The woman screamed. The noise that left her mouth was truly blood-curdling, a piercing wail that would have been more natural had it come from a banshee in a dungeon instead of a player standing in a muddy bailey.
The scream was so loud that I knew whoever else was inside the keep must have heard. I didn’t have much time.
Summoning all of my strength—and wishing for the added physical bonus offered by my gauntlets—I wrenched my left arm from the door. The arrow was still lodged through the meat of my bicep, but I didn’t care. I was alive, and Lady Kalma was sustaining me.
I pulled my right arm free, and then the weight of my body broke the two magical arrows in my legs to send me tumbling to the ground. I caught myself before the woman could hope to run, terrified as she was, and then I stood.
The woman was middle aged and short, and I towered over her cowering frame. She continued to wail at the top of her lungs. The name hovering above her head had a title behind it. She was the Queen of Echelon. Ophelia had been her daughter.
With a blood-soaked arm, I reached out and grabbed her by the front of her tunic. She scratched weakly at my arm, but my iron grip prevailed. When she was close enough to taste my breath, I unleashed A Feast of Spores into her mouth, and her screams quickly devolved into rough wheezing and panicked coughs.
I followed my first talent activation with Malignant Putrescence, my most recent skill acquisition. Magic surged through my veins and out of my palm. In the space of a heartbeat, a poisonous sack appeared under the flesh of the queen’s neck, throbbing and moving with her own pulse. Her neck would explode in three minutes, and I only hoped she would be surrounded by guards when it happened.
“Do not worry,” I told her as she struggled for air. “You’ll see your precious daughter soon enough.”
With my free hand, I reached for the bottom of her throat and began clawing at her skin. Despite the woman’s age, she had not played much of the game itself, and her level was even lower than mine. My higher physical stat made tearing out her esophagus with my fingers a relatively easy task—easier than doing it on Earth would have been, at least.
Her wailing came to an abrupt halt, and I threw her corpse aside without another thought.
I needed to get home. I remembered the kitchen and the barracks and the stables, and I ran for the door that would eventually lead outside. Behind me, I could hear footsteps pounding on the bloody marble of the keep’s main entryway. When someone finally burst through the doors, I was already beyond their view, back once more in the barracks.
It didn’t take me long to follow the hideous trail of blood and butchery all the way from the barracks to the grazing pasture outside the castle walls. All the guards on the other side of the wall were no doubt tending to the new horror I had left for them, and no one pursued me beyond the city. I was free at last. Alive and free.
By the time I arrived within view of Undercroft Citadel, my unholy endurance was nearly expended. The adrenaline that had kept my legs pumping had expired. I still had two broken arrows lodged in my thighs and another in my gut, and I had to assume that the only reason I had even been able to move was a result of Lady Kalma’s powerful shroud ensuring that I returned to life.
The top of the wall was alive with activity, zombies and warlocks were patrolling on high alert, and I saw a pair of gargoyles circling above them as well. Almost at once, the complement of lookouts patrolling the perimeter saw me approaching, though I couldn’t tell if they recognized who I was or not. I waved, and the effort of raising my arm above my head brought so much pain that I nearly passed out.
I fell to my knees. When the front gate started swinging outward a few seconds later, I smiled. Helvegen was leading the charge, several others behind her with what appeared to be a pair of winged gargoyles came as well.
I didn’t have enough strength to greet my party. I closed my eyes and let them get to work. A potion was roughly forced down my throat, and then two heavy claws dug into my shoulders. Another set wrapped around my ankles. Then I was aloft, flying back to the necropolis with the magical effects of a healing potion starting to calm my tormented mind.
I awoke some time later, and I could see a faint purple light through my eyelids. I was in my room. Bandages covered almost every inch of my body, and my muscles creaked and groaned when I tried in vain to sit up.
“You need more rest,” a woman’s voice said from my left. It was Helvegen.
“Praise Lady Kalma, he lives!” Xia added from somewhere else in the room.
Their voices felt too loud inside my head, reminding me of the hangover I had dealt with after the Dark Revelry.
“Be quiet, I… need to sleep more,” I said. Someone’s hands gently brushed against my forehead, and then another glass bottle was pushed up to my lips. I greedily drank the healing potion before letting my head collapse back down to my pillows, my eyes shut tight against the world.
Before I drifted off to sleep once more, I mentally commanded my room to bring down the temperature. I thought I could hear a few murmurs of surprise from around my bed when the cool air started moving. A few moments later, I was asleep.
When I awoke again, my body felt relatively normal. I was able to move my head and neck without too much pain, and even my back was starting to feel better. The second healing potion had been stronger than the first. My eyes fluttered open, and I saw no one else in the room. The gentle breeze from the room’s magical cooling system felt great on my sore chest. The bandages covering my wounds were no longer soaked in blood, and I knew that I was out of the woods. I would survive.
At least for the time being.
There was still so much work to be done. I had pissed off the royal family—what was left of it—and I had no doubt that Echelon would be moving against Undercroft Citadel before long. They would hire the Resurrection guild as well, and that fight would be a difficult one to win. I could practically feel our luck running out with every passing second. That sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach didn’t go away.
When I finally stood from my bed and raised the lights, I figured it was sometime in the late afternoon. I immediately noticed a new pair of guards stationed outside my door. They were stone gargoyles, and they perched completely motionless to either side of my room’s entrance. Unless I had mentally commanded them in my sleep, I had not given the statues any such orders to guard my room. I also didn’t think anyone else in Undercroft Citadel had the ability to mentally communicate with the various pieces of the necropolis. Perhaps I was wrong. I’d have to ask Xollmomath and Xia about it later.
I stretched, and a few icy fingers of pain lanced through my upper thighs. For the first time since returning home, I decided to look underneath the bandages and see what kind of damage had been done. Before the server corruption, taking huge hits had never really meant much in terms of scaring or long-term disfigurement. Healing potions didn’t do anything to fix cosmetic damage, but every time a player logged out of the game and went home, the scars they had acquired in Wonder disappeared. Without a working portal to exit, I had to live with my skin, as flayed as it had surely become.
Hesitantly, I peeled back a few layers of the bandage around my right thigh. My fears were correct. The skin had been destroyed, and the accelerated healing process granted by potions meant that a large, red scar that looked like a misshapen star had already formed. I pushed down gently on the top of the bandages on my left leg, and I felt a similar lump of scar tissue there as well. Oh well. I wasn’t terribly concerned. The scars my wife had sustained from all of her surgeries had been far worse, and I’d never stopped loving her.
After a few more stretches, I opened the door to the necropolis and stepped out into the afternoon light. Almost at once, my stomach started churning. I was about thirty feet above the ground—a full thirty feet higher than I should have been. When I had left Undercroft Citadel for Echelon, my room had been on the ground floor of the necropolis, not towering three stories in the air. At least the magic controlling the necropolis had seen fit to build a staircase down to the ground so I wouldn’t need to fly back and forth with gargoyles every time I needed to sleep or grab something from my room.
The staircase itself was a sight to behold just as much as the view was. The stairs were made of obsidian, glistening and reflective under the sunlight, and they flared outward like something from a history textbook about the baroque era. Every five or so stairs was marked by another stone animals, though not more gargoyles. The new guardians were kind of like trilobites, some sort of heavily armored insect or crustacean with ten legs and four antennae. They each stood about two feet tall, the antennae sticking up from their heads half as long as their bodies.
I mentally commanded one of the creatures to come to my side. It moved at once, eager to obey my silent instructions, and rolled into a little ball like a pill bug. Using two of its legs to propel itself, it rolled up the staircase to my feet where it unfurled and stood strangely bipedal before me. Somehow, I felt like the stone insect was attempting to stand at attention and that being on two legs was not its preferred stance.
You can relax, I told the bug. It dropped back down to all ten legs, its armored carapace expertly concealing the rest of its body. I held out my arm and then commanded the creature to scurry up to my palm, which it readily obeyed. Before it reached my hand, I had to set it back down once more as it was simply too heavy for me to lift. The small statue must have weighed at least a hundred pounds.
Without anything else for me to learn about the critter, I let it return to its place at the side of the stairs and revert back to its non-animated form.
Then came the somewhat arduous trek down to ground level. My legs burned with every step, struggling to support my body weight as I descended. I could have summoned a gargoyle to fly me down, but I wanted to get used to walking unaided as soon as I could. My sore, battered legs needed the brief spurt of exercise.
The first floor of the necropolis was far larger than it used to be. The workshop had been sublimated into the new ground level, improved as well, and it was now abutting several other freshly minted rooms. The first one closest to the staircase turned out to be an armory. Racks of spears, breastplates, and helmets lined the walls. The gear wasn’t anything exceptional by any means, but it would be more than adequate to give to the zombie soldiers and send them into battle. The room also had a few practice dummies and a couple bins full of scrap.
Next to the armory was a barracks not unlike the one my party had been inside just yesterday… or… I didn’t actually know how long I had spent recovering. It felt like yesterday, but it could have been last week. I’d have to ask.
The barracks had ten sets of bunks, each with three beds, and a set of cabinets lining the back wall. Our undead soldiers didn’t need to sleep, but I imagined someday having an army of both NPCs and players to fill the barracks, and the first one would only be one of many. I would command thousands, and Echelon would crumble beneath my boot heels.
Next to the barracks was a small stable with six stalls and a little paddock in front of it. Sadly, while there were buckets hanging from the side of each stall, we had no horses. That was something we could figure out later.
The final room on the bottom floor of the necropolis was our new chapel. Inspecting the bone-covered doors, I thought that perhaps calling it an ossuary might have been a better designation. The entire section of the necropolis around the chapel was constructed from thin white bones and bleached skulls. They weren’t human—not all of them—but the skeletons from all sorts of wild beasts. The skulls right above the doorway were mostly from imps, though the one in the very center was most definitely a human. I wondered for a moment if it was my skull. I had died, after all, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Lady Kalma had taken a macabre memento. Perhaps she had replaced the skull around my brain with something else entirely.
I silently willed the chapel’s bone doors to open, and they obeyed my command. Dark, swirling energy scattered out from the inside of the chapel. It was a mix of black shadow, deep purple shimmer, and wisps of grey that reminded me of smoke. More bones made up the interior walls. I walked into the gloom and mentally told the lights to come on, but nothing happened. There were no magical crystals on the ceiling to control the atmosphere, so I just left the doors open to see by what little sunlight managed to penetrate the darkness.
The chapel wasn’t very large. There were no pews or benches for parishioners to sit on and watch a service, and I got the idea that traditional church customs were far from the norm for Lady Kalma’s followers. Against the far wall opposite the door stood a horizontal altar. It was the only object in the room not made from bones. I looked above it, and a smile broke out across my face. There was a bone knife dangling from a hook right above the table. The table was meant for sacrifice. I practically jumped with excitement at the thought of what garish rewards we might reap with the right offerings.
Seeing the sacrificial altar reminded me that we had succeeded in our quest. We had claimed the scarab for ourselves, and that meant Xollmomath could reassemble his master’s ancient relic. I had looted some other artifacts as well, and I hoped my warlocks had made good use of them. As I thought about restoring the Founder’s Stake, a new quest notification scrolled across the bottom of my vision:
System Notification: New Event! The forces of Undercroft Citadel have recovered a mighty relic once thought lost to the ages. If the relic is restored, untold effects may begin to spread across the land, placing all of Echelon in danger. King Ahmose II has called upon all loyal subjects to rid the land of Undercroft Citadel!
“Well…” I muttered. I read the notification twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything. We had been upgraded from a dungeon to a raid. Everyone loyal to Echelon had officially been recruited to slay us. I figured we had at least a few days, perhaps a week, before anyone from the city would risk moving against us. But it wouldn’t be a single guild at our gates, and they wouldn’t be poorly prepared. The king would organize a real raid, maybe hundreds of players, and they would be ready for the challenge. I thought of Kevin and the Resurrection guild. In all likelihood, they would lead the charge.
I needed to know exactly what Xollmomath could do with the scarab. I found him near the front gate commanding our charnel golem as an excavator to help Geirr with the new trap he had built. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits to see me up and about.
“Welcome back to Undercroft Citadel, Master,” Xollmomath said when he caught sight of my approach.
I grasped him by the forearm and smiled. “Good to be with you once more,” I said. I couldn’t simply ask the bald necromancer about the system notification since he was an NPC and would not have received it, but I could instantly tell that he knew why I had come to him.
“You did well returning the scarab,” he stated.
“What exactly does it do?”
The man rubbed a calloused hand over his hairless head, his red eyes boring into me. “The Founder’s Stake was my first master’s weapon. He stole magic from the very center of the world, the knowledge of life and death itself, and trapped it inside the wood. With the Founder’s Stake in his hand, my master was able to conquer city after city, laying waste to their populations and bringing forth armies of the undead to serve as his slaves.”
Death, destruction, eternal servitude—I could only imagine what kind of spells the Stake would unlock. Of course, Xollmomath wouldn’t be able to tell me in explicit terms, but the way he described it was clear enough. I also got the idea that the Founder’s Stake allowed the wielder to make new necromancers as well. That could certainly be useful. I’d never heard of player characters in Wonder becoming class trainers before. Being able to bestow classes on more players would give me a monumental advantage.
“Alright, so how do we reforge it or put it back together?” I asked. The ancient item was almost entirely wood, so I wasn’t sure if Geirr would be able to figure it out or not.
Xollmomath shook his head, his dark eyes cast down. “Reassembling the Founder’s Stake will be an easy task. All that is required is for the fragments to be near enough to each other, and the powerful magic within will bind itself, becoming whole once more. But it is not so easy, Defender of the Necropolis.”
Of course it wouldn’t be that simple. If restoring the relic was just a matter of tossing the parts onto a table, Xollmomath would have done it by now.
“The Stake will require sustenance,” the necromancer explained. “The spirit within the scarab has slumbered for many centuries, and it shall be in need of flesh to consume the moment it awakens. You must be prepared with a sacrifice.”
“Could we just sacrifice one of the zombies? We have plenty of them. We might as well, right?” I figured burning through another mindless undead soldier couldn’t hurt, and it actually felt like something a necromancer’s trapped spirit would appreciate.
Sadly, Xollmomath’s face darkened with worry. “No, Ben Hales, a soulless monster will not suffice. You must make a proper sacrifice—something you hold dear and do not want to lose—but something that must be destroyed. If you do not shed worthy blood, the Founder’s Stake will claim your own.”
“What did your old master sacrifice when made the Stake in the first place?” I asked. Restoring the artifact was starting to sound more and more difficult.
“My master had a mighty necropolis, a proper fortress of darkness that rose up to the clouds. His city covered miles. There was nothing within a thousand miles that could rival the strength or size of his kingdom. With such power came many other benefits, and my master kept a harem of thirty slaves, each one a wife, and each one very much loved. My master had them brought to his chapel one at a time where he plunged the Founder’s Stake through their hearts. When it was finished, the blood was drained from their corpses, and their empty bodies were burned.” I felt the necromancer’s fathomless eyes boring into my very soul. The weight of his words were almost too much for me to fully comprehend, and mention of the harem brought flashbacks of my wife’s funeral to the forefront of my mind.
“What… did he do with the blood?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure I was prepared for an answer.
Xollmomath’s dark countenance took on a sinister grin. “My master had it collected in two great porcelain tanks. When he finally conquered the largest kingdom in the land, the city that once stood where Olympia City now stands, he drowned the royal family in the blood of his wives. The children went first while the king and queen watched, and then they went into the tanks as well. When it was finished, the two porcelain vats were buried beneath the castle in Olympia City, sealed forever.”
“And was all that required just to be able to use the Founder’s Stake in battle?” I went on. It seemed like a hell of a lot of work just to get a weapon and go on a campaign across the land.
“Only the sacrifice is required,” Xollmomath explained. “Once the Stake had been sated, you will be free to use it as you please. Drowning your enemies in blood and burying them beneath the ground is not something the Stake demands of the one who wields it.”
That was a relief, if only for the fact that putting together such a morbid ritual would take years to plan. Still, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do about a sacrifice. I couldn’t just grab some hapless NPC from Riverside and cut out their heart. That would never be good enough to satisfy the kind of evil Xollmomath had described.
I thanked the necromancer for his help, then climbed up to the top of the gatehouse to watch Geirr work as I mulled over everything I had learned. The engineer was about forty yards from the gate, working alongside the charnel golem, and getting his floating trap fixed into the ground. Depending on how quickly he could build a second one, I really wanted to see a demonstration. The whole contraption sounded ridiculous.
Eventually, my thoughts still muddled with a myriad of different thoughts regarding the Founder’s Stake, Geirr came over to the gatehouse to take a break.
“Hey,” I said, welcoming him beside me on the wooden decking.
The engineer stopped for a moment, his eyes searching something on my face, then shook his head. “Glad to see you back… You, uh, you don’t have a mirror, do you?”
I instinctively reached up to my face, but I felt nothing out of the ordinary. No lumps, bumps, or anything beside a little bit of scraping that had almost fully healed. “What is it?” I asked.
Geirr sat down next to me and sighed. “Looks like a scar coming on. Something black working up the side of your face. Have Xia or the herbalist take a look at it. One of them would probably know what it is.”
“Shit. How bad is it?”
“Nothing much. It just kind of looks like a little black worm stuck in your skin.” Geirr touched a spot on my neck and then traced it up to the bottom of my jawline. “Not too big. Not yet, at least.”
“I wonder why Xollmomath didn’t say anything about it,” I said. I had talked to the necromancer for a good amount of time, and he had never bothered to mention my new little addition.
“Heh, he’s probably seen so much corruption in his life that something small doesn’t even register.” Geirr pulled a waterskin from a pocket and took a long drink. He was sweating from all his work, though he looked like he enjoyed it quite a bit.
“How long have I been out?” I asked.
“It’s been three days since you stumbled up to the front gate,” Geirr answered. “Honestly, I still don’t know how the hell you were alive. The way my sister talks about it, you took on an entire high-level guild all on your own. No way you could have killed them all, right? Or is it true?”
His eyes were wide like a kid meeting his favorite celebrity. “No, whatever Helvegen or Elyk have said about what happened, I didn’t win. Resurrection, one of the biggest guilds in Echelon, showed up to defend the keep. I let them kill me.”
Geirr’s eyes screwed up in confusion. “But…”
“Lady Kalma brought me back,” I said with a laugh. “Xollmomath had cast some kind of shroud on my body. It was just a one time thing, though. No immortality.”
“Damn. That would have been nice.”
“Yeah. So I didn’t kill a whole guild by myself. I just died and convinced them to leave my body alone, mutilated as it was.”
Geirr joined my subtle laughter. “To hear my sister tell the story, you’d think you were a god. She says you basically sacked the entire castle, left nothing but corpses behind, and then you went off solo to slaughter the rest of the city. Ha, the way she talked about it and how she was worried sick when you didn’t wake up, I think she’s got a little something for you, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Not at all, Geirr. I appreciate the honesty.” In truth, it was exceedingly satisfying to just sit down and talk to someone without ordering them around or going over official business. I liked getting to have a genuine conversation.
“You should talk to Hel. I know she’s been missing you, and she was more than concerned. And don’t worry at all about me. If you want to date my sister or… whatever, just don’t worry about me. I’m here for the long run.” The man’s voice awkwardly trailed off, and he looked away, clearly embarrassed.
I clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, I was married back on Earth. My wife might have died, but I’m still married to her, you know? But I’ll at least go let Hel know I’m alive and walking around.”
Geirr was clearly relieved, though the awkward air hanging between us didn’t fully dissipate. I decided to let him get back to his work and left the gatehouse roof with a smile on my face. My scarred face, I realized, though I didn’t really care. I had a few other small scars on various places, and I had never been too concerned with physical appearance in the first place.
I found Helvegen in the new and expanded workshop on the first floor of the necropolis. She was helping Kulgun with a few glass beakers. I stood to the side of the doorway and watched her for a few moments, wondering if there was any chance that I could come to think of a woman the way Geirr had suggested I think of Helvegen. The woman was attractive, that much was clear for anyone to see, but I all I saw was my wife when I closed my eyes and let my mind drift to more carnal places.
The woman saw me a few seconds later and broke my contemplation. “You’re awake!” she gasped. She set down the beaker she was holding and ran to me, wrapping me in her arms and nearly knocking me to the ground. My legs were too weak to fully support the both of us. Realizing that I was about to fall, Helvegen let go of me at once, and her face filled with concern. “I’m so sorry!” she said.
“Ha, you’re fine,” I told her. “I’m just glad you made it back alive.”
“You’re glad that I’m alive?” she gaped.
“I’m glad we’re all alive.” The mere fact that we had raided the king’s castle and sacked the royal archive without losing a single player was nothing short of a miracle. A single warlock, some zombies, and the truthbreaker paladin were welcome prices to pay for all we had gained. Losing Elyk, Helvegen, or Xia would have been disastrous.
The woman hugged me again, that time showing a little more restraint and a little less enthusiasm. When she finally let go, I saw what it was Geirr had been describing. The way her eyes filled with longing when she looked into mine told me everything.
I kept her at arm’s length. “I know we brought back a little more from the archive. What all did we get? Anything good?” I figured that changing the subject would be a decent way to let her down easy or at least divert her attention.
My question worked, and Helvegen excitedly bounded back into the workshop to collect a few things and show me what we had taken. “Here, this recipe is the best one,” she said, showing me an alchemical formula with an accompanying schematic.
I didn’t understand any of it. My craftsmanship skill was still woefully low, and I had never watched any of the professional crafters on the streams. “What’s it make?” I asked.
“An enchanter’s potion,” she answered with a huge smile.
That was something I recognized. Enchanter’s potions were hard to come by, and I guessed the material components involved would be hard to acquire as well, but having the recipe and a skilled alchemist on hand to make them would be wildly useful. The potions basically accelerated the work of a high level enchanter or wizard.
The brew could be applied to items to add magical properties to them. The strength of the enchantment depended on the potency and purity of the mixture, though even small augments were usually helpful. Even better, the enchantment wasn’t random like other effects in Wonder. It would be something related to whatever item was the target. For instance, soaking a warhammer in an enchanter’s potion could never give a buff to slashing damage or increase the wielder’s trade skill. The most likely result would be something to either buff an element or the efficacy of the hammer’s attacks. In the end, every enchanter’s potion was always a roll of the dice, but it only had the slightest chance of abject failure.
“How quickly does Kulgun think we can start making potions?” I asked. I was practically salivating at the idea of adding enchantments to all the gear we had. Elyk needed magical enhancement badly, and I knew whatever an enchanter’s potion would give to his scythe would have to be amazing.
At my question, Helvegen seemed to deflate a little. “We need more plants from the herbalist. Her grove is up and running, but it will be at least a week before she has anything ready to use, and the first few batches of herbs won’t be very good. She needs more experience.”
Our herbalist was probably our most important asset, at least for the time being. The armory and workshop were both nice, though with all my legendary gear, outfitting soldiers wasn’t nearly as pressing a concern as brewing potions and pushing our magic to new heights. That’s where the herbalist would come in. Higher levels and more talents would mean not only better plants growing in the grove, but it would also bring higher yields and faster growth rates.
I silently wondered if there was some way to easily start power-leveling the NPC. Training to fight would be the quickest way to gain primary stats, but we would have to make up too much ground before her physical stat surpassed her cunning in order to increase her level. Perhaps if we had a chess board or some other mentally stimulating puzzles, it could work. The herbalist could farm during the day, and at night she could play mind games against the warlocks. I’d heard of other players taking a similar route. It only worked at low level, but that’s what we had. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to pull Geirr away from his other tasks just to fashion a game board and some pieces.
“Hopefully the herbalist levels up quickly. We need those potions,” I said, shaking the chess idea from my head. Maybe I would come up with something else later.
Helvegen returned the recipe to its place and then showed me a pair of small glass vials, each one about half full with a foamy, purple liquid. “We stole these as well, two giant slaying potions, and they’re really high tier. If we ever need to fight something larger than our own charnel golem, they’ll come in handy.”
“Not bad,” I said with a nod. “Anything else in the lock box we took? And what about those trinkets I grabbed?”
The painter reached under her shirt and brought out a small lockett. It was silver and square-shaped. It didn’t look expensive, but it glowed with the tell-tale sign of magic. Rather than reading the item’s stats in my vision and stealing Helvegen’s enthusiasm, I asked her what it did.
“It actually increases my influence score and gives me a new passive that lets me get along better with the NCPs, especially when I have to order them around.” Her eyes drifted downward as she finished the explanation, and the edges of her smile started to fade. “Here, you can have it. You have more influence than me already, so you should take it,” she said.
I pushed the lockett back to her. “No, you keep it. I’ll make you my manager. I’d rather not have to visit every single place in Undercroft Citadel every single morning, so just telling you the plan for each day actually makes my life a lot easier. How does that sound?”
Once more, Helvegen beamed. She tucked the small charm back under her shirt and brushed a few loose strands of hair back behind ear. “That’s perfect!” she said.
“Just make sure you find me after breakfast each day, and if I’m not around, use your best judgement. Keep things running at full speed around here.”
She went back to one of the workshop shelves and grabbed a bundle of bright red cloth. It was the banner I had stolen from the Pyreborn Legion and given to Xia for enchantment. From what I could tell, it was finally finished.
“Here’s your new cape,” Helvegen happily announced. “Try it on.”
I took it from her and held it out in front of me, finding the small black spider jewels that served as the clasps. The spiders were designed to latch onto the pauldrons of my armor, so I couldn’t easily wear it as a traveling cloak. That was fine by me. Focusing my vision, I pulled up the stats:
The Black Goblin’s Restless Vengeance: Gravlox, and ancient goblin shaman, had two small spiderlings crafted by a renowned scrimshander. Now affixed to a cloak, the spider relics can be called upon to summon an image of the mighty goblin to fight for the wearer, casting shamanistic magic for several minutes.
If my understanding was correct, the cloak itself wasn’t actually enchanted. The two spider likenesses contained all the item’s power, and they were certainly impressive. “How did Xia make it?” I asked in wonder.
“She was able to use some of the smaller relics you had stolen from the archive, and Xollmomath granted her a bit of magic from all the histories he knows. Do you like it?” She was waiting for my approval, despite not being the one who had actually made the cloak.
“I love it,” I told her, and she beamed once more. It would make a fine addition to my already insanely powerful raiment.
Beyond the cloak’s magic, I loved the color. It was the same shade of red as the dress I had bought for Ingrid. It would be a proper token to carry into battle, a constant reminder of why I was risking my life and leaving behind a bloody path of ruin.
I gave Helvegen one last heartfelt hug before turning to leave the workshop and find Elyk, the next underling on my list.
Helvegen stopped me before I left the building. “I won’t let you down,” she said with confidence. “If there’s ever anything you need, just let me know. I’m here to help, Ben.”
If she had somehow become a little too devoted to the cause, so be it. In fact, I rather enjoyed her enthusiasm. Undercroft Citadel was a bleak and dour place by its very nature. Perhaps the painter’s high spirits and overflowing morale would help everyone else give a little more each day. At the very least, having Helvegen as my unfailing manager would free me up to do whatever else needed to be done.
My next task of the day was to visit Elyk. I found him outside the walls training with a couple of the warlocks. The NPCs were casting spells at him, and the harvester was dodging back and forth in full armor. If he couldn’t dodge a particular attack, he would duck his head behind the small buckler we had stolen and deflect the magic. The warlocks weren’t casting their most powerful spells by any means, but it was still an impressive display—and I knew he was scooping up experience points with every dodge.
I watched for a time from the wall, and eventually he grew too tired and had to stop. When he did, I called him over to my side. “Thanks for bringing back the armor,” I said. “Had we lost it, we would have lost everything.”
Elyk nodded, then pulled the stopper from a waterskin and took a long drink. He was covered in sweat and a few minor burn marks from some of the warlock spells. “I killed a few more guards with your sword on the way out. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to wear the full armor set and charge into battle. You must feel invincible.”
“Ha, I sort of do, but not always. And especially not now that I’ve used up my shroud. That ranger and his guild—I used to watch them on the streams before I started playing every single day. Even with my armor, I’d never be able to fight him. He’s too strong.” The idea of going against Kevin once more in single combat was terrifying. Even if I could get close enough to hit him with Infernum, I doubted it would do much good. His magical wards and protections were beyond anything I else I had ever encountered.
“We need him on our side. You’ve seen him more than I have; any chance he’d join us with the right motivation?” Elyk asked.
“I’m not sure what it would take. Guys like that are loyal to Echelon. He’s played since the portals first went online, so he’s given several years of his life to the king. But I like what you’re thinking. An ally like Resurrection would more than double our strength.” I thought it over in my head, trying to remember if Kevin had any particular vice or weakness that we would be able to exploit, but I came up with nothing.
Elyk seemed a little lost in thought himself. Finally, he took another drink and then rubbed a sleeve of his tunic across his forehead. “Maybe he has a relative stuck in the game, someone we could hold hostage. It might be worth checking out.”
“I don't think so,” I said with a half-hearted laugh. “If we went after him like that, he’d take it personal. Then his whole guild would come burn Undercroft Citadel to the ground. We need something else. Maybe magic.”
“Right. I bet if anyone knows how to subjugate an entire guild at once, it would be Xollmomath. That guy’s terrifying.” Elyk gave me a nod before adjusting his buckler and stepping back out to face the warlocks.
I watched for another few minutes as I pondered the possibility of recruiting Resurrection as an ally, though no new ideas leapt into my head. In any event, we would need to be a lot stronger before we took on a quest of that proportion. It would have to wait. I watched Elyk train a little longer before heading back to my room.
I was already feeling tired as I walked back to the necropolis. I knew it was just fatigue from… whatever it was that Lady Kalma had actually done to my body… and I wanted to go to sleep. Tomorrow, I would feel better and be strong enough to start taking on more tasks.