Chapter 17 – Crime Pays

Twelfth of Learning 1142

As soon as Striker’s body hit the ground, Dreek made his way toward her. Immediately the kreve, or whatever it was, blocked his passage. It growled menacingly but didn’t attack. It wasn’t going to let anything near Striker.

Dreek shifted out of phase and moved closer. The creature snarled yet another warning and when Dreek continued to approach, it charged into him, knocking him back several feet. Dreek was perplexed. A physical being should have had no impact on him at all. The creature returned to guard Striker, leaving him confused and pensive.

He had no idea how the kreve had changed but, thinking back, he had felt the moment that change had begun.



When he’d first encountered it, the third time the kreve had tried to touch him, something had touched the kreve. Some entity had used his body as a conduit to reach the beast, though who or what had that power was a complete mystery to him. Surely only a god-like being could be the cause of something like this. But why Striker, and what was wrong with her now?

It wasn’t the first level flare Dreek had ever seen, but the sheer power emanating from Striker was like nothing he had ever sensed. He could tell the others saw it from the way they shielded their eyes. It was normal for a person suffused with god energy to flash, and glow for a time afterwards, but Striker blazed like the sun, even now, when the flare should have settled into a more subdued glow.

Dreek wasn’t tremendously concerned about Striker. Sometimes people lost consciousness while leveling, and Striker was due. It had been a very long time since she had leveled. He suspected some of the Misfits thought that her behavior offended Sheba and that she had stopped leveling altogether, but no one would say it aloud.

Dreek used Detect Level. Not much surprised Dreek, but he was both stymied and stunned when he found out that the young lady who had been the lowest level adventurer on the team was now the highest. When he had read Merck’s class and level, he also looked in on the rest of the team, just to make sure the ability was working as intended. Everyone was exactly the level they should have been, which included Striker being Level 4. And now, a few days later, somehow she was Level 10.

Dreek used Detect Class since Merck had changed classes but didn’t expect to learn anything new. Striker hadn’t changed class, not the way Merck had, but she had transitioned from Hunter to Beast Master, a particularly rare transition. Was this something Sheba had arranged? Who else could have done it? No other being could have possibly leveled Striker since she was tethered to Sheba. But he’d never heard of Sheba giving anyone six levels in one night. The entire situation was bizarre.

He considered, briefly, that maybe this wasn’t Striker at all, that she had somehow been possessed by another being. He dismissed the notion almost as soon as it had come to him. Each sentient being had a unique signature that clearly identified them to those who could read such signatures. Striker’s was not only unique, but would be particularly hard to emulate.

There are events in your life that mark your soul permanently, and Striker clearly had one of those marks. It would not be that hard for an entity to fool him if they had possessed Ressssen or Garne, but Striker had suffered something horrendous, and it was so deep within her soul, it reflected on everything else that had developed afterwards. The complexity of the damage and the havoc it wreaked on her further development would have been all but impossible to recreate. And if something was possessing her with a different class, it would certainly have a different signature.

Dreek was certain nothing less powerful than a demigod could impersonate Striker without him knowing. He had no idea what she had been through, but it was a very long time ago, in her developmental phase. She must have been a child. The others sometimes talked about Striker when she was off in town doing inexplicable things with people that she would never see again, and he could tell from their whispered conversations that they were concerned about her. They didn’t understand her needs. But ironically, Dreek, who understood almost nothing else about how human’s behaved, understood that her needs and desires were born of a terrible tragedy that had scarred her soul so badly, that the odds of her surviving it at all were beyond the realms of probability.

Garne also had suffered damage to his soul, but it was far more recent. His identity had been long established before that had happened. Such an extra layer would be easier to fake than Striker’s. In fact, Dreek had spent a long time studying Striker’s signature, hoping to figure out some way to help her, but the wound was too large and too deep. The truth was, it was amazing she had survived to become the person she was today.

But at least he understood why she had lost consciousness. The sheer amount of energy passing through her each time she leveled would have knocked out anyone.

The sun was already starting to come up, and everyone had gathered to discuss what they should do next. Predictably, Garne was the first with a suggestion.

“We should just kill the thing and be done with it.”

“No,” said Merck and Dreek at the same time. It was Merck who continued.

“My god instructed us to wait here. I can’t believe it was for no reason. Killing the kreve could possibly anger my god, and I can assure you, none of us want to do that.”

“We’re not going to hurt it,” said Ressssen, firmly, “but perhaps we can lure it away with meat.”

Striker’s voice, weak but clear, interrupted the conversation. “Why would you want to do that?”

“Because your pet won’t let us near you to see if you’re okay,” said Ressssen.

Striker sat up…then slowly made her way to her feet. “I seem to be. What happened?”

“Don’t you remember?” asked Ressssen.

Garne attempted to get closer to her, and the kreve growled at him.

“Behave, Stalker. These people are my friends. They’re my team. They are not going to hurt me.”

At once, the kreve settled down, watching Garne, but made no further attempt to interfere with his approach.

“I don’t remember much. We were all waiting, Stalker came, and then… I think I touched her. That’s it.”

“Do you remember anything else?” asked Dreek.

She shook her head. Was a possible she didn’t know she had leveled? He found that hard to believe. It was possible she knew and was keeping it a secret. If Sheba herself was behind this, he was absolutely not going to interfere. There were things you did and things you didn’t do. Getting on the bad side of a god was something you didn’t do, if you could at all help it. So Dreek didn’t say anything. Eventually, it would come out, but it wasn’t his choice as to when that was.

“Why do you call it Stalker?” asked Borin.

“Because that’s her name. Don’t ask me how I know. It’s weird. Just last night I was joking about taming a kreve…”

“Not just any kreve,” said Dreek. “You were talking about this kreve. This is the pack leader. The one that was stalking us.”

“So let me get this straight,” said Garne. “You wanted a kreve as a pet and now you have one? Does that strike anyone else as strange, even for Striker?”

Striker nodded. “It’s more than strange. How could something like this happen?”

“Are you sure you don’t remember anything else?” asked Dreek.

From the long look she gave him, Dreek realized two things. Striker absolutely knew she had leveled, and now she knew that Dreek was also aware of just how unusual the process had been. It would be interesting to talk to her when the others weren’t around.

Dreek had seen many odd things in his day, but he’d never seen or heard of anything like this.

“Do you want to rest?” asked Ressssen. “Because we’re not all that far from Pelaro.”

“I can walk,” said Striker. “Or ride Stalker.”

They all looked at her astonished.

“I’m joking! You guys are too easy.”

They started packing up and preparing to leave, when Striker wandered over to Dreek. She looked around casually, but Dreek could see that she was making sure no one was close enough to hear what she had to say. When she spoke, she kept her voice low.

“Whatever you think you know, I’d suggest you keep it to yourself.”

Dreek nodded. “Believe me, Striker, whatever is going on between you and your goddess, I want no part of it. Your secret is safe with me. Just be aware, we all saw the level flare. Even if you don’t say anything, the others will have some idea. I don’t want you to think they learned it from me.”

“I’ll speak of it when I’m ready. When I understand it better.”

Without another word, Striker started helping to pack up, even though several others insisted she take it easy. There was definitely a piece of the puzzle Dreek was missing, and though he was curious, he was also cautious. He wouldn’t directly interfere, but he was absolutely going to keep an eye on her.


Kalutu watched as his charges lay unmoving. Their unnatural stillness worried him, even though he had been prepared for it. Their souls, the very essence of their beings, were elsewhere. Their bodies continued the business of living without anything to guide them. Kalutu felt a pang of empathy. With his masters away in the Other Realm, he had no guidance for the first time since he’d become a familiar. Even when Eric had been off transitioning, Dahr had remained behind. Now, he was completely alone, and the feeling unnerved him.

He expected to know very little until one of the three awoke, but as it turned out that was not the case. Deep into the night, he felt what he could only describe as a shudder running through, not his body, but the world around him. He felt different. And somehow, he knew what had happened. One of his young masters had gained a level. That’s where his power came from…his masters leveling, as he had suspected.

At first he wasn’t sure if he actually felt stronger, or if he was imagining it. However, the feeling was repeated a number of times during the night and each time it happened, he felt stronger. There was no way this could be his imagination. He found himself wondering if he got more powerful than other familiars since he had two masters leveling, or if he was only as powerful as the one that had the highest level. Either way, Kalutu was thrilled.

They were leveling! It was working. And the more power they had, the safer they were…at least that was the theory. Unless of course the greater power made them more of a threat to more powerful people…but he couldn’t think that way. This was a good thing. It had to be a good thing.

It was another couple of hours before they awoke, Prince Dahr and Princess Chari first, followed a short time later by Prince Eric. Kalutu examined all three of them. Dahr and Chari both seemed fine, but Prince Eric seemed morose, especially for someone who had gained levels.

“Are you all right, Prince Eric?”

Eric looked up from where he still lay on the floor and nodded. “I’m fine, Kalutu.”

He pushed himself into a sitting position with, Kalutu thought, some difficulty. He finally looked at Dahr and Chari.

“How did it go?”

“We each gained three levels,” said Chari proudly. “How about you?”

“Four. I’m Level 5 now.”

The words hung in the air, but there was no joy in them. There was a sadness in his voice that Kalutu didn’t understand. But it was Chari who spoke.

“Okay mister, out with it. What happened in there?”

Eric didn’t say anything. She went to him and put her arms around him. “Eric?”

But the prince just bowed his head and sat there. It took a while for Kalutu to see the tears.

No one spoke. Eric sat and cried, while Chari rocked him gently, trying her best to sooth him. Whatever had occurred, Prince Eric was unable to share it. Chari and Dahr exchanged concerned glances, but no one broke the silence, allowing Eric to attempt to come to terms with whatever had befallen him.


Veloran sat on a wooden chair staring down at a blank white sheet of paper. The desk upon which the paper sat, by contrast, had been worn down by the years, and was covered with scratches and old stains. Veloran had to admit, he felt more like the desk than the paper.

At some point, this paper would contain the words of his next sermon, but at the moment, without a mark upon its purity, it had endless potential. It could eventually contain the greatest sermon he had ever written, though that was, of course, unlikely. The beauty of it stayed his hand, for he knew as soon as he picked up a quill, whatever potential it had would be destroyed. So he sat, paralyzed by his need to preserve, at least for the moment, something that was perfect the way it was.

Veloran’s quarters in the Temple of Sheba weren’t much more impressive than that of any other priest, with the exception of it being above ground while most of the others were below. In addition to the desk and chair, there was a sleeping mat, a chest of drawers, a rack for his weapons and another for his armor. He didn’t own much, not even the furniture in this room. Others lived lives of luxury, eating the best foods, garbed in the finest clothes, sitting in the most comfortable chairs. Veloran lived a spartan life by contrast, but he had something the nobility didn’t, even though he had noble roots himself. He had a stronger connection to the goddess.

As high priest, he was able to buy whatever he needed. He had access to the wealth of the temple, but what, at his age, did he need beyond what he already had?

Veloran had recently turned sixty-seven years old and he felt every one of them keenly. He had the usual aches and pains that came with age, and he’d lived a long full life filled with many highs and lows. He had lived through so much. But nothing had touched his life more deeply than the Undead War.

He had been in his fifties when the goddess had called him to join the fight in Death’s Doorstep, and he, and a contingent of priests, had heeded her call. But it wasn’t just priests of Sheba. All the gods and goddesses of order sent their people to quell the undead invasion. No one knew what to expect. They entered as holy warriors in the most unholy of conflicts. Battles where even the most pure of heart could fall and come back as the enemy. He hadn’t seen it himself, but he had heard the tales.

He thought of Elenor, mounted on a piebald stallion in her pristine white scale mail, the day she left to join her family’s army in the fight. Elenor with her not quite blonde short hair, her piercing green eyes, her sharp features, imperious on her horse. She might have been a bird of prey staring down at him.

Unlike Veloran, his wife wasn’t a priest, though she too had pledged herself to Sheba on the day of her transition. When the call came, she honored the commitment to her family as she had to. She had ridden off to war almost a week before he was called to do the same. And he’d never seen her again. They had never found her body.

He had loved her and lost her, either to death or undeath, but either way, she was beyond his reach. At the time, he hadn’t realized that the Undead King could bring back their allies from the dead to fight against them, and when he had, he prayed as hard as he’d ever prayed for anything that she had simply been killed and not taken. Too many of them had been. He wondered what Se Karn, the god of death, thought of the situation. Surely it must rankle him.

He had asked Sheba about it, and even after all these years, her answer haunted him. “I do not know what goes on in Xarinos nor, I suspect, does Se Karn. My mother calls it a dead zone, as if it belongs to another realm. Perhaps Iorana might have some measure of it, for she has studied it as extensively as one can study anything, over thousands of years. Yet there remain more questions than answers. The Plains of Xarinos are simply beyond our understanding or at very least, our ability to investigate.”

This disturbed Veloran greatly, for it should have been impossible. Who was the Undead King, and why was he powerful enough to defy the gods? And if he was that powerful, how had he lost the war? It didn’t make sense.

Veloran glanced at the blank page in front of him. He had wanted something inspiring, but his thoughts kept running in the opposite direction. What was he meant to write about?


Sheba’s voice in his head. A welcome reprieve, for it meant the page could remain perfect for just a bit longer.

“Yes, my goddess?”

Another transition is coming. Please prepare for it.

“Yes, my goddess. May I know when it will be?”


“So soon. Very well. Who is it?”

You will know soon enough. Just be ready.

He felt her leave, even though, of course, she was always with him. More strangeness at a time that had already brought its fair share. First there was Prince Dahr entering Prince Eric’s transition, and summoning a familiar of all things, which they now both shared. A familiar that had emerged from the Other Realm with them, along with a holy weapon. Sheba really did favor that family. He had never seen his goddess offer such an overt display of support for any mortal. And then Prince Eric’s transition being cut short only to finish when he shared Princess Chari’s. Such things never happened, and yet they were all happening at once. He wondered, briefly, if the coming transition was part of the current sequence of events or something more mundane. He could go for a little normalcy about now.

He pushed off the desk to stand, listening to the bones in his body creak. At length he straightened up to his full height and stretched. Then he left his quarters and walked toward the stairs leading down to the basement.

He had lived at the temple for so long, he could walk these corridors blindfolded. It was as much a home to him as any place he’d ever been. Some would call this place austere, but it was merely simple. People always felt they needed so much more than they did. More gold, more drink, more food, more love, more companionship. Perhaps he could turn that into a sermon. Nothing nobles liked to hear about more than their privilege. He shook his head. Not really the time to be annoying the nobles with whatever else was going to happen.

He walked down the stairs sideways, because it was more comfortable for him. Easier to keep his balance too. He felt like a crab, but there was nothing for it. Adapt and stay busy, that was his motto.

The temple basement contained many of the monks’ sleeping quarters, but also a rather large storage room. He looked it over from the doorway and decided it was quite cluttered, and it was time to give some of this stuff away to charity. He passed a rack of old practice swords. The solid wooden kind. These days they used padded swords, still made of wood but less likely to cause injury. These older weapons had outlived their usefulness, almost like…


He winced. “Yes, my goddess?”

You are my high priest. Do you really feel you have outlived your usefulness?

“It is not my place to say.”

Sheba clucked her tongue. Neat trick considering she didn’t have a body at the moment. If not your place, whose is it? You’re not implying it’s mine, are you?

Veloran shrugged. “I fear it is time for me to pass the mantle. Let younger blood take my place. I have served for a long time, and it is my pleasure to do so still, but I fear I am getting too old for this.”

And what is fear?

“My Goddess, it’s just a manner of speaking. I am not scared of getting older.”

But you are afraid.

Veloran sighed. “Yes, My Goddess. I’m afraid that I am not the man I once was, and that I will not be able to serve you as well as someone younger.”

Veloran, you are not my high priest because I need you to fight monsters. Nor are you my high priest because of your martial prowess. You have proven yourself again and again. Your role has evolved. Now you serve me by sharing your wisdom. By teaching. By guiding. There are exactly zero men younger than you that I would prefer in that role. It is my wish that you continue to serve me as high priest.

“Of course, Milady.”

You haven’t called me that in a long time. I rather like it.

“My Goddess is more formal, however. Should I not set an example for others to follow?”

Dear Veloran. You may be my high priest, but you are also an old friend. At least, I see you as such. We have been through so much together, you and I. Do you not think you’ve earned the right to be more familiar with me?

He bowed his head. “I don’t know. I wish I could say that I have, but I have made many errors over the years, and even if you’ve graciously forgiven me, I cannot in good conscience say that I have earned that right or any other.”

Veloran, you are not a god, and it is hubris to believe that you should be perfect. Even the gods are not perfect, so how can mortals be expected to be. I am thousands of years old, and yet, with all that experience, I can still err. Should I hold you to the same standards I hold myself? I accept that I am not always perfect. Why is that so hard for you?

Veloran was silent for a long time. “And yet, even now, I am guilty of hubris.”

Sheba, to his surprise, laughed. You’re hopeless. You’re also my favorite priest. You shall address me as milady from this point forward, for you have earned that right. I hope that you consider me a friend as well as your goddess.

“I think to suggest it would sound like hubris to most. Nevertheless, I shall address you as Milady and I shall attempt to remember that I’ve earned that right. One day, perhaps, I will feel it is true.”

If you trust me, you’ll believe me when I say it is. You trust me, don’t you?

Veloran sighed. “Yes, Milady. I trust you as I trust no one else.”

He felt a pair of warm lips brush his forehead. A mother kissing a foolish child to reassure him. Then she was gone again. Not for the first time he thought that being a priest was like living with a nosy roommate. Nothing was ever private. Of course, as a goddess, she was entitled to interfere in his life. It was her role to guide him as much as it was his role to guide others. And suddenly there was an idea for his sermon.

He made his way to where the veresh was stored. Veresh was accurately called the elixir of the gods, for it required a god’s blessing to function at all. Occasionally, enterprising alchemists attempted to create veresh, replacing blessings with some sort of magic, never successfully. Which didn’t stop the less reputable of them from selling something they called veresh. Or using it to create drugs like gold leaf and sizzle. No, veresh was not for mortals to create. And yet, on the rare occasions Veloran came down here to fetch a bottle, he did not think of the gods. Instead it was a reminder of the dark days, when so many infants and young children had died due to an alchemist’s careless experiments. At least he hoped they were careless. To this day, no one really knew if Larish had done it on purpose or if it had been some sort of horrible accident.

Once, there had been so many transitions, a priest almost couldn’t keep up with them. These days, a batch of veresh could last a couple of years. Just thinking about the magnitude of the loss hurt his soul.

He reached the area where he kept the veresh and looked around, puzzled. It should have been right on the table in front of him. Everything else seemed present, but the box was missing. Strange. No one ever came down here.

He searched the general area, then expanded his search and finally, called in some of the other priests to help. Wallac, a priest older than him by almost ten years, came to him.

“Are you sure you didn’t run out and forget? You’re not getting any younger.”

“I make an entire case at a time. There was plenty left.”

“Well what are you suggesting young man? That someone broke into the temple and stole them? Who would be daft enough to do something like that?”

Who indeed? It was madness. In fact, it wasn’t even possible. Not without Sheba being aware of it. But the search turned up nothing and the other priests returned to their duties. Veloran, standing alone in the store room asked the question.

“Milady? Did someone actually steal the box of veresh I had stored here?”

He had expected an answer, but there was none forthcoming. His goddess was silent, which meant one of two things. He had either asked the wrong question, or she wanted him to figure this out for himself.

Who could enter a temple without triggering some kind of alarm. A priest of course. Or a warrior who enjoyed the goddess’ favor…

The high priest groaned aloud, looked up at his goddess, though of course, that wasn’t the direction he’d find her, and spoke.



Pelaro was the seat of government for the Allied Kingdoms of Karmenon. Every kingdom that had joined the pact sent representatives to govern what they called the greater kingdom together. The city had to remain independent, so none of the kingdoms that had signed onto the pact was any more powerful than any other. All nice in theory, of course. In practice, two kingdoms, Zoloa and the Kingdom of Sawheta, were more powerful than the rest, and those kingdoms made the bulk of the decisions, at least the important ones.

Striker saw the walls of the city long before they got close. First, as a Beast Master she retained all of her Hunter skills, and one of those skills allowed her to see further than most humans. Adding to this was the fact that the walls were massive. Finally, trees around the city had been cleared for a good distance. The city removed anything that blocked the view of the surrounding area, so they could see enemies in case an attack was coming.

But Striker wasn’t thinking about the walls, or the politics. Instead she ran through a list of all the taverns she’d visited in that city and wondered how many she might have missed. There was nothing Striker liked more than a tavern, with its warm fireplace, comfortable beds, plentiful booze and of course, potential partners for a sexual interlude. Striker could do without the bed, the booze and the fire, as long as she found herself a man she could make use of and then forget. Preferably, one who would forget her as well. She wasn’t looking for a relationship, she was looking for sex, pure and simple. People thought she was insecure, or that she wanted attention but that wasn’t it at all. The sex energized her in ways she couldn’t explain to anyone. Relationships, on the other hand, she found draining. In truth, it didn’t matter what people thought. It was none of their damned business anyway.

Before they got to the wall, Striker called Stalker. The kreve came and sat, half faithful pet dog, half terrifying monster. Striker knelt beside her, stroking the beautiful black fur on top of her back and along her sides.

“We’re going to have to part ways for now, but we are connected, always. I will be able to find you, and you will be able to find me. Stay away from the city and hunt, but do not kill humans or any other thinking creature. You can only hunt animals. Give those that live here no reason to fear you or hunt you down. Also, take no animal behind a fence. They are there for people, not for you. Do you understand?”

The great beast nodded as if she really did understand. Striker couldn’t figure out if she could understand the words or she was utilizing the mental link between them. She had experienced a similar mental link before and this felt different. More personal. More intimate.

“Go now. And stay out of trouble. We won’t be long.”

With that, the kreve who was no longer a kreve ran off into the edge of the woods, away from the city and the cleared area around it.

The gates were open when they reached them in the late afternoon, but they would be closed before the sun set, as was normal for most walled cities. No one looked twice at her as she passed through the gates, but people did peer at Ressssen, if only obliquely. No doubt the serpent lord was aware of the attention but she was probably used to it. She turned to face Striker.

“Head over to Wanderer’s Rest. Get us set up. Get an extra room for Merck. You have coin?”

Striker nodded.

“Merck and I are going to head to the guild building. Join us there after you’ve secured the rooms.”

Striker nodded and set off. Here the group split, with Merck, Ressssen and Garne heading to the guild building, Borin and Dreek going with her. She wondered how she so often ended up with a salad and a phase shifter, rather than the other human. It seemed odd. Yet this was often the way their group split, at least until the drinking started. Then Borin an Dreek would disappear and the rest would be drinking the night away, or if all went well, several nights.

She reached the Wanderer’s Rest after a short walk from the gate, and stopped outside to admire it. There was, in truth, nothing to distinguish it from any other inn, except for the sign in front, which bore its name and a picture of a silhouette of a man walking with a pack on his back. The building was made of wood, and did nothing to impress. The shutters were open to the air, but there was no glass beneath them, just square gaps in the structure. It looked worn down, but it was clean enough and well maintained.

“You’re showing your age, old girl,” said Striker.

“Pardon?” asked Borin.

“Nothing, let’s go.”

The inside was what she expected, because she’d been here before. Tables and chairs, mostly empty this early, a long bar along the far wall, some cheap paintings on the walls, and a large lizard head over an unlit fireplace. And behind the bar was a middle-aged human woman who glanced up as they came in, and did a double take.

She looked fortyish, with curly brown hair, brown eyes, light brown skin, and a smile on her face that Striker knew was for them.

“Well, well, if it isn’t the Misfits of Karmenon. Get in here, ya scoundrels. Let me have a look at you.”

“Do we owe you money?” asked Striker, not moving any closer.

“Of course you don’t.”

“I just figured anyone this happy to see us is probably expecting to get paid.”

The woman behind the bar threw back her head and guffawed. Striker didn’t think the joke was that funny, but the woman’s laughter was infectious and soon she was laughing as well. Borin and Dreek didn’t join her, and she again wondered how she ended up with them every single time.

She started toward the bar. “Set up a tab, and rooms for all of us, and we’ll need one extra for someone with us.”

“Oh? Merchant? Noble?”


The woman looked surprised. “Maybe he or she can break you of your heathen habits.”

Striker shook her head. “Not going to happen, Grace. My heathen habits are deeply ingrained.”

Grace seemed to study her closely then tsked. “You’ve changed, girl.”


“Your not a Hunter anymore.”

Borin looked like he was about to ask a question, but Dreek stepped on his toe and whispered, “Let it go.”

Striker hadn’t noticed the interplay, focused as she was on the barkeep. “You can see that?”

“Benefits of the class, don’t you know.”

“Wait…you have a class?”

“I’ve been a Merchant for a long time, but becoming a Barkeep as a specialization allows me to read people pretty well.”

“I didn’t know Barkeep was a class. Is it Tier 2?”

“Nah, it’s a Tier 1 specialization. I spend too much time here. I think it’s a dead end though. There’s no where to go from it, unlike Hunter. How did you manage it?”

“Honestly, no idea. It had been so long since I leveled, I guess I skipped a few.”

If the Barkeep was surprised, she didn’t show it. “Well good for you. I’ll get those rooms set up, this one’s on the house.”

Grace poured a glass of whiskey, and Striker downed it in a single gulp. She closed her eyes savoring the burning in the back of her throat. She had needed that.

“Thanks, Grace. I’ll see you later, got some business to take care of.”

“Oh? What’s his name, then?”

Striker shook her head and grinned. “Not that kind of business. We’ll be back.”

The whole while, neither Borin nor Dreek had said a word. The three left the inn together. Outside, Borin addressed her.

“That was banter?”

“It was.”

“I still do not understand what humans get from it.”

Striker thought for a moment. “It’s just comfortable, that’s all.”

Borin seemed to think about this for a long time but didn’t bring it up again.


Dahr stood in Leata’s office, looking at the expectant Chamberlain in defiance. Leata was amused as he hadn’t yet said anything, except good morning. She wondered what was coming next.

“We’re taking the day off from training today.”

“Oh are you? Last I heard, His Majesty King Terrence was in charge.”

Dahr nodded. “Yes, that’s why I’m here. You’re going to tell him that we’re taking the day off.”

Leata raised an eyebrow. “And why would I do that?”

“Because we’re taking the day off today. You should probably pay more attention.”

“Dahr, what’s gotten into you?”

She looked him over. He seemed resolved. He met her gaze unflinchingly.

“We can’t tell you everything and we don’t really have to. You’re training us for our benefit. We will probably make time later in the day for arms training, but we’re at least taking the morning off. If the king has any problem with this, I’ll talk to him, but I don’t think he will. I don’t think you should either.”

Leata stared at him, hard. Finally, after a few minutes, she realized what was different.

“Dahr, did you level?”

“We all did. But we need time to recuperate from what we’ve been through, and before you ask, we won’t be sharing it.”

“May I ask why?”

“What happened is between Sheba, George and us. I don’t think we’re supposed to tell anyone else.”

Leata studied Dahr, but she got the distinct impression he was telling the truth.


Veloran had to wait for his audience with King Terrence, but that wasn’t totally unexpected. He didn’t have an appointment, and the king would no doubt be busy, especially with his royal guests still in town. He was standing near the throne room doors. He waited outside, even though the doors were open. He was never comfortable being alone in the throne room.

As he stood there, Leata approached. He hadn’t had many conversations with her, but he knew her reputation. He performed something that was between a nod and a bow, whereas she simply bowed. Personally, Veloran didn’t care for such niceties, but when you were in the palace, particularly representing the goddess, you had to keep up appearances.

“It’s a bit early for an unscheduled visit. Is everything all right?”

“Mostly…we had a theft from the temple. It’s fairly unusual but what was taken was even more unusual. The thieves took a box of veresh.”

Leata looked perplexed. “Who in the right minds would…” Her voice trailed off. She thought about Dahr leveling and taking the day off today. “Oh no!”

“What is it? Is everything all right?”

Leata shook her head. “I think I might have a pretty good idea of who stole your potions. Come with me.”

Veloran, also having a good idea of who had stolen the potions, followed the chamberlain, who managed to walk at a pace that had him scurrying to keep up.


Eric and Kalutu were alone in the anteroom of his suite. He was exhausted but refused to lie down. He didn’t want to be alone. Instead he passed the time chatting casually with Kalutu about anything but his experiences of the night before. His familiar seemed to sense his need to keep the conversation light, for which Eric was grateful. He needed to relax before he tried to sleep.

There was a knock at the door, and Eric looked at Kalutu. “Would you see who that is?”

Kalutu nodded. “Of course, Prince Eric.”

He moved to the door and opened it. Outside stood Leata and Veloran.

“A moment, while I see if the princes are available.”

Eric was amused, because they could see him sitting on the sofa across from the open doorway.

“Just let them in, Kalutu.”

“As you wish, Prince Eric.”

Eric looked up at them as they approached. Though he had smiled at Kalutu’s faux pas, he hadn’t yet recovered from the night’s ordeal. He must have looked it, because when Leata uttered her first words to him that morning, they were laced with concern.

“Are you all right, Your Highness? You look unwell.”

Prince Eric forced a smile. It didn’t seem to reassure his visitors. “I’m fine. What can I do for you?”

“It’s about the veresh,” said Veloran taking over.


“The potion used in transitions.”


Leata smirked. “You stole a potion and didn’t even know what it was called?”

Eric shook his head. “I stole nothing.”

“So it was Dahr, then.”

Eric didn’t answer. He didn’t want to lie to anyone at the palace, and they obviously knew anyway.

“How did you find out?”

“Two and two will always equal four, my prince. Dahr was in my office to demand the day off for all three of you, and then I saw that he’d leveled.”

This was news to Veloran who leaned forward, studying Eric intently. “Wait, you leveled?”

“We did. All of us.”

“Except me,” chimed in Kalutu.

“Right,” said Eric. “I’m Level 5 now.”

Leata gasped. Veloran’s jaw dropped. “You gained four levels in a single night?”


Veloran fought through his amazement to recapture the stern expression he’d worn a moment before. “Do you know how dangerous it is to use veresh outside the walls of a temple?”

“No. Do you know how dangerous what we’re going to be facing is?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Leata. “Stealing is wrong. Stealing from a temple…what would your father say?”

Eric sighed, then forced himself to sit up straight. “Look, this situation is not a typical situation. We didn’t steal anything. We were given those potions.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Veloran.

“How could anyone break into a Temple of Sheba and take something without her knowing? As far as I can tell, this was part of our training. If we’d asked for it, we’d have gotten it anyway.”

Dahr entered the room at this point, obviously having heard some of the conversation through the door to his room.

“I stole the potions. The responsibility is mine and mine alone.”

“No, it’s not,” said Eric and Veloran at the same time.

They looked at each other, but it was Eric who continued.

“I knew about it. It was my responsibility to turn you in. That’s honorable. I didn’t do that. I’m as guilty as you are.”

“And what about Princess Chari?” asked Leata. “Did she know about this as well?”

The door to Eric’s bedroom opened, and Princess Chari emerged, bleary eyed.

“If you’re going to accuse people, you should do it where there are no princesses trying to sleep,” she grumbled.

Leata looked scandalized, whereas Veloran simply looked amused. “Young lady. You are not to spend time unchaperoned with either of the princes while you are under this roof.”

“That’s sorta funny because I’ve spent time with both of them in the Other Realm with no chaperons. Is this somehow worse?”

Leata was not to be put off. “You can’t get pregnant in the Other Realm.”

Eric jumped in. “I wouldn’t be too sure. I only say this because a couple of weeks ago, you’d have probably said you couldn’t summon a familiar in the Other Realm.”

“That’s a fair point,” said Veloran, thoughtfully.

Leata gave him a sour look. “Whose side are you on?”

Veloran raised his eyebrows in surprise. “That would be Sheba’s. I’d have thought it obvious.”

Leata started to speak, apparently realized she was talking to a high priest and returned her attention to Eric.

“So what you’re saying is you can steal from a temple and not suffer any consequences for it?”

Eric smiled sadly. “You’ll never be able to comprehend precisely what I suffered last night, Leata. I’m sorry that we are training so unconventionally, but I think it might be time for everyone to accept that this is a unique situation. Maybe we all need to reset our expectations. Nothing about this is normal. We can’t keep treating it like it is.”

Leata grew angry. “Rules exist for a reason.”

Eric nodded. “They do. And sometimes they can be broken for a reason as well. Tell me, if Sheba herself told you to break a rule, would you?”

“Is that what happened?” asked Veloran.

“It’s not the point. What is the point is that we’re in a situation that no one has ever seen before. And we can’t depend on old patterns of behavior to deal with it. Anyway, Chari was tired and lay down to get some sleep. I wasn’t even in the room with her.”

Leata sighed. “I’m going to have to talk to your father.”

Eric shrugged. “I would expect nothing less. While you’re at it, tell him to start planning the wedding. Whatever limitations we’re going to be put under, being chaperoned everywhere we go isn’t one of them.”

Leata shook her head and turned to go, but Veloran held up a hand.

“Can I borrow one of those potions? I need it for a transition.”

“Oh, sure,” said Dahr and he ran into his room to get one. When he returned he handed it to the High Priest. “Though you might want to make more of these…just in case.”


Forward to Chapter 18 – The Adventurer’s Guild 

Return to Chapter 16 – Power Leveling 


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