(Y6, September 8th-10th)
Zachrakal headed back to the Inquisition group. Several small groups were starting to gather as the two Percurro-pulled wagons were getting unloaded of their goods for storage.
“The caravan’s staying for 3 days and Recess before continuing. They didn’t join, everyone’s accounted for.”
“So, they didn’t come that way,” grumbled Wastehot.
“I do have a lead, though. One of the caravan guests had a scrying skill, and he spotted what he thinks was an adventuring group. 3 people near 200s.”
“Where?” asked Karseerteal.
“Back in the badlands. Given where they were from the road, he thought they’d be looking for a dungeon.”
“Or trying to make their way through the badlands. We can still catch them.”
“And it’s going to be tight. Speaking of Recess… Adaptation Sickness has popped up 30 minutes ago,” added Mortarban.
“Shit, we’re that close? I’m good for 3 days, but then it’s my turn,” added Karseerteal.
With the rush to Hilltop Samms to intercept the killers, and then the search, nobody had had time to take a Recess. They checked each other’s estimations. Zachrakal was the furthest, probably 6 days, but both Vinogradman and Wastehot would go into AS in a day, two days top.
“We didn’t plan to take that long. That’s no use spreading our Recesses. And we can afford a day, two with people in AS, but we’re going to walk slower, vitals will tank, skills will start to fizzle. They’re lowbies, but I dislike the way they dealt with us. I’d rather have us at full,” summarized Karseerteal.
“If we Recess now, we miss them. If that’s who the caravan spotted.”
“We head toward the badlands, based on your caravan intel and hope we catch them quickly. One day out, one day in. Then worst case, we Recess and we resume the search 6 days after, and hope the trail hasn’t cooled. If they were coming here specifically, then they might stay around.”
Tier 3 Intuition
Good neighbors, bad neighbors, they come and go.
Perceive the number and average level of small groups of people at a range.
Maximum distance: 9.6 km
Maximum group size: 5
Maximum average level: 480 (960 simple detection)
Cost: 142 mana
Skill level 48 (base 26)
“If there’s a group of three on their own with an average 150-200, we’ll beeline on them,” said Zachrakal.
“And if we catch them?”
“Then Adaptation Sickness won’t matter much. I’m pretty sure we can keep them confined while I brew the required fresh potions and we make sure they’re not immune. With six days, I’m good for the potions,” she confirmed.
“I was more thinking about that guy’s skill with the walls. Mind over Matter. Do you have anything for him?”
Vingradman saw Zachrakal’s thoughtful expression, and added, “Even if you have nothing against Psionics, the way the forum description was written is that it works horizontally. If we have an oubliette and we throw them in, they can’t tunnel out. If they Recessed immediately back then, we’ll need Bane’s Grasp.”
“Don’t worry. Got some ready, and even with diminishing returns, I can keep them locked.”
Karseerteal stopped the discussion, “I’ll check the local city council if they can help. But first, we have to get them in range to catch them.”
Vantegaard was, as usual, the first to spot something to the side.
“Guys… does this look like tracks?”
Birkathane peered and opined, “Looks so. That’s probably the trail between Samms and Talbor.”
“Does this mean we’re getting close?” asked Quandocor.
“I don’t have a real GPS. Without coordinates, it’s hard to guess. But… given the distance and with our wandering, we’re a day out. Maybe?”
She pointed out in the distance the handful of small peaks over the clumps of trees to the north.
“These have been there since yesterday. With the horizon closer than Earth, we must not be far away. I assume Talbor is the highest.”
“Do we want to use the trail now, or keep our distance? Ideas?” asked Vantegaard.
Quandocor shook his head, offering no opinion. Birkathane pondered the dilemma before offering her own.
“Might as well beeline for it. The faster we join up with the Valkyries in town, the better.”
“Do you know where they are?”
“I asked Randgridda – that’s the boss – and she’s described the guildhouse they have. I should be able to spot it. Mt. Talbor is larger that Hilltop Samms was, but not that large.”
“What’s the Cartographer’s presence there?” asked Quandocor.
“I never looked at everything. I accessed the information for Hilltop Samms because we were headed there, but I have no specific idea for the Talbor office. They almost certainly have at least one agent in place. So, we must assume that once we’re there, we’ll be spotted and the rumor will reach the Cartographers quickly.”
“Don’t worry,” said Birkathane. “The Valkyries have a solution. You’ll see.”
“Then it’s settled. We go straight for the town, no delays or detours.”
They reached the trail. There were no real roads on Northworld, at least not yet. Even the oldest areas had seen only five years of use, and this part of Gamma had seen regular traffic for the last two only.
Despite that, the trail was relatively delineated. Birkathane commented, “They use wagons to carry stuff. There are usually two or three wagons for the loads, plus whoever wants to go from place to place.”
“So lots of traffic?” speculated Vantegaard.
“Rand said it had picked up. There’s a constant flow of lowbies toward Samms because of the skinning rush. When they level up, some of them are probably headed back this way. Westward from Talbor is a lowbie country, ranks 15-ish, but you find decent veteran-level challenges to the east and north-east. Valkyries love the place.”
“What happens when you overlevel a place?” asked Quandocor.
“You can range further. Northwest is Landschot. It’s a high-rank area, 60-70ish. Kind of what we found near Fanduk, maybe a bit higher. It’s a two-day trip, so you can do an expedition. It’s more like a Thousander sector rather than veterans. You can’t solo unless you’re in the high thousand. Valkyries’ have been there twice, but it’s a bit too harsh still. There’s a small town that’s started there, they’re refurbishing ruins.”
“Like we were doing in Fanduk?”
“This seems to be common. Sometimes you find nearly intact settlements, sometimes its half ruins. Once there are more high levels around, it will probably kick off.”
“And your guild will move there?”
“Maybe. But it’s a year away at least. The Valkyries won’t move until we’re almost all in the right range, and I’ve got two friends without Gates for the moment.”
She mock-glared at Quandocor, who hastily raised his hands.
“Hey. The next two gates are yours!”
“It’s not as if you have anyone to give them to.”
She hastily added, “unless you got friends outside of the FBI to lure into the life of illegal highway driving?”
Quandocor stayed silent. He still hasn’t figured out how to deal with the FBI. Going rogue went against the ideals he was supposed to uphold… but the Pyramid had changed that. It had moved the line of defense from the borders of the USA to Northworld itself.
The only warning they got was an aura of weight. An arcane Area-Slow-Movement. Critters rarely dropped complex effects, which meant…
Five figures stepped out from behind the trail’s bend. Vantegaard recognized three of them. The Cartographers had finally caught up with their targets.
“M. Vantegaard. And your accomplices. Finally,” said Karseerteal.
He added, “this time, you don’t have a wall to hide behind. And I have what’s needed to get you.”
One of the unknown figures had brought out a bow, lazily pointed toward nothing in particular. No arrow in view, but that meant little. If you had the right skills, a Northworld bow was an extremely powerful ranged weapon. Not on par with a machine gun, but… Zaccali had been pure murder on the 50ish critters back when they were out of Fanduk.
This time, using debuffs to run away would be far more complicated. There were tree clumps all around, and a forest edge not too far away, but with long-ranged attacks and arcane effects… they wouldn’t make it.
“Now, Mortarban will detect if you try to escape. Try Recess and we will take extreme measures. I’d like nothing better, but my boss wants you squeezed of everything you know, even if it hurts more in the end.”
Vantegaard raised his hands, showing the universal surrender sign.
“I wanted to talk, but you…”
“Yes. And I’m a closet Historicianus. Do you have any idea how many times those weirdos have found indications of ‘alien presence’ in dungeons all over Northworld.”
“Usually, you don’t kill people to make your story sound better. So whatever you’re covering, we’ll find out. Your backers will not protect you, and you – and they – will pay. In full.”
He turned toward the woman of the group.
“Zachrakal here will knock you. That’s painful when you wake up, but Northworld heals the damage.”
The alchemist started toward them, pulling a set of small flasks.
“Don’t worry. Even for criminals, I’m not using charm potions. I draw the line at that.”
“That’s good to know,” said a voice behind the Cartographers.
Karseerteal turned toward the sound. A few paces behind the Cartographers stood a small group of women. Vantegaard frowned… and then realized what kind of all-women group might be around and stepping in to intervene in some dispute between random Gaters.
The rising corners on Birkathane’s mouth told him the intuition was correct.
“Hey, boss. Nice timing.”
The frontwoman – Randgridda herself – smiled.
“Spotted that group of people who were asking about a group of three coming from the south. I figured out these might be the hunters you notified us, even if you said there were three of them.”
Karseerteal turned toward Zachrakal, but she anticipated the question.
“My skill is activated, not permanent. And besides, a group of five veterans wasn’t what we were looking for.”
Karseerteal swore. Meanwhile, the rest of the Cartographers had started to spread around and bring out their own weapons.
“We’re Thousanders, and you’re merely veterans… well, except you. You can’t win.”
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is how far everyone’s ready to go. To protect one of us? We’re ready to go all in. Are you?”
Karseerteal turned back to the trio.
“So that’s why you came here. You had some of your sponsors waiting for you.”
Vantegaard was ready to reply, but Randgridda spoke first.
“Don’t know what ‘sponsors’ you’re talking about. There’s one of us here and her two friends. And five bullies who think the name of the mighty Cartographers and a thousand levels are enough to make them master of everything they see.”
She smiled with a positively predatory gaze.
“Haven’t been against a bully since I was 9. Mom told me to make sure every bully knew about me first, so they learned to leave me quick. They could beat me, but they always paid hard enough to get us all grounded.”
One of the other women added, “And besides, you already had one man in AS, and you’ve got another that just entered AS. You’re running on fumes.”
Karseerteal was getting ready to reply when Mortarban put his hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“Let it go, boss. Even if we win… too many Cartographers have already died for this shit.”
Zachrakal added, “We got information. They can’t wipe us, and now we have another lead. Once we have enough mercenaries… we’ll get them back.”
Karseerteal stayed silent for a few seconds. Then his shoulders dropped, as he admitted defeat.
“Now, if you please, we’ve got a long trip back to town with three friends of ours. Have a nice day yourself.”
“Shlyuha,” was Karseerteal’s only answer.
Vantegaard looked back toward the Cartographers. It looked like they were arguing between themselves. Then they started to follow, but it was now obvious which two of them were already in Adaptation Sickness. The other three had to pace themselves to let the rest follow.
Without the limitation, the eight of them soon outdistanced their hunters.
“Thank you. You saved us back there.”
“Don’t mention it. Birka told us about the problem, and we weren’t about to let anything happen. Although I was a little worried. Five Thousanders isn’t a walk in the park. It’s not like a dungeon dive, you die with those odds.”
“Thankfully, you’re not stopped by bullies.”
Randgridda exploded in laughter.
“The only one that tried to bully me when I was 9 was Mikaela, and that’s only because I had gotten the same dress as she did.”
“You learn how to bullshit. That’s the only way you get taken seriously, even in Sweden.”
She clapped on Birkathane’s shoulder, “I’m very good at bullshit. That’s how I got to be the boss!”
The night was falling as they reached the outskirts of Mt. Talbor. The town was large compared to Hilltop Samms. And unlike it, there wasn’t a tent city surrounding the area. They walked silently across the darkening streets, some crystal globes lighting a handful of intersections.
They got to a small two-level whitewashed building. Randgridda turned toward the trio and bowed with a flourish.
“Here we are. I think you’ll like sleeping in a real bed for once.”
Birkathane hugged her friend.
Despite the massive fluffy mattress and all the comforts, sleep had been elusive for Vantegaard. The habits of weeks upon weeks, first between Fanduk and Samms, then the flight across Gamma had ingrained the habit of taking the last watch. He kept expecting Quandocor to wake him up… and realizing that this meant he was already awake. He had slept better at the Obvious Tankard but that had been when he thought himself safe.
He finally made his way downstairs to see what kind of breakfast Valkyries ate. He assumed that it would be sometime before he relaxed. If he did… after all, the Cartographers were still after them. But, this time, they had a chance to clear their names.
The massive pounding on the door nearly made Vantegaard jump.
Frowning, Randgridda rose and walked to the door and opened it. There were two men just outside, and this time, Randgridda sighed loudly.
“What the fuck are you doing at my door, Siorvellus? Thankfully, you don’t have a Strength build, or I might have wondered if you weren’t trying to knock it down.”
“Yea. As if you didn’t know me. As a reminder, I was here before you even spawned. So what the fuck are you and Bestofnine here doing here just before breakfast is even finished.”
The man, Siorvellus, took a slightly pained expression.
“We heard news about yesterday.”
“So, we know there are three people here that are on a wanted list by the Cartographer’s Guild.”
“And?” kept pushing Randgridda.
“And we know you had… a disagreement with the Cartographer’s Guild party.”
“And? Get to the point, man.”
“And… the town triad doesn’t want trouble in Mt. Talbor.”
Randgridda rolled her eyes up.
“And? I swear to Odin, I’m not looking to make trouble. Not in any way, shape or whatever.”
“I would agree with you, but the thing is, there’s a bounty on your… three guests. A substantial bounty.”
“And you know what? I don’t care about that bounty. They can offer platinum levels if they want to. Do. Not. Care.”
Siorvellus shook his head.
“But others will care. And there are several people with very high levels around that have… high skills. They will care. And they will not take no for an answer.”
“So? You came to tell me I can’t invite who I want in my own house. Which, I remind you again, I already had when you were a fucking level 1 newbie.”
“I came to tell you that the triad will not look kindly upon the fact that you are harboring three fugitives in Mt. Talbor.”
“And they sent you instead of coming to tell that to my face?”
“Now, Randgridda…” said Siorvellus.
“Oh, I understand you perfectly. Your bosses are worried that their precious little city is going to burn when we tell ‘No’ in the face of the Cartographer’s goons. Again.”
Siorvellus’ face couldn’t become more pinched, thought Vantegaard.
“You are notified that, in case of hostilities, the city will not stand idle. We will do whatever we can to shorten any fight.”
“And the implication is that you’re going to whoop my ass. Nice to know you trust yourself that much, boyo.”
“Anyway… it would be better for everyone if that problem got defused as soon as possible.”
“Oh, it will. Hlonhyldde!!!”
One of the Valkyries seated put aside her chocolate cup and stood.
“We’re leaving. Get everyone geared and ready. I need to breathe fresh air because it stinks in here.”
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.