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Despite his newfound adventurer’s ability, Hirrus knew he still looked like a guard. And one from out of town at that. There was no way this supposed guild recruiter was going to talk to him outright.

He found a place where he could watch the door of the Rings True smithy. Hirrus wasn’t going to just go around accosting random adventurers now that he had a lead. He just had to wait for a customer of the smithy to be approached by another adventurer. They would be the recruiter.

Thankfully he didn’t have to wait long.

An adventurer in visibly damaged chainmail walked in, and an adventurer in a well-polished breastplate sidled up beside them before they’d gone more than a few steps.

Five minutes later, Hirrus' axe cracked that polished breastplate. Its owner yammered very quickly, trying desperately to preserve the skin beneath it.

The adventurer told him much the same story as the greatsword-wielding man. Last of the Strong’s recruitment strategy was a pyramid scheme - whatever that meant. The more recruits you had, the higher up you were in the organization. It seemed that the veterans and officers of the guild jealously guarded the location of the guild house to preserve the resources they spent building it. This recruiter hadn’t earned himself a seat at that table yet, but the benefit of a pyramid scheme (as he was told) was that the recruiter had been recruited by someone higher up - closer to the officers who could give him a location. With an axe pressed to his throat, the man with the polished breastplate was extremely willing to share that person’s name and likely location, along with the names of every other recruiter he knew and where they were hunting for member sign-ups.

Shockingly, the man with the polished breastplate didn’t try to stab Hirrus in the back as soon as he walked away. He got to live.

Hirrus wasn’t a monster, after all.

The higher-up he visited - a man in leathers with a quarterstaff, hunting for recruits by the northwest gate - lacked the same self-preservation instincts. He gave up a name, but then tried to attack Hirrus as soon as Hirrus wasn’t pinning the man to the ground face-down.

Unfortunately, the name alone wasn’t enough. But he had other locations from the first man to check. He had plenty of people to track down to ask about this “Juri Thorp” he needed to find.

Killing the quarterstaff-wielding adventurer gave him something else as well.

The man had used an Arcana ability that pelted Hirrus with a blast of arctic snow. Upon his death, Hirrus absorbed the Arcana, adding it to his abilities. With it in his arsenal, a bit of concentration told him what it did.

SnowBarrage
+2 RES, +23 Crit Rating
Damage: 0.5xATT + 1.5xRES
Cast time: 0.125 seconds
Cooldown: 20 seconds
Added effect: Affected enemies have their cast speed rating reduced by 20% for 10 seconds.

Hirrus didn’t know what to do with this ability. As a fighter, he was more than strong enough not to need the magical assistance. But as he read over it, he found himself hearing a quiet siren song to seek out more such abilities. More power. If he augmented his physical prowess with spells, he might become truly indomitable.

He could rip through this entire city.

But that was a distraction. Time spent hunting monsters and hoarding power was time he wasn’t spending hunting down Last of the Strong and bringing them to justice.

And he didn’t need to hunt monsters.

Apparently adventurers counted just the same.

His hunt continued, with a name to ask after now. The next recruiter he visited - an older man wearing a thick leather vest scuttling through back alleys looking for unsavory types to recruit - seemed stunned to hear him say the name “Juri Thorpe” but that may have instead been since Hirrus had put him headfirst through a crate of leather scraps a moment before. He swore he never met her, but Hirrus saw through that obvious lie.

It didn’t take long to get the truth. Hirrus found another unlabeled crate and wondered aloud if it was full of soft goods again, or if it might instead contain metal bars, or even caltrops.

Surprisingly, the man hadn’t ever met Juri in person, but had heard her spoken about. She was a recent addition to the inner circle of Last of the Strong, after tireless efforts that put everyone else to shame. But he knew a guy who knew a guy who she recruited personally. He’d be able to tell Hirrus where to find someone who could tell him where she might be.

Hirrus spent about an hour continuing in such a fashion. The whole thing was exhausting. Walking from location to location, questioning people. The information they shared was never ending, but also never enough.

After a few more scuffles, he tracked down a lanky man in fancy-looking robes who admitted that he’d exaggerated about being recruited personally by Juri. When Hirrus’ frustration grew the man swore on his life that the woman who recruited him had been recruited by Juri personally. He would find her far to the south, in the Craftsman’s Borough.

She was easy to find, but the fight she put up compared to the others impressed upon Hirrus the idea that he was climbing through the ranks. She periodically employed an Arcana that seemed to give her a temporary speed boost, letting her run circles around him.

But when it came down to it, Hirrus had the same numerical superiority that had let him overcome all the other recruiters.

After a few minutes of struggle, she threw down her weapon and yielded.

“I shouldn’t have underestimated you,” she admitted, dropping to one knee and gripping a deep wound he’d inflicted on the left side of her torso. “I barely heard of you until twenty minutes ago, and you’d only roughed up a few nobodies. I didn’t think you were going to be a real fight.”

“Where is Juri?” Hirrus asked. “This doesn’t have to end in death. I’ll offer you what I offered all your friends. Tell me what I want to know, and you get to walk away.”

“She’s the one who recruited me all those weeks ago, but I don’t know where she is right now,” she said. The woman flinched and gripped her wound tightly with a grimace. “If that’s the end of me, then just be done with it.”

“All I need is for the trail to not dry up,” Hirrus said. “If there’s still a trail in front of me, you can live on the path behind me.”

“Generous of you,” she said, coughing and wiping a smear of blood off her lips. “I remember where she recruited me. It’s her favorite spot. She had me set up there while I was still her direct underling. Whoever is there now will have been sent by her directly. They can tell you where she is today.”

“Where?”

“Not far.” She pointed north, deeper into the city. “The Orb Ward. Near the city’s inner wall is a smaller shop that doesn’t sell anything. The Sleek Goliath. Inside is a quest NPC for about halfway through a very long quest chain. It’s the only reason anyone would ever have to approach the shop.” She coughed and struggled back to her feet. “Juri will have someone parked there to catch people on that quest.”

“Thank you,” Hirrus said, turning towards the north to begin seeking out the shop.

“Wait, really?” The adventurer seemed shocked. “You’re actually going to let me live?”

“Of course,” Hirrus said without looking back.

A part of him echoed her question. If he killed her, he could learn her Arcana. That speed ability would be very useful. But he stood by his promise.

“I’m not a monster.”

“We’ll see,” she said, stooping to recover her sword before hurrying away without another word.

Hirrus' decision tree told him he was still in combat with her, and kept directing him towards the most efficient path to intercept and re-engage with her. He pushed it down.

He had a trail in front of him.

The members of Last of the Strong he’d encountered so far were pawns. Nearly innocent folk who had nothing to do with what happened in Yenon. Juri Thorpe was the first one he was going to meet within their inner circle.

When he found her, that was when the mercy would end.

The Sleek Goliath was a smaller shop standing alone near the city’s inner wall. At first glance, it appeared to sell decorative knick-knacks, but with no visible price tags. He wondered if, instead of a shop, it was more of a display. Something like a museum or statuary.

Prominently displayed in the shop window was a humanoid skull roughly three times the size of a person’s, carved with giant holes along the back inlaid with polished green stone. It was a striking piece of work, but with no labeled price, Hirrus doubted it could be purchased by any but an extremely dedicated collector.

Or a thief.

The same went for the ornate carved wooden diorama on the left side of the window, depicting two armored figures in silhouette approaching a ruined city on the coast with a single giant tower sprouting out of it. Or the strange metal chair with segmented, insect-like legs.

Without any adventurers visibly present, Hirrus walked in the front door, and was greeted by a scene that defied explanation.

The interior of the store smelled strongly of sage. Dried brown leaves littered the floor with no visible source. The wall on the left side was covered to the ceiling with paintings of every possible description, from monochromatic depictions of ghostly figures to extremely colorful pictures of rainbow birds. The wall on the right was covered in a similar variety of masks, ranging from realistic human faces that could be made into believable disguises, to near-featureless shapes painted with the vague suggestions of scrambled features. The store was littered with statues and vases, and even a fountain quietly trickling in the back. Nothing was labeled or marked.

It seemed the whole building was arranged for aesthetic instead of commerce, and he found himself strangely comforted.

Without any adventurers visibly lurking within, Hirrus disregarded the cases of candles and incense and moved to the front counter, where the shopkeeper was regarding him with mixed curiosity and confusion. She was an older woman, with dark eyes and light hair, dressed in layers after layers of black cloth.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “can I help you?”

“I’m looking for someone,” Hirrus asked. “Have you had any traffic from adventurers through here today?”

“Oh yes, of course. They come in all the time. I just had a pair of them browsing in here right before you came in. A young man came in asking about the Jackolas Crown. I told him the tale of the grand heist where it was stolen from the King’s own treasury - you know how the quest business works, I assume - and the other two approached him to chat about something. They all left together about five minutes ago.”

“That’s exactly who I’m looking for,” Hirrus said. The two were likely recruiters, and the third man was their latest target. “Can you tell me where they went?”

“Not exactly, no,” she said with a slight grimace. He could sense that she was wrestling with her decision tree. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. But as long as you’re here, you’re a guard, right? Perhaps you can help me.”

“Of course,” he said, hoping she was working her way around whatever was limiting her ability to help him. “Consider me at your service.”

“I think there might be some vermin lurking behind my shop. Rats or some such,” she pointed to the back of the shop. “The adventurers never quite clear them all out. Would you care to put an end to the infestation for me?”

“It would be my pleasure,” he said. “And thank you.”

She gave him a dazzling smile before he left. As soon as he was out the door - and no longer at risk of knocking over something - he hurried around the corner of the store, heading for the back.

As he suspected, the vermin she had spoken of were adventurers. The three who had left her shop moments ago, no doubt.

What struck him first was that he recognized one of them. It was the adventurer he’d let live earlier that day: the man with the polished breastplate. That was bizarre enough. But the other recruiter was holding the third man while the man with the polished breastplate was punching him in the gut.

Hirrus' decision tree told him to bark a warning. Order them to stop this violence before someone was hurt.

Judging from the condition of the younger man between the two recruiters, it seemed someone was already being hurt.

Hirrus didn’t hesitate, and rushed in axe-first.

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About the author

RobertKeene

Bio: Author, solo laner, tank. I've written a few books.

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