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.
“Get it off of him!”
The sound of several thuds made it clear that my team was taking care of the Rodent of Unusual Size that had knocked Basil down, so I could continue sneaking along towards the nest.
No, that’s not what they’re called around here. Everyone calls them granmouchen, because ‘giant rat’ is used for rats that get to be two or three feet long. Like how ‘Greater’ Swarming Spiders are, for the most part, only a bit bigger than your head.
(Those have got boss versions bigger than your chest, but only a few for each swarm. Fortunately. Not that the smaller ones don’t have enough venom to melt you into bio-slurry for them to gorge on, mind. My first tunic lost all its resale value because of a splash of that venom; I’m lucky that I got it off before the stuff ate all the way through.)
Anyway, some of the monster names around here are tricky to remember. I’ve been thinking of them as RoUS’s because that part of the movie scared the crap out of me when I was six. No, I didn’t notice that they were actors scrambling around on hands and knees. At least, not when I was six. These things are just as big as the ones in the movie, too. Another reason to use that name for ‘em.
And maybe I’d been expecting to run into giant rats sooner or later, but I would have been happy with the local version of giant rats, the three-footers. These ones, according to the Tenant farmer who’d told us about them, were probably driven out of the Grimwust last fall, found themselves a likely spot to burrow, and settled in to hibernate for the winter.
But now they were awake and they had newly birthed young to feed, and tenant farmers don’t have the time to flush out a nest of granmouchen again and again until the mothers drag their young too far away to bother your fields and flocks. Hell, no farmer has time to spare during spring planting, but when you’ve got rent to make and you don’t want to give your Holder more reason to call your debts due, you definitely don’t have time to take away from planting season.
That’s where me and my team comes in. We go after the problems that farmers don’t have the time for, or maybe aren’t dumb enough to risk their lives over. And we don’t charge much, either, ‘cause we’re doing it for the experience. Or at least I am. My crew are all local renters’ sons (and former n00blet outlaws) and if they don’t help out their families might never get out from under their debt burdens. It’s, uh, complicated.
Anyway, we couldn’t just drive the rats off, ‘cause we had to make sure we didn’t cause trouble for the next farming family over. Likely as not they’d be our next clients and have troubles of their own. So, we needed to kill the RoUS’s at the source.
Which was why my team was keeping the bucks occupied but trying not to kill them right away. While they were doing that, I was crawling through the burrow towards the does’ nest, with my stealth field up so that the does wouldn’t feel or smell me coming. It’s a prana knack called Vanish (and enhanced with Shadow Creep) and it’s the only reason that a bunch of amateurs like us could hope to deal with the problem on our own.
Turns out that when you’re doing this video game RPG shit for real, mobs don’t all aggro you as soon as you enter their threat radius. They’ll run if they think they’re in danger and if they’ve got a way out. So as soon as we killed a couple of the bucks or someone got too close to the pups, the does would pick up as many as they could and make a break for it. Then we’d have to start all over again instead of going on to the next quest.
More experienced adventurers would have better knacks. Maybe they’d scout out all the burrows and collapse them, with traps at the few entrances they’d left open. Maybe they’d mix up a vapor to sink down into burrows and get the nest before the granmouchen realized there was any danger. Maybe they’d have three or four other ways to do it. But they wouldn’t send in a mostly-invisible kid to try to cut the throats of does before they realized the nest had been infiltrated.
I’m pretty sure of that.
It’s still all we had and anyway when you’re in charge (sort of) you do what you gotta, so I kept crawling until the tunnel opened up and there were the dams and pups. Thank goodness for Darksight, because if I had to carry a torch there’s no way I could have gotten down there undetected. As it was, the dams were clearly paying attention to the battle outside, their ears cocked and their noses constantly sniffing.
Vanish is complete bullshit, by the way. Even with everything that led up to it I’m glad I’ve got it. I’ve heard that invisibility was so OP that, way back in the prehistoric days before computers, the guys who made up RPGs had to come up with all sorts of rules why someone might notice an invisible dude anyway. So I’m really glad that those guys weren’t the devs for the world I was now living in. My invisibility could pop if I wasn’t careful, but despite the name it covered all the senses, especially if I took the time to move slowly, carefully, and tried to keep to cover.
Which I was especially careful about once I reached the does’ nest and could crouch, rather than having to crawl on my hands and knees. I had to get right up next to them and if they popped my Vanish this would all be for nothing. So I crept up, carefully, as close as I could to as many as possible, and slowly pulled my seax from its sheath.
I’ve heard that ‘swashbuckling’ was about letting your sword rattle as you drew it, as a way to warn people that you were annoyed and now holding live steel. That the dangerous guy was the one who drew his blade as quietly as possible, so his victim wouldn’t have any extra warning.
Today, I was trying to be dangerous.
Managed it, too. And hell, I’d get my ass kicked if I didn’t keep my seax sharp enough to cut through anything softer than metal. So even though Vanish popped as soon as I attacked, I’d lined my knife up pretty well and managed to chop one head practically off, get all the way through the throat of a second doe, and get a good nick on what had to be the jugular vein of a third, the way she bled.
Got a ton of blood all over me, but adventurer laundry services don’t even blink at that sort of thing, so neither did I. Besides, there were still two more does to take care of.
One had flinched back, but the other was already trying to pick up one of the pups, so I quickly stabbed her before she could get a good grip on it and make her escape. Then I pounced on the last one as she kept hesitating, and from the way she started trying to claw at me that had been enough to make up her mind, but my tunic caught most of it and fifteen inches of sharp steel did for her before she could catch me in her incisors.
The pups weren’t happy at all, but they were still blind and unable to look after themselves, so I pulled out the bag that’d been tucked inside my tunic and started collecting the lot. Looked like we’d caught ‘em all, too. The team was going to be real happy about that: The bucks and does would be some welcome meat for their families (apparently food can be scarce in spring, ‘cause forage doesn’t start to be good until summer since everything still needs to grow), but live granmouchen pups meant we might be paid in more than just experience.
We kinda needed that. Most of the pests we’d been clearing weren’t worth bringing in for a bounty, but according to my notes people could get some use out of the pups. If they were willing to deal, that is.
But I’d burn that bridge when I came to it, so I put a smile on my face as I scrambled back down the burrow I’d come in through, dragging the squeaking bag of plus-plus-plus-sized rat babies behind me, until I was close enough to the surface that I could just stand up and push through the last few inches of dirt above me.
Then my triumphant grin died as I took in the scene.
No one was dead or dying. Well, aside from the granmouchen bucks, but they were supposed to be dead so that was all well and good. My teammates were all alive, and that was even better.
But half of them were clawed up, Basil worst of all, and pretty much every tunic had been taken off and was being used to try to stop the bleeding.
I winced. “You washed all those out with wine first, right?” Because if they hadn’t then sepsis-
“Until we ran out, yeah,” Cecil told me. He didn’t have any more experience than the rest, but we’d worked together for as long as I had with any of them, and he wasn’t an idiot. Good enough for my second-in-command.
Or my boss. He gave more orders in a fight, that’s for sure. I was usually too busy sneaking around for that. Hadn’t mattered yet, he’d been the first I’d recruited for this program of would-be heroism and we both agreed that it was something that had to be done. Boss, 2IC, or shared command . . . whichever way he saw it, I was grateful that he’d been willing to work with me.
Anyway, I nodded and held up the bag. “Got all the pups, live,” I told them, and got a ragged cheer. “There’s five does down there, so if three of you can go fetch them we can have one for luncheon and send a buck or dam home with everyone.”
The next cheer was slightly more heartfelt, and the three that weren’t sporting deep scratches started down the tunnel. While they did that, Cecil and I cleared out a patch in the ground and got some deadfalls put together for the fire.
“That was closer than I’d like,” he admitted quietly. “Wish Myles were still here. Sort of. That is, if he wasn’t-”
“I know,” I interrupted. “When something went wrong, he could fix it. Maybe a couple of us injured, at worst, and that took those demon pigs to do it.”
Cecil snorted. “When are you going to get it through your head that those were perfectly ordinary feral hogs?”
Yeah, that’s what everyone insisted. But if normal pigs are that badass then how the hell did we ever work up the nerve to try to turn them into bacon?
(Tasty, tasty bacon, I admit. It’s obvious why we kept it up once we tried it, but what kind of sane and sensible caveman takes a look at half a ton of enraged boar, tusks out and heading his way as fast as a galloping horse, and thinks, “I wonder what that tastes like?” Seriously, it’s like starting a recipe off with, “Step One: Fillet the tiger.”)
These rats probably weren’t going to be anywhere near as tasty. Didn’t have anything to season them with and they were wild so they were probably going to be gamy. But it’d be meat, and it’d be meat we’d killed ourselves in battle, so it felt kinda hunter-badass as we got the fire started and sticks whittled to poke through lunch and hold the meat over the fire to cook.
“I miss him too,” I admitted quietly, as I picked out the smallest doe to skin and cook (so that no one would have to take it home to their families). “If he could be here to lead us, I’d follow him in a heartbeat. But this has gotta get done, and we’re the only ones who can do it.”
“Only ones who will do it,” Cecil corrected, and I didn’t contradict him. Hell, if we could I’d want us to gather back together once the rats were dropped off so we could clear another quest this afternoon, ‘cause goodness knows there’s plenty that needs doing. But with us out of wine for disinfecting wounds and making sure the water we drank was safe, going back out would be chancy for the five of us who’d been clawed up by the granmouchen bucks. (I was lucky. The dam that had tried to claw her way free hadn’t quite broken my skin, for all that I could feel where she’d tried.)
Questing is not a sanitary pursuit; open cuts are begging to get infected if you don’t take care to keep them clean. We couldn’t afford bandages – cloth is damned expensive around here – so we’d been using the wine as a disinfectant and trying not to get any of us hurt badly enough to need it that often. Except now we’d had a bad go of it and had to use it all up.
No, we wouldn’t be doing any more quests today. And we needed to make sure those cuts were healing cleanly, but we didn’t have time for everyone to wait around and heal up.
Trying to get that fixed would be up to me.
Lunch was quiet. The meat was tough and gamy, and we’d needed to cook it all the way through to make sure it was safe, so we were all too busy chewing to talk much.
But finally we were done, and half my teammates were groaning as they tried to stand up and found that they’d stiffened up after the fight. No surprise, as their cuts scabbed over.
“Look,” I said, “half of us have been hurt today, and that’s worse than any other quest we’ve cleared so far. Let’s call it an early weekend. If you can, help your family with the planting. Everyone else, take a couple of days to rest and recover, and I’ll try to get a priest to come around on Spiritsday. Then we’ll get back at it Sunday morning. Sound good?”
The additional groans weren’t what I’d call enthusiastic, but at this point I’d take what I could get.
My name is Thomas Norten. Tom, or Tommy to the local adventurers. Can’t blame them much: They’re either lean whipcord or slabs of beef, whereas I showed up looking like a scrawny twelve-year-old. Anyway, I’m from Earth, which this place isn’t. After I was grounded for letting my newest videogame hurt my grades, I was rooting around the attic for stuff that I could sell on Ebay so that I could buy some of the summer titles I’d been drooling over.
Instead I found a genie in a bottle. He was so pissed about being stuck there for however long it had been that he’d decided to skip the whole granting wished (or boons, I guess) business and just kill whoever let him out. Seems like bad PR to me, but go figure. Except he realized that I hadn’t let him out to try to use him, so we went with a loophole where he’d kick me off Earth instead of kill me. Still gonna have to kill me if I go back, so I won’t until I’m badass enough to kill him first.
That’s probably gonna take a while.
See, I could have asked for a world where everything’s made with replicators, medical science can rebuild you into whatever you like, and personal spaceships are free for the asking. Instead . . .
I blame my video game addiction. I’ve always liked going around and doing all the quests to fix the world. Being a hero. Paragon, if you like. Closest I’ll get to being the bad guy and liking it is when you get a chance for some poetic justice towards an asshole who really has it coming.
That’s what had been on my mind all spring and that’s what I asked for. A world where I could have a fair chance to level up and be a hero. And I’ve been wanting to kick myself for being an idiot ever since I realized what I could have asked for instead.
Instead of getting everything handed to me because anything I could think of was free, becoming an adventurer had quite literally required selling the clothes off my back. As for being a hero? Well, so far I’d brought down a bandit army after it tried to conscript me into the revolutionary force they’d been building. Yep, I’d sided with the Redcoats over the Yankee rebels, and I’m pretty sure it was the right choice.
I hope it was the right choice. The Tenants, farmers who had to rent their land, were getting squeezed more and more as years went by, less and less able to afford to send their sons and daughters to become adventurers and gain experience before returning to the farms. And believe me, with the Grimwust nearby you want some levels, ‘cause sooner or later something nasty will try to move in and you’d better be able to handle it before it kills your livestock, ruins your crops, or makes off with your family.
The bandits, led by a ‘Lord’ Liberio, said they were going to change all that. Free the Tenant class from Holder practices and conspiracies that kept them poor. Except I spied on Liberio and found that he were going to ruin the Tenants who were prospering, to make sure that his revolution was the only hope they had.
I led the authorities to them, but not before the veteran bandits managed to kill some farmers.
And the team I was working with? Like me, they’d all been recruited by Liberio. We’d all been baby bandits.
I headed back to Mistleten by myself after lunch. More than a bit slower than usual, with the sack of baby rats to carry. They kept squirming, all of them shifting around, so that made it worse. But at least I didn’t have to carry one of the adults back for my supper. Abby wasn’t about to let me go hungry.
She’s the Secretary General for the Mistleten Adventurers Guild, and without her help none of this would have been possible. See, maybe my teammates had thought they were doing the right thing, and sure, they’d been clearing quests that their parents had given up telling the town about, but they were still outlaws. The Enforcer class, all of them, and like all the captured outlaws their classes had been sealed. (Although it’s more of a temp job for the higher level ones.)
The only reason it hadn’t happened to me was that the bandits thought I was a Scout, and tried to crush that out of me and make me a Footpad instead. Except I’m a Jack, the scrub class of this whole adventuring system, and my class specialty is being able to learn anything if someone will teach it to me. Apparently, an outlaw initiation rite counted.
So technically I was never an outlaw.
My team wasn’t welcome inside Mistleten, but I was allowed as long as I stayed close to Abby. Which meant hanging around the guildhall and helping her with all the paperwork that I’d landed on the town. (She’d assured me that she wasn’t mad at me for finding the bandit army, but it was still a lot more administrative overhead than she was used to dealing with.) Basically my parole was a lot looser than my teammates’, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t under suspicion. I still had my outlaw knack of Vanish, after all.
And since I had to stick close by her to be allowed in town, she had to meet me outside Mistleten if I was going to be let in at all. It’s a good thing I still look like I’m 12, cause if I looked my real age there’d probably be some nasty rumors starting up.
Anyway, our schedule that day was that I’d meet her after lunch, report on the morning’s activities, then head back out to do more quests in the afternoon. One reason for that was the sack I was carrying: If we happened to find any loot drops that we could sell, she’d be our agent. So far we hadn’t netted much, but today the loot wasn’t bad.
She was a bit farther along the road than usual, and I saw her relax when she saw me trudging towards her. Her oldest son is 11, she’d taken one look at me when I showed up and started mothering me – albeit adventurer style – and she was still feeding me double servings of vegetables at every meal.
Sometimes it’s embarrassing, but most of the time I envy her kids for getting to grow up with her.
“What’s in the bag?” Abby asked, once we got close.
“Got those granmouchen pups you said you had a buyer for. Cleared out a nest of the grownups, had the smallest for lunch,” I told her, brandishing the hide of said lunch with one hand and offering the sack of pups with the other. “I know they weren’t at the top of the list, but this morning’s quest turned out to be a nest of them. Still haven’t opened their eyes, so they aren’t too hard to handle.”
She took it and looked inside, then nodded. “I’ll take these straight to the shop. And don’t worry about completing the list in order, I know you’re doing quests as they come up. Most years the buyers would just have to wait for the summer rush anyway.”
Abby paused and looked over my head. (She’s tall and again, I look like I’m 12.) “Your friends should probably show themselves, though,” she then called out.
“My-?” I started, but then heard footsteps and turned to see Cecil and the other two who hadn’t gotten hurt, approaching from where the ground dipped towards the nearest stream.
“How’d you follow me without my noticing?” I asked them, feeling a little annoyed. I was supposed to be the one with the sneaky knack, after all. Plus they’d had to get their meat home before they could start to catch up with me. I know I’m not nearly as strong as they are, but had the sack slowed me down that much?
“Grew up knowin’ this land,” Cecil pointed out. “Not hard to catch up with you when we already knew where you planned to meet the Secretary General.”
“But why did you wish to join us?” Abby asked him. “Until we can hold the trials properly, you’re all still under parole. Even if I am turning more than a blind eye to what Tommy’s doing, to give you all a fair chance to demonstrate your continuing good intentions.”
He grimaced. “With better’n half of us hurt, weren’t gonna be questing together the rest of today, tomorrow, or Spiritsday. We were hopin’ you might have something we could do instead. Town’s got quests from all over, ain’t that right? None of this door-to-door to find quests one at time?”
She frowned. “We do, yes, but most quests we get are based around the Grimwust. Farmers don’t bring in quests suitable for novice adventurers until shortly before each seasonal rush.”
“That’s ‘cause they don’t ever get done!” one of the other two burst out. His name was Claude, and usually he didn’t talk much. One of those big guys you figure doesn’t have a lot going on behind his eyes. Back home he’d have been one of the football players that didn’t need to make a lot of decisions, just stand in line and keep the other team from doing anything. Whatever those guys are called.
“I’m afraid so,” Abby agreed, with a pained expression. “New adventurers willing to risk their lives without so much as a single higher-level adventurer to keep an eye on them tend to die, and those lucky enough to survive soon move on to more rewarding challenges. Tommy’s being very brave, acting as your leader.”
I flushed, but not just because I didn’t feel like the real leader. “It’s easier to get away with that when I hide from monsters until I’ve got a good opening.”
“Nonetheless,” she went on, “for matters to change we need two things: Quests need to be brought to Mistleten, and the adventurers there need to be willing to take them without the protection of someone with more experience. So at the moment you’re all doing the best thing you can to help all the farmers, by showing that adventuring off-season is possible.”
“Be easier if Dominate weren’t sealed,” Claude grumbled.
Abby’s expression darkened. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to waive the initiation fee for all of you, but if it’s found that you’ve tampered with your sealed knack that will be seen as breaking your parole. Improving your skills the hard way may be slower, but that’ll at least aid you when the time comes to select your class.”
“Doing that frees up class resources, then?” I asked. “If you already know how to fight before becoming a Warrior, can you get extra maneuvers instead?”
It didn’t matter for me, since I wasn’t planning on going for Warrior once I was ready to parallel class, but it had occurred to me that if I got a windfall when I became ready, dipping into a few levels of a fighting class might help me survive while I went for the kind of power that I’d need to squash a genie. My team was another matter: They’d all been picked for Enforcers under the outlaws, so most of them were probably going to end up being Warriors if they got the chance.
“It can,” she agreed, “but in your specific example, you’d have to already know every weapon family known by the Warrior class to choose techniques instead. But if you know how to fight, you can spend the combat skills granted by your class on other weapon families you’d like to learn, or on backup skills.”
“Backup skills?” Cecil wanted to know.
I guess, since they never expected to get the chance to be legitimate adventurers, my team hadn’t learned that much about how it all worked.
“One way to defeat an enemy is to disarm him,” Abby pointed out. “Sometimes it’s even the easiest way, and it gives you a better chance to take a prisoner, too. And you’ve only been fighting monstrous beasts so far, but if you ever face something intelligent it might settle for capturing you. So you may be very glad to have backup weapons hidden on you, or even know how to fight barehanded.”
Claude grunted. “Don’t think there’s any of us who don’t know how to wrassle, ma’am.”
She gave him a level look. “You can’t say you know how to wrestle unless you can grapple with a River Rat and come away without crushed joints, gouged-out eyes, or bitten-off ears.”
All four of us winced.
“Is that another outlaw class?” I asked, still wincing. Does that kind of wrestling even happen in America these days? You’d think it’d be a great way to get the police to come crashing down on your underground MMA ring if you let fighters suffer those kinds of injuries. Guess you could do it in districts that have made it clear that they’d rather have thugs instead of cops, but would they have the kind of prize money you’d need to offer to get a steady stream of guys willing to risk getting killed or crippled? (Maybe it’d work next door to Hollywood. Money and an endless stream of would-be movie stars getting hungry enough to be desperate. I dunno.)
Abby gave me a long look – I guess I’d given more evidence that I was from somewhere really sheltered – but nodded. “Many do consider them an outlaw class, yes. Mistleten doesn’t offer it, but we aren’t on any major rivers. I understand that it’s easier to initiate into than Sailor, so someone looking to stick to a river and never go out to sea might think it’s a bargain. And while we’d never permit a known Buccaneer inside the walls, I’d probably be willing to look the other way if a River Rat came through but didn’t cause trouble.”
Being a sailor was a class in this world? That’s-
My confusion must have been obvious, ‘cause she smiled at me and went on: “And yes, Sailor is a class. You don’t need it to work on a ship, just like you don’t need to be a Warrior to pick up a weapon and fight. Still, it’s a lot easier to learn to survive the sea if you have a mariner class, so most reputable ships will insist that their crew be initiated.”
“Heard about that,” Cecil said with a nod. “Some even let you indenture yourself for the initiation fee, ‘cause there ain’t much of a chance to run off while you’re on the open water, and they can watch you in port. Thought about trying that myself, before Clifton showed up with what seemed like a better chance.”
“Rather not lose an eye or an ear to some mariner outlaw,” Bertie, our other unwounded parolee, agreed lightly. “Hells, if I knew that forming a gang and mobbing beasts would have us earning a class from town, I wouldn’t have bothered being an outlaw first!”
“That would have gotten you killed last year,” Abby told him, very seriously. “Liberio’s men were already scouting these hinterlands, and they would’ve considered you competition to be disposed of.”
One of those men was an old boyfriend of hers, before he got tired of waiting for a chance to be an adventurer himself and ran off to seek his fortune. The town didn’t have any deaths laid to his feet yet, but since he’d expected to be hung once captured instead of exiled, it was probably only a matter of time. The core of experienced outlaws that Liberio brought wouldn’t have been picked for their scruples, ‘cause he had no problem with murder. Not if he could get something from it.
I should know, I was very nearly one of the ones killed as a sacrifice when he’d been discovered and went to ground in-
“If you three want more experience,” I said, turning back to Abby as inspiration struck, “couldn’t we try going into Lulach? I don’t know how many lives Liberio offered to the dungeon before you captured him-”
“Three,” she interrupted, stone-faced. “Farmer Augustus, and his children Rees and Fanny, brother and sister, ten and twelve. Old enough to offer as yearling sacrifices, too young to put up much of a struggle once they were caught and bound. That alone will be enough to see the bandit ‘king’ hanged!” she finished with a growl.
A brother and sister. Who were same age as her two oldest children, or close enough. No wonder she hadn’t volunteered that before. Two kids that I’d been too weak-minded in the face of Liberio’s Charm to save.
I don’t know why she let him surrender, if she caught him just after he’d butchered them, but . . . I swallowed and moved on. “If Lulach has been primed, won’t there be more of those, uh-”
“Tulpaic apparitions?” she finished for me. “Yes, that’s quite possible. So you want the experience of facing them?”
“I, uh, already did,” I admitted sheepishly. “Before the bandits found me. Gilander said it was a good way to figure out if a dungeon might still have loot, if it had been used enough recently to still make those tulpy monsters.”
“Of course that man did,” Abby replied, suddenly sounding thoroughly exasperated. Which made sense, as the apothecary was the man who’d encouraged me to push just a little further than what she herself had considered safe.
(No, we hadn’t told her when I started to tiptoe beyond the mostly safe fetch quest she’d arranged for me to do. We should have. If she’d known, then when I went missing she might have been able to find traces of what had happened, and that could have exposed the bandit army then and there.)
“But we could all use that experience,” I quickly went on. “They weren’t too hard to kill, once I fought back, but it was a surprise when they attacked me. And they aren’t like animals, either. Wouldn’t it be best if we don’t get complacent about what we fight?”
“Many monsters that trouble the farmers come from the Grimwust, so it’s true that you can’t count on them to act like normal creatures all the time,” Abby agreed. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. I ought to survey Lulach soon anyway, to see if there’s any indication of escaped bandits taking shelter there.”
“Didn’t you get us all?” Cecil asked.
“We hope so,” she replied, “but we can’t be absolutely certain. All the new conscripts have been accounted for, yes, but it’s always possible that some of Liberio’s veterans managed to slip away in the confusion.” She shook her head. “Normally we wouldn’t bother trying to clear out every last bandit in the region, but bandit armies aren’t something we can afford to ignore. Every last one of his crew needs to be accounted for.”
“So we’ll go in and look for signs that someone’s been hiding out, and if we get into too much trouble with the dungeon you’ll shoot it off us?” I asked, to confirm.
Abby nodded again. “Yes. Now let’s hurry, I’m far too busy this afternoon as it is!”
“Ma’am, is it alright for us to use Darksight in the dungeon?” Cecil asked as we caught our breath before entering. We’d jogged the whole way, and I was in a lot better shape than when I’d been a scrawny gamer couch potato, but it hadn’t been easy. Especially towards the end.
But at least I was still improving. The stamina bar that I couldn’t see – because a status screen is expensive magic and I don’t think anyone living in Mistleten could actually afford one – was a lot longer than when I showed up from Earth with nothing more than the clothes on my back. (I’m still annoyed that I hadn’t been wearing shoes at the time. Maybe that’ll go away once I can afford something better than sandals. Be a while, though: Shoes are even more expensive than clothes around here, and there’s always stuff to spend money on.)
Abby nodded as I fought to catch my breath. “Don’t worry, I made sure your sealing didn’t block it when Tommy recruited you. It’s such a common prana knack that most adventurers won’t even think twice about you having it.” She paused. “But try not to rely on it too much. Trespass deep enough into a dungeon, get too close to where it joins with the Grimwust, and your Darksight will become unreliable.”
I blinked, straightening up as I finally stopped gasping for air. “The dungeons all connect to the Grimwust? Which you warned me in no uncertain terms to stay out of?”
“Yeah, everyone knows that,” Cecil told me. “Only reason they haven’t been closed off and sealed up.”
“You didn’t think we liked havin’ ready-made havens for outlaws to lurk in, did you?” he went on. “The forest would open up new paths out, and we wouldn’t know where to ward them off until the real monsters started pouring out.”
“We’ve handled the Grimwust for generations, but that doesn’t mean it’s tame,” Abby elaborated for me, nodding again. “It doesn’t appreciate being contained or harvested, either. Which is why its dungeons will shelter bandits and reward their sacrifices: They prey on those that the forest has reason to resent.”
I half-wanted to say something about being crazy and living next to an angry forest that wants to kill you for harvesting it . . . but I literally asked to come to a place like this. So I don’t have the standing to say anything about how crazy other people might be.
Instead: “Gilander didn’t say anything about that. Is there anything we need to know about going inside one of these dungeons?”
“No, we won’t be going that far in,” she assured me. “We’ll stay close enough to the entrance that we’ll only have to worry about tulpas trying to kill us.”
Only. Dammit, forget what I said, the people living around here are crazy.
Going inside was easier than ever. Darksight doesn’t give you color vision, and it blurs out after a few dozen feet, but it was easier to see everything than it had been when I was tying the local version of fireflies to sticks and trying to see that way. I’ve got to say, I’m not looking forward to meeting what the locals call lightning bugs, assuming there are any. It’s likely to be just as literal a term.
I pointed out the side-tunnel to the fireflies as we passed it, with a warning to stay away from them without fire-proof pouches and a butterfly net. (Turned out to be a handy spot to stash the sack of rat pups, after Abby tied the bag so they couldn’t escape on their own.) Could’ve used a net when I was catching them for Gilander, but I couldn’t exactly afford a fireproof one. Hell, I could barely afford the tunic I ended up having to replace!
Once the rat pups were secure and out of the way, our babysitter cautioned us to be quiet as we went into the room where I’d been ambushed by the cave’s monsters the first time. Makes sense, she had to have been in here a lot before, and beyond that the town probably has records on how far in the dungeon you can go before it starts using whatever nasty tricks it has against you.
But it was still a hell of a jump-scare when the first monsters came into focus, charging at us. I hadn’t gotten a good look at them the first time, before the Footpad knacks were forced on me and I was doing the firefly-on-a-stick to get some light. So, I don’t know how they’d look in actual light, but to Darksight they looked like cut-out voids, so darkly black that you couldn’t see their features, like that Vantablack stuff back on Earth.
Like the dungeon was already saying that using Darksight was cheating, so we weren’t allowed to actually see its monsters.
Anyway, we all jumped in shock when they came running at us, except maybe Abby. Makes sense, if she’d gone down in these dungeons a bunch of times already. There were a lot more this time, too. At least half-a-dozen, when I’d only had a couple come at me the first time.
On the other hand, this time there were also five of us, and Abby likes to carry a repeating crossbow. So as one of the monsters slammed into me, I heard her quarrels being loosed one after another.
I had my seax out, and as soon as I could I was doing my best to stab the hell out of my ‘tulpa’. But it was harder to kill it than the two I fought the first time put together. I could feel it tightening its grip on me as I kept stabbing, and it was pushing my head back – exposing my throat, I could feel its hot breath on my skin! – when it finally shuddered and collapsed.
I looked up as it started to dissolve, to see the other three guys going to town with their clubs, beating the shit out of their monsters. Unlike me, they’d had no trouble dominating the fight. (I’m stronger than I used to be, but these guys were raised as farmers. Ox-and-plow farmers, at that. They’re probably stronger than most athletes back on Earth.) I only finished first ‘cause I had a blade and they didn’t.
And it wasn’t more than a few moments later before their tulpas had enough and started to dissolve as well.
Abby relaxed slightly, and walked over to retrieve her bolts, lying there where she’d shot the extra monsters. “I’m afraid these weren’t solid enough to leave behind reagents, but at least that means my quarrels aren’t corroding away.”
“They get stronger than that?” I asked, suddenly feeling a bit nervous.
She gave me a bemused look. “Do you think dungeon tulpas would be anything to worry about if anyone with a club could beat one down? Fortunately, this close to the surface they’re rarely much stronger than this.”
“Think there might be more of ‘em?” Cecil asked, switching his club to his off hand and rotating his shoulder. I guess he got a little too into beating the shit out of his monster. “Been years since dungeon monsters raided our farm, but if Liberio was feeding the dungeon they might start coming out at night again.”
“Was anyone hurt?” Abby asked. “We can go in a little farther, and try to find another fight, but if you’re already taking wounds-”
The other three quickly declared their good health, while I felt where that thing had tried to claw at me. Turns out I wasn’t bleeding, at least.
“I’ll need to stitch up my tunic again,” I said, “but it didn’t have time to break my skin.”
She gave me a narrow look. “Next time, try not to get between me and your tulpa. It was getting ready to tear your throat out, and I wasn’t sure I could get a clear shot first.”
I nodded. I wanted to protest that I hadn’t been able to do anything but react when it attacked . . . but I had been able to kill it. Even though it was stronger than the first couple I’d fought put together. The entire group would have torn me apart, of course, but I hadn’t planned to come back to this place without talking it over with her first to begin with. Plus, I needed to learn to keep my head clear enough in a fight to act and not just react.
We moved on. Abby led the way through the rooms with the confidence of experience, showing us side rooms that I hadn’t ever noticed, even when I’d had Darksight and come in after Liberio. Not that I’d gotten to explore very far, but this was a lot like having a friend show you all the cool tricks in a game that they’d figured out or looked up online.
Turns out that dungeons can make a few lives go a long way, by the way. Yes, we got attacked again. Twice.
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