As Sylver’s hand reached for the ax handle, he felt his stomach rumble in a way he hadn’t experienced in a while. Either his stomach wasn’t agreeing with all the condensed elven bread he’d been eating, or accepting this challenge was a mistake.
“We should skip this one,” Sylver said. He lowered his head and spread his arms out to stop Rosa or the others from approaching the axes.
“Why?” Rosa asked. She moved back as Sylver stepped away from the axes but there was some resistance.
“Let’s say it’s a necromancer’s intuition,” Sylver offered.
“Like [Danger Sense]?” Rosa asked.
“Essentially, yes,” Sylver said.
“I have to agree with him, there’s something strange with this one,” Basil added.
They walked out of the range of the teleportation framework, before continuing their conversation.
“Is this how you knew we were open to negotiation? Whatever this skill or perk that warned you not to accept the axes challenges?” Rosa asked.
“No. Everyone is always open to negotiation, if you present it in the right manner. I was once ambushed and managed to negotiate my way into two one on one fights, while the rest of the group stood by and watched. You would be amazed as to what people will agree to if you properly phrase things and don’t give them enough time to think. But this is different, I can’t explain it other than that I have a bad feeling about doing this challenge,” Sylver said.
“You feel that your opponent would be someone you are unable to beat?” Rosa said in an attempt to summarize.
“Maybe. But it could be something else. Look, if one of you wants to give it a go, I’m all for it,” Sylver offered. Basil and Flax exchanged a look, and Rosa went quiet.
The discussion went in a circle for a while, mostly Rosa trying to get a grasp of how reliable Sylver’s ‘bad feeling’ was. Flax looked like he might have volunteered, if not for the fact that his loss would not only mean his death, but would also lower Rosa’s and Basil’s chances of getting to the flower first.
In the end, they agreed to leave on Sylver’s hunch.
As they were getting to the point where Sylver was about to suggest sleeping for a few hours, to give their legs time to rest, if nothing else, Rosa swore she could smell something up ahead. They carried on, tired and hungry, but after only a few squares, Sylver could smell it too. Having spent so much time together, the smell of a new person, however faint it was, was noticeable, even to Sylver’s muted senses.
With shades constantly pressed up against the walls ahead that would fall to allow Sylver and the elves to pass, Sylver knew about the people up ahead before they could even see them. This deep into the spiraling crypt, the path curved enough that they couldn’t see the people until they were only 3 or 4 squares away from them.
Sylver’s party continued ahead, while he tried to figure out how to handle this. If they were aggressive, there was no reason not to respond in kind. There wasn’t exactly a way to go around them, confronting them was inevitable. The only alternative was sitting here and waiting for them to move so they could follow after them. But that would involve wasting a massive amount of time, and they would be in constant danger.
In a fight in an enclosed space like this, the element of surprise could be a huge advantage.
“Put these on, and stay near the back,” Sylver whispered to Rosa, Flax, and Basil. He had the shades that carried his extra unenchanted robes and cloaks stripped and gave them to the elves. The height difference was an issue, not to mention the fact that Sylver’s masks didn’t fit over their faces properly, or that there wasn’t a thing they could do about their ears poking against the sides of the hoods.
All in all, as far as disguises went, Sylver wasn’t happy about it. The elves complied and didn’t ask any questions, as Sylver summoned more shades between them and ended up near the front of a small army of shades. Sylver had the swordsmen stand near the back with the elves, some of them were tall enough that Rosa didn’t look that out of place, but it was still too easy to pick her out of the black cloak and mask-wearing crowd.
Still, it would have to do. Going by the fact that Spring was whispering in Sylver’s ear that the group of 4 ahead of them were slowly moving around to put on their armors and get their weapons ready, meant that they were either the luckiest people alive, and they just so happen to be packing up or that they could hear or feel Sylver and the other’s approaching.
Sylver pulled his mask over his face, and moved a few shades out of the way so he was 2 lines out from the front. Spring adjusted his mask as Sylver took an extra sword from a swordsman shade and adjusted his posture to match the shades around him.
As an afterthought, Sylver threw Spring a grenade, and passed two more out to the shades near the edges. He only had 3 more left inside of his robe, but was saving them for an emergency.
A very short woman approached their group of shades, and had to look up to look Spring in the eye.
“A dragon has three sets of teeth,” the woman said. Going by the pitch of her voice, and from what Sylver could see from where he was standing, she was a gnome. She was a little under 3 feet tall, and carried a sword as long as she was tall on her back.
“No, they don’t. They have two sets, one regular and at the forefront, made out of enamel, and a second retractable set made out of plates at the back,” Spring answered.
The gnome just stared at him.
“A dragon has three sets of teeth?” the gnome woman repeated, with a touch less certainty.
“You may be thinking of a manticore,” Spring answered. Sylver mentally nudged him to relax his stance.
Spring complied and took his hand off the sword handle hanging at his hip.
“You’re not with… Who are you?” the gnome asked.
“Nicolas, summoner and adventurer extraordinaire,” Spring said, as he bowed ever so slightly.
“I… Look, can we cut the bullshit? Give me all of your weapons, unsummon your summons, and if you have any artifacts, give them to me too. Otherwise, there will be problems,” the gnome explained.
“Problems? Well, I certainly wouldn’t want any of those. And I do understand the irony of what I’m about to say, but… You and what army?” Spring asked. He crossed his arms and leaned down to further emphasize the size difference. Sylver knew what he was doing, and was once again surprised by the shade taking the initiative.
The gnome laughed at that, a sound so shrill and pure that Sylver struggled not to see the fully grown woman gnome as a child.
She snapped her fingers, and 2 men and a heavily armored woman appeared behind her. Spring flinched, and took a step back. He was getting good at acting afraid.
“Is there any chance at all that we could work together? Or you just let us pass and we pretend we never met?” Spring offered. In the same way Sylver would have, he added a slight shake to his voice.
All four of them took a step forward. Two steps forward in the case of the gnome woman.
“I understand you’re not attacking in fear of damaging any artifacts I may have on me, but how about a trade? Artifacts for information? I have 5 and I am more than happy to trade,” Spring explained.
Either due to pity, or personal experience at being ganged up on like this the Gnome woman nodded.
“I guess my first question would be, how exactly do the challenges work? What’s the point of them I mean?” Spring asked. Sylver carefully pulled the [Coward’s Bane] out of his robe and passed it along to the shade to the left of him to pass it forward to Spring.
“Weapon proficiency. You have to prove you’re capable with a hammer to earn a hammer, even a child could figure it out. It removes any skills or perks that aren’t relevant to the weapon being used,” the gnome woman answered.
Spring handed them the [Coward’s Bane] and the gnome woman passed it back to one of the men, after inspecting it for a moment.
“Where are the other artifacts? I’ve missed getting any because everything was already taken by the time I came inside the crypt, and the only ones I’ve gotten were from challenges?” Spring asked.
“Up ahead. If it’s anything like all the other challenge crypts I’ve been to, there will be a giant room where you can challenge however many monsters, or people, you want to win artifacts. This is still the low-level stuff. To filter out all the newbies and nobodies, with traps and such,” Spring held the [Spear Of Shriveling] in his hand for a few moments, as if considering whether to hand it over or not, but gave it to the gnome anyway.
“I do understand that you’re not just going to let me leave, I get and accept that. But just to sate my curiosity, if nothing else, what was the point of asking me about dragons having three sets of teeth?” Spring asked.
“I’m sorry, but that’s council business. And look, for being so understanding I’ll even make it quick. The same goes for the 4 fellows you have hidden between your summons. You have 2 more questions, but if there’s anything you’d like to pass on to anyone, I’ll drop it off at the guild along with your tags,” the gnome offered.
Spring’s shoulders slouched, as he handed the woman the grenade.
“I guess my next question would be your name? My people have something of a-”
Spring and the nearest 6 shades died when the grenade went off.
[??? (???) Defeated!]
[Due to defeating an enemy 20 levels above you, additional experience will be awarded!]
[??? (???) Defeated!]
[Due to defeating an enemy 30 levels above you, additional experience will be awarded!]
[??? (???) Defeated!]
The woman in armor disappeared and teleported backward. She disappeared again as shade archers shot at her from behind, disappeared again as shade swordsmen swiped at her, and kept appearing for a split second and disappearing before an arrow or sword could reach her.
Sylver had the elves back up so they wouldn’t get targeted, and leaned down over the chunk of meat that used to be a man a few moments earlier. He pressed his hand against the scorched flesh, and imprinted it with a sigil. It glowed bright yellow, before the carcass started shaking and appearing and disappearing.
The armored woman swung her sword around, the moment she realized her teleportation was being blocked. Sylver turned into smoke and went through the legs of several shades, before solidifying behind her. He followed the shades around him and ran around her, circling her, entrapping her, and waited for the right moment.
She nearly slipped on the puddle of blood that had formed beneath her, and got stabbed in the side by a lucky Reg. The chainmail beneath the armor protected her from the worst of it, but Reg’s dagger did cut skin.
[??? (Warrior) – 81]
She took a grenade to the face and still has nearly 7 times my HP.
[??? (Warrior) – 81]
It took a while. The shades had to whittle her down. She stopped bleeding from the wounds from the initial explosion at some point, but all the small cuts the shades made added up over time. And the wounds they made didn’t heal.
Sylver had had time to bring Spring back, and even started working on fixing some of the shades the woman warrior had killed, when one of them got her in the back of the knee and forced her to the ground. From there it was a simple task of piling on her, removing her weapon from her hand, cutting her helmet off, and putting pressure around her neck until she stopped struggling.
Rosa approached from behind and Sylver turned around.
“You didn’t kill her,” Rosa said.
She didn’t ask it, she simply stated it. Sylver couldn’t tell if she was upset or angry about it, but she wasn’t happy about it either.
“I didn’t. I’m going to talk to her in private, and I think it would be best if you and the others had a short rest while I did so,” Sylver explained.
Rosa’s face made an expression he hadn’t seen before. But he wasn’t sure what it meant. Lola made a somewhat similar face, before she started crying.
“It’s… I know what you’re about to do… I was prepared for this when I left to find the flower… I don’t want to but the blood shouldn’t be solely on your hands,” Rosa offered.
“Oh, don’t even worry about that, this isn’t even a drop in the bucket for me. I’m not even going to think about this once it’s over, it will be as if it never happened,” Sylver explained, adding a hint of a laugh to his tone of voice. Even if he didn’t feel like laughing or smiling right now.
“You’ve done this before?” Rosa asked. This expression Sylver knew very well. He’d seen it on Edmund's face, every time he did something that wasn’t as straight and narrow as a sword.
“Look, if you need healing, you hire a healer. You need protection, you hire a bodyguard. This is the same thing,” Sylver explained.
“This is different,” Rosa countered, but didn’t add anything. The armored woman was searched for weapons and several vials were removed from a pouch hidden on her left thigh.
“Then how about this. In the spirit of efficiency, if you were to participate, or even watch, you would be disturbed by it on some level. I don’t know you well enough to say to what extent, but you would be unfocused after this, and that tiny amount of focus could be the difference between you spotting a trap and saving my life, or letting us all die. Flax and Basil too, and you won’t be able to find the flower, if you’re dead,” Sylver explained.
Rosa looked back at Flax and Basil, who were both standing behind one of the shade wolves and were in the process of removing the borrowed robes and mask. But they were taking their time and weren’t trying to come closer.
“Listen. I get it. You think that closing your eyes and pretending this isn’t happening, is worse than actually doing it. You think you would be a hypocrite for allowing it to happen, but pretending you’re not part of it. In that case, do it for her. If you’re around, she’ll see you hesitate, even if you’re only watching. She’ll think there’s a chance you’ll intervene, you’ll stop it. Which will mean it will either take longer, or I’ll have to keep going further and further before she gives up. You’re not about to let a person suffer more than they have to, just to sate your consciousness?” Sylver asked.
He didn’t need to mention that he would have an easier time forgetting he did this if he didn’t have any witnesses. And as bad as he felt about manipulating Rosa, he also didn’t want to be the person responsible for her crossing the line.
Because this was one of those things that very few people could walk away and forgive themselves for. Even if they understood on a purely rational level that it was necessary. And in this case, ever so slightly justified. They did threaten Spring, and by extension Sylver and the others.
“Do we have to do this? This is an unexplored crypt, what could she possibly know?” Rosa asked.
“We don’t have to do anything. But she could tell us about the people who are ahead of us. She might tell us the dragon teeth passphrase and we might be able to slip past the people ahead, without fighting or killing anyone. This is a very low-risk, very high potential reward kind of situation. I’ll be done by the time you’ve finished getting the tent out,” Sylver explained.
Rosa looked at the unconscious blue in the face woman, and furrowed her brows. Sylver could almost see what she was thinking, could almost feel her soul narrowing down on a decision.
Sylver saw what she was doing, even before she started. He could have blocked it, could have had one of the shades take the hit, could have blasted Rosa with a quick spell, or a burst of darts, but he didn’t. The hesitation came in part from not wishing to do this, to begin with, and that he still had fake Yeva’s screams for help and mercy ringing in his head as he considered how to approach this. And that Rosa looked so much like Lola wasn’t helping.
The woman’s body didn’t so much as shake as the arrow passed through her head, and embedded itself into the floor. The fletching of the arrow stuck out from underneath her jaw, and almost looked like a dark green goatee.
Now that it was done, Sylver felt a faint anger bubble up inside him.
“So I guess the flower isn’t that important. You know, I’m feeling peckish, how about a 24-hour rest, since we’re not in a rush or anything. Get a long rest, relax, unwind, clean off our clothes, weapon maintenance, maybe even conjure up a bath? There’s enough water in the air, it might take me a while to get enough to fill up a bath, but it’ll be worth it,” Sylver offered. He stood up from his crouch, and walked over to the other 3 corpses, and inspected them to see if they had any journals on them.
Only the gnome had one. And it was sheer luck that she kept it in her back, and protected it from being destroyed by the explosion.
Rosa’s whole body was shaking, and the arrows in her quiver made a funny noise as they rattled around.
Sylver swallowed the gnome’s notebook into his robe and cupped his hands over his face. He took a deep breath and wiped away the faint bead of sweat trapped in his eyebrows. He was so tired and angry he almost giggled.
“Do you know why I talk to people I work with? Two reasons. The first is that I’m not omniscient or infallible. I’m wrong sometimes, is what I mean. I like to hear other people’s perspectives, I like to discuss decisions and plans and adjust accordingly, because they might think of something I wouldn’t have, or they might be able to poke holes in my plan. That’s the first reason, it’s why I took the time to explain why I didn’t want to accept the double axes challenge,” Sylver said, he spun around to face Rosa, who was staring at the would-be torture victim.
“The second is that it builds a certain amount of trust and understanding. I can come off as stubborn or uncaring for the opinions of other people. So I talk to them because I want people to know I can be talked to, I can be reasoned with, I can be negotiated with, that everything is up for discussion if it is merited. Disagree with me, great! Fuck it, I prefer it when people argue with me, than when they accept my decisions without question. Sure sometimes there isn’t any time to discuss it, but this wasn’t such a time,” Sylver continued. He was tempted to snap his fingers in front of Rosa’s face to get her attention, but she turned to face him before he had to.
“Now if you said ‘I cannot allow you to do this, it goes against everything I stand for’ or something along those lines, there is a very high possibility I would have chosen your feelings on the matter as being more important than the potential benefit this would have granted us. I would go as far as to say that I was leaning towards just killing her. They have a passphrase, which means that they very likely had ways to defend against torture, either through suicide, or whatever it is priests use when they are captured,” Sylver continued.
He accepted [Coward’s Bane] and the [Spear Of Shriveling] from the shades that were searching the bodies and hid them in his robe. They were scratches on the two, and the spear’s blade had a chip of metal missing, but the magic held, which was the important part. As far as the shades or Sylver could tell, they didn’t have any artifacts on them. Their weapons were unenchanted and distributed among the shades.
“Anyway, not that it matters now, you chose for me. You broke my trust. But you’ve been otherwise polite and civil to me, so I’m just going to leave,” Sylver explained. The shades separating Flax and Basil fell into the shadows as the hallway became empty. The two elves in the distance looked around confused.
“You’re leaving?” Rosa asked, loud enough that Flax and Basil teleported over to hear the rest of the conversation.
“I am. I’ll work with people I don’t trust if I have to, but as I said before, we don’t have to do anything. You betrayed my trust. This might sound childish to you, but I value that more than any skills or aid you might provide me. If I find the flower before you do, I’m more than willing to trade it for other artifacts. If we somehow miss each other after I clear this crypt, you’ll find the flower in the hands of my employer, Lola Aeyri, in Arda,” Sylver explained.
Both Flax and Basil stared at Rosa. The confusion on their faces was clear as day, but they stayed quiet.
“Just to be safe, but what does the flower look like?” Sylver asked.
“It’s a small grey-blue sapling, most likely in a golden box or a glass box. It will look something like the stalk of a carrot, but thicker. It shouldn’t be bigger than your hand,” Basil explained, in a very calm and collected manner.
Spring jotted down notes on the flower, and Sylver decided there wasn’t any point telling them he knew exactly what it was they were talking about. It was on his to-do list to get a sample of an Eldar tree at some point in the future, so this would be extremely convenient if he managed to take a leaf or a piece of root once he found it.
“Alright. Well, it was very nice traveling with you. Until it wasn’t. If we happen to run into each other and there’s no choice but to fight, may the best man win. Or woman, I guess,” Sylver said. He wanted to take the corpses along with him, but they were extremely damaged and would take more effort than they were worth to try and make them functional.
Sylver turned around and started to walk ahead, as Rosa started to say something to her companions in their native language. It was mostly her and Flax doing the talking, but Basil added a word or two now and then. Sylver didn’t like doing this, but he knew he would like killing Rosa for betraying him again a whole lot less. It was safer this way.
Sylver felt a small wave of relief as the wall closed behind him and separated him from Rosa and her party.