Consciousness and Intelligence: Four Tiers

There’s little question that humans are more intelligent than any other species on Earth: The most intelligent runners up, such as dolphins, chimps, parrots, etc., are considered equivalent to young children in their reasoning ability. In a purely historical and mundane setting the question of tiers of intelligence could be largely ignored, as for example in medieval Europe the prevailing understanding was that all animals were entirely driven by instinct.

We know better now, that even animals that aren’t as smart as parrots or chimps can feel, experience, and learn. That nearly every animal that’s normally raised by its parents until maturity has to be taught the skills of survival in the wild, for their instincts aren’t sufficient to the task. They can solve simple problems, if often only by trial and error. They even, sometimes, decide that it’s worth the risk of approaching humans, despite all the peril of our mysterious and lethal capabilities, to beg for help.

Usually, when that happens, it’s for the sake of their young. One doesn’t need to be as smart as humans to love.

The term ‘sentient’ is often used to define thinking creatures, but its proper definition is the ability to perceive or feel.

This gives us the first two tiers of intelligence: Instinct and sentience. Those creatures that have only the first can be thought of as biological machines, responding only to general stimulus. In a fight, they cannot be scared away: Their defensive instincts may be triggered momentarily, but that’s going to be about it. On the other hand, they are particularly susceptible to biological hacking tricks, such as herbs whose fragrance they avoid.

Sentient animals will still be driven by their instincts, but can make simple decisions in the course of satisfying their drives. Predators tend to prefer easy prey, for example, meaning they can figure out who in a herd is already wounded or otherwise disadvantaged. These animals can be scared off by threat displays, particularly ones employing fire. One use of a torch, for example, might be to convince a swarm of rats to stay at least a few feet away from the torchbearer.

This is also the level of intelligence where it becomes reasonable to try to communicate with animals via magic in the style of a ‘Speak With Animals’ spell. Absent intelligence-boosting magic they would tend to be limited in the concepts they can understand and relate to, however.

Animals at this level of intelligence can learn tricks that their species might not ordinarily pick up. Domesticated animals are often trained to perform several such tricks, but there’s no reason why a wild animal is forbidden to figure things out. Giving an animal some tricks that it’s figured out over the course of a lifetime might be a good way to add something to an encounter that players weren’t expecting.

The next level of intelligence is the sophont. This is the human level, for creatures intelligent enough to be self-aware, to imagine, to doubt, to think abstractly, etc.

Taking half a step back, there is in fantasy a certain amount of conceptual space for beings that are technically sophonts, but are on average quite a bit duller than the average human. For that matter, in the real world particularly bright animals sometimes display enough self-awareness to recognize themselves in a mirror. It’s interesting to reflect that some animals can learn to be sophont to a degree.

Of course, there are also those creatures in the real world that display the reasoning capability of a six-year-old and so.

So if I’ve gone instinct to sentience to sophont and called the inbetween of sentient and sophont a half-step, what’s the fourth tier?

The taxonomy for the human race is Homo Sapiens. However, the formal definition of ‘sapient’ is wise, or attempting to appear wise.

Just as some animals can learn to recognize themselves in a mirror, we humans can learn to be wise in some small degree, but it’s quite a bit of work and many of us never really bother. (If we did, among many other things commercials wouldn’t be a viable source of income for television stations and channels!)

. . .

I don’t think Wisdom is a good stat/attribute/ability score. If we understood sapience well enough to put its effects in a role-playing game, I imagine that there would be a great deal less self-destructive and civic-weakening behavior going on in society.

. . .

So that’s four tiers of intelligence, five if you count the halfway between sentient and sophont as its own tier. The tricky part here is likely to center around designing mechanics for the effects of wisdom without it coming across as players or dungeon masters pulling solutions or problems out of their fourth point of contact!

Wielding the Blade, Part V

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.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

I actually caught up with them right as they arrived at Cecil’s home. Turns out trying to carry Ed jostled his leg enough that it was starting to bleed again, and they didn’t have anything clean enough to use as a fresh bandage, so he had to lean on someone and hobble his way there.

Ed, if you need another drink, Cecil’s folks are going to have to supply it,” I announced. “I got as much water as I could, but we’ve got to save some to turn in to your mother for the quest reward, and that goat finally realized I was there. I don’t think I can sneak back for more water a third time, at least not today.”

The kid rolled his eyes. “I’m feeling better than I did last night, when I didn’t know if I was going to make it back home or not. I can wait for a tonic.” Then he scowled. “I wish I hadn’t dropped the cow chips. Mother’s scolding would be easier to face if I’d kept them all.”

Cecil’s sister chose that moment to run outside, as we approached the farmhouse. “Who is this?” she demanded. “Where did you find another little boy to- He’s bleeding!”

Ed here tried to sneak past the bull of Whittry Gorge,” her brother told her. “He’s been stuck there since last night, so go help Ma start to brew up a tonic for him! We’ve got Rumpfuer springwater for it, at least.”

Fiona nodded quickly and ran back inside, calling for her mother as she did. A couple of the crew headed off to town to pass the message on, while the rest of us followed at a pace our patient could handle, and soon had him lying down in a bed, with his leg raised up – and a rag to bite – so that Papa Gavin could have a look at it.

He frowned as he prodded the inflamed skin just outside the wound, while Ed bit down on his rag and did his best not to cry. “Out all night with nothin’ to treat this?”

Cecil nodded. “We wiped it down with watered wine, but didn’t have any clean bandages so I didn’t want to go deep.”

Good enough call, I reckon. Lad, you were lucky: If it heals cleanly, even the limp should go away in a few months. Now, a couple of you hold him down, I’m gonna squeeze it to try to make it drain and that’s gonna hurt like blazes. An’ worse after that, when I clean it out.” He raised his voice: “Honey, is the water hot yet? Gotta wash up in a bit.”

Well-water, yes!” came the reply. “Spring water for the tonic is still on the fire.”

My eyes had teared up too much to see what the doctor had been doing to my arm, but watching Ed scream in pain as Gavin applied his rough treatment was worse in a way, and it wasn’t long before I had to turn away to keep from throwing up.

Finally he was done and wrapping the wound back up in clean cloths, as Ed subsided into sniffles and we waited for the tonic to finish.

Gavin nodded as he tied off the bandage. “I know that weren’t easy, lad,” he told the younger boy. “There’s no shame in yellin’, not when it hurts like that. ‘Specially when you aren’t even an adventurer yet. Don’t tell yourself a real man wouldn’t yell: Takes a lot of time an’ pain to suffer an’ not cry out without a Physic’s syrup to make you sleep through it.”

Fiona’s eyes widened, from the corner of the room where she’d been watching with a look of sick fascination. “Not even an adventurer?” she repeated.

Her father snorted. “This is the Secretary General’s oldest boy, unless I’m mistaken. He’s not even twelve, if I’m countin’ the years right since she married, and she’d never let him pick his class so young.” He shot a look at my own bandaged arm. “Was he thinkin’ he had to prove himself, after you let that wulpinhar bite down on you?”

Yeah, he’s been wanting to take a class early ever since I showed up looking like I wasn’t more than twelve,” I replied. “But Ed, if you thought you were gonna get your mom to let you join early, getting hurt this bad on your very first quest ain’t gonna do it.”

The kid glared at me. “I’m more ready for it than you were. Still are! You barely know your way around the hinterlands, let alone how to survive the Grimwust!”

You’ve been in the Grimwust?” Fiona asked, sounding fascinated.

Ed hesitated. “No,” he admitted. Then he scowled again. “But all my life I’ve heard stories from adventurers, about what to do, and Ma’s making Tommy study things he ought to know just growing up! If he could do it, so can I!”

I face-palmed. “Your mom had me collecting star jelly and I still almost got killed when some, uh-” I paused for a moment, trying to remember what they’d been called. “-Greater Swarming Tree Spiders took over one of the groves. Then I went exploring in some nearby dungeons and got kidnapped by the bandit army. Everything we’ve been doing since has been as safe as we could manage, ‘cause stuff doesn’t need to be from out the Grimwust to be dangerous. Boars, hogs, and wolves . . . mole kings and man-sized rats . . . the nine of us are all working together because if we didn’t we’d get killed. Like you almost did!”

The lad’s right,” Gavin agreed. “I can hold my head up on account of bein’ an adventurer, but I didn’t get so very far myself: As soon as I reached fifth level I had to quit, as I was needed here on the farm. Those few levels mean I can run off most anythin’ that isn’t dug in, but some things you gotta be a lot higher to dislodge, or at least have enough warm bodies to be in enough places to box a critter in. Or even distract it: If you’d gone with Cecil and the other lads they could have caught the bull’s attention and then you could have collected all the cow chips you wanted. That’s how we did it in my day.”

That’s what we were gonna do, too,” I added. “Seriously, why’d you do this on your own? Convince the Secretary General to support you and she’d probably make sure you were as ready as you could possibly be.”

Ed turned his face away. “Ma’ll make me wait ‘till I’m sixteen, if I don’t prove myself first.”

Why are you all bullyin’ him!?” Fiona suddenly burst out at us. “He wants to be an adventurer, so he’s tryin’ to do quests. On his own!” She sniffed. “That’s brave, if you ask me! Braver than yellin’ at him for it.”

Because it isn’t just about bravery,” I told her. “See, quests that anyone with a bold heart can do? They don’t become quests. People just do them when it’s needed. Once you’ve got a few levels, adventurer classes give you the experience to survive threats that would kill someone who doesn’t have a lot of training. And Ed knows a lot more fieldcraft than I do, but when something went wrong he couldn’t fight the bull. Not like, say, a Warrior might have.”

She scowled. “At least he was brave enough to try!”

Don’t be silly!” Cecil snapped at her. “That kind of bravery almost saw him dead! Do you want to see me or Pa dead, because we decided we’d be ‘brave’ like that?”

Fiona flinched. “I know Pa has to keep the farm goin’,” she said in a small voice, “but-”

Tommy’s right,” Ed admitted. “If things hadn’t gone wrong I’d have completed the quest, but the bull got to me faster than I’d figured. I’ll know better next time.”

I groaned. “Is Abby going to have to shackle you down, to keep you from running off and getting yourself killed?”

I’ll be more careful next time!” he insisted. “Besides, once I’m not limping couldn’t you just take me along? I could sneak out again and meet you-”

There’ll be no more sneaking, young man.”

The owner of that flatly-delivered line was, naturally, Abby. Who looked like she’d been running hard but wasn’t even close to being out of breath. (One thing I kinda regret about trying this whole Jack trick is that, maybe I improve faster with practice and exercise as a general boost to my ability to learn, but real classes start giving you actual solid buffs about five levels in. At fourteenth level Abby was faster and tougher than she would have been as a regular person, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that she’d picked up movement knacks so she could kite monsters if she needed to.)

We all stood at attention, even Gavin.

Secretary General,” the father of the household said, nodding respectfully to her, “we’ve got a tonic brewin’ up for your Ed, if you can wait for it to finish. The lads found him where he’d been stuck overnight, after the bull of Whittry Gorge poked his leg good and hard.”

The bull-!” Abby took in a deep breath. “Young man, we are going to have a talk about this when you get home. Now,” she continued, turning to me, “Tommy, I’m grateful that you found him, but how is it that you happened to decide to do quests on exactly the day when my son needed help?”

I-I realized he wasn’t around for breakfast,” I replied, stammering a little. It was true enough, even if I was leaving out the fact that Claire had clued me in and then blackmailed me into not telling her mother. “I didn’t know he was in trouble, but I snuck into your office to see if I could find anything out of place, and those three quests weren’t where they were supposed to be.”

And I left for the guildhall as soon as I woke up this morning, so Caleb may have been overwhelmed with the others.” She shook her head. “Ed, why didn’t you tell someone where you were going? They could have raised the alarm when you never came back last night.”

I-” he began, but then paused as Cecil’s mother came in with a steaming mug for him to drink. His eyes darted over to me as he drank, and I gave him a tiny headshake. I don’t think his mother noticed, but hopefully he got the message.

Some girls are cool, I hear. Hadn’t ever seen it back on Earth outside of games and movies, it’s not like any girl I knew wanted to be nice to the class wimp, but some grownup women were almost cool. A lot of girls are snotty brats, though, so you’ve gotta figure those ‘no girls allowed’ clubs maybe had a point. Hey, girls have girl-only stuff, why not the reverse?

And Claire is definitely the snotty brat sort. Hopefully Ed wouldn’t be dumb enough to confide in her like this again.

Your boy was lucky, ma’am,” Gavin told Abby. “Didn’t break his leg, at least, and the wound didn’t get too dirty while he lay there. Still want to get him proper care, I expect, but I reckon he’ll not even limp this time next year.”

That’s certainly something to be grateful for,” she replied. “You’ve been a wonderful host for my son, and your household has my deepest thanks. But,” she continued, turning to me, “how did you make it to my office without anyone noticing you?”

I hate to admit it, but I froze up.

Because it occurs to me,” Abby went on thoughtfully, “that if you were trying to avoid attention . . .”

Unfortunately, she caught my wince before I could suppress it.

Tommy,” she said, very gravely, “I need you to be absolutely honest with me.”

I-” I began, but wasn’t sure how to go on. Because I was about to get into so much trouble, but if I came completely clean I might get into less trouble, but if I told on Claire I could expect her to ride my ass out of spite and go running to her mother with anything she thought she could get me in trouble with from here on out.

So I just hung my head.

Tommy,” Abby began sternly, “do you not recall what I told you about outlaws not being tolerated in Mistleten?”

I hunched my shoulders, but nodded. “I remember.”

So what do you think it would do to everything we’re trying to do to fix the problems that have built up over the generations if someone caught you using an outlaw knack in town?”

I winced again and hunched deeper. “It’d be bad.”

You could say that,” she agreed. “Or you could say it would be an utter disaster!”

I don’t think I was the only one who jumped when she all-but-shouted like that.

I cannot imagine what you were thinking!” Abby declared, sounding like she was gritting her teeth, before suddenly sighing. “But you were trying to help, and you found my son and rescued him before anyone else realized he was missing.”

I dared to look back up at her. Her expression was upset and frustrated, but I think exasperated above everything else. In that way that my mother looked when she had to leave work to come deal with a problem I was having. (Or trouble I was in, sometimes.) “I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

Those two boys might have been silly,” Gavin’s wife suddenly said, “but the stories I could tell you about Cecil at that age! Or even this one,” she went on, nodding towards her husband (who gave her a look of fond annoyance in reply). “Just means they’ve still got some grownin’ up to do, gods willing they survive that long.”

And at least your son was brave enough to try on his own!” their daughter insisted. Fiona then gave her brother a disdainful sniff. “Better than runnin’ off with bandits and becomin’ an outlaw.”

Young woman,” Abby replied heavily, “going off to quest by yourself as a new adventurer is the worst possible thing you can do, because it will get you killed. Just like it almost got my son killed. Today’s adventurers have gone too far in the other direction, not wanting to quest without someone strong enough to save them if they get into trouble, but that kind of prudence keeps most of them alive, even if they take longer to gain enough levels to leave Mistleten. Tommy, your brother, and everyone else are working together in part to prove that it can be done without having their hands held all the time.

Which is why,” here she shot an aggravated glare my way, “they need to be careful to not be seen as just another gang of outlaws.

I cringed, but couldn’t think of anything to say.

But what if I go out with them?” Ed suddenly asked. “Tommy’s friends don’t have classes, not real ones, and they’re still doing important quests, right?”

She gave her son a distinctly unimpressed look.

At the same time I was rolling my eyes. “Look at my arm!” I exclaimed. “Look at your leg, if you’ve somehow forgotten how it feels! The only reason I don’t get hurt more often is that I’m usually sneaking around, and you can’t do that the way I can. Not without becoming a Jack and learning outlaw knacks, and your parents would kill me if I was dumb enough to teach you Vanish.”

I would be very tempted,” Abby agreed darkly.

But what about after I’ve healed up? Making me wait until I’m old isn’t fair!”

His mother shook her head. “I’m halfway tempted to start training you alongside Tommy, simply to keep you alive, but I don’t want to encourage more of this.”

I managed to bite my tongue before I could point out that if he was willing to go out and face down a bull on his own and without a class, he wasn’t going to let a little thing like not getting trained stop him. “Speaking of ‘this’, we got some of that healing water that we didn’t need to use up for Ed’s tonic. Didn’t get scales, although I didn’t try to trick the snake once I figured he wasn’t there. Didn’t go after any cow chips, either. Want us to give those last two another try?”

Abby gave me another aggrieved look. “No. You’re coming home with us for luncheon, and then you’ll get back to questing for the farmers this afternoon. And there will be no more attempts at the quests in my files without thoroughly planning it out first.”

Gavin chuckled. “Reckon I can’t quite spare the time this week or the next, but once I’m done with spring plantin’ I’d be willing to show the lads how it’s done at the gorge. Your boy too, Secretary General, if you think he’ll learn somethin’ from it.”

She gave him something of an aggrieved look, but allowed that it wasn’t the worst idea she’d heard today, and pretty soon we headed back to town. Ed couldn’t walk at any reasonable pace, but Cecil carried him piggy-back and we made decent time.

I swear, one day I will be strong enough to carry someone like that.

***

Caleb’s expression was thunderous when we arrived at their home, which made Ed cringe away from him. He hadn’t seemed that scared of his mother, which made me wonder what his father’s level had been before Caleb semi-retired to provide outfits for adventurers. Abby may be second-highest level of all the active adventurers, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be retired adventurers higher than her around town. Hell, for all I know he might’ve done a ton of questing after they married to get the funds for his business. And depending on what his class is, his stat improvements might have been more about strength than the precision that a Marksman like Abby would want.

Speculations aside, I figured Ed was worried that he was in for the whupping of his lifetime. And when he got down from Cecil’s shoulders he kept his eyes firmly on the ground as he shuffled towards his dad.

Look at me, son.” The words were quiet, but Caleb’s tone brooked no disobedience.

Slowly, Ed’s head rose, until he could just barely meet his father’s eyes.

You waited until you knew your mother was too busy to help me look after all of you. Until you knew I would have to trust you to be responsible about getting to bed on time. And then you didn’t tell anyone where you were going, so that when you didn’t return there was no one who knew to sound the alarm.”

But-” the boy began. Obviously because he had told Claire, who for all the airs of maturity she affected hadn’t sounded said alarm. And who now refused to meet his gaze.

No buts!” Caleb interrupted. “I remember being young. I remember getting myself into trouble. I particularly remember my father tanning my hide when I got caught trying to sneak out to join some adventurers. Do you think you were less foolish than that, or more?”

Ed hung his head again. “More,” he mumbled after a few heartbeats.

His father nodded. “Good. At least you realize that. You know, I’d still tan your hide if you’d come back successful, pouches full of loot, for breaking my trust in you.”

The boy winced, and tensed up, clearly awaiting the start of the beating he’d earned.

Well, come on inside. You shouldn’t be putting weight on that leg if you can at all help it.” With that, Caleb turned to go, but turned back around when he apparently realized that his son had frozen, staring at him in confusion. “Son, do you think you’d remember last night and this morning better if I tanned your hide?”

Ed quickly shook his head.

I didn’t think so. That’ll heal quickly enough, once the Physic comes to take a look at you, but you’ll be limping for at least a month. I can only hope you’ve been punished sufficiently to make the lesson stick.”

I blinked in confusion as father and son entered their home. “Okay, I’m not demanding that your husband come back and beat your son to within an inch of his life, but . . .”

I wasn’t really sure how to finish that. Fortunately, Abby seemed to understand my confusion.

Some children need all the punishment you can give them before they’ll heed you,” she told me softly, “but thankfully Ed isn’t that headstrong. Punishing him is for his sake, to teach him better, not for our peace of mind. Something to remember if you ever decide to settle down and raise your own family.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, either. Back on Earth, some of our older teachers talked about kids getting sent to the Principal’s office and getting paddled when they were bad, but our younger teachers told us how horrible that must have been, and how that had ended by the time they were in school. Beating kids is only supposed to happen with drunk rednecks and Catholic nuns or something, and then CPS takes the kids away.

But maybe . . . if I’d been forced to study instead of play games, maybe I’d have been a little more prepared for this world. If I’d been forced to exercise by our regular P.E. coaches and not just the one retired Marine substitute, maybe my feet wouldn’t have blistered when I showed up here. Hell, Abby’s evasion training is effective because those padded crossbow bolts sting if I don’t dodge them, so maybe someone should have paddled me for refusing to play dodge-ball in P.E. class and sent me in to play anyway. And if the housekeeper had been told to swat me if I didn’t eat my veggies, I might not be quite so pathetic compared to all the real adventurers in Mistleten.

(And I wasn’t one of the bad kids, either. Those got put into ‘classes’ where they could do whatever they liked, in rooms that didn’t have anything important so that nothing of value would get broken. Sometimes there had to be cops right outside the door to their ‘classrooms’ to make sure they didn’t break anything outside. Those classes have gotten bigger and bigger since I first started school, too. Would we even need them if those kids got paddled for breaking rules?)

I’m sorry,” I mumbled, again.

She cocked an eyebrow at me. “You already said that.”

I don’t think I know what good parents are like, so I was scared to . . . my parents are very busy every day. It’s always been better if I don’t interrupt what they’re doing. Going to them always meant trouble, and . . .”

Abby sighed. “And I’ve been especially busy myself, ever since you brought word of the bandit army.” She leaned over and gave me a quick hug. “Just remember that you’re one of my adventurers now, and it’s your job to bring me trouble.”

I nodded, and we went inside for luncheon.

***

We got full payment for getting the water. It wasn’t all that much, turns out the stuff’s a minor reagent that’s only listed as a quest because it can be stored and used later (and because the thauma locus that produces it tends to keep a guardian like the goat to chase off trespassers), but the Secretary General wasn’t going to screw us out of the reward just because we were former outlaws. Although I’m guessing she’d be a lot more dubious about dealing with hardened criminals who claimed to be turning over a new leaf. Or at least if any of the experienced outlaws awaiting trial have tried selling that line, she sure hasn’t bought it! Anyway, you gotta figure that every little bit counts for saving up for decent gear.

Or replacing ruined clothes, but ever since the bandits I’ve been luckier there.

The afternoon was pretty routine, for me at least. (Does that say something about what my life had become, that sneaking up on critters, with magical invisibility to all their senses so I could kill them more easily, was becoming routine?) Everyone else on the team was able to be more aggressive than when we’d started out, now that we all had armor over our vitals, so we were pushing the pace to get things done. Doubly so today, since we’d taken all morning to rescue Ed. It wasn’t anything I’d complain about, it actually felt pretty good to be getting better at this and being able to slam out quests one after another, but I was pretty exhausted by the time the light was gone and we called it quits. As much as I hate it in games where there’s a daily endurance counter and you can’t get much done when it’s gone? Turns out that’s kinda how it works.

We’d already sent a message to Abby, to let her know we’d been offered dinner by some grateful tenant farmers and that we were going to be working late, so at least she wasn’t worried about us. All she did was check me over as I scrubbed off, making sure I wasn’t hurt or messing up my own bandage wrap – which I wasn’t, either one – before I fell into the bed I was still sharing with Ed.

But tired as I was, I was sore enough that when he got into bed a little while later, I was still awake, and he didn’t drop off to sleep right away either. “Did, uh-?” he whispered instead.

I gave him a moment, but it didn’t seem like he knew how to go on. But I could guess. “Yeah, Claire told me about you. Threatened to get me in trouble with Abby if I didn’t find out why you were missing and fix it.”

Oh.” He was quiet again for moment. “Why didn’t you say anything? Ma’s still upset with you, even if she’s grateful that you helped me.”

Because I don’t want your sister to hold a grudge for getting her in trouble with your parents. She seems like the type.”

Oh,” he whispered again.

Next time, ‘cause I figure there’ll be more than one next time now that your starting to grow up, don’t confide in a brat like her. When you didn’t come back last night, she should have fessed up to your parents and taken her lumps, but instead she waited until this morning and forced me to do it secretly. That stuff with Gavin cleaning out your leg wouldn’t have had to happen, or at least Abby probably could’ve afforded a potion for the pain. Sure, your dad decided you’ve been punished enough, but everything you went through today is ‘cause Claire thought it was more important for her to stay out of trouble than to get you help. So I don’t think you should rely on her again.”

But she’s family!” he protested quietly.

I was quiet for a moment. “Okay, I never had siblings so I don’t know about that part. But it seems like maybe being family doesn’t mean that much to her.”

She’s . . . it’s just that she doesn’t like being younger than me. ‘Cause she’s more mature and everything.”

Why, ‘cause she’s a girl?” I yawned. “If I worried about being stronger than anyone, I’d never do anything. Don’t worry about being more mature than her, worry about being more mature than you were yesterday.”

So minding my parents.” It was clear that the thought wasn’t a happy one.

And getting ready. Exercising, getting your parents to train you . . . maybe come up with ideas that’ll let you tip-toe a little closer to adventuring without trying to get yourself killed.”

Like what?”

I yawned again. “I dunno. Maybe ask your mom to send you collecting reagents like she had me doing?”

After all, if he ended up trying to collect star jelly and his ambitions were defeated by how horrible that stuff smells, it’d make it easier to decide to wait until his mom and dad said he was old enough. It was a hopeful note to go to sleep on, at least.

***

I saw Eamon in the guildhall the next morning, and decided to intercept him before Abby got to a stopping point in her paperwork and decided to see me off. Except, how to approach him without drawing everyones’ attention-

Thought you had an outlaw knack if you wanted to sneak up on someone,” he said, quietly but clearly. Except I was too far away to hear him over the background noise of everyone else having breakfast, so it had to be a Scout knack. Something for communicating with teammates without alerting a target? Could be, I haven’t studied Scout knacks yet.

I’d like to ask a favor,” I muttered, hoping he could hear back-

No, he couldn’t, going by how he rolled his eyes and then beckoned me over.

Say that again, kid,” Eamon instructed quietly once I was sitting next to him. (Fortunately, it didn’t seem like I’d attracted anyone else’s attention.) “This Scout’s knacks can’t hear you across the through all the talk around us.”

Oh. I thought it might be useful, to hear one conversation among dozens, but-”

It is,” he confirmed. “I’ll get that in a few levels, but tribals hardly ever try to raid around Mistleten, and bandit armies like the one you stumbled over are even rarer. So what did you want?”

I need a favor,” I repeated. “Liberio primed at least one dungeon and we want to get some more experience dealing those monsters that dungeons spawn. You’re good enough to kite spiders while they’re spitting acid at you, so you’d probably-”

I’ll think about it,” Eamon interrupted. “See what the Secretary General says, at least.”

She won’t mind, I think,” I told him. “Although we’re not up to going far enough in that you’d get reagents from the monsters.”

He snorted. “You’d be crazy if you tried. That’s for a team where everyone’s at least tenth level and has spare weapons they don’t mind losing. You’ve got heart, Tommy, but stick to quests that aren’t certain death for your group. The pay for helping to drain a dungeon isn’t a lot, off-season, but it’s not much worse than construction work and won’t be as boring. Alright, if the Secretary General gives it the okay I’ll likely be willing.”

***

So what do we have today?” I asked, once Abby found me and escorted me out of town. She’d nodded when I’d told her about talking with Eamon, but didn’t say anything. It felt like she hadn’t quite forgiven me, and that rankled. I was tempted to tell her about Claire, but it would have sounded like I was trying to shift the blame after the fact. And grownups may say they want you to tattletale, but they don’t treat snitches much better than kids do, not unless the snitch was already a teacher’s pet. No, I just needed to get back to killing monsters and staying out of trouble.

Some sort of big lizards are takin’ up space in the marshes,” Cecil told me. “Drivin’ off the game that feeds there, killin’ bog turtles and attackin’ livestock tryin’ to graze. Gotta find their mounds and make sure they’re all dead.”

Big lizards,” I repeated. “Do we know what kind? Or how big they are?”

Big as a man on all fours, I heard,” Bertie replied. “Jaws that snap shut, big enough to take your head off. Like to hunt the water, but on land they’re faster than a man can run, too.”

My eyes widened as I heard this description. See, every summer my parents would drag me somewhere for a ‘vacation’, trying to find somewhere fun. A couple of years back we went way down south in Texas, close to the Gulf of Mexico, where there’s this park where you can see baby alligators and walk around outside where the grownups live. (I hated that last part, those trails went on for miles.) Anyway, this older married couple worked there as their retirement job and they gave us this big lecture on how dangerous alligators can be if you try to get up close to them.

But there was something I thought I remembered from biology class last year. “Uh, if their jaws are better at biting than opening, someone might be able to hold them shut while we attack-”

Knock it off, Bertie!” Cecil interrupted irritably. “Tommy, he’s just havin’ fun with you. Far as I know, gators aren’t real, and even if they are they don’t live around here. Just a scary story you hear from adventurers about other places.”

Oh,” I replied. “Uh, they are real, though. I went to a place where they lived, back a few years ago. The stories aren’t wrong, they can kill you if they catch you. It’s just that they’d usually rather hunt in the water.”

Huh,” he grunted. “Well, these shouldn’t even be as bad as those hanchinrongur Myles had us fight, so nothing to worry about.”

***

Any chance their skins make decent armor?” I asked a few hours later, looking at the damage to my rat-hide chest-piece. My damage wasn’t the worst, either. “Or maybe at least patches for armor? We need these to last for longer than a few fights.”

Not sure,” Claude replied. “Ain’t from out of the Grimwust, don’t know what they’re good for.”

Let’s skin one of the limbs,” Cecil decided. “You can take it back to the Secretary General, see what she knows. Claws and teeth too, just in case those’re worth anythin’. In the meantime, guess we’ll see if the meat’s any good after cookin’.”

***

The meat was in fact edible, although not very appealing. I guess it was a half-decent mid-morning snack, at least. We agreed on where we’d meet up, then scattered to get the lizard carcasses to everyone’s families for rendering. I, of course, headed to town with the samples for Abby.

After feeling the lizard skin I’d brought her, she didn’t think they’d be any good as armor, but she admitted that she wasn’t sure and promised to check with Gilander, along with making sure we got a fair price on the claws and teeth if they were worth anything. I trust, her, of course, but the whole exchange felt awkward compared to how it’d been earlier.

But as little as I liked having people stare at me, there wasn’t any temptation to try to Vanish away from their sight.

***

We ended up playing whack-a-mole for the rest of the morning. I’m not kidding, there was a strain of magical mole that basically trolled predators by popping in and out of holes as a distraction while others in the same burrow would sneak around and gather food. I guess that’s one way to survive the Grimwust, but farmers didn’t appreciate them digging in the fields.

Honestly, it ought to have taken us the rest of the day to get them all, but with Vanish reinforced by Shadow Creep I could hide next to one of their holes and smash them flat when they tried to use it as a ‘safe’ hole. As a result, it only took about as long as it would have with some proper adventurers doing the work, so after lunch I got to drop the carcasses off with Gilander, to render down their fat into an oil that was a decent reagent for agility. Fortunately, any young would starve long before they left the nest, so we didn’t have to dig up the fields any further to try to find said young. The farmer we’d gotten the quest from was already surveying the damaged area and muttering about replanting as we left.

We split up into three teams of three each that afternoon so we could handle some minor problems that didn’t need all nine of us at once. Even with the smaller groups it didn’t take long, either: My team handled a small swarm of giant rats, which was just a matter of laying in wait and clubbing them once the farmer chased them out of his grain and into a choke-point, and the other two teams had it just as easy. We ended up all going home slightly early that afternoon.

Abby already had Ed in her office when I arrived, and she put me to work in her files alongside him until she’d had enough for the day and took us over to the small gym for training. Then I couldn’t help but be a little irked when I saw how easily he walked. Clearly, he’d had the attentions of a doctor. Equally clearly, he’d gotten some potent treatment for his leg, the kind I hadn’t been able to afford for my arm.

I didn’t say anything. I’m not Abby’s son, even if she’s been mothering me ever since I showed up, and I couldn’t blame her for getting Ed the best care she could afford. I understood. Really.

But it still rankled.

Anyway, she set us both to working out. Then when my arms needed a break it was more evasion practice, except this time she had Ed shooting at me as well. He wasn’t nearly as good with a crossbow as his mother, or quite as fast, but it was still almost twice as many bolts heading my way and I don’t have a knack that helps with this! If the bolts were sharp and not padded I’d have been dead in less than a minute.

Still, it was heartening in a way: Adding another shooter could be seen as evidence that I was getting better even if it was just a skill that I was practicing and not a knack. But once I get an enlightened knack that lets me sense prana there’s a whole list of defensive knacks I need to learn.

***

Feeling better?” I asked that night, as we went to bed.

The Physic said I’d be able to take this off in a few more days,” Ed replied. “Ma says she’ll start training me seriously then, if only to tire me out so I don’t have the strength to get into any more mischief.”

Don’t complain when she does,” I recommended. “You’re her son, she won’t spare any effort to help you get ready if you’ll let her, but if you make it sound like you don’t want to she might not bother.”

Yeah, I think you’re right.” He was quiet for a moment. “Do you think she’ll let me come along when that farmer shows you how to properly handle the bull? I want to see what I did wrong.”

I dunno,” I replied, “but it’s gotta be more likely if you show that you’re willing to mind your parents and be as responsible as your sister likes to think she is.”

He snickered. We both managed to fall asleep soon after that, with me drowsily wondering if these after-bed conversations were normal for brothers growing up together, not that I count as a real brother. Still, maybe if they share bedrooms? Is that a thing, or do parents like to give each kid their own when there’s more than one? Had to have been a thing a long time ago, no way those frontier families with fifteen kids had enough bedrooms for everyone . . .

***

Hey Abby, Tommy,” Eamon greeted us the next morning, falling as we headed to the guildhall to check her paperwork. (For some reason, she wasn’t happy about letting me out of her sight while I was in town these last couple of days. Dammit, Claire!) “Think your friends can get a half-day of rest today?”

I frowned. “Maybe. Depends on how many quests they heard about while going home last night, how easy they are. Do you want to go hunting dungeon monsters today?”

He shook his head. “Naw, can’t afford to lose pay taking today off. But tomorrow’s Spiritsday so there’s no work anyway, if your friends can be rested up and ready to delve. We’ll want to be all day at it, if we’re checking all the nearby dungeons for priming.”

Abby grimaced. “All day? Tommy’s supposed to be meeting with Brother Bailey.” Then she sighed. “But yes, it’s better to do a thorough sweep in one day. I’ll let him know.”

 

If you like what you’ve read, feel free to comment. I’m still learning, so feedback is always helpful.

I could really use some help with keeping the lights on and food on the table. If you think my efforts are worth supporting, please consider donating. -Albert

Wielding the Blade, Part IV

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.

Part I
Part II
Part III

Tommy won’t be comin’ back for luncheon,” Cecil told Abby the next morning, when I joined my team wearing my new ratskin jerkin. (And a new bandage. Abby had insisted on changing it, just to be sure I hadn’t picked up an infection messing around with the dead wolf cubs. The alcohol she’d washed my punctures out with still stung.) “Cabry and Feena, who found the wolpinhar spoor, want to host us in thanks for dispatching it so quickly, before it could go after their livestock.”

She smiled and nodded. “That’s perfectly fine. Showing that farmers are grateful for your help will hopefully be one more point to aid me in persuading other adventurers to undertake the risks of off-season questing.” Her smile slipped into a smirk. “Tommy isn’t the only adventurer who ever had a heroic impulse at the beginning of his career, and at least some of the constant grumbling at the guildhall is how they’re the unlucky ones who haven’t leveled up enough for true adventure.”

She wasn’t wrong, I’d heard those grumbles myself. Even if none of them seemed willing to risk off-season adventuring. But I was confident Abby would use every tactic she could think of to get the others out questing, now that she knew it was needed, until something finally did the trick.

***

Cabry and Feena turned out to be in their early twenties, or at least that’s how they looked. I didn’t ask. Young for running their own farm, anyway. (Says the fifteen-year-old.) But they already had a couple of toddlers and she looked like she was about halfway through her next pregnancy, so I guess they hadn’t wasted any time.

Is this farm new?” is what I did ask, when we approached their farmhouse. Because neither it or the barn looked very weathered. Not compared to the farmhouse Cecil’s family lived in, anyway.

Feena nodded. “Cabry was fortunate when they cast the lots for this farm, after the ruins of the last owners were burned away and the land was blessed anew. Every tenant farmer around Mistleten came for the barn raisin’, so he was able to plant nearly all the fields, and when he was blessed with a good first harvest he proposed to me that fall.” She smiled. “If our good fortune holds, in two years he’ll clear the debt and we’ll be free of obligation to our Holder.”

I don’t think they noticed me flinching. Not that I was anything like opposed to their goal, of course. The whole point of my so-far-pitiful attempt at heroism was to clear out the roadblocks keeping other tenants from doing the same thing, after all. But I knew what Liberio would have had me and my team do to them – or at least people like them – if I hadn’t finally broken free of his Charm.

Doubly blessed, that you were willing to face the wolpinhar before summer,” Cabry was saying, giving us welcoming handclasps one by one. Then he tapped my wrapped arm lightly – almost light enough that it didn’t hurt – when he got to me. “I’m sorry you got bit, but that arm spared my livestock. I’d have been years workin’ off the debt to replace them, if a fluffle moved in. Might have even lost the farm.”

I gave him an embarrassed grin as we shook hands. “Won’t say it wasn’t awful, but it means we got the pelt. It’s gonna become a pair of bracers, so I don’t risk losing my arm every time we hunt one of the little monsters. So, uh, let us know if you spot the signs of any more? So we can get enough for everyone?”

He grinned. “Still full of fight? No wonder, you all have bigger balls than everyone in town! If I’d been young enough, I can only hope I’d have the same gumption. Adventurin’ without classes, I would never have imagined it myself!”

With that, Cabry and Feena led us inside, although I caught Cecil’s eye and hung back.

Does he have a class, or is he stuck farming without one?” I asked quietly. “I don’t want to embarrass him by assuming the wrong thing.”

They’ve got a pair of decent crossbows, but no classes,” my co-leader replied, just as quietly. “Although last shindig, Feena almost gave Carmela competition shooting targets, so they’ve been drillin’ when they’ve time to spare.”

Is there trouble?” our host asked, looking concerned, as we caught up with the rest.

Cecil shook his head. “Naw, was just tellin’ Tommy about your wife giving ‘Mela a hard time last fall.” Then he smirked. “How she was touchier than normal all winter over it.”

Cabry let out a guffaw, but his wife rolled her eyes. “I’ll not have time enough to practice, not once the new babe arrives,” she demurred, “and with the levels she’ll gain this year there’s no point in trying myself against her this harvest.” Then Feena paused, and a faint smirk curled her lips. “But it was nice to wipe the smile off Carmela’s face, when I out-shot her in the first round.”

I blinked. “Okay, is she related to a Holder family? ‘Cause it seems like y’all didn’t like her even before this whole mess with a bandit army.”

Cecil shook his head again. “Naw, it’s not that we didn’t like her, it’s that her family are free farmers. Have been for generations, and all of them have been able to become adventurers. Hardly any tenant family can afford it these days, but it’s not because we’re lazy!” he concluded, scowling.

We’re lookin’ to buy out our lease soon enough that we can afford to send all of our children to town ourselves,” Cabry said, “but I hope to all the gods that I don’t live to see my children and grandchildren put on the kind of airs that some free farmers adopt. More prideful than Holders, seems like.”

Let’s not borrow trouble,” Feena told her husband, before turning to me and Cecil. “Come eat, we don’t want the food to get cold!”

***

I wouldn’t have said it back when I first showed up on this world, but the meal wasn’t half bad. A lot more basic than what you’ll find at the grocery store, of course. I don’t know when we invented potato chips, but I hadn’t seen any kind of snack food since coming here. Or anything canned, for that matter. I haven’t asked what they do to keep food from going bad, but with chicken and cows you’ve got your eggs and milk fresh, and if you grow wheat then you can grind flour for fresh bread. Sure seems like a lot of work, though.

The bread didn’t taste like wheat or barley bread back home. Closer to wheat, I’d say, but with a stronger flavor. I’d gotten to like it, especially with butter – which I’d also had to get used to, margarine didn’t seem to have been invented yet either – and jam. Abby never minded if I had as much as I liked, either, as long as I ate all the veggies she served me, but I didn’t want to pig out here. Cabry and Feena still had debts to pay, after all.

(And yes, my appetite was a lot bigger these days. I was eating at least twice as much as I ever had back on Earth, but adventuring and training kept me active enough that I wasn’t getting fat like some of the gamers at school, the ones who had big appetites. Hell, I was starting to see muscle on my body without even flexing!)

There wasn’t a lot of conversation as we tucked in, but it wasn’t too long before the food was gone and Cabry spoke up again.

One thing I wanted to say,” he told us, “is that it’s a damned shame Liberio was caught before he could free us all, but I know we’re not the only ones grateful that you’re doin’ what you can, carryin’ on his work like you are.”

I froze. We all went still, but I think I was a little more spastic about it than the others. Either way, our hosts couldn’t help but notice, and gave each other a long look.

I’ll handle the cleanup,” Feena finally told her husband. “You take them outside, find out what needs to be said.”

He nodded, and we quietly followed him out the door. Then he turned and gave us all a serious look. “What’s the matter, then?”

I winced as everyone else turned to look at me, but I was all the one who’d snuck away to spy on Liberio, when I’d been Charmed into obsessive hero-worship. So I relayed that part of the tale to Cabry, how the Mountebank had planned to destroy tenant farmers like him, who were within shouting distance of freeing themselves from debt.

It didn’t take long for the young farmer to get it. “He meant to set up as a lord in truth? Reduce us all to Holders’ villeins? What’s all this about then, if it was a lie from the start?”

Liberio had to mix in truth so we’d believe the lie,” Cecil told him. “Had to pretend it was all true, by showin’ us we could help if we worked together. Tommy didn’t forget that part was still true when he turned the bandits in for their plots and murders.”

It may sound silly, but I came to Mistleten because I wanted to be a hero. The town doesn’t need my help and the Holders and free farmers don’t need my help, but I can learn to stab monsters so that you don’t lose crops or livestock, and I could convince the Secretary General that a band of paroled Enforcers aren’t up to mischief.” I shrugged. “That’s as much good as I can do for anyone until I finish growing up.”

If the townsfolk and your Secretary General didn’t keep their power to themselves-!” he began, before I held up my hand.

I know,” I replied. “I heard much the same from Liberio and his captains. But I’ve been working with Abby to try to figure out how things got to where they are today, ‘cause it used to be that everyone would get a class and level for a few years just as a matter of survival, and if you couldn’t afford it right away you paid the fee back over the course of a year or two.” Part of it was that, even though the Adventurers’ Guild had their own money, a couple of generations back there’d been . . . the credit system had crashed pretty hard. Too much credit floating around and not enough goods for all that credit to purchase. Once it was rebuilt, there had been rules about how much credit the Guild could issue based on recent adventuring. Basically needing to show a surplus in order to lend credit to anyone, including newbies who couldn’t afford initiation.

The Guild hadn’t had that kind of surplus recently, not with the adventurer construction crews to budget for.

Honestly, the records hadn’t exactly said that, but we’d covered some of the 20th century in history class last year, and our teacher showed us a trillion dollar bill. He said it was from from the 21st century, issued by Z-something in Africa, but he told us that in the 20th century other countries had ended up with stuff like wheelbarrows of cash to buy a loaf of bread when their money went bad. Some of what I’d found with Abby looked like it might have been almost the same, just local. And in the following years the records showed they’d put in those stricter rules about issuing Guild credit.

So how’s she gonna bring that back? Town doesn’t lend to anyone, not now,” Cabry pointed out.

That’s the other part of what we’re doin’,” Cecil told him. “Prove that questin’ can be done on our own, show that there’s no end of tasks to do, and the Secretary General can shame the rest into doin’ their jobs. Instead of payin’ ‘em off to not start trouble, like ‘Mela says.” He grinned. “So if you hear of more wolpinhar, come to us first so we can get the kills, but everything else the Secretary General wants to hear about so she can let the other adventurers know of ‘em and kick ‘em outside to earn their keep.”

Huh,” our host responded, looking thoughtful.

***

Tommy, I need your help!” Claire whispered furiously a couple of days later, cornering me just after breakfast.

Wha-?” I shook my head. “Your mother’s about to come take me outside the walls. Whatever it is, it’ll have to wait until I get back.” And hopefully, by then the brat would’ve-

You don’t understand!” she retorted, sounding even more urgent. “My brother’s out there, he’s been missing since yesterday!”

He . . . wait, I couldn’t remember actually seeing Ed after supper last night. I’d been tired enough that I went to bed and fell asleep as soon as I’d washed up, and sleepy enough this morning that I hadn’t picked up on his absence from breakfast. Abby had taken her meal to her office to try to get some paperwork done before she escorted me out of town, which was probably why she hadn’t noticed her missing son, and Caleb had had his hands full with the younger four so I guess he didn’t notice his oldest boy missing either. “We’d better wait for your mom, then. She’ll know the best way to go searching for him.”

No!” Claire instantly exclaimed. Then, reluctantly: “If we do, she’ll realize that I was covering for him so he could go questing.”

My eyes widened. “Are the two of you crazy?!”

She glared at me. “Ed knows his woodcraft. He doesn’t have to study to make up for living like a prince all his life, so if you can quest then so can he!”

Dammit, if it weren’t for the fact that modern technology meant I’d grown up living better than a medieval prince . . . “That just means, if he’s run into something he can’t handle, we definitely need to tell Abby. C’mon, your mom’s pretty nice, she’ll probably be too relieved when she rescues him to punish either of you all that much.”

Claire’s face scrunched up, like she was sucking on a lemon. “You don’t know Mama that well. So if you don’t help, I’ll- I’ll tell her you convinced Ed to go out on his own, and that’s why you didn’t say anything about him being gone!”

I gaped at her. I’d been bloody exhausted by the end of the day, because with our new armor we’d been pushing ourselves to clear out monsters that had been just a bit too dangerous for us to take on without protection. Spring was passing by, so we needed to do what we could, which meant I didn’t have time for this nonsense, but if she managed to convince Abby I was at fault-

Claire narrowed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Okay!” I quickly whispered. “I’ll do my best. Do you know where Ed went, at least?”

She shook her head. “He was going to Mama’s office to find some good quests first, but he didn’t come back to tell me what they were.”

Dammit.

***

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The only way I could see out of this was if I actually got away with it, so I reluctantly Vanished and started to creep away towards the guildhouse. At least I had a starting point.

Every time someone approached I froze. Not just because I was scared of getting caught, either, it was easier to stay hidden that way and as the lowest level adventurer in town I needed any advantage I could get if I didn’t want someone to pop my invisibility. Then I’d really be up shit creek. And no matter what I said the brat would probably get off scot-free.

Anyway, I guess I was careful enough, because I managed to make it to the guildhouse without anyone raising the alarm at a seeming outlaw sneaking through town.

Then I just had to get through to the office without anyone noticing me. Wouldn’t have wanted to try to make it through the taproom, ‘cause there were too many adventurers lingering over breakfast, and I’d have been spotted for sure. But there was a path to the office that was easy to miss when everyone was eating. I knew it because Abby used it when she was in a hurry and didn’t want to be bothered. Today I used it to give as few people as possible a chance to pop my Vanish.

Fortunately, she’d already left her office. Maybe to come and escort me out of town? Meant I didn’t have to pit my stealth against a fourteenth level Marksman. Of all the active adventurers residing in Mistleten, only Rupert the foreman was higher level, at seventeenth. After all, almost everyone with the ambition to make it to the teens signs on with a group of real adventurers – the ones who only come to town to harvest the Grimwust a few times a year – so at least I wasn’t completely outclassed.

Fortunately I didn’t run into him, either. Abby might’ve just lectured me, but he didn’t think I had any business trying to be an adventurer. Too young, too short, too underdeveloped. Good for nothing more than a Magician, those die quick if they don’t have a solid party keeping them alive, and since I’m not a cute girl I can’t expect a party to spontaneously form for my convenience. (Among adventurers male privilege is getting to die so that a girl can level up and leave Mistleten forever. Get a few drinks into them and the long-time adventurers here can get a little bitter about that. But at least I’ve figured out that I’m not likely to attract a girlfriend while I’m still so low level.)

Anyway, as I slipped into the office – and let Vanish drop, because I’d rather just be caught if someone walked in than risk being caught using an outlaw knack in here – I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Sure, I needed a clue to what quest Ed had decided to try his hand at, but how was I to know when I saw-

Well, maybe because he’d pulled three quests out of the filing cabinet and then put them all in the front rather than where they were supposed to go. They were all quests I’d managed to look at recently and had been hoping to do with my crew, once the requests from the farmers slowed down. Sure, we needed the credit, but not as much as they needed to get their planting handled before it was too late in the year.

Except, of course, that Ed needed to be kept safe. Abby could react in all kinds of ways if he got hurt, and I didn’t like any of the ones I’d thought of on my way here. Especially if Claire let slip that I knew and I hadn’t done anything, let alone pinning all the blame on me. Hell with it, I’d justify these quests as needing some guild credit for potential doctor visits. When we (hopefully) found him, it’d just be a happy coincidence that we were all doing the same quests.

It was a good thing that I wasn’t trying to hide once I was in the office, though, since I was holding the papers and studying them when Abby reentered the room.

There you are!” She frowned at the documents in my hand. “What are you doing with those?”

Good thing I already had my story worked out. “We need credit for if trouble pops up, or to upgrade our armor,” I began, feeding her the excuses I’d thought of just a few minutes ago.

Her frown turned thoughtful after I finished. “You could have asked me about those. I’d want to help you pick out the ones you’d be most likely to survive.”

I grimaced and offered her the three I was holding. “I’d be happy if you checked them over, but I think these three are the best. They’re close to each other, and they don’t seem that dangerous. A proper Scout might even be able to solo them.”

Don’t go thinking that way when you aren’t a Scout yourself!” Abby scolded as she took them from me. “My job is to keep you all alive long enough to leave Mistleten as successful adventurers, and running off to do quests you aren’t ready for will only get you killed!”

On the one hand, she was right. This wasn’t a game and I wasn’t willing to count on the genie to make sure things would keep being fair for me. Maybe when it first sent me here, but not this long after arriving. So if I was dumb enough to stumble into something dangerous there wouldn’t be anything set up to save me from myself. And just like on Earth I wouldn’t revive if I got myself killed here. Hell, it’s why the adventurers living in Mistleten only adventure during the seasonal rushes, when they can attach themselves to the groups that show up to harvest the Grimwust’s seasonal rewards. Play gofer and in return get some practice in with someone standing by to bail them out if a fight goes wrong. Slower leveling that way, but they’ll mostly survive to reach their teens and hire on etc.

On the other hand Abby’s son was out there, and if I didn’t want his sister to have a grudge against me for getting her in trouble, I had to pretend I wasn’t going to be heading out to rescue him.

We have to start taking some risks,” I pointed out. “Adventurers playing it safe is a big part of how things got to the point where the renters thought they could get a better deal by supporting a bandit army.”

She frowned again, but nodded. Another of the things we’d found, looking through the older records, is that it used to be that the farmers themselves would act as the senior adventurer for a group of novices clearing out the odds and ends of trouble leaking out of the Grimwust. Stopped about a generation after the credit crisis, although there’s no specific reason recorded for that. Besides, these days the tenants mostly don’t have classes anyway, let alone enough levels to shepherd us lowbies. It’s a long-term fix, one our Secretary General is probably going to try to get going again, but that’ll take years to set back up. In the meantime, my team would have to take our chances.

Try to do them without getting hurt, if you can,” Abby told me after thinking it over for a minute or so. “If your group can handle them, I can use that to show the other junior adventurers that it can be done.”

Not impressed by the rewards the farmers ‘shower’ on us?” I asked, smiling wryly. Because of course the quests we were getting from the tenant farmers didn’t have rewards aside from what we could loot, and it turns out that videogames have lied to me all my life about how much valuable crap monsters swallow down, drag back to their nests, or otherwise spawn when they die. (For the record? None, so far. Hell, aside from the wolpinhar we hadn’t fought anything worth harvesting. Even the rat-skin armor was only worth making because we couldn’t afford better and capturing their babies had been our first chance to make any credit.)

Yes, but please keep trying to convince the farmers to register their quests with us, the next time they need something,” she replied, looking and sounding a bit exasperated. “You know there’s not enough quests from the townfolk to support adventurers during the off season, and,” here she sighed and rolled her eyes, “the mutterings I’ve heard for the last couple of days have been that if wolpinhar are terrorizing the hinterlands then you must have the luck of fools to still be alive.”

Well, they aren’t exactly wrong,” I muttered, feeling a bit surly. When I showed up I’d kept getting into trouble because I didn’t know enough to avoid it, from trying to kite a spider swarm to being Charmed by Liberio. I figure things just about had to have butterflied away from the genie’s ability to predict my odds by now, but its discernment is the only reasonable explanation for my surviving the first few weeks . . . and if anyone else had been bothering to go gathering reagents when I came to town, I wouldn’t have been able to pay my room and board after I got kicked off the construction crew. It isn’t even fair to blame Foreman Rupert for that: He wasn’t wrong about me being short, scrawny and soft when I arrived. Still short, but I’m pretty sure I’ve grown at least half an inch since then, and I’m stronger, too.

Beyond that, with hardly anyone adventuring during the off season, there’s not much demand for the raw materials the townsfolk use to make the supplies adventurers use. Hell, even if the lowbie adventurers were out risking their lives, they wouldn’t be able to afford the best potions and whatnot, so there still wouldn’t be the kind of demand that the rushes are supposed to bring. Hopefully enough demand to support more junior adventurers, of course, it can’t help but stimulate the off-rush economy at least a little. With more supply alongside the increased demand, it might be enough. But in the meantime, the work you can do in gathering materials just doesn’t pay well, not even if there’s no competition. While I was doing construction work I was making half wages, since I wasn’t up to contributing much and I was only there because the Secretary General had all but ordered Rupert to let me try, but when I was gathering what I could, before I ran into bandits, I wasn’t making much more despite no one else doing off-rush gathering. Pay was low enough that if I drank half my earnings like most adventurers in town do, I wouldn’t have been able to afford a bed to sleep in!

Which all meant that there was no way the nine of us could make the credit we needed by gathering materials, not without some ongoing demand from active adventuring. More importantly, anything low-level enough to not be a risk for people who might as well be zero level was something the tenant farmers could handle themselves. I didn’t like to think about it, but I was risking my life out there and the lives of everyone on my team. And now that we all had a bit of armor covering our vitals we were stepping up the risks we were taking a bit.

Meanwhile, Abby was looking like she wanted to reassure me but didn’t want to lie.

Anyway,” I went on, “I’ve been doing that. Asking tenant farmers to let the town know about problems that pop up. They’re skeptical, ‘cause it’s been so long, but I think they’re listening. And I’m trying to make sure they know that Liberio wanted to make them serfs, not set them free.”

Serfs?” she repeated. “Are those like villeins, in your homeland?”

Uh, I think so? Bound to the land, not many rights and not a lot of options if their lord abuses what little they’ve got? We don’t do that anymore, but-”

We don’t either,” Abby interrupted, “but holders can get close by requiring life-oaths.” She grimaced. “Perhaps in a generation or two they’d have the custom of villeins accepted as settled law, much like how most tenants don’t become adventurers anymore, but if the gods look on us with favor we can reverse it all in my lifetime. Now, let’s get you out there. And be careful today!”

***

You’re runnin’ late,” Cecil commented as we finally arrived at the rendezvous. “Somethin’ happen?”

Found some simple quests in Abby’s files,” I told him. “A bit of easy town credit, so we can get more cutting resistance infused in our armor once we find good enough leather. Gilander says we get the best results if we get that done while it’s tanning, so I thought we’d better be ready.”

He grunted. “Got a full roster of pests to clear out as it is. Reckon we’ll be gettin’ you home after dark if we clear these as well. That sit well with you, ma’am?” he asked the Secretary General, nodding to her respectfully.

She nodded back. “The only reason it wouldn’t is that I’m helping to armor up a group of paroled outlaws, but we all know what you and Tommy have been trying to do. Can’t have any of you dying if we want to convince more adventurers that your quests are worth taking in the off season, either.”

Well, you can be sure we’ll be doin’ our best to stay alive,” he replied, a bit sardonically.

With that exchange completed, Abby turned around and headed back through the gates, while we headed out. Cecil waited until we were well out of hearing range before speaking up again.

Thought we weren’t goin’ to try town quests while we’re so busy, or unless we heard of some critters worth skinnin’,” he finally said. “Somethin’ come up that we need to know of?”

Something might be up,” I admitted, “but it’s best if it isn’t, and if that’s the case best we don’t know anything.”

So we’re hopin’ it’s nothing, but expecting somethin’, and we can’t know what ‘less we find it?” Bertie put in.

Sounds like,” Cecil agreed. “And either way you didn’t want to say a thing in front of the Secretary General.”

I sighed and nodded. “Yeah. It’s nothing I did, but we could still get in trouble if she finds out that we knew before we ought to, and-” I broke off and shook my head. “The funny thing is, it’s just more heroism. Nothing villainous, nothing hiding villainy, it’s stupid as hell that we can’t get Abby involved, but there it is,” I concluded sourly.

He gave me a dubious look, then traded glances with the rest of our team. “Absolutely nothing wrong, what we’ll be doing behind her back?”

I’m half-tempted to run back, chase her down, confess everything, and take my chances,” I told him with a shrug. “But hopefully that won’t be necessary.”

***

None of the three quests Ed had selected required you to fight, if you could sneak past the guardians. The first was to brave the lair of a two-headed serpent, to collect shed scales that an apothecary like Gilander would pay good money for. Because one head was always awake, this required either perfect stealth to evade its attention, enough food to appease it, or comrades willing to provoke it into chasing them while you went into its cave and got the loot.

The second quest was to collect healing water from the Rumpfuer Spring. That was presently guarded by a black goat, which no one had killed (yet) because it wasn’t too hard to distract and sneak past. No one with sense wanted Rumpfuer to be claimed by a more dangerous guardian, so the quest sheet emphasized the importance of avoiding injury to it.

The third quest was to collect the cow chips of the Bull of Whittry Gorge, prized by smiths for the heat they produced while burning. The bull was supposed to be less observant than the other two, but if you were spotted it had the worst temper of them all and was the most territorial.

I suggested going for the healing spring first, because if Ed was late getting back he might be hurt. Although of course I framed it more as a matter of getting extra healing water for us and for the team’s families. (From what I’ve seen, farming looks like a hell of a lot of hard work. Those guys had to be pretty sore at the end of the day, so even a mild healing tonic ought to help them out.) Either way we didn’t have to worry about taking too much since no one else was doing the quest off-season, and I figured my Vanish would give me a decent chance of getting past the goat without trouble.

Wasn’t wrong about that, either. But unfortunately there wasn’t any sign of Ed nearby, which sucked ‘cause it meant he might be stuck at one of the other two. That’s if he’d actually gone to any of them . . . but it seemed like the best lead I had.

***

At first I tried to sneak past the snake, but I guess my Vanish wasn’t up to snuff, because it saw me and chased me off. And then we yelled to try to distract it, but that didn’t work too well . . . but at least Ed didn’t yell back either. I figured that meant there was a good chance he wasn’t at the snake’s den, and the snake itself didn’t look like it had swallowed anything recently so Ed probably hadn’t been killed and eaten by it.

Probably. Hopefully.

Dammit, if we didn’t find him with the bull I was going to have to fess up to the crew and then we were going to have to come back here and try again.

***

I looked down into the gorge, where the bull was awake and agitated. “Is that normal for him, or did someone else already rile him up today?”

Not sure,” Cecil admitted. “Farmers don’t need his cow chips, so only adventurers come here and bother him.”

But he does look upset, right? And he’s ignoring us.”

That’s about right,” he agreed. “So what are you thinking?”

I’m thinking . . . what do the cow chips look like? Can we see a trail, where it looks like someone was collecting them and stopped all of a sudden?”

Don’t know about a trail,” Bertie observed, pointing about halfway down the gorge, “but that scattered pile looks a bit like maybe someone dropped it, trying to get out of there before the bull caught him.” He gave me a look. “Might be that’s what we’re here for? Seein’ if anyone else is out here lookin’ for trouble like we are?”

Might be,” I admitted. “So how about I creep down that way under Vanish, and if the bull starts looking agitated you guys try to get its attention?”

If you’ve got to climb down the gorge, be careful you don’t slip and fall,” Cecil told me, looking serious. “Aren’t any easy paths down there except at either end, that’s by the bull can’t get out. Doubt you’d want to try to hobble the distance, even under Vanish. Should have brought some rope, when you decided to come here.”

I shrugged. “Probably should have. Maybe Abby thought I already did, that’s why she didn’t say anything. But either way I’ve got to give it a shot.”

He shrugged back. “Your secret quest, your choice.”

Which was pretty much that. At least the bull ignored me as I got closer to the pile of cow chips down in the gorge that Bertie had pointed out. Hopefully it didn’t have a magical sense that would bypass Vanish; the quest hadn’t said but I doubt the town had much data on how outlaw knacks interact with different quests.

I didn’t hear anyone, though, and I was starting to rehearse lines for the argument to go back to the snake and try to look around again . . . but then I saw the rope tied off at the edge of the gorge and going down the side. When I looked stuck my head out, it looked like it went down into a shady little alcove, too high up in the wall of the gorge for the bull to reach. If Ed had tried this quest, it seemed pretty likely that this was where he’d gone down.

Ropes aren’t really my thing. Hell, nothing athletic was my thing back on Earth, but for all that I’d been getting a lot more exercise since coming to Mistleten, I hadn’t done anything with ropes or climbing or anything like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Abby was planning to introduce me to this stuff before the summer rush came, but what little time I had for direct training was being used for sparring, evasion, and target practice. And back in PE I hadn’t been able to climb a rope or even make my way across a set monkey bars.

But I was stronger these days, and when I picked up the rope to at least give it a try I realized that there were some small, regular knots in it. That had to be easier for climbing, right?

Maybe. I was able to get down to the alcove, even with my arm still healing, so I guess so. (It hurt, though!) At least the bull still didn’t seem to be reacting to me. That might change if I went down to try to retrieve that scattered pile of cow chips, but I wasn’t planning to, not with that beast already riled up. This close up, those horns looked sharp and I had no idea what it might be able to do beyond the obvious.

The alcove was deeper than I’d realized, looking down from the top. The rest of it was in shadow, that’s why I hadn’t noticed. But once I was out of the light I could use Darksight and see-

Ed. Or possibly another boy who looked about eleven, but it had to be Ed. He was sprawled out on the ground, with a dark patch spread out from his left thigh, and I had the sickening suspicion that if I had a lantern to shine on him that patch would be blood-red.

I quickly dropped Vanish and hurried over to him. “Are you awake?” I whispered to him. I didn’t want to jostle him, but he didn’t respond, and I didn’t even know if he was still alive!

Then he wheezed, just a bit, and I figured I had the answer to that. When I carefully touched his forehead, he was hot. Feverish? Maybe? Do wounds cause fevers?

Ed!” I called, shaking his shoulder a bit, hoping that I wouldn’t get the bull’s attention before he woke up. But I didn’t know what else to do, unless I wanted to see if I was strong enough to actually climb-

With that thought I smacked myself in the back of the head, put Vanish back up, and went to climb the rope back up out of the gorge. I still might not look like much compared to everyone else, but I really needed to stop thinking of myself as the noodle-armed couch-riding gamer kid I was just a couple of months back. I won’t say it was easy to climb up, not even in the sense of putting one foot in front of the other and ignoring how I felt until I managed to stumble to where I needed to get to, but it was easier than I was afraid it might be.

Once I was far enough from the edge of the gorge that I couldn’t see the bull anymore, I dropped Vanish and started jumping up and down, waving my arms, until my crew noticed and came over.

What’d you find?” Cecil asked, once he was close enough to speak quietly and not risk catching the bull’s attention. (So maybe I wasn’t paranoid about it making trouble, even if it was trapped down below?)

The Secretary’s oldest son, gored in the leg,” I reported. “He was missing this morning, some of the town’s quests had been pulled out and looked through, but I don’t know if anyone else noticed and I don’t want anyone thinking I set him on this. I didn’t know if he was going to be here or not, but just in case-”

I broke off, as my co-leader started giving me the stink-eye. “If he was missing you could have just mentioned that to his mother, you know. If he’s dyin’ down there-!”

He’s not dying, but he’s hurt. Maybe the water we collected would help with that? Except I don’t think I could carry him up the rope myself, so I called you over.”

Cecil rolled his eyes. “Wait here.” With that he took the rope and . . . well, he didn’t drop down, exactly. And I don’t think he was sliding down, exactly, since that would have given him rope burns on his hands. But it didn’t take him more than a few seconds to get down to where the alcove was, and the bull was just starting to make angry noises in our direction when he came back out with Ed slung over one shoulder and started climbing back up.

Even being careful not to let his burden fall, it didn’t take him half the time it took me. Maybe I’ve made progress, but sometimes it’s disheartening to see just how far I still have to go to get where everyone else already is.

Out in the light, Ed didn’t look so great. Not like he was dying, but definitely worse for wear. At least he’d bandaged his leg up before he lost consciousness, but it was obvious that we needed to get him back home so he could recover.

Here,” Basil said. “Mixed some wine with the healin’ water, better unwrap his leg and make sure it’s properly cleaned out so he doesn’t lose it to fever.”

Right,” Cecil agreed with a firm nod. “Give it here.”

I stood back, because I didn’t know what to do and they obviously did. Two of them held Ed while Cecil pulled the makeshift bandage off. The wound didn’t seem to be bleeding anymore, although the skin around it was starting to look red and angry . . . and then Ed woke with a howl as the combination of alcohol and water hit the raw nerves where his leg had been gored.

They didn’t have any trouble keeping him still, but it looked like he was starting to panic, so I hurried over there and grabbed his hand. “Don’t worry, it’s me Tommy, I know it hurts but we’ve got to make sure it’s cleaned out so it doesn’t get infected . . .”

It didn’t take too long before Cecil was done, and Ed calmed down enough that they were able to set him upright and let him go, after making sure he could stand without collapsing from the weight on his injured leg. Which he could, barely.

You,” he finally started, “you came and- How long have I been missing?”

All night,” I told him and then explained how his family had been too distracted to notice. I did not mention that Claire had run interference, which he probably had expected. Or that she’d blackmailed me into going to look for him, which he might not have realized. “I’m sure they’ve noticed by now,” I concluded, “and there’s no way we’re gonna be able to hide that from your mom and dad. So why the bull, why not one of the other two?”

Because the bull isn’t magic,” Ed muttered sulkily. “The cow chips have to be from a feral bull, that’s why he’s let to run wild in the gorge, but their magic is from what he eats. And anyway the goat and the snake chased me off first.”

Should have realized that meant you weren’t ready to go questin’,” Cecil pointed out. Then he sighed. “My place isn’t the closest, but it’s on the way back to town. Let’s get you there and send word to the Secretary General. We can use the water to brew up a bit of a tonic for you, I think, help your healin’ along.”

Is there anything I can drink right now?” Ed asked, licking his lips. “I’m starting to feel horribly thirsty.”

You’ve lost blood and haven’t had anything all night, so-” I broke off and winced. “Wine will make you need to piss and right now your body needs water to help build up your blood. So how about you drink the water we collected and I’ll go fetch some more and meet you all back at Cecil’s house.”

 

Continue to Part V?

If you like what you’ve read, feel free to comment. I’m still learning, so feedback is always helpful.

I could really use some help with keeping the lights on and food on the table. If you think my efforts are worth supporting, please consider donating. -Albert

Wielding the Blade, Part III

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.

Part I
Part II

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?

Yeah.

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 nodded.

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?”

Uh, no.”

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.

I nodded.

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?

If you like what you’ve read, feel free to comment. I’m still learning, so feedback is always helpful.

I could really use some help with keeping the lights on and food on the table. If you think my efforts are worth supporting, please consider donating. -Albert

Wielding the Blade, Part II

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.

Part I

And make sure to wash thoroughly tonight,” Abby told the three as we separated that afternoon. “If your cuts fester before we convince Brother Bailey to come by and bless you, they’ll take that much longer to heal!”

I was going to ask about that,” I said quietly. “Over half the team was already hurt, and I said I’d ask and see-”

He knows you’re doing good work, even if he’s not happy about how your teammates were all outlaws first,” she replied. “I’m sure he will, once I endorse your request.”

They only became Enforcers because-!”

I know,” Abby told me gently, cutting off my heated retort, as we headed back towards the town gates. “But a priest ministering to adventurers will see too many of them killed over the years. He has good reason to despise those who deal in robbery and murder.”

I slumped and let out a sigh. “I know,” I told her back. Liberio had ordered his captains to recruit poor farm boys with promises of going after the monsters that got ignored once the seasonal rushes ended, but even at the start of his scheme we’d already been dabbling in theft. Strictly of the Robin Hood type – to make it go down easy, no doubt – for supplies that their farmer relatives needed due to sloppy monster extermination during the spring rush . . . but he’d also already planned how to get the blood of fellow farmers on our hands.

Sure, we’d have thought we were justified, but any hope of walking away would have been over.

You’re still having some trouble when you fight,” Abby observed, after I stayed quiet. “How much of a problem has that been for you?”

I’m doing okay, but a lot of that’s ‘cause I can usually decide when I’m gonna attack.” I hadn’t seen any knacks for backstabbing or sneak attacks in my studies, but being invisible (or just about) let me get in a really solid first hit, and against the monsters we’d been facing that was usually good enough. “My seax is pretty good when monsters don’t see it coming.”

But your crew only has clubs to work with,” she noted.

Yeah.” I paused. “We’re not facing monsters that are that strong, not like the dungeon spawns, so the clubs have been good enough. But they need better protection. They can’t Dominate monsters anymore, so when the fight goes on for more than a few moments they can get hurt. And we don’t have Myles around anymore to step in when things get ugly.”

Abby gave me a sharp look. “I hope you don’t miss him that much.”

Because, of course, he’d been about to hand me over to Liberio to be sacrificed to Lulach Dungeon, before she shot him. I can’t blame him too much: I’d played a hunch to find him (along with Liberio and Clifton, the Mountebank captain Myles had served) after they got away while the Mistleten adventurers captured the other Mountebank captains and their lieutenants. But he’d still been trying to kill me, so I was doing my best not to miss him. Or his gruff authority. Or how he genuinely looked out for the baby bandits that were his squad, before I betrayed him and alerted the town.

Yeah, I was still conflicted about it all.

He was okay as long as we were being good little outlaws and doing what he said,” I pointed out. “And when it comes to keeping my team alive I don’t exactly count as a higher level adventurer.” Not when I was a third level Jack with nothing more than the knacks of a second level Footpad. Vanish aside, the only difference between me and the others was that the conditions of my parole were a lot lighter, so Mistleten hadn’t sealed my outlaw knack. At least not yet.

Oh, and everyone is way bigger and stronger than me. Can’t forget that difference!

But with some armor and maybe shields,” I went on, “they’ll be a lot safer while we’re questing. Although I don’t know how we could afford to get any, since we’re not getting quest rewards.”

I’m sure you already know about trading with the storekeepers,” Abby told me, a bit tartly. She had reason: I’d been fooling around in Lulach because an apothecary by the name of Gilander had told me I could find a reagent there that he’d buy. I guess it was pretty obvious why he’d send me there in the first place.

(The reagent in question was fireflies, which on this world are flying roaches that crap out fire. He needed them alive and undamaged. Yes, it sucked. Almost as much as collecting star jelly, which smells worse than you could probably imagine.)

She sighed and went on.“Gambisons ought to be more affordable, but cloth will be expensive until the next harvest. Your best bet is likely to be leather, if your crew’s families are wise enough to skin the monsters you kill and keep the hides.”

Would leather armor be enough?” I asked. In games it’s almost always the worst armor you can get, but of course this wasn’t a game.

Innocent people had died before that had quite sunk in. Maybe not directly my fault, but if I’d thrown off Liberio’s Charm right away I could have snuck back to Mistleten a day early and kept those people from getting killed. Or if I’d realized that the only way a bunch of outlaws could put together an army without drawing attention was if they had high-level Mountebanks Charming anyone important.

Not that I’d started studying outlaw knacks before I was kidnapped into joining them. But a better adventurer in my situation might have guessed what had to be going on.

Unlike you,” Abby replied, “your crew are mostly full-grown, so at least they won’t grow out of their armor, and stiff leather would help protect their vitals. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that when beasts choose to fight us, they get in as close as possible.”

Yeah, learned that already.” Maybe they weren’t quite as mean as dungeon spawns, but surface monsters don’t politely trade blows until someone’s hp bar drops to zero. This world doesn’t have hit points, so they decide to fight they settle for hurting you with everything they’ve got while they try to open you up somewhere vital. Mostly your neck or your guts. Leather chestwraps and collars might make us look like Renfaire bikers, but they’d also help keep us alive. We’d been lucky so far, but any time a fight went on for more than a few seconds we were pushing our luck. Today we’d almost pushed it too far.

Do you really think it’ll be enough?” I went on. “They agreed to work with me ‘cause we’d already hunted monsters together, but if they start dying? The rest of the conscripted outlaws don’t trust me already, no way they’d agree to step in and make up my losses.”

She gave me a long look as we finally arrived at the town gate. Then, once we were through it: “And it would mean more deaths that you blamed yourself for.”

I winced. She was the one I’d broken down in front of, when I reported Liberio’s presence and plans. So she’d seen me wailing about people dying. But adventurers aren’t supposed to be soft. We’re supposed to be the ones able to brave any danger to get the quest done.

Abby shook her head when I said as much. “Don’t be silly,” she told me, as we moved through the streets. “Adventurers have doubts like anyone else. Besides, you’re not letting your concerns stop you: You’re trying to figure out the best way to address them. That’s not the act of someone who lacks the stomach to be an adventurer.”

Yeah, but if there was anyone better suited to lead my team – you know, like any other adventurer in town – who was willing to do it, I’d turn command over to them in a heartbeat.”

She gave me a considering look as we turned a corner and approached the shop of the Beast Tamer who’d wanted baby granmouchen enough to buy them out of season. “Would you say the same if you were had a few more levels?”

Depends on the knacks I’d have picked up by then,” I replied immediately. Not like I hadn’t been planning to cheese the one advantage my class had ever since learning what it was, after all. “But saving my points for knacks means I’m having to learn to fight the slow way, just like they are.”

Well, aside from Abby making sure I got some formal training with my seax. But hey, it’s a long, sharp knife without a guard. I’d probably have cut something off by now if she hadn’t made sure to get me started on the basics.

She started to reply back, but we’d reached the shop. So instead she took the sack from me and told me to wait there. A lot of the people living in Mistleten didn’t trust me, and this guy was obviously no exception. He’d let the Secretary General middleman for me, but wouldn’t so much as let me into his shop.

I guess it makes sense: I’ve got Vanish, and if I’d picked up Purloin as well I’d make a damned effective thief. And how could they be sure I hadn’t?

Yeah, it makes sense. Still annoying as hell.

***

I was a bit tempted to Vanish while I waited, just so people wouldn’t give me dirty looks for being, well, me. The ‘redeemed’ outlaw. Never mind that I was kidnapped and conscripted, and never mind that I escaped back to town and reported the growing bandit army that nobody had any idea was there. Never mind that I foiled Liberio’s plan to become a lord in the area. Never mind-

Well, never mind. If I used my knack I might be able to get away with it, but then again I might not. And if I got caught, it’d be proof that I was up to no good and ‘reverting to my outlaw ways’, or something like that.

So I just hung around outside the shop like some friggin’ delinquent, like this town was a medieval skin of Chicago or New York, and ignored the stink-eye any time someone passed by.

Finally Abby came out, no longer carrying the sack of baby rat monsters. “Ridiculous! That man is utterly ridiculous!” she growled, jabbing a sheet at me. “As if my word isn’t good enough-!”

I glanced at the sheet, and immediately saw why she was pissed. The bottom line was about half of what she’d said we’d get for that many pups. “Outlaws aren’t good enough to do business with, even with you as a go-between?”

And implying I could be seen as a fence!” she hissed, as we started walking. “The nerve of him!”

We weren’t poaching, were we?” I asked, suddenly feeling a bit nervous. “I thought this was vermin extermination, and no one cares if the monsters get cleared out?” Aren’t there states where some wildlife have gotten so bad that there’s no bag limit on them year-round? Not like I could look that up anymore, but I’d figured this was kinda the same thing. And she hadn’t told me otherwise.

Abby sighed as we continued onward. “No, you aren’t poaching. But I keep hearing mutters that supporting your team is like supporting any other gang of bandits, and of course that’s unlawful. Never mind that you’ve all been given leave to hunt monsters until the trials are held.”

So everyone’s worried about how it might look to everyone else?” I shook my head. “If they’d just relax about us, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

That’s true, Tommy,” she agreed, “but no one can be sure everyone else isn’t looking at you suspiciously. The opposite, really: Anyone who comes from the farms knows how much trouble bandits are.”

Abby paused a moment, the smiled determinedly. “But now you have some money for your team. Where would you like to go to see about spending it?”

I need to talk to Brother Bailey about going around to the farms to heal my teammates,” I replied. “But first . . .”

***

If they tan the leather themselves, they’ll lose the chance to work in some extra resistance during the process,” Gilander told me when I came into his shop and asked, showing the pelt from the rat we’d had for lunch as an example. He was one of the few people in Mistleten who still trusted me, probably because he knew exactly why I’d been out messing around in dungeons. He’d sent me after the fireflies lurking in them, after all. “You still haven’t infused your tunic. Was that because you were hoping for some armor first?”

I shrugged. “More like I was caught by bandits before I could save up for anything. But now with a crew to worry about . . . is slicing resistance a thing? Monster claws aren’t as sharp as steel, but they’ll cut a fellow up quick as you please.”

Oh, you don’t have to be telling me that, lad,” he replied with a wry grin. “I’ve got my share of scars to impress girlies with! But yes, that’s one of the standard resistances for an adventurer with a few successful quests behind him. Cutting, impact, venom, and acid, that’ll see you through most of your fights once you venture into the Grimwust itself. Everything else, well, best to carry potions or oils to handle the others, just in case.”

Right. Uh, what are the others?”

Gilander shrugged. “Can’t always say, to be perfectly honest. If something strange wanders in, no knowing what it might do. But if you face outlaws again, or if some tribals migrate through and decide we look like easy raiding, you can expect to face tricks with fire and ice, or thundersparks and dustdevils. Adding those permanently to the usual package would be tricky, cost a pretty penny even if the first attempt goes well, but if you hear word they’re coming you can make sure you’ve got the rights oils to be prepared for a fight or two.”

I grimaced. “Just found out that I’ll be getting half the bounty that an ‘honest’ adventurer would for the same work, since I’m leading a bandit gang and all. So even the basic resistances are going to be a problem, let alone trying anything fancy.”

Only half?” He shook his head. “Damnation lad, that’s a rotten bit of luck for you and your crew.”

Yeah. We need good armor as soon as we can manage it, but right now we’ve gotta do what we can as cheap as possible.” I paused for a moment, trying not to feel too depressed. Finding out I wasn’t going to get the profits I’d hoped for had pretty much been the sum of my experience trying to make it as an adventurer since I was sent here. If this was anything like normal luck for new adventurers trying to get by in the off-season, no wonder all the others stuck to the construction and repair work. (Except it couldn’t be normal luck. Include all the n00blet bandits and you had a cast of hundreds for my recent misadventures. There’s no way every newbie adventurer goes through all this by the time they hit third level. Not even if you just count the ones dumb enough to try to adventure in the off season, like me.) “Do you know any do-it-yourself stuff they could add to the tanning process? Even just a little bit of cutting resistance would help, if we make the rat leather into breastplates.”

Gilander gave me a funny look. “I think you mean jerkins,” he told me.

Yeah, those,” I quickly agreed. Like I was supposed to know what it was called! Computer games just say ‘leather armor’, usually. “If they can keep from getting clawed up again, it’d really help.”

Now he gave Abby a look.

She responded with a small smile. “Mistleten would require an apothecary license if Tommy wants to practice the trade here in town, but if some farmers want to dabble in brewing for their own use, I’m sure it wouldn’t be the first time.”

Surely wouldn’t,” he agreed, gesturing for me to hand over the pelt from the smallest rat. “Well, my best formulas wouldn’t be of any use to your farmers anyway, but if they’re willing to go a bit afield to find some of what they need, it’s late enough in the spring that they could probably . . .”

***

You’re asking me to travel to the homes of sealed outlaws and bless them to heal quickly and cleanly, so they can resume their activities,” Brother Bailey said flatly, after I explained the situation to him.

Yes,” I replied, just as flatly. “Because those ‘activities’ are the quests that their families and acquaintances can’t afford to put off until the summer, but can’t spare plowing and planting time to handle themselves. And no one else in Mistleten is willing to take the risk of fighting monsters without a higher level adventurer standing by in case the fight goes wrong.”

Many would argue that you’re hardly an adventurer yourself,” he told me, with a severe expression. “I can’t remember the last time anyone had to choose Jack as their class.”

I scowled. “Yeah? And what do these ‘many’ of yours do nine months out of ten? Is it construction and repair? ‘Cause I’m guessing it’s construction and repair, even though there are quests available year round if they weren’t scared to go outside the walls without a team of real adventurers to hold their hands, dry their noses, and wipe their assholes for them.”

Tommy!” Abby exclaimed in a scolding tone, before the priest could respond. “Even with support, we lose junior adventurers every year. Most years, we lose at least one every seasonal rush. Even with senior adventurers nearby, this is not a safe life!”

That it is not,” Brother Bailey agreed, looking even more severe.

But he has a point,” she told him, interrupting before he could start to chastise me further. (I tried not to smile, ‘cause this negotiating tactic was one of the bits of my semester of speech class that had stuck with me, and it wouldn’t help if the priest noticed that I knew that the Secretary General was more on my side than his.) “I’ve got standing quests that could be done by a team of junior adventurers, that wouldn’t be too dangerous to attempt without oversight. And Tommy’s been keeping track of every quest that the farmers have told his team about. There’s far more to do off-season than Mistleten’s adventurers like to think about. And every year, Rupert complains that he has to stretch out the repairs so that the adventurers won’t be without work.”

She shook her head. “I’ve always authorized the extra issue of Guild credit, to keep them too tired to get into trouble and not lacking for food and shelter, but the work could be done with half the labor, and if the other half were out questing we could afford to do many things that we don’t have the resources to support right now.”

His expression softened somewhat, although he still didn’t look convinced. “What would you have in mind?”

Abby smiled. “There’s quite a list, to be honest. We’ve been digging through the records, and the guild used to sponsor improvements to businesses, local candidates who couldn’t afford the fees to initiate as adventurers, equipment for homesteaders hoping to assart new farmland, arcania and deifacts to better please our gods and invite Their presence-”

And the sanctum has certainly seen better days,” Brother Bailey interrupted, looking around the room. “Although I doubt you could afford to sponsor everything I could wish to commission.”

Probably not,” she conceded, “but we could sponsor classes for adventurers willing to abide by divine strictures in exchange for a touch of Their power. If, that is, I didn’t have to strain our credit to make sure we keep adventurers too worn out to get into trouble between the seasonal rushes.”

He gave her a pained smile, then turned to give me a long, considering look.

You could have picked a more likely champion to attempt these reforms,” Brother Bailey finally said.

More likely champions level up quickly and leave,” Abby reminded him. “If they survive at all. And I’d guess that some of them did learn of the quests that could be had directly from farmers, but hoarded the knowledge so that they could advance all the more quickly.”

I blushed. “If I’d had a class that could survive better than Jack, I might’ve tried that. Would’ve run into Liberio’s outlaws that much sooner, I guess.” Then a horrible thought occurred. “And if he was ready to frame farmers who were too prosperous to need his help, he might have decided to get rid of an adventurer too capable to need his leadership.”

I didn’t think about the genie asshole who’d sent me here very often these days, but was this more of his boon, when I’d wished for a fair chance? That only someone as pathetic as an Earth-born gamer runt could get captured by bandits and recruited instead of ganked?

I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that.

Anyway, Brother Bailey gave me an indecipherable look for a long moment.

Out of humble beginnings,” he finally murmured. “Very well,” he continued in a normal voice, “I’ll go visit them. But in exchange, Thomas, I’ll need to visit with you every Spiritsday.”

To make sure I was staying on the straight and narrow? Probably something like that. I gave him a relieved smile, and nodded.

***

After we finished with Brother Bailey – he wanted the tally of our farmer-given quests in addition to directions to all my teammates’ homes – Abby took me back the Guildhall and set me to exercise and drill against some of the training dummies while she attended to the rest of the day’s paperwork.

I was dripping with sweat by suppertime, but I’d lost track of the time and had lost my chance to wash up before the meal was served.

Pee-eugh!” Claire yelled as soon as I sat down, announcing my filthy state with all the disdain of a girl who had to put up with four brothers. “Mama, why didn’t you make Tommy wash up?”

Her mother gave me an amused once-over before turning to her daughter. “He got in several fights this morning and then trained all afternoon. That’s more than any other adventurer in Mistleten managed today.”

I chewed and swallowed before responding, no point in giving the brat more reason to complain. “You were there for most of those fights.”

And I was shuffling papers while you trained,” Abby replied. “You’ll want to wash up before you go to bed, but honest sweat is nothing to be ashamed of.”

You went with them today?” Ed asked eagerly while his bratty little sister sulked. He’d been hoping to become an adventurer early ever since I showed up, since I looked 12 when I showed up and he’s 11.

I’ve started growing, so I look 13 now. I hope. By the time I’m 16 people shouldn’t still think I’m just a kid. The way Abby keeps stuffing me with veggies, carbs, and protein, there’s no way I won’t be growing a lot for the next few months. And hopefully by winter I’ll be able to afford treatment for the lousy nutrition I’d raised myself on, since Brother Bailey had said that was the time limit for getting my full growth fixed. I’m used to being short, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to grow up.

(I’m not quite sure when I should claim my 16th birthday. This world only has 360 days, so I might need to recount it all if I want to claim my age in local years. Sometime in fall if I do that, I think, or winter if I stick to Earth years.)

Anyway, since Ed’s mom is the second-highest-level adventurer in town – who isn’t retired, at least – getting her to babysit him for the first several levels would obviously be a lot safer than running around on his own. Doesn’t mean she was gonna let him become an adventurer any time soon, though.

We had to cut our questing short, so Abby took us to a dungeon and helped us fight some of those shadow monsters that it spawns,” I told him. “I think it needed to be done anyway, to use up the mojo the bandits added to it.”

That’s right,” she confirmed, looking grim, “and we’ll need to venture into each dungeon until we’re sure they’ve exhausted any priming that Liberio carried out.”

Is that going to be an official quest?” I asked. I wanted to smirk, but the quick way to prime dungeons seems to be human sacrifice, and that’s never anything to smile about. But if the town would pay for it . . . “We could use coin from someone who won’t try to cheat us.”

(Technically, Adventurers Guild credit. As long as I was living in Mistleten and Abby was sticking up for me, it was more reliable than money.)

She shook her head. “I can’t give myself quests, and facing freshly-primed apparitions is dangerous enough that you’ll want someone with more experience along, just in case. But if you can convince anyone to accompany you before I have time to get around to it, I’ll authorize it as a quest for him and for you and your team as hirelings.”

There was a Scout named Eamon I’d gofer’d for once, when he and Abby cleared acid-spitting spiders out of a magic thicket. He’d told me he was hoping to level enough to join some professional adventurers and leave town this year, so maybe if I approached him he’d be willing to try some more off-season adventuring.

It’d have to do. My teammates weren’t going to level, after all, so their only powerups – aside from the slow improvement that comes from practice – were going to be their gear. We needed money.

Are you going back to the Guildhall again, Mama?” one of the younger boys asked. I’d heard his name at least once, but I hadn’t actually spent enough time around any of the kids but Ed to remember their names. (And Claire, but she’s a brat and that makes it easier.)

Abby nodded. “I’m afraid so. Even with most of the bandit army paroled to their families, there’s still a lot more paperwork I need to handle.”

He pouted, and I tried not to draw attention to myself. Getting Liberio and his army captured had been the right thing to do, but the result was still to keep his mother away from him all day. Hopefully that’d get better soon, ‘cause none of Abby’s kids needed to grow up the way I had.

***

It wasn’t just paperwork for the prisoners in gaol – Liberio’s veteran outlaws, mostly – that was sending us back to the Guildhall each night. The tenant farmers had tales of back when things had been better, so we’d been digging through the records, trying to figure out what things had been like generations ago and how they’d slowly changed. Partly to help figure out how to change things back, but also to try to spot warning signs, so that Abby’s successor could spot it if things started to slip back.

It was gonna have to be a secret message, though, which was something I had need to convince her of. “If everyone knows what the test is looking at, they’ll come up with ways to make things seem better than they really are,” I’d told her.

(She gave me a really odd look after I said that. I was thinking of those stupid tests that schools panic about and teach you to meta-game for better grades, but I think maybe she thought my ‘noble family’ had ‘caught a steward sending fake reports’ or something like that.)

Also, I was looking through the records for quests that kept popping up, year after year. Which I justified as trying to find out when they stopped getting brought to the Guild, but I was also hoping to find more quests that I could lead the team on, if we actually managed to start running out. Abby still wouldn’t let me look at the quests she was saving up for the summer rush, on the grounds that eight badly equipped farmers and one Jack had no business trying them.

For all I knew she might be right, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t watching for a chance to get into those files if she was ever distracted enough.

***

What’s it like, leading a gang of outlaws?” Ed whispered eagerly that night, as we got into bed.

(Because of course I wasn’t trusted to sleep in town without Abby nearby to keep me under control, or something like that. Still felt weird sleeping naked, especially next to someone, but have I mentioned how expensive clothing is?)

I thought she told you not to ask about stuff like that,” I whispered back.

I know, but now she’s adventuring with you, and . . . they say outlaws are stronger than adventurers!”

No, outlaw knacks can do stuff that adventurer knacks can’t, but adventurers learn more knacks and skills overall.” I paused for a moment. “And it doesn’t matter, because my teammates all had their outlaw knacks sealed, so they’re only as strong as any other farmer.”

His eyes widened. (I think. There wasn’t all that much moonlight to see by.) “How are they gonna survive if they don’t have knacks?! Adventurers have all sorts of knacks, but they don’t go out questing if they don’t have someone watching to make sure they stay alive.”

I know that,” I replied, doing my best not to roll my eyes. “We do quests that are easy, and we’ve still had people get hurt. This isn’t just fun, and usually your mother can’t come out and help us. So if we aren’t careful some of us are going to get killed.”

Oh.”

But we do get better as we adventure. It’s just that it’s from practice, rather than leveling up.”

***

Tommy says the men he’s leading don’t have any knacks!” Ed announced at breakfast the next morning. “And that outlaws have to learn their skills the hard way.”

I face-palmed. If his mother had told him not to ask about it, didn’t he have the sense not to bring it up after he’d disobeyed her? And from her expression, Abby wasn’t terribly impressed with either of us at the moment.

That means even though I’m not allowed to pick a class yet, I could go-”

No it doesn’t,” I interrupted firmly. “There are eight farmer’s sons in my team, and five of them got clawed up badly enough yesterday that they’re not gonna be able to go out today or tomorrow. After that the rest of us got some fresh scratches, even if they weren’t as bad. I’m gonna have to see how they’re doing the day after Spiritsday, before we decide if we can keep questing.”

Why not-” Ed started, before breaking off as his eyes widened. “The gods don’t like them very much, ‘cause they’re sealed, right? So they can’t just go to Brother Bailey for healing. And you don’t have your own healer, ‘cause even if there was a bandit priest he’d be sealed and-”

That’s enough, young man!” Abby told him sternly. “Pray that the gods are merciful, because Tommy’s friends were doing what they thought was best for their families. Many wicked things can be excused if your family is in enough trouble and you don’t see any other way to help them, and as far as they knew we wouldn’t care about their plight.”

Why wouldn’t we?!” he demanded, sounding both horrified and confused. “Mistleten is a town of adventurers!”

But that doesn’t mean it’s a town of heroes,” I pointed out to him. “Like you said last night, people don’t like to go out adventuring if they don’t have anyone to keep them safe, and higher level adventurers only show up when it’s time to harvest the Grimwust. From what we’ve found in the records, it’s . . . well, it’s complicated. We’re still trying to figure out some of it.”

Because it wasn’t just one thing. Everyone in Mistleten knew that you wanted at least a few adventuring levels to handle the trouble that came with farming in the town’s hinterlands and it used to be that all the renting farmers would make sure their children got adventuring experience, just like the middle-class farmers. The Holders didn’t seem to, but maybe they had their own thing for surviving around here. Or maybe they just hired all the protection they needed, ‘cause they don’t seem to have personal protection against Montebanks running scams. Or maybe the one example I saw didn’t care since he was getting laid.

(Couldn’t blame him if that’s it. Louie could look movie-star gorgeous whenever she wanted to, whatever outlaw knack that is.)

Anyway, over the years the town’s had a lot fewer adventurers coming from tenant farmer families, so now there are a bunch of civilian farmers who never got to be adventurers when they were young. They’re still way tougher than me, but if trouble comes along it’s riskier for them to deal with it and takes longer to do the job properly. Which means lost planting time in the spring, so there’s even less money to spare to send the next generation to Mistleten, etc.

Fixing this is gonna take years. Hopefully Abby’s right, that if we can get adventurers taking farmer quests then the Guild will start to have spare resources to help bootstrap the solution.

Well, someone needs to be a hero,” Ed muttered sullenly.

I know,” I softly replied. I was working on it, but I had a lot of leveling to do before I could make much of a difference on my own.

***

It didn’t feel like I got a lot done that day, since I didn’t get to go out questing, although I went along with Brother Bailey as he headed out to bless my teammates. Turns out they didn’t need me to tell them to make armor out of the skins, but I guess it’s good that we were all thinking along those lines. But it took a little more time than I’d expected, ‘cause he wanted to meet them all and not just the five who’d been hurt the most. But at least it meant we all got our cuts and scrapes blessed.

(Although visiting everyone didn’t involve as much walking as I’d have guessed, back on Earth. Mistleten would barely be considered a town back home, and the farms that tenant farmers work are tiny compared to the fields of wheat you can drive past once you get outside the city limits. Me and Brother Bailey did a lot of walking, but we got back to town by early afternoon. So the round trip wasn’t more than ten miles, probably less.)

Their families were pretty happy to see the priest, I gotta say. I guess they took it as proof that their wayward offspring were seen as genuine – if highly irregular – adventurers. So it was good for morale, and hopefully he had enough divine mojo on call that his blessings meant they’d be ready to go back out for more in a couple of days.

The advice from Gilander about how to prepare the hides was well-received, too. Apparently what he’d suggested for me to pass along would help the hides tan faster, along with the biting/clawing resistance. It’d be fast and dirty, so the hides wouldn’t last forever, but they’d be done in just a few days and then we’d all have a bit better protection.

And I guess I had more time for practice, exercise, studying, and helping Abby with the extra paperwork than most days, for what that’s worth. But it wasn’t the same as clearing two or even three farmer quests a day like we’d been doing. Once Spiritsday came and went and Sunday arrived, I was going to be more than ready to get back to monster hunting.

***

What kinda knacks do outlaws have?” Ed asked that evening at supper, still sounding way too curious for a boy who wasn’t going to get to be an adventurer for another half-decade. “If they’re supposed to be stronger than adventurers-”

Adventurers are stronger overall,” I pointed out. “If outlaws were the strongest they’d be in charge and people like your mother would be the outlaws.”

Hopefully I’d be brave enough to refuse to serve a Mountebank, or become one,” Abby agreed. “But the difference is that adventurers learn many skills and knacks, and they help with many different kinds of quests. Outlaw knacks aren’t for quests, they’re for taking advantage of other people. And outlaw classes are based around a narrower purpose than adventurers.”

Like Enforcers,” I agreed. “They can fight anything, but their knack is Dominate. They use that, and it’s hard to even try to fight back. But animals are affected a little differently, I think.”

Yes, Enforcers can try to fight anything,” she confirmed, “but they can’t handle nearly as many situations as a Warrior could. Although if they’re able to employ Dominate and get it to stick, Enforcers can overwhelm Warriors of similar level. Footpads can sneak past a Scout, but wouldn’t be able to collect as much information or prepare as good an ambush. A Quack’s potions can make you feel better, or pretend to be something you aren’t, but if you’re sick or hurt all they can do is make you comfortable and hope your body can heal on its own.”

Abby frowned at her children. “There are several outlaw classes, but one of the most dangerous is the class Liberio has, Mountebank, because they’re the best liars you should hope you’ll never meet. Of course, outlaw knacks are usually about lying to people in some way: Dominate makes you think that fighting back is hopeless, Vanish tells people you aren’t there, Panacea makes you feel healthy even if you’re sick, and so on, but the knack that most Mountebanks begin with is Charm. If someone uses Charm on you then you’ll think they’re your best friend and believe everything they tell you.”

What if they try to tell us something we know isn’t so?” Claire asked. “I wouldn’t believe it if someone lied to me!”

You’d want to,” I replied quietly. “You’d be thinking of all the reasons why what you knew might be wrong, and why what your new best friend told you is right. And-” I broke off, shaking my head. “If they’re strong, the Charm lingers, and Liberio is very strong. After I met him it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to help him become the lord over all these lands.”

Even worse, we think all the Mountebanks under Liberio were experienced enough to learn their second outlaw knack, and some their third,” Abby told us, still frowning. “Guise, for example, makes Charm even more dangerous because the Mountebank might look like someone you already know, and so you wouldn’t be on your guard like you ought to be around strangers. And as you grow up you’ll need to be especially careful, because one thing Charm can do is make you fall in love with the Mountebank, and when you’re in love you can be convinced to be very foolish indeed.”

Louie claimed that she didn’t use Charm on me, because she didn’t need me to follow her around like a love-sick puppy,” I said, nodding. “But when Liberio used it on me, I didn’t-”

I paused, suddenly feeling a little sick. ‘Cause I had been curious about what it might be like to sleep with the bandit princess, but I hadn’t thought that way at all about the outlaw commander in chief. Except I’d been so deep into sudden hero worship that if he’d asked it of me, I might have convinced myself that being asked to be Liberio’s catamite was an honor, a sign of his particular favor.

Guess I’m lucky he isn’t into boys. You hear about man-boy warrior couples from all over Earth, from Japanese Samurai to Spartans, but I dunno how real that was. Fanfic writers use any excuse for slash – I think they called that ‘subtext’ in English class, except most of the time the teachers had to tell us what the subtext was supposed to be, so I gotta wonder how much of that they were pretending was there when it really wasn’t – and the one time Dad looked over my history textbook he muttered something about ‘crazy revisionist nonsense’ and was going to send an email to the school board.

(Dunno if he bothered. The school didn’t change texts, anyway, and they never gave us any material that disagreed with the textbooks we already had.)

If a man uses Charm on a woman, or vice versa,” Abby confirmed, “following their new love around is often precisely what happens if the victim doesn’t shake it off right away.”

Charm could make me mushy about a girl?” Ed asked, looking disgusted. “Ew! That’s gross!”

I guess I should be grateful she thought I’d be more useful scouting around for her,” I decided. “Not that she’d want me being ‘mushy’ about her, unless she’s the kind of sicko who likes young-”

I broke off with a quick glance at Ed. ‘Cause he was only eleven, and if he still thought girls were gross his parents might not have given him the Talk. (If that’s how they did it around here. Didn’t seem like they had a public school around to handle sex ed, though.)

You’re probably too young for Charm to do that to you,” I told him. “Give it a few years.”

Abby nodded. “And hopefully, by the time you meet a Mountebank who isn’t a prisoner, you’ll have enough levels to bolster your mind’s defense. And if you plan on visiting a city, you’ll want a trinket for that as well.”

I winced. “So being low level is why my mind was weak, then?”

She smiled sadly. “If you grew up in comfort, that’s often the case. I hadn’t thought you’d need to fortify your will this quickly, so if you have to blame anyone blame me for not noticing an army of outlaws trying to entrench themselves here.

But Liberio is higher level than anyone in Mistleten, so if you didn’t know you’d need to guard against Charm specifically he might have gotten you even if you had the best conviction-bolstering trinket you could get in this town.”

I nodded slowly. “And at least I did break free after I found out what his plan was.”

Yes, your resolve isn’t lacking,” Abby agreed. “You wouldn’t have been able to walk here on blistering feet if that was the case. And I’m sure it helped that they’d been building you up as heroes in your own minds, when you discovered what they were truly intending.”

Yeah, that’s for sure. Planning to kill people who were a threat could be justified, maybe, but planning to kill other people because they didn’t need anyone’s help? Black-hearted villainy, no way around it.

They are high enough level to have more knacks, by the way,” I confirmed. “Louie showed it off, so she didn’t just have Charm, upgrades or not.”

What was it?” Abby asked. “After several levels outlaws gain more knacks, but you didn’t tell me you knew the others she’d picked.” Her voice sharpened. “Tommy, you know we’re going to have trouble holding all the higher-level outlaws until we can have their trials. Anything we know about their knacks could make the difference between keeping them from escaping!”

I flinched. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “It must have slipped my mind. She was able to change her makeup and how she was dressed in just a moment.” I paused. “Oh, and one time it was like she’d taken an instant bath. That might be a separate knack, I don’t know.”

Abby frowned thoughtfully. “That does sound like Guise, if I remember the improvements for it. Thank you. We suspected at least some of them would have that knack, but it’s good to have confirmation.”

How would you beat that? When she was doing the makeup thing she made herself look like an entirely different person. Her eyes looked twice as big, her nose was suddenly tiny . . . if they can use Guise to look like entirely different people, won’t they be able to escape?”

The Secretary General shook her head. “Sealing higher level outlaws may be unreliable until our own higher level adventurers start arriving for the summer rush, but there are still precautions we can take. The disguises that Guise switches between still have to be applied the regular way, with makeup and so one, and then the knack remembers the disguise and can be used to invoke it. She won’t have an unlimited number of disguises, either, so we can compel her into them and remove them one by one.”

I had the feeling that Louie was going to hate that. But she’d happily helped to set us all up, and if I hadn’t broken free we’d have all become murderers under the tender care of her and the other Mountebanks. Maybe she’d try to claim that adventurers and outlaws were the same, that I needed to learn how to kill and stop being a naive, useless n00blet. Hell, maybe she had friends who’d died facing adventurers. But the whole point of the setup here in Mistleten is to give newer adventurers something useful to do so that they don’t go out and get into trouble and the whole point of outlaws was that they had knacks that were best against other people, instead of monsters. So if the bandit princess ever tried to tell me anything I would know she was spouting bullshit.

But what do I do if there’s a Mountebank loose?” Ed demanded. “You won’t let me become an adventurer yet!”

If you’re worried about that,” Abby began tartly, before pausing and looking thoughtful. “You know, it might be best to be ready, just in case. I’ll ask Brother Bailey to consecrate enough oil for everyone to carry around at least a small vial. A few drops on your head and knacks that try to lie to you are much more likely to fail.”

How long does that last?” I asked. “Is it permanent?”

No.” She shook her head again. “Only until it dries, not more than an hour or two. But if you think something might be wrong, it’s just a moment or two to sprinkle a bit on your head, and then not even Liberio will be able to Charm you.”

Oh. Uh, they have a steady supply at the jail, right? And use it?”

Abby nodded this time, thankfully. “They’re sealed as best as we could manage, the gaol’s walls are specifically charmed against outlaws, and the guards know to anoint each other every hour on the hour. Usually we don’t need to be quite so cautious when an outlaw is caught, most of them never reach level twenty, but we’ve no knowing what level Liberio reached. He was able to persuade other Mountebanks to work together under his direction, so he might be as high as level thirty.” She shook her head one final time. “I can’t imagine the risks he must have taken, if that’s the case.”

Then she scowled at her son. “And there’s your answer. Become an outlaw if you want to get knacks to hurt other people and hang before you reach level twenty.”

Ed gulped and nodded back to his mother, quelled for at least the time being.

 

Continue to Part III?

If you like what you’ve read, feel free to comment. I’m still learning, so feedback is always helpful.

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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 these 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 then.) These rats 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’d have been happy with the local version of giant rats, the three-footers, ‘cause they were just giant rats. These, 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, they had newly birthed young to feed, and if you’re a tenant farmers you 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 exactly charge, 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 with monster hunting their families might never get out from under their debt burdens. It’s kinda 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, 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, you see, 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. Most of them will 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, and 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 the does before they realized the nest had been infiltrated.

I’m pretty sure of that, anyway.

It’s still all we had and 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 does and pups. Thank goodness for Darksight, my other knack, because if I had to carry a torch there’s no way I could have gotten down there undetected. As it was, the does were clearly paying attention to the battle outside, their ears cocked and their noses constantly sniffing.

Vanish is complete bullshit, by the way, so even with everything that led up to it I’m glad I’ve got it. I’ve heard that invisibility is 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 for why someone might notice an invisible dude anyway. 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 the first doe’s 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. But he’s big and built like a proper farmer, so if anyone assumes he’s in charge I can’t exactly blame them.

Anyway, I nodded and held up the bag. “Got all the pups, live,” I announced, and that got a ragged cheer from them at least. “There’s five does down there, so if 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 a couple of guys 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 goin’ to get it through your head that those were perfectly ordinary feral hogs?”

Yeah, that’s what everyone insists. 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 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 whittled some sticks to poke through rat-steaks 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’d been 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 like I’d expected, 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 soft, 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 wishes (or boons, as he called them) 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 tenant farmers 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 of the very farmers they’d said they wanted to help.

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

***

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, and 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 that’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 didn’t have a class, that I was training to be a Scout but didn’t qualify yet, so they didn’t bother to crush my class out before trying to 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. (I even get some extra benefit from regular exercise and training.) Apparently, an outlaw initiation rite counted as teaching me.

So technically I was never an outlaw.

My team wasn’t welcome inside Mistleten, part of their parole, 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. So 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 or 13, cause if I looked my real age of fifteen-and-a-half 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 anything worth hauling, but today had changed that.

She was a bit farther along the road than usual when I spotted her, and I saw her relax when she saw me trudging towards her. 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.

Her oldest son is 11, so I guess you could say she’s treating me like an adopted nephew or something. 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 enough to each other that we wouldn’t have to shout.

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 the sack 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 then paused and looked over my head. (She’s tall and again, I look like I’m about 12. Including my height.) “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 questin’ 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 cringing. 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 her 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 tryin’ 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 formin’ a gang and mobbin’ 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. (And doesn’t that sound weird when you put it that way? But it’s not wrong, adventuring isn’t the path to quick riches when everyone is doing it. Like prospecting during the California gold rush, maybe.) The town didn’t have any deaths laid to his feet yet, but since he’d expected to be hung instead of exiles once he was captured, it was probably only a matter of time. The core of experienced outlaws that Liberio brought with him 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 to earn my keep. 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. Saved the lives I couldn’t.)

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 can 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?”

Sure, everyone knows that,” Cecil told me. “Only reason they ain’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 leading to the firefly cave 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. Anyway, I could’ve used a net when I was catching fireflies 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, back before the Footpad knacks were forced on me when I was still doing the firefly-on-a-stick trick 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. (Kinda like that Vantablack stuff back on Earth.) As if the dungeon was saying that using Darksight was cheating, so we weren’t allowed to actually see more of its monsters than their outlines. Vaguely humanoid, I guess like trolls or goblins, but no detail or features that we could make out.

Anyway, we all jumped in shock when they came running at us, except maybe Abby. Again, it makes sense, if she’d gone down these dungeons a bunch of times already. There were a lot more this time, 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. (Sure, 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 smashing his monster, if he was feeling sore from the workout. “Been years since dungeon monsters raided our farm, but if Liberio was feedin’ the dungeon they might start coming out at night again.”

There could be.” Abby agreed. “Was anyone hurt just now? 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.

 

Continue to Part II?

If you like what you’ve read, feel free to comment. I’m still learning, so feedback is always helpful.

I could really use some help with keeping the lights on and food on the table. If you think my efforts are worth supporting, please consider donating. -Albert

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) I’m not entire sure what will happen to Andre. Rupert the foreman isn’t terribly impressed by his ordeal, however.

3) I chopped out most of Abby’s ex’s rant in the last chapter. His points about the failure of the system will show up later, hopefully better done.

4) I came up with the title for book one very early, when 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 pointed out 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. ‘Choosing the Life’ is one possibility.

I want to give thanks to Dnar Semaj, Edmantoog, Brill Adrien, Scyld_Norning, macdjord, Dilettante, Dmitry, RocjawCypher, Maelstromknight, Shadowbyte, saiman, TheEyes, Oll Korrect, AlekTas, The Vale, Llat-2, and Psawhn for their feedback on the first novel, 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!