Paul sat with his head in his hands in the reading room, ignoring the growling of his stomach, and the aching of his spine. It had been twelve hours since he’d found Carl beaten nearly to death in his own home, his tongue removed. Paul hadn’t eaten a bite, or moved from his chair.
It had been a warning from Maggie Denton. The entire thing screamed ‘Keep your mouth shut.’
The door to the reading room unlatched and Nina crept in.
“Daddy, he’s awake,” she whispered.
“Good job, Nina,” Paul said, creaking as he stood up. “Get yourself a cookie.”
“Oatmeal?” she asked with a bit a sour face.
“It’s that or nothing.” Paul said, stretching.
Nina had already learned not to haggle with him, and instead sprinted for the kitchen, her feet padding on the smooth oak floorboards.
Paul walked down the stairs to the first floor, cast a glance down the hall where Carla and Lora were putting dinner away for the night, directing Rupert and Canner to fetch them things as they packed them tightly before setting them in a wooden box filled with Icefish extract.
It made food smell a little fishy after a few days, but it worked a hell of a lot better than hopes and prayers.
Paul turned to the left, to the guest room across from the children’s bedroom. He opened the door and cast his gaze over the purpling figure laying there.
Carl was covered in bruises, with seeping bandages all over his body where the beating had broken the surface of his skin.
And he would never speak again.
Did you learn to keep your mouth shut?
Half a dozen flippant remarks bubbled up and died in his throat, unable to speak in the face of his lieutenant’s misery.
Carl’s brown eyes followed him as Paul pulled up a chair and sat beside him, staring back at the fat man in his guest room.
“I’ll get them back. They’ll forget about it in a matter of days, but I won’t. One way or another, I’ll tear the whole family down.”
Carl glanced to the end table beside the bed, where a paper covered with scratchy words and a stick of charcoal rested.
Paul grabbed the pad and brought it over to Carl, putting the charcoal in the man’s swelling fingers.
Carl groaned as he shifted his hand to write. Once he was done, Paul looked at the paper.
Carl grinned a gaptoothed grin.
“Alright. We will tear the whole family down.”
Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out a rather large bottle of white fluid. “I shook down Gregor for some poppy milk. Ask Lora or Carla to dose it out for you.”
Paul held his finger up to the side of the bottle, just below the fill line. “Sleep easy.”
He slid his finger down further. “Sleep forever. Understand?”
Carl nodded, and Paul poured a bit into a spoon from the end table and put it into the lieutenant’s mouth.
The stuff tasted awful, but Paul doubted Carl could taste much between the blood and missing most of his tongue. Carl had a few false starts, learning how to drink again without his tongue, but he eventually got it down.
Paul put the opiates in the drawer of the end table, said his goodbyes and headed to bed, where Lora ambushed him with a ham sandwich and her naked body.
“Allow me to learn you kids something about magic.”
Garth stood in front of the group of Dentons, him and his lectern rolling through the grass just ahead of the group of teens hiking up the slope of the mountain.
“It might surprise you to know that magic is about more than just blowing shit up.”
Garth took a drink of his cool, refreshing lemonade while the Dentons panted, marching up the thirty-degree slope towards the plateau. If Garth’s internal map was correct, they were pretty close to where Carnifax had devoured a swordfish a few hours before.
Not that that meant much. The thing could be halfway across the country by now.
“Magic is about changing the rules of engagement. It’s about rewriting reality into something more advantageous to you.”
Garth tapped his temple. “First rule. Never stop thinking. What tools do you have at your disposal, what tools do they have at their disposal? How can you best turn the situation to your advantage?”
“Kinda sounds like regular fighting.” Kyle said, following the path Garth had started.
“Shaddap. The key difference is, once you’ve straight up shot a ball of fire at someone, you’ve basically given up seeking advantage and stepped up to the endgame, often prematurely.”
“I personally prefer utility wizards,” Garth said, turning the lectern aside and laying down in the comfy grass, carried ahead of them by Forestwalk running on a simple construct in his mind. His power was starting to come back, and Garth loved it.
“It’s always seemed to me, that a dozen useful spells have always outweighed being able to make things go boom once or twice.”
Kyle glanced back at the rest of the party, who were trodding along behind them.
“Did you guys already know he was a mage?”
“Didn’t the tent rolling itself up, or the fact that he could break into the mansion whenever he wanted and pierce whatever he wanted give that away?” Alicia asked.
“We knew,” Benedette sighed.
“What if someone sees him with us?” Kyle hissed.
“Not a problem,” Garth said. “We’re way outside the bounds of the field trip, and besides, if someone does see us, that’s what rohypnol is for.”
Garth peered down at the people marching up the mountain after him. “I’ll go back to pretending to be a helpless bastard taken off the streets as soon as we head back, promise.”
“Helpless??” Kyle demanded, then pointed at the scar on his neck, along with the piercings in his nose. “Everyone knows you did this to me!”
“You tried to kill me.” Garth said, stretching. “I’m defending myself.”
“How is this –“
“Would you rather die?” Garth asked.
“Then take your licks and hope you learned your lesson about trying to kill strangers.”
Garth closed his eyes and summoned a floating eye while he pretended to nap, gliding along the grass ahead of them.
Kyle fingered his crossbow, but Benedette stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, shaking her head silently.
“How much longer, Edward?” Alicia asked. The girl had kept close to the front of the group so she could study the way the mana moved around Garth.
“Let’s see, according to the book I read, there was a fort just over this ridge, and more dotted all the way around the edge of the plateau. The ones further away from the city are gonna be less likely to be picked clean, but we’ll check the basements real quick, to be sure we’re not missing anything.”
Garth glanced above him. “Maybe fifteen minutes?”
A short time later they had arrived in front of the first dilapidated fort. It had weathered the years fairly well, on account of being solid stone drawn out of the ground by Earth magic specialists.
The whole thing was covered in weeds, and parts of the walls had crumbled over time, but it was still recognizable as a fort.
The entrance stood open, its wooden door long since rotted away.
With a wave of Garth’s hand, the thorny vines choking the entrance moved aside, creating an opening for the five of them – plus bodyguards – to climb through.
The inside of the fort was a mess. Organic materials had long since rotted away from flagpoles, buckles and hinges, giving the scene a strange, half-constructed, otherworldly quality to it.
Old growth trees dotted what had once been an open courtyard, where Garth’s military gathered to train and relax between patrols.
In the corner of the courtyard was a broken wood stove where they had baked pizzas.
There was broken pottery fragments embedded here and there in the grass where people had broken them in their haste to evacuate.
Maybe we shouldn’t have come here, Garth thought. He’d imagined it to be like a fun treasure hunt, but knowing exactly which person that carnation-covered porcelain bowl had belonged to was like a punch in the gut.
I hope old Beth got out okay. There had never been a better Pizza-smith and nicer old lady. Woman had been forged out of iron.
“You guys know what pizza is?”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
“Good, good. It’s nice to know humanity still has a couple things going for it.” Garth glanced around the ruined fort. “Let’s hit the basement before I lose my taste for this place completely. The basement’s going to be pretty cramped, so it’ll just be me and Alicia, since she’s my favorite, everyone else who is not my favorite can check around up here.”
Kyle snorted, but found a place to sit, while Alicia narrowed her eyes and followed him into the dark of the fort, shaking her head.
They crept down the musty stone stairs located in the corner of the building, Garth holding a summoned torch out in front of them.
“Be on the lookout for goblins.” She whispered as they snuck downward. “This is a perfect den for them.” Garth didn’t see anything with his enhanced eyes, but he listened carefully as they entered the storage room.
The four hundred square feet of low ceilings had been picked clean, with nothing but the occasional scrap of wood or cloth on the floor.
“Well, bummer,” Garth was hoping that at least the barrels of weaponized seeds might still be around. He didn’t hold out much hope for the men’s salary or any magic items but the seeds didn’t seem like the sort of thing people would steal.
“You sound disappointed we’re not being attacked by rabid green men.” She whispered back.
“Place is clean, let’s not spend too much time in one spot. Sun’s already starting to-“
Garth was interrupted by a distant shout.
“Guys! You’re gonna want to see this!”
Garth and Alicia exchanged a look and she leapt onto the worn stone stairs, getting ahead of him on the way back up and sprinting up the stairs above him.
Not that Garth minded.
They made it to the top in a matter of seconds, and Garth scanned the courtyard for the rest of the group, not finding anyone. For a brief second, Garth thought maybe something was terribly wrong, or he’d been led into a trap, but then Benedette’s voice rang through the courtyard again.
“Over here, in the back!”
He and Alicia followed the voice to the back of the fort, where the wall wrapped around the back of the central tower.
In the central building, there was a rough hole clawed into the side of the wall, neatly sandwiched against the main wall, making it very difficult to spot from outside. The wall gave way into the barracks.
Spilling out of the barracks were gold and gems of every shape and size, but that wasn’t the first thing that Garth saw.
Rib bones big enough to use as oars were scattered around the narrow entrance, and a horned skull lay on its side, draconic teeth half buried in the dirt.
“A dragon’s lair.” Garth breathed.
“A young one, by the look of it.” Susie said, sticking her hand in the eye sockets. “It’s not even bigger than my chest. The corpse is less than a year old, there’s still a bit of brain stuff in the back.”
“Don’t come anywhere near me, and we’ll be fine, Susie.” Benedette said, watching Susie wipe some of the brain tissue off on her pants.
“How can you think that’s gross when a nice date for you ends with you gargling –“
“Come on!” Kyle shouted with a twisted grimace. “Do you really have to have this conversation now? Edward’s idea paid off. Not in the way we thought, but it did. Let’s just pack this stuff up and get this load out of here.”
“We should put Benedette in charge.” Alicia said.
“What, why?” Kyle asked.
“Because, I know a thing or two about getting a load out.” Benedette said, grinning at Kyle’s discomfort.
The three sisters started laughing uproariously as Kyle turned away and stuffed his backpack with gold.
“Oh my God, let’s just go.”
Garth watched from a distance, an outsider. For a moment as they teased Kyle, they actually kind of resembled a family. Then Garth considered that Kyle had killed several people in cold blood and Benedette was his benefactor. Susie was backing the number two horse, and Alicia wanted to kill all her competition and take control of the entire family.
“How do people get so fucked up?” he whispered to himself, watching the mortal enemies chuckle as they started combing through the pile of treasure.
Then Garth realized they weren’t waiting around for him to start picking treasure out of the moldy dragon’s den, so he hopped up and got to work.
“Nope,” Garth said, tossing aside a gold coin. “Nope.” Gem encrusted goblet. “Nope.”
“oooh,” Shiny status band with possible core pieces inside. Garth nicked that one. The sun was slowly going down as they picked through the treasure: To each however much they could carry.
So Garth was being very specific, aiming for pure heartstones from the creature’s more powerful prey, and the occasional enchanted item. If he broke enough of them down he might be able to make himself something spiffy.
He did need some good tools for when he decided to crack open the mythic cores.
Garth tossed aside a scrap of moldy leather, and came face to face with a silver amulet, it’s straps long since rotted away, and yet the metal hadn’t tarnished a bit, still as bright as the day it had been made.
An Amulet of Endeavor. The necklace you put on when you were about to say ‘hold my beer’ and go do something stupid.
It was the amulet that one could use to garner the attention of the gods and make Apostles.
It was priceless.
What the hell is it doing here? Garth glanced around, and caught sight of a pile of bones in the corner of the barracks. Maybe the Apostle hopeful had made it his quest to defeat the young dragon and got his ass eaten.
Sounds about right.
Sudden realization bloomed. The gods granted classes through the Class Imprinters. It was a bit like an automated response line. But if someone got their attention with an amulet of Endeavor, it stood to reason you could ask them for a class in person, right?
Maybe this plain silver amulet is the key to getting Alicia something more interesting than Duelist.
Garth pocketed the palm-sized silver eye and kept rifling through the junk filling the dilapidated building for another few minutes, until the others were ready to go back to camp.
They were headed back to the entrance when a gentle breeze passed by, along with a shadow, too quick to make out.
“Did you see…” Alicia asked, glancing upward.
A dragonfly with a head the sized of a small house landed in front of them on a blast of wind that sent dust whirling in every directions.
“Humans.” Came a voice that seemed to rattle the nerves inside their bodies, making everyone’s legs turn to jelly. Except for Garth.
This is awesome. Garth thought as he studied the massive compound eyes up close. They studied him back.
“What are you doing in my trap?”