(Y6, September 1st-6th)
“You know, it would have been great if I had seen those lowbies,” said Zachrakal.
“And it would have been great if we had simply caught them. But that didn’t happen,” replied Karseerteal.
“No, but do you have any idea how hard it is to catch scent? Indoor, I had no problem with Bloodhound, but the tracks simply dropped. I’m pretty sure they Recessed as soon as the option lit up. I’d have done the same. Now, I need to be close enough to get back the track. If they get in range for Neighbors, I'm good.”
The Inquisition party was making headway across the hills. They had spent at least 4 days trying to catch any traces of their quarry, without much success. Despite a couple of skills, there was simply no way to get a bead on any of the fugitives.
Now, they were increasing their circle to track. And with each day, even the mundane traces were vanishing. Relying on pure luck was a fool’s errand.
“Ok. Break. Get some dinner done while I prep communications with HQ.”
Karseerteal pulled down his backpack and brought out a Com Globe and a tripod.
“How long does it take?” asked Wastehot, the Inquisitions’ main alchemist.
“Usually about an hour to an hour and a half. These shits are useful, but they’re trouble in the field.”
“Never seen any before,” said Mortarban.
“I don’t even know how they found the recipe,” replied Karseerteal.
He added, “We’ve started to equip all the Cartographers offices with some. But it’s not like a phone or something, it’s like a voice telegraph. Strictly one to one.”
“Can’t you chain them?”
“It’s been tried, putting two under some hood. The sound is unpleasant and distorted. Not worth it. But now that we’re starting to have paths between the sectors, we can finally establish lines between the regional HQs.”
“Do they work on…”
“Nope. Someone tried bringing one on Earth, the globe simply stopped working. Same when they brought a pair. Too magic for Earth, I presume. The connection is permanently broken afterward even if you bring it back to Northworld.”
“Anyway, whenever you move any of them, they stop working for a while. Pull them out of a box, it’s a second, but haul them around as we do, and it’s hours.”
Karseerteal was eating slowly while watching the globe when the swirly liquid inside settled and suddenly became transparent. He put aside his spoon and moved to the Com Globe tripod.
“Karseerteal, Inquisition online.”
He waited until the Cartographer watch officer answered.
“Bern’s Berg, online.”
“Field report, we haven’t managed to get a trace on them. They ran fast.”
“Wait for a second, I have information for you.”
Karseerteal was surprised.
“Ok. Hilltop Samms reported after you left, and the local Cartographer remembered something.”
“Gee, would have been nice to remember before we left. What is it?”
“The woman, Birkathane, she expressed interest in the caravans they have between Hilltop Samms and Varionisia. She specifically asked about the next departure for Mt. Talbor.”
“Does that mean they might be headed that way.”
“Carmelli thinks it’s a possibility.”
“Well… it’s not as if we have any better lead so far. Rangers are good, but not if the trace is too cold.”
“Anything else from your side?”
“We got word from HQ. Armangest has authorized a 4 gold sector-wide bounty for catching them. 1gold each, 4 gold if all together.”
“He’s really furious. He wants them.”
“He liked Vasili. From what I hear, they looked forward to getting together on Beta. Did you know they never even met Earthside?”
“No. I've met Vasili at an Earthside inter-guild meet back in Moscow, a year ago, but never on Northworld. Different sector. The guy could drink even a native Muscovite down.”
“Yea, it sucks. Good hunting.”
“Bern’s Berg, out.”
Karseerteal started packing the Com setup, before announcing to the rest of the Inquisition that they might finally have a lead.
“Okay. That’s why they call that part between the two towns badlands.”
“It’s a fucking labyrinth,” said Vantegaard.
“At least, if we get cliffs, I can climb to the top to see where we’re going,” said Birkathane.
“Yea, but we don’t have Surface Climbing to keep up with you.”
“It’s going to take ages to go thru,” said Quandocor.
“At least they’re probably not going to catch us while in there.”
“Yes, but they’re going to be able to catch up to us if we have to wander. Van, do you have any idea if there are skills that can track people at long distances?”
“Can’t confirm without checking Honest John’s, but I wouldn’t bet against it. I know individual people tracking always breaks during Recess. So if they had a ranger following us from Hilltop, they’ve lost the track now.”
“But if they have a way to find people at a distance… what are the odds that you have a group of three wandering around the area?”
“Probably higher than you’d think. There’s always stuff to find out. What does your Lay of the Land says, Quan?”
Quandocor squinted while he was checking the Interface-provided information.
“You’re right. There’s something that’s probably a dungeon area, west from here… 30ish kilometers? The area is low twenties… and there look to be at least two items as well. Not much, but some.”
“See,” said Vantegaard. “If there are dungeons, there will be some adventurers trying to see what’s new in there.”
“Do dungeons respawn, like an RPG?” asked Birkathane.
“Nobody’s entirely sure. It’s always ‘we might have missed that item last time’ kind of feeling. That’s why virgin dungeons are massively sought after. A dungeon that is untouched will have a huge amount of items compared to an empty one. Crafting is good, but there’s something special about originals.”
“Like the cave back at Fanduk,” remembered Quandocor.
“So, a skill like Lay of the Land is good.”
Vantegaard laughed, remembering.
“I almost took it back during Setup. But I took Sense the Leylines instead, and that one was almost worth it because of the guaranteed skills. At least until you found out you can get a limited lottery anyway.”
“You have a talent to always pick the wrong skills, Van,” laughed Birkathane.
“Well, not always. Mind over Matter worked out.”
Birkathane tried to jog back her memories.
“The Hilltop-Talbor trail description says there’s a dungeon near the trail, at the badlands entrance. It might be that one, and the trail…”
“I know what you’re suggesting,”, said Quandocor. “But even if the trail is probably easier to use to go through the badlands, it’s also where you’ll find groups of travelers. Which might be watching for us, or at best report about seeing us.”
“Fast vs safe, again.”
“Life’s full of compromises. So, better to head northward, and get ourselves hidden in those badlands.”
“At least, we won’t get lost. Not really. Yay Absolute Compass.”
Vantegaard smiled, “Yay.”
Five days later, they were no longer hopeful with the badlands situation.
“The trail guide says only 2 days thru the badlands, I’m sorry,” said Birkathane.
“Don’t be. We all thought using the trail was a very bad idea. Hell, I still do,” said Vantegaard.
“Yes, but you didn’t think we’d face a series of near-vertical walls.”
“And even if I was over level 9000, I doubt Mind over Matter would allow us to tunnel thru half a kilometer of rock or more.”
“So, what do we do? We catch the trail after all?”
“Or we try a shortcut,” said Quandocor.
The other two looked at him oddly.
“Lay of the Land again. I wouldn’t say this zone is riddled with stuff, but… there’s something that looks like a dungeon about 15km that way,” he said pointing eastward.
“And why would we run a dungeon?”
“Because from my perspective, it looks like it has two entrances, feeling like they are opposed to each other. Which maybe means it goes through this entire blockade.”
“And it’s not too bad?”
“Upper twenties rank critters. And multiple items, so nobody probably knows about that shortcut.”
“Okay. Let’s check it. What're a few hours to lose at this point.”
The entrance in the mesa looked like a cut square corridor, with some half-rotted wood beams. Vantegaard knew that to be deceptive. Things that looked half-rotted didn’t decay further. Maybe the Pyramid Builders had frozen every natural process when they applied the Interface on Northworld? Or something weirder.
Birkathane looked up and smiled before dropping her backpack.
“Wait for me, I’m going to check something.”
The two men watched her climb the mesa’s side at a fast speed, thanks to the Surface Climbing. She disappeared over the lip.
“What do you think she’s doing,” asked Quandocor.
“Checking the other side. Wouldn’t do to cross a dungeon and end up in some enclosed valley without an exit.”
“Logical. Wouldn’t want that.”
Birkathane quickly returned and nearly ran down across the cliff, spiderwoman-like.
“Okay, there’s an opening on the other side, and it does look like we’re near the end of the badlands. I could see the beginning of a forest in the distance.”
“I’ll start buffing,” said Quandocor.
Tier 1 Fortitude
The auspices are cast, the omens are good. They’re always good. For a while.
Grant every friendly entity a +% hit/+% success buff.
Area: 7.0m radius
Buff: +12.3% hit & success
Cooldown: 8h, 26min
Cast time: 21sec
Cost: 115 Ritual, +31/hour after last sunrise, -1.35/affected entity
Skill level 35 (base 3)
Vantegaard brought the torch higher. The corridor from the entrance sloped down a bit, then opened in a cave with a few buttressing beams.
Three pairs of eyes reflecting light told him that there was more than just a few reinforcements of the wooden kind. But by then, the trio had its routine room entrance.
Without room to maneuver, the various ranged attacks they had were useless, but the buffs and debuffs were immediately launched. By the time the local inhabitants had reached them, they were already under a massive strain. Area Slow, Decay Strength and Pull Mastery weakened the snake-like creatures first, then Arcanic Precise-Speed went to infuse the counter-strikes.
“26, 26 and 28,” announced Quandocor based on his Sense Life and Death.
“No magic to speak of,” completed Vantegaard from the amounts spotted by Sense Aether.
“But watch the sides. That’s a handful of Agamodon Acer, and their bone saws on the sides can do a lot of damages if they wrap on you.”
All in all… it was a bit like their original dungeon. Their first basement incursion, with a bunch of rats. Slow, steady attrition, one person, one lizard. And the first to finish moved to assist with the next one. The only difference was that these had 15 more ranks.
And no stink.
“Yesss,” was Quandocor’s comment.
“A near-perfect one. That one goes in my new stash since I discarded the old one on Recess.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I thought I was unpacking for good. Then I found the Silvergate at the bottom, and didn’t waste time repacking since it was the end of the Recess…”
Birkathane smiled, hidden in the shadow. Just like that, the trio was back again like before. The deception not forgotten, but forgiven.
It was funny that slaughtering a few helpless lizards in a cave would do so much to get that out of a funk. But then… wasn’t that just the therapy recommended by her Valkyrie friends for every trouble. Go in a dungeon, smash everything. If so, it worked.
This. This was more like what they had back on that day when they were newbies and the world was new. Two months ago.
“Ok, we have two tunnels. Left or right?”
“Right. Always turn right in a labyrinth” said Birkathane.
“I don’t really remember.”
As usual, Vantegaard took the lead. In practice, any of them could now. But there was an old habit that said: “the guy with the sword, he’s first in the melee”.
The second room in the cave – Vantegaard was starting to call it a barrow rather than a mine – was similar to the first… but the creatures in it were definitively different.
“Beware! Rattus Fraglans! Those rats do damage around them by just proximity.”
“What does that means, Van?”
“It means they scorch stuff around them.”
“No fire protection,” called Birkathane.
“Knew we should have stocked at Hilltop. Kill them faster then.”
Cold Grasp made every single rat ignore the rest of the group and jump on Quandocor. He’d be laughing if the Unseen Meditation wasn’t on cooldown and he had no real way to get them off him. And Vantegaard was right – the damn rats were burning. Health was starting to drop significantly.
A Dawn of Light and its large Fortitude boost helped make his Drain Life better. Despite its lowest damage of all the attacks, it did alleviate Birkathane’s chain healing.
At last, Vantegaard managed to peel off one of the five rats piling up on the necromancer. He proceeded to hit a second rat, pushing into it the Aether stolen from the first with judicious use of Aether Balance. The rat started to squeak as the Aether made his moves sluggish.
At last, rats started to die, and Birkathane could stop trying to preventively push every heal she could and try to do some damage on her own. The biggest problem with being the healer was that it made very hard to raise skills other than healing unless you did easy combat. And they had been pushed all the time during the trip to Hilltop.
“Hmmm… two tunnels, one sharp left, one slightly downward left,” called Vantegaard.
“Always take rightmost in a labyrinth.”
“Okay, okay. Looks like it’s the right direction anyway.”
The room on the level had two small tunnels coming in and one larger going out. Vantegaard could hazard a guess that the other was from symmetrical access to the one they’d taken.
This room warranted the barrow name. Circular, and with a central depression that had a rectangular stack of stones. The stack had a depression in the center, as if… well, whatever had been inside was gone.
“It looks like a cairn, but I’ve never heard about a cairn that looks… empty” remarked Quandocor.
“Nobody’s ever found real remains. Animated skeletal and ghostly undead, yes, like that Bad Necropolis. But tombs and graveyards – and yes, there are graveyard-looking ruins – are always empty of anything.”
Vantegaard thought about it.
“Of course, it might simply decay. Outdoor stone would suffer from weather and flatten, but here, it’s well preserved, so... maybe the only thing that happened is natural processes.”
“It’s Northworld,” countered Quandocor. “Unnatural is probably likely.”
The shadows started to lengthen.
“Guys? I think we do have a boss after all?” was Birkathane’s immediate conclusion.
The wave of nausea that hit them was completely unexpected. Their Fortitude and Resilience suddenly plummeted, cut by more than half.
“That’s a shade. Some form of shade. That’s probably at least as dangerous or more than the guardian spirit at the Stones of Fanduk.”
“I get a rank 34,” indicated Quandocor.
“Loaded with Aether. It’s got magical attacks.”
Birkathane grunted “not just magical attack. I just lost 2 points of skill on… every skill.”
“Quick. We can’t let it take the initiative.”
All debuffs landed, save Birkathane’s arcane Precision-Weakness that failed to connect. The stat drain from Quandocor’s Pull Mastery was a massive amount of Presence for such a 30ish ranked enemy – and his own skill. Birkathane’s effective healing skills shot back up.
The good thing was that the nausea debuff was lessening slightly. But Quandocor received a headache in return, and his health started to drop.
“That thing is attacking me… with psychic? Is that…”
Vantegaard and Birkathane immediately switched the Immutable Mind toward the necromancer, overwriting each other’s efforts. But the attack was blocked.
The trio now focused on the shade. Despite the name, it was material, or at least halfway. Even Vantegaard’s dagger sliced the swirling blackness.
Unlike its high level of magical attack, the Umbra Terrenus didn’t have much in the way of defenses, and the combined assault struck on all angles, magical and mundane.
The next surprise was an enormous wail that started and grew to massive levels. To the addition of nausea came another debuff, attacking their Perception and Reasoning. Thankfully, they didn’t have much in the way of major skills based on those stats, so the effect was merely distracting rather than debilitating.
The wail ended, followed by the nausea as the semi-liquid body splashed on the ground, ruining the cairn.
“That went well.”
“Thanks for all the grinding we had to do to arrive in Gamma.”
Quandocor looked at the ruined cairn.
“I can see some kind of clothing and some odds and stuff in there.”
Leather Duster (lvl ?), worn, but solid item (?)
Ribbed Gloves (lvl 22), requires 25 Reflexes; +2 Presence.
Iron Bicolor Ring (lvl ?), shiny and polished item (?)
Treated Leather stripes (lvl 14), salvaged material.
“Good stuff?” asked Birkathane.
“From Aether Sense, the duster is level 28, but the ring is 34. We need a lot of points in Perception to use it,” confirmed Vantegaard.
“You’ve got the highest Perception Van. The duster at least should go to you then. The ring won’t be useful for months, I think,” said Quandocor.
“And I’ve already got good gloves and nothing important with Presence. So… Quan?” suggested Birkathane.
“It’s going to be a long time until I can craft anything close to that level. That belt back before Hilltop was a lucky stroke.”
“Ok, it’s yours.”
“That was a lot of items, though.”
“Virgin dungeon. If you’re the first to clear one, you usually find the good bits. Anyone coming after us will be lucky to find an item.”
The sun was nearing the horizon when they came out of the barrow.
“I’d suggest we move a bit. I’m not camping next to a tomb we just desecrated.”
“Yea, and I’ve got pants to repair. Those stripes are going to be useful. Maybe that’s easier than making an item.”
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.