I hold up my hands, preempting their objections.
“Look, we need to do some serious recruiting if we want to have a chance at winning this siege. I may be a terrible general, but I can do basic math. Having the Dryad queen in our ranks would be an amazing trump.”
They look at each other before Scragh speaks.
“I’m a simple man, Shae. I think we could win without resorting to allying with our ancestral enemies. I vote no.”
Perot looks at the still figure thoughtfully.
“I think it could be done. The body is healthy. But without a mind and soul, it’s only so much slowly decomposing meat.”
I look at Eph.
“What about you. Can you.. You know, put the queen in there?”
“Yes. But without an animating spirit, a soul, she would be condemned to an existence as an automaton. Personally, I’m ambivalent about the experience, but the queen might object.”
We argue the matter for a while, going back and forth on our respective points. In the end, unable to come to a decision, we agreed to move the body back to Perot’s where someone could keep an eye on it. That way, if we decided to go for it, we’d be ready. With that matter postponed, we started getting ready for the trip back. Before we leave, I call out to our troops to make sure everything was fine. Everyone responds with clear, until I try contacting one of the forward scouts. Silence. Warning Perot and Scragh, I switch to overview mode, zooming towards the front lines. As I move, I can see my surroundings much more clearly. At first, I’m surrounded by little figures representing my companions. As I get further away, the figures transform into little circles. Green with a black border signifies the people in my immediate party. A star on the center one indicating me. A grey circle denoted out our new friend. And all around us are yellow circles, wandering around the tall grass. With no time to check it out further, I let the others know about it, making a mental note to check it out later.
As I arrive at the front lines, I notice new additions to our defences. The commander has kept the troops busy. Pits are scattered around the battlefield, cleverly concealed with sticks and grass. Simple barriers made from various detritus found nearby. Cover for our side, obstacles for the enemy. At least they removed the dead. I didn’t need another reminder of my failure so soon. I check in with Meknet at first opportunity.
“How are the troops faring?”
She’s startled again, looking annoyed at my sudden arrival.
“Morale is stronger now. I divided the captured equipment on our soldiers, and the new crossbows will be useful for the next attack. We’re ready to send an assault group to retake the high ground when you are.”
I agree, and go to check out the site where the scout vanished. Greyed out, the location was perfect for hiding and spying on the enemies movements. Now all we have is a huge blind spot through the natural defences of the pass. I let Meknet know what I saw, and soon the little troupe is making its way towards the target. One elite, together with three light infantry and a scout. I follow them as they get to the guardpost. We find signs of a substantial force having moved across the area recently, and the body of a single weke, throat slit, lying in the shrubs. The party collects him, returning to base leaving the single scout behind.
“We have marauders in the valley.”
Her voice was matter of factly.
“So what do we do?”
She looks at her scouts.
“We need to track them. We don’t know how many they are, or how fast they’ll be going. All we know is they got past us on the west side of the pass.”
“If we send out a bunch of scouts within sight of each other, I can collate their fields of view so we can cover more ground..”
“Covering the ground visually isn’t necessarily the most useful course of action. We’ll start where their trail leaves off, seeing how far that gets us. I’ll send a contingent of light infantry backed up by scouts. That way we’ll be able to take the enemy out if it’s a small force, harass them if it’s a larger force, and most importantly, find them if they’re hiding.”
Having once more been chastised for my lack of military knowledge, I agree to her plan. Soon, I’ve set up communications with the scouts and their elite, ready to answer their calls when they needed it. With nothing more to do here, I made my way back to my group.
As I arrive, I see more friendlies in the group. Zooming in, I realise it’s one of the groups we sent for herbs. I check in with Perot.
“How are things going?”
She mentally pushes me away. I turn my attention to Scragh.
“What’s going on? Perot wouldn’t answer.”
“I was wondering why she was suddenly swinging at imaginary mosquitoes. She’s in the middle of a conversation. One of the teams we sent out for herbs wanted to report some strange behaviour in the local wildlife. Apparently, all the animals have become neutral towards us. The guards even found one of the children playing with a blastrat. Those things are normally vicious, hateful things, but this one was crawling over the kid, eating out of his hand.”
I include Perot in the conversation, noticing my mana starting to drain faster.
“Do you have any thoughts on the situation?”
They look at each other in confusion. One starts to speak, stops, looks around, then starts again.
“There’s kind of an echo here. Anything I think feeds back to me. Can you do anything about that?”
I try to adjust the relationships between our connections, making sure nobody gets their own voice thrown back at them. I’m impressed by the flexibility of this ability, but my power to fuel it is dwindling fast. Perot feeds me a potion before we continue.
“They’re saying the change in the wildlife population is happening across all levels of animals. If I had to guess, I’d say the crown affected the allegiance of more than the Weke. I mean, I don’t think we can control animals any more than we could before, but they aren’t attacking us. Worth keeping in mind.”
I agree with her.
“That would explain why we didn’t see any opposition at the tomb. Does that mean that all the places of power are left unguarded to us?”
Their eyes go wide for a moment. Scragh grabs one of the gatherers.
“You, take this body back to Perot's hut, double time. We need to go to the next place of power. If we find resources like this one in each of them, it can only strengthen our position in the face of our enemies.”
I let them get on with the details, giving them instruction to the next location of power. North and west, in the swamp. A nameless pit. Not promising on the outside, but I’d already seen the power of the creatures living in the marshlands. Anything guarded there would be worth having. As they set off, I go into overview mode. Getting back to the front lines, I see nothing has changed much. I try going through the pass, but there’s a field of energy pushing me back, an opaque curtain of multicoloured force keeping me inside. I move on to look for the find the pursuing party, finding them a surprising distance from the camp. Moving at high speed through the grassland, they seem to be heading towards the swamp. I contact their leader.
“What’s going on?”
Without breaking his stride, he answers breathlessly.
“Ten of them. Fast. Not hiding. Not good. Need reinforcements. They know the valley. Not going to our town.”
I relay his request to the front lines, not bothering with my recommendation. Meknet wouldn’t follow it anyway.
Day turns to night as we hurry for the place of power. Even with the creatures of the swamp being docile, the terrain is still hard to traverse. My keepers are forced to backtrack often, taking circuitous routes to get to the pit. I give them updates on what’s happening with the interlopers when I get any. Shortly after nightfall, I get a summons from Meknet. Something happening at the front lines. By now, they’d doubled the amount of traps on the ground. Some with simple deadfalls, some with spikes. I was unsure of how effective these holes could be, but Meknet seemed confident, so I didn’t voice my concerns. From the vantage point on top of the pass, I could see the enemy forces moving. They passed through the barrier as if it didn’t exist. Thirteen people this time. Six of them equipped like the previous strike force, heavy armour, large shields. Six more wore lighter armour and no shield. Instead, they wielded two-handed swords or hammers. Behind them walked the shiniest person I’d ever seen. Gleaming in the moonlight, his open-faced helmet sported a large feather. Seeing his face made me clench my fists in anger. The same bastard who fought me in the barn. There was something wrong his his eyes. It was too dark to see clearly, but it looked like he wasn’t focusing on anything. Haughtily, he strode towards our line. The rest of his troops stop, the shieldbearers setting up their shields in preparation of the assault, and he kept moving. Right up to the first pit, stopping on the edge as if he was mocking us. His attackers stood behind him, weapons secured on their backs. With a practiced, blank expression he pulled out a scroll, unwinding it to hold in front of him, and began to speak.
“I, Telleran the Swift, have come to make an official proclamation on behalf of the king of Ienoth. This newly discovered valley and all its resources are from here on out claimed in the name of his majesty, to further the glory of the Ienothian people. Any further resistance by squatters to prevent this rightful expeditions entry will be met with lethal force.”
He put away the scroll, looking at the gathered Weke.
“Thanks for keeping it warm for us. If you pack everything up before leaving, we’ll let your children live. We need help carrying everything after all.”
He chuckles to himself as he turns to leave.
“You have until first light before we come back. Get ready. Or don’t, I don’t care.”
As he walks away, three bolts fly from the surrounding grass, glancing off his armour with loud pangs. He moves a little faster, while his soldiers cover him. The crossbowmen fire blindly into the darkness, but aren’t hitting anything. Another volley from our side sinks into the back of the knee joint on one of the swordsmen, eliciting a scream. The others pick him up as they move out. I decide to get a closer look to see if there are any details we can exploit, but there’s nothing. They’re all wearing the same kind of armour, the same sigils. The only differences are between the classes of soldiers, and that seems to be only weapons. Mr. Asshole, however, has much nicer stuff. His armour is clearly superior to anything the grunts are wearing, probably enchanted. His sigils are different, maybe magical. His helmet is made of a completely different kind of metal and.. He’s staring right at me. I can see how his eyes are dead now. Did they not heal when he respawned? Either way, now he’s looking right at the point where my vision begins. Cocking his head, he speaks, but I can’t hear anything. I try extending my mind to his.
He’s taken aback. His soldiers are still covering him, preventing my side from attacking him.
“Is that you, Shazzy? Wow, someone learnt a new trick. How about this one?”
He says a few words, gesturing with his arms, and the world gets all sparkly. It looks like a fairy ate what came out of a unicorn and was violently ill. Refracted moonlight everywhere, and I notice I’m getting slower. I can move, but everything is harder, heavier.
“Just a little trick we learn as part of the scout company quests. Helps with tracking down prey. I wish I had Spinvil with me, he’d be able to rend your mind, show you your place in the world. Oh well. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go prepare. Got some slaughtering to get ready for tomorrow.”
Winking at me, he starts to move towards the pass. I rage at him, impotently, and he seems to enjoy the reaction. I scream, and he winces. I can affect him? I focus all my power at him, forcing myself on his mind, clawing at it, and he falls to his knees, wildly grasping at his face, tearing at his skin. As I get ready to finish him off, there’s a sucking sensation in my very being, and the world moves fast. I’m raced back to my body, slamming into it much faster and harder than before, then blackness.
Warning: You are afflicted by rot: Mild. Crown of the valley has been disabled for 14 hours You are suffering from overuse: Mental Magic. Mental Magic disabled for 12 hours.
I try to sit up, startling Scragh. He drops me unceremoniously into a marshy puddle.
“Shae! You’re back! Are you okay? Let me help you.”
As I splutter and try to find my feet under me, he saves me from drowning in the shallow water.
“We were worried, you started spasming, then went still. Perot checked your vitals and said that at least your body was fine..”
Perot comes over to investigate.
“You did something stupid, didn’t you?”
I stand up, shake off the worst of the water, and am about to retort.
“Fine, I’ll rephrase it. You did something stupid. What.”
My indignation falls, and I tell her everything.
“So after all that, we’re blind and mute. And at first light, the enemy will attack us. Add to that the fact that we attacked someone during a parlay..”
“It wasn’t a parlay. They didn’t request one, we didn’t offer one, there was no white flag. They tried to push us, we pushed back. I just wish I’d done some real damage to him.”
She hands me a bowl of soup, and I drink it. I can feel the warmth flowing into me, applying a nice buff to my regens.
“Still, it wasn’t very nice. I didn’t notice the way your mana started draining until it was too late. You must have poured everything you had into that attack. I’m surprised you didn’t lose more than your.. You know..”
I look at her in alarm.
“My what? What did I lose?”
I check my hands, my arms, upper body, legs, all there.
I check my face. There’s a noticeable gap on the right side.
“I’ve lost my face.. There’s a hole where my face is supposed to be!”
“Calm down Shae, I’m sure we can fix it. You undead are so fragile.”
“I don’t know how! The status effect goes away, but I’m still out fingers on my hands. What do I do?”
She pats me on the head gently.
“Shae, it will be fine. We’ll work it out. In the meantime, just keep your hood up, and nobody will notice.”
It takes a while longer, but as I calm down, I realise she’s right. It doesn’t actually matter in the short run. I’m not exactly into this to win a beauty prize, and I did seriously overextend myself with that attack. I could only hope that it bought us enough time to deal with the interlopers, and for my abilities to return. My mind wanders, and soon we close in on the pit. The ground was denser here, though still wet. The wildlife was getting larger too. At one point, a lizard the size of a FÄRLÖV sofa lazily crossed our path. It looked at us for a moment before it continued on its way. Me and Perot were relieved, but Scragh started talking about it’s nest, and how good an omelette would be right about now. As we argue against his logic, we suddenly find ourselves looking out across what the overview referred to as a pit. Initially, I thought it might be a swimming pool. Large, square, with edges made from some sort of ceramic material. As we got closer, I could see into it. Pipes were coming out of the depths, running into the sides of the pool. Fluids leaking out of some joints. It looked like clear water. After a quick search, we find a metal ladder. Looking at each other, we wordlessly agree, and descend into the darkness.
It’s a good 50 meter climb before we reach the bottom. The floor is a grate, littered with dead plant matter and dry leaves. There’s evidence of smaller animals down here, but as far as I can tell, nothing larger than mice. The grates we’re standing on extend along the walls, with a wide hole in the middle. Looking down, I see pipes coming up from a foggy void. While I’m trying not to fall in, Scragh taps my shoulder, pointing towards a spot on the wall. A door is set into the wall, the same colour as its surroundings. A rotating dog lever set into the center to lock it in place. Me and Scragh both have to exert ourselves to turn the wheel, and once it’s unlocked, it opens smoothly. We’re greeted from the other side by a roaring noise, of engines running and pumps pumping. Inside, there’s light coming from the ceiling, and 4 large pieces of machinery moving.
Warning: This is a restricted area. Your trespass has been recorded, and will be reported to the admins at the first opportunity. Warning: No connections to admins available. Report Queued. You have discovered a dungeon: Swamp Hydration Facility. Class: Restricted/Admin only. Age: Ageless.
I freeze as soon as I see the popups. As I’m about to say something, Perot interrupts me.
“What’s an admin?”
I look at her, baffled. Before I can answer, Scragh interrupts me as well.
“Nevermind admin, what the hell is this blue thing! It’s blocking my sight!”
It takes me a few minutes to calm him down. Apparently, they’ve never seen the ingame popups before. I have to promise to explain more when we have a chance, but they’re fine with continuing the expedition.
As we carefully enter the room, I tell them to keep their hands off everything. They both look at me like I’m an idiot, and we make our way through the stacks of machinery. It seems like the dungeon is only this single room. I wasn’t aware that the admins had to have these kinds of locations to keep things operating in the world. Maybe it’s just a remnant from before, when the valley was created. My suspicions are strengthened as I inspect the equipment and lights in the room. Everything results in blank popups and nonsense text. We find some conduits to follow which seem to channel the power used in this place, and soon we find a panel where all the wiring seems to terminate. A metal door locked in place by four wingnuts which I quickly removed. Inside the panel there’s a jumble of wires and fuses. In the very back, I can see a soft glow, hidden by messy cabling.
“I think that thing is what powers this place.”
My companions look at me with some confusion.
“But what does it do? And why is it here?”
“I don’t know. It seems to be some sort of hydration plant for the swamp, but I think it’s no longer used. Probably left over from when the valley was separated from the rest of the world.”
They nod in unison, seeming much more sure about my nonsense than I myself felt.
“I’m going to grab it. It has to be what’s powerful in this area.”
I reach in to try and get a hold on the source of light.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
I have to stand on my toes to reach it.
“Not even a little bit.”
I wrap my fingers around the base of the jar, and yank it towards me. With a sad whump, the entire place goes dark, eerie silence replacing the roaring noise.
Scragh brings out his trusted torch, adding to the dim moonlight coming from the doorway. Carefully, we make our way outside. The pipes are no longer leaking fluids. I hand the jar to Perot for safekeeping before we climb to the top of the ladder, then I survey the area around us. There’s something different, but I can’t put my finger on what. The animals are still around, the sun is the same, the swamp is still … swampy. Shrugging it off, I suggest we go to meet the pursuing party. Maybe we can ambush the interlopers. Perot and Scragh both agree.
Wandering in the general direction of where I saw the Weke scouts last, we have trouble keeping our course straight in the darkness. Finally, we hear the sound of combat in the distance. Killing our torches, we start stalking forwards. As we get closer, the noises resolve to splashing and grunting. Some clinking of metal against metal breaks up the monotony. I signal for the others to stay behind as I sneak towards the source. I notice I’m descending into the primeval crater, near where I found the bog iron. All the while, the splashing is getting louder, more frantic. Soon, I’m on my hands and knees, crawling towards the source of the noise. From my vantage point, I find the edge of one of the holes leading to the subterranean lake. The water is disturbed, and soon a figure comes to the surface, clearly in distress. Actually, there are two figures, and they’re fighting. I look around me to find a reasonably sized branch. Dropping all pretenses of stealth, I stick it into the water, watching for what comes out. An armoured hand grabs on to the branch, and I duck, getting out of his line of sight before he clears the water completely. Drawing my shortsword, I get ready to take him out. As the figure gets purchase on the ground, it kicks backwards once, grunts in satisfaction, and pulls itself up. A woman stands up before me. Clearly human, clearly part of the invading force, definitely a player. I hesitate a moment. Her long dark hair is in her face, making it impossible for her to see anything.
“Thanks for the help. I think I got the furry little monster, but without your distraction I’d..”
I get over my hesitation, dragging her forwards, tripping her up, and mounting her back. Grabbing the strangely luxurious hair, I pull her head up, putting my sword to her throat.
“You murdered one of my friends?”
A splashing sound behind me alerts me to the opposite.
“Lucky you, a swift, fairly painless death it is.”
She’s about to say something, beg for mercy or taunt me, but the only a snickt and a wet gargle comes out. I go to assist the poor weke scout out of the water. His armour is badly torn, bloody wounds crisscrossing his body. He smiles weakly at me as he recognizes me.
“Thank you, Shae. I thought I was going to..”
From the side, an arrow strikes his throat. His eyes bulge for a moment, before he collapses. I look around wildly, trying to find the source of the attack. He’s not hiding. Just a few meters away, Jakoph stands, bow in hand. He smiles, putting the bow away behind him.
“Aren’t I the lucky duck. Just having a stroll, scouting the countryside, looking for proof we can bring back to the king to show him how rich the place is. Suddenly, what should I see but Tellerans very arch enemy. I don’t know how you did it, but when he respawned after meeting you, he got a permanent blind debuff. He is livid.”
His smile is so easy, casual. He removes an object from his backpack. A soft, red glow emanates from the container. No, that’s not right. The light is still pale, white. It’s just covered in blood.
“They really didn’t want to hand this over, whatever it is. Looks like a glitched object, to be honest with you. I’m sure I can get a decent reward from the sysadmins when I turn it in. Or maybe I’ll use it to buy my way into Tellerans guild.”
I can no longer hear him as he prattles on. My mind goes to my friends. Are they dead? As blood rushes in my ears, I force myself to think. Tactics. He’s stronger than me. I beat him with surprise last time. That’s not going to work this time. He draws a wicked looking dagger.
“This is another glitched item. They’re pretty rare, but Telleran seems to have found a hookup. Just stand still, and I’ll show you what it does.”
As he moves closer, I look around me for options. I can’t outrun him. He’s a scout and a rogue. I take a step backwards, and my stomach sinks as I fall into the murky depths. The water is cold, and the world is dark. I swim away from the hole, close to the bottom. I see a glow above the round exit, then a figure comes crashing down. He looks around for a moment, then withdraws an item from his belt. A small ring. He holds it up, as if to show it off, then places it on his finger. Immediately, his body sinks to the bottom, his actions seemingly unaffected by the environment he’s in.
Damn, there goes one of my advantages.
He grins wider when he sees me floating towards him. He holds out his empty hand, palm up, beckoning me with a finger. Desperately wishing my mind magic was back already, I manipulate the light around us instead, cutting it off from the surface. We plunge into total darkness, and I swim straight up. I try to find the opening before he manages to counter my tactic, and am rewarded by an arrow striking my thigh.
You have been attacked for 30% damage. You are burning.
My mind boggles for a moment, before I dash towards the opening. Of course he can see me, he must have tons of skills for detection. The underwater fire surprised me, however. I get to the edge, climbing out as quickly as possible. I turn around, and spend a few moments gathering all the ambient light available, releasing it into the hole as a pillar of moonlight.
A minute later, the splashing starts as he tries to get out of the pool.
“What the fuck was that all about?”
I lean over the hole, staring at him. My sword is at the ready.
“You can stab me if you’d like, but you’ll lose the sword. It’ll hurt me, but I have some advanced disarming skills I can use when I’m not being suckerpunched from behind.”
I take a deep breath.
“I’m not going to stab you. I’m not that friendly.”
He looks puzzled.
“Then what? You gonna surrender? I don’t think I’ll be able to take you back to the other side, but I’m more than happy to end you. Telleran will be happy to hear it.”
“No, I am going to kill you, I’m just waiting for an old friend. The pillar of light should have attracted him, and he gets really grumpy when food tries to leave his home.”
“What do you..”
His sentence is cut off as he’s pulled underwater. I remember the feeling with a shudder, and jump in after him. He’s still close by, panic in his eyes. Trying to reach the exit, he’s swimming as hard as he can. I did warn him. As he almost reaches the opening, I stab my sword towards him, arresting his movement. He fumbles at his belt for his ring, but before he manages to get it on, the huge serpent grabs him from behind, pulling him to the bottom, leaving him with a bleeding wound. His ring falls to the bottom right beneath me, and I casually swim to pick it up. He looks at me with a wild expression. I guess he’s pretty much out of air now. I smile and wave at him as he makes another desperate attempt to leave, only to be grabbed by the massive snake once more. This time, it coils around him, restraining him. It must sense how close he is to death. I swim up to them as the light is leaving his eyes. Smiling, I stab him through the neck.
You are burning. Warning: Health at 40% Your amulet of holding contains 1 spirit.
- Stranger in a strange land
Software developer by trade. Games developer by uni course. Shopkeeper in a previous life.. don't ask.
I took a look at my life recently, and realised I read too much. I watch too much tv. I play too many games. I consume too much. It was time for me to create instead, improve the balance of things. So I wrote, and I wrote, and I managed to finish a first draft. Then I went back to the beginning and started rewriting it, while working on the sequel.
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