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Name

Gwen Baird

Armour

4

Class

Hunter

Health

36

Level

6

Dodge

1

Species

Half-Elf (Wood/Human)

Species Skills (Half-Elf)

 

Strength

6

Elf Sight

5

Agility

5

Base Skills (Hunter)

 

Body

6

Stealth

8

Mind

6

Perception

6

Sense

6

Tracking

6

Charm

6

Archery

7

 

"Good luck Adventurers, I think you will probably need it," The AI said, before casting them back into the game world.

Gwen wobbled, and sat heavily on the wooden floor beneath her. A notification popped up, adding injury to the insult, when it told her she had lost three points of health from her fall.

The others kept their feet better than her, which, given that she had finally gotten around to putting that point into Agility, proved that it had probably relied more on Dove's favour than that statistic probability. She shook her head and stood, rubbing her ass where she had fallen.

"Well, that was... illuminating," Jin Ae said. She spoke slowly, as if she was weighing each word before she said it.

Gwen had several less flattering ways to describe the experience. She glared at the knife again. It was the creepiest thing she had seen in the game so far. And that was impressive given she had fought monsters and lost.

"We should go tell the villagers that we are going after Wylla," Theo said, "I don't know if we really got that across when we uh, left." He looked over at Gwen.

She gritted her teeth and smiled, then started to spin the dagger in her hands. Moving the blade faster and faster, round her fingers and then sending it tumbling over the back of her hands only to be caught at the last moment. It was, she hated to admit, a perfect knife. A week ago she wouldn't have been able to tell if a blade had good balance if you stabbed her with it, but now she had learned enough to be uncomfortably aware that someone had gone to a lot of work to make this blade as lethal as it could be. It was lighter in her hands than her metal knives had been. In the real world it wouldn't have been any use at all as a throwing knife since it didn't have any heft to it and would be blown out of line by the slightest puff of air. But in a world with magic that was likely not an issue.

But that wasn't the problem she had with it. It felt wrong in her hands. She didn't know if it was a half-elf thing or what, but she could feel the age of it. Like, that its past history was all the weight it really had. It felt old and it felt wrong. The knife was bone and it should have crumbled in her hands like chalk. But instead she couldn't make a dent in it with her fingernail, and she was willing to bet that if she crossed swords with someone then it still wouldn't chip or be marred by her enemy's metal. And that was worrying on a whole host of levels.

Something else, however, made Gwen distrust the blade. Dove had said that it would draw the blood of anyone she stabbed and while, yeah, no surprise, that's what knives did, she couldn't help but wonder if, well... She looked at the red-stained blade and the ways that channels had been scarred into the bone. They were clearly there to funnel the blood, but something told her that there was more to it than that.

And when Dove had thrown the weapon at her – without seeming to have had any difficulty given the lack of weight to it – Gwen remembered with irritation (skills were no doubt easier when you could shape the world around you) the knife had been difficult to pull away from Gwen's face. It had, she thought with disgust and fear, wanted to slip a little in her hand so she would impale her own eye on it.

The idea of a knife wanting something was not appealing.

Having to hold onto said knife and use it because it probably was the best thing she had by a long way was worse.

Gwen had made use of tools she didn't want to use before. But she had hoped that escaping Earth would also mean escaping that part of her life.

"I'll just have to get rid of it as soon as I can," Gwen muttered before sliding the knife into a newly appeared scabbard on her hip. The scabbard was made out a dark leather that seemed to soak up the light, other than that it was as interchangeable as any other scabbard she had seen. Dove must have sent it to her. That was proven beyond reasonable doubt by the blade fitting perfectly into the soft leather.

Gwen wrinkled her nose. Having the dagger out of her hands was good, but having it tied to her wasn't much better. Maybe she could find somewhere to leave it after this debacle. Weren't there always travelling merchants? Or strange creatures that demanded gifts of powerful artefacts? If she could swap the knife for a decent magical bow, she would certainly do so.

That thought at least had her perking up a bit and her stance looked a little less downtrodden.

Around her the others broke their gazes from their own gifts and looked to her.

"Right, like Theo said, we should probably go and explain ourselves a bit to the villagers. Me running off in the midst of recriminations probably wasn't a good look," Gwen scratched a spot over her eyebrow, remembering as she did so that she was still wearing the borrowed helmet. In fact, she still had all the stuff she had borrowed from Edgar and Nikolai; she needed to give all of that back. Hopefully, they wouldn't begrudge her the slight delay.

"We'll be lucky if they don't blame us for all of this," Marina said, pinching the bridge of her nose.

Gwen shrugged, "I won't blame them if they do. But it doesn't matter, we know what we need to get done we'll have to do it even if they hate us. It'll be easier if they don't. But at least we know it's not our fault."

"Do we?" Marina asked. The others looked at her with surprise. "I mean, if we weren't here, us Adventurers then –"

"Then Dove would have had no reason to create this world," Jin Ae said, they looked to her, she shrugged, "I'm not saying that in some sort of, "We're all powerful and all important" way, but the villagers are here because we are. Yes so are the monsters, but primarily the reason this world exists is because we needed it to. And none of us had anything to do with the actual creation of this world, so something going wrong is not our responsibility. Blaming ourselves for something happening isn't going to make it go away. We can fix things, and we should do that, but not because it's our fault."

"I don't know, look I get what you're saying, Jin Ae, but humanity, like real humanity, not humans in the game, we fucked up. Badly. I think we need to take responsibility for that," Theo said.

"It's not that I don't agree, Theo, but I'm not sure if it's useful to think of it that way. We didn't pile a bunch of experimental coding into this world and let it run riot. But we are going to help fix the problems other humans caused, so I think it's just better to focus on that instead. We can't change what's been done, by the sounds of it it's way, way above our pay grade to get involved in anything deeper than what Dove has asked of us, so let's stick with that," Jin Ae said with a shrug. She looked calm but her tail was lashing at the side of her boots in a clear disruption of the facade. "You can't solve all the world's problems in a day, but this is a problem we can help with, so let's get it done."

Gwen nodded, "Besides, there's a good chance that once we leave the monsters will follow us. As long as we stay ahead of them we shouldn't face any problems and the village will be better off without us here to act as bait."

"Leave?" Marina asked, frowning.

"Yeah, we need to go find our parents and Holly, remember?" Gwen told her.

Marina dragged a hand down her face, "Oh gods I had forgotten, this isn't exactly the kind of teaming metropolis that will support an entrance to the crèche."

Gwen shook her head, "I'll let mum and dad and Holly know you forgot about them." She winked.

"You'd better not, or I'll tell them that you've been putting yourself in danger every five minutes. Giant monsters, medium sized monsters, and an almost all powerful AI are not the sort of people you should be facing off with alone," Marina said pointedly.

Gwen shrugged. She wasn't wrong.

"We need to speak to Edgar and Nikolai and find out where the monsters might have gone," she said, "And I need to return the stuff I borrowed from them, though I might keep the helmet." She mused. She flicked her fingers against the metal, the rest rolled their eyes at the tinkling noises coming from her head. Tip, tappy, tip, tap.

Marina was the first to ignore her. "Right, back to work, then," she said, grabbing Gwen by the upper arm and dragging her in the direction of where the crowd had been.

***

They got some glares and looks of suspicion when they arrived. Gwen's quick exit had definitely not endeared them to the locals. "We're going after Wylla, if any of you have an idea where the monsters might have taken her I would appreciate hearing it."

Gwen tried to show a competent and brave exterior, but she was shaking inside. The looks the locals were sharing seemed to be split between broadly positive, or at least relieved that they were doing something, and the broadly negative, and she had a feeling she knew what that side of the argument was going to say.

"Why the hell should we trust you with that?"

Ah, there we go, Gwen thought.

She turned to look, it was Wylla's mother again. And out of everyone, yeah, Gwen could see why she had a lack of confidence in their abilities. It was probably warranted.

She took a breath. The Charm she had brought to bear against the monsters earlier hadn't done anything to change their minds, but hopefully that was a sign that they didn't have them. Not that Gwen was lacking. Hopefully her meager skills in this area would be enough. Thank goodness for that night at the Inn, or else she would be doing this from nothing.

"Because you were right earlier," her words sparked a murmur in the crowd, but Gwen squared her shoulders and started speaking more loudly, "We're Adventurers. What use are we if we don't do the dangerous tasks that other people can't? We can do this, and we should. You've given my sister and I a place to stay, Jessica sheltered these other Adventurers on her farm while they protected her from the monsters that attacked this village today." She waved a hand at Theo and Jin Ae. "They stayed at the farm to protect them, then when we reached them we joined in their fight." Admitting I died might be a step too far, she told herself, I die I get up again. This lot won't. It could either make them think I am looking for sympathy, and lose what respect I had gained, or it might just make me look like an idiot who couldn't keep herself alive, which, yeah would have the same result. But I can maybe still use it, just not point them at my failures. "And now we're going to finish the job. Or die trying. And then we'll wake up again tomorrow, learn from our mistakes, and try again. Because that's a gift the gods have given us and we need to use it well to be worthy of the honour." She was running out of things to say now, how did people do inspiring speeches without a plan before hand? All those leaders must have been practising in their tents the night before a battle just so they would have something good to say. She took a deep breath and raised her voice, "So I ask you once more, does anyone have a fucking clue where the monsters might have gone?"

"I think," Nikolai said, pushing through the crowd, "that I might be able to help you there."

***

Nikolai led them through the village, the villagers were shoring up the defences once more, readying themselves in case there was a second attack.

Wylla's mother had taken a few steps after them, before another villager had caught her arm and bustled her away. Gwen had felt an icky outburst of relief when she had gone, the shame and guilt had swept away any positivity from the emotion within seconds.

Gwen bit her lip as they passed the house where Wylla had made her nest. Half the wall was pulled down and the green coloured gore of the monsters was slick on every surface. Her sling was a white flag fluttering on the edge of the remaining roof, while her bucket of stones sat trampled and dented amidst the fractured pieces of wall.
She still didn't know what to think about the girl, though. She knew how to feel for a character in a video game who is kidnapped by monsters, thanks to her previous career she even knew how to feel about a friend being kidnapped by the more human kind of monster. But the intersection of the two left her feeling confused. The one thing she knew was that it was a thoroughly fucked up situation and they needed to fix it as quickly as possible.

"It's just a bit past here," Nikolai said, breaking through her brooding.

She jumped a little and jogged to catch up, she had stilled in front of the ruin.

Nikolai opened up he gateway, forcing a few benches and a table out of the way so that he and the Adventurers didn't have to scramble over. Grateful, Gwen gave him a nod. He brushed his hand over her shoulder, "Torturing yourself over the actions of monsters only benefits the monsters," he told her softly, "You did your best, and even if you did not achieve all that you wanted to achieve you still managed a great deal. The others in the village know that, once Morag has her daughter back and has had time to recover from her fear she will remember that."

Morag must be Wylla's mother's name, she guessed. "Thank you for saying that, it's kind of you." She didn't say whether or not she agreed with him and they both noticed the absence.

Shaking his head he turned to speak to the rest of the group and pitched his voice louder so that they could all hear him. "I am very grateful to the four of you for agreeing to go after Wylla. My husband and I used to belong to a mercenary company while we were younger, but we do not have the skills of true Adventurers," Nikolai said as he led them through the ruined grass and mud in front of the village.

Gwen's boots sunk into the slime and she made a moue of distaste.

Marina gave him a smile and politely disagreed.

"No, no, I am quite happy to be placed below you four in this gauntlet. It's not exactly dishonourable to be second best, or less than that, when the people above you are a group of Adventurers like you four. After all, many say that Adventurers are chosen by the gods to be their champions. That the strange powers you are given are so that you can go out and do good things without fear of perishing and as such you are to be respected above all others as avatars of the gods' will. I'm a Priest, I can hardly disagree with the gods and their choices, now can I?" He said.

"I am fairly certain there several religions where the main point is to disagree with your god," Jin Ae said, "Though I may have misunderstood."

He laughed, it was a strained thing. Not quite false, but certainly made stronger by politeness. "No, no, I believe that's very true. The Priest I was apprenticed too as a young man said that only weak leaders disapproved of questions, and the same must be said of gods."

"Where are you from, Nikolai, if you don't mind me asking? You seem to be the only person around here, aside from us, who wasn't born and bred in this village," Theo asked.

"Ah, yes. I am from one of the floating cities above the Sea of Serpents, it's a strange place. The cities are built on the ruins of old ghost ships, they sit about five hundred metres above the waves and move with them. It's a strange life, on the one hand I grew up with salt air always in my lungs and the roll of waves under my feet. On the other hand the Sea of Serpents is so deadly to ordinary ships that until I left I had never actually seen one on the water. But it was normal to me when I was young. So normal, in fact, that despite it being a favourite destination for people to come to seek out adventures, I was determined to leave to find mine.

And so, I went inland to the deserts and found a mercenary company travelling between oases. They were mostly paid to protect merchant caravans and the occasional group of pilgrims, for the latter having a priest along with them gave them a legitimacy that they found useful. For the former there were a lot of bandits and a healer always comes in useful when there's been a battle. Especially for those of us without the incredible healing powers of an Adventurer." He gave a sigh. "It was a good life for someone young and full of wanderlust. And I made good friends among their number. Edgar included. Eventually though we had both had enough of sunburns and blistered feet. Edgar persuaded me to come with him, I was not reluctant at all, but I was embarrassingly unaware of his feelings for me and so it took him some time to persuade me that he really meant that he wanted me to come with him." He laughed, "Gods, but I was oblivious. I believe there was a running bet among our travelling companions for how long it would take me to realise that Edgar was serious."

By this point they had come abreast with the temple, a thick row of trees stood to the north with thick tracks marking where the monsters had run between them to reach the village.

"I don't think we need Gwen's superior tracking skills to see where these monsters came from," Marina said, nodding to the scars worn into the grass.

Nikolai shook his head, "This isn't what I was going to show you."

Gwen frowned, "There's something else?"

He nodded and waved at them to follow him. Walking between the trees was easy, most of the lower branches had been stripped off and lay broken under foot. But as she stepped past the row of trees Gwen was almost sent sprawling in her shock.

She had expected a few worn paths, the brush and pine needles swept out of the way, but something that would recover in time as the trees regrew their branches and new plants popped out of the earth. This was not that.

A scar had been ground into the forest itself. Entire trees had been brought down where they stood in the way of the path, no the road, Gwen thought. Some of the trees lay shattered and crushed, while others had been pushed to the edge of where the monsters had walked. And everywhere the blood of monsters lay in the dust and amid the pine needles, soaking into it all and poisoning it.

"I don't think we are going to need much help to follow this trail," Theo said.

"No," Nikolai said dryly, "I don't think you will." He shook his head, "But come with me into the temple. There's some information I can give you about where the trail might lead. You won't need it for navigating but I am sure there will still be some that is useful to you."

They turned to follow him back through the odd line of trees that stood like a shield between the monster's path and the village.

Before they had left them entirely behind, Gwen reached out and touched the bark on the nearest to her. It's bark was scored and looked like it had been burned away with acid. And yet, from the front there was no spotting the damage. It was bizarre and something seemed twitch in her mind about it.

Frowning she brought up her Elf Sight. She hadn't had much chance to use it since they left the forest, but now as she brought the filter over her gaze she flinched away from the strength of what it showed.

The tree was screaming. The side that had been flayed of bark looked like it was leaking crude oil, while the bared heart wood looked like it was made from burned bone. She could almost see it flaking away in the non-existent wind.

Bile rising in her throat she dropped the Elf Sight. Maybe she didn't have enough levels in it for it to reveal anything new to her, or, more likely, she thought, there was only so much that could be said.

It was abominable and foul. Greater awareness of the natural world couldn't tell her more than that when that was already clear.

She shivered. There was an itching between her shoulder blades. It felt like something was watching her.

Gwen picked up her feet more quickly and did her best to put some distance between her and the scarred land and burned trees.

***

"Nikolai!" Eventually they reached the temple and out of the door came the broad-shouldered form of Edgar. He rushed over to his husband and cupped his face in his palms, "I came to check on you, how are you?"

"I am well enough," Nikolai said, reaching up and holding one of the hands in his own. "But there's been a kidnapping in the village. The Adventurers have agreed to go after the monsters and bring back the girl, it's Wylla, Edgar."

Edgar cursed, "It is good of you to agree to go after her."

Gwen bowed her head, after a quick look at her, Theo did the same. Marina and Jin Ae stepped forward, they were in sync and both had similar looks of determined resolution on their faces. Had they planned that move or was it by accident?

"Your village has been good enough to shelter us when we needed it, returning your lost member is the honourable thing to do," Marina said, puffing out her chest.

Jin Ae took a different tack, "Do you have any idea where they may have taken Wylla? Any places where the monsters may have found shelter or somewhere that they could defend?"

Edgar and Nikolai shared a look. It was one of those looks that only people who have known each other for a very, very long time can do. Gwen could see an entire conversation taking place in the way one tilted his head, and the way the other pursed his lips, eventually they seemed to come to some kind of accord. Nikolai nodded once and turned back to them.

"Follow me, there is something we should show you," he set off, not into the temple itself, but around the wall. He walked for a while, the rest of them following him like ducklings, and Gwen thought she could see him counting his steps. Eventually, after passing two of the corners around the outside of the temple, he stopped. "I hope I can trust you all to not tell anyone of what you are about to see?"

Gwen nodded first, then the others slowly copied her.

He gave them a smile. "This village has faced danger before. During the years of the war between the elves and the dwarves, neither side recognised this village as part of their lands, so both sides saw it as a target. The village was smaller then and when danger came, our people were able to hide themselves inside this sanctuary." He laid a hand on a stone, which appeared unremarkable. The only difference from the stones around it being that it had a slightly pinkish hue, as if it had come from a different quarry, or perhaps even a different land.

There was a faint grinding noise. The stone and the stones on either side of it seemed to tremble, before they slid down into the earth. A doorway had appeared. It was not a large entrance, it was in fact better suited to someone of Theo' height than any of the rest of the party, and Edgar and Nikolai in particular would have to bend a great deal to fit through, but it was a door.

She grinned. Secret passageways under temples? This was starting to get into her territory.

"Go through," Nikolai told them, "it will close after I let go and pass through, so I must be last. Don't cast any light spells or spark any lamps, it's part of the magic, it doesn't work if the area is lit."

They walked through, Theo did have to duck his head a little, Gwen noticed, but nowhere near the extent required by Edgar, who was tall and broad, and nor like Jin Ae's careful crouch to prevent her horns knocking against the lintel.

It was dark, but Gwen's eyes were those of a half-elf and that meant she could see as well in twilight as she could during the day. The room they were in was clearly a waiting area, or more precisely, a boxing area so that any attackers could be trapped if they did manage to make it in. It was small and cramped, the five of them inside it were brushing elbows and having to wriggle past each other in ways that reminded her of public transport.

Once they had all squeezed in, Nikolai ducked through the door himself. Keeping himself close to the wall he shimmied around the edge. After a few seconds the door slid back up into place and the room was cast into darkness.

Doing as they were told, none of them reached for a light. The sealing of the door cut off even the twilight glow that Gwen had been making use of, so she was blind. I wonder if the other two are as well, I mean, if they are supposed to be able to see in Hell and deep underground, are those places free of light to a greater extent than this? she thought. Underground, probably, but some hells at least were supposed to be on fire, so they would, presumably be quite well lit.

Before she could wander, or wonder, down that path any more, there was a new creaking and a second door opened. This one opposite the first. Nikolai had somehow managed to inch his way around the edge of the small room and find some opening mechanism in the dark.

This time the open door way unleashed light and a glow of colour.

Gwen stepped through, "Oh," she said, "it's beautiful."

Beyond the door was a wonderful room that looked magical. It looked like the inside of a wineglass's stem. Only, instead of it being one colour, it was hundreds of different hues and the light that caught them seemed to be reflected back and forth until they combined into a bright white that gave a generous glow to everything. Nikolai seemed to be burnished, the metal in his armour shining and the threads of his thinning hair looked like gold.

Marina too was aglow, the light sending shivers of rainbow colour across her armour, while the streaks of colour in her hair were deeper, more jewel-like in tone. Her eyes were heavy lidded and her hand was clutching a symbol of her goddess. If the light was enough to make the others speechless, then whatever Marina was sensing seemed to be beyond that.

Behind her Theo came through the door, lowering his hand to his side in shock. He had been sheltering his eyes from the light, but with the look of wonder on his face seemed to be soaking in greedily the awe inspiring sight. While there were metal threads in his clothes and beads in his hair that reflected the light, it was his dark skin that seemed to catch it the best. The dark blues and purples in particular seemed drawn to the lines of his face, showing off the smooth shape of his forehead and the high arch of his cheekbones.

Finally, Edgar and Jin Ae came through the door way. Edgar walked with a smile, like he was about to sink into a comfortable bath. He heaved out a sigh as he crossed the threshold, and sent a smile to his husband, seeming content to merely bask in the magic of their surrounds.

Jin Ae's reaction was novel. Her back seemed to straighten, her shoulders flexed as she came through the door. Veins of gold in her horns seemed to catch the light and shine, while her eyes, which normally looked like pools of gold, seemed to ripple. Lines on their surface seemed to appear, every shade of the rainbow suddenly rippling across her body in time to her hurried breathing. Her skin was a burgundy in the sunlight, now it seemed darker, but only so that the shades cast across it could show up more clearly in the contrast.

She caught Gwen's eye. Gwen wondered about herself, the only metal armour she was wearing was the borrowed helmet, after all, and it was covering her hair.

Jin Ae shot her a smile and Gwen couldn't help but answer. She felt giddy, as if the hope that had been lying broken and dampened by fate in her soul had been made once more into a roaring fire.

Whatever this space was, its hold on those that entered was powerful.

Nikolai seemed buoyant as he walked through the corridor, because that, Gwen realised, was what it was. He took the lead partly because everyone else was too shaken to do something so independent as striking their own path, and mostly, she realised after they had walked a few steps, because the ground didn't seem to exist until he had passed it. She wrinkled her nose in confusion, this was magic. And not the easily explained, point-in-a-direction-and-explode style that she had recently come into contact with. She could understand that kind of magic; this seemed more complicated and somehow older.

It made her ears twitch, like a dog hearing a whistle in the far off distance, even while they trot beside their owners. It wasn't for her, but it was tempting to chase after, all the same. She paused and thought her body's response to the magic, the others wouldn't be able to tell through her helmet, but yes. Her ears, those unmoving staples of her last life, practical if not glamorous, had somehow achieved some sort of mobility. She was hard pressed not to whip her helmet off and feel them, work out exactly how they had grown new and weird muscles.

Her distraction from the world around her continued until they reached a second doorway; for a moment she had forgotten everything about how weird it was to feel her ears trying to move in the helmet, how she could control those movements and how if she took her helmet off she could probably wave an ear at someone like a cartoon rabbit.

Then she was herded through the second doorway and the world snapped back into place. "What the hell was that?" she asked, her sudden preoccupation about her ears now seeming as odd as it had actually been.

Around her everyone else was shaking their heads and looked as if they were rising from a deep sleep.

"Apologies, it's a spell on the passage, it stops anyone who isn't tied into the magic from being able to remember why they were here," Nikolai said, "But we're in here now. Welcome to the under cellar of the temple, it's not much and it hasn't been used in a fair few decades as anything but a storage space, but the magic is still strong. As, ahem, you can attest."

Gwen gave him a look. It was not an impressed one.

The room they were in was small, made smaller by the dusty chairs and tables stacked on one end and the boxes of what looked like potatoes on the other.

She was able to see that much thanks to a curling symbol on the roof, she looked at it, staring at the curls and sharp lines for a moment. And then nodded to herself, that's either magical, or religious, or both, so it's not my job to worry about it. The symbol glowed a bright white, the closest thing to fluorescent lighting that she had come across in the game world so far. The shadows it cast were long and dark, they seemed to lie like pools of spilled ink on the floor.

Reed matting, like that used to cover the floors in a lot of the rooms they had seen in the world, was stacked up against one of the walls. It was this that Nikolai walked over too. Edgar came over to give him a hand, and before long the whole group was sweating and swearing over moving the dusty, dirty, occasionally bug-inhabited, mats.

Gwen was facing away when Theo let out a whistle, "Okay, yeah, I can see why that would come in handy."

Wiping her forehead with her arm, making it drier, but also dirtier, she turned. Covering the wall was a map. It was huge and incredibly detailed. She could pick out the different houses that they had passed in the village, even the paths in the woods they had walked down.

She looked around, everyone else seemed to be missing the important question. Theo was distracted by the art work, which she could forgive. But the other two surely had to have the same questions? "Why is it hidden down here past multiple magical defences?"

Nikolai blushed, "Well, it's a little bit very illegal to have a map here."

Everyone looked at him. Then turned to his husband, the local guard captain, who gave a shrug.

"Technically it's not illegal to have a map if it cannot be moved. And that's been the considered adjudication of all the guard captains since it was put in place, after the war," he said.

Theo frowned, "Why is it illegal to have movable maps?"

"A left over from the war between the elves and the dwarves, basically neither side wanted the other to know where to go so it was used as a sacrificial lamb of a law to get them both to agree to come to the table for the peace treaties," Edgar said, he shook his head. "Of course no one asked how the people who actually live here might feel about it, whether or not they might like to be able to have maps showing where their roads lay and how to get around in the forests and mountains in this part of the world. So my ancestors came up with this plan, they can't complain about a map being possibly stolen and used by "the enemy" if it's painted onto a wall."

"Who's they?" Jin Ae asked.

"Either side, they were both as bad as the other," he said shrugging again. "Anyway, no one knew if the argument would work, so any maps that were made were hidden in places that are difficult to get to. They can't steal something if they don't know it's there, and they can't fine us for having one if they can't find it."

"Very law abiding," Gwen said admiringly. It was the perfect plan, just about. Enough layers of obfuscation that even the most judgemental would give up before reaching any kind of verdict.

"Hmm, well, the magic of the temple keeps it more or less up to date. Not entirely sure how it does that, to be honest, but I'm glad we don't have to smuggle in a cartographer every time someone decides to put up a new shed," Edgar explained. He pointed at the village on the map, "I think the lines of the barricades we put up should be just about visible by now if you take a look, it usually takes a few days but they were pretty sizeable."

Theo and Jin Ae rushed over to get a good look, oohing at the tiny lines that appeared as if painted on by a ghostly cartographer.

Gwen hung back, this was all very interesting. But she did have something to find out. "So where do you think the monsters have taken Wylla?" She asked.

Nikolai ran his gaze over the map, concentration bringing a frown to his face. "There are a few options," he said, considering his words carefully. "To the north of here, there is an old burial cairn. It's built with caves and passages inside of it, it's massive, we tend to find monsters and undead out there quite often. That's probably your best bet. But it's also an artificial cave system with all the maze-like tangled corridors that come with being that. It would be a difficult place to attack with an army, let alone a handful of Adventurers. Aside from that, there are a few dead houses, an actual maze made out of ash trees, and an old quarry that is half full of sludge and water at this time of year. My bet is on the cairn."

"Dead houses?" Gwen asked, it sounded like something that was either a local name for some sort of grave thing, or something weird that they didn't have in the real world.

"We get dead folk coming south from the battlefields," Edgar said with a shrug. "Most of them aren't violent, if they've left the battlefields it usually means they're tired, they want to go home. Only, it's been several hundred years. They get lost, a lot of the places they're looking for don't even exist any more, and well no one wants crowds of dead folk walking around." He gave a sheepish grin, "So about a hundred years ago someone had an idea. What if we make them places to stop? Give them somewhere that they think is home, so they can settle in and fade away? It works pretty well. We usually do a tour of the dead houses about once a month, to clear them out. Then we get them ready for whatever comes along next. Sometimes something weirder moves in, but they're only shells of buildings, rooms open to the elements, so they aren't that appealing to anything with a fully working mind. But the undead aren't that self-aware so it works fine for them."

"You have fake buildings set up to look like houses to lure in undead?" Gwen asked.

"And then they just what, tuck themselves into bed and fall asleep? Only the sleep is being properly dead?" Theo continued.

Jin Ae's eyes had a wateriness to them, "That's such a sweet way of dealing with undead."

"I mean it's practical," Nikolai said, blustering, "the alternative is me being used like a sheep dog to herd them out towards the battlegrounds. And that doesn't really fix the problem, they just come back after a while."

"Why don't you just..." Marina said before making a smashing motion with her empty hands.

"It feels cruel, they aren't dangerous they are just looking for a way home," Edgar said.

There was a soft pause in the room as everyone considered the image of tragic, lost undead, forever looking for a home that had ceased to exist centuries before.

Gwen let out a sigh.

Nikolai gave a cough, "But, yes, if those monsters have holed up anywhere it is most likely to be in the cairn. It should be big enough for them."

Gwen nodded, "Then that's where we should start for, I guess."

"Indeed, well, get some rest down here for a bit first. As you're on temple land the magics here should heal you," Nikolai said.

They nodded in thanks, it was true, Gwen realised as she looked at her stats. Her health bar was refilling more swiftly than it had done anywhere else.

This was almost enough to make you feel less stressed about how you were in a world determined to send monsters to kill you and also just to ruin your day. Almost.

She also had a horrendous amount of notifications which had piled up. If they were actual pieces of paper instead of merely the illusion of them, she would never be without kindling for a fire ever again. She put the idea of sorting through them out of her mind, it would wait until a less stressful moment presented itself.

Walking over to one of the chairs that was stacked against the wall, she flipped it over and settled it on its four legs. It was a blocky, square thing made out of more reed matting and the fewest possible pieces of wood. She swept off the worst of the dust and then settled herself down into the wicker. She looked over at the locals, "Please, tell us everything you know about this cairn. Anything you think we might come across, whether it is a landmark to help us on our way or a threat."

Edgar nodded and took the lead, "Alright, well this is what I know. The cairn was built long, long ago. If the descendants of those buried there are still around then they weren't given any stories to carry down the ages," Edgar explained. "That means there has always been a lot of distrust towards it, it's not pretty but death is something that makes people uncomfortable and there are always lots of rumours that the cairn draws in the evil. I don't believe that, I've met with various priests and mages who have gone there. It's not drawing evil to it, it's just that it's empty and bandits and monsters tend to have less moral indignity about setting up shop in a place like that than the kind of people who are viewed as upstanding citizens." He shrugged, "Honestly if we could get something magical to move in there that would defend it's territory without trying to face off with us we'd probably be better off."

"So it's not a spooky monster haven full of ghosts and ghouls?" Marina asked.

"Oh it's definitely spooky, but what else is an ancient grave site going to be?" He shrugged, "but whatever is there it doesn't care much about the here and now. If it did we would probably be able to discount it as a place for the monsters to have holed up. I've seen what it's like when the dead have their territory threatened and fight back. They're efficient if nothing else."

"It's true," Nikolai said, "As long as they haven't messed with the burials too much I imagine that the dead won't even notice that squatters have moved in."

Edgar nodded and continued, "As for the cairn itself I can't tell you much. From what I've heard there are a lot of passages, some of which are hidden behind walls, while most are out in the open. There's the usual glow in the dark fungus that pops up in such places, so if you haven't got good night vision you should be able to make out a little."

"Is there really glow in the dark fungus in most caves and dungeons, I thought that was a story?" Jin Ae said.

"In the wetter areas, sure, in the desert where we used to travel," Nikolai waved to Edgar and himself, "It tends to be less frequent. Luckily, anywhere that is constantly dark is more likely to be also damp, so the odds tend to be good for it."

"I imagine your eyesight in the dark is better than ours, though," Edgar said, "It seems to be the thing that is true of all non-humans."

"It is handy," Gwen agreed.

"The passages in the cairn all lead down to one major chamber, it's as far down as you can go within the cairn, or at least I've never heard of anyone finding a way to go deeper," Edgar said, pulling them back to the matter at hand. "There are a lot of alcoves and niches all through the cairn, it was built to house as many of the dead as could be packed in and that shows."

Marina nodded, "The dead, is it likely that they'll have any grave goods that the monsters might be able to make use of?"

"Perhaps the odd piece of weaponry or armour, but most of what was there has returned to the earth by rust and rot along with the former owners. It's not a place people go looking for treasure, that doesn't mean there isn't any, but by what we've seen I don't think these monsters will be imaginative enough to find anything that centuries of locals and Adventurers have missed," he scratched his jaw, "That's all I can think of, people don't go up there much."

"Well thank you for telling us what you know, it's better than going up there with no idea at all of what we might find," Gwen said.

The two locals nodded. "Anything to help you get Wylla back," Edgar said gruffly.

"I agree," Nikolai said, "And before you leave there is a blessing I would like to cast on you four. It will make you far healthier and harder to kill."

"Thank you, that would be very useful," Gwen said with a grateful smile.

"For some of us more than others," Marina said.

As one, the group looked first to Marina, and then turned to Gwen, smirks badly hidden.

Gwen rolled her eyes.

"Do we have to do anything to help with this blessing," she said.

"No, no, I can do it without your aid," Nikolai said with a grin, "It will just take some time to set up."

"Fantastic," Gwen muttered. She sighed and sprawled back in her seat. The others shook their heads and started to speak lowly to each other.

Shifting a little, the sprawl wasn't as comfortable as it might have been, she changed her focus to the notifications she had piled up.

The most blaring was one that was reminding her that she still hadn't picked her first spell. She sighed. It wasn't that she didn't want any of them, quite the opposite! How could she pick just one when any of the three would come in handy.

Well, she thought, maybe not Spider Climb. It might come in handy for some folk, but honestly I've been managing fine without it. Anything that needs more skill in climbing than I have at the moment is probably not worth the bother. Aside from the skills tied to her fighting, like Sword and Knife Fighting, it was her highest skill.

Weighing her options one of the spells did seem to look more useful. I hope I don't regret this choice, she thought, choosing the spell.

Chore done, she slumped even more into the chair. At this point her butt was close to slipping off and one of her arms was hooked over the back of the chair to keep her in place. But, she hoped, it looked like she was chilled out. That she was confident and cool. Like she had complete confidence in the power of their group and their abilities.

Edgar shot her a look. Sheepishly she pulled herself back onto the chair and made herself comfortable. Falling off a chair and breaking her coccyx would not be a good first step for their quest. She had to maintain some sort of professional aura and dying had already punctured that balloon.

Nikolai, spoke up, making her jump, "Right, I believe that I have the proper incantation for the blessing, if you would all come over here please."

"Now, have any of you had battle blessings placed on you before?" Nikolai asked, bringing a few bits and pieces into a neat line in front of him. One appeared to be a squat candle, mostly melted into a puddle but with a couple of centimetres of wick still sticking up. It was hard to tell what it was supposed to look like, there was a hint of a shimmering ripple in it that might have been a layer, or might have been a trick of the light on the odd texture of the wax. Another object was a long stick of what might have been incense or a very thin and fragile looking wand. The last object was carefully covered in a piece of plain, undyed silk.

Marina spoke up, "Blessings of the Falcon and the Blessing of the Indomitable Shield."

"Both dedicated to your Minethena?" He asked.

She nodded.

"Well those shouldn't leave any lasting marks on your spirits but I'd better check to make sure there aren't any incompatibilities between my goddess, Blodwen, and your patrons. Her Grace is a fairly practical sort, so I doubt it, but it's better to check these things than be surprised half way through a tricky blessing when someone bursts into flame," he said this absently as if it were a forgettable event and hardly something to fret about. But, Gwen noticed that he didn't give them any option to disagree with his intention.

Gwen looked at Marina, "You didn't do that at the farm?"

"I didn't know I had to," she murmured back. Her eyes were eating up the view in front of her, her fierce brain picking up any scrap of information she could gather.

"Aside from someone bursting into flame, what might happen to someone if there is an incompatibility, and what would an incompatibility be, exactly?" Jin Ae asked.

"There are as many possible answers for the first question as to the second, and they both number in the thousands. it can be as devastating as the patron deity removing their favour from their servant, to smiting or cursing. And the gods themselves can have many disagreements with each other, or it can simply be that they refuse to work with a god of such and such pantheon, or one who deals in such and such realms. It's quite rare that it is a feud between two gods, there are simply too many gods for enemies to frequently come into contact with one another. And, truth be told, they can be quite changeable. They can hold a grudge for a millennia and then forget about it in a breath and choose a new enemy, all without having ever informed the first enemy that there was anything wrong. And then of course there are the feuds and such which are reflections of what is going on between their mortal followers. There is a belief that the gods all know each other and are constantly scheming to get one over, but truth be told, unless a god is particularly famous - or infamous - they hardly know one another outside of their pantheons and spheres of influence."

A notification popped up, the information Nikolai had given them had been enough to push her through to the third level of the Theological Knowledge skill. Gwen mentally shrugged and happily pocketed the 60 points of experience that it got her. She hadn't had to do anything except listen, this must be the advantage to learning from experts.

I wonder how much and how quickly I could level if I found a world class library? She wondered.

As if on cue a new notification popped up, she sighed, brought it up and was not surprised at all to find that it was the offer of a new quest to do just that. Alright, she thought, once we hit the big cities I guess I'll go geek out for a bit at a public library. Or, she thought, her head absently tilting to the side, I could make use of some of my new stealthy skills and sneak into a very much not public library. That could be fun.

She shook off the day dream and brought herself back to the discussion.

"But checking doesn't take much time so it is always better to be safe than sorry," Nikolai seemed to be coming to the end of a story about what might happen if a priest tried to bless someone who was under the protection of god feuding with their's. He picked up the melted candle stub and held it in his cupped palm, almost with an absent lack of care, he brought it up to his lips and blew on the cold wick.

A flame flickered into life.

Gwen raised her eyebrows, impressed with the simple that he cast the magic, looking at the others they all had similar looks on their faces. Well Marina's version of it was greedy with wishes to learn how to do the same, but that was understandable.

He muttered over the flame for a moment, almost as if he were speaking into a phone rather than an orange flower of heat and light.

"Right, Ms. Marina could you come over here and I''ll get started," he said.

Marina nodded and bounced over to him. He gave her a smile then his eyes flickered with the same colour as the flame and he started to speak.

The voice that came out of his throat was not the same as the one they had gotten used to. Instead he spoke with a rumbling voice that seemed to be made up of just thunderous undertones. Sparks of light seemed to fall from his eyes like tears, they whirled around Marina in a slow twisting whirlwind.

Marina had frozen into place, her shoulders rising up and nearly touching her ears as she watched.

But after a moment the sparks faded and Nikolai blinked, the firelight disappearing from his eyes.

"Ah, good nothing that should get in the way of my blessing," he said calmly, as if this was something that happened so frequently that there was no shock or surprise in him from what he had seen.

Gwen's mouth dropped open. Blasé didn't begin to cover it.

"Does - does that mean we should come over, then?" Theo asked, stumbling over his words a little.

"Just in front of me here, please," Nikolai said, gesturing with the still lit candle stub in his hand, "It won't take me a minute to get ready."

The three Adventurers shuffled over.

Reaching Marina Gwen leaned over to her and asked, "So what was that like?"

"What did it look like?" Marina asked.

"Like you were standing inside one of those snow globe toys, only the snow was fire," Gwen said.

"Right, well, kind of like that. But also a fun house mirror maze was magnifying it by like a million," she said with a shiver.

Gwen made a face in commiseration.

At this point , Nikolai was ready to start the ritual. Like the time at the Farm, the first step seemed to be drawing a circle on the ground around those who were about to receive the blessing. Nikolai was much faster at this than Marina, moving with the small bottle of oil and a tiny calligraphy brush in a swift and sure circle. There were no lumpy bits, no bumps to avoid or incorporate the natural geography of the ground beneath the oil. And, there wasn't a cat that had to be drawn around, so the circle was much smoother and looked far more like it had been made by someone who knew what they were doing, rather than just guessing.

Which was perhaps a little mean to Marina, but if the level of skill the priest was showing off in making such a perfect circle was any indication of the rest of the skill he had, then Nikolai was a head and shoulders above her in more than just height.

Once the circle was drawn, he tucked the brush behind one ear with the absent minded look of a painter who will later on wonder why his hair is green. Then he fished a small book out of his pocket, flicked through to a point about two thirds of the way into it, and started to speak once more in the resonant and thunderous voice.

His had was still holding onto the candle stub and he managed all of this without being forced to juggle half molten wax, a feat that Gwen found very impressive.

The voice he spoke in muffled the words. He might have been speaking a language she understood, or he might have been speaking something completely unintelligible to her. She couldn't tell. Aside from the odd mention of the name, Blodwen, and and once their names as well, there was nothing that made it through to her ears in one piece.

That changed after the circle of oil burst into flame.

"Oh mighty Blodwen, foe of evil and shining light on the darkest of nights! Bless these Adventurers, Marina, Gwen, Theo, and Jin Ae, on their mission to rescue Wylla and to strike down the enemies of your servants. Let their hides be strengthened and their hearts iron clad! May blows bounce off their skin and may knives bend rather than pierce them. Keep them safe and make them mightier warriors to ensure their mission is triumphant!"

The circle of fire started to rise, a flare running along it in increasing speed. It jumped forward with every word he said, until it was a blur that blinded her to everything outside of the circle. Gwen closed her eyes, trying to ease the glare, but it seemed to make little difference. Instead, the light seemed to only grow brighter behind her eyelids. She struggled to open them again, having to fight the instinct that refused to believe that the world was brighter behind closed eyes.

A last cacophonous blast that felt like a moment of pure percussive force that seemed to hit from every side. It kept her in place, every blow pushing at the same strength against each other so there was no chance of her moving. And the light of the circle went out.

Gwen sank to the ground, and started breathing in gasps. The other adventurers did the same, Marina sank against Gwen's shoulder, while Theo laid a shaking hand against her back. Jin Ae was knelt on the ground, the air around her seeming to buzz as she apparently held herself together via pure strength of will.

Turning her head, Gwen looked up at Nikolai, his mouth had fallen open. "Well," he said slowly, "That was dramatic."

Gwen looked for the notification to find put what exactly had just happened. It was easy enough to find, it was blaring out almost as brightly as the light from the blessing had.

"The Blessing of Blodwen lies upon you! May you be aided in your fight against evil in dark places!

Blessing of Blodwen

+ 5 metres of Dark Vision

+ 2 to Dodge

+ 2 to Armour

+20% Health"

Gwen let out a whistle, "Yeah, pretty dramatic."

Nikolai looked at them with surprise and confusion, "That is about twice as strong as it should be."

"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Theo asked.

Edgar and Nikolai shared a look, "Well yes." Nikolai said.

"But generally, if the gods give you more than what you ask for," Edgar explained, "It's because they know of what's coming your way and think you will need the extra help."

"Or, I'm guessing, because they want you to remember that they gave you the extra without asking?" Gwen said.

"That is a very cynical way of looking at the world," Nikolai said coldly.

"But not one you're disagreeing with, I notice?" Gwen replied.

"Well, no," Nikolai admitted.

Gwen sighed, chalk another one up to cynicism then.

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About the author

K Mackay

Bio: I used to lurk on here, now I've got some writing up. It's been a novel experience.
I love Science Fiction, Fantasy, and everything in between. I tend to get overprotective of characters who are not mine and should have been treated better. Catch up with my life updates at my website, www.watchedplotneverboils.com

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