Coppernicus held up a hand, and the squad fell silent around him. The night was dark, and ahead of them, a huge fire was burning away, about 100 meters away. There were very few in the north who were so bold as to have such a large fire without any care in the dark, especially after the System arrived.
Even Iznock seemed troubled as he regarded the fire, burning cheerily ahead of them. He had drawn his magic back into himself, which caused his usually inflamed head to fade slightly, only giving off a soft glow.
Their group was on a low hill that sloped down towards a stream that ran along the edge of a forest. Right between the group and the stream the fire sat, multiple figures clearly moving back and forth around it.
“Did you sense any sentries?” Iznock asked, surprising Copper. Sentries weren’t often used, not yet, although Sydney was bullish on the subject, saying that just because they had been coddled their entire lives, didn’t mean they would continue to be, now that the System was here. Better to protect yourself.
But Star Crossing and the Refuge didn’t use sentries. Which only left…
“None,” Vandal said, sidling up between the two larger skeletons. “Although there’s something weird in the air. Electric, almost.”
“Wards.” Iznock growled, and then he cursed violently in his own language. The System did its best to approximate what he said, but Copper could tell that it was strained at the edges, as if it were unable to translate. Which was interesting, because it had seamlessly translated everything that came before.
Odd, that. Perhaps unable was incorrect. Was it unwilling…? Was the System hiding something…?
Worth watching, at the very least, as Copper focused back on the men around him. The squad was tense, all 10 men looking at the three in the lead for direction. Their eyes were haggard, from two weeks of eating rations and what they could scrape off of the land. Still, the meals they did manage to hunt and cook were excellent; Vandal was a master at preparing monster meat.
If Copper still had a fleshly body, he would have shivered. The dark cruelty in Vandal’s eyes as he caught and cooked those monsters… it was chilling. It was good that he was on their side.
Then the face of that impossibly powerful man appeared in Copper’s mind’s eye, and he clacked his jaw unhappily. Nothing was ever easy. Which was why preparation was important. During these past two weeks, Copper had been using his Scribe skill to make spell scrolls, and he believed that he could change the outcome of that previous fight…
Copper shook his head, feeling foolish. The one problem with this new, almost tireless body was that he could very easily lose himself in his skull, following his thoughts around for far too long. With an effort of will, he focused back on the group around him.
“Like from video games?” Vandal was asking, skeptical.
Iznock just grunted, not bothering with Vandal. Everyone in the group had already learned not to bring up video games around the boy. Although they were effectively stopped from playing video games ever again, Vandal would still gladly spend hours dwelling on the past.
“Wards are… magical sentries…” Copper said slowly, looking around, pushing his senses to the limit. Although he wasn’t imbued with the power of monsters, like Vandal, his senses were still more finely tuned than a human’s.
And after a few seconds of focusing, he could feel it, just lightly, brushing up against his bones. There was a definite electric charge in the air, and they were wading through it. There was no damage to their bodies, but Copper suspected that could change, and the person who set up such a field would definitely have the methods to sense their presence in it…
“Are they difficult to learn?” Copper asked. Even in such a dangerous area, far from reinforcements and surrounded by the pledgees of the Wild Rider, he was still interested in learning new spells.
But Iznock shook his head. “....It should be far too advanced. At minimum… Level 35, if not 40.”
Vandal’s eyes narrowed, and Copper sucked in a breath. He was level 26, and feeling extremely proud that he had become one of Sydney’s most powerful warriors. Most of it was due to the tireless nature of his body, that enabled him to perfect his skills, but…
“If this is an enemy… can we handle it…?” Copper asked quietly. Vandal snorted, but the entire group turned towards Iznock, who was thinking.
“...Without casualties? No. If we fight… some of us will die.” But Iznock seemed not to care. There was something else in his expression, troubling him. “However… they know we are here, and have continued to do nothing. So we have a choice.”
“We go forward!” Vandal chimed in, sniffing the air. “Someone over there is a good cook.”
Iznock nodded slowly, and the group of 13 walked forward, heading towards the fire. As they came closer, more and more figures around the fire spread away… slipping into the blind spots that the fire left in the approaching group’s eyes.
“Welcome, friends.” A low male voice with a southern twang said. “What brings the East End Village folk over here? And with a skeleton lieutenant, no less.”
Copper said nothing, stepping forward. “I could ask you the same, warriors of Donnyton. What is Squad 13 doing so far North?”
Once they were close, Copper’s worst fears were confirmed. There was no mistaking the craftsmanship of the armor, or its quality. These were weapons forged in Donnyton. And with so many of them gathered together, moving as a unit, that could only mean…
One of the squads had come North, without anyone being aware of it. But the fact that they allowed Copper and his group to come close meant they didn’t care if they were being discovered. Or were they just confident in eliminating their group…? No, that didn’t sound right. From every report they received, Donnyton’s squads were methodical and no nonsense. Arrogance didn’t factor into their decisions.
Still, the fact that it was the 13th squad wasn’t surprising. Most of the top 10 were held up by the Skeleton Knight’s offensive, although it didn’t seem like either side would lose soon. Although it wasn’t steep, there was a drop off in power after the X squad, simply due to the powerful equipment that the higher squads received.
There were also other reasons that a squad didn’t enter into the top 10. In this case, Copper suspected this particular squad was more fearsome than their ranking indicated; they were simply the type of squad to be weaker at direct confrontation.
Two figures stepped forward, their faces hidden in shadow with the fire behind them. The man with the southern twang spoke again. “So we’re both a bit away from home… but I think we have dibs on this here spot. Why don’t y’all move on?”
The threat was clear in his voice. The low sound of metal sliding across leather as squad 13 drew their weapons around their group gave weight to it. And yet…
Stepping forward, Copper produced an item from his bag that he didn’t expect to be his best weapon in this situation. “Before we go, would anyone care for a game of chess?”
There was silence. And then a snort.
“You’ve done your homework, skeleton boy. Weird, we don’t know anything about you. I’ll go for a game.” If Copper had a body, he would have been sweating, and the voice eased some of his worries. Clarissa, the Weather Witch, one of the top movers and shakers of Donnyton, walked forward with interest as she looked at Copper.
She gave the others a glance. “Interesting, interesting. What a unique crew you have here…”
Trailing off, Clarissa took a moment to look at each individual in turn, even the normal guards. In her eyes, it was clear she was activating some sort of skill, and was able to see through their strength in an instant. At least, that is what it appeared to be to Copper, and from Vandal’s expression, the younger boy had a similar foreboding when he looked at this opponent.
“You...are the one who created these thunder wards?” Iznock said abruptly, the burning sockets of his skull locked on Clarissa.
She shrugged. “Secret. But I’d be interested in hearing how you detected it…”
Iznock said nothing, folding his arms. Clarissa seemed to have expected as much, so she turned to Copper once more. “Well, your intel is good. I play games against my better interest. Join us for dinner? Your group can stay as long as we are playing. If you win, I’ll tell you what we are doing up in your neck of the woods. You’re wondering right? If you lose… we need a bit of information from you skeletons. What’s the Skeleton Knight’s Regalia?”
Clarissa smiled. It was strange, she just looked like a middle aged female librarian. And yet the air around her was abruptly getting cold, a thin mist spreading out from her. “Fair deal right? What do you say?”
Copper turned to look at Iznock, who remained still. After a few seconds, Vandal took a deep breath through his nose, smelling once more the cooking. Even Copper could sense, although he had no desire for food, how well made the stew they were cooking was.
When it became clear Iznock would not act, Copper said. “Alright, you have yourself a deal.”