After poring over the books for almost two hours, Thorn straightened and stretched his arms. The numbers were tedious but important, and he was starting to get a clearer picture of what had happened since the initial drop in production. Now to see what Oberlin had dug up.
Thorn found Oberlin hanging out by the front gate, chatting with the guard who had been lounging there when they first arrived. Seeing Thorn coming, Oberlin coughed and pretended to be in a serious conversation with the guard, even magically producing a pad of paper as if he was taking notes.
“Thanks for your help ,Charles. I’ll let you know if there is anything else we need.” Oberlin pretended to have just seen Thorn as he put the pad away. “Oh, I didn’t see you there, sir. I just finished up the last interview with Charles here. He was very cooperative.” Oberlin threw a poorly concealed wink at the guard.
“Good, follow me back to camp,” Thorn commanded, running his eyes over the guard’s rumpled uniform. With a bit of a sniff, he walked out the gate and left the mine. After a few steps Oberlin caught up, and Thorn shortened his stride so the thief did not have to run to keep up. They proceeded in silence until they were well out of earshot of the mining camp.
“You were onto something,” Oberlin said, his voice laced with excitement. “Officially, that Margo guy got let go and moved to another region to take care of his sick relative. But I got a look at the mine’s sign-in sheet. You know, where the miners sign in and out of their shifts? His signature from that date was forged. Pretty crappy forgery, too. Looks like someone tried to use a tracing method to make it look like he signed out of his shift mid week and did not come back the next day. In actuality, he went in on a Wednesday morning and never came out. At least, according to the sign-in sheet.”
“That means we need to get into the mine.”
“Exactly. Chances are he got whacked while he was in the mine.”
“Yeah, you know, killed?”
“Right. That is a possibility.”
“Look at you being so calm. Did you find anything else in the books? You were in there a lot longer than I thought you would be.”
“They were interesting. Not only do they record the total amount gathered, but they also record the individual collection rates of the miners. About two and a half months ago, they had a really low production day because there was a reported collapse, right? After that, Margo Talern ‘quit’ suddenly. I looked through the individual records, and he was one of the highest producers in the mine. What is especially fascinating is that the miner with the next highest production record, Reeve Hewet, has been having a lot of low production days recently.
“We need to get into the mine and talk to Mr. Hewet. Additionally, we need to check out the ore they are pulling out of the mine. The weights do not match up. If we add up all the weight that the individual miners get credited with, the number is much higher than amount stored. Somewhere between the collection point and the storage, they are losing the weight. Which means something that is being brought out of the mine is being removed before the monthly collection.”
“You want to go back after dark?”
“No, I want you to go back after dark. Stealth is one area where I am not naturally gifted. Two months ago, the night guard was replaced with a Jonas Hewet who, I’m guessing, is related to Reeve Hewet. I need you to sneak back in and check what is happening after dark. Tonight would be the night for them to get rid of any evidence of what is going on.”
“You got all that from reading some records?” Oberlin looked at Thorn from the corner of his eye. “Are you sure you have never been a criminal?”
Not bothering to respond, Thorn stopped once they were halfway between the mine and the town and began to set up camp.
“We will camp here. Once it gets dark, you can head back.”
A few hours later, Thorn sat watching the flickering flames of his campfire, thinking about the strangeness of his life. Oberlin had gone back to investigate the mine camp, leaving Thorn to finish his dinner. Now, sitting by the fire as the cool night breeze blew past, Thorn had to chuckle. So much had happened in the last few months.
He had gone from naivety to heartbreak. From extreme discomfort to physically unstoppable. From law abiding to incarcerated. And now he was seriously investigating the potential murder of a bunch of data by another bunch of data. What a strange, strange world.
With a long sigh, Thorn decided to stop thinking about it and just go to bed. Better to face what was in front of him than try to avoid it. Just as he was about to climb into his oversized tent, he froze, remembering the message from Mina that he still had not opened. He had tossed it to the bottom of his messages, resolutely ignoring it.
But wasn’t that just avoiding the difficulty? Wasn’t his refusal to deal with the message a refusal to deal with the messiness of his relationships? Thorn knew deep in his heart that the correct way to handle the distress of a broken relationship was to face the reality of it head on. Only then could he make the choice to either try and fix it or cut it completely loose. By hanging on to the unopened message, wasn’t he just prolonging the pain it caused?
Glumly, Thorn sat back down by the fire. If he was going to face life head on, then he was going to have to face this relationship head on as well. Moving slowly, Thorn opened his messages and pulled Mina’s message up to the top, his finger hovering over the button to open it.
“Thorn, Thorn! You were right, they are moving something!” Abruptly Oberlin’s shadowed face appeared in front of Thorn in a video message, startling him badly. “You’ve got to get over here! Don’t worry about being quiet. I’ll give you the details on the way.”
“Alright, I’m on my way.” Standing, Thorn waved his hand, collecting the two tents to his inventory and kicking the logs in the fire apart so they would die out. Within moments, he was thundering toward the mine. “What is the situation?”
“Wow, is that you thumping? You were not kidding about being unsuited for stealth. I can hear you from here!” Oberlin looked surprised.
“You told me not to worry about it.” Thorn was annoyed. His long stride ate up the distance, each footfall leaving a deep impression in the ground. “I’ll be there in 30 seconds or so, you better tell me what is going on.”
“Nine players showed up and started arguing with Supervisor Hobson. They almost came to blows, but it is obvious the players are elites. They have not spotted me, but it was a close thing. They are loading up a cart full of some sort of ore that doesn’t look like Ember Iron. I can’t tell what it is from here, but they took it out of the storage shed, just like you suspected. Are you sure you are not accompanied by a herd of elephants? I’m literally shaking.” Oberlin held up his hand that was vibrating slightly.
Ignoring him, Thorn hit the gate of the mine with his shoulder, smashing through it like it was not even there. Splinters peppered the ground around him as he slid to a stop in front of a large carriage that was being loaded with boxes. Cloaked figures stood around the carriage as a couple of miners loaded the boxes of ore into it. Three quickly detached themselves from the group, rushing toward Thorn, weapons drawn.
His eyes taking them all in, Thorn noticed that two members of the group had bows. Making a mental note to watch for arrows, Thorn brought his focus back to the three enemies in his face. In perfect coordination, the three players attacked. Activating some sort of ability, the two players on the sides slid forward, their swords slashing out at Thorn’s arms while the player in front of him stabbed forward with a thin blade.
Without panicking, Thorn stepped forward to break their momentum, his tetsubo flicking across his body toward the player on his left who was forced to jump back. With a twist of his body, his weapon cut through the air, forcing the player in front of him to pull his thrust back, before smashing into the last attacker’s back.
Without even looking, Thorn knew that player wouldn’t survive the strike, so he swiftly stepped forward and grabbed the player with the thin sword, his massive hand covering their shoulder. Squeezing, Thorn heard a yelp of pain and the clatter of the weapon falling to the ground, so he tossed them aside while aiming an overhead strike at the last attacker. Unable to block the force, the cloaked figure disappeared into lights to join his companion, and Thorn stood facing the rest of the group.
Six cloaked figures stared in shock at the giant in front of them. His moves were smooth and well practiced, a strong blend of power and grace. After a brief moment of silence, the two with bows pulled them swiftly and the rest of the players drew their weapons. Just as they were about to rush forward, a voice came from behind the cart.
“What is going on here?” A handsome young man in red leather armor with a silver trim walked forward, two figures in cloaks behind him. “Who is he?”
“Who are you?” Thorn asked, his voice overlapping with the handsome man’s.
“Were you hired to stop us?” The handsome man’s voice gained a cold edge as he saw that two of his nine men were dead and another was wounded. “Who hired you? Theropholi? Alexandar? Ouroboros?”
Taken aback, Thorn looked at the players in front of him carefully. Their well-coordinated movements had reminded him of Ouroboros and his team, but he had assumed that it was because they were elite players.
“How do you know Ouroboros?” asked Thorn, his deep voice rumbling around the compound.
“How do I know Ouroboros? Are you kidding?” The handsome man was confused. “You were not hired to stop us? Then why are you here?”
“You are stealing. I’m here to stop you.”
In the pregnant silence that followed, the sound of Oberlin facepalming could be heard clearly from the darkness where he hid.
“Haha, is that right?” Once he recovered from his shock, the handsome man laughed. Gesturing to the two people behind him, he smiled at Thorn. “In that case, you will not mind me getting rid of you.”
Throwing off their cloaks, a man and a woman moved forward to stand in front of Thorn. Dressed in the same red armor that the handsome man wore, each had a shield and a scimitar. From their confident gaze and steady gait, Thorn knew they were going to be trouble. Both the man and the woman walked like Hamm, the sword trainer in Berum, instantly setting off alarm bells in Thorn’s head. He had never managed to win a fight against Hamm, which did not bode well for his chances here.
Nervous energy blossomed briefly in Thorn’s mind as he stared at the two players in front of him. Yet the increasingly familiar burning excitement in his chest soon drowned it out. Ever since he had faced Gargish, the Blood Hunter, Thorn had found himself increasingly drawn to combat, no matter how dangerous. Now, facing two expert fighters, Thorn could feel that excitement growing, making his hands itch.
Just as the man was about to open his mouth, Thorn couldn’t help himself. A long step forward put him directly in front of the man, and his fist flew out, punching forward. Startled, the man showed his training, managing to get his shield up before Thorn could hit him. Taking the blow on his shield, the man was still thrown back off his feet, flying backwards.
His partner, seeing Thorn strike, slashed toward him with her scimitar, its edge lit by a sickly green glow. Thorn caught the scimitar on his tetsubo, frowning slightly as the scimitar bit a chunk out of his weapon.
“Telis, get back!” The handsome man shouted, looking hard at Thorn before calling out, “Formation three.”
Instantly, all of the remaining players split up to surround Thorn while the female warrior, who had jumped back, went to assist her male companion who was still struggling to his feet. Seeing his shield arm hanging uselessly, she couldn’t help but gasp. Thorn’s punch, which had looked rather casual, had contained enough force to dislocate the man’s arm.
Gritting his teeth, the red-armored warrior mumbled under his breath. A thick red glow seeped from between his lips as he spoke, surrounding his shoulder and healing him. Within a few moments, his arm was back to normal, and he and Telis joined the rest of the players in surrounding Thorn.
Watching the eight players around him, Thorn could tell that he was in a lot of trouble. It was obvious from their movements that they were well trained, and that spelled danger. He had taken the initiative to surprise attack the red-armored warrior and had not even been able to deal any permanent damage. While it looked as if he had the advantage, the swift response from the female warrior and the handsome man in the back had destroyed any edge Thorn had gained.
Now, surrounded by eight players, Thorn knew his chances were plummeting. “Then lets maximize my value,” Thorn thought, his eyes locking onto the handsome man standing in the back. Feeling Thorn’s gaze settle on him, the hair on the back of the handsome man’s neck rose instantly, and a cold chill ran down his spine.
“Get him!” he screamed, pointing at Thorn.
Mentally Thorn measured the distance. 50 feet. Obstacles include four players and possibly a carriage of ore. Doable.
As the other players reacted to the command, Thorn threw back his head and howled, the cry echoing eerily around the mine compound.
Stunned, the players surrounding him stumbled as his [Wolf Lord's Howl] ability activated. At the same time, Thorn activated [Avatar of the Wolf]. Streaks of silver flew from the the moon, surrounding Thorn’s gauntlets as razor sharp claws formed on his fingers. Taking advantage of the disarray in the formation around him, Thorn dashed forward, heading straight for the handsome man standing next to the carriage.
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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. I post a chapter every Friday around 12 pm EST. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.