Chapter 9 – Classes and Skills

Sixth of Learning 1142

They left the scorpion behind and continued through the woods. Like his first foray into the Other Realm, there was no sun in the sky. The light filtered evenly through the trees with no apparent source. Was there no night here? Or were there areas that were perpetually dark, where day never arrived? He was going to bring it up, when a more pertinent question popped into his mind, interrupting his train of thought.

“How do you know which way to walk?”

“I don’t.”

“You seemed pretty confident setting off like you did.”

Merck Vanderoth

“Well sure,” replied Chari. “This place is no more than a testing ground designed by Sheba to see if I’m worthy. Whatever is supposed to happen is going to happen no matter which way I go.”

Eric blinked. It was so obvious. Why had he not thought of that? Did he need direction so much? Was he a follower, not a leader? If that were the case, how would he ever be king? The answer, of course, was right beside him.

His father was the driving force behind what happened in the Kingdom of Twyl, but his mother was usually the one who questioned everything, thought everything through, set boundaries or brought up alternatives to his father’s propensity to face every problem directly. His father wasn’t the most subtle man. Where his natural inclination was toward a direct solution to problems, it wasn’t always the best course. His mother was a better diplomat. A better mediator. His father had told him so on more than one occasion. He didn’t rule alone, they ruled together.

He was more like his mother, and Chari was more like his father. The thought made him chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” asked Chari.

Slightly embarrassed at the train of thought, he changed the subject. “Nothing really. You know, since we’re eventually going to be married, perhaps we could use this time to learn about each other.”

“Now? Is this really the place?”

“What place could be better? We’re sharing a dream, Chari.”

She thought about this and finally replied. “Okay. You go first. Tell me something about you most people don’t know.”

This was an easy one, and Eric answered immediately. “I take medicine every night.”

Chari couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice. “Really? Are you ill?”

“Not exactly. You may have noticed there aren’t a lot of kids my age, or even Dahr’s age around the palace.”

“I hadn’t, but now that you mention it…why is that?”

“Many years ago, before I was born, a terrible sickness swept through Rish, and many young children died. It was a dark time.”

“Did they ever find out what caused it?”

“Eventually yes, but the death toll was quite high. It was traced back to an alchemist at the palace, a man by the name of Larish. He was experimenting on krell, which is where most nobles get their milk. Is it the same in Melar?”

“It is.”

“Right, so you’ve seen them. Larish had been trying to increase the milk supply, but no one realized that low levels of magic were building up in the cows. Too low level to affect most adults, although even a few older folk got sick, but babies built up levels of magic in their bodies they weren’t meant to have. No one caught it because it happened so gradually. I was lucky to survive.”

“What happened to the alchemist when they finally figured it out?”

“When Larish realized what happened, he took his own life. There’s some disagreement about whether he was scared of the consequences of his actions or whether the guilt drove him over the edge. I guess we’ll never know. But I think of him almost every time I take my medicine.

“So, is this something you need to stay alive?”

“Oh no, nothing like that. It’s just that when I don’t take them, I have horrible dreams, and I don’t sleep well at all. I’m exhausted the next day. The medicine helps me sleep at night. Some healers and mages at the palace have suggested my internal magic is slightly imbalanced.”

“Internal magic?”

“That may not be quite the right term, but they said there’s ambient magic all around us, and some people are more sensitive to it. It can affect your dreams, sort of like the potion you take before your transition. Anyway, when I take the medicine, I dream but they seem more like normal dreams. I don’t have constant nightmares.”

“Well, that’s a relief. You’re lucky you survived.”

“I am.”

“I wonder,” she thought, “do you think that you might be…different from other people, considering the buildup of magic? Could that be how you’re here right now? I mean I’ve never heard of anyone entering another person’s transition, but Dahr entered your dream, and you entered mine. Did Dahr get sick too?”

“Oh no. He’s only been at the palace a couple of years now. He grew up pretty far away. He never drank krell milk till he got here.”

Chari’s face darkened. “He didn’t live in the palace.”

“He didn’t live in Rish.”

“So, your father sired him and then abandoned him.”

Eric wanted to defend his father, but he knew Chari was right. “Not completely. He kept tabs on Dahr and made sure his mother had plenty of money. But he also felt guilty for straying from his vows to my mother and didn’t want a constant reminder around. He thought it would bother my mother.”

Chari thought about that for a while. Neither spoke as they walked between the trees. Finally, she broke the silence.

“That’s something my father never did. He didn’t care who knew about his adultery. He didn’t care what it did to my mother.”

“That’s terrible. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You didn’t do anything. But my father has no shame. He thinks he can do anything he wants because he’s king.”

“I was taught that being king meant the opposite. Because you’re not bound by circumstance, you must be bound by honor and what is right. No one is going to make you do anything, so you have to be strong enough to make the right choice, even when it’s hard. Even when you don’t want to. It’s why my father finally brought Dahr to the palace.”

“Oh?”

“His mother got sick and died. My father went and brought him back personally, though I understand that my mother agreed it was the only thing that could be done. Like she always says, doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. Not for my father, who had to live with that reminder of his guilt every day and not for my mother, who had to live with the reminder of my father’s infidelity.”

Chari surprised him by smiling. “Your mother seems to be handling it pretty well. She loves Dahr. I didn’t believe it at first, but now I do. Your life…it’s so different from mine. I was raised being able to do anything I wanted, and it always felt wrong to me. I think that’s why I was drawn to Sheba. Honor gave me boundaries I wasn’t going to get anywhere else.”

Eric smiled. “I can see that.”

“And you’re magical. Literally magical.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“No, you are. I mean how can you not be? You survived a higher level of magic, and now all these weird things are happening. It’s not Dahr. He never drank the tainted milk, but you did, and you survived.”

“Sure, and because of that I have to take medicine for the rest of my life if I’m to get a decent night’s sleep.”

“Maybe it was worth it though.”

Eric had never thought about that before. The medicine was a nuisance, and that’s all he ever thought about it, but he also knew that he didn’t want to go back to the nightmares.

“Maybe. I guess I’ll never know.”

Again the two lapsed into a companionable silence, both lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Eric remembered a question he was supposed to ask.

“Hey! I told you something about me, it’s your turn to tell me something about you.”

Chari grinned. “Okay. I can be a right bitch sometimes.”

Before she could continue, a small spear fell just short of them. The second trial had begun.

Eric immediately summoned his shield. Then they were everywhere, running between the trees– small, scaled lizard-like creatures that ran on two legs. As they moved, they reflected light, making them look like they were wearing rainbow armor. Some threw spears, but most had swords. There were dozens of them, moving quickly between the trees. Far too many for Chari to take on her own and, more than ever, Eric wished he had an offensive weapon.

Most of the enemy ran toward Chari, perhaps because they felt a sword was more dangerous than a shield, or perhaps because this was her transition, not his. Regardless, Eric was not about to let the situation stand. He took a deep breath, shouted at the top of his lungs and charged into the middle of them.

“Come to me, little lizards. I’m the one you want.”

To his surprise, the vast majority of the lizards did turn to him, more than he thought he could deal with. Sure they were small, the tallest of them not even reaching his chest, but there were so many.

Only now did he wonder what would happen if he died here. He was surprised he hadn’t thought about it before. Surely it would mean failing the trial, but would injuries sustained here carry over to real life? Had he ever heard of anyone dying during their transition? He couldn’t recall. Then they were on him, and he had no time for further reflection.

He moved, whirled, dodged, blocked and swung his shield to damage his opponents. Few of their attempts got through, possibly because they attacked cautiously. If they’d all charged at once, they would have certainly overwhelmed him, but that’s not what happened.

One or two would get brave at a time, and he’d bash them away. Others, seeing their compatriots go flying, seemed content to brandish their weapons menacingly rather than attacking.

“That’s all you’ve got! I can do this all day!”

He wasn’t sure that was true, but he was happy to say anything to keep them both annoyed at him and scared at the same time. Chari had finished the few that had come after her and started attacking the ones surrounding Eric.

He didn’t have time to watch her technique, as he spun around, blocking attack after attack, but every time he risked a glance, there were fewer and fewer of them.

Eventually, the group decided they were fighting a losing battle and the few survivors fled. Chari was relentless and pursued. She didn’t return to him until she’d finished the last of them off.

“Are you all right,” she asked.

“I’m fine, how about you?”

“You’re bleeding.”

Startled, he looked down. On the side of his thigh, he’d been nicked, though he hadn’t felt it at all. He couldn’t even imagine when it had happened. One of them must have gotten in a lucky blow.

“I’m okay. It’s just a scratch.”

Chari nodded then cleaned off her blade on one of the bodies and sheathed it. She was all business.

Out of nowhere, a scroll case appeared before her, and once again she grasped it, watching it dissolve in her hand.

“Oh interesting!”

“What did you get,” asked Eric.

“Frenetic Defense. I could use a defensive skill.”

Eric, who had assigned himself the role of defender, felt a bit put out, until he realized two things. She had never asked him to fill that role, and he might not always be with her. He smiled, forcing the negative thoughts from his mind. Then he was distracted by an approaching shape, a white wolf holding a silver scroll case in its mouth. He heard Chari’s awed gasp but never took his eyes from the wolf.

It approached him and sat, looking up expectantly. As soon as he grasped the case, it dissolved into gray smoke that seeped into him. Sheba’s voice entered his mind.

Congratulations. Your transition is now complete. You have earned the class Tank. You have reached Level 1. New skill unlocked – Taunt. Some skills are offered to compensate for holes in your skill set. I strongly suspect mocking is not one of your strong points.

Eric looked confused. What did that even mean? Mocking was not one of his strong points? Was mocking even a good thing? He had been taught to be gracious in both defeat and victory. How was mocking someone at all honorable?

“Well?” asked Chari.

“I’ve just completed my transition. I’m a Level 1 Tank.”

“What in the name of the gods is a Tank? And why aren’t you glowing?”

“You know we don’t actually see level flare until we’re higher level. Some people never see it, but no one knows why.”

“I just thought, here in the Other Realm… it seems like getting your class would be a big deal. You’d think there would be some sort of indication. At the very least, I expected you to glow.”

Eric shrugged, less concerned with level flare and more concerned with his unusual class and skill.

“Well, sorry to disappoint. Oh and my final skill is Taunt. What kind of skill is that?”

Chari shrugged. “I don’t know, but I do know one thing. You’re favored by Sheba. If you’ve been given a rare class, she gave it to you for a reason. You have no reason not to trust the goddess. Her will rules in this place.”

But Eric remembered what Sheba had told him earlier, that she was not the only being who had influence in the Other Realm, and he felt a pang of doubt. Yet surely whatever else lived in the Other Realm couldn’t alter the skills he received from his goddess. He was thinking about the possible ramifications of his transition being interfered with, when Chari interrupted him.

“Eric!”

The urgency of her words had him battle ready in a moment, but there was no panic on her face.

Instead, she was staring down at his left hand. “Your shield…”

He looked down. His shield looked as it always had, glowing symbol and all, with one small difference. The unusual projection off the top of it was glowing and now that it was, it looked different to him. He reached down and grasped it, like a handle. As soon as he wrapped his hand around it, he understood.

He pulled, and it slid free from the top of the shield. It was a double-bladed short sword exactly the same as the one in the chest he’d opened in his own transition. Exactly like the one Chari carried, with one exception. Sheba’s sigil glowed brightly on the sword’s hilt. Eric had been blessed with a second holy weapon.

His new skill left him feeling confused, and he had no idea what a Tank was, but that hardly mattered at the moment. Eric raised the sword in triumph. Chari stared at him, a look of shock on her face with maybe just a hint of envy, though she hid it well enough. He couldn’t blame her. No one he’d ever heard of had emerged from their transition with a holy weapon, and he’d been given two. The sword was part of the shield somehow. When he sheathed it again, it vanished into the shield, the odd protrusion the only evidence of its existence. He drew it and sheathed it several times, getting the feel for it, then took a few practice cuts.

And of all the inane thoughts he could possibly have, the one thing that came to him at that moment was that he couldn’t wait to get back to the palace to show Dahr.

*

Merck ran through the sparse woods as quickly as he could move without running into a tree. He dared not light a lamp but saw well enough by moonlight to navigate. He felt empowered by the sizzle. Unlike alcohol, it seemed to bring the world into sharp relief. He felt like he could run forever.

He saved his run skill until he hit a clear section of the woods, then used it, staying ahead of pursuit his only priority. Part of him hoped he was wrong, and no one was after him, but Merck knew adventurers and was keenly aware the odds of them letting him escape after swindling them was relatively small. So, he kept running, trading the immediate safety of civilization for the potential dangers of the wilderness.

Because of the sizzle, he wasn’t afraid, but rather exhilarated. He moved with the certainty of a man who knew his destiny. Surely there was no way the adventurers could catch him with his running skill. They weren’t some high-level team, after all. Yet, said another, wiser part of his mind, they did manage to track you down. What if they can still track you?

It was a valid question and one for which he had no answer. Still, he wasn’t scared. He ran faster, not tiring, not questioning the wisdom of his actions, though now that he thought about it, he wasn’t quite sure where he was or where he was going.

Still, it would be okay. He trusted the sizzle to do his thinking for him.

*

Ressssen had listened, while Dreek recounted his odd meeting with the man who’d cheated them. Though she had known his class would be something akin to Swindler, she was surprised by his low level. There was no discussion about whether or not they would continue their pursuit. Ressssen could see it in each of their eyes. If it became known that an adventuring team was an easy touch, it would invite more such attempts in the future. Whoever this man was, they would catch him and make an example of him. She felt no sympathy for him. He had, as the humans of Death’s Doorstep would often say, constructed his own casket.

They had fallen into their running formation, which was different than their normal formation, because some of them were faster than others. But Dreek’s position never changed.

Dreek ranged ahead, out of sight, scouting and following the trail. He left green marks on the ground that glowed ever so faintly. If you didn’t know to look for them, you might think you were hallucinating, but Ressssen had had enough practice and followed them with ease. And even if she couldn’t see them, whenever her forked tongue darted between her fangs, she could taste Dreek on the air, and could tell not only the direction he traveled, but about how far ahead he was.

Ressssen cast a spell under her breath as often as she could. It was called Pursuer’s Advantage, and it allowed her entire party to move faster while in active pursuit of a target. It was a very effective spell, but it didn’t last long and had a cool down that prevented her from casting it continually. Also, it took significant mana to cast, balancing out the utility of a spell that affected her entire party. All spells had limits, at least at lower levels. As she grew in power, the duration of the spell would be longer and the cost would start to drop, though gradually. Ressssen couldn’t wait to reach Tier 2 and unlock stronger magic.

The path took them through fields surrounding the town, which gradually gave way to sparse woods, growing somewhat denser as they progressed. They weren’t just moving away from the city, but away from any human habitation.

Striker put on a burst of speed until she was running beside her.

“Where do you think he’s going?”

Ressssen would have shrugged had she not been focused on maintaining her speed.

“Toward the swamp ruins, I think, though it is beyond my ability to comprehend why he might wish to go there. It is not safe for a Level 4 Swindler. It is not even safe for us. It makes me wonder if he knows something we do not. Perhaps there are friends waiting for him.”

“Maybe,” said Striker. “Should we abandon the pursuit?”

“If we turn back now, we might never find him again. This man has wronged us. I have no idea why I trusted him. I was drunk, it is true, but it was still such a stupid thing to do.”

“He probably used a skill. Swindlers have all sorts of advantages, and it’s likely that the alcohol in your system made you more susceptible to it, even though it was a lower-level spell.”

“Perhaps.”

“The swamp ruins, huh?”

“I think so.”

“We’ll be okay. We’ve been in more dangerous places than this.”

“We have, but we were provisioned and prepared. This time, we are not.”

Striker nodded. “Have faith in us, Ressssen. We really are good.”

“I trust our team. It is the thief I do not trust.”

There was nothing else to say, so Striker fell back, and Ressssen missed her immediately. Striker had a calming effect on her, and she could use some of that now. Still, there was probably nothing to worry about. The thief was only Level 4 after all.

*

They ran as they always ran, Dreek in front easily outpacing the others. Ressssen in second, her long-legged stride hidden beneath the voluminous folds of her mage robes. Striker’s legs were also long and she kept up easily, moving as if she had been born to run. Borin lagged slightly behind, but never ran out of breath. Garne brought up the rear, panting, cursing and having a good time in general. Garne wasn’t truly happy if he wasn’t complaining about something.

“Will you bloody people slow down? You’re not wearing armor, you thoughtless bastards.”

Striker laughed. “It’s leather armor. I’ve never heard anyone complain as much as you.”

“Sure. You only have to deal with me. I have to put up with you. Of course you’re not complaining. I’m amazing.”

Striker shook her head. “Amazingly slow, at any rate. Hey Ressssen, can you pick up the pace, Garne here says you can’t run any faster.”

Garne cursed again, but this time he was grinning.

“Striker, you know he didn’t say that,” said Borin.

Striker shook her head again. “Borin, you have a lot to learn about humans.”

“Will you teach me, Striker? I want to understand.”

Striker seemed to think about it. “When I first started adventuring,” she replied, barely out of breath at all, “I used to run with a small team. I was surprised that even in the most serious situations, we’d joke around. The team leader called it banter. He said that the more stressful the situation, the more the need to keep it light. To break the tension. It helped relax us. Being tense takes energy. Being relaxed leaves you better prepared to act when the time comes to act, because you’ll be sharper and more focused.”

“But if you’re not paying attention, couldn’t you be surprised?”’

“Sure. But if you are paying attention, you could still be surprised. There are times when paying attention is very important. This isn’t one of them. But we want to stay awake, and alert, so we banter. It doesn’t take away from our ability to…”

Striker dodged a rock that Borin tossed at her. “What was that for?”

“I was seeing if you were correct. According to Dreek, you talk a lot of nonsense.”

“Is that right?” asked Striker.

Garne laughed. “And here I was thinking Dreek didn’t understand humans.”

They continued running, sobering, closing the gap, but they still had a long way to go.

“When we catch up with that rat bastard,” said Garne, “I’m going to make him pay for every single step he made us run.”

*

Telisian moved effortlessly through the Other Realm, a dream amongst dreams. He’d never before had any influence over the physical plane. Never before did he have a grasp of the affairs of mortals, though he’d watched them often enough, finding entertainment in trying to puzzle out their trials and motivations. Dahr had changed that. Dahr had given him a foothold into the physical realm, and he intended to use it.

Unfortunately, most humans were still beyond him, but that was not so with the one called Merck Vanderoth. Sizzle had allowed the Swindler to access the Other Realm. For the second time in three days, Telisian had come across a soul in the Other Realm and while this soul was attached to the god of thieves, it was a tenuous connection at best. Tharin had little hold on this creature, and so Telisian called out to the god. It didn’t take long before Tharin replied.

“Telisian. What do you want from me?”

“Your creature, Merck Vanderoth. He does not please you?”

“He does not,’ replied Tharin, “though I can’t imagine why that would be any of your business.”

“Would you consider releasing him?”

Tharin considered. He had many worshipers tethered to him already, and losing Merck wasn’t much of a loss at all. On the other hand, it wasn’t his way to give away worshipers, even those that displeased him. “Why do you want him?”

“I am playing a game with the goddess of honor. She thinks I don’t understand the game, but she is wrong. Your Swindler is a playing piece.”

“You wish to pit yourself against Sheba? You are a foolish creature.”

“It is as you say, but you and I are both more connected to chaos than the goddess of honor. Let me have him, and I shall be a thorn in her side. Surely this doesn’t displease you.”

Tharin chuckled. “I find the thought amusing and have little use for the addict. It’s not like I’ve been allowing him to level. You may have him. He had so much potential and squandered it. Perhaps now, he may have potential again. Either way, I will not be sad to see his tether severed.”

“He will have potential once I cure him of his addiction. Why did you allow him to become addicted?”

“I do not allow or not allow my followers to do anything. They act, I judge. They know my will and pay the price for not following it. I am not here to serve them, they are here to serve me. You would be wise to learn from this.”

“I am not like you, God of Thieves. I do not have the luxury of many worshipers. I have but a single tether and so must use whatever resources present themselves. Even a wretch like Merck Vanderoth will be useful to me, but I will think on all you have said, for you are old and wise. I thank you, Tharin, God of Thieves.”

“Do not thank me. Just do your best to vex the goddess of honor. That is the only payment I require.”

Then the god was gone, and Telisian turned his attention to the matter at hand.

*

Late that night, Dahr and Kalutu walked through empty palace corridors. Eric had not yet returned, and Dahr was going to wait up for him. He passed the time attempting to explain the world to his familiar. Like Eric, he couldn’t comprehend what coming from another world meant. What Dahr could understand was living in a large and complex world without knowing much. Dahr had learned a lot from Eric, but he didn’t remember all of it, and some of it, he might be remembering wrong. Still, if Kalutu was from another world, as he claimed, he wouldn’t know any of it. So Dahr launched into explanations of things as he understood them, with the caveat that he really didn’t understand them very well, being not just a servant, but a boy. He hadn’t seen much of the world.

“I originally come from Death’s Doorstep.”

“Death’s Doorstep? That sounds ominous.”

“It kinda is. It borders on the Undead King’s realm. My mother owned an inn there. There was a war with the Undead King, and a lot of countries sent forces. Eventually we drove them back to their borders, but that’s the issue. You can’t fight a war on the Plains of Xarinos, or your dead soldiers will arise to become enemy forces. All you can really do is drive the undead back. No one has ever found a way to win against them. The best we can do is contain them.”

Kalutu listened with interest. “A war that can’t be won, but you can’t afford to lose? That must be expensive.”

“I never thought about that. Anyway, the Undead King took most of Death’s Doorstep, and people fled to Final Hope. Just about every country in the world sent soldiers to Final Hope to drive the undead out of Death’s Doorstep. There’s another country nearby called Loralei, but they mostly keep to themselves. It’s said they have reached some sort of understanding with the Undead King, and they leave each other alone. They didn’t join in the war, on either side. No one trusts anyone who comes from Loralei though. There are all sorts of rumors about them.”

“Like what?”

“Some say that the people of Loralei give all their dead to the Undead King, as long as he agrees not to attack them. A lot of people think it’s not true though, since if the Undead King took Loralei, he would have all their dead anyway and probably a lot more of them. Anyway, the only reason people deal with Loralei is their healing potions.”

“Healing potions?”

“Yeah. They make really good ones. You don’t hear about them this far away, but where I was born, people would talk about them. They were really expensive though.”

“So Loralei exports healing potions, but otherwise people don’t trust them? Why would you buy a healing potion from someone you don’t trust?”

“They’re really good that’s all. If someone you didn’t trust made the best wine, you’d buy wine from them, right?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never had wine.”

Dahr sighed. “You get the point though. You wouldn’t want to fight beside them, but you can still buy stuff from them. There are lots of countries that don’t get along that sell to each other.”

“Oh?”

“I think so. Countries can be at war with each other and that still won’t stop trade sometimes.”

“That sounds complicated.”

“I guess it is. I don’t know much about it. Just something Eric said once. I guess I don’t understand it either. You’ll have to ask him about it. Anyway, we’re in the Kingdom of Twyl now, which was conquered by Andara a hundred years ago, but they still remain separate nations. It’s just that now they’re not fighting each other. Then there’s the Allied Kingdoms of Karmenon, they’re a bunch of smaller kingdoms that have treaties with each other to protect each other, but they’re all different countries, though many of them are quite small. They’re strong because they fight together, but they sometimes fight each other too. Maybe not fight like in a war, but they have conflicts since there’s not one ruler.”

“What about The Kingdom of Melar? That’s where Princess Chari comes from, right?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know much about…”

A wave of dizziness swept over Dahr, and he stopped to lean against the cold stone castle wall.

“Dahr? Are you all right?”

“I’m just really tired. I think I should go lay down.”

“Are you sure? Perhaps we should let someone know…”

“No,” Dahr insisted. “I’ll be okay. It’s very late, and I didn’t sleep well last night. I just need to lie down for a bit. Come on.”

They weren’t all that far from the suite of rooms the boys shared, and they made their way there now. Kalutu kept a concerned eye on Dahr, but whatever had assailed him seemed to have passed, so he didn’t say anything.

When they reached the room, Dahr told his familiar he was going to bed. Without washing up, as he usually did, he disappeared into the bedroom, closing the door behind him, leaving Kalutu alone in the anteroom.

Dahr then lay down on the bed fully clothed. He was out almost before his head hit the pillow. And he dreamt.

Dahr half expected to be in the same place he’d been last time, but he wasn’t. Instead, he was everywhere. He was in the Other Realm with Eric and Chari. Eric held both a shield and a sword in his hands. He struck a pose that he probably thought looked heroic, but Dahr thought looked kind of goofy, like he was trying too hard to look like a great warrior. Chari seemed impressed though.

At the same time, he was following a man through a marshy area, through ruins. He couldn’t see the man well, but he could tell the man was moving fast. He rose into the air and panned his view until he could see, far away, a group of five figures, and though he had no idea who they were, he knew they were somehow tied to the man beneath him. Pursuers possibly? From the speed and desperation he sensed from the man, he imagined they might be.

And he was far, far away, on the Plains of Xarinos, surrounded by undead in every direction. Undead farmers. Undead soldiers. Undead merchants. Why would the undead need farmers? That made no sense. He didn’t have time to dwell on it, because the man in the ruins had found a stairway going down and was descending below ground.

He was with the man then, who moved through a series of rooms, before finally collapsing against a slime covered wall, breathing heavily. Dahr was there with him, watching, wondering what he was supposed to do now. Perhaps he should try to talk to the man. He opened his mouth, but it wasn’t his voice that emerged.

*

Ressssen knew that the firmer ground would soon give way to mud or even shallow water, once they reached the edge of the swamp known locally as Mistmeer. There had once been a dungeon here, but adventurers had long ago cleared it out, which didn’t necessarily make the area safe. Empty dungeons were often inhabited by creatures looking for a place to lair, which made it all too likely they were heading into danger. Danger they were ill equipped for in their current situation.

She slowed and called a halt. The team gathered around her, all but Dreek who was likely too far ahead to hear the instruction. Garne was the last to arrive, and he didn’t look happy.

“Why are we stopping? He’ll get away.”

“He’ssss not going anywhere,” said Ressssen, firmly. “But we need to rest up and prepare ourselves. There’s no point entering the swamp without catching our breath first. The ruins are too close to where we are now to ignore the danger.”

Striker nudged Garne. “It’s just like you. You complain when we run, and you complain when we stop. Is there a specific speed you’d like to go that would keep you happy?”

“That guy ripped us off. I could have been sitting drunk in a warm inn, and now I’m mostly sober in the woods in the middle of the night. I won’t be happy until I smash that guy’s face in.”

“None of us are happy,” said Borin, “but Ressssen is correct. The ruins are ahead, and we must be cautious. Can we take a look at the dungeon while we’re here?”

“We are here for one purpose,” said Ressssen. “We’re neither rested nor well equipped enough to explore. We take the thief, bring him back to town…”

“After holding him upside down and shaking out our gold,” interrupted Garne.

“Yessss. We’ll get our gold back and then turn him over to the authorities.”

“Do I get to beat him senseless?”

“Garne, if you beat him, we’ll have to carry him all the way back. Are you volunteering for that job?”

Garne looked sullen. “No.”

“Then we will get our gold back, and we will escort him back to town and let the authorities take care of him.”

“Just one good punch, then, that’s all I ask.”

“Thisssss is not a negotiation.”

“You used to be fun.”

“You mean earlier tonight, when I was drunk?”

“Exactly – wait, I heard something.”

“It’s about time you noticed me,” said Dreek. “I’ve been here for a while. If I were a threat, you’d all be dead.”

Striker chuckled. Borin looked abashed. Garne had his sword half drawn, but Ressssen hadn’t moved a muscle. “You’re our scout. If you can not approach ssssilently, we’re paying you too much.”

“My point remains, I’m not the only quiet creature that roams Mistmeer. It would be good to remember that.”

They all knew Dreek was correct, and everyone grew serious.

“So, what’s the plan?” asked Striker.

“We’ll walk for a while and keep our eyes and ears open. He shouldn’t be too far ahead now, and in any case he’ll need to slow down when he hits the swamp.”

*

Merck had run as long and far as he could, but finally had to rest. Surely, they wouldn’t find him here. Not with the head start he had on them. He had collapsed against a wall in an underground room, breathing heavily. He tried looking around, but it was dark. He wasn’t even sure how he found his way in, though he was pretty sure sizzle made his night vision better. Now though, he saw very little, until a voice that seemed to contain a bit of everything, spoke to him from somewhere in the darkness ahead, and a faint glow managed to form itself into the shape of a teenage boy.

“Merck Vanderoth. This is where your old life ends, and your new life begins,” said the apparition.

“It seemed to be the day for that,” he thought, then asked “New life?”

The boy was not glowing so brightly that he was clear to Merck, almost as if he were a ghost faintly trying to project himself from the other side. The boy continued talking.

“It is time. You need to find me, Merck Vanderoth. Find me, for you will be the one to end the undead threat.”

“Wait, what? I can’t end the undead threat! I’m just a Level 4 Swindler.”

“Not anymore,” said the apparition, and it started to laugh. A laugh that contained everything in the universe. A laugh that was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Merck would desperately liked to have continued that conversation, but then the voice was in his head.

You are no longer a Swindler. You may no longer access the following skills– Bamboozle, Forget Me, Obfuscate, Fast Forward, Engender Trust, Lie, Identify, Swipe. If you behave, I might provide you with a new skill or two. It’s up to you.

“No! It’s not possible.” But even as he said it, Merck could feel the truth. The skills he’d once been able to access were now beyond his ability.

“Merck Vanderoth,” said the boy, even as he began fading from existence. “You are about to learn that there is very little in this world that is not possible. Remember, you must find me. Everything depends on it.”

And then he was gone, and Merck was alone in the darkness.

 

Forward to Chapter 10 – A Change for the Better

Back to Chapter 8 – Meanwhile in the City of Tarlet 

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *