain replied. Which at least got everyone to relax a bit. “Won’t be easy, but it’s gotta go ‘fore it brings a whole fluffle out of the Grimwust.”
“Right, so everyone keep their clubs ready,” I said. “Which way are we headed, Cecil?”
He pointed, then started taking his tunic off. “You’d best prepare, Tommy, if you’re wishin’ to take point as usual.”
Everyone else was also taking their tunics off, so I quickly copied them, and copied them again when they wrapped the coarse clothes around their shield arms. (Not that we had shields, yet.)
Since Cecil was leading the way, at least until we got close to where the monster stool had been spotted, it didn’t look weird for me to not run ahead of him just yet. So I had plenty of time to mutter, “Haven’t ever fought one before. Are we giving it something to bite, or-?”
“Somethin’ to bite, alright,” he agreed. “Keep your arm near your throat, that’s what they like to go after. Rather the leather were finished, but if it’s scoutin’ for a fluffle we can’t wait that long.”
“Okay,” I responded. “You know about where it is, right? So once we get there, I’ll use Vanish and try to get around behind it-”
“Bad idea,” he interrupted. “They say you can’t hide from a wulpinhar. If you get close it can see you, no matter what.”
“Yeah, but Shadow Creep means Vanish hides my sound and scent if I’m careful how I move, so even if it tracks by-”
“No, Tommy,” Cecil interrupted again, “I mean you can’t hide from it. If you try you’ll just be by yourself when it attacks you, an’ then we’ll be too far away to come save you. Only reason this ain’t worse than those feral hogs is that we know how they attack, how to keep ‘em from killin’ us before we can kill them back.” He paused. “Well, an’ there’s just one of ‘em, for now. Ain’t nearly as big as a hog, neither.”
“Alright,” I conceded. Hell, he was the one who grew up here. If he said they couldn’t be tricked with knacks, I didn’t want to find out the hard way that he was right. And even if I wanted to test Vanish against it, to see if an outlaw knack’s edge over adventurer knacks was enough to make the difference? If I was wrong, I’d be all alone against something that had eight guys twice my size and strength nervous about their chances.
I could wait until I was higher level to satisfy my curiosity.
“There’s the droppins,” Cecil pointed out a while later. “Shouldn’t be time for it to have any bones outside its den, but-”
We came ‘round a large tree, and he froze. Almost bumped into him before I managed to stop.
“Damnation!” he swore. “It’s already got a burrow!”
In front of us, where the ground rose slightly toward a small hill, part of that hill had been dug into. Recently, at that, the grass hadn’t had time to grow back. And lying on the ground in front of the small entrance to what I guess was a recently dug cave was a deer that’d had its throat torn out, and looked like it had been dragged around for a bit.
Claude peered at the cave and grunted. “‘Least it’s still there, hasn’t gone back to fetch its fluffle.”
“Need more time for that, wouldn’t it?” one of the others responded from behind us. “Dig deeper, make room for them all?”
“Have a few more prey waiting for them, too,” Cecil agreed, squinting as he peered into the cave as well. “Don’t see more than one of ‘em, at least.”
“How are you looking in the cave?” I asked. “It’s too dark to see in there.”
He rolled his eyes. “Use your Blindsight for a moment. You won’t see too well outside the cave, but inside you’ll at least see its shape.”
A second or two later I understood why he was squinting when he’d looked. Using the knack made all the natural light seem way brighter than it should. And the glare didn’t make it easy to see into a dark space, but he was right, I could at least see the outline of-
“Is that an oversized rabbit?” I asked, trying not to sound skeptical. This couldn’t be an elaborate practical joke, right?
“No, that’s a wolpinhar,” he told me. “Rabbits don’t get that big, ‘least not near Mistleten. And when it comes out to fight, you’ll see the teeth.”
“Big, nasty, pointy teeth!” someone behind me agreed fervently.
“Okay. So how do we get it to come-”
A bloodcurdling scream interrupted me, coming from the little cave. Like something just crushed a guy’s legs and he was dying from the pain.
“It knows we’re here,” Cecil said quietly, after the scream died down. “Make sure your tunics are wrapped tight-”
But he didn’t have time to say anything else, ‘cause the wolpinhar jumped out of the cave and onto the carcass of the deer. It glared up at us with bulging red eyes and screamed again as we carefully raised our tunic-wrapped arms to cover our throats.
I was almost grateful for that last, as unnerving as the noise was. ‘Cause yeah, it was bigger than a rabbit. Big as a large bobcat, I’d say. And with its mouth open I could see that the teeth were carnivore teeth, looking really sharp and way bigger than something that small ought to have. But aside from all that it looked like a fluffy snow-white bunny rabbit.
Something with teeth like that had no business looking so cute.
But I didn’t have time to think about it, because the next thing that happened was it looked us all over, and-
You know how they say predators like to go after easy prey? The lame, the ill . . . the runts?
Holy shit could it jump fast.
I’d only just realized that it had decided on me as its next meal, and then it had jumped and was springing towards my throat and the only thing in the way was a few layers of fabric that couldn’t possibly be thick enough to-
I howled as I felt the teeth sink into my arm, both top and bottom. It was heavy! In a moment my arm was going to drop, and then it would let go and spring for my unprotected throat and-!
My cry of pain was cut off as something bowled me over, throwing me to the ground and knocking all the air out of my lungs. I choked, trying to get another breath, and something grabbed my arm and it hurt even worse with the demon rabbit from hell still trying to bite all the way through and someone was shouting and I just needed to get a clean breath of air so I could scream again!
But then whoever it was let go. (Not the wulpinhar, that was still biting tight.)
“Tommy, are you alright?”
That was Cecil’s voice.
“Hurts!” I yelped, saying as little as possible so I wouldn’t start crying. Yeah, I’d gotten scratched up the day before yesterday, but it didn’t feel as deep as this did.
“Yeah, it’ll hurt,” he agreed. “I’m not seein’ blood, so I reckon its teeth are still in your arm, good and hard. Not sure I want to pry it open, not until we’ve got someone who knows his medicine.”
“It’s dead?” It had to be dead, if he wasn’t sounding worried, but my arm hurt like the devil had stabbed me with a pitchfork!
“Dead as Liberio’s plot,” Cecil confirmed. “Once I had you on the ground we pounded it flat.”
I nodded and looked up. The wolpinhar’s head was still intact, but he wasn’t kidding, the rest of it was a bloody pancake.
“So, who do we know who can look at my arm?” I whimpered as I got to hand and knees. “‘Cause this really does hurt. A lot!”
Only it didn’t come out as clearly as that. The pain was bad enough that speaking wasn’t so easy. Screaming felt like it’d be easier . . . but what if there were more of them? If there was any chance to avoid getting their attention-
“Scrawny as you are-” Cecil began before breaking off with a shake of his head. “Could be bad business, might bleed out fast.” He offered me a hand. “Here, we aren’t all that far from town. They’ll have someone as knows what to do.” He then took a deep breath and stuck his head into the creature’s den, I guess to confirm that it had truly been alone. Fortunately, it had.
And that’s how I got to walk back to town, carrying a stupid oversized rabbit and trying not to cry from the pain.
“Tommy, what-” Abby stopped short as she burst past the gates, her face going white as she saw what I was carrying.
After a moment, she glared at my teammates. “You’re going after wolpinhar!? Those aren’t for beginning adventurers!”
“Just the-” Cecil started to assure her.
“You!” she barked at one of the guards. “Go to Christoph, tell him I’m bringing a patient, wolpinhar bite, needs extracting.”
The guard saluted and sprinted off. I think I might have seen a relieved look flash across his face, I guess because he was getting out of range of an angry Secretary General.
“Now!” Abby then barked at my co-leader, “how many more were there, and where’s the burrow? How much livestock is missing?”
“None, ma’am,” he reported. “Got word of it this morning, just the one buck by the droppings, we decided to nail it ‘fore it could finish scoutin’ and go back for its fluffle. Hadn’t got more than one deer, either, and that not even half ate. The rest won’t follow a scout that never comes back, if I recall the lore.”
“Correct, they won’t,” she confirmed. “Now, why did you idiots make Tommy walk back here on his own?!”
“Didn’t want to jostle him and start bleedin’,” Bertie offered. “‘Sides, wouldn’t you rather walk if you can keep your feet? Survived a wolpinhar springin’ for to rip his throat out. That’s something, an’ make no mistake about it.”
Abby gave him a withering look. “Boys,” she uttered in a tone of despairing exasperation. (I guess she’s not looking forward to when her own four boys get old enough to take risks.) “You two, make a seat with your arms. Tommy, I’ll hold the carcass. Just keep your arm loose and we’ll get you to the Physic without letting you start bleeding.”
They did as she commanded, but when I tried to sit down I suddenly swayed and almost fell. I guess-
Well, from her muttering as we made our way through the streets, the only reason I made it to town on my feet was that I was too stubborn to give up. And I’d been doing my best to ignore the pain beating in time with my heart, just keeping my head down and putting one foot in front of the other, not even thinking about how far it was to get back to town, so I guess maybe she was right.
Still kinda embarrassing. Especially how close I was to copping a feel, with my arm held out so she could hold the wolpinhar’s body. I mean, I’m sure half the adventurers in town have had to get over a crush on her, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some even try to hit on her. But she’s more than twice my age, happily married, and has five kids.
Anyway, we got to the doc’s office pretty quickly after that. Except inside he had a whole bunch of tools laid out that looked more like they were for carving wood than fixing someone.
“Aren’t there potions for healing people?” I asked, my eyes wide as I stared at the carpentry tools. “Like that paste for my blisters the first night I was here?”
“Indeed there are,” a deep voice responded. It belonged to a guy coming through an inner door, wringing his hands with a clear liquid that, as he approached, smelled like really strong rubbing alcohol. If that’s what he was going to use to sterilize where I’d been bitten, this was going to hurt a lot. And I guess I was almost used to be pain I was in – maybe the endorphins were kicking in – ‘cause I almost didn’t want to let him take the teeth out when I realized that.
“But it’s not good to use them if the injured area hasn’t been cleaned yet, as the Secretary General well knows,” he went on. “Unless the blisters hadn’t popped yet?”
“Tommy was fortunate enough that they hadn’t,” Abby confirmed. “He was fine the next morning, Physic.”
“That won’t be the case here,” Doctor (or I guess Physic) Christoph told me as he sat down at a small table, giving me a serious look. “You don’t look like you’ve lost much blood, but that means this wound will most likely need to be cleaned out.”
He paused and grimaced slightly. “We’ve been fortunate enough to avoid notable injuries this last week among the adventurers, but that also means I haven’t commissioned any numbing salve recently. And I expect you’d lack the means to pay for stabilized potions even if you weren’t half-outlawed.”
“We haven’t even been able to afford armor, let alone resistances,” I replied. “So no.”
(Truth be told, I was guessing. There’s this online movement about playing RPGs the 20th century way, all ‘old school’ and stuff, and something I’ve heard is that even one-shot items like potions used to be really expensive. Like, more expensive than a good suit of armor.
Which doesn’t really make sense, most of the time: Who’d bother making potions that only really rich people can afford? I mean, sure, a king or earl would probably have a guy churning out stuff for him and his family non-stop, everyone else? How could you even have that work? It’s like the joke about the hustler selling bottles of water for a million bucks: If he can manage to sell just one . . .
Anyway, if potions are really expensive because stabilized potions don’t expire, the way chips get stale a few days after you open the bag? If they’re a lot cheaper when you can just make what you need right before you use it? Yeah, you’d keep a few expensive ones on hand for emergencies, but most of the time you brew what you need when you need it.
And I already knew that some of this stuff worked this way already: Gilander payed more for reagents if he could keep them alive and fresh until just before the summer rush. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone after this crazy world’s all-too-literal fireflies more than once.)
Doctor Christoph nodded solemnly. “Then I’m sorry, young man, because this is going to hurt: You never know what beasts might bring with them, when they flee the Grimwust, and so it’s best not to delay.” He handed me a mouthpiece that felt like rubber when I took it with my good arm. “Bite down on this. It can help, and at least you won’t bite your tongue off.”
I nodded, my eyes wide again as I did as he said, sat down, and offered my arm and the over-sized bunny monster to him. Best to get this over with quickly . . . but then there was a delay as the guard who’d been sent here came out carrying several cloths that also reeked of rubbing alcohol.
Then the doc grabbed the jaws of the wolpinhar and pried them loose, and I bit down on the rubber, trying not to cry out as the pain flared up again. I blinked away tears as he quickly unwrapped the tunic that had failed to provide the hoped-for protection-
And then I screamed into the rubber mouthpiece as he used one of the alcohol-soaked cloths to wipe the punctures clean on both sides of my arm.
And screamed again, when he did something, and I couldn’t tell what because the tears were too thick to let me see. I couldn’t jerk away, either, because someone was holding me still and keeping my arm stretched out on the table.
Then the pain changed, throbbing again in time to my racing heartbeat. But it also faded, a bit, and whoever was holding me let me loose enough to wipe the tears out of my eyes with my other arm.
My left forearm was now wrapped in one of the sterilized cloths, with enough layers that I couldn’t see any blood seeping through, and tight enough that I could still feel my pulse as it gradually slowed.
“You were fairly lucky,” Doctor Christoph told me. “The teeth mostly went through the muscle, and none of them broke off when they struck bone. I didn’t see any sign of poison or blight, either. As long as you keep your arm clean and bandaged, the punctures have every chance to heal cleanly and without infection.” He smiled wryly before continuing. “But if Brother Bailey is willing to minister to you, his blessing on your arm would be only prudent.”
“I’ll make sure he does,” Abby promised. “Now boys, I’m sorry to say that I have to escort you back out of town. And I have to ask that you not quest the rest of today.”
“Why not, ma’am?” came the response from Cecil.
“Because if a wolpinhar fluffle has sent a scout out of the Grimwust, they might not wait until the summer rush to send another,” she told them. “So I want to hire your team to spread the word, to ask farmers to be on the lookout for more sign of them. No one wants a fluffle establishing themselves in the hinterlands before summer brings the adventurers who can deal with that many.”
“Courier rates, then?”
She smiled thinly. “I’ve no intention of shorting your pay, I promise you. It’ll be in Guild credit, but there’s no end of useful gear you’ll want to buy once you can afford it.
“Physic Christoph, if you’ll submit your bill to the Guild?”
He nodded, looking slightly bemused. “You do extend them credit, then?”
Abby nodded. “All they did, in the few days they’d been conscripted as outlaws, was perform quests that adventurers here in town won’t do without someone higher level along to protect them. Much the same as now, except they’re questing without anyone to step in if a fight goes wrong.” Her tone grew fierce. “Right now, they’re more worthy of the title of ‘adventurer’ than anyone doing construction make-work!”
The doctor nodded again. “Well, in that case I’d recommend finding some armor as quick as you may. Wolpinhar have a sharp bite, but they’re not the only ones that can cut you up.”
“We’re working on it,” I promised him.
“Good,” he told me. “I trust the Secretary-General when she vouches for you, but you don’t want to have to visit me too often.”
“He’ll do his best to avoid that,” Abby confirmed. “Tommy, we’ll want to get that carcass over to Gilander quickly so he can harvest it. Can you carry it with just one arm, or do you want to wait here until I come back?”
I blinked. “Is that okay? I thought I was supposed to stick close to you when I’m in town.”
She gave me a mild look. “Tommy, do you know how many adventurers here in Mistleten have been the lead adventurer on a wolpinhar kill?”
Her expression morphed into a smirk. “One, as of today. I’d say more than half of us have assisted in a kill, but the lead adventurers have all been higher level and here for the seasonal rushes. So can you carry the carcass one-handed or not?”
When I’d first shown up, no way in hell. But now? I gave it a try, and- “Okay, yeah. I think I can make it to Gilander carrying this.”
“Good. Then I want you to get out there and be seen with your arm bandaged up and staggering under the weight of your kill. The more adventurers who show up to gawk at you, the better.”
Oh. “I didn’t actually kill it, you know. My team did that while it was biting me.”
“Which, since your friends use clubs, kept the pelt from getting cut up.” Abby nodded. “Sound thinking. And later we’ll do some drills to practice making the right decision in a fight, but right now go get out there and strut over to Gilander!”
She was right, I did attract a crowd as I trudged over to the apothecary. Yeah, I know she said to strut, not trudge, but carrying the dead wolpinhar one-handed was not easy! I think I saw some wide eyes and maybe heard some impressed murmurings, but whenever I looked around people seemed to have other places to be.
Even Gilander seemed impressed, when I walked in and he looked up from something that he was grinding up in a small bowl. Or at least he sprang from his seat and hurried over to take my burden from me.
“Abby’s surely not sending you after these!” he demanded. (Okay, maybe more appalled than impressed.) “I know you need more credit to outfit your crew, but-” He shook his head. “Your rat skin will be ready in two more days, couldn’t this have waited-!?”
“No,” I told him, shaking my head back at him. (And working my arm to get some of the soreness out, now that I wasn’t having to hold thirty pounds of monster corpse.) “Cecil got word of a scout, and it had to be killed before it went back to the Grimwust and brought its family back.”
Gilander turned it over. “Hm. It is a buck, and young enough to be seeking territory. But your friend . . . makes more sense that you heard it from him. Our esteemed Secretary General would wait until you were a fifth level Warrior or Marksman just to assist with one of these intemperate beasties. You’re still a Jack, do I have that right? Can’t say what level you’d need to reach before she’d deem you ready, but you can’t be more than third or fourth at the most.”
“Yeah.” Between Darksight, Vanish, and the Shadow Creep upgrade to Vanish, all my Jack-of-all-Trades points so far were used up. Hopefully I wouldn’t need to spend any more for a few levels, ‘cause it wasn’t hard to guess that the enlightenment knack I needed to buy, to start practicing prana knacks on my own, was going to cost a lot of points. “But Abby got me to Doctor Christoph, and once he pulled the teeth out and wrapped my arm she sent me to you. I guess a wolpinhar’s good for reagents-?”
“Fresh out of the Grimwust? Even crushed a bit, I should think so.” He gave the corpse a considering frown. “You’ll be wanting the skin taken care of properly, I assume. Most of the organs should still be useful, and the fangs will make a fine foundation for tempering some decent stabbing blades-”
Gilander broke off and gave me a wry smile. “Lad, let’s wait a little, until Abby arrives. If she’s here while I assess the value of each reagent, she won’t accuse me of cheating you later. Tea?”
“That’s fine,” I agreed. My left arm was still throbbing and my right was sore from toting the carcass, so sitting down and waiting a bit didn’t sound bad at all.
Only the fact that I’d been out killing monsters and sometimes skinning and eating them saved me from losing breakfast, once Abby showed up and he started the butchering. Which isn’t something I hadn’t thought about so much, but I guess if you deal with kills brought in by guys with more enthusiasm than brains, it makes sense to learn how to skin and butcher those kills.
His shop probably got crazy during the seasonal rushes. Crazier than other shops, I mean. Made me wonder if he brought in help during the busy times. Could be.
Anyway, Gilander cut the wolpinhar open as neat as you please, and went over the quality of a dozen different organs with the Secretary General. I kinda got lost after a few, but I know they included the liver, the heart, the lungs, the stomach, and the brain. My advocate seemed satisfied at his assessment of the value, so I didn’t interrupt. Even though I was curious about what some of them were good for. Eh, I could always study it later.
“Would you like to have me arrange for the hide to be properly tanned?” he asked as he finished bottling up all the organs he was willing to pay for. “Between that and powdering the claws and teeth, I’m afraid it’d use up most of what you’ve just made.”
“Would that be worth it?” I asked Abby. “We could use money to help the entire crew, instead of just a bit of protection for me.”
“You’re planning on the powdered teeth for enhancing blades, once everyone has them?” she asked.
“You might want to ask them yourself,” she pointed out. “If you have the skin made into bracers, you could fight another wolpinhar without getting injured. If more than one fluffle is considering leaving the Grimwust, you might make quite a few shillings in guild credit hunting them.” Then her eyes narrowed. “But if you try to do it again without proper protection-!”
I honestly thought everyone would want to go for the quick payout. We’d been counting on making money when and where we could so we could afford to upgrade our gear (especially since none of them could level!), Gilander was one of the few shopkeepers in Mistleten who didn’t seem inclined to shortchange us, and this was the first break we’d gotten in terms of quality loot drops.
Turns out, no. Turns out, they wanted a shot at even more money by getting all the wolpinhar, never mind that we didn’t know if there’d even be any more of the foul-tempered death bunnies showing up out from the Grimwust. Never mind that the mild cutting/piercing resistance we were going to have on the rat skins might not be enough to keep them from getting bitten, if we ended up facing more than one or we cornered one and it picked a different target.
Honestly, I think that last bit might have been more of a draw for them than something to worry about. When we met at Cecil’s place to put it to a vote, his mother and his sister (turns out there were six of the kids, counting the baby and the toddler, but she was the oldest after him) made a huge fuss about my ‘bravery’, and his father Gavin even gave me a respectful handclasp, one adventurer to another.
“You stood your ground with them?!” Cecil’s sister soon demanded in a thrilled voice. “You hear about hunters thinkin’ they’re goin’ after a rabbit that’s holed-up, then they’re found later with their throats ripped out!”
“Come off it, Fiora!” Cecil snapped at her. “It was scary enough when the wolpinhar pounced at him, you don’t have to remind Tommy it could have gone worse.”
I shivered, but tried not to show it. None of us had combat knacks: Not only had everyone else on my team had been sealed, Jacks don’t get weapon skills like any of the combat classes do. The only reason I was any good with my seax, the only reason I could even begin to move in combat, was that Abby insisted on training me when we both had some time. (With her repeating crossbow, when she was teaching me blocking and evasion. Blunted tips, but they still hurt enough to motivate me.)
“Are you hoping to become an adventurer when you turn 16?” I asked her quietly.
She glanced at her brother and winced, but nodded. “I didn’t think I could until recently, but if we’re able to have a few good years, and if Cecil’s fortunate . . .”
I nodded as she trailed off. “Then try to practice when you have spare time. If I hadn’t been learning to block better, that might’ve been it for me. When a wolpinhar screams, it’s like your blood freezes, you don’t have time to think about what you’re going to do before it pounces, and so you’d better already know how to react.”
“But you don’t need to be worryin’ about that for at least a couple more years,” her older brother insisted. “If you gotta get ready, get everyone to toss clods at you an’ learn to duck ‘em all.” He scowled. “I’d say see if Carmela would show you a few tricks, when she has time to spare, if her family were speakin’ to us at the moment.”
“They still aren’t,” Gavin told his children, looking grim. “As if we hadn’t been lookin’ at me being the last adventurer in the family, if nothing changed.” He gave me a heavy look. “Cecil tells me you aren’t from around here, so you wouldn’t know Carmela or her folks, but they’ve managed to stay independent, without lease nor pledge on their farm. Old Artur has no sympathy for us lowly renters, and they’ve cut all connection to those of us who felt desperate enough to send our sons with Liberio’s captains when they came recruiting.”
Ugh. This Artur guy sounded a bit like how my parents act socially. Upper-middle class and looking down on the rest of the world like we were the kind of nobility that Abby seems to think I am. ‘Personal charity is for Christian sheeple,’ that kind of thing.
“Hey, since I’m not from around here, there’s something I’m curious about,” I said, hoping to segue to a safer topic. “You live within walking distance of a dangerous magical forest. Why do the Holders keep tenants from being able to afford to become adventurers? Isn’t that kinda dangerous?”
“Sure, it’s perilous to live close to the Grimwust, even for adventurers,” Gavin replied. “Those who couldn’t hold on here left generations ago. But the Holders have no objection to us becoming adventurers . . . if we life-oath ourselves to them as villeins.”
He gave me a cynical smile and a nod as I realized the implications. “That’s right, lad. There’s those who’re worse off than even us renters. My farm may be leased, but I’ve the right to buy it out if I ever get that lucky. My children are growing up in their own home, not stuffed into some halfway-to-a-barn for human cattle. Not lickspittles for our Holder’s rotten brats, or prey for their sportin’ as they grow up.”
“Any way to free them from those oaths?” I asked, my eyes gone wide. I mean, I knew the Holders had servants, but I hadn’t realized those were serfs or maybe even slaves. Once we implement a fix for the problems keeping the tenant class mired down, I guess I’ve got another thing to work on.
But Gavin shook his head. “You’d have to be their Holder to release them, and defying properly sworn oaths will bring all the luck of the world down ‘gainst you. They’d need someone with an Enlightened class to help them get out from under that, and those folk have a reputation for being difficult.”
“Oh.” Well, I’d need to get a sage’s help anyway, so I could cheat my way to one of the knacks that’ll let me feel the flow of prana and practice all the fun-looking knacks that no one can buy without nerfing themselves. Learning how to free people from unfair oaths is just another thing I’d have to learn. In the meantime-
“Until Tommy grows up, he’ll be the one as looks like an easy target, won’t he?” Basil asked. “Why we’re gettin’ the bracers made for him to wear, so the Secretary General knows we’re not tryin’ to get him killed. Don’t want her mad at us, when it’s time to face judgment.”
“She’s not a bad person!” I protested, although I was kinda hoping I’d get the armor. I shouldn’t need it, ‘cause I was the one sneaking around backstabbing monsters, but I didn’t want to get bit again if we ended up hunting those vicious not-so-little not-rabbits for the loot drops.
“You can get good use out of wolpinhar bracers no matter which of you end up usin’ them,” Gavin pointed out. “We’ll put the word out to the other farmers that you handled a scout neat as you please, with no serious casualties despite not havin’ armor yet.” He gave me a look. “You can still use that arm, right lad?”
I nodded. “It hurts, but I was told it’ll heal cleanly.”
“Good to hear. Might be our good fortune, then, if those beasts start coming out of the ‘Wust and into your waitin’ arms.” Then he smirked. “And Cecil, if there should happen to be more than enough to outfit the lot of you, I’m sure Fiona wouldn’t complain if she gets her own bracers to wear when she stands before the Class Stone for the first time and makes her choice.”
His daughter’s eyes widened, and she looked gleefully excited at the idea, but her brother looked a bit dubious. “Can’t promise that the wolpinhar’ll come runnin’, Pa. Not exactly safe for us to brave the Grimwust and hunt them at the source, after all.”
“No, you’d need the aid of a Woods-Warden to be safe there, and they’ve little interest outside the bounds of the ‘Wust,” Gavin agreed. “But if it’s getting crowded, they might agree to assist in a bit of a cull . . . I think I should see if an old acquaintance remembers a silly young man he saved a long time ago. In the meantime, you all keep questin’ like you have been, and keep a lookout for other windfalls. They’re always there for the lucky few, each rush, so try to claim what you can before anyone else joins the race!”
“Secretary General, those paroled outlaws are at the gate, saying that they’re waiting for you.”
We were finishing up breakfast the next day, and the speaker was one of the men who guarded the eastern gate. He looked the youngest of them all, so if I had to guess he was there more-or-less by choice, while the rest had been forced to retire from adventuring after getting crippling injuries and not being able to afford to get healed up properly. That’s how the meme goes, right?
Abby just rolled her eyes. “Bring the rest of your loaf, Tommy, looks like your day is starting just a bit early.”
I nodded and rose from the table. Didn’t really know what was going on, but she seemed to think it wasn’t a big deal and I trusted her. Although she clearly thought it was something, since we swung by the guildhall first and she grabbed her favorite crossbow and some light armor.
I didn’t understand why until we got to the gate and everyone was waiting there in their new ratskin chest-pieces. Which made me blink in surprise, because-
“I thought it was going to be another day before those were ready,” I said.
“It should be,” Abby agreed. “Rushing the process means they’ll fall apart before this time next year.” She frowned at my team. “Waiting one more day wouldn’t have cost you anything.”
“Ma’am, we’ve had to cut back too much ‘cause of people gettin’ hurt,” Cecil pointed out. “And, well, five of us haven’t had the chance to go into a dungeon and help drain it. We were hopin’ you’d have the time to spare for that, this mornin’. Give the rest of the team the experience.”
She gave him a long look, before sighing and shaking her head. “It’s truly a pity we haven’t had any Sages coming by early for the summer rush. If you weren’t already Enforcers you’d be well on your way towards earning your initiation fees, and then perhaps we’d be getting some of the other adventurers headed out of town to find quests of their own.”
“Might not be enough to go around,” Claude pointed out.
“Only for a year or two,” Abby replied. “It wouldn’t be long before they were high enough level to return to their farms or to set out beyond Mistleten seeking further adventure. But yes, this morning I’m willing to run the entire team through the first several rooms of Lulach. I was planning on offering sometime in the next few days, once your armor was finished.”
“What about going deep enough to harvest reagents off the tulpas?” Cecil asked.
She shook her head again, this time in negation rather than exasperation. “No, if we go in deep enough for that, they’ll be strong enough to tear through your leathers.” Then she gave us all – me included – a serious look. “None of you are ready to face the kind of threats that dungeons pose. The monsters you face above-ground and away from the Grimwust follow the nature of beasts, mostly, but once you go deep enough into a dungeon, where the forest’s spite is rooted and strong, you find yourself in a place where everything – including the very ground beneath your feet – wishes for your death.”
Bertie nodded. “Makes sense, when you put it that way. Wouldn’t need adventurers if regular fellows like us could handle it.”
There weren’t enough dungeon monsters – tulpas, Cecil had called them, which was less of a mouthful – in each wave to give us all our own opponents, so after the first wave Abby gave me her crossbow and told me to get some practice trying to shoot them before they hit the front line. I wish I could say I did well, but every time they appeared it was like a new jump scare, and it wasn’t until the fourth wave of tulpas that I was calm enough to keep my shots from going wild. Then the fifth wave only had three tulpas and the sixth never came, which made our baby-sitter smile in satisfaction.
“Liberio’s priming is draining away as it ought,” she told us, once we gave up looking for more tulpas and left the dungeon. “One or two more sessions should be enough to clear Lulach’s shallows entirely. That’ll be a notable mark in your favor when the courts are convened and your cases are plead.”
There were nods and smiles all around, although I frowned in confusion.
“Hey, I know I’m not used to how things are in an adventurer town, but why are we waiting to hold trials?” I asked. “Isn’t it a lot of trouble to keep all the outlaw leaders confined?”
“It’d be townsfolk judgin’ farmers,” Cecil told me. “Or Holders judgin’ tenants. That’d cause grudges that’d last generations. Gettin’ a tribunal of sages to do it . . . well, at least everyone knows they’re fair, even if we don’t always like how they rule for a case.”
“That’s part of it,” Abby agreed. “Brother Bailey can use Dispassion and Discernment, but he has to invoke them as blessings rather than having the knacks. It would leave him completely exhausted to conduct even a tithe of the trials, while a few Enlightened adventurers will be able to judge cases all day until the docket is cleared.” She paused for a moment. “I’d have already asked him to judge the senior bandits if it were merely a matter of banishing them, simply to clear the gaol, but some of the charges merit hanging. Mistleten may be a Free City, without liege or lord, but we’ve always convened tribunals to determine matters of what you’d call high justice. Like Cecil said, it keeps grudges against the judges from turning into feuds.”
“Is it . . . crowded in there?” It kinda sucked to think of them packed into cells like sardines, but-
“Very,” she confirmed with a nod. “I’d prefer to banish some of the followers straightway, but that would mean clearing them of conspiracy to commit murder, and from what you told me I don’t have reason to argue for that.”
I nodded back. “Liberio took every veteran outlaw he could when he went to start the pogrom. It was chaos for the rest of us, that’s why I was able to slip away. Even the few left behind to ride herd on us had to have some idea of what was happening, but-”
“Our new boss, fillin’ in for Myles that day, was pretty jumpy,” Cecil observed, scowling. “I thought maybe he was nervous about us risking gettin’ caught, but he was as surprised as the rest of us when the town deputies caught us out. Makes sense, if he knew the rest were starting the killin’.”
“As I said,” Abby replied, “I can’t argue for clearing any of them of murder charges. It’s one thing to shelter in a dungeon and rob any adventurers who happen by, simple banishment will usually suffice for that, but Liberio’s plot went far beyond robbing and beating adventurers.” She gave us all a careful look. “Tommy’s armor won’t be ready until tomorrow, but I assume you have quests today that won’t put him in undue jeopardy?”
He nodded. “Got reports of wolf prints near a farm, but this close to the Grimwust they’re worried it might be a half-grown vargr instead. Pa says we should look for goblin-sign as well, just in case.”
She nodded back, looking very serious. “You should, yes. Goblins aren’t permitted in the Grimwust, but if there’s a tribe wandering in nearby they’ll be feeling the pinch from lack of good hunting by now. If you do find evidence of goblins I’ll ensure the finder’s fee is paid in full.”
That got a cheer from the group, and we headed out while Abby went back to town.
I walked back to town with a heavy heart that evening. I’d done my best to keep my team from noticing, although I’m pretty sure they still saw how upset I was.
When we’d gone to the farm where the prints had been see, we’d gotten an update that a calf had been taken. Cecil pulled me aside to tell me to come back out without starting a fight if the den had more than one wolf, because hauling off a calf looked like a wolf that needed to feed cubs. We’d still have to kill them, couldn’t let wolves learn that farms were full of easy prey, but I didn’t have armor yet and if I couldn’t kill all the adults right away I’d get myself killed as soon as my Vanish popped. Same if it was a vargr or had a goblin partner: If it wasn’t alone I was to get back out there and alert the team so we could fight as a group.
But the wolf prints had been from one lone wolf. All by herself, ribs showing through her skin. Curled up around a small litter of starved-dead puppies, a mangled part-eaten calf in front of them as if to tempt their appetite. All of which I found when I crept inside the den, using Shadow Creep to be sure Vanish muffled my scent and sound as well as my image.
I told myself that cutting her throat was a mercy, and that Cecil was right about not letting beasts learn to prey on farms, but . . .
At least I didn’t cry where any of them could see. Even still, when I met Abby she took one look at me and gave me a big hug. As we returned to Mistleten for supper I told her all about it. In return she told me the story of the first time she’d ever cried over a kill, a hungry lioness who’d also learned that livestock are easier prey than wild animals.
But once in town, as we passed by the guildhall, she gave me a speculative look. “Have you checked the Class Stone recently?”
I blinked in confusion. “No, why?”
Abby’s look turned exasperated. “Tommy, even with a group some of your kills are solitary because of Vanish. Not to mention, you survived a wolpinhar attack. Maybe you think it doesn’t mean so much that you were the one who was attacked instead of one of the ones clubbing it, but you confronted it and didn’t panic. I’ve had more than one adventurer die because they froze up against something scary and startling. You should be proud of yourself.” Her lips quirked wryly. “Even if you hadn’t faced the wolpinhar, along with your recent questing you hit some of the apparitions this morning. I know progress has felt slow since you’ve started working with a team, but I think you should check the Stone tonight.”
She was right, my experience gain had slowed down a lot, working with the group. When Myles had been leading us, he’d taken us into more dangerous fights because he could back us up if something went horribly wrong. (And, you know, everyone else had Dominate. Get in the first strike with that and tough battles got a whole lot easier.) After everyone except me had gotten sealed, we’d had to focus on clearing quests that weren’t quite as dangerous. So even though I’d been adventuring every day I could, my progression towards level 4 had been slow enough that I’d stopped checking every day.
Although despite what she said, I was still a bit surprised when I laid my hand on the Class Stone and it told me that I was ready to level. Hell, it turned out I was about halfway to level five after I picked Jack again. My choices had widened out again, too. Along with Scout, Warrior, and Magician, I was also offered Marksman, Tracker, and Guardian. Marksman I could understand since I’d been getting a bit of training with the crossbow, but I didn’t get why I was being offered Tracker or Guardian until I asked Abby.
“You tracked down a monster that you shouldn’t have faced at your level and survived its attack while protecting your teammates from it,” she pointed out. “Those classes may not suit you as well as others would, but you proved you could qualify for them if that’s what you were determined to do.”
At least she didn’t try to push me into picking one of them. Still haven’t admitted what I’m hoping I can cheese into. But at least I’d found out that there’d be enough enlightened adventurers coming to make up a tribunal. It meant I’ll have that many more chances to persuade one of them to help me out.
But later that night when I was trying to get to sleep, I couldn’t shake the worry that if they were supposed to be spiritual masters, how would they feel about me knowing an outlaw knack?
Continue to Part IV?
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