The guard had been dead before he’d hit the ground. There was no one nearby, and Chris doubted anyone was able to cast magic with any proficiency yet. Poison. It had to be.
Gregor beat him to the punch, his forehead crinkled and he pulled his axe free of the throng below. “This was poison. A coward did this.”
Chris nodded as he thought through the causes. What could be. Gas? Weapons? Food?
“What do you know of Dylan? He was handing out food earlier.”
“Dylan? No, he’s one of my direct subordinates—Philip is another. He’s a shy person, but he doesn’t have it in him to poison anyone. No, this was something else.”
“Who brought the food to the guards?”
“Dylan.” Gregor paused. “No, it’s not Dylan. He’s not the type. Doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. He didn’t even want to hunt the Gnolls.”
“It does look suspicious though.”
Gregor stood up. “Look. You don’t know Dylan, I do. He would never do something like this.”
“If Dylan did it, I’ll kill him myself. Are you happy now. But he didn’t. He wouldn’t.”
“Fine,” Chris said. He was unconvinced, but he wouldn’t be able to get through to the big man. “Where’s the last guard?”
“Other end of the town. With Philip. I sent them both over a few minutes into the battle. In case something happened to me.” Gregor paused. “I’ll take you there.”
“Does Dylan know about the quest?”
“Of course he does. It was his idea to keep it quiet.”
“And doesn’t that seem suspicious?”
“Of course it does. But he’s not the type. He was a chemist, not some master assassi—” Gregor looked up. “Yeah. Fine. He can be a suspect. Happy?”
“But if you’re wrong, you owe us both a drink.”
Chris shrugged. “I can live with that.”
“And you owe Dylan an apology.”
“Not the first I’ve made today. Shall we go?”
“Fine. But we’ll need to be quick.” Gregor gestured down to the Gnolls below. “There’s a battle going on.”
Chris nodded and picked up the fallen guard’s weapon—a long spear. Without his mana altering his perception so much, doing so felt wrong, but the guard wouldn’t be getting much use out of it anymore. And he was down a weapon.
Gregor nodded, then hefted the guard and prepared to heave him over the wall into the Gnolls below. Chris laid a hand on his shoulder when he realized what was about to happen. “Leave him. We can bury him later.”
Gregor paused. “Good idea. You’re right. I’m not thinking straight. This whole mess is getting to me.” He propped the guard against the wooden crenellations and massaged his forehead, smearing blood across his face. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.” He set off at a brisk pace.
Chris kept stride without difficulty. Still, he felt a slight coil of uncertainty in his gut. He frowned as he ran. Still, he was unsure what it could be exactly. Then it hit him. “Don’t worry, that’s the effects of mana. It’s making you take risks, making you more aggressive, and pushing you to develop yourself. I’ll show you how to get a grip on it later.”
Gregor said nothing, but made a noise of acknowledgement. They kept on jogging around the wall.
The battle was quieter on the other side of the town.
Gregor pointed out the final surviving System-generated guard. His back was facing them, but Chris could see he was dressed like all of the other humans. The guard was next to Philip, the latter of which was hurling rocks from a stacked pile down below—outfitted in the plate mail that Chris had bought him.
Dylan was nowhere nearby, but suddenly Gregor broke into a sprint as the guard turned. He held a heel of bread in his hand and was about to take a bite.
“Don’t,” Gregor roared.
It was too late. The guard had already gone for a second mouthful. He hadn’t swallowed when he saw Gregor barreling toward him.
Gregor slowed, then sped back up. He ploughed into the guard and wrapped his arms around his belly, compressing the man’s chest forcefully and repeatedly until the guard coughed and retched, spitting out the bread. Chris sprinted in to see what was going on.
“What’s going on?” Chris shouted forward as he ran.
Gregor ignored him and continued squeezing the man’s belly until the guard looked a little green.
Then, the guard turned and vomited all over the wall walk. Half-digested food, and chewed bread.
Chris arrived to find Philip standing over the guard and Gregor.
“What happened?” Philip asked, hand on the sword at his side.
“He’s been poisoned. Last one left alive. My three have already kicked the bucket. Poison as well. Who gave him the food?”
“Dylan,” Philip said.
“That piece of— He got my three as well.”
“What? Dylan? But—”
“That was my first instinct too. Sir Christopher, convinced me to check out here anyway. I’m going to kill that little weasel.” Gregor gritted his teeth. “I trusted that bastard.”
The guard coughed beneath the large man, trying to speak. Gregor patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, save your energy. Hopefully you got it out of you before it’s too late.” He paused, then reached for one of two flasks hanging from his belt—a braided leather one, unlike the rope belts that most of the other people had. “Here, rinse your mouth out with this. It’s mine, so it’s safe. Make sure not to swallow, might be some poison left in your mouth.”
Gregor handed the guard the flask, patting him on the back, then helped him sit upright. “Yes, rinse and spit. You’re going to be okay. What did the poison taste like?”
“I didn’t taste anything,” the guard replied.
Gregor’s eyebrows knitted together. “Urgh.” He looked up at Chris and Philip. “Poison’s tasteless. Explains how he smuggled it into the guards’ food without anyone noticing until too late.”
Chris sat down on the crenellations. He had been right. For some reason he hated the feeling. Philip looked pale next to him. Guilty.
Chris moved over, and laid a hand on his armored shoulder. “It’s not your fault.”
Philip looked away, saying nothing; but some of the tension Chris felt beneath his hands eased in response—even with a layer of metal in the way.
Finally, Philip looked back and down. “I can’t believe I trusted him. He seemed like one of the few decent guys here. Level-headed. I just… I… I fell for it.”
Gregor looked up from his ministrations to the guard. “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with the little psychopath.” He turned back to the guard, patted him on the shoulder, and took back the flask. Gregor took a swig out of it as well, then stoppered it and returned it to his belt. His hand hesitated over the second flask. He looked down at the guard, who still appeared pale and shaken. “Hey, do you need a drink? A real drink. Something to take the edge off? Tastes like a strong IPA, really hoppy. Ah, sorry, Sir Christopher, it tastes like a strong beer, lots of hops.”
The guard nodded gratefully, and took the offered flask, taking several long gulps before handing it back. Gregor held it out to Chris. “Sir Christopher?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” Christopher frowned. Was it a good idea to give a poisoning victim alcohol? Well, the guard hadn’t drunk enough to become incapacitated, and if he’d taken a lethal dose of poison from Dylan’s bread, at least he would die with a bit of drink in him—like in those war movies.
“Are you sure? Found it in one of the houses, didn’t find any more though. Might be the last beer you’ll taste for a while. You ever had a hoppy beer? It’s one of those bucket list things.”
No he hadn’t. And he’d be immune to most of the effects of alcohol, anyway. Chris sighed. “Just a sip then.”
Chris took the flask and drank a small amount before handing it back. The hops were strong and bitter, but it did taste like a good beer. Could have done with fewer hops, but no one really drank beer for the taste anyway. He felt the warm alcoholic rush spread down his throat and into his belly, filling him with familiar comforting fire. There it was. Satisfaction oozed over his face to accompany the warmth.
“Good, right.” Gregor laughed.
Chris smiled. “Yep. Great, actually. Quite strong. It’s an acquired taste, but I could really get used to that.”
Gregor smiled back. “No worries.” Then his face fell. “I owed you a drink for not believing you, anyway. You were right, and that can be part of it. I owe you more, though.”
Chris leaned in, still feeling slightly uncomfortable. “Are you sure you should have given him alcohol?” “We’re in the middle of a battle, and he was just poisoned.”
Gregor sighed, looking sad. “You’re right. I probably shouldn’t’ve. But he might still be poisoned, and I doubt it’s a nice way to go. He might still die. He’s an NP— a native, not from our world, but if the worst happens… I hope it’ll ease his passing. No one deserves to die like that.”
Chris found himself nodding along. The man had a natural charisma to him that made it hard to disagree with him—not forceful, just something that instantly set him at ease. But he doubted he would have disagreed anyway. He’d had a similar thought regarding the poison still being in the guard.
Gregor turned to Philip. “Where did the little weasel go?”
“He said he was going back to his house, didn’t feel well,” Philip said, then paled.
Gregor shared a look with the swordsman. “Do you think…”
Philip nodded. “The locked building.”
Gregor let out a worried breath. “That fucking bastard. Going for the quest while everyone’s busy fighting.”
Gregor stood and thumped Philip companionably on the shoulder. “No, you’re needed here. I’ll deal with that little fuck myself.”
Chris straightened as Gregor turned to him. “It was good to meet you. If I see you again later, feel free to drop by, I still owe you a proper drink—not some piddling little sip.”
Chris nodded and waved him off.
Gregor picked up the axe and chain he’d set aside when tending to the guard, then lowered himself off the wall, dropping to the road of Hartshire below. He rolled to disperse the force of his fall, then stood and set his axe on his shoulder.
He took a few dozen paces forward, then shrugged. Gregor unstoppered his flask of beer and Chris saw the back of his head tilt and the flask’s bottom rise above his blond hair as the man took a good long draught of his drink.
The tension in the Gregor’s shoulders faded, then he returned the flask to his braided leather belt and dashed off down the streets of Hartshire toward the center of the town.
Philip stared on after him.
“What’s the matter,” Chris asked.
Philip shook his head, looking somber. “I just can’t believe I trusted that asshole.”
“Uh-huh.” Chris nodded, he couldn’t really say much else that hadn’t already been said. Self-recriminations at trusting Dylan seemed to be the theme of the day. It was just odd, he was weird, and thus inherently suspicious, but he’d seemed like a genuinely decent guy.
He sighed. This entire situation was fucked. He shook his head and looked down at the guard, who gradually seemed to be regaining his color. Then he summoned his Beast Soul javelin and vented his frustration on the monsters beating at the wall. They had diminished immensely, but the corpses had started to pile up so high that he suspected it wouldn’t be long before they found themselves fighting on the walls themselves.
His summoned javelins were thrown with such force that they passed through multiple Gnolls—killing them instantly.
Philip alternated between throwing rocks and borrowing Chris’ long spear from the third dead guard to ward off Gnolls that were getting close to the top of the wall. After a while, the understandably shaken guard even joined in. He seemed none the worse for wear after the poisoning, and the alcohol hadn’t done much to compromise him, so it didn’t seem like a bad idea. They needed all the defenders they could get right now.
The monsters just seemed endless, even though Chris knew intellectually that there were far fewer than before. He shuddered to think what a non-weakened Beast Horde would look like.
Chris kept on throwing his javelins—pausing every now and then to let his mana recover.
As darkness began to sweep over Hartshire, caught in his battle trance, he didn’t have time to react as the final guard tumbled over the wall.
The sky flashed gold for a moment, then shattered into a million pieces. The pieces collected into a single beam of transcendent power and shot straight upward, piercing through the gathering clouds and gloom.
The final guard was dead, and as the beam of golden power faded, a glowing, gilded orb hung in the sky far above them.
The globe spewed out radiant golden light. Chris shielded his eyes and waited for the brilliance to fade, as the remnants of the Starter Protections turned night to day. But the light failed to fade.
Then, it was as if a veil had been ripped from his eyes. The horizon came alight with hundreds of small colorful stars, of different colors and sizes. And many of them. Far too many of them—too many to be a coincidence—just like the orb hanging above their heads, were gold.