Chapter 10 – A Change for the Better
Sixth of Learning 1142
The Misfits of Karmenon had left civilization behind to pursue a Swindler. Their path had taken them through dense forest and then into a swamp that the locals called Mistmeer. Though the swamp contained it share of dangers, the biggest danger was in the past, a dungeon that had been cleared by adventurers many years ago. Which didn’t mean other creatures hadn’t since inhabited that dungeon or the ruins surrounding it.
The swamp had its share of trees, leading right up to the edge of the water. Because the depth of the water was not uniform, they stayed as close to the shore as they could while still following their target. There were stands of reeds rustling in a breeze that was warm enough to allow insects to swarm. In colder weather they’d have been spared that discomfort. Fall, it seemed, had not yet encroached on Mistmeer. Ressssen wondered if the power the ruins had been built upon was responsible for the unseasonably warm weather.
The Misfits had made good time closing the distance between themselves and their quarry. Perhaps they were more comfortable moving through a swamp at night than he was. Well, most of them were comfortable. Dreek, Borin and Ressssen didn’t mind getting wet. Striker didn’t love wading through knee deep water but didn’t complain. Garne complained, and everyone ignored him. For this particular team of adventurers, it was business as usual.
The swamp at night would have probably scared most people, but the Misfits had seen their share of deserted wilderness areas, at all times of day, so they were cautious but not fearful. Dreek stayed with them now in case something attacked, but nothing did, apart from the ever-present mosquitoes. Night frogs, crickets and small wildlife moving through reeds were the only sounds. In the distance, they could see the ruins illuminated by the moon, which edged each broken stone with a faint silvery glow. The flagstones on the ground were mostly green with moss, and would no doubt be slippery when they reached them, which would be too soon. But this was the way the Swindler had gone.
The ruins, which they could now see in the distance, were little more than the skeletal remains of something that had once been. Arches, columns and stone pathways stretched far into the swamp. No one alive today knew what had once been here, or what had happened to it. The stonework, once detailed, was worn away, and the entire structure was overgrown with hanging vines and other plant life. Trees sprouted through the broken ground, tearing away at what was left. And below, almost untouched, the dungeon lay, its corridors protected from flooding by ancient and powerful magics that no living mage could conjure. In a thousand years, when the ruins were dust, the dungeon would still be there, protected from harm by spells that drew on the ancient power of the place. Ressssen couldn’t see any of that detail from where she was. From this distance, it was just an army of dark and foreboding shadow soldiers standing at attention, blocking out the stars that should have been there. The Ruins of Mistmere told a story in a language no one could read.
“I never thought I would be back here,” she said.
“You’ve been here?” asked Striker.
“Before you were part of the team. Garne remembers.”
Garne chuckled. “Probably not as much as you think. I’ve slept since then.”
Striker shook her head. Dreek didn’t say anything, he just moved ahead, leading the way toward the ruins. At least when they got there, they would be out of the water.
“It feels like it should be Se Karn’s Day,” said Striker, after a while.
“What is that?” asked Borin.
“Statistically, it’s the day you’re most likely to see a ghost.”
“Have you ever seen a ghost?”
Striker shrugged. “Sometimes I feel like a ghost, if that counts.”
“You’re thin enough to be a wraith,” said Garne, grinning.
Striker kicked her foot up, splashing him with swamp water.
“I’m not that thin.”
“There are fat undead,” said Borin.
They all stopped and looked at him.
“There are,” he insisted. “When the Undead King raises you, you look exactly as you looked when you died.”
“Okay,” said Striker, “that’s enough of this conversation.”
“You’re the one who brought up Se Karn’s Day,” said Garne
“I still don’t understand what that is,” said Borin
“It’s a Karmish holiday dedicated to the dead,” replied Garne. “And I think the less said about it in this place, the happier I’ll be. Also, Borin, I don’t think that you’re more likely to see a ghost on Se Karn’s Day. It’s just something people tell their children.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Borin.
“People tell their kids all sorts of things. In this case, I think it’s to keep them busy looking for ghosts, while the adults fulfill their obligations. It’s a somber day, and there’s a lot of ceremony and children can get quite antsy. So it gives them something to focus on.”
“That’s disappointing,” said Borin. “Striker, why would you tell me that I’m more likely to see a ghost that day?”
Striker shrugged. “I had no idea it wasn’t true. I’m not from here, remember? We don’t celebrate Se Karn’s Day in Final Hope. I think they celebrate it here and in Twyl.”
“You know, I see ghosts quite often,” said Dreek. “When I phase shift they’re about sometimes. I don’t often interact with them, because so many of them are insane. Some are quite nice though. Just not worth the risk really.”
“You speak with ghosts?” asked Striker.
“When I have to. For what it’s worth, there are no ghosts around here at the moment.”
“Would you expect any?” asked Striker.
“Not really. Ghosts tend to spend more time around living sentient beings, not out here in the middle of the wilderness.”
“Why is that?
“They’re lonely. Or angry. In any event, it’s a good thing most people can’t interact with them.”
“All right,” said Ressssen. “Let’s pay attention. We’re getting close.”
A loud splash startled them, but it was just an over-sized frog leaping into the water. A night bird shrieked in the distance. By the time they reached the edge of the ruins, unnecessary conversation had ground to a halt.
They navigated the ruins like an experienced team of adventurers, but nothing more dangerous than mosquitoes assailed them. The trail brought them to an older section of ruins that still had a lingering aura from when something powerful had lived there. Whatever it was was gone now, probably long gone. Yet the reverberation of its existence was strong enough that they all noticed it. Then Dreek cried out. Ressssen was beside him in a moment. He stood at a stone stairway leading down beneath the swamp.
“What isss it?”
“We dare not descend. There is something down there. Something powerful.”
“But the thief desssscended, did he not?”
“Issss thissss an ally, I wonder?”
“If it isn’t, he’s done for.”
They all turned to look at Resssen. “We wait. We will see what emergesss and deal with it then. Everyone make sure you drink and eat something. Whatever comes, we want to be ready. Dreek, I need you to keep track of whatever’sss down there.”
Dreek nodded, but didn’t say anything, so they all settled in to wait. No one spoke. Several shot concerned looks in Dreek’s direction, but for once, the banter was noticeably absent. Ressssen kept half an eye on their surroundings, aware of how ironic it would be if some random creature attacked them while they were focused on the stairway, but nothing bigger than a frog came anywhere near them. Perhaps the wildlife in the area was intelligent enough to keep their distance from this place, which didn’t reassure her. She had taken her own advice and had a bit of dried meat she had pulled from her pack, washed down with a bit of warm water. And then, only minutes after he’d first cried out, Dreek spoke.
They all looked toward Ressssen, who was about to order them forward when she sensed movement from below. Ahead, a glowing figure started up the stairs. It took a moment for her to realize that the approaching human was the same man that had swindled her. He looked almost like he’d leveled, but the residual glow that followed level flare made you look energized and healthy. This had more the feel of a malaise, despite the intensity.
Ressssen had begun to see level flare when she had hit Level 5, but had never seen anything that looked like this. Then again she’d never seen a thief level before. It may be this was normal for those who worshipped Tharin. It suggested a darkness of the soul.
“It issss you,” she said, expanding herself to her full height. “You owe ussss money. Three gold pieces, or pay the conssssequencessss.”
“I don’t have your gold,” replied the man without an ounce of fear in his voice.
“You are a liar and a thief. A Sssswindler. Why sssshould be believe you?”
“I am a Swindler no more.”
Ressssen glanced at the phase shifter. “He’s no longer a Swindler,” said Dreek, surprise in his voice. “He’s a Level 1 Priest.”
“What?” asked several of them at the same time, including Merck.
“I’m a Priest?” he asked.
Confused, the members of the Misfits of Karmenon all looked at each other before returning their gaze to the former Swindler.
“You are,” Dreek replied. “How can you not know?”
The man shrugged. “I have no idea. I had a vision. Or a conversation with a being. An apparition. A boy, dressed like a noble or a royal. I was told to find him. It all has to do with the undead threat.”
“He’s telling the truth,” said Dreek.
“I have been a liar and a thief. I regret that now. I regret that I stole money from you that I can not repay for I spent it on sizzle. I can not change the past. But I can help end the undead threat if I can find that boy.”
“That’s not possible,” said Striker.
Again Dreek spoke. “And yet he speaks the truth. He, at least, believes this.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Garne groused, annoyed at how much he’d been forced to sober up. “I’m just going to punch him.”
Ressssen spoke quickly. “You will do no ssssuch thing. If this man can really end the undead threat, he’s worth far more than the gold I gave him. Tell me, Priest. Who is this god of yours?”
Merck smiled sheepishly. “I don’t know.”
“How issss that possible?”
Merck shrugged. “I don’t know. But your own team member said I’m a Priest. Could I be one without a god? Something touched me and changed my class, that much is clear. I didn’t even know it was possible.”
“Nor did I,” replied Ressssen.
“What are we going to do?” asked Striker.
“The only thing we can do. We’re going to turn him over to the Adventurer’s Guild. We’re too low ranked to make any kind of decision on a matter thissss important.
Several of the group nodded, but Garne growled. “Can’t I just hit him once?”
“No,” said the other four at the same time.
“I never get to have any fun,” said Garne.
Surprisingly, Borin was the one who replied. “Didn’t you just cause a brawl?”
“Oh…yeah. I’d forgotten about that,” grinned Garne. “That was a good fight. Ah well. We should get going. It’s a long walk back to town.”
Dahr awoke in his room, bathed in sweat, and completely spent. He remembered everything. Every word, every syllable. George had been talking through him. His throat felt raw, as if he’d spent a long time screaming. His body ached like he’d run for miles. He tried to sit up. His head pounded. He lay back down and tried to think.
This whole thing was more than strange. He believed he really had talked to another man, far away, or at least George had. Why would George ask this stranger to find him without telling him where to look? It seemed unnecessarily cruel. Perhaps he had his reasons. He still wasn’t sure what George was. He had never heard of a god named George, but then, George wasn’t his real name. What kind of god wouldn’t give a follower his real name? Her real name? The voice could have been either, or more accurately it was both. Okay, George was an it, Dahr could live with that. What he couldn’t live with was not knowing. He closed his eyes again, and tried to pray to George, but nothing happened. He couldn’t feel anything.
He didn’t even know if his patron was a god. He didn’t know his own skills. He didn’t know what was going on, and worst of all, he couldn’t ask anyone.
He thought about his vision. The man he had spoken to didn’t look like much, but George had said he would end the undead threat. How was that possible and what, specifically, did that mean? Merck Vanderoth didn’t look like a warrior or much of anything for that matter. He looked like a scared little man. And he’d been a Swindler, though apparently that was no longer the case. What was he then? How could his god remove a class from another god’s follower? Did that make George more powerful than other gods? The very idea was preposterous. And yet, he had removed Merck’s class.
Dahr felt a great sympathy for the man who, like Dahr, was clearly in over his head. Dahr had been touched by his god, was given a class no one had ever heard of, and didn’t know his skills. He didn’t know his god’s name or what was expected of him. Merck was like him, except even more so. He had had a class, and now he didn’t. He perhaps had a new class, but wasn’t told what it was. Unlike Dahr, Merck had revered a god who, admittedly, probably wasn’t the nicest of gods. Probably Tharin, the God of Thieves. Why would a man like that be able to end the undead threat?
None of this made any sense, but who could Dahr ask? He couldn’t bring anything this ridiculous up to any of the adults he knew. What would Eric say? Or Chari? They wouldn’t have any more information than he did. They couldn’t tell him anything. He was on his own with this.
Dahr sighed. He would tell no one, not even Kalutu. It was a puzzle without enough pieces, and everyone had enough already to deal with. This was his burden, and he’d bear it alone. The decision made, he forced himself to his feet and hobbled to the door. As soon as he opened it, Kalutu rushed to greet him.
“Dahr, you look terrible. Are you okay?”
Dahr nodded, then thought better of it and shook his head. “Listen to me, you can’t tell anyone.”
“Tell anyone what?”
“Anything. Not what happened to me before I went to bed. Not that I came out looking like this. You can’t tell a soul.”
Kalutu looked disturbed but knew an order when he heard one. “Very good, Dahr. I won’t say a word.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Less than an hour, Dahr.”
Kalutu was saying his name, but what Dahr heard was master. It unnerved him, but he didn’t let it show. It was unlikely he could get his familiar to be less formal around him.
Dahr ran a hand over his face, trying to wake up. “Okay. Let’s get out of here. Eric will be back at some point, and I want to be available when he returns.”
Eric and Chari walked side by side through the seemingly endless forest. They’d defeated two challenges so far, and Eric finally had a sword, which made him happy indeed. He was happy right up until he met the giant.
He had thought the one-eyed creature in his own trial was large, but he had been mistaken. The third trial, and the large clearing it stood in, appeared before them suddenly as always, but this giant was as big as a house. Even bigger. It stood on two legs, wearing nothing more than a loin cloth. It had to be close to two stories tall. Eric came up to the top of its ankle.
It was fairly muscular and had unkempt brown hair and a wild beard around a face that looked human enough, though it’s head was almost as big as most men. Eric drew his sword and charged forward, but again, the giant only had eyes for Chari, who clearly held its attention.
Eric groaned in frustration, but then shouted at the giant as he closed the distance between them. “Hey you, ugly! I sure hope you smell better than you look!”
The giant turned to him, threw back its head, and roared. Eric gulped but didn’t slow his advance, shield held high, sword ready to strike whatever he could.
One advantage he had was that for the giant to punch him, it had to practically double over, or at least kneel. The giant realized this too apparently, because instead it picked up its foot and moved to stomp on Eric. Eric saw it coming down and shouted, diving to the left while it descended behind him. He landed on the ground and rolled, but the giant’s foot struck the ground at the same moment he was trying to find his feet. Eric lost his balance and ended up flat on his back.
Chari was on it then, attacking its exposed ankle. This was the foot it had planted to stomp with the other. Her attack didn’t seem to be having much effect.
The giant had raised its foot again to stamp on Eric, and he considered rolling sideways but didn’t think he could roll faster than the giant could adjust his attack. So instead, he stuck his sword straight up and waited for the foot to come down. With a regular sword, he might not have tried this, but this wasn’t any old sword. This was a holy sword, and he truly believed the power of Sheba was a match for any giant.
He was close to the edge of the foot when it landed, so he managed to both stab the foot and just roll out from under it, almost at the same time. Thinking back later he couldn’t figure out how he’d managed it, but apparently he did. Unfortunately when the creature picked its foot up, it ripped the sword out of his hand. He watched the sword ascend still stuck in the giant’s foot, well above his ability to reach it.
But then, he didn’t have to reach it, did he? He held out his hand, and the sword appeared in it. He looked up and droplets of blood started to leak from the small wound in that giant foot.
In the mean time, Chari seemed to be making at least some progress on the other ankle, causing the creature no small degree of annoyance. She had thrust her sword deeply into the ankle and it probably felt the way it might if Eric were walking through a thorn bush. In other words, painful, but not particularly deadly. How do you fight something this big with nothing more than two swords and a shield?
He looked around, but there was nothing to help him. He looked up and regretted it instantly. The giant was wearing a loin cloth with nothing under it. It was completely naked beneath. Hanging in the air way above his head were the biggest set of balls that Eric had ever seen. Eric sincerely wished he had a skill that allowed him to unsee things cause he was pretty sure his medication wouldn’t help him with that particular nightmare.
He forced himself back to the present. There had to be something he could do. And then he remembered. There was a place you could strike in the back of the foot, just above it on the lower ankle. Something that would cause an opponent to be unable to stand. The next time the foot came down, he dodged behind it and started hacking at the area above the heel. Several strong swipes later he felt something give.
The creature roared and went down to one knee. As soon as it did, Chari was there, driving her sword into its calf.
Eric switched sides and went for the back of the other foot. Having the giant down lower was a boon to them, but it also helped the giant too, as suddenly a massive fist came down. Only Eric’s position behind the creature allowed him to get out of reach. It didn’t seem the creature could reach backwards that far. What he wouldn’t give for a bow.
“Oh sure,” said a voice in his head. “First you want a sword, and now that you have one it’s not good enough.”
He was startled at what he immediately identified as playful banter, though of course, playful banter with a goddess was ridiculous. He almost wasn’t sure he interpreted it right. He was so flustered, he missed his next opportunity to attack and only barely dodged the massive fist again.
“Sorry, I’ll do better!” he yelled out.
The goddess laughed in his mind, but he forced himself to ignore it and return to the fight.
The entire affair turned into a battle of attrition. As long as they could avoid damage, they could continue to attack, making cut after cut wherever they could reach.
They had different styles completely. Chari was aggressively hitting anything that was within reach, using strength to drive her weapon deeper into the creature. She did more piercing damage than Eric. Eric, on the other hand, looked for specific targets that would do the most damage, attempting to slash at areas that would cause the most blood loss. Admittedly, he was guessing some of the time, but his targets were more deliberate than Chari’s. Between the two of them, they wore their opponent down, though it took a long time. Luckily, fatigue didn’t seem to be a factor in the Other Realm.
Any single hit could have downed either one of them, but both were too skilled to get hit. With blood leaking from countless wounds, the creature’s attacks started to slow. Eventually, the blood loss overwhelmed it and it fell over. Chari used her puncture skill to end the fight, by aiming for its eye. The thrust was so hard, and the eye was so big, that she ended up elbow deep in it. She pulled back and struck again and again, until she was sure it was dead.
Finally, Chari collapsed on the ground, mentally rather than physically exhausted. When the scroll appeared next to her, she reached for it without even sitting up. Then, her eyes widened and she did sit, suddenly energized.
“Something good?” asked Eric hopefully.
She grinned. “I’m a Level 1 Warrior. And I have a new skill, Amazing Strength!”
“Wow. That’s a good one. I’ve never heard of anyone getting that at Level 1.”
“Well, I am hanging out with one of the chosen.”
“Yeah, you know, you…pulling Dahr into your dream…mister I have two holy weapons.”
“Okay, okay. I’m just an ordinary guy.”
“A magical, ordinary prince, with two holy weapons and a class I’ve never heard of. No one could possibly be this humble.”
“It’s a virtue,” he said. “You should try it.”
He was sitting up looking at her and she closed the distance between them faster than he’d have thought possible. She punched him in the arm, fortunately without using her new skill, and then sat beside him on the ground in the clearing.
“You know what?” she asked.
“I’m a grown woman now, and you’re a grown man.”
Eric looked at her nervously. “Ummm…yep.”
“And there’s no chaperons here,” she continued.
“Well, ummm, Sheba is with us.”
“Sheba is a goddess, she’s always with us. And Sheba is the one responsible for both of us being here without supervision, at least that’s the theory, right? So she shouldn’t object if we were to say…kiss, don’t you think?”
She didn’t wait for him to finish or find another excuse. She grabbed him and pulled him close. Eric had never kissed a girl before and approached it tentatively once he understood this was happening, but he thought Chari might have more experience than him, because she wasn’t taking any hostages. She was in for the kill. Before he realized what was happening, she was lying on top of him, and he was trying to figure out if this was going to go any further and what to do or say if it were.
“You know,” said Chari, face inches above his. “This is not how I thought my first kiss would go.”
“That was your first?”
“Mine too. Why wasn’t it how you thought it would go?”
“Because I never thought I’d be initiating it. It was always going to be some man, probably my unwanted future husband. I mean he’d be big and muscular and handsome, but I would be determined not to like it.”
“And then I’d knee him in the balls, because he deserved it.”
“Oh did he? What did he do to deserve it?”
“How should I know? He’s a man, so I’m sure he’s done something.”
“Ah,” said Eric. “So in this case, you initiated it. What does that mean?”
“Are you trying to distract me from kissing you again?”
Eric looked guilty. “Ummm, no, it’s just that…”
“Oh shut up.”
She kissed him again. This one lasted longer and by the time it was done, Eric was no longer worried about what might happen next.
“I had always assumed, I would consummate my marriage after getting married,” said Chari.
“Do you really want to…”
She looked exasperated. “Eric, you’d better find something pleasing to say to me.”
He looked into her eyes, leaned up as if to initiate a kiss of his own, and said probably the last thing Chari wanted to hear.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think I’m waking up.”
And he was back in his room in the temple, happy and frustrated at the same time. He lay there for a few minutes before the door opened and Chari walked in, closing the door behind her.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“I get the impression you say that a lot. Congratulations on your transition,” she grinned.
“Oh, you too, warrior. This is really going to annoy your parents, isnt’ it?”
Eric laughed. “I guess we should get back to the palace.”
Chari looked like she might have other ideas. She approached, reaching for him with a look in her eyes that Eric would never forget. There was curiosity there, and desire, and a hint of not quite hidden nervousness, but Chari was committed. Her lips drew closer to his, closer… and… the door opened and Veloran was there, smiling at the two of them.
“Did someone request a chaperon?” he asked.