Henry knocked on the door with impatience, a book under his arm.
He wondered who owned the house. Located in the outskirts of Haudemer, many thought it abandoned, its owner absent, and his host had indicated she only rented it for a while. Thorns and weeds had taken roots in the garden and the stone walls, while the shutters remained firmly closed. No matter the outside spookiness, he had run towards the place as soon as he read the invitation.
“Professor Henry.” A charming young woman welcomed him, as she opened the door with a squeak. She was no rare beauty, keeping her long raven-hair tied with a white rose, but her dark eyes shone with a keen intellect. Most importantly, she wore the black and gold wizard robes of the Royal University of Gardemagne. “How kind of you to visit me.”
“When you informed me you visited our beloved Haudemer, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” the scholar replied. “It is an honor to meet you in person, Miss Lavere.”
“Please call me Lucie,” she replied politely. “I may represent the Royal University, I never forgot my humble roots.”
Indeed, it made her academic success all the more striking. She had published two papers, one on the effects of the Red Death plague on base stats, and another about spellcasting classes synergies. A brilliant young mind, she was apprenticed to the famous royal headmaster Nostredame, a wizard of great renown.
Henry examined her class with his Class Specialist Perk.
[Lucie Lavere; Scholar 15/Unknown Spellcaster Classes 22]
Unknown classes meant she had an item preventing him from clearly identifying her levels. A Perk would have hidden the information entirely. “Why hide your spellcaster classes?”
“University politics,” Lucie replied calmly. “I study new fields of spellcasting yet unrecognized by the University, and I might get in trouble before I publish my thesis. Many covet my apprenticeship under Nostredame and would ruin my reputation to take it.”
“To be level thirty-seven at your age… most adventurers retire at it. You are very good, miss Lavere.”
“I am an apt pupil, and I learn from the best,” the young woman replied with great courtesy, before inviting him inside, “Please come in.”
Henry did so, finding the house’s inside much more welcoming than the outside. The two stepped inside a long hallway, covered with a red carpet and lit up by fire elementals kept in glass containers above their heads. While the place lacked in decoration or a personal touch of any kind, the owner took care to maintain it in pristine condition.
The inside also looked far bigger than the outside. “A space altering spell?” Henry asked, impressed. He had never seen one.
“The true owner’s doing, I must say,” Lucie replied, closing the door behind them.
It must have been a spellcaster of great power. “I wonder what a scholar of your caliber is doing in Haudemer, especially in these dark times.”
“Learning,” Lucie replied. “One of my mentors asked me to follow her on a business trip, which of course must remain between us. She is a very private person. ”
“I didn’t tell anyone,” Henry replied. He understood scholars of her caliber wished for anonymity, especially since Scorchers might target them for ransom. “I thought you would be interested.”
He handed her his notes, which the woman began to read at a quick pace, almost a page a second. “Monster Squire,” she noted. “I never heard of that class before.”
“It has good, equilibrated growth for an unpromoted class, and very interesting Perks,” Henry said, eager to impress the other scholar. This may be his chance to get his research published, and for him to finally obtain some recognition. “A whole unknown monster class. And the dragon, Vainqueur, gained levels.”
“I saw this dragon, Vainqueur, laying in the sand outside the town. He is not the first case of an intelligent monster gaining levels, but this is certainly the first case for a dragon. Even the fabled Jade Dragon of the East never gained a class of his own.”
“I wish I could study him further,” Henry said. “Mayor Lynette told me the Shining Crusade would send a squadron of knights to kill him as soon as possible.”
As he told her of the recent events, Lucie chuckled, amused by the passage on Vainqueur’s demand of a lava bath. “I would not count on your crusaders for this task,” she said, before stopping before a wooden door. “We can discuss it in my study. I believe your research has great potential.”
“Thank you, hearing you say so warms my heart,” Henry said, as he opened the door and walked inside the dark study.
Finally, after spending years researching classes, he was on the verge of a breakthrough. If Lucie validated his findings, the Royal University would publish his researches; he would get credited as the discoverer of a new array of Monster Classes and Perks, and his name would live on.
At first, he couldn’t see everything, although strong odors assaulted his nose. The study didn’t smell like paper and ink.
It smelled like rotten meat.
Then the room suddenly lit up, and Henry screamed.
It wasn’t a study, it was a dungeon; a cold, dark room smelling of death, full of wooden operation tables and shelves covered with surgical tools. Two zombies hung in the middle, suspended to the ceiling by chains. Henry recognized the faces as a couple of fishermen, whom he had often seen while strolling around the docks.
The door closed behind him.
Henry turned around, expecting to face Lucie.
Instead, a knight two heads taller than Henry barred the entrance, pointing a sword at his throat. The titan of metal facing the scholar had shoulders that would rival a bull, and his heavy plate armor exuded a strong sense of menace. His horned helmet, which covered his face, made him look like a gatekeeper from Hell.
Henry instantly recognized him from a wanted poster, even before his Perk activated.
[Gustave La Muraille; Knight 20/Heavy Knight 4]
A Scorcher leader.
“Ah, Lucie brought us a friend,” another voice, pleasant, called from behind the chained zombie.
A man walked into Henry’s line of sight, an elegant, black-haired man of Harmonian descent, with a pleasant face and beautiful amber eyes. He wore the white and gold garments of a priest of Mithras but proudly displayed the sinister crow symbol of the murderous god Deathjester on the upper left. He wielded a rapier around his belt, although he hadn’t unsheathed it.
[François Vilmain; Fell Bishop 13/Outlaw 3/Sellsword 7]
“Hello, my dear guest. My name is François, François Vilmain,” the fallen priest said with a mirthful smirk. “I am a captain of what you call the Scorchers, alongside my comrade Gustave. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of horrible tales about us, all of them true.”
“What have you done to Miss Lavere?!” Henry asked, Gustave grabbing his shoulder with his free hand and maintaining right in place. Lacking any combat ability, Henry had no chance of fending off these two.
“Lucie?” Vilmain chuckled, “Her master owns the house and agreed to let us hide there, so long as we helped with her student’s, shall we say, empirical research.”
A necromancer. The headmaster laid in bed with Scorchers and necromancers? Henry froze, aghast, before realizing they said ‘her’ student, and the archmage Nostredame was a man.
“Please, take a seat, Henry,” Vilmain offered, waving his hand at a wooden stool right next to the restrained zombie. Before Henry could respond, Gustave forcefully grabbed him with his free hand and forced him to sit with inhuman strength. “Let’s have a chat.”
“People will notice my disappearance,” Henry pleaded, trying to buy time.
“Oh, don’t worry about us, we have your case covered,” Gustave replied.
Vilmain cleared his throat. “Contrary to what you may believe, Henry, neither me nor Gustave, or even Ogron, started as bandits. In fact, we fought for Gardemagne during most of the Century War; back then, the king granted adventurers and mercenaries a writ, allowing us to raid enemy towns in his name. Unfortunately, with the end of the war, our respectable occupation of massacring people and torching their villages is no longer politically correct.”
“We were asked to retire, farm like peasants, or move on to much more dangerous monster-hunting jobs,” Gustave said with disgust.
“Fortunately,” Vilmain said with a light grin, “His Dark Majesty, Brandon Maure of Ishfania, offered us a very nice retirement sum and asylum, so long as we torched the countryside of Euskal to the ground and kept the crusaders busy while he retakes his fortress of Rochefronde. Which unfortunately for you, Henry, includes Haudemer. Do you understand?”
The poor scholar nodded, pissing himself. Vilmain glanced down at the soiled pants with a sneer, before continuing his story.
“But you see, we have a very big problem. Apparently, you have a dragon guarding the city, and he ate our men for breakfast. When we sent men to check on these men, he killed more of our men. Finally, the royal army is breathing down our necks, and for important reasons, we cannot skip Haudemer’s destruction. The situation is not good for our financial future.”
“So we caught these two,” Gustave pointed at the zombies. “Who said the dragon had a master.”
“Of course we had to rough them up before they gave names, namely, that this master, ‘Victor,’ often met with you.”
“That is wrong,” Gustave replied. “That we roughed them up. One of them talked when he saw you zombified the other.”
“Ah, yes, but you had your Outlaw knife him dead afterward if I remember.”
“It was to help him level up. I take care of my men.”
“He got a level out of this commoner? Lucky beginners, they don’t have to burn the midnight oil the way we do.”
It was relatively easy to break into the two-digit range by killing low-level people, even up to level twenty for dedicated killers. Afterward, the increased experience requirements made it necessary to fight people who could fight back on even terms.
After this awful interlude, Vilmain focused back on Henry. “So, my friend, I am sure we can find a solution we all agree on.”
“You’re going to kill me anyway,” Henry said. “Why would I tell you anything?”
“Of course we are going to kill you,” Vilmain replied with a disturbing kind of serenity. “The only question is, do we have to rough you up first? Unlike my fellow Gustave here, I would rather make it quick and painless. I am not a savage, Henry.”
“Says the priest of Deathjester,” his comrade replied with a taunting tone.
“I am the holiest man there is,” Vilmain protested. “I worship the god of crime, and he likes my work.”
“Whatever,” Gustave replied, swinging his weapon. “Do you talk, scholar, or do I cut a leg?”
“No, no, Gustave, wait,” Vilmain raised a hand to appease his fellow criminal, while Henry shook in pure, unadulterated fear, “I tell you, I’m not a savage. While you are most certainly going to die so word of our presence does not spread, I’m sure we can honor last requests. If you tell us the truth, the full truth, the entire truth.”
Knowing his life was done for, Henry figured out he might as well try to bargain for something. “Will you spare someone, if I speak?”
“Depends on whom,” Vilmain replied. “We are going to kill that Victor fellow whatever happens. I am sorry. Professional pride.”
“No, Mayor Lynette.” He had had a crush on her for years, even if he never dared make a move. “Also, please do not burn my house. The research inside… they’re my life’s work.”
“You demand much,” Vilmain replied mirthfully, “Lynette, that’s the innkeeper right? I heard she’s very beautiful. Smart woman too. Do you like her?”
“Y-yes, I do.”
“Ah, very well. If you speak, we will spare her life, and we will try to leave your home unscathed if you give us its location. No promise on that one, fires spread in wild directions sometimes. Maybe I will find a way to sell your papers to an Ishfanian scholar if they are truly so precious. Now, tell us everything.”
And so, Henry spoke.
He gave them a rundown of his discussions with the dragon, including his general personality and levels; then, much to his shame, he sold out Victor, his class levels, his Perks, everything he could gather.
He would have lied if he could but Bishops like Vilmain could detect lies. “A Nightblade?” the priest of Deathjester raised an eyebrow. “Interesting.”
“The Nightblades can control dragons?” Gustave asked, worried.
“Of course not,” Vilmain replied. “I do wonder what a career criminal is doing protecting a village.”
“He said he left them,” Henry said.
“You never leave the Nightblades. Well, no, technically, you can leave them, but life leaves you first. No matter. Is he greedy, like this Vainqueur?”
“I don’t think so…”
“He must have a weakness. Honor, fame, women…”
“Mayor Lynette had him do jobs for her,” Henry remembered. “I noticed him glancing at her, and not at her eyes.”
“Ah, yes, of course, no man can resist a chest, any kind of chest.” Vilmain chuckled at his own sexist joke, while Gustave didn’t. “What else?”
“I… I have no idea. He is a nice person who wants to help.”
“A good man, with a kind heart? Ah, now this is interesting. Gustave, what do you think?”
The cruel knight’s fingers twitched on his sword’s pommel. “There is absolutely no way we can beat that dragon in a fight.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”
“But he is dim.”
“But he is dim,” Vilmain nodded. “We will have to distract him before we burn this town down, recover the Apple, and flee on stolen ships afterward. As for that Victor, we can handle him easily enough. We’re both over twice his level, and a kind heart is easily misled. Is that all, Henry, my friend?”
“I told you everything,” the scholar replied, crying in shame at his own cowardice.
“Did he lie?” Gustave asked his partner.
“No, he is an honest man, albeit not a brave one.” Vilmain shook his hand, before flashing a comforting smile at his prisoner. “You must not know it, but my friend Gustave here has three levels in Turncoat. That class’s first Perk, [Falseness], hides Turncoat levels from scanning Perks, such as yours. The second is called [Traitor’s Joy]. I’m sure a scholar like you knows what it does.”
Henry clenched his fists in impotent shame. “You get an experience boost every time you betray a promise.”
“I told you he was a savage,” Vilmain said, sounding falsely sorry. “Poor Lynette.”
“You said it, not me,” Gustave replied, raising his sword.
“Wait,” again, Vilmain raised a hand to stop his ally, “Not yet.”
“What?” Gustave complained, “He’s of no use to us.”
“We could make use of him as an hostage, for now. Just knock him out. I swear you will have his head in time, my friend.”
Gustave grumbled and struck Henry from behind with the pommel, the poor scholar's world fading to black.