“Argh! I’ve gone blind!”
Olesm’s first reaction upon putting on the ring was to roll about on the ground and scream. He felt like someone was stabbing his eyes out with a toothpick. Everything was spinning, confusing—blurring! He tried to focus his eyes on his claws, the sky, anything, but he didn’t see what he should have, just intense and very large blobs of color.
The agony persisted until someone grabbed Olesm roughly. He flailed at the person with his claws and felt someone grab one of his fingers. Olesm felt a hand twist the ring on his index claw and suddenly the world was back to normal. He blinked tears out of his eyes and saw Pisces standing over him.
“The ring modifies your sight. Obviously.”
The [Necromancer] stepped back and Olesm sat up. A crowd of people had gathered around him. Olesm waved sheepishly at some people he knew. Pisces just sniffed. Olesm passed trembling claws in front of his face. Were they larger than they should be?
“Wow. A Ring of Sight? But when I put it on, everything was so—so—”
“The enchantment allows you to adjust the magnification effect by twisting the ring. It was not difficult to identify the nature of the spell. Which is clearly what you should have done before putting the ring on. Do you make a habit of using magical items without ascertaining their natures?”
Pisces stared pointedly at Olesm. The Drake felt the scales on his cheeks warm. He coughed and got up. Yes, the world was larger than it should be. He carefully twisted the ring on his fingers and felt everything slide back into normal focus.
“Um. Thank you, Pisces. Sorry everyone. Just an unexpected incident with a magical artifact. Heh.”
The crowd dispersed, since that really was a usual occurrence and Olesm hadn’t done anything else interesting like grow a second tail. Still very embarrassed, Olesm brushed at his clothes and looked at Pisces. He coughed, and the mage silently handed him the letter from Niers Astoragon.
“A Ring of Sight. An appropriate gift for a [Tactician] beginning his career. No doubt similar artifacts are used by most conventional strategists, hence the decision to gift one to you.”
“What? Right. Yeah, it’s good. I normally ask for magnification spells or—it’s good.”
Olesm peered at the letter again. The short missive still stunned him and he stared at the crest at the top of the letter. A letter from him. Niers Astoragon. If there was a hero among [Strategists], it was him. Everyone who respected planning, organization, smart strategy and—and anything having to do with that kind of thing respected Niers Astoragon.
He was famous for beating [Mages] and enemy [Generals] alike with his sophisticated mind games and winning battles thought impossible with clever insight rather than brute force. Of course, he was a Fraerling; brute force wasn’t an option for him.
Olesm was a huge fan of his and clearly Pisces shared the same opinion. The [Necromancer] was inspecting the envelope carefully, even sniffing it. Olesm snatched it away from the mage and turned. His heart was racing. He had only one thought in his mind.
“I have to tell Erin about this!”
She would be so excited to hear what had happened. Or—did she know who Niers Astoragon was? She’d be excited when Olesm explained him to her. He began hurrying down the street. For some reason, Pisces followed him.
“It seems this chess newsletter has reaped quite a substantial reward. Especially for so little work.”
“What? Oh, yes. It has.”
Olesm frowned at Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s eyes were fixed on the letter in his claws, and the ring. Olesm had to prevent himself from fiddling with it; he’d have to find out exactly how far he could see with it. If the blinding images were anything to go by, it could probably magnify his sight many, many times over.
It wasn’t far to the gates and the streets were mostly empty. People still didn’t want to travel outside of the city for fear of Goblins—and because of the snow—and since Erin’s inn was now infested with said Goblins, no one really had business outside. Olesm waved at the Gnoll on duty as he hurried out. And Pisces was still following him.
“So you intend to tell Erin about your success.”
“Yeah, that’s the plan. Are you going to her inn as well?”
“I do reside there.”
Olesm frowned as he marched through wet snow, glad he’d put his boots on today. He didn’t exactly want Pisces to come to the inn. The [Necromancer] was staring at him with what felt like disapproval.
“Look, can I help you? Not to be rude, but I’ve just had a bit of great news and I’d like to share it with Erin. Alone.”
“Of course. And may I add that it is an entirely deserved reward for your hard effort?”
That was clearly sarcastic. Olesm slowed his frantic steps through the snow and glared at Pisces.
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”
The [Mage] folded his arms.
“I would imagine my statements are self-explanatory.”
Olesm stared. Pisces rolled his eyes.
“Very well, if I must explain myself—I assume you are going to the inn to tell Erin exactly how wonderful the news of Niers Astoragon’s approval is. He has gifted you with his attention, a ring, and a chess puzzle for your, ah, publication.”
“That’s right. So what?”
Olesm glanced down at the letter in his claws. He couldn’t wait to try and solve the puzzle himself. He wondered if Erin could do it so easily. It was a puzzle from the Titan! And Niers had also written that he’d love to know more about the game of Go that Olesm had mentioned in his last newsletter. If Erin could play a few games with him, maybe show Olesm a few tips—
Pisces’ voice broke through his rushing thoughts like a cold bar of iron.
“And you are sure you deserve such rewards? You, and no one else?”
The [Tactician] raised his head.
“What? Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I do! I wrote the newsletter! Are you jealous?”
That had to be it. Pisces was jealous of his good fortune and the ring. Olesm covered it with one claw. But Pisces’ expression had now twisted into a sneer of contempt. He stomped through the snow and poked Olesm in the chest with one finger.
“It truly does amaze me. You have no concept of the irony of it, do you? You think Niers Astoragon cared for your newsletter? No. He cared for what you were a vehicle for—the games you so blatantly copied. He was impressed by Erin Solstice’s chess games, her expertise and abilities. Not yours. All your fleeting fame, your accolades, all stem from one person. Erin. Not you. If anyone deserves that ring and letter, it is she.”
A hole opened up under Olesm’s stomach. He felt it drop and a terrible fear engulfed him. No. It couldn’t be. He tried to protest.
“I—I did more than that! I added other games, my commentary. It wasn’t all Erin. I just used her games—”
Her first games. Olesm’s throat closed up as he remembered that he’d sent copies of her chess games with every letter. Pisces sneered.
“Ah yes, your commentary. Was it all lauding her brilliant moves, or did you copy her remarks as well? Certainly you deserve praise—for your abilities as a [Scribe]. Not as a [Tactician]. Least of all as someone with any original thought worthy of merit.”
With each sentence, Pisces poked Olesm again. The words cut deeply at Olesm, but the shame and pain twisted in his gut and turned into anger. The Drake knocked the accusatory hand away and lashed his tail in the snow.
“Shut up! I had the idea at first! Yes, I copied down Erin’s games, but she gave me permission, and who else had this idea? Shouldn’t I get credit for that?”
“Didn’t Miss Solstice herself suggest to you to expand your newsletter? I heard she was familiar with the exact same concept you thought was so original.”
Pisces crossed his arms and Olesm bit his tongue guiltily. That was right. Erin said it was like something she’d seen. Magazines, she’d called them. Monthly newsletters about chess. But he hadn’t known that!
But now Pisces was pressing the attack. The Human glared at Olesm in the snow just outside of Liscor, his eyes filled with scorn.
“You are nothing more than a copycat. If Niers Astoragon knew that the sum of all your accomplishments was nothing more than an opportunistic thief stealing from someone else’s talent, he would never have sent a letter, much less a ring—”
Olesm couldn’t bear it any longer. He bent into the snow, gathered a handful of wet snow, and hurled it at Pisces. The mage tried to dodge, but the snow smacked him across the face and shoulder. He brushed it away, looking outraged. Olesm glared at him.
“I don’t have to hear that from you. Yes, I took Erin’s games and showed them to people. Yes, she’s one of the reasons why people are so impressed. But I still did all this. Me! And no matter what you say, the fact is that you’re just jealous that Niers Astoragon knows my name. Whereas you’re a mage everyone hates, just a step above a graverobber!”
He bent and scooped up more snow and hurled it at Pisces. The mage stepped away, face crimson with anger, but Olesm was too incensed to care.
“I bet you wish you’d done what I did. Well, you didn’t. And now that someone famous knows me, me, you’d better believe I’ll use that and start making more newsletters as fast as I can! That’s what I’ve done! What have you accomplished? You—you spineless [Necromancer]! What have you done, other than steal from people and cause trouble? Ceria and the Horns of Hammerad are the best thing that ever happened to you! What have you got besides them?”
Olesm realized he was shouting. He didn’t know where that last bit had come from, only that it stemmed from the frustration in his chest. He threw a third wet snowball at Pisces. This time he missed completely.
The [Mage] stood in the snow, watching Olesm. The Drake was panting. Pisces’ face was white with anger. The truce that had been caused by Niers’ letter had been broken, and now their previous conversation rose into the air, making it hot and uncomfortable.
Pisces glanced over Olesm’s shoulder. He narrowed his eyes at the Drake and adjusted something on his belt. A bag of holding? Olesm glanced at it and a small bell began ringing in his mind. His [Dangersense]. But then Pisces began to speak.
“What have I accomplished? Turn and see.”
There was a rustling. A sound. Olesm whirled and something burst out of the snow behind him. He yelped and fell backwards, scrabbling for his sword as a pale yellow and white creature exploded upwards in a shower of snow. It was tall, thin, ivory bones swinging into place, a burning eye of green flame staring down at Olesm—
A scythe of bone swung down in front of the Drake’s face. Olesm froze. His eyes slowly travelled upwards. Yes, it was a scythe of bone, a curved claw sharpened to a cutting edge. But it was not a weapon. Rather, the scythe was the creature’s arm. And the long, whip-like assembly of bone led upwards to a strange, narrow body without a head. Olesm’s breath came in short, sharp bursts.
What was he staring at? A monster. No, an abomination made of bone. The creature that stood in the snow had a thin torso but long, spider-like lower half. Four legs reminiscent of a spider’s held the thing up, but an odd, cylindrical waist connected the upper half to the lower. It had no head, but rather, a single central socket and ‘eye’ of flaming light set in the center of the torso, which was shaped like an inverted teardrop.
The two arms with scythes on each end were long enough to trail on the ground and while the ‘hands’ were the sickles of cutting bone, the creature had wicked barbs of bone sticking out along the edges of its arms. Olesm gulped as the scythe-hand near his face slowly retracted. He watched in horror and fascination as the thing backed up a few steps, and then collapsed into a pile of bones.
Pisces was smiling as Olesm staggered around. The Drake felt he needed to sit, so he did. Straight into the snow. Pisces smirked at that; then his head turned to the walls of Liscor. He searched the battlements, but if the [Guardsmen] on sentry duty had seen the bone thing; no one had raised the alarm.
So they hadn’t seen it. Because Olesm felt sure that anyone who’d seen Pisces’ creation would raise every alarm in existence, if they didn’t just run away screaming first. He looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] turned back to him. Only now did Olesm recover his voice.
“What was that? What in the name of scales—”
“As I said. My worth. That is my latest creation. A Bone Horror.”
Olesm’s mouth gaped open. He’d heard of such things, of course. Skeletons were only one kind of undead that could emerge in mass graves or places of death. Fortunately, such occurrences were rare and the remains were usually disposed quickly, but given enough time, fractured pieces of bone, half-destroyed corpses and so on could form horrible amalgamation undead, like Crypt Lords and Bone Horrors.
But Olesm was sure, sure that such undead were far beyond the ability of most low-level necromancers to create. Wasn’t the general rule of thumb that a [Necromancer] could only animate an undead equivalent to half of his levels? Or was it two thirds? Was it higher if he had a specific Skill? Olesm’s internal mind told him he would be reading every book on necromancy that night, but his conscious brain told him only one thing. Pisces had created a Bone Horror. It was his.
He’d made it. And for some reason, now Olesm saw Pisces as the other people in Liscor surely had. Zombies, skeletons like Toren, even Ghouls were one thing. But that? No creature on earth looked like that. Or if they did, they were as twisted as Crelers. No, Pisces had created that himself. It was a manifestation of his ideas. He’d brought that horror into existence.
“Why would you make something like that?”
Pisces was walking through the snow. He passed by Olesm, and the bones floated upwards. The Drake flinched, but they were floating into the bag of holding that Pisces carried at his side. The [Necromancer] turned his head, speaking casually.
“For combat. Why else? Naturally I cannot animate such a being for extended durations; indeed, I have not shared its existence with my teammates yet since their reactions would probably mirror yours. However, given proper time to prepare—say, before challenging a particularly dangerous monster—this Bone Horror will doubtless prove useful. What you saw was a prototype, of course.”
“Indeed. You noted the long arms? For mobile attacks. When used in conjunction with the four legs, this variant—what I term the Scythe Crawler—is very quick and able to attack its opponents from many angles a conventional creature would not. It is able to rotate freely about the waist, allowing strikes from improbable angles.”
“Indeed. However, this is only one variant I have come up with. Given the bones I have collected thus far—and I would like to expand that collection if I can purchase a superior bag of holding—I have ideas for a more powerful version. This one is regrettably weak against armored foes. But one with enhanced limbs and perhaps a ranged attack—”
“Yes, firing bones. It is possible to turn parts of the skeletal structure into a catapult, although obviously ammunition would be limited. But if combined with a recall spell, it could be useful. I haven’t worked out the exact specifications yet, but I am pleased with the results so far—”
Pisces finished bagging the last of the bones and turned. He’d been chattering excitedly, but now he stopped when he saw Olesm’s face. The slight smile that he’d been wearing vanished and was replaced by his customary look of disdain in an instant.
“Ah. Forgive me. I believe we were discussing achievements? Well, you may not acknowledge mine, but I consider it equivalent to any such letters. It is another step in my career. You may scorn it as you wish.”
Olesm felt like throwing up. Pisces turned away. The Drake stared at his back. He realized the look on his face was probably what Pisces saw all the time in the city. And yet, he couldn’t suppress the disturbed feeling in his chest. He didn’t know if he should. So instead he asked the only question he could think of.
“Is that why Selys was angry with you? Because you wanted to bring that into the city?”
“Do you take me for a fool? Of course not!”
Pisces snapped at Olesm. He looked like he regretted scaring Olesm with his creation. His eyes flicked towards the walls again. He shook his head.
“I—was talking to her about a similar, but unrelated matter. A trifle. I simply offered her to resolve the issue of giant rats within Liscor’s sewers.”
“What? Oh. We had a bounty on them, but no one wants to take it.”
“Quite. It is a disgusting job with risk of infection, not to mention disease. The rats live in the drainage pipes, growing overly large due to magical waste improperly disposed of…hunting down their nests would require crawling through pipes, a task few adventurers are willing to contemplate, however low-level they might be.”
“But you were willing to do it?”
Olesm stared at Pisces. The [Mage] looked affronted.
“I would rather die. But I offered to send one of my constructs into the sewers. A creation similar to the Bone Horror, whose task would be solely to destroy any rats below. It would be mobile, created for tight engagements, and naturally advantageous given a rat’s limited physical weapons against bone. But Miss Shivertail denied my proposal without deigning to relay it to her Guildmistress, citing city laws—”
“Oh. Right. That makes sense. We don’t let undead into the city for any reasons.”
“So she was telling the truth.”
Pisces’ face grew pinched. He gritted his teeth together, spoke sharply through them.
“Nevertheless, she could have asked. But apparently her grandmother—a fine case of nepotism in practice—distrusts necromancy. So rational thought is once away done away with and my suggestion is deemed meritless before any actual consideration. Due to prejudice.”
He glanced at Olesm and shook his head.
“Pah. I suppose it should not surprise me. Those who would decry an entire school of magic for one or two bad examples are clearly not worthy of coherent thought. Or my time.”
He turned away. Olesm sat up in the snow. He blinked at Pisces’ back. Olesm raised his voice as Pisces began to stomp back towards Liscor.
“I think it’s a good idea.”
Pisces turned. He blinked at Olesm. Olesm wiped some snow off of his shoulder absently.
“I said I think it’s a good idea. Your sewer plan, that is.”
“Yeah. We haven’t been able to work out a good plan for clearing them for years now. We’ve tried spells—the rats just eat them or expend all the charges too fast. We try poison and they adapt. Plus, the sewers are pretty much poison as they are already, so…we try adventurers and they never get enough. We waste money on the issue and every now and then the rats swarm out of the sewers, which is a disaster.”
Olesm shuddered at the memories. He looked at Pisces.
“You have a good idea. I get why Selys turned down your proposal, though. Her grandmother would kick you tail-over-head out of the door in an instant. But I could authorize your idea myself.”
“I am the city’s lone [Tactician]. I might not be exactly as important as Watch Captain Zevara, but I can do a lot on my own authority. Striking a deal and writing out a permit for a single undead under your supervision is within my jurisdiction.”
As he spoke, Olesm’s tail lifted towards his mouth. He gnawed on the tip for a second before realizing what he was doing and spitting it out. He coughed, feeling like a hatchling again.
“How does ten gold pieces sound to begin with? We could put a bounty of…I don’t know, one copper piece per ten rats killed? If your undead works with your mana it could kill thousands over the course of weeks. That’s hundreds of gold pieces for you.”
Pisces’ jaw dropped. He stared at the Drake [Tactician] and looked around as if he suspected a prank. He pointed at Olesm.
“But you—I could have sworn you thought—what of my latest creation?”
“That? That was disgusting.”
Olesm shuddered. Pisces’ eyes were fixed on him. The mage raised his hands angrily.
His bottom was wet. Olesm returned Pisces’ gaze, breathing a bit hard.
“Not liking undead is one thing, but I’m not an idiot, Pisces. Look, that Bone Horror was—horrible. I think it’s disgusting. If you summon—animate, whatever, bring it to life again, I will throw up, hit you with my sword, and run away. Maybe not in that order. I hate undead, and that probably won’t change. But that doesn’t mean I think your ideas aren’t good. Can’t thinking, rational adults like us respect each other’s boundaries and still work together?”
For a solid minute, the Drake and Human just stared at each other in silence. Pisces was blinking, caught off-guard. Olesm was wet. He shifted and hoped that Niers’ letter hadn’t gotten soggy. But his legs didn’t want to stand just yet, so he stayed put. Pisces stared at Olesm and seemed to notice Olesm’s state at last.
“Ah. You are sitting in the snow. You appear to be quite wet.”
Olesm looked around. His tail was very cold and sitting in a rather deep and melting drift. He nodded slowly.
“So I am.”
Pisces stared. Then, slowly, he bent and offered Olesm a hand up. And after a second, Olesm took it.
“I do apologize for my earlier comments. They were deliberately inflammatory and designed to offend. I believe the merit of your work is self-evident and did not merit my scorn in the slightest.”
“No, no, I have to admit that you had a good point. And I haven’t been nearly as gracious as I should be. True, I don’t like undead, but I can admire your uh, Bone Horror from a design perspective. And it’s true that your ideas really are just what the city needs. I should apologize as well.”
“Perish the thought. I would prefer to let bygones be bygones. It is rather agreeable to meet someone else with a rational mindset, not to mention a similar perspective after toiling for so long alone.”
“Indeed it is.”
A Drake and a Human walked through the snow around Liscor, talking animatedly. They were not headed in the direction of the Wandering Inn or back to Liscor. Instead, they were just…chatting.
Olesm kicked through the snow as Pisces’ robe left a trail of its own. Neither Human nor Drake noticed; they were too caught up in their conversation. After the ice had metaphorically and literally melted between them, the two had realized that they were different, but alike in many agreeable ways.
They were both young, both considered themselves thoughtful as opposed to impulsive—a choice reflected in their respective classes, and both shared a love for strategy, planning, and so on. Olesm was stunned to realize that in many respects, Pisces was like him.
For one thing, Pisces had probably the most complete understanding of Drake politics that Olesm had ever met outside of another Drake. He was up to date on the latest world events, and could discuss issues like the Germina-Reim incident and subsequent Hellios conflict without having to be reminded of the details. He had read widely about Niers Astoragon’s historical campaigns, knew several facts about Baleros that Olesm did not, and was an expert on Terandrian culture and politics.
He was incredible. And it was clear that Pisces considered Olesm a fellow peer, which was a compliment in itself from Pisces. But what the two really bonded over was their situations as young individuals trying to make their mark in the world.
“It’s all politics, Pisces. Everyone wagging their tails for one side or another, and no real focus on merit. I got my job in the city because I was the highest-level, yes, but my family had to kiss a lot of claws to get me where I was. But even though I am the city’s [Tactician], everyone in the council meetings ignores me when they feel like it because I’m young. As if seniority matters that much! I’m higher-level than at least two of the council members!”
Olesm shook his head, lashing the snow behind him angrily. Pisces nodded, lips pursing.
“It is ever the same across nations I’m afraid. In Terandria, the issue of personal power is compounded by bloodlines. Seeking friendship with the nobility is practically a requirement. As for wealth—”
“If you’re not rich, you won’t move a single tail your way. Yeah, I know. But it feels like to have wealth you need wealth, you know? I get paid a little bit from my salary, but if I wanted to command any respect I’d have to invest heavily into some profitable venture, or uncover a boatload of treasure—”
“You need not explain yourself to me, Olesm. Adventuring, like magic, is similarly gated. In Wistram, the older mages controlled the access to spellbooks with an iron grip. But if they had simply shared their largely redundant collections, everyone might profit! Instead, here we are, forced to scrabble along until we are as aged and decrepit as the fools who kept us down to begin with…”
Pisces sighed. Olesm patted him on the shoulder with a sympathetic claw. They walked onwards.
“You really did have a good thing with that Bone Horror. I mean, it’s disgusting for me, true, but I’d love to see it tearing up a Creler rather than anyone risk their lives.”
“Precisely the use undead were intended for! Please say that to Springwalker or Miss Byres. And you were impressed by the arms were you not?”
“Oh, yeah! Whip-like attacks, all those barbs—it makes sense, doesn’t it? I imagine it’s a lot stronger than those bears you rode in on the other week.”
The mage smiled slyly.
“Actually, those were the bears.”
Olesm stared at him. Pisces waved a hand.
“No, no. It was just a matter of carving some of the bones, rearranging others—you see the Bone Horror is a product of my increased mastery of bones in general. In fact, the ability to create such a being directly correlates to my current level. I ah, reached Level 30 just the other day.”
“No way! You? But why didn’t you tell anyone?”
Pisces smiled proudly.
“I wished to keep it a secret. Let us just say that I experienced several revelations…and for my Level 30 Skill, I obtained a greater mastery of bone shaping. However, I might add that the ability to create Draugr would have been another common Skill at that level.”
“Draugr? That would be impressive. Those are like super-undead, right? I remember hearing about how a hundred of those could smash through most formations—”
“True. But I consider Bone Horrors superior.”
“What? No. Why? A Draugr—”
“Think about it, Olesm. True, a Draugr is impressive, but it requires a body, nay, relies on the strength of a deceased for full potency. In addition, it is harder to store such corpses, whereas a Bone Horror…”
“…Can be reanimated at will! And kept in a bag of holding! Of course!”
Olesm snapped at his forehead. Pisces nodded, smiling happily.
“In addition, I believe I can make such creations far stronger than typical examples. Consider my variant—it is far better structured than the default amalgamation the spell produces. Indeed, my ability to specialize such undead will allow infinite forms for any contingency. Plus, if I create a few custom undead rather than mass-animate them, they will be far superior. That is my belief.”
“Really? You hear about [Necromancers] raising undead in big armies all the time. Isn’t that more mana-efficient?”
“It is. But that is hardly conducive to secrecy or positive relations with other groups, is it? Moreover, the inefficiency of mass-produced undead…”
Pisces shook his head, looking troubled. He grumbled to himself under his breath.
“It is strange that legends fail to see why vast armies of largely similar creations are flawed. Whereas if the designs for undead were altered en masse and used as the template for future spells, the potential of a zombie or skeleton would be far greater. How can someone not see that? Experimentation is the key to growth, not—”
He broke off and eyed Olesm for a moment before laughing lightly and shaking his head.
“Forgive me. It seems I am the only [Necromancer] who believes in the total assurance of quality over quantity.”
“That’s too bad. Or rather, good, I guess. If other [Necromancers] were like you, we’d be in a lot more trouble when they appear.”
Olesm grinned at Pisces. The [Mage] looked surprised, as he always did when Olesm paid him a compliment, and then laughed.
They walked a bit more through the snow when Olesm cleared his throat. He’d had a thought while walking with Pisces. Their conversation was excellent of course, but it occurred to him that the [Mage] could allow him to check up on his theory at the same time.
“Do you mind if we head this way while we walk?”
Pisces glanced in the indicated direction, away from Liscor and up a snowy hill. His eyes flicked to Olesm’s face for a moment, but he only nodded.
“Not at all.”
He’d already figured out where they were going based on direction alone. True, it was an easy conclusion if you thought about it, but Olesm still admired the way Pisces had come to it so flawlessly. He coughed, and brought up another subject on his mind.
“Er, Pisces. I know you and the Horns of Hammerad have been doing a lot of missions together.”
“We have enjoyed some success, yes. Although right now we are simply keeping busy rather than aiming at one goal. Our tasks are by and large simplistic.”
Pisces waved a hand. Olesm nodded. He cleared his throat again, feeling extremely embarrassed.
“Right. So you spend a lot of time with Ceria. And you’re old friends from Wistram.”
“Old friends. I suppose you could say that, yes.”
“Uh huh. So she talks to you I bet. Does she…does she ever mention me at all?”
The Drake halted in the snow. Pisces turned his head, looking amused and trying to cover that amusement at the same time.
“You wonder if Ceria harbors feelings for you still?”
“No, no, I was just curious if she felt—yes.”
Olesm hung his head, tail drooping. The sympathetic look in Pisces’ eye told him all he needed to know. Pisces hesitated before cautiously patting Olesm on the back with one tentative hand.
“I regret to say she does not mention her feelings to me in that regard. In other regards, yes. But in this…she may still be receptive.”
“No. No. I just wondered if—I mean, we weren’t a couple long. We didn’t actually do much couple-like things, actually. We just uh—but I thought—”
Olesm’s cheeks were flushing. He blinked at suddenly painful eyes. Pisces averted his gaze and cleared his throat tactfully. After a long pause, he spoke.
“I do not believe the fault was yours, if there was any fault to assign for the demise of any, ah, relationship between you two, Olesm. Springwalker—I mean, Ceria is a half-Elf. They do not value long-term relationships with other species, by and large.”
“I know that. But I thought she and I had something.”
“Perhaps you did.”
There was a sympathetic look in Pisces eyes as he shook his head.
“Ceria is used to mobility, travel. She is an adventurer and a half-Elf. She is used to persecution for simply existing in Terandria, and I do not believe she is looking for a long-term partner. Speaking as one who has also had a relationship with Ceria, I think she seeks temporary solace, not love.”
“Someone who—what? You and Ceria were—you two?”
Olesm’s head snapped up. Pisces blinked, and then he looked the other way.
“I ah, misspoke. We were only together for—”
“You two used to be together? When? In Wistram? Wait, is that why she hates you now?”
“Ahem. It is long past, and it would be inaccurate to call our connection anything more than a brief passing of ships.”
Pisces shook his head, but Olesm refused to let it go. The Drake walked in front of Pisces.
“Come on. Tell me. How close were you two? Why’d you break up?”
The [Necromancer] halted in his tracks and looked away. He bit his lip, and then replied.
“I don’t believe we were ever together, Olesm. Not truly. There was a time, once—but it never came to be. I misspoke earlier. Please do not repeat that to Ceria. I think she would take it amiss if she learned what I said.”
Olesm hesitated. He knew he should drop it, but he couldn’t.
“Why’d it never come to be, though?”
Again, the Human hesitated. When he looked back, it was with concealed pain in his eyes. He really wasn’t that good a liar if you looked past the sneer he was always wearing like a mask.
“She learned the truth. Who I am. Before I could explain. That was all.”
The memory of the Bone Horror resurfaced in Olesm’s mind. He stopped, and his tail drooped.
“Sorry. I’m uh, sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
Pisces shrugged, covering up his emotions with indifference. He glanced past Olesm.
“It is no matter. The memory only troubles me at times. And it appears we have appeared at another memory. Tell me, why are we here?”
Olesm turned. He hadn’t noticed it, but they had come up on a large, excavated hillside. He cautiously ascended a few more steps and found himself staring into a dark, stone doorway looming amid the half-excavated stonework. This was not the dungeon’s entrance. No. This was the crypt.
They had thought it was the dungeon at first. Olesm remembered Klbkch delivering the report to Zevara and all the speculation it had caused. He remembered the expeditions of adventurers going in, and then the fated one that had included the Horns of Hammerad. And then the night when Skinner had overrun the gates with an army of undead—
The night he had been down there. In the darkness, fighting for his life, hiding from the undead with Ceria in the coffins. Olesm shuddered. He felt terribly afraid of the crypt. Pisces stared at the dark opening, and then at the Drake.
“It was clear you intended to come here. The reason is what I cannot fathom.”
“It’s a…hunch. Look, I’m realizing this might be a bad idea more and more, but you’re a powerful [Necromancer]; I feel like I’d be safe with you if we went inside, right?”
“To do what, exactly?”
Olesm patted at his pockets.
“Follow up on a hunch. Remember the report I asked for at the Adventurer’s Guild?”
“Well, I noticed some discrepancies in another file a while back. I never had time to check it out—and I wasn’t confident enough to ask Zevara for an escort before now. Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you about it. Unless you think it might be dangerous?”
Pisces eyed the dark opening, and then shrugged. He reached for his bag of holding and poured the bones onto the ground. Olesm shuddered as the Bone Horror rose upwards. It scuttled into the large opening and Pisces motioned towards it.
“My creation should attract any monsters inside, and we will be forewarned in case of most threats. Moreover, I believe the crypts were cleared recently, so I don’t anticipate any true danger. Unless you do?”
“Then let us enter.”
Slowly, the two walked into the darkness. Pisces conjured a ball of light and Olesm shuddered as he looked around the crypts. Yes, it was just like he remembered. The excavated rooms, still full of dirt and tracks, the haunting echoes, the temple decorations…
Pisces walked next to Olesm, looking around, frowning ahead, monitoring his creation’s progress probably. Olesm remembered that Pisces had also come here, to rescue Ceria and Olesm both a lifetime ago. He closed his eyes on the thought and nearly tripped.
The Human caught him. Olesm shook his head.
“Sorry. I’m just—memories, you know?”
Pisces’ eyes were sympathetic. He looked around.
“Now would you enlighten me?”
“Yeah. Let me just collect my thoughts for a moment.”
The two walked onwards, through narrow corridors, towards the tunnel sloping downwards to the second level. Olesm felt his scales tingling, but told himself there was no danger. If there were undead, Pisces would have sensed them. This place was nothing more than a grave now. It had always been a grave, but now the occupants were silent.
“So like I said, I noticed something when looking through one of the old reports. It’s my job to file a lot of paperwork and I remembered this one. So I was looking…you know that all of the adventurer’s possessions were confiscated by the city afterwards, right?”
“Yes. I do recall. Everything but what Ceria, Yvlon, and the few survivors carried were taken. A group of guardsmen cleared this place of the last of the undead. What of it?”
“Well, we did an inventory. Naturally. Weapons we didn’t need were sold and we repurposed the magical artifacts, potions, and so on. We also did a tally of the dead. A…rough count since so many were—were attacked by Skinner. Identification was impossible, but we knew they were Drakes, Gnolls, Humans, and so on from the bones, right?”
“Yes. Was there something wrong with your count?”
Olesm’s breath came in short, sharp bursts as they descended the ramp leading downwards. He remembered. A group of running zombies had come up the corridor. And beyond that, the ambush—Pisces gripped his arm and Olesm caught himself.
“What was I…? Yeah, I found one discrepancy, but I had to make sure. This report is from the Adventurer’s Guild. I didn’t really need it; I already had the one the Watch filed. But I had to make sure both were the same. And they were.”
“And who was missing?”
Pisces’ gaze turned to Olesm’s. The [Necromancer] walked through the darkness, his face illuminated by the soft yellow light of his spell, calm, waiting. Olesm looked at him.
“You already know.”
After a second, the mage nodded.
“There is only one individual whose remains would stand out enough to warrant positive identification, regardless of loss of skin.”
The two came to the intersection. Olesm felt his heart pounding in his chest. Pisces looked left and right. He spoke one word.
“Yes. The guardsmen never found his remains. Not his bones, nor his axe. And they should have found something, even if he was torn apart. His body wasn’t listed among the undead that attacked Liscor—not that he could have been reanimated that fast. And there’s no way he would have escaped and not gone to Liscor, so I thought—”
Olesm trailed off. It was stupid, now he said it out loud. He looked down the corridors. He remembered hearing the screaming in the distance, hearing the others wonder aloud where the other Silver-rank teams were. The sound of something dragging itself closer.
But there was nothing here now. He tried to reassure himself. Pisces stared around.
“You think he’s still down here. But it has been months. He would not have survived.”
Olesm bit his lip. Pisces glanced at him.
“So you want to find his remains? You believe his corpse was overlooked?”
“Yeah. Maybe in a crevice or some secret door. It’s—look, I know it’s silly, but he fought with us, with me. I might be dead if he hadn’t charged Skinner. If I can find his body—”
“I understand. But it is a vast space. Do you really think we can find where he fell?”
The Drake hesitated.
“We can try.”
It was dark. The light of Pisces’ magic was the only source of illumination in the darkness, casting long shadows and making everything seem just as frightening as it was. Olesm was glad for the light, though. Without it he might have panicked. The memories here were too strong.
At least he could see well. Maybe it was his ring, but the corridors seemed as bright as day. Pisces and Olesm walked down hallways, peering into rooms and trying to comb the place systematically. They were watchful for undead of course, although Pisces insisted he didn’t sense anything. His Bone Horror kept prowling down corridors around them; it had scared the life out of Olesm twice now.
“I think we’re nearly done with this area. There’s only the treasure room where Skinner emerged from, and it was looted by something.”
“Indeed. Shall we pass through it just to be certain?”
The huge stone doors still stood wide open. Olesm breathed in at the sight; he could recall the two Silver-rank teams agreeing to stand watch while the Horns of Hammerad searched the rest of the crypt. They’d known something might be lurking behind the door. They just didn’t know that Skinner could open the door himself.
The room was emptied of all goods just like before. Olesm frowned around it; Pisces picked up a stone amulet and tossed it down in disgust.
“I take it the city still does not know who made off with the treasures inside?”
“No. And I’m not sure if there were any.”
“Come now. The guardian of the crypts must have guarded something of worth.”
“Yeah. But in that case, where is it?”
Pisces could only shrug. Olesm looked around helplessly and frowned.
“Nothing. Let’s go. We only have to check out that last room and we’re done.”
“That one, of course. You walked right past it.”
The Drake walked back out of the treasure room. Pisces followed, frowning. Olesm pointed to the doorway ahead of him, just opposite the double doors. Pisces stared at the doorway, and then at Olesm.
“I don’t see anything.”
“What? Don’t yank my tail. It’s right h—”
Olesm stepped forwards towards the doorway. Someone yanked him back. He stumbled and turned to Pisces angrily.
“Hey! What’s the big id—”
The [Mage]’s face was suddenly concentrated. He nodded at Olesm’s ring as one hand fell back to the rapier at his side. Olesm froze, and then realized what he meant.
“You think the Ring of Sight that Niers Astoragon gave me—?”
“What better gift for a [Tactician] than a true view of the battlefield? I see only a wall. And I cannot detect any illusion here. Not that I am gifted in such things, you understand, but it means this illusion is a good one.”
“It just looks like an open doorway to me.”
Carefully, Pisces approached the open doorway, and slid his hand across what looked like empty air to Olesm. The Drake held his breath.
“It’s solid? I mean, it feels solid even when you push?”
“Yes. A powerful illusion. Here, grab my hand.”
Pisces reached out and Olesm gingerly took his hand. The Drake walked forwards and Pisces walked behind him through the doorway. Pisces shuddered as he passed through the stone opening.
“I felt as though I was walking through stone. No, I am not. But the sensation is done with. Now, what do we have here?”
The stone doorway led a few feet ahead into a small, circular room with a strange, hexagonal symbol drawn onto the floor. It was a small room; large enough to fit a few people inside perhaps. Olesm stepped forwards curiously and Pisces grabbed him again.
“Gah! Stop doing that!”
“Stop stepping into uncertain situations, then. You don’t know what that pattern on the floor does.”
“Neither do you.”
“True, but I do not intend to touch it myself. Observe. This is appropriate caution.”
Pisces reached for his belt and fumbled with a pouch. Olesm nearly jumped out his scales as the mage lifted out a tiny Shield Spider. The [Necromancer] casually flicked it towards the opening and the spider began crawling into the alcove.
“What the—do you just carry Shield Spiders around?”
“It’s undead. Obviously.”
The [Necromancer] flicked his fingers and the spider scurried towards the hexagonal space on the floor. Olesm was about to point out that carrying around undead Shield Spiders didn’t make more sense than living ones when the spider crossed onto the hexagonal floor and the ground vanished.
Olesm recoiled as the Shield Spider dropped out of view. Pisces held up a hand and Olesm heard the faintest of sounds from the opening.
“It seems there is a rather long drop below. Fortunately, my Shield Spider was not harmed by the fall. It appears to have dropped into a large room. Full of bones.”
“Really? What else is down there?”
“Give me a second. I will look through the eyes of my creation.”
Pisces broke off and Olesm shifted from foot to foot as he eyed the opening. He was just opening his mouth when the hexagonal hole suddenly filled again, and the floor was stone once more. Pisces smirked and gestured to the floor with one hand.
“See there? If we were incautious adventurers foolish enough to explore the opening, we would have fallen into the trap and been caught down there ourselves. What a simplistic trick.”
“Right. That would have been really stupid.”
Pisces chuckled and Olesm laughed along weakly. He’d been about to suggest they investigate the opening in person. Pisces tapped at his lips as he studied the room below through his undead construct’s eyes.
“Yes, there are many bones around me, Olesm. Many, many bones. However, you may be interested to know that all of these bones are, apparently, organized and have been so for a long time.”
“Meaning that the owners of said remains died years, possibly centuries before any adventurers came here.”
Olesm’s breath caught in his chest. He had a thought.
“And there are no Minotaur skulls in the room?”
“You’re sure? How big is the room? I mean—”
Pisces turned a reproving eye towards Olesm.
“I know what Minotaur bones look like. There are none similar to it, although there are quite a number of unusual bones. Very odd. They appear similar to a Gnoll’s in structure, but thicker. The skulls have a smaller cranial capacity and the jaws are enlarged…”
“Raskghar. They have to be.”
Olesm quickly explained about the Gnoll’s primitive subterranean cousins. Pisces nodded.
“Ah. That would explain much. Yes, the majority of the bones in the room do appear to be these…Raskghar. One moment. I am coming to a conclusion.”
“Are you? I’ve got one too.”
“Hm. Enlighten me, then.”
“This was probably meant to be a disposal place of some kind. I doubt it was meant as transportation; otherwise there would be a way back up. And why would it be hidden? I bet the undead were supposed to dump their victims down there.”
“I concur. And?”
“…That’s all I’ve got. You’re the one who can see down there.”
“True. Ah, I suppose it is time for my analysis.”
Pisces cleared his throat and stood straighter, adopting a lecturing tone that still irked Olesm a bit. But the Drake listened, mainly because he didn’t have any other choice.
“It looks like this was indeed meant to be used as a disposal chute—perhaps for invaders or the ah, remains after Skinner had disposed of his foes. Yes, it would be an ideal spot for such parts to reanimate. However, this room has been repurposed. It appears to be a burial chamber now.”
“How do you—”
Pisces raised three fingers as he spoke, frowning at Olesm as he spoke over the Drake.
“I base my conclusions on three pieces of evidence. First, the bones within are systematically piled up with the skull at the apex of each pile, clearly denoting some sort of ritualistic and continual disposal process. Second, the bones have been separated from the body and I can spot evidence that some tool was used to scrape the bones clean of flesh. Thirdly, none of the skeletons have been damaged by scavengers which implies the room is regularly swept and maintained. Except in a few notable cases…”
He paused for a second and coughed. Olesm silently offered him a water flask and Pisces took a drink before continuing.
“There is a disturbance where my Shield Spider landed, which threw me off at first. However, it appears that this was an anomaly. The nearest pile to the opening has been knocked into pieces. The bones are scattered, as if from a large impact overhead. They have disturbed a few other piles, but there are several overturned piles, as if something large ran into them. The path leads straight to the sole exit in the room. Your thoughts?”
Olesm’s mind raced. He spoke slowly.
“It seems obvious. Something—or rather, someone found this opening and walked into the trap. They landed on the pile and ran towards the door.”
Pisces nodded approvingly. His gaze unfocused again.
“And here, at the door—”
He drew in his breath sharply. Olesm stared at him.
“A skeleton. Another Raskghar. However, this one was not ritually buried. The corpse is mostly decomposed and in one piece. And there is a weapon buried in its chest. A battleaxe. The haft is broken off.”
A battleaxe. Olesm’s tail lashed the ground. He started for the hole and Pisces grabbed him.
“Don’t be a fool! If you go down there we might not be able to return!”
“But a battleaxe—”
“I know. But allow my spider to proceed. There is but one exit. Next is a long corridor. There are several uneven tiles and—”
Pisces broke off with a cry. He winced as Olesm stared at him and shook his head.
“A trap. I could not identify it through the spider’s eyes. Whatever it was destroyed my creation. Thoroughly.”
“Do you have another spider? Or can you send something else? Can you animate the bones below?”
“I do not carry multiple spiders around as a rule. And the stone is preventing me from reaching the bones below. I do not sense them with my magic. Clearly we are not meant to know this passage exists.”
“But someone found it. Someone found it and fell. And they fought a Raskghar, killed it, but lost their battleaxe. And only one adventurer in our group carried one…”
Olesm stared at the hole. He turned to Pisces.
“Do you think it’s possible?”
The [Necromancer] shrugged. He was looking around warily, Olesm noticed, and as the Drake turned, he saw the Bone Horror had returned.
“It is possible. More than likely, perhaps. What of it? The Minotaur might have survived all of this, but he was wounded as he fled, was he not?”
“He lost his arm. The undead swarmed him. But—”
“Do you think he could have survived the rest of the dungeon in his condition?”
“I don’t know, but if he’s alive, we have to search for him!”
Olesm flared up. Pisces grabbed Olesm and slapped him across the face. The Drake gaped at him. Pisces was breathing faster.
“Get ahold of yourself! Think rationally, you fool. We have to leave this place now. I assumed we were safe because this area had been cleared. But if there are passageways below, into the actual dungeon—”
There might be more monsters who’d climbed up. Or other things. Watching them. Olesm’s blood ran cold. He nodded silently and he and Pisces made a rapid retreat back towards the top floor. Only when they were outside of the crypt and in the cold daylight did they feel safe enough to talk again.
“I can’t believe it. There was a passageway down there all along. And Calruz—”
“It is too early to assume he was the one who fell down there. I agree the evidence fits, but to assume his survival is going beyond the limits of speculation—”
“And why not? You know how people survive in those kinds of situations! They level under pressure! Haven’t you heard of adventurers surviving after being swallowed by monsters? Or—or going into dungeons and coming out months later and gaining ten, sometimes twenty levels!”
Olesm grabbed Pisces by the robes. The mage shrugged him off, looking troubled.
“Such cases do exist, I admit. But what would you do? Mount a rescue expedition? Into an area that is clearly inhabited by monsters and trapped? By who? The city would never agree, and the only other group with a vested interest in Calruz’s life is—”
The Horns of Hammerad. Olesm stared at Pisces. The mage didn’t meet his eyes.
“You know what Ceria would do if she thought Calruz was alive. Yvlon, too.”
“I am well aware. But that would most likely be suicide.”
“Even so! If you could convince another group to help you, the Halfseekers for instance—”
“I think they have had enough of volunteering themselves for others, especially after what happened at Miss Solstice’s inn. Don’t you?”
The Human and Drake stood together in the snow, staring at each other. Olesm’s tail drooped. He couldn’t argue with that. He turned to look back towards the crypt’s opening.
“But if he is alive…”
“If. There is too much to risk for an uncertainty. Too much to lose for an outcome that most likely does not exist.”
That too was true. And yet, Olesm couldn’t push the thought out of his head. He stared challengingly at Pisces.
“If there’s even a chance, Ceria should know about it. She deserves to know.”
“Does she? Or would it bring her needless worry and heartbreak?”
Another fair point. The Drake didn’t know. He felt strongly, but Pisces was speaking sense as well. He didn’t know what to do. Olesm stared at Pisces.
“Do you really think it would be best to keep it secret? Really? Just not tell anyone, like that?”
At last, the mage hesitated. He looked at Olesm, and then turned away. When he spoke, it was slowly, haltingly.
“Sometimes…sometimes it is best to keep secrets, painful though it may be. Because the truth, however liberating, can be too much to bear. Freedom demands a terrible price, Olesm.”
The truth of that was reflected in Pisces’ stance, the pain in his face and voice. Olesm looked at him, and nodded slowly.
“You may be right.”
Pisces turned back to him. Olesm hesitated. He withdrew the file he’d received from the Adventurer’s Guild and then slowly handed it to Pisces. The mage blinked at it. Olesm took a breath.
“You know Ceria better than I do. You know the secret. If you think it’s worth telling her, telling the others, do it. If not…you can give that back to Maviss.”
Pisces stared at him. Olesm looked into his eyes and slowly nodded.
“It’s your choice. You know Ceria best.”
Then he turned and slowly began walking back to Liscor.
Some things were predictable. True, chance and the natural intermingling of cause and effect created a world in which unforeseen variables could lead to completely different outcomes, but it was still possible to predict what would happen to a relative degree of certainty. For instance, people were easy. Simple, even.
True, it was impossible to know each individual’s darkest secrets or the entire history that had culminated in the person who walked about today, but that didn’t matter. People were, in Pisces’ opinion, largely unimportant. He could predict the way the vast majority reacted to a given set of stimuli. They were predictable. Sadly predictable.
He had seen it all the same, replayed ten thousand, a hundred thousand times across as many lives. People were the same. It was only their environment, culture, events, and species which acted as variables upon their templates. The masses were not sheep; rather, they were dough from which the same kinds of bread arose, occasionally different, but all alike in origin and purpose.
Only a few individuals stood out from the crowds, a few people who could not be predicted, who were worthy of note. Niers Astoragon was one of them. Erin Solstice another. And Olesm…Pisces had found someone else worthy of respect, of attention, today.
Because he had not predicted this. The [Mage] slowly walked back towards Erin’s inn, paging through the file in his hand. It had been written by Drakes, in their species’ script rather than the universal written language adopted across the world. No doubt another one of their security measures. But Pisces had taught himself their written language and so he could read it.
It said exactly what Olesm had told him. The possessions of adventurers recovered, a rough count of bodies separated by species, and nothing remotely resembling a Minotaur’s corpse.
“It could be possible. But alive?”
That was not likely, Pisces knew. He had met Calruz briefly, and he had assessed the Minotaur as stubborn, arrogant, overly inclined towards violence and obsessed with the idea of honor—typical of his species, in short. The odds of someone like that surviving any amount of time in a dungeon designed to eat such individuals was remote.
And yet, if he didn’t tell Springwalker, then what? Pisces wandered into the Wandering Inn and realized it was occupied.
Sparsely occupied, but nevertheless inhabited by bodies. The Goblins were nowhere to be seen so they were probably in the basement. Instead, the two remaining adventuring groups were in the common room of the inn, right where Pisces had left them.
Ah, yes. He’d foreseen this as well. It appeared his teammates were still recovering from their expedition to the cave of roaches. Why they hadn’t been ready to run when the wall of insects had swarmed them was beyond Pisces. He cautiously stepped into the room and heard Yvlon’s voice. She was croaking; she’d thrown up numerous times after and during their mission.
“And then—and then they just came at us. All at once. They were in my armor, my hair, my mouth—I swallowed some of them.”
“Oh my god.”
Erin Solstice was there, holding Yvlon’s hand, motioning Lyonette and Drassi over. They had buckets of hot water and soap. And blankets. Yvlon huddled in hers. Across the table, Ceria was sitting with Seborn, staring into her mug and shuddering. Jelaqua and Moore were wincing as she continued the story.
“I thought we had them. I really did. I learned a poison spell just for this. You know, from my book. Poisoned snow, I thought it would kill them. But it just made them agitated. And then the big ones came out—”
Yvlon made a sound, and beside her, a large insect uncurled himself. Ksmvr raised his head, scratching at the bites on his carapace with one of his three arms.
“I thought I was predator. Am I prey? Why did they attempt to eat me? Have I fallen so far down as to be food for food?”
“Aw, no, no, Ksmvr! Those are just dumb bugs. Come on, cheer up. I’ve got nice, hot food for you all as soon as Yvlon stops throwing up. And we’ll get you into fresh clothes, take you into Liscor for baths—just let Aunt Erin and Cousin Selys take care of you all.”
Cousin Selys? Pisces rolled his eyes as he saw everyone fussing around the rest of his team. Honestly. They were bugs. True, Pisces had [Flashstepped] out of the cave before they got him, but still.
No one was paying attention to him. Pisces settled down at a table to think. He sighed. To tell or not to tell? He could predict what Ceria would do. At least…what she’d probably do. She surprised him, sometimes. But in this?
What was the correct decision? Well, Pisces knew what he’d do. And yet, would Olesm honor his word? That seemed unlikely. The Drake was too impulsive. And part of Pisces also…
No. No, it was foolish. Pisces scrubbed at his hair, dislodging some insect shells and dandruff. Something hiding under the table snatched one of the wings that floated down with a paw. Pisces jumped, and saw Mrsha stuff a large beetle wing into her mouth and spit it out quickly.
He stared. The young Gnoll stared up at him. Pisces hadn’t interacted with Mrsha much, although she was good at cleaning unwanted food from his plate and distracting others. He gestured towards the group sitting in the middle of the room.
“I believe you will find more entertainment with Miss Solstice. Over there.”
Mrsha turned her head towards Erin. The [Innkeeper] did indeed have plates of hot food she was trying to tempt Yvlon and the others with. But for once, the Gnoll didn’t bite figuratively or literally. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at Erin and her ears flattened. Pisces frowned.
Why was Mrsha upset with Erin—ah, the Goblins. Of course. The Gnoll prowled around Pisces and he felt a hand searching at his belt and pockets. He slapped it away. But Mrsha had learned long ago that respecting personal boundaries was not a winning move and so she kept bothering him.
He flicked his fingers and a bit of water sprayed her. Mrsha wrinkled her nose and jabbed a claw into Pisces’ leg. He muffled a shout and clapped at his leg. She danced away.
Now would telling Erin to drag Mrsha away help or not? No, she’d probably yell at her and ineffectually deal with Mrsha. Or Lyonette would. The best solution was bribery. Pisces rummaged around at his belt and pulled something out. Yes, this would do.
He handed her his wand. He’d forgotten to use it during the battle with the roaches. Again. Habit and years of practice had made Pisces accustomed to casting with his hands. And of course, it was a feasible option in combat despite the ridicule it attracted from other mages—Ceria herself had proven that a mage’s hands were a decent catalyst for low-level spells.
If Pisces used the simple spells he’d mastered in conjunction with his rapier, he could act as a strong combatant while his creations fought. However, if it were possible to expand his quick spellcasting with the wand to allow him to use Tier 3 or Tier 4 spells while fighting with his rapier—
Mrsha was curiously inspecting the wand. She knew what it was of course; she wasn’t an idiot, just mute. She banged it experimentally on the table, waved it in the air, and poked Pisces with it. He didn’t care; the wand was too sturdy to break easily, no matter what she did.
And then Mrsha raised the wand to point towards her. She stuck the tip in her mouth and began to chew on it. That was unpredicted. And concerning. Pisces grabbed for the wand. Mrsha leapt backwards and pulled it out of her mouth.
She blinked at him. Pisces blinked back. He lunged, and she sped away, dashing upstairs with her new toy in hand. He cursed as he rose to follow her; she couldn’t do magic with it, but he wasn’t about to donate a valuable magic item to Mrsha’s toy fund. And if she lost it, what then?
“Pisces! Stop bullying Mrsha! And what’s this about you running away while everyone else got bugged?”
On cue, Erin noticed Pisces and began to harangue him. He groaned internally. He opened his mouth, and turned to make some excuse, or point out Mrsha’s theft.
He froze when he saw Ceria. The half-Elf had gotten up from her table, and was looking at him. Just looking. But it was without reproach, without anger. Ceria nodded at Pisces.
“You okay, Pisces? You had a few bad bites yourself. Do you need a healing potion?”
That was unexpected. Pisces stumbled over his words.
“I ah—I believe I am fine, Springwalker. Ceria. I don’t believe wasting a healing potion on my injuries is warranted at this moment.”
“Good. Selys tells us you were at the Adventurer’s Guild. Your idea. Why didn’t you mention it to us? It’s not a bad one, although I can see why it wouldn’t work with the Drakes. But if we took the contract, we could let you use your creation while we pretended to work. Why not?”
It’s not a bad idea. Pisces stared at her. It was an echo of what Olesm had said. He hadn’t predicted that. And he hadn’t predicted this. He opened his mouth, coughed.
“I uh, believe that is not necessary. I spoke with Olesm earlier this morning. He has agreed to let me work on his authority. The pay is quite acceptable.”
“Oh? Good for you.”
Ceria raised her eyebrows. Selys groaned.
“What? That idiot. I bet I’ll have to be the one to account for everything! Do you know how hard it is to count rat tails? And how disgusting that is?”
Pisces ignored her grousing. Selys would be the best one. And the most probable one. None of the other [Receptionists] would give him the time of day, but she at least was impartial, if rude. But his eyes were on Ceria.
The secret. Pisces had been so sure when he was arguing with Olesm earlier. But now, all his objections melted away, as they always did. He stared at Ceria and felt the urge to tell her.
“Pisces? You okay? You’re looking a bit sick. You’re not going to start throwing up like Yvlon now, are you?”
She smiled at him. Pisces wavered. Countless secrets pressed against his lips, begging to be spoken. So many things that mattered, that might change everything and nothing. For a moment he felt them all pressing at his mind, begging to be said. A thousand secrets. A thousand untold truths.
I ran away from home.
My father still thinks of me as nothing but a disappointment.
I am working on a new undead creation.
My [Fencer] class doesn’t exist; I never wanted to level, so I never did.
Sometimes I wake up at night and miss what could have been between us.
I apprenticed myself to an ancient monster. For knowledge and power.
I know Erin and Ryoka are from a different world.
I ate your extra helping of lasagna yesterday and let you think it was Ksmvr.
I reached Level 30 yesterday.
And more. The word crowded Pisces’ mind. So many lies and terrible truths. Too many. And he had learned his lesson, so Pieces chose the easiest one to speak. He opened his mouth and let it out. One less burden, one less wall between his heart and the world. He looked at Ceria and sighed as he spoke.
“Calruz is alive.”
Everyone stared at him. Pisces hesitated. He raised one finger.
“Probably. Possibly. I might have jumped to conclusions based on partial evidence.”
He looked around the room, and then shrugged. He waited five seconds, and the shouting started.
Olesm made his way back to his small office in the building that was technically the city hall of Liscor, but was more often used as a place for fancy parties and gatherings. Only recently had it been used for meetings of Liscor’s council. They normally didn’t need to meet.
But Olesm had his place here, and he was present almost every day in the small cubicle he’d been allotted by the city. He liked it, actually. He had access to the city’s records, a place to snooze if he was tired, or just practice chess. The place was seldom occupied. It was his private abode.
But he also had work to do here. Olesm groaned as he rubbed at his back and settled in his comfy chair. His head hurt from this morning’s drinking, his bladder was full from Krshia’s tea, and he was sweaty and wet at the same time from his little adventure with Pisces. He stank of crypt dust and fear.
But all of that was nothing compared to the secret in his heart. Calruz was alive. Or might be. The Horns of Hammerad might not have all ended with Ceria. And who knows? If he had survived, had other adventurers? Had more found their way into that secret passage? He’d have to double-check the numbers of deceased adventurers with the remains recovered, but of course, some had fled the crypts and others had been eaten. A full count would be tricky.
The Drake muttered to himself as he looked around his organized desk for the right files. He noticed a few more papers in the little basket he’d put out for people to put things in. More work. Olesm glumly paged through a few reports.
“Information request—approved. Latest sighting of Goblin Lord and assessment? Approved, of course. Why did they send this here?”
He irritably pulled out his enchanted quill and scribbled on the pages, adding a wax seal of approval. One of his jobs as [Tactician] was to look over anything that might reveal confidential or important Drake secrets to other races or other cities. That meant he had to authorize a lot of trivial stuff.
Yes, that was his job. Olesm absentmindedly pulled over a report and scanned it. How many Silver-rank teams in Liscor? Probably the Humans wanting to know how many teams they’d lost. Approved. He drizzled wax and stamped it with his seal impatiently.
Now this, this reminded him of what he really was. Unimportant. Olesm sighed. After his glorious letter from Niers—which had gotten wet—and all the things Ilvriss had said, it was important to ground himself in reality. He wasn’t a big deal. He had potential of course; Olesm knew his worth, but he was also aware of his lack of influence, personal power both in levels and possessions, and youth. He wasn’t a prodigy. He was barely smart.
Another report. This one about goats? Oh, the Eater Goats. Yes, approved. Celum had a right to know about monster attacks and migrations. Olesm glumly reached for the second-to-last paper.
Now, Pisces, he was talented. He’d already reached Level 30! True, Olesm was close to that himself, but Pisces was creating horrific, amazing Bone Horrors and he was an adventurer who was most definitely Gold-rank at this point. That was success. But what would Olesm be? After he hit Level 30, he’d still be stuck here. Doing nothing.
Another request. This one was from an individual. A Gold-rank team. Fancy that. Ylawes Byres, seeking confirmation that Yvlon Byres lived in the city? Obviously that was unconfidential. A brother seeking a sister. Or a father? Olesm shrugged and scribbled a note informing the adventurer that Yvlon was in Liscor and Celum thanks to the magic door and noted her membership in the Horns of Hammerad.
Yes, he was a small-time paper pusher, but at least he could take the time to help out in small ways like that. Olesm stamped the wax, feeling a bit better. He reached for the last bit of paper, scanned it, stamped it, and leaned back in his chair.
Would Pisces tell Ceria? Olesm bet he would. Pisces was a good person, for all he acted like he wasn’t. And he liked Ceria. They had been a couple.
Olesm paused as he stared at the ceiling. He put a claw over his face as his lips trembled. Ceria. He turned in his chair and closed his eyes bitterly. Sleep. That was all he needed. He was a worthless worm, but at least he could sleep. And then he’d have to go to Ilvriss and smile and—
The unhappy thoughts milling about in Olesm’s head slowly receded. His breathing grew slower and his body relaxed. He drifted off—
[Tactician Level 28!]
[Skill – Rallying Presence Obtained!]
Olesm’s eyes opened wide. The Drake shot out of his chair and punched at the ceiling. He shouted.
“Alright! Yes, yes, yes!”
He danced around in his small office, laughing happily until a thought struck him. Olesm paused, and then drooped.
“Aw. This means Wall Lord Ilvriss is going to make me drink again.”
He sighed, and headed for the door. Maybe this time he could get them to fill his mug with wine. Olesm liked wine.