Chapter 11 – My First Dungeon!

Even after spending some time in a dungeon, I don’t really understand them. They make no sense. It almost seems as though the person who created them wants to keep you out and yet wants you to get through them at the same time. If you really want to hide treasure, there has to be cheaper, more effective ways to do so.

The Book of Lost Wisdom, Kalutu

Seventeenth of Learning 1142

Chari stared at the door in front of her. It had been behind her. She looked over her shoulder and the dungeon was as it had always been. Somehow, she had gotten turned around.

Gallery

She was in a dungeon…A DUNGEON! For many adventurers, dungeons represented the ultimate challenge. And though she was trying to find her husband, it didn’t take away from the fact that she was on a holy quest for the goddess in her first dungeon. It felt unreal. She was only fourth level and here she was with a team of nothing but familiars. If she lived to tell this tale, no one would believe it. Assuming there would be a tale as she had yet to get past the corridor she was standing in.

She stood beside the entrance, looking down the same corridor she had seen when she’d first opened the door. The walls were made of various stones of slightly different shades, held together with mortar. In places she could see moisture on the surface of the rocks, as if the dungeon was sweating. She wasn’t sure where the moaning sound was coming from, but it seemed pervasive in this place, as if the dungeon itself was alive. Further along, the corridor split. All academic if they couldn’t get to the end of it.

She had tried going further into the dungeon multiple times, and each time ended up here, facing the door.

“It has to be a confusion spell of some kind,” said Sam, finally. “They’re not that uncommon in dungeons.”

“It didn’t seem to bother Bruce,” Kalutu pointed out. “I wonder why.”

Sam looked thoughtful. “You know, Bruce was walking on the wall when he passed us. Perhaps this confusion spell is cast on the floor.”

“You think we can jump over it?” asked Chari.

“It’s something to try anyway,” said Sam.

Chari walked forward slowly, until she saw the door in front of her again. She could see why it was called confusion. She was completely disoriented. She drew a dagger from her belt and scratched a mark on the wall in the exact place it was safe to stop. Then she walked back and walked up to that point again.

“Okay, so in theory, if I jump the spell, it should allow me to continue forward?”

“In theory,” said Sam.

“A moment, please,” said Kalutu. He had removed a rock from the pouch on his belt and slid it hard across the floor. Apparently confusion didn’t work on inanimate objects, because it kept going past Chari’s mark. They watched until it disappeared just past where the confusion spell started.”

“Kalutu?” said Chari.

“Yes?”

“Why do you have a rock in your pouch?”

“It’s my lucky rock.”

“Your lucky rock? You do realized we just watched it vanish.”

“It’s okay, I have a backup.”

Sam couldn’t take it anymore. “You have a backup lucky rock?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time. You can’t deny that it has paid off.”

Chari shook her head. “Would someone like to tell me what happened to Kalutu’s…lucky rock?”

“I suspect it’s either a teleport or a pit trap,” said Sam.

“It would be useful to know which.”

Kalutu nodded. “The question is, how can we find out?”

Sam had an answer. He pulled a leather cord out of his pouch and called Wingman over. Then he made a small loop and tied it so that when pulled it would tighten. Sam held up his arm and Wingman hopped onto it, picking his leg up to make it easier for Sam to place the loop around it.

“Wingman will fly across the mark and land on the other side, then walk forward. If it’s a pit, he can only go as far as the end of the tether. If it’s a teleport, the tether will be severed, and he’ll try to return to us. If he can’t, we’ll have to decide if we should risk following or not.”

“Absolutely not!” said Kalutu. “We can’t just send Wingman off like that. He’d be alone.”

“But he’d be able to track you, and make his way back to us, and he has the advantage of being able to fly.”

Chari nodded. “He’s right, Kalutu. We’re stuck at the dungeon entrance for ten minutes already. We’re going to have to take chances at some point.

“I agree, except we’re not the ones taking those chances.”

I don’t mind. It feels good to be useful. It has been a long time.

Kalutu started to speak and sighed instead. “Very well. Proceed.”

Sam tethered Wingman and sent him flying down the corridor, past the mark Chari had made. When he descended shortly after, he landed on the floor. Nothing happened. One step. Another. Everyone was holding their breath, except perhaps for Obby who didn’t breathe, at least not in the sense the rest of them did. Chari wondered about that, but not for too long. She was still getting used to having a giant cube as part of her team.

Another step. Another. And then he was gone. Vanished. The tether, however, wasn’t severed, it fell into the floor. Wingman flew back out of the pit and down the corridor back to the rest of them.

The pit is not wide. If I mark where it starts, most of us can jump it.

“Bear too?” asked Kalutu.

Wingman cocked his head to the side. It took Chari a moment to realize he was looking at Bear.

I can make it.

As can I.

The last voice was Obby, clearly anticipating the next question.

“If Wingman marks where the pit starts, we should all be able to jump it,” said Kalutu, though he didn’t sound that confident to Chari.

“Are you certain?”

“No, but my familiars are, and I trust them.”

Chari scowled at that, but then nodded. “Wingman, get into position and let’s test this theory. I’ll go first.”

“You are the leader of this expedition,” said Kalutu. “Therefore you are not expendable. Let me go instead.”

There was a chorus of psychic protest, which Kalutu ignored. However, Chari wasn’t having it.

“No, Kalutu. A leader would never ask anyone to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. And since I have to get past anyway, I’m going to go first.”

Kalutu started to answer, thought better of it, and nodded curtly. Wingman took off and landed near where the pit started. He inched forward until he fell in and flew back out, landing on the rim of the pit.

“You’ll have to jump twice,” said Kalutu. “Once at your mark and the next where Wingman is, but you should be safe to rest in the middle.”

Chari nodded. She spent a few minutes stretching before making the attempt. It seemed prudent. Then, without warning, she took off down the corridor, jumped over the confusion spell and without pausing, jumped a second time. With the running jump, she easily cleared the pit. She drew her sword and tapped with it back the way she had come until she found the edge. Wingman had been right. It wasn’t far across.

“There, we should all make it past.”

They went in sequence. Some of their number like Mutt made the jump easily. Watching Bear’s attempt was an exercise in self control. It seemed like an impossible task for a creature that large and heavy. Chari hadn’t even realized that bears could jump. Admittedly, Wingman had to scurry out of his way, but the platform was just big enough for Bear to rest between the confusion spell and the pit. Obviously Gruff, the goat, had no trouble with the crossing. Drake, the lizard, ran up the wall and across with no issue at all.

All that was left on the far side now was Sam, Flapper the beaver and Obby. Sam picked up Flapper. Then he ran to the mark Chari had made and leapt across both obstacles as if they weren’t there.

“That’s kind of impressive,” said Chari.

“I’m a squirrel. Jumping is sort of my thing.”

“I suppose that’s true. I hadn’t thought about it.”

Now Obby was alone. They all watched while the ooze expanded until his mass touched both walls of the corridor. Then, using a pseudopod on each side, he pulled himself first about a foot off the floor, then forward, first one side then the other, along the walls. It passed over both the mark and the pit with no issues. With all of them safely on the other side, Chari was able to relax. Only then did she realize how tense she had been.

“This is going to go very slowly if we have to keep stopping for things like that,” said Chari.

Before anyone could reply, a shape came at them from further down the corridor. Chari and Kalutu both drew their swords, but it was only Bruce returning.

I don’t think obstacles like that are our biggest concern. This place is crawling with trodara.

“Trodara?” asked Kalutu.

Chari’s eyes blazed in the lantern light. “The weakest of the dara class enemies. We can take them.”

“I wouldn’t underestimate them,” said Sam. “Many adventurers do, even some higher level ones, because one or two trodara aren’t really an issue. When they come in numbers, no one is safe. How many are there?”

Too many to count.

“Bruce says there are too many to count.”

“Not quite the answer I was hoping for,” said Chari.

“I still don’t know what they are,” said Kalutu.

“They’re black furry creatures with fangs and talons. They’re not particularly strong, brave or fast. They’ll scavenge if they can get away with it, rather than hunt and kill,” said Chari

“They don’t sound that bad,” said Kalutu. “How do you know so much about them?”

“They’re pretty common, and they’re in many stories. I even saw a captive trodara once at a fair. It didn’t really look very dangerous.”

Sam shook his head. “As I said, one or two aren’t. But they’re fast enough, and they’re vicious when cornered. And large packs of them can take down even a higher level adventurer through sheer numbers. Whatever you do, please, please don’t underestimate them.”

“I’ll treat them the way I treat any threat,” said Chari.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Kalutu. “I know something of Eric’s skills, and he was able to keep a percentage of the enemy away from you, allowing you to kill them in smaller numbers.”

“Eric wasn’t with me when I fought the zombies, and I did quite okay.”

“In a test designed by the gods, who weren’t trying to kill you. Remember Princess Chari, this isn’t the Other Realm, and neither Prince Dahr nor Prince Eric are here to back you up.”

“That’s true,” said Chari, “but I have you. I’ve seen how hard you work in the practice yard. You may not have seen combat yet, but I have faith in you.”

Kalutu paused for a long moment, apparently not used to that kind of praise. “I will do my utmost to live up to your expectations.”

“We’ll be fine,” said Sam, “if we don’t just charge in. Communication is the key here. As long as we’re all on the same page, we can do this.”

There was nothing else to say. They all stood for a moment longer, before Chari looked at Bruce.

“Which way?”

Bruce sent the mental equivalent of a shrug to Kalutu, who relayed the response.

“Okay, which way will bring us closer to Eric and Dahr?”

Kalutu pointed right.

“Everyone be ready. Sheba is watching us.”

Sam looked around. “Do you think so?”

“I know it.”

Sam looked around again, as if unnerved by the idea he was being watched by a goddess, then he shrugged. “You’ve seen her, right?”

“I have.”

“Is she hot?”

Chari shook her head, laughed and started down the right corridor. Behind, she heard Kalutu starting to admonish the familiar about the dangers of offending the goddess, but she didn’t think Sheba cared. From what she’d seen so far, she suspected the goddess of honor had quite the sense of humor.

*

Striker let herself run, exhilarated by the freedom of not having to hold back. Stalker beside her, they raced through the hills. Out of sight of the Misfits of Karmenon, she was free to let go. After all the months of hiding her true abilities, it felt amazing.

She was moving toward The Allied Kingdoms of Karmenon, not certain why she had run in that direction. They would be following, she knew, probably tracking Stalker. All to the good. Let them catch up with her now. Even with horses, they’d have a hard time.

She had run through the afternoon and into early evening, not bothering to stop for meals or even nightfall. She could see quite well in the dark, and didn’t need to eat or drink. In fact, alcohol didn’t affect her, though she liked to pretend it did. Being reborn had many benefits, but not being able to get drunk was, emphatically, not one of them.

As she ran, fragments of her life flashed through Striker’s mind, uninvited. Puzzle pieces that could never form a cohesive picture, because something was wrong with her—had always been wrong.

When she’d been young, she had never been able to sit still or behave. She could never be what her parents had wanted her to be. Her father had been strict, her mother complacent. Her two older sisters never had a childhood. They had been raised, as Striker herself had been, to be perfect little adults. But Striker had never learned the trick of that, and it had led to punishments, beatings, even lectures at the local temple.

Like mostly everyone in the small town she grew up in, her family worshipped Se Karn. Who else could you be expected to worship when you lived in Death’s Doorstep? More than once, she found herself being lectured by stern-faced priests or priestesses, trying to explain the price she’d eventually pay for misbehaving. Nothing worked. Which didn’t stop any of it from happening. Punishment had become a normal part of Striker’s existence.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t wanted to comply, she just hadn’t known how to go about it. Nothing made sense to her, as if she had been born broken. That was when she started hanging around with the outcasts, the kids her age who didn’t fit into life in a small town. Townsfolk had many names for such people. Hooligans, vagabonds, vagrants. Striker called them friends. The one thing they all seemed to have in common was a healthy disrespect for authority.

Her new compatriots had dreams and plans. Some wanted to be adventurers. To become rich and famous. They would be chosen by gods and given levels. They would overcome the petty day-to-day boredom of small-town existence and do something with their lives.

She wondered where most of them were now. Probably dead. If the drink didn’t kill them, the rough lifestyle did. They often had nowhere to sleep and little to eat. Many ended up turning to lives of crime, but not Striker. She still had dreams of being an adventurer. Of protecting people. Of treating them right. She was undisciplined, but her heart had always been in the right place.

When she was sixteen, Striker had been touched by Sheba. She hadn’t expected it. No one ever really did, even though they all said it would happen to them. Some of her “friends” grew jealous and froze her out. Others tried to befriend her just because they knew Sheba liked her. It changed the way she thought about people. No one really cared about her. They only cared about what they could get from her.

She moved through friends like a tourist, attaching herself to one group after another, never staying long enough to form any real attachments. Though she learned something from each group, Striker never stayed long enough to learn to trust any of them—the lesson she needed to learn the most.

What she did learn helped her advance as a hunter. She learned how to use a sling. How to track a quarry. How to set traps and snares. It always amazed her how many people didn’t live in towns and cities. People who fell through the cracks and didn’t belong anywhere. People who didn’t mind living rough. They formed tiny communities, with their own politics and their own laws. Striker didn’t care for any of that, so she moved on frequently.

The dream to become an adventurer never left her. To help people. To stand up for what was right. Striker did what she had to do to survive, but she learned and grew and leveled. And when she was level 3, she met a group of vigilantes passing through. All low level like her. None of them belonged to the guild, but they spend some time hunting down bounties like local outlaws in small towns that the guild had no presence in. When there was no work, there was alcohol. It was a win-win situation.

Striker didn’t remember any of their names, and barely could recall how any of them looked, but she was thankful to that group, because they gave her her first bow. It was a crappy bow that one of them had been using when he’d picked up an upgrade. It had been Striker’s prized possession. She’d practiced with it endlessly, even learning how to make her own arrows, so she could practice more.

Striker was a natural with the bow, displaying skills far beyond her level. But politics and a leadership power struggle in that group pushed her out, as she had refused to choose sides. Continually frustrated by the stupidity of people, she tried group after group, before finally finding a team of people who all wanted to be adventurers. They had dreams. They had talent. And, like her previous team, they had a drinking problem.

They were very drunk the day they traveled further afield than they’d previously dared to a place where the monsters were larger and fiercer. A place where a large female kreve happened to be out hunting. A day Striker would never forget, for it was the day she had died. Ironically, she could never forget that day and yet remembered so little about it, except the feeling of the kreve’s great jaws closing around her arm. The sounds of her bones breaking. The sight of her blood splattering. The sheer terror of being up against a beast against which you had no defense.

She fought like a small child trying to avoid being dragged to church by her mother. She had few clear recollections about her actual death or the moments that led up to it. She just remembered that it hurt worse than anything she’d ever experienced. People said there was a certain peace in death, but all she’d felt was the violence.

*

Twenty-eighth of Birth 1126 -Flashback

It was dark. Oppressive. Striker felt pressure all over her body, like a warrior in plate armor had decided to take a nap and use her as a bed. She had yet to realize she was underground. She didn’t taste the dirt that fell into her mouth, though she felt it. As the fog in her mind started to clear, Striker eventually figured out what was going on. As soon as she realized what must have happened, she struggled frantically through the loosely packed earth, coughing up dirt and small rocks. She was alive. Alive! She remembered the kreve, pictured it as if it still had her clamped in its massive jaws, but when she checked her body, no injuries corresponded to that recollection. Had she dreamt it?

No, she was sure of that. It had happened. No dream could have possibly been that vivid. The pain, the stench of its breath, the sounds of bones snapping. There is no way she could have survived that attack. What did that leave? There was only one possible conclusion.

She had died, after all. Was this the afterlife then? She looked around. It was dark, but she could make out a copse of trees and little else. She could feel the ground beneath her bare feet, which was when she realized she was naked. Whoever had buried her had stripped her as well. She wondered why she didn’t feel cold.

The possibility that she had become undead, become the enemy, didn’t occur to her even then. She really thought she had died, and no one was around to correct that misconception.

She had no idea which way to go, so she walked in a random direction, searching for answers. The area didn’t look like the place she had died, lending credence to the idea that she had departed the realm of the living. Well, she had wanted adventure and got it. In the future, she would confine her search for excitement to the times she was sober. A lesson learned the way most of her lessons had been learned, too late to do her any good.

It took a long time before she ran into another person, a man who walked with a slight limp, with the bushiest eyebrows she’d ever seen, as if he’d pasted two caterpillars to his forehead. Twenty years later, she wouldn’t be able to picture his face, but she could never forget those eyebrows.

Under other circumstances, she might have been embarrassed by her nudity, but her desire for information eclipsed every other concern.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Sometimes, rebirth can be disorienting.”

“Rebirth?”

“You were dead, and now you are not.”

“Not dead?”

“No. You are reborn.”

Striker studied the man suspiciously. “Reborn? You mean I’m undead.”

“That’s what humans call us.”

“I’m human.”

“You were.”

Striker started to reply but stopped herself. Was it true? She reached inside, searching for that piece of Sheba that was always with her. She scoured her mind, exploring it as she had explored the landscape, but there was nothing…nothing…something? Something. An entity was inside her, but it felt nothing like Sheba. It occupied the same space, but took up less room, somehow. It felt like it was there, and yet not there at the same time. Like if she paid too much attention to it, it would fade.

Who are you?

They call me the Undead King.

What do you call yourself?

Nylus.

Why have you done this to me?

Done what? Saved your life?

No. You robbed me of my death.

Did I? I don’t recall doing that. Perhaps you don’t know as much as you think you do.

I know enough.

But even as she said it, she realized it wasn’t true. She only knew what people had told her over the years. Her parents, the priests, she didn’t believe most of what they said, why should she believe this?

I am no longer connected to Sheba.

That is true. When you die, the tether to your god is destroyed.

I hate it.

I’m sorry.

Are you?

Yes. Is it so hard to believe that I care about my people?

Striker had no answer for that. And so many years later, as she ran with her kreve, leading the search party further away from the princes, she still didn’t know. What she did know was that the humans she had known all her life had gotten it wrong. The Undead King wasn’t some hideous monster, nor was he a tyrant. He hadn’t made her kidnap the princes, he hadn’t even asked her to do it. The request had come from the Undead Queen. She wondered, not for the first time, why he called himself the Undead King if every one of his subjects called themselves reborn. Perhaps it made him look more ferocious to those who would threaten his kingdom.

It was clear to her that humans and the reborn didn’t understand each other, and she felt like she was stuck in the middle. She didn’t like all people, but she liked enough of them, and her transition was too recent for her to have completely abandoned her humanity. And she liked the reborn she’d met too, even if it wasn’t many of them.

She’d met a few in the early days, when Eyebrows had taken her to what Striker euphemistically thought of as the orientation village. There were a number of these small, temporary encampments along the entire length of the border, far enough inside so that they wouldn’t easily be discovered. Their main function was to help new reborn deal with the transition to undeath. Striker had learned a lot just listening to people. She felt accepted there, and even liked by a few of the people. It was a comfortable existence.

But that only lasted a short time, until she started to get sick. It had started slowly. She felt run down. Tired. Those in the camp, most of them, were confused, but a couple of the more experienced reborn had seen it before. After a time, it was determined that Striker had a defect. Her rebirth had suffered a problem. She was told it could happen if a person was buried too far from the center of Xarinos, or when the wounds that caused death had done so much damage that they couldn’t be fully healed by the process. She had to laugh. She couldn’t even die right.

They had told her she had a life force leak. Most of the undead were able to draw enough life force directly from ambient magic to continue to function. But sometimes there was an imbalance. They called it a leak, but they didn’t really know what it was. All they knew was that the amount of magic she was absorbing wasn’t enough to keep her functional.

That was the bad news. The good news was that whatever force created the reborn (it wasn’t the Undead King since the reborn predated his arrival in Xarinos), had ways of helping those who awoke with flaws to adapt to their new situation. Very often, those who suffered life force leaks were given the ability to drain life force from living beings. She was told that it worked best with humans, but animals would do as well.

So Striker, no longer a servant of Sheba, had remained a hunter, but instead of using a bow, she found herself using a new set of powers. The power wasn’t just draining life force. If she could meet an animal’s eyes, she could freeze it in place. She could approach it without it running away in fear, at least if she moved slowly enough. And when she placed a hand on its warm, shaking body, she could drain the life from it. It was fascinating and horrible at the same time. She hated it, but she felt a little better every time she did it. Apparently humans would have been a better choice, but it was a line she refused to cross. That she could make that determination made her happy.

She had worried that she would be driven to suck the life from humans. She didn’t want to become undead as the humans saw undead. She couldn’t have lived with that burden. She didn’t want to be the evil creature who sucked the life out of her innocent victims, even if she suspected there were enough guilty victims around that she wouldn’t have to take any of the good ones. But no, even that was too much. Too evil. Sheba would not have approved.

And the Undead King was okay with that, or at least, she wasn’t punished for feeling that way. She wasn’t punished for being good, as she saw good. Even now, she didn’t have to kidnap the princes. She chose to do it. Orders from the Undead Queen and even the king, were merely strong suggestions. There was no penalty for saying no. They would just find someone else willing to do it. If Striker did it, at least she could keep them safe, which would have been easier if they had cooperated more. She couldn’t blame them, though.
The princes would have seen her as she herself had seen the other reborn. They were a product of the culture they had been born into. There was no reason for them to know the truth. And there was no good way to convince them otherwise.

For a long time, she had lived on animals. It was supremely unsatisifying and she had to hunt a lot to get her fill of lifeforce. It was unpleasant, time consuming, and eventually, unsustainable. But that was only half her life.

The rest of it involved going out on patrols to see if they could intercept defecting humans. Striker had lived in Death’s Doorstep all her life, and had no idea this sort of thing happened. People, living people, defecting to Xarinos, to die and become reborn.

She could understand the few people that came over that were dying, sick or even old, but many of the people were young and healthy. She talked to them sometimes, trying to understand why they were betraying humanity. Most didn’t see it that way.

Some were just scared of dying the final death and wanted to live forever. Some were actually fascinated by undeath and wanted to try it out, as if they were signing up for dance lessons. And some were just rebeling against what they felt was a repressive society. Striker was surprised there weren’t more of those. Had she thought about it, she could have been one of them.

Her life, or unlife, had become hunting and patrols. There are little time to spare between them. She still didn’t feel quite right, but she consumed enough animals to at least function and that had to be enough.

Striker was feeling more and more tired as time went on. Her need to find animals to drain increased, until she was spending more than half her time hunting. Not an impossible situation, but definitely not ideal.

Then one day, while she was out looking for some poor animal to drain of its life force, she ran into a man who was quite clearly a warrior. Like all reborn, she immediately knew a living being when in the presence of one. She thought she might have to defend herself, but that wasn’t the case. It was just another man who was scared of dying the final death.

He introduced himself, and damned if she could remember his name, but she remembered what he looked like perfectly. He had jet black hair that went down to his shoulders, a neatly trimmed goatee, and eyes like emeralds. He also had the body of a warrior. She wondered why a man like that would be scared of death, but she never asked him.

She sat down with him and explained what would happen and answered his questions, asked a few of her own, and as time passed, she realized that she quite liked him. She hadn’t really expected to feel any sexual urges, but she did. She could tell he was interested in her as well. As time passed, one thing led to another, and the next thing she knew, she was in his arms and they were kissing. She wasn’t even sure how it had happened.

She had been completely swept up in it. One thing led to another, and pretty soon, though they were outside in what was little more than a wasteland, they shed their clothes and all but attacked each other. Certainly to anyone passing it would have looked like that. She couldn’t remember ever being that aroused.

When it was over, she felt amazing. Truly amazing. And he had fallen asleep. Typical man. It took her quite a while before she realized that he wasn’t sleeping, but he was dead. She had drained all the life from him. He was her first victim.

She carried him back to camp, feeling horrible and amazing at the same time. She kept telling herself that he had come here to die, so she hadn’t really do anything wrong. She had yet to realize that this was a way forward for her. If the energy from humans was this good, there were enough of them coming through that it might solve her problems. She doubted most men would object to death by sex. And as time passed, she learned a few things.

The first lesson was to have sex closer to the burial site they had selected, so that she wouldn’t have to carry a man twice her weight countless miles before he could be buried. It was a good thing she had so much energy.

As time passed, she experimented with her abilities, and learned she could partially drain people and leave them alive, that she could affect their memories, or even control their minds when they were in that weakened state. For that matter, she could easily make men, and most women, want her. That bit of information provided her with a way to leave. She could do anything she wanted now. She didn’t have to stay here. But she didn’t have anywhere else to go, and she had grown comfortable with the reborn in the area, and didn’t mind the work she was doing.

The problem was, not all of the reborn in the area were comfortable with what Striker was doing. It wasn’t obvious at first, but over time, she could see the signs. Some didn’t care at all, some were a bit put off, and some were horrified. She had no idea why. It wasn’t like she was hurting anyone, or even doing anything that her “victims” hadn’t agreed to. Perhaps some people carried with them their old moralities, and judged her.

There was no one great event that led to her moving from that place. There was just the feeling of having outstayed her welcome. Striker had always been one to respond to the prevailing winds and when the situation grew uncomfortable, she had a choice to make. Go further into Xarinos, or return to Death’s Doorstep.

She had no guarantee that going further into Xarinos wouldn’t yield the same results, and there’d certainly be less living folks there to feed on, so in the end, it hadn’t been much of a decision at all. The question was, where to go.

Given her situation, returning to her family wasn’t really an option. She’d need a steady supply of men for sex and her family simply wouldn’t tolerate that type of behavior. It was one of the reasons she had started hanging out with adventurers and other “undesirables” in the first place.

Finally, she thought about her family, not as they were then, but as they might be now. Her mother and father were almost certainly dead, but her two sisters were probably still alive. They’d be a lot older, of course. She wondered how they were. She wondered how they’d react if she suddenly showed up at their door, still in her early twenties, pet kreeve beside her. For the briefest of moments, she had the desire to head in that direction, if for no other reason than to get her out of her current situation. But no, she hadn’t cared enough about them to find them when she still lived, there was no reason to seek them out after she’d died.

In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that the Misfits of Karmenon were the first family she had ever had. She liked them, they respected her privacy and no one judged her. Well that had been the case. Most likely that had changed since she last saw them.

Staying with the Misfits had always been a fantasy, she realized. She wasn’t like them, and they would eventually pick up on it. Better to cut her ties now. But it hurt that she had to do it this way.

Had it not been for Merck Vanderoth, she could have continued with that team for a very long time. But Merck was a potential threat to her people, and her happiness was nothing when weighed against that.

Not for the first time, she wondered what a single priest could do against the Undead King, a being over a thousand years old. A being who the combined armies of the world couldn’t fight head on. A being who was missing these fifty years, exploring a place she’d never heard of. Who writes this stuff? She had been a part of it almost from the beginning, and it was hard to wrap her head around.

The princes had, apparently, experienced their own brand of insanity. Dahr being Level 4 made no more sense than Striker herself being Level 10. And again she thought about who was really behind all this, and what it meant, not just for herself, not just for the reborn, but for the world as a whole. There was no obvious way to connect anything that had happened with anything else, at least that she could see.

There were great forces at work here, perhaps greater than the Undead King himself. She wondered about that. If something could defeat the Undead King, if he ceased to exist, what would happen to her?

Striker had not been lying when she’d told Dahr that the undead were simply defending themselves against a world that wanted to see them gone. She wondered what the great and noble King Terrence would do if he had been confronted by such a threat. What length would he go to to protect his people? How much blood would be spilled in the process? It was easy to judge her people in the absence of facts.

And yet her instructions had had nothing to do with Merck Vanderoth. She wondered about that too. She had only be instructed to bring the princes to the Undead Queen. If Merck was the threat, shouldn’t he have been the target? Or did the Undead Queen know something that Merck himself did not.

So many questions and not enough answers. Having no better plan, she continued toward Karmenon. Perhaps, if they got far enough ahead, they could stop off at Tarlet, and she could recharge. If not, the energy she’d taken from Maynor should last her a good long time. The life force she had received from him was far stronger than what she got from her usual victims. High level humans were just so tasty. At the thought, she increased her speed, enjoying the freedom of not having to conserve her energy.

It was too bad, she thought. It seemed like Maynor was the kind of man she actually might have enjoyed getting to know better.