(Y6, August 21st)
“There we are,” said Vantegaard.
“Looks like the same duo we met on the first day” commented Quandocor ironically.
“We don’t have that much to sell anyway. Good skills from the cave, but low-level components.”
“Maybe we should sell them something. Just to be nice.”
“Don’t,” said Quandocor coolly. “Never encourages scammers. They’re not nice, and you don’t have to be nice to them.”
Despite the neutrality of the trio, the woman of the storefront was waving.
“So? Back from exploration? Anything good?”
Vantegaard felt the need to answer at least a little.
“Not much. Good XP, but nothing really useful. We got skins but Quan keeps them to improve his skills.”
The man came around, hiding a disappointed look.
“Hey, aren’t you the Cartographer expedition? I heard rumors that you came all the way from Alpha.”
“Well, your friends arrived there this morning.”
“Some Cartographer team. Although, I think they mentioned Bern’s Berg.”
“What’s Bern’s Berg?” asked Birkathane.
“The Cartographer regional HQ for Gamma,” answered Vantegaard, before adding, “So, they finally took the info seriously.”
“Why seriously? Anything special…”
“Sorry” cut Vantegaard, “proprietary information. But thanks for the tip anyway.”
“Anytime,” said the man jovially.
“So, where to? The Cartographer office?” asked Quandocor.
“Maybe. Can’t hurt to check, we are headed that way anyway.”
The Cartographer office’s door in the Guildhouse was closed, with a small paper indicating “temporarily closed – inquire at Tankard”.
“I guess that they’re at the inn and the local… Carmelli?... is with them.”
“Then let’s go meet them.”
Karseerteal’s head came up when the inn’s door opened. Two men and a woman… dagger, staff, mostly earth clothing. Yes, definitively the three he was there for.
As a confirmation, Bangforbus behind the counter waved at the group.
“Hiya, if it’s not our great travelers!”
Vantegaard waved to the innkeeper. He looked around and noticed the three men seated along with Carmelli at the end of the room. So, the Cartographer team was there at least. Although there would be too few of them to probably get in the Pyramid unless it had reset. He assumed that they were to map and evaluate the place.
“Hello, I’m Vanteg…”
“I know who you are, M. Vantegaard. And presumably M. Quandocor and Ms. Birkathane.”
Quandocor frowned. That tone was definitively very, very cold. Not one you would expect from a fellow member of the guild…
All four men stood up from their seats.
‘Oh, shit’ was Quandocor’s immediate thought.
Vantegaard was still trying to parse the behavior of the group when the man who had spoken first placed his hand on the hammer at his side.
“I am Karseerteal, Inquisitor for the Cartographer Guild, and you stand accused of conspiracy, the assassination of guild members, and probably a few other offenses we’ll no doubt find out soon enough.”
He smiled widely.
“Wastehot here will administer some neutralization potions to ensure you will not attempt something stupid. Like trying to escape.”
Vantegaard turned, but Bangforbus had moved behind them to block the door.
“But why do you…”
“M. Vantegaard. Are you stupid enough to believe that tall tales can obscure the facts and hide your part? You might have gotten away with it with a better story, but your kind likes big stories. The bigger, the better.”
“Forget about fighting. You’re only level 170 lowbies, and we’re all hardened Thousanders. You have no chance.”
Vantegaard started backing away toward the side of the inn. Birkathane and Quandocor immediately took the cue and fell to his sides.
“Really? That’s how you want to do it?”
One of the men warned, “Beware, boss, they all have abnormally high Aether. The other guy’s nearly 400.”
“So. ‘Normal’ lowbies, eh. Full of Skill Stones. Doesn’t matter much.”
Vantegaard felt his mind blur. A quick check told him that he had Weakened Resolve, Ill-Fated, Slow Reflexes bearing down on him. A second later, Aether Slurry and Tunnel Vision added to the debuffs loaded on him. They were all relatively short, a couple of minutes, but combat rarely lasted more. At least, it would not if attacked by high levels.
A fraction second later, Immutable Mind and Arcane Speed came to counter some of the debuffs, as Birkathane came into defensive mode and started distributing her counters. He could hear Quandocor rambling mumbles, possibly trying to start his rituals.
“We are normal Gaters, not murderers. We were just there…”
Karseerteal waved away Vantegaard’s attempts.
“Vasilikulik was one of the best-known Guild officers, you know. You being the agent for his death will not get you off lightly. Just yield – we will dose you with sleep potions only until we have the ones to conduct the proper inquisition.”
Quandocor interjected, “And how are we supposed to trust your goodwill?”
“Who you trust or not does not matter. Only what I say does. You’re prisoners already, there’s no escape, and you will not be able to…”
“Pull Mastery? That’s one I don’t see often. It doesn’t matter, even with a minor drop, any of us can solo the three of you. Yield. I know you can’t escape, no matter what. But we don’t have to go easy on you if you keep on being stupid.”
Vantegaard noticed that nobody seemed to focus on him. They all had turned toward Quandocor. But how… Oh, his Fatal Distraction. Vantegaard didn’t know how exactly it affected people rather than creatures, but they would probably be hard-pressed to keep their attention on any of them for any significant time. At least until the debuff vanished, which was probably faster if they had a Thousander’s Fortitude.
That gave him time. Absolute Meditation, even with the -8 from lower Fortitude would be enough to clear the mental debuffs, and notably, restore the 15 pts in Reasoning he really needed. The Psi max would be slightly lower, but the reserves were untouched and the skill points were what he needed…
Vantegaard called, “Get ready, pyramid maneuver.”
Karseerteal laughed and threw his hammer toward him. He dodged, thanks to Body’s Balance, then started to focus on the wall behind him. The hammer slid back on the ground, jumping back in the Cartographer’s hand. The skill was less impressive than a Thor-style boomerang hammer, but not that inefficient.
Both Birkathane and Quandocor slid just behind him, as he reached with his mind.
“Psionic Skill, beware of attack” called another of the inquisitors.
Mind over Matter asserted itself and the rear wall of the inn opened up.
“What the fuck???”, exclaimed Bangforbus.
Vantegaard felt Quandocor’s grasp pulling him out of the inn, and let go of the wall. The stones reformed and the view of goggle-eyed Karseerteal’s face was cut.
“Run! They’re going to chase.”
The alley behind the inn joined two of Hilltop Samms’ smaller plazas. They all ran behind Birkathane, trusting in the Absolute Compass for the shortest direction out of the town. Thankfully, there were no city walls to cut them from the outside.
The sound of a door slamming open told them that the pursuit was joined.
They heard a curse. Quandocor commented, “Close enough for Sense Life and Death, which means it’s easy to Cold Grasp them.”
They kept on running, rushing across the next plaza. They entered the alley, following Birkathane toward what they hoped was the exit.
A short breastwork cut the end of the alley. They vaulted over it, exiting the clump of buildings that made up Hilltop Samms' upper city.
The flat top of the hill ended a few meters from there. From then, it was all downhill. Downhill and a lot of tents in the way.
They zigzagged between the tents in the dimming light of the sunset. Birkathane felt rather than saw a movement and dodged. A hammer swished past her ripping into a tent and bringing a curse from the occupant.
Vantegaard risked a small look behind and saw three of the Inquisitors starting to run down the hill. One raised his hands and let go of a fireball. At that range, the spell was easier to avoid… but the tent that caught fire wasn’t so lucky.
People's heads were starting to pop out of the various tents as they ran thru.
“PVP! PVP!” called out someone to the side.
Karseerteal grunted as the Cold Grasp from that damned necromancer hit him again. It wasn’t a strong debuff… but it slowed him every time. And it slowed every Inquisitor. How could the necromancer keep on doing that, without anything dead to draw on? And whenever there wasn’t a Cold Grasp, he had Impose Load instead.
“How do they do that?”
Carmelli grunted as he ran next to him.
“Heishoudang said they had tier 1 Meditation skills. All of them.”
“Fucking cheaters. They got well paid for their mission.”
The fleeing trio was reaching the end of the tent city. For the moment, people were trying to get out of everyone’s way. Nobody wanted to be involved in a fight involving Gaters of unknown levels, no matter what the situation looked like.
“They’re trying for the forest! We might lose them! Anyone with tracking?”
“Fuck, no. You?”
Karseerteal sighed as he jumped over a collapsed tent.
“The second group has a good ranger. But they’re still days away.”
He looked as the three fugitives made a beeline toward the forest line, barely a kilometer away. And of course, whenever he managed to catch up, one of the running debuffs destroyed his faster speed.
Vantegaard almost triggered a Sprinting as he made it to the forest’s edge. That had been the hardest part of the escape. Unlike the other two, he ran at the edge of a sprint run all the way. If he ever started to sprint, then he’d drop to a walking crawl next and would be vulnerable.
The worse part would that he expected the other two to slow down in that case. Then all three of them would be captured, and it would be over.
They ran between the sparse trees of the forest, going into the thicker woods. The noise of a tree blowing up from a fireball came from behind him and to the side.
The dimming light was throwing shadows over their escape. Thankfully, the range of Night Sense was good enough to pick the trees on their path… oh, wait. Hopefully, Quandocor would manage to keep track of them and follow.
Birkathane ran as she never had done before. Trees registered and were avoided almost automatically.
They had fought a lot during the trip, but she never had that enormous adrenaline rush; Except in the Pyramid. That was what happened when you really, really skirted death. Or, even if it wasn’t death, absolute disaster.
At least she had the right stats. The other two were just keeping pace with her, as she led further and further into the forest, heading in a straight line – thanks to Absolute Compass. The noises behind were fading. She didn’t risk checking. They would keep running until they couldn’t. Or worse, fell on some night hunting critter.
Quandocor couldn’t see anything. The sky was turning dark, and in the middle of the trees, nothing could be seen anymore.
He knew this wasn’t a problem for his two friends. They could see in the darkness, more or less.
As for him… well, he knew exactly where they were. And he could mimic their run, and try not to slam into a tree. At least, he had the sense for that, and enhanced memory to remember exactly what they did during the last seconds, to the last detail.
His worst nightmare was the root on the ground they’d simply run over which would trip him. Thankfully, the area in front seemed lightly populated with creatures. If their luck held, they wouldn’t run into problems.
Vantegaard breathed heavily with relief.
“We got away.”
“I’ve never been more happy for the weird biology in Northworld. Because I don’t think I could have run that fast with a heavy backpack like that.”
“As long as we have Stamina and don’t exceed our Strength, we can. Wouldn’t work on Earth, even for us Gaters.”
“And we can meditate our Stamina back on the run. While Birka can self-refill.”
“About that, I was nearly tapped out in Lifeforce. The trees here help a bit, but that’s nearly not enough. And unlike you guys, I must stop to meditate it back.”
“So, what was that?”
Vantegaard thought quickly, “I’d say… they didn’t believe me. They seem sure we did kill the expedition rather than being caught in a trap. That Karseerteal guy wanted to dope us. Fuck, I know some of what alchemy’s capable of, and I wouldn’t want that, ever.”
He turned to Birkathane, “you probably know what I’m thinking about.”
“Yea, the guides warn about some… possibilities that are particularly horrible. Normally, nothing is permanent, but there are still ugly things. Secret recipes, but still…”
Quandocor remarked, “That guy was awfully confident we couldn’t escape at all.”
Vantegaard thought about it.
“You know… I think my Recess should have lit up early this morning. But it hasn’t. Yet.”
“Same here. We all respawned at nearly the same time. Shouldn’t we all…”
“Same here. No Respawn option.”
“Did they put a debuff against that?”
“I… think not. I mean, we should have had our Respawn available a bit before we arrived back in town. I think they slipped us a potion at one point. Probably the innkeeper.”
Quandocor slapped his face in disgust.
“Drinking game. Free drinks with hard alcohol, and be sure to drink fast without paying attention to the taste!”
“Birka, does any such potion exist? You’re the alchemist.”
“I only got some beginner’s manuals. And if such a potion exists… it’s probably not publicized. Because the only purpose is to lock a Gater in Northworld. And that’s pretty much not ok. There’s worse shit, but I think getting you into Adaptation Sickness and unable to return…”
“Are we stuck here forever? Until we die from Adaptation Sickness?”
“No. There’s never been a permanent potion, even in Northworld. So, whatever they slipped us, it will wear out at one point unless they’ve got us under their thumb to renew the thing. It’s only a matter of days at most.”
Vantegaard breathed in relief again.
Karseerteal wanted to punch the table. The wall. Anything that wouldn’t run away.
“So. They escaped.”
“Apparently, they see better in the dark than we did.”
“Running debuffs. Dark sight skills. The perfect storm to escape. What was that skill? Never seen or heard anything like that.”
“Opening holes into walls is a new one. Never expected that.”
“What I don’t understand is why would they take the risk…” asked Carmelli.
“Hubris. They thought they could get rich and not end up exiled.”
The three inquisitors looked at each other.
“And they’re scot-free in, what… three days?”
Carmelli confirmed, “The Bane’s Grasp should expire about then.”
“That’s about when the last of the team shows up here.”
Karseerteal summarized the situation.
“Well, there’s not much choice. Either they self-exile from some hole in the wilds, or they keep running away. If they Recess, we lose them. If they run, we may catch them.”
“If we find out where they’re running to.”
“My guess? Their sponsors. They failed to feed us the official story, so they probably have some backup place. Find them, find who is behind that.”
Karseerteal called out to the innkeeper.
“Sir? Don’t touch anything in their rooms. We have a Bloodhound ranger coming. If they’re not too far away, she’ll find them.”
Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.
Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.
Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.