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The Ruined Temple: A LitRPG Adventure (Eternal Online Book 2)

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2020
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THE RUINED TEMPLE

©2020 TJ REYNOLDS





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Print and eBook formatting, and cover design by Steve Beaulieu.

Cartography by S.E. Davidson

Published by Aethon Books LLC.

Aethon Books is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead is coincidental.

All rights reserved.





ALSO IN SERIES





THE SHATTERED SWORD

THE RUINED TEMPLE





Contents




I. Trouble with Iron



1: “Many consider food and good company a proper gift. Weapons, especially sharp ones, are my preference.”



2: “Like water to a wick, adventure comes to those who have chosen to stand against evil.”



3: “In the far reaches of t; he world, under a lost and lonely hill, lies The Tomb of Horrors.”



4: “Often, it is the same wounds that wake us at night that shape our hearts and bolster our spines.”



5: “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen.”



6: “Gold is fine, no doubt. But trinkets of the heart are what we remember most.”



7: “Nothing will make you feel stronger than holding an axe… except maybe two axes, of course.”





II. Trail of Salt



1: “There will be water if God wills it.”



2: “If you leave your home behind, there is no promise, and certainly no guarantee it’ll be the same when you return.”



3: “You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.”



4: “Madness, as you know, is like gravity, all it takes is a little push.”



5: “For my handling of the situation at Tombstone, I have no regrets.”





III. A War on Two Fronts



1: “I’m not proud, but I am happy; and happiness blinds, I think, more than pride does.”



2: “What good are wings if you lack the wings to use them?”



3: “Two days’ hunger made a fine sauce for anything.”



4: “They say necessity is the mother of invention. They’re wrong. Desperation is.”



5: “But then a sight she'd never seen made her jump and say, ‘Look, a golden winged ship is passing my way.’”



6: “Battle is a mirror. What you see of yourself in its pristine surface is often more frightening than the bloody bits.”



7: “But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.”



8: “Not if we hold true to each other.”



9: “Destruction cowers to mark what deeds are done.”



10: “Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”





IV. What is Yours



1: “Nothing like the dire peals of a battle horn to stir the blood to action.”



2: “A leader is no more than the sum of her followers.”



3: “Defense is the best defense. Everyone knows that.”



4: “And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from afar ancestral voices prophesying war!”



5: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”



6: “History is a cyclic poem written by time.”



7: “What is there so fearful as the expectation of evil tidings delayed?”



8: “But because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads.”



9: “It is best to open your eyes and see the storm coming… but oh how tempting it is to squint.”





*Quest Complete!*





ALSO IN SERIES



APPENDIX



Groups you can find TJ on



LitRPG





Part I





Trouble with Iron





Relevant Progress of Hana Kotoba

Status: Chilling at checkpoint. Lucky to be alive.

Class: God Slayer, Bane of Bears, still not a Pathfinder.

Items: A dump truck full of body parts, expensive ones.

To Do: Quest giver? Has anybody seen the quest giver?





1: “Many consider food and good company a proper gift. Weapons, especially sharp ones, are my preference.”





— Sara Dandre





HANA





The town of Benham churned like a barrel of beetles, everyone vying for a better view of Tumsley. The strange man was not particularly popular in town, gruff and outlandish as he was. Yet after he had applied so much of his time and knowledge in the harvesting of the great bear, the townsfolk had begun to view him in an entirely new light.

“A bit to the left,” Garren called from below. “Yep! That’s it, that’s perfect.”

Tumsley was adjusting the tilt of a massive, freshly bleached skull above the yawning entrance of the town hall. He made one more adjustment, then he lifted both of his hands up, leaning back as far as his perch on the ladder would accommodate. “There! Close as a Sunday mornin’ shave and good enough for now!” the man declared as he began his descent.

When he’d finally made it down and the ladder was removed, the crowd cheered in an uproar.

You humans sure love bones, Pachi said to me as we watched from a safe distance.

I laughed. Yes, you might be right. You should see how we react to shiny things like gold and gems. We are an odd lot, aren’t we?

“Well done, well done!” a man called out. “And we’re all hungry now, I’m sure.” I’d briefly met him during the operation yesterday and was not yet sure what I felt in regard to his character. The mayor, one Sherman Hesperine, was a man who valued top hats and embroidery more than he valued sweat and hard work. “There is space and seats enough for everyone. No need to push or shove. Once we’re all inside, we can distribute the food. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is going to eat their fill today!”

Another cheer rose again, no doubt coming from the people who manned the farms at the outskirts of town. They all worked hard, and if Garren was anything like his fellows, many of them lived a lean life.

I shuffled in with Madi, everyone giving us space as our pets entered the building. The sight of a bear and an enfield had originally made everyone quite nervous, but Pachi made quick friends with all of the smallest children in town, and Madi’s new best friend had made a display of wrestling with her the night before. Madi had won, but it was a close thing. I was willing to bet that it would be the last time she would be able to do so.

The town hall was little more than a massive barn, high-walled and with a ceiling that was no less than forty feet high. I was impressed, not by its structure or the composition of its materials, but of the sheer size of the beams that held the roof aloft. Considering Benham’s location in the mountains, the building must have taken a year or longer to assemble.

People continued to file in, at least two hundred in total. They had come from hamlets and settlements all around. Most were exhausted from the night’s labor. Tumsley and I had worked away, harvesting the bear as quickly as possible. After an hour or so, we had been joined by the butcher and his apprentice along with a team of others who I figured to be hunters and skinners. All were more knowledgeable than I was, and as I took occasional breaks, I was pleased to see my Animal Harvesting skill going through the roof.

Pachi and I sat up on a low dais that acted as a sort of stage. Alysand, Tumsley, and Madi and her bear all flanked me. We sat on formal chairs with velvet padding. The mayor came up last of all and lifted his hands to quiet the room.

Nearly a minute went by until all the throats had been cleared, coughs had been coughed, and the last few boasting men and squalling children quieted.

The mayor spoke with the gravity and formality of a politician. “Today is a fine day. We are here for a feast, something our small town has not had the resources nor the leisure time to afford in years. Let us first give a hand to these brave adventurers who have rid our hills of a danger far beyond our control.”

Clapping and jeers shook the rafters as the town of Benham showed the extent of its gratitude. I blushed furiously but didn’t lower my eyes. The mayor wasn’t done, though.

“And this little thing here, Hana, am I right? This is the warrior who landed the killing blow. Well done! Well done!” He clapped his gloved hands in a flutter of excitement, his face scrunching up with a sickening display of glee. The man was certainly rehearsed.

When everyone quieted down once more, the mayor called for the food, and people brought out huge bowls of steaming bear soup, providing everyone with a tasty meal. Afterward, a massive chunk of bread and wedge of cheese followed. I ate until my belly felt near to bursting then called for another bowl. All it needed was a little hot sauce, but otherwise, it was delicious. A notification popped up and caught me off guard.





Status Effect: Bear Soup Blessing

Bear Soup Blessing: By indulging in this divine dish, you have received a blessing from the gods themselves. +5 Stamina, +5 Strength, +50 Health Regeneration, +20% XP gained. Duration: 24 hours.





I exchanged a look with Madi. The buff was more than helpful, but it was a pity we weren’t adventuring. I shrugged and enjoyed the look of flushed vitality that filled everyone’s faces. Even the NPC townsfolk, it seemed, were enjoying the benefits of the meal.

We finished early, and, having grown a bit sick of the attention afforded by literally sitting on a stage while eating, Madi and I ducked out and enjoyed some fresh air. The sun had fallen, and the sky was a purple and gray that reminded me of lilac.

“Little bit awkward, eh?” Madi asked, kicking at a stone with the toe of her boot.

“You’re telling me. I thought the mayor was gonna raise my hand in the air like a boxing champ.”

The warrior’s face became unexpectedly solemn at that. “You do deserve it though, Hana. I just figured you wiped. I felt awful that we’d killed Alysand. He is pretty damn magical, but I didn’t think there was any way to resurrect him. Then I log back in and find you there with your katana stuck in the thing’s head! You’re a badass.” Before another wave of awkwardness took us both, she thumped me in the arm with a meaty fist.

“Ow!” I said. “Watch it or I’ll stab you next. Hey, what’s your bear’s name by the way? You must have come up with something by now.”

Madi grinned, her white teeth sparkling out of her golden face. “Tejón! His name is Tejón. It means badger. Can’t you see it?”

I looked at the animal and considered. It was in many ways a typical bear, equal parts roly-poly and raging kill machine. But when I looked at the bone plates flattening the hair on the crown and cheeks of the beast, I saw that its head had the likeness of a badger.

“Okay, I like it, Tejón it is,” I replied as I watched Pachi bait the creature with a series of well-placed nips. The bear swiped and pursued her up a hill, disturbing a bush every now and then, nearly uprooting the poor plants when he did. “Has he grown? He looks bigger than last night.”

“He has, and he will continue to do so,” Tumsely said from behind us. He’d just emerged, his belly tight and protruding from his leather vest. “He’ll grow like a storm in the peaks, that one.”

“How can he grow so fast?” Madi asked.

“When a creature of this world bonds with a traveler, they will grow to match the strength of their companion. You have become powerful, warrior Madi, and so will your bear. When you take it into battle, the growth will be explosive.” Tumsley explained all this as he leaned against the building.

We watched our two magnificent pets as they continued to tear up and down the slope, Pachi always a step ahead. It was amazing to think of Tejón growing to be the size of his mother. How Madi would manage to feed him was beyond me.

Suddenly, people began to pour out of the building, chairs, benches and table in their hands. They were carrying them away to all parts of the town, many straight back to the church, which was just a hundred feet or so away down the main corridor through town. When a bit of room had cleared, I peeked inside and saw the people of Benham were clearing the dance floor. I made my exit just as quickly. Dancing was not for me.

Music began just as abruptly—two men with guitars, a boy pounding away on a set of hand drums, and three beautiful women singing. The music was what people IRL might call folk. It was catchy, springy, and despite myself, I found my toe tapping along merrily.

Alysand came out, quite ruffled. “If you will accept my company, I had better stay away from such an arrangement. I’ve been asked three times already for a dance, and I am not inclined.”

Madi laughed at his discomfort, and I couldn’t help but giggle myself. It seemed none of us were up to it. Tumsley surprised everyone by heading in, saying as he left, “If I’m ever to find myself a wife, it will be tonight.”

Before anyone of us could effectively tease the man, he’d gone inside, already adopting the bouncing step of a dancer.

I caught Madi peering at me, and my heart fluttered a moment. What was that look for? Thankfully, I didn’t have the time to find out, as two men came up to Madi holding a burlap sack. Judging by the way they were straining, it seemed heavy as stone.

“Here you are,” the larger man said. “My name is Corinth and this is my son, Micah. We are the town armorers.” They set down their burden and shook our hands one at a time.

“I remember,” Madi said. “Wish I had taken care of that axe a bit better, though. It cost me enough. Did you get a new handle on it?” Madi was obviously disturbed by the destruction of her new favorite toy.

Corinth grinned like a boy and held up a finger. “I can do you one better, my friend. We have all gained much since the bear was brought down. I have enough bone and Legendary leather to make a fortune in crafting weapons, and I only took a small share for our labors. This is what we managed to do for you last night.”

His son lifted out the battle-axe that Madi had purchased from them, the edges newly sharped and polished, but otherwise unchanged. The new handle, though, was made of bone. It gleamed a dark gray, almost like river stone. On the end of its handle was affixed an even larger spike than before, to balance the longer and thicker handle. I inspected the beautiful weapon and my expectations were not let down.





God’s Rib Axe

Quality: Epic

Durability 300/300

250-500 damage

+10 Stamina, +10 Strength, +5% XP gained

Special Ability: Locked. Must meet all conditions.





“Holy crap-stacked pancakes!” Madi bellowed. She jumped up and down, looking like nothing more than a little girl on Christmas morning despite her rippling muscles and huge frame. “Ahhh! The base damage increased by 50 points—and the max! 500 is crazy. Wow, thank you so much Corinth, and thank you Micah.” She crushed the men one at a time, stirring up good-natured laughs.

Corinth continued as he drew something else out of the bag, “We’re not done here. This is for you, gunsinger.” He lifted out just a handful of items. When I looked closer, I saw they were bullets. The same dark gray bone had been sunk into shiny new shells, ten in total. “We have a hunter in town who is a gunsmith. He knew the right size for those cannons you carry, and we think they’ll do well in a pinch. Hope you like them Alysand, sir.”

The man seemed embarrassed by this gift. It was obvious that they revered Alysand. The gunsinger stepped forward and took them in his palm. He gasped as he lifted one up to his eye for inspection. I couldn’t resist a look myself.





God Bone Bullets

Quality: Legendary: +100% max damage of gun, +100% Accuracy.

Additional effect unlocked if requirements are met. Single use item.





“Thank you, Corinth,” said Alysand. “These will serve me well.” He shook each man’s hand again and bowed his head slightly as he did so. He seemed much less surprised by the events, and I figured that a man like Alysand might simply be used to gaining the favor of those he helped.

Corinth turned to me and said with finality, “And for you, young lady.” To my discomfort, he was looking right at me. Micah handed him something I could not see, as his back was turned. A flutter of nerves filled my gut. Receiving gratitude, presents, or even a casual compliment had never been easy for me. “Hana, this is for you. I hope it is a fitting weapon for your journeys.”

In my upheld hands, the armorer laid a short sword. It had a bone sheath and bone handle, but when I pulled the weapon free, I saw it was black as night and shone as if oiled. I gaped at its superb craftsmanship. It was made from one of Marduk’s talons!

I inspected the curved blade before me, and as I read the stats, my jaw dropped.





Finger of God Wakizashi

Quality: Epic

Durability 200/200 (35-200)

+5 Dexterity, +5 Stamina, +50% Armor Penetration, +5% XP gained.





Special Ability: Katana Companion.

Katana Companion: Passive. When dual-wielded, increases base damage of companion katana by 10% and grants Armor Penetration buff to both weapons.





“I don’t know what to say, Corinth,” I told him. “This is… it’s amazing. I will try to bear it well.” Though it felt a bit silly, I bowed at the waist to both of the craftsmen. Poor Micah blushed like a cherry tree, and his father grinned, enjoying his son’s discomfort.

They left us with our gifts. Alysand replaced some of the rounds in one of his bandoliers with his new bullets, saving half of them and putting them inside a large box he withdrew from his satchel.

“Hey, what’s the deal with that anyway?” Madi asked. “What else you got hiding in that bag, and how do I get one like it?” Within shone row after row of ammunition. Casings of several different metals glinted, and the tips of the bullets within all varied dramatically. Some had hollow points, others were long and pointed to penetrate armor.

He placed it back within the satchel and tipped his hat at Madi. “This is an abyss bag, as I am sure you know already. You would need to do much to earn one. I wish you good luck, sister.” He said it with the smug grace of someone who has something coveted. He left us then, ducking back into the noise and clamor of the town hall.

We followed after, discussing the weapons we’d just received. “So, what do you think my hidden special ability is, anyway?” Madi asked. “And what conditions need to be met? I’m going nuts in my head thinking about it.”

“I’m sure you’ll unlock it, Madi. Some berserker last stand situation, maybe, or cutting the heads off of a hundred enemies. Then you’ll get your ability unlocked. Apparently I need to learn to dual-wield my swords. I’m good with one but thinking of swinging two around is frightening.”

“Yeah, better watch that,” Madi teased. “I don’t want to be just another body at your feet.”

We walked back into the party to further servings of bear meat and a whole array of sweets. I was asked to dance by a dozen young men, but I turned them all down. To my endless satisfaction, Madi gave in and did a faux Irish jig in front of Alysand, as if calling the old gunman out. Then, rather than back down, the man removed his hat—a more sober gesture than I’d ever seen him make before—and finally his gun belts.

In front of the hundred or so remaining villagers, and our party, Alysand broke into a fevered jig. It was not a joke, not light and breezy and jaunty like the ones I’d seen online, but a foot-pounding display that brought sweat to his brow. Partway through, he began dipping to the ground, followed by more devastating stomps, and then whirling as he did so. The people of Benham fell into a rhythmic clap that pulled him along move by move.

When he finished, the gentleman bowed and flashed a bright smile at Madi’s shocked expression.

After the night began to die down, we headed back with Garren and found places before his hearth. A few of the kids bounced around in their fatigue, vying for his attention. He gave them everything he had, and as he tossed one of his girls up in the air, sending her arms and legs shooting outward like a plane, I thought of my father. He’d been this kind of a dad. He’d been there with us, at least until my mother passed.

The memories didn’t send me toppling like they once would have, but instead just brought me back to earth. I had a debt to pay, a rental fee to renew, and hopefully enough money to get it all done with. I had no family to speak of, but when I looked around at those that surrounded me, I sighed deeply, letting go of some of the pain. My new family was right here. Only one was a fleshy human in the real world, but Pachi, and even Alysand, had become dear to me.

As if reminding me of another significant connection in this world, someone knocked on the door. Garren answered, allowing Tumsley to saunter in. The man was carrying a large sack over one shoulder and he was panting. “Thanks for your hospitality. I need to speak with the adventurers and with Alysand, too.”

“What is it, Tumsley?” Alysand said, a look of concern on his features.

Tumsley set down the sack and held up his hands. “Nothing foul. I promise. But I have something for the three of you. For everyone here in fact, if all are willing.” Opening the sack, Tumsley revealed a massive lump of smoked flesh. It was the dark brown of seared steak and looked sinewy.

“What the hell is that?” Madi asked, her face clearly showing disgust.

Tumsley gestured to the meat with a lopsided grin. “That is Marduk’s heart. Properly prepared, the heart of a god, or a world boss as some adventurers call them, provides as much experience as the actual kill. Y’all need to eat as much of this as you can stomach, regardless of how much you ate tonight.”

Even though none of us felt exactly thrilled to be doing so, we all accompanied Tumsley and Garren to the kitchen, where the heart was cut into smaller pieces. Then we ate. Not only the three of us, but Garren and his children, too. The small ones couldn’t manage as much, but they grinned, noting they had gained levels from the meal. The tingle of not one, but three level-ups passed through my body as I ate.

“Holy crap! I just gained my third level!” Madi exclaimed.

“Me too—that might explain why killing Marduk only gained us a few levels to begin with,” I answered, chewing the last piece of heart I could stomach.

Alysand touched a hand to Madi’s arm as she reached for more. “That’s enough. Give some to Pachi as well, and any that’s left over, give to those young fools that want to sign up to become guards or soldiers. Can you do that, Tumsley?”

The little man nodded sagely and, after giving a portion to Pachi, left as quickly as he’d come. We had to listen to Madi complain a while that her pet hadn’t grown from the experience, but she was also unwilling to try to feed the bear with its mother’s flesh. It just seemed wrong. Pachi, however, was already grown, and by all means was nearly too large to be inside Garren’s home.

As we prepared for sleep, Madi and I made a plan to separate the loot from Marduk, making the task of auctioning the materials that much easier. The fact that the people of Benham, along with Tumsley, had taken their pay in materials, made the task easier. Tumsley had requested the eye that hadn’t been poisoned. Even though it had been run through by my katana, the eye was still apparently valuable. He said he planned on taking it out to his spider kin in the mountains to give to the Great Matriarch as a gift. He also got two of the talons and a patch of the hide. We had been promised great cloaks made from the bear’s hide, and I was excited to have the extra warmth, as the weather had already begun to turn towards winter.

“You take the bones, claws, and remaining pelt,” Madi said as she curled up under her blanket. “I will take the gooey bits, the organs and such. Those will bring most of the money, and I am more experienced than you are with the exchange. Sound like a plan?”

“Sounds fair. Then, when we get all of the gold, we can do the math and split it three ways.” The fact that I trusted Madi so much felt good. I’d never had a friend so dear to just know that she had my best interest in mind.

Alysand seemed to go to sleep at once, laying still under the furs he was given, and tipping his hat over his face.

Madi and Tejón lay down and pawed at one another for a time before going still. It was plain that everyone was exhausted.

For some reason, my mind kept racing. So much had happened in the last two days. No better time to check my notifications, I figured, and selected the first.





Level 20 Skill unlocked: Choose between one of three skills:

Wounding Strike (Active): Attack wounds creature, causing 75% of normal damage, but applies the Wounded debuff. Wounded reduces creature’s movement speed by 75%. Duration: 2 minutes.

Edge Dancer (Active): A flurry of strikes that can cut down a swath of enemies. Attack speed increased by 300%. Duration: 10 seconds. Cooldown: 10 minutes.

Sword Wall (Active): Your weapon strikes increase to an inhuman speed, causing 100% of all incoming damage to be deflected. Duration: 1 minute. Cooldown: 1 hour.





It seemed that Wounding Strike was up for grabs again, this time with a twenty-five percent boost to both the base damage as well as the reduction of movement speed. It could be valuable, but again, I rejected the notion of using it to retreat. So far, we had encountered no fights that would have benefited from such a tactic. Besides, soon enough, Pachi would be large enough for me to ride her. If that were the case, then I’d prefer to just hop on and retreat that way.

The Sword Wall skill was very tempting. The idea of blocking all attacks for a minute straight would be awesome. I could stop a number of foes by myself. But I did have the bone armor from Blessing of the Bear to count on.

Edge Dancer looked to be an explosion of offense. With the added armor penetration and damage bonus my duel-wielding offered me, I could become a cloud of devastation.

I told Pachi about the options and she agreed with me. Edge Dancer became my newest skill in an ever-growing arsenal.

The enfield shifted about uncomfortably a moment, then broached what was on her mind. I have grown much since felling the bear, and there are choices that need to be made. Would you like to help me as well?

What do you mean, choices? I prodded, my interest sparking.

Like you, I must also choose a skill. There are three choices, and I want them all, but like my den mother used to say, you can only swallow one fish at a time.

I laughed and nudged her. And you think I have strange sayings. Well, what are they?

Pachi looked me in the eye, and I felt something contact my mind in a more physical way. Then a notification prompt filled my vision.





Pachi Level 20 Skill unlocked: Choose between one of three skills:

Wing Storm (Active): A barrage of wind buffets the enemy, stunning them for 2 seconds. The Dazed debuff is applied and reduces movement speed and reaction time by 25%. Interrupts spell casting. Duration: 2 minutes. Cooldown: 5 minutes.

Cry of Courage (Active): The piercing call of a gryphon reverberates through all party members, lending them the Cry of Courage buff. +50% Stamina regeneration, +50% Health Regeneration, +10% damage. Duration: 5 minutes. Cooldown: 1 hour.

Talon Strike (Active): Attack enemy with a flurry of talons causing an increase of damage by 50% for one strike. The Bleed debuff is applied, which causes the enemy to bleed out 1% of total health every 3 seconds for 15 seconds. Consumes 10% of total Stamina. No cooldown.





Wow, those all look pretty awesome. What are you thinking, buddy? I wanted to keep this decision her own.

Well, the Cry of Courage would be helpful, but we travel with the warrior and she gives us her strength, Pachi reasoned, and I thought she was referring to the party buff that Madi had. And the Talon Strike sounds fierce. I love to rend my enemies, you know.

Yes, Pachi, I have noticed.

She continued, ignoring my sarcasm. But the Wing Storm would be the best choice for now. I can use it to stun our enemies, soften their skin so we can slay them easier. Do you agree?

I do, Pachi, none of us has a stun ability yet. It could turn the tables for us in future battles.

First beans and now tables. Who taught you to speak, girl? Pachi had always been sassy, verging on smug at times, but downright humor was an interesting development. There is another choice that must be made, Pachi said. This time, the voice that filled my mind was serious, almost reverent.

What is it? Is everything okay?

I will just show you.

The same mental pressure touched my mind and another prompt ran before my eyes.





Companion Elemental Affinity: By helping your companion’s power grow, the gods themselves have noticed. Choosing one of the three vardeen gods is allowed. Choice of deity is permanent. If your companion does not wish to choose a deity now, other affinities can be unlocked by seeking out powerful deities and completing quests on their behalf. All actions performed that honor the chosen deity will contribute towards increasing Faith Rank.





Affinities:

Light: By choosing the Light affinity, the vardeen warrior swears to worship and follow the Goddess Citlali. All attacks are enhanced by starlight. Paradox, Charm, and Solarburn debuffs can be learned as Affinity Level is increased. The Holy Light skill tree is unlocked.

Ice: By choosing the Ice affinity, the vardeen warrior promises to worship and follow the Goddess Khione. All attacks are enhanced by Ice Damage. Freeze, Slow, and Frostburn debuffs can be learned as Affinity Level is increased. The North Wind skill tree is unlocked.

Fire: By choosing to the Fire affinity, the vardeen warrior promises to worship and follow the God Ogun. All attacks are enhanced by Fire Damage. Scorch, Blindness, and Fatigue debuffs can be learned as Affinity Level is increased. The Warrior’s Forge skill tree is unlocked.





No way—that is awesome! I shouted to her mentally. I want you to do them all.

Yes, my thought as well. I will not choose fire. Though it is a powerful path, many vardeen have been led astray from honor following Ogun. He is vengeful and violent. My… my father died trying to fulfill his requests.

I watched Pachi’s reaction as she dropped her head, her golden eyes tinged with a distant pain. I stroked the fur under her chin and tried to soothe her. I know a lot about fathers disappearing. I’m sorry. Maybe you can tell me about him some time.

Yes, sister, and you can tell me about your father. I am sure he was a brave warrior like mine was.

I smiled despite the pain in my chest. It was funny thinking of my dad as a warrior. In a way he was. So… Ice or Light, girl? Ice sounds good with the Freeze and Slow debuffs. The Frostburn and the Solarburn seem to be similar. But Paradox sounds weird. I wonder what it is. And Charm. Do you know about these abilities?

Yes, my den mother was of the Light. Following Citlali is a noble path, though I have much respect for Khione as well. Paradox can make an enemy think you have longer wings than you do, or that you are not a threat.

It confuses them? I guessed at her vague wording.

Yes. And Charm is more powerful still. My den mother could make an enemy serve her if it was even a little bit less powerful than she was.

I rolled on my back imagining the implications of being able to control an enemy. Having the surprise of turning one of their ranks on each other was intriguing.

Well that sounds more useful in the long run. What about the Holy Light skill tree and the North Wind skill tree? What do those mean?

The North Wind is a path that grants many powerful attacks. There is a tale of a vardeen princess slaying an entire clan of nezumi with a single blast of her icy powers. The Holy Light uses the power of Citlali, the goddess of the stars. She gives the power to heal and also to destroy beings that have allowed darkness to overtake their hearts.

Thinking of the Rat King, I felt I knew which branch would help us the most. But I could not choose who Pachi would worship and follow. What is your choice, friend? Thank you for including me, but you need to make this choice on your own.

I want to follow Citlali, like my den mother.

A good decision. Our enemies all seem to have darkness in their hearts. They will come to fear you, Pachi.

She growled quietly and rested her head on her paws. I am sure they already do. Of the three skills, I want to have Solarburn. What do you say?

I looked at the skill description she sent me and grinned.





Solarburn (Active): By invoking the wrath of Citlali, a ring of celestial fire is cast to scorch your foes. Area of Effect: A circle 5 yards in diameter. Damage output: 5 points of damage every second (effect increases by 50% each Affinity Level). Duration: 1 minute. Cooldown: 24 hours.





It looks amazing. I’m sure all the skills are good, but we don’t have anything that effects a large area at once. I agree. Snatch it up!

Pachi purred at my praise and approval of her choice, and I felt her body settle down, the decisions having been taken care of, and only the task of mutual rest at hand.

I closed my eyes and imagined how Pachi might continue to grow and change in the countless battles to come, trying to picture the skills she had acquired, and all the while feeling my mind slowly descending into sleep.





2: “Like water to a wick, adventure comes to those who have chosen to stand against evil.”





— Sir Alysand Rowl Deschaney III





HANA





Our vigorous assault against the platter of food we’d been served had begun to flag. Despite our combined prowess, there were only so many pieces of bacon, muffins, salted eggs, and cups of coffee any warrior could manage.

Madi had outdone herself, perhaps quite literally, and she slumped in her seat nursing a sick belly. “I’m an idiot. Every morena knows not to go all-out at breakfast. I’m gonna be sleepy all day.” She kicked her boots up on an empty chair nearby.

Alysand sat back, hands folded behind his head in satisfaction. “Merrianne’s cafe is not a place for those who lack self-control. It seems that you’ve met your match, young lady.”

“Watch it or I’ll barf on you, Alice.”

He smiled smugly, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face. I looked over and noted that even Pachi and Tejón looked stuffed. They’d each been brought a butchered goat and had finished nearly every scrap.

The waiter came and cleared our plates, and I thought we might be given a few minutes of peace to enjoy our full bellies, but a man walked over to our table and cleared his throat.

It was the mayor.

“Well, if it isn’t our strident heroes. Finished vanquishing your plates, I see. And none too soon. I am afraid that I have some bad news for you all, and possibly a request.” He gestured grandly for an audience that wasn’t there.

Thankfully, Alysand took point on this engagement and responded. “Another deranged god looting and rampaging the foothills? I can’t say I would mind, as the profit seemed quite substantial. However, I am loathe to die, so this time, I would certainly prefer a smaller god.”

The mayor laughed mirthlessly and shook his head. “No, I am afraid not. As I am sure you have heard, a few weeks back, our iron mine was taken from us. It wasn’t the property of Benham proper, but one of our oldest and most prosperous families. And many of our men made an honest living working the mine as well.”

“What happened?” I asked. “We heard the ratkin took it over. Is that true?” My interest perked up at the relevance of the topic.

“They did. Came with some trow goblins and flushed out our miners. A few of the men were killed, sadly, but most did make it back to town. They’ve been helping out on the farms ever since. If you are destined to have empty pockets, better not to have an empty belly as well.” Sherman Hesperine, in all his faded glory, sat down at our table and tried to drop his act. The problem was that even this seemed a show, as if he were trying to let us know he was “getting real” with us. It was cringeworthy.

Though the man had once been handsome, his face was drawn and pale. He looked like he’d been leached of blood somehow, and even though the morning was verging on chilly, a thin sheen of sweat covered his brow.

“Have you sent scouts up to see if the place is still occupied?” Alysand said, maintaining his relaxed pose. “And do you know their numbers?”

“We did at first. Several dozen ratkin and a bunch of miners were seen entering the mines, but eventually, the scout was flushed out and nearly lost his life. We have since kept our distance.”

I nudged my way into the conversation, asking the obvious. “And you want us to get rid of the infestation?” When he nodded, I continued. “We were going to head that way anyhow. We accept.”

“Good, good. We are all quite hopeful to have this blight gone. Do you think you’ll head there straight away?” His tone was suddenly strained. I caught a brief flash of suspicion in Alysand’s eyes as well, but he covered it instantly.

The gunsinger sat up properly and stood. He stretched out a hand and patted the mayor on his shoulder. “Soon enough, Mr. Hesperine. Soon enough. We will of course need to make plans, but no worries, we will be sure to depart within a week or so. There are a great many things I need to do before departing again on another adventure. I am sure you understand.”

The mayor’s face was momentarily flummoxed, disappointed even. But then he recovered, glued on another megawatt smile, and bowed to our table. “Of course, of course. I can’t expect our trifles to bother you overmuch. Please just inform me when you decide to head out, and I will send a few of our heartiest lads with you. The least we could do is make sure you head in the right direction.”

He left in a flurry of coattails and lofty ambition.

“Ew,” Madi said as she pulled herself up off the chair and stood. “The little man is such a creep. I pity his wife. What’s the deal, though? He was hiding something, and so are you, Alysand.”

“Yeah, we only just met him, but is he always so…” I trailed off, searching for the right words.

“Like a seller of salt and sand in a port town? Yes. But he has changed. Something is wrong about him. I think we should leave town soon, tonight if it’s possible. My stomach tells me that we don’t want to tell him precisely when we decide to head out, though I’m not sure why.”

I glanced at the quest we’d just received, wanting to see what information was available.





Stop the Rat King Part 1: Epic Quest. A second source, the somewhat shady Mayor Hesperine, has asked that you and your allies investigate the mines. Clear out the infestation of ratkin to complete this quest and resolve any other conflicts you encounter while there. Status: Incomplete. Rewards: Knowledge about The Rat King’s forces, 3000 XP.





We left a few gold coins on the table, enough for a dozen meals, and headed back up toward Garren’s farm. A few of the townsfolk noticed us on our way, and we received a few more waves. Still, our departure was as subtle as it could have been.

When we got there, Garren met us outside of his house and greeted us.

Alysand approached the man. “Garren, I know we just got here, but I believe we will be leaving this night. We will head to the iron mine, but don’t want anyone to know about it. Darkness should help. Heading out through town, regardless of the hour, will give us away, though. Do you know another way?”

“Take the trail behind my house,” Garren said. “It heads away from the cave you all got to know so well and veers up into the hills towards the mines. The passes are dangerous though, especially at night. Still,”—he glanced up at the sky—“it does seem likely to be a clear night and the moon is close to full. With this one here, I’m sure you’ll be alright.” Garren finished pointing to me, and I couldn’t help but run a hand through my hair, my fingers grazing my elongated ears.

“It is decided, then,” Alysand said. “Are you two prepared? I only have a nap to catch and a few children to chase before I’m ready.” He declared this even as he rubbed at the fatigue in his eyes.

“I’m good. With this new weapon, I could take on anything right now,” Madi said as she patted the head of her axe.

They looked at me and I nodded. “I am ready as well. Tumsley was nice enough to buy me new arrows.”

“I’m aware of the odd behavior of travelers,” Alysand said cheerfully. “I am of this world, though, so while you are away, I’ll be on the furs near the fire. If you’ll excuse me, then!” Alysand walked away with Garren to the house.

“I should, too,” Madi said. “Log out, that is. I’ll post my stuff and I promise I’ll get us both rich. See you in… four or five hours?”

“Yeah, I’ll message you if it’s going to take any longer. My friend Shin has been a bit off lately, and I want to track him down and make sure he’s okay.”

We said goodbye with an awkward fist bump, and after telling Pachi when I would return, I logged off.





I opened my eyes and began to stretch out my limbs. Thankfully, the immersion sickness had begun to fade, and I woke now with only a bit of soreness. Still, I ordered Gita to get me the gamer tonic, as Elendil had said it continued to help users “adapt and excel” at gaming. I couldn’t argue with the AI.

Speaking of my favorite non-corporeal friend, I said hello and asked the question that had been on my mind for over a day now. “Elendil… are you good with the Interworld Exchange? I need to sell some items.”

“Of course, Hana! I would love to assist you. It is more than frustrating when I am told to mind my own business. Truly, there is no entity more suited to help you than I. The entire market is available to me, and I know all the current trends as well as the many items you wish to sell. Do you want to sell all of the items, or save some for crafting?”

I stood up and wiggled my toes on the ground before crossing over to my desk. “I want to sell it all. I need as much as possible, so I don’t mind waiting a bit if it helps.”

“Well, you are in luck, Hana. Currently, there are no other items like it in your realm, so they should fetch a high price. I will set them to Auction instead of Buy Now and get the highest likely price point. Would you like me to take the following items from your inventory: Legendary Bear Meat (20 units), Bone Plates (15 units), Marduk’s Claws (7 units), Swath of Marduk Pelt (4 units), God Bones (50 units), God Bear Ribs (12 units)? Please say confirm, and I will place them in the Interworld Exchange auction house.”

A feeling of hope and anxiety filled my belly. I knew that Elendil had a much better chance at making a profit than I could, so that part was easy. But what if it wasn’t enough? The image of the woman from the AllHands Inc. email video entered my mind. Sophia, an obviously scripted puppet, had said it all. “Why wait until the deadline? Join the happy ranks of indent workers here at AllHands Inc. They’ll help you take a bite out of your debt problem.”

“Yes,” I said. “I mean, confirm. Do your best, Elendil. I need to go train.”

I couldn’t help but think of my father as I made my way to the exercise rooms. The debt I’d so luckily inherited did not come itemized. What had he done to rake up so much debt anyhow? And what would he think or feel knowing that I was now stuck trying to pay it back for him? I dismissed the vortex of questions before they began to tug me down under the surface of uncertainties. There was little I could do but try my best. That approach, at least, I knew my father would approve of.

There was no sign of Shin as I made my way to the training rooms. I had hoped to see him in the dining area or playing some game with a buddy. His absence was tangible.

When the door closed behind me, I set the walls to opaque, and spoke aloud to my omniscient friend. “Hey Elendil, I’d like to practice with my new ability before I’m in actual combat. Is that possible?”

“Yes, of course. Are you referring to Blessing of the Bear?”

“Yep! Would you mind reading off the deets?”

“If you mean details, no problem. Blessing of the Bear: Because you landed the killing blow on a Legendary creature, you have been given a special boon. When activated, this ability grows bone plates over existing armor. 80% of all incoming damage received is nullified. Ability absorbs up to 100% of total HP. Duration: 3 minutes. My, I must say this is a fine skill you have managed to acquire. It is exceedingly rare. Only a handful of players per year receive it, as the creature Marduk is not commonly spawned.”

“It does sound awesome. So how does this work?”

“I will set you up with a combat simulation, throw some evil denizens your way, and when you feel it is most appropriate, call out the command Blessing of the Bear verbally. True cerebral integration is not possible in the training room, so you must not rely on mental commands. Are you ready?”

“Absolutely.”

I stood in the middle of the training room and cleared my mind. As my nerves began to settle, I felt the familiar weight of my katana tug at my hip. I pulled free the simulated sword, and took a stance that balanced attack and defense, Chudan no Kamae.

Enemies began to run at me from the corners of the room, their pixilated forms condensing from thin air. This time, Elendil got creative. Some were the forms of ratkin, others squat trow goblins. A few taller trolls appeared and lumbered my way. This first wave was easy, the enemies sluggish, their attacks moving so slow I could easily sidestep them and shatter their forms with my sword.

After a few more minutes, Elendil asked me, “Ready for some advanced training, Hana? Or would you prefer slow and steady?”

“Bring it on,” was all I said before a row of new enemies rose from the floor.

They charged, this time with speed imbuing their movements. I dodged an attack from a sword-wielding ratkin and ducked under a heavy axe swung by an orc. I managed to take one of their numbers down by cutting through a leg as I rolled away, but their numbers quickly pushed me into the corner of the room. I was trapped.

I darted toward them, sword coming down in an overhead strike. Only one thing could turn the tables, and Elendil had known precisely what he was doing. “Blessing of the Bear!” I shouted as my sword crashed down into the head of one of the frontline fighters. As the enemy exploded into fragments of light, I felt rows of bone plating building out from my back and shoulders. It expanded, piece by piece, like some morbid mecha, running down my arms and legs. A few plates even crawled up the back of my neck and wrapped over my head, stopping just over my eyes, with the sides growing around my cheekbones.

The whole process took no more than a second, and it was just in time. Two swords and an axe crashed into me. I felt the force, but everything was muted by the bone armor.

“By Isildur’s Bane—that is so cool!” I screamed to myself, letting two more strikes hack away at me. Then I noticed an icon in my peripheral vision showing a suit of armor. The icon had turned from green to a light yellow. I had to get moving quickly.

I backpedaled away from the wild swing of the orc’s axe just in time to avoid another blow, then followed its retreat by slashing its throat. Another sword landed in my side, and rather than wait or move back, I pushed forward, cutting sideways through the ratkin’s belly. It too exploded in a shower of light.

I was left facing four more enemies. Suddenly, their silhouettes blazed with a blue light, and their movements sped up once more. They were a blur of motion, and though I blocked one, the other three connected. The icon dropped into an orange color. I was running out of time.

Then it dawned on me. This changed the game. If I faced so many enemies, the only way this skill could help is if I let it block for me. I needed to cut their numbers down, not act like this was a duel.

Another round of attacks flew at me, and rather than block, I counterattacked, running my blade through a trow’s chest, then spinning to hack off the head of a ratkin. My suit was in the red when I slashed through the neck of an orc, then brought my blade down through the head of another.

My bone armor shattered into pieces as a final blow landed on my back, but I swiveled on my heel and sheathed my katana in the ratkin’s chest. Like the others, it too broke apart and faded. I was left gasping, exhilarated, and so stoked to tell Madi all about my new ability. It wasn’t enough to make me into a tank, but at least I had a backup plan when things got bad, and I was sure I could step in to let her recover if needed.

“Okay, Elendil, now for something a lot more difficult. What do you know about fighting with two swords at once?” I caught my breath and felt the digital sword evaporate from my grip.

Elendil’s response was enthusiastic, the question seeming to inspire him. “Well that depends. Many players attempt to master a more European approach to fighting with two blades, mimicking the sword and dagger forms of the medieval era. Another less popular but highly effective style is the Espada y dada form of the Philippines, which embraces sword and dagger as well. Do you wish to utilize the katana along with the wakizashi you have recently acquired?”

“You got it. I get a killer bonus if I do so, but I’m not really keen on winging it. I am pretty sure I’ll just injure myself.”

“Then the two-sword style commonly called Niten Ichi-ryū. It specifically takes into account the long and short swords you have in your possession and was popularized by the historically significant figure of Miyamoto Musashi himself. There are five basic two-sword kata that you can begin to master, and any number of variations that sword masters have adapted since. Does this sound appropriate?”

I remembered reading The Book of Five Rings a couple years ago, back when my father and I were geeking out about katanas and sword fighting together. It wasn’t a long text by any means, but in many ways, more impactful to me than The Art of War had been. I loved how applicable Musashi’s teachings were, even to someone as nonviolent and common as a baker.

A ripple of excitement ran through my limbs and I answered, “Yes, Elendil. I will bring the ring to the mountain. But you’ve got to be my Gamgee.”

The AI paused for a moment, most likely searching his database for the reference, then proceeded with the lesson. “There are five kata for the long and short sword fighting style: Chudan, Jodan, Gedan, Waki Gamae Hidari and Migi Waki Gamae. Let’s start with the first. Now, place your feet together and hold both swords out and away from your chest, allowing their points to come together. Think of this as a defensive triangle.”

Simulations of both swords filled my hands as brought my feet together and lifted my arms. I watched the hologram of a tiny sword master fall into the stance in the corner of my vision and cleared my mind. Learning curve or no, I had to learn as much of this as I could.

I spent another hour going through the various dual-wielding kata and even ran a few slow-motion scenarios, frustrated with how hard it was. Elendil was encouraging, though, and reminded me that in game, the system would aid my efforts as well.

After I finally threw in the towel, I ate a quick meal and, going on a hunch, printed two Mate Lattes, then headed down the hall. I knocked on Shin’s door, but no sound came from his room. I knocked louder, spilling a bit of one of the drinks and causing a Gita bot to scurry over and clean up the mess.

“Shin!” I called. “Open up, it’s me!”

A moment later, I heard rustling from within. “One second,” his voice called.

I was not prepared for what happened next. Shin opened his door, and I almost dropped the mugs. His face was thin and pale. Dark circles ringed his eyes, and he… well, he smelled a bit.

“Hey buddy,” I said in a soft tone. “What’s going on? You don’t look so hot.”

“I’m sure I don’t. Look, I don’t really want to talk, I’m…” he tried, but I saw he didn’t have the strength to finish the thought.

“Shut up, okay? Just take this and let me in.” I pushed the mug into his chest and barged into his room.

His eyes blinked in surprise, but he complied.

His room was the same as the last time I’d seen it, but the lights were dim. “Elendil, turn the lights on!” Elendil carried out my command.

Then I sat on his chair and sipped from my cup. “So, what is it? We’ve already told each other so much. You don’t need to hole up like a creep. Are you sick?” My questions were pushy, but I tried to make my tone casual, if not cheerful.

Shin sat down and drank some of the tea. There, that was a start at least. He didn’t reply though, so I waited for a while. A few minutes passed, the silence only broken occasionally by the sound of one of us blowing on the hot drink or sipping. I’d already forced my way in here, and I did not have the guts to insist on any answers. Yet I felt like they would come with time.

Finally, Shin cleared his throat and spoke a few strained words. “My sister. She… she won’t see me. Not now. Not ever.” Each syllable was pained and forced. He swallowed hard when he finished, but I still didn’t understand. The last thing I wanted him to do was repeat himself, but I needed clarification.

“Hey, that sounds terrible. What do you mean, though? Why won’t she see you? I thought you said you two were close?”

Another moment passed as he stared into the foam of his tea latte. He took another drink, this one longer, and I could see him steeling himself.

“She’s about to turn seventeen. According to our plan, she was going to come and see me, and we were even thinking we might live together. But I got an email a few days ago. She told me that I wasn’t someone she wanted in her life anymore, that she loved me, but not to try to contact her anymore. I… I don’t know what to do, Hana.” He gestured to the room around him.

“I don’t know. That doesn’t sound right, though. From what you’ve said about her, it just seems out of character, doesn’t it? Did she give any specific reasons?” I was hoping to find some angle into the mess so that I might be able to help.

Shin shook his head, avoiding my eyes. I saw he was struggling to contain himself, tears slowly spilling down his cheeks. I moved over and sat near him on his pod, placing an arm around his shoulders. Without any further ceremony, the dam of tears he was holding broke away. He sobbed quietly for a few minutes, and I found myself wiping away my own tears. I was indescribably sad and angry at the same time. I didn’t even know the girl, and had only just met Shin, but the situation seemed wrong.

My own family had been taken from me. Shin’s had rejected him. How weird was it to think that if my family were still around, they wouldn’t want to be in my life?

The anger began to win over in my heart and I stood.

“Shin, look at me. Hey.” After a time, he wiped his face and looked up at me with bloodshot eyes.

“What?” That was all he could say.

“I don’t buy it. Mae is one of the sweetest people you know, right?” He nodded. “And you guys were on great terms up until you got this email out of the blue. It just seems too convenient somehow.”

“Convenient?” Shin questioned, a bit of anger filling his own voice.

“Not like that. It just struck me that it might be convenient for your parents. They were the ones that exiled you. Don’t you think they might be doing something to influence Mae?”

Shin froze before me, his body completely still but for the building intensity in his eyes. Then, a moment later, they flicked up and stared into my own. “Those bastards,” he growled. “You’re right. She would never do this. I was just so afraid that it might be true is all. Oh my God, we have to contact her.”

Now I was reeling a bit. “We? What do I have to do with this?”

Shin smiled then, his face finally showing some of the easy good looks that normally characterized him. “Why, you’re my best friend, Hana. That’s what.”





3: “In the far reaches of the world, under a lost and lonely hill, lies The Tomb of Horrors.”





— Señor Ernesto Christy Cline





HANA





My time with Shin had been exhilarating. After he decided to take a much-needed shower, he met me back in the dining area, where I watched him gorge himself like three drunken bulls after a night out.

It was shocking to see the changes in him. Every part of his appearance, from his posture to his gleaming eyes, had all regained that sparky exuberance I’d grown to associate with Shin. It was as if his whole being had been filled with purpose again. I marveled at how huge his sister was to him, how vast and all-encompassing. Without her, Shin didn’t have much to run on. I couldn’t blame him, though, thinking of my own reasons for grinding away in Eternal Online.

“We’re gonna scheme, Dahlia!” he said while shoving a second helping of pizza in his mouth. “We are going to ruin those jerks.”

All I could do was agree with him.

We spent a few hours discussing how we might circumvent his parent’s influence and arrange a meeting with Mae. When we were done, a solid plan had formed. That was when I reminded him that despite how cool it sounded to stick it to his awful progenitors, I still had things to do.

It was October 20th. I had two days until rent was due for my room in EO, and five until I had to send my first payment to AllHands Inc. I explained all this to Shin.

His reaction to my plight surprised me. He leaned forward and clamped down on my arm with a hand full of fury. “Don’t worry, Dahlia. I’ve got your back, okay? You’ll make the money in time, and if you don’t, well, I have a lot of money at my disposal. My parents are such savvy and paranoid investors that they gave each of us our own ironclad portfolio.” I shook my head and tried to pull away. “No, listen. I wasn’t joking, Dahlia. You are my best friend. I’m not going to let you get taken away.”

I still couldn’t meet his gaze but nodded slightly. It was weird hearing him use my real name. I’d grown so used to hearing Hana all the time that Dahlia sounded foreign, as though it were from a past I could barely remember.

I told Shin that I’d meet him at the time we had planned. I would help him in his great adventure, but for now, I had a mine to raid.





When I materialized, Madi was standing with Alysand and Garren. It was nearly full dark, and the night shocked me with a chill I hadn’t expected.

“’Bout time, shorty,” Madi teased, slapping me on the shoulder. “You ready to stumble about in the dark for hours?”

“I can see fine. Sorry, but I think you will be the only one stumbling.”

Alysand stepped forward and handed me a bundle tied together with twine. “This is from Tumsley.”

I took the package and gasped.

It was bear fur, and when I untied it, I saw it was a portion of Marduk’s pelt fashioned into a long cloak. As my eyes continued to adjust, I saw matching cloaks wrapping around Madi and Alysand’s shoulders as well. The fur was indescribably soft. It had the smooth texture of silk, but the strength and bulk of wool. I ran my fingers through it and smiled shamelessly.





Marduk’s Mantle

Quality: Epic: Armor 40

Durability 140/140

+3 to all base attributes, +25% to Stealth

Applies high protection against cold.





“Sweet scrolls, that is awesome! I guess I don’t need my old one anymore.” I took off May’s trusty cloak. It was worn, torn, and mended, stained with blood and travel, but it had been my first piece of comfort in this world.

“It’s alright,” Garren said. “If you agree, one of my daughters asked if she could have it. I can trim it up to fit her. She has taken a fancy to you, Hana. Even carries around a stick and attacks anything that doesn’t move quick enough out of her way.”

I folded the old cloak up a few times, emptying the pockets of a few pieces of dried jerky and the carry stone I’d placed there, and handed it over to the man who had been such a generous host. “Tell her she had best behave herself or I’ll take it back.”

When we finished our quick goodbyes with Garren, I had Madi follow me to his well. Following the simple instructions Tumsley had shown me, I enchanted my katana and then her axe with the Kuthwala’s fiery power. I smiled as I saw the edge of my blade gleaming with the red and orange of coals.

“That will no doubt help, but so will this,” Alysand said as he passed out some smoked bear meat. I took a bite and was pleased with the buff it applied, comparing it with the one from the carrying stone.





Status Effect: Smokey the Bear Meat

Smokey the Bear Meat: This travel ration carries the blessing of the gods. +20% movement speed while traveling, +5 Stamina, +10% Health Regeneration, +20% XP gained. Duration: 4 hours.





Status Effect: Kuthwala Fire Edge

Kuthwala Fire Edge: The Kuthwala has imbued your weapon with the power of the Reichi Pepper, adding the power of the fire affinity to all attacks. 15% of normal weapon damage added in the form of Fire Damage. Duration: 48 hours.





“Wow, that’s great, but shouldn’t we save the jerky?” I asked, addressing the obvious question. Buffs like that seemed best used when fighting mobs, especially considering the XP gain.

Alysand shook his head. “We have enough to last us a week even if we ate nothing else. The increase in travel speed will be worthwhile. Eat your fill, then let’s get started.” The man’s usual merriment and verbosity were absent, leaving little but resolve and pragmatism behind. This was the gunman, the bullet bard, that so many seemed to know and respect. I was glad he was on our side.

We were about to depart when the thunder of hooves came from the road leading to Garren’s farm. Alysand threw open one of his lapels, allowing his hand to rest on a pistol. I readied myself and watched Madi unbuttoning the clasp on her great axe, though neither of us drew our weapons.

After a few short moments, a figure came into view. They were hunched low over a horse, cloak billowing behind. For a moment, I thought the person would run us over, but they soon sat up and reared the horse, coming to a stop just in front of us. In one swift motion, a man dismounted and bounced to his feet, reaching a hand out to take Alysand’s.

“Ah, if it isn’t my good friend Liam,” the gunsinger said as he shook the man’s hand. “How does the road treat you, my friend? Well, I hope.”

Liam replied, “Well indeed. I have no time to lose, and I am grateful to have met you here. A convocation is being held, and you all are invited.” He was as tall and powerful as Corell, the hunter from Taelman’s Pond, but his face was far more handsome. Dark hair and eyes shone in the fading light, and his smile was bright.

“This is Liam of the Sirrushi Doondane, a close friend,” Alysand said and Madi and I took turns shaking his hand as well. “We were about to part, and I am afraid we haven’t much time to treat with you properly. I am very sorry.”

“No worries,” Liam said. “I cannot stay myself. I have a few more places to visit this night before I can rest.”

“Where is the convocation being held?” Alysand asked, his face solemn.

“Carnen’s Rock.” He leapt on his steed again. “I’ll see you two nights from now. It is urgent. Until then, my friend.”

“Alright. And perhaps we shall have the time to renew our acquaintance then. Godspeed, Liam.” Even before Alysand’s words had faded, the ranger was barreling down the road again, intent on some unknown objective.

Madi jabbed me with an elbow. “If I fancied men more, that one wouldn’t be such a bad trophy.”

I blanched and sputtered out a nonverbal response. He had been handsome, but the idea had not crossed my mind. When Alysand turned back to us and asked us if we were ready to depart, I was grateful.

The trail that led up into the hills was wide and hard-packed. It would have been easy enough to follow even without my elven eyes. The light of the moon illuminated the powdered gravel path and gentle slope. After perhaps an hour of travel, though, the trail veered up sharply and began to skirt around the hills we were traveling through. The side of the path fell away steeply. It was soon apparent that if any of us fell, we would not fare well.

I bit my tongue as I heard Madi, just like I had predicted, occasionally catching the toe of her boot on an up-thrust rock or sudden dip. No longer flat and easy to follow, the trail began to disintegrate, barely discernible to my eyes. In many places, I simply walked forward in a straight line, hoping to find some remnants of the trail ahead.

The night ground away at us, slowly digesting our spirits. After some hours, we stopped and ate more of the jerky, grateful for the strength of its buff filling our tired limbs. Still, it was hard to resist exhaustion. Only Alysand looked unchanged.

We grudgingly resumed our hike.

Madi taught me several new cuss words as she stumbled along behind me. Pachi and Tejón ambled easily behind, their animal instincts serving them well.

The warrior is not graceful, Pachi complained in my head. She bumbles about like a boar drunk on acorn mead.

I stifled a laugh and calmed her. You will need to show me both a drunken boar and acorn mead when we have the time. But leave Madi alone. You won’t complain about her size when she is helping us kill enemies.

Pachi seemed to huff in my mind, a strange sensation to experience, but she didn’t raise any other concerns.

When I thought the trail had begun to ease up, we came to a howling cliff face. The path was a foot wide, composed of a sheer wall on one side, a cliff on the other. To make matters worse, the canyon funneled the wind and sent it barreling up the cliff face. Rather than facing the ravine, which howled below like an endless maw, I turned to the wall and sidestepped my way across. It wasn’t hard, though I was glad I had emptied my bladder at our last stop.

I was worried about Tejón, but the chunky bear still surprised me by smashing against the stone and ambling across easily, not once pausing.

Alysand and Pachi followed, leaving only Madi behind. It was only a couple dozen feet, so I could still see my friend’s face. Her features were more beautiful than normal, wrapped in the silvery touch of moonlight. But fear raged in her glimmering eyes. Just when I thought she was going to ask us to wait, the warrior clenched her hands into fists, faced the wall, and began to sidestep across.

I held my breath, waiting for her to slip, to call out. I couldn’t help but imagine her beautiful form tumbling away into the abyss. Thankfully, she made it.

After that, the trail seemed more forgiving. It fell downwards at a gentle pace, and it widened and smoothed out once more. Soon, the sky began to light from the distant horizon, turning gray with the coming of daylight. Though we had hours more to travel, according to Alysand’s guesses, it felt like we had passed through the darkest portion of our journey.

We skipped breakfast and ate more jerky while we walked. Since our way was now broad and simple to traverse, we made tremendous time.

The path wound up and down and through hills, and the further we got, the more the ocher of the soil turned to a mottled rust. The iron was all around us. We were nearing our destination.

Every hill and mound in the area seemed to merge toward a single peak. It was not one of the lofty mountains that scored the horizon here and there, snow-capped and ancient. This was a wide, almost flat-topped mountain that was covered in thick forest. As we crested a rise, I saw that the face of the mountain had been removed, cut away by years of toil, and below its shaggy crown, a tunnel bore down into the stone.

Even at this distance, perhaps two miles away, I was able to discern the tiny forms of miners pouring in and out of the mine like ants.

“We will leave the trail now,” Alysand said, taking the took the position of leader ahead of me. “Step lightly and follow closely. I’d like to get close enough to scout about. The fewer surprises we happen upon, the better.”

Our progress slowed dramatically, and though the gunsinger lacked her skill, I could not help but be reminded of Selna as he made his way below bough and branch, hedging the entrance of the mine. At last we made our way around the opening, coming to rest in a copse of trees that stood a couple hundred yards away. I scanned the mine entrance and saw only a handful of guards, but there were many more miners. They were hauling out buckets of ore, some occasionally pushing up a cart filled with the stuff.

“I can count only seven guards,” Alysand said. “And you, Hana?”

I couldn’t help but feel like I was being tested, so before I gave my answer, I took one more count. I had missed one in my first pass, but I saw him now, a larger ratkin that was sitting on a crate, leaning his head against the stone of the mountainside.

“Seven if you count the sleeper,” I replied.

Alysand nodded. “No doubt, there are more that we cannot see, but I don’t exactly want to snoop about in the daylight. Our chances don’t bode well. More likely, we’ll end up stirring the hive. I say we withdraw a mile or so and return as the sun begins to set. The transition from day to night is an effective time to attack. The eyes have trouble, and there will certainly be a change of guard.”

We found a game trail nearby and walked up into an adjacent canyon. My belly was calling upon demonic powers, and I heard Madi’s make a noise loud enough to hear from twenty feet away. A mild stream ran through the canyon, and the sun shone down on us favorably. Pachi and Tejón drank their fill and found warm stones to lie on and rest. Madi stretched out on a patch of grass like the gorgeous lumberjack she was.

It was, by all measures, a fine day.

Alysand gestured to me after we had stopped and set down our gear in a pile.

“Do you know much of fishing?” he asked me with a grin.

“I know a bit. Not much to be honest, though.” I glanced at the creek and saw the sliver shapes of fish darting about in a nearby pool. “I don’t have a pole or any fishing equipment anyway.”

He reached into his mysterious satchel and produced a battered tin box. On its lid was a childlike depiction of a fish. He handed it to me and said, “Let’s give it a go, shall we?”

I opened the box and found a telescopic metal rod. It was collapsed into a six-inch pole but was over four feet long when I extended it.

Afterward, Alysand showed me how to fix the reel in place, then explained how to tie the knot of the fishing line, attaching a tiny hook. “Now you just need to catch a few crickets.” There was a twinkle of mirth in his eyes, verging on mischief, and I feared what was going to happen next.

I spent nearly an hour hopping around, diving on the tiny, springing crickets that roamed everywhere. Eventually I had seven of the beasts, and I put them in a jar Alysand had given me. Then we walked over to the pool together, where he showed me how to run the hook through its belly and cast. In just a few seconds, a hand-sized fish was wriggling in the air before us.

It took me a time to figure out the reel, but I got it down, and soon had a pile of the fish. We were lucky enough that the fish didn’t take the crickets off every time, so we caught a total of ten small trout. One was bigger, nearly a foot long.

After discussing my chosen path to become a ranger, Alysand also showed me a new herb to pick as well as a root that we dug up from the banks of the stream. When I’d found several of each, I cleaned them off and helped Alysand make a stew of a small fire. The sun was bright, and Alysand made me crack up by using a few pieces of perfectly dry tinder to make a near-smokeless fire. Building the fire underneath a tree, I was pleased to see that no trace of our cooking was visible in the sky above us. Sneaky sneaky.

We ate in the shade of a tall tree, something like a fir. Tejón complained that his share was too small, so Pachi led him to go hunt nearby. They came back sated, apparently having eaten a half-dozen rabbits. The magnitude of their appetite would become concerning soon enough.

I wanted to take a nap, but before I fell asleep, I reviewed some of my progress. The Pathfinder class rank would bring with it new skills, and I was excited to see how they might change my gameplay. I checked that first.





Pathfinder Class Rank Requirements:





Herbalism: Level 7 out of 10

Rustic Cooking: Level 7 out of 10

Animal Harvesting: Level 12 (Complete)

Stealth: Level 8 out of 10

Shelter Mastery: Level 5 out of 10

Fishing: Level 6 out of 8

Skinning: Level 10 (Complete)

Ranged Weapon: Level 11 (Complete)

Ambush: Level 2 out of 3

Pet Bond: Level 2 out of 3

Mountain Atunement: Level 2 out of 3





My Herbalism and Fishing had leveled up, and all thanks to Alysand. Perhaps when we were done with the mines, I could find the time to finish those skills. Even my Rustic Cooking had improved since the last time I checked.

I was a bit concerned about the Shelter Mastery. The need to make a shelter hadn’t presented itself in quite some time, either because I had been traveling or staying somewhere more civilized.

The Mountain Atunement was new. I had received Forest Atunement when I was with Selna in the woods outside of Taelman’s Pond, but since then, I’d done several days of travel in the higher mountains. The original skill requirement was Field, Forest, or Mountain Atunement. It seemed my Mountain Atunement had surpassed the Forest and was now the main goal of that skill. Hopefully I would finish it before leaving Benham entirely.

The Pet Bond irked me the most. It was only Level 2! Pachi and I were closer than ever. We’d gained a second level after I revived her, which gave us the ability to use Mind Speech. What would it take to gain another? I thought of asking her, but she was sleeping in an ungraceful pile of wings and limbs with Tejón.

And though I knew I was still Level 21, I checked my character stats anyhow. Having gained a couple new Epic items made me curious.





Hana Kotoba: Level 21

Class Rank: Novice Hunter

HP: 5518/5518

Armor Rating 106





Vitality 29 (+3)

Strength 16 (+4)

Dexterity 26 (+15,+10% total)

Intelligence 17 (+3)

Stamina 22 (+12)





The difference was staggering. I’d gained 6 points in Dexterity and a whopping 8 in Stamina! The Vitality +3 from Marduk’s Mantle was reduced because I had removed the Swiftreed Cloak, but still, the extra +1 had boosted my HP. Then I had a thought. What kind of crazy HP did Madi have if she could absorb damage like she did? I would have to ask the next time a moment presented itself.

I continued to tinker with thoughts of level increases, juicy new skills, and what it might be like to dual-wield my swords. Anything to avoid the ticking time bomb that was my financial obligations. But soon enough my limbs were suffused with the gracious warmth of an unhindered but mild sun.

I let sleep claim me in its gentle arms at last.





If you sleep any longer, the warrior will kick you. It is time to wet our fangs, brood sister. Pachi’s voice woke me from a dreamless slumber, and I was pleased with how gentle it felt. Still, there was an edge of steel in her tone that told me she was looking forward to our raid.

“I’m up, I’m up,” I said, sitting upright and trying to get my bearings. I’d been exhausted, so I had slept deeper than usual. The night was closing its chilly grasp around me, and I marveled at the bear cloak. I’d simply rolled over on the grass, wrapping its bulk around me, and though it was cold now, I had slept cozy as anything. Thank you, Tumsley.

We decided to leave the majority of our gear in a pile under the fir tree. We took our weapons, of course, and Madi and I both took smaller packs that we had emptied, in hopes of finding some decent loot. Nothing was worse than scoring valuable drops only to have to leave it behind because you didn’t have the inventory space.

By the time we made our way back to our previous position, the sun was dying in an explosion of orange rays that lit the entrance to the mine. I made another count, and this time only saw a few ratkin guards to either side of the yawning cavern that led down into the mine itself. The larger one, the sleeper, was gone.

“Six?” I asked Alysand, and he nodded.

“Now, I will say this with as much reverence to your significant strength as possible, my dear,” Alysand began. “But Madi, you will need to stay behind while Hana and I take out the guards silently.”

Pachi growled low, and Alysand cleared his throat. “I will amend my statement. While Pachi, Hana, and I take out the guards. That only left one of our party members annoyed at being left behind. Tejón was too busy chewing on some grass he’d found to care. I watched him for a moment, wondering what it would be like to see him in combat. His mother had been a handful, and in spite of weighing at least three hundred pounds, he seemed so soft and mild mannered.

“I will go left,” Alysand said. “Can you and Pachi follow the trees and climb over the hilltop to get to the other side?”

“We can do that,” I said, reasoning out the plan. “It will take some time though. Wait until we attack first before making your move. That way Pachi and I have enough time.” It would have been nice to mind chat with everyone, but we were limited. Part of me wanted to split up, sending Pachi with Alysand, but I had the feeling that he could dispatch three guards much easier than we could, even combined.

The gunsinger nodded, and we slunk off into the trees together. Alysand followed us until we reached the base of the hill, then, without waiting to see us begin to climb the hill, darted forward to take refuge behind a large boulder. He was in position, perhaps only a few dozen yards away from the guards.

Go first, Pachi, I said mentally. You are quieter and better at finding a trail than I am.

It is good you have noticed this. Stay low, sister. The trees up here are becoming shorter, their branches thinning from the wind. Pachi darted up the incline.

I jogged in a crouch behind her, marveling at the way her feather and fur seemed to drip between the bushes and trees, almost liquid in her grace. For the hundredth time, I considered my sheer luck in finding such a strong companion to bond with. The mountain cat had been lovely, but it was so bland, so normal compared to the mythic enfield.

We reached the crest of the hill shortly and began our descent. Pachi slowed as the base of the hill approached. Luckily, a few patches of shrub extended out toward the mouth of the mine. I fell into a crawl and pulled myself up beside Pachi, and we peered out of the concealment.

Two guards stood about twenty feet away, slouching with boredom. I was finally close enough to inspect them.





Ratkin Guard

Level 18

HP: 2430/2430

Abilities: Call Alarm, Tail Whip, Bolster





I could work with that. The memory of experiencing the Tail Whip ability firsthand flitted through my mind and I ignored it. If this went well, they wouldn’t have time to use it. Worse yet would be the Call Alarm. If we could at least enter the mines, where the narrow confines of the passages would be to our advantage, this might be possible.

But where was the third?

As if sensing my unease, Pachi pointed out, The other guard is over there, playing in that pile of rubble.

I looked around and spotted a third guard bent over, rifling through a stack of ore. It was perhaps forty feet away, way out in the open in plain sight of the other two guards. How on earth were we going to pull this off?

Then an idea came. I whispered my plan to Pachi and she nodded.

From this angle, I couldn’t see Alysand. I had to trust that he was ready. Regardless of his position, he would be able to spot us soon enough, along with anyone else in visual range.

Three, two, one, go! I mentally shouted to Pachi. I crept forward, heel to toe like Selna had shown me, and closed the distance between me and the two guards. I chose the shorter wakizashi, relishing the smooth texture of its bone handle, and stood up to slit the first guard’s throat.

As I did so, the other turned its head to spit, and saw me in the corner of its eye. It gasped and turned on its heel to face me, but before it could say a word, I’d slashed up through its throat, spraying blood across his companion’s face. His fellow flinched, wiping the blood from his eyes, giving me just enough time. I used the upward momentum, letting my sword come to its zenith, before slashing back down. The short blade cut through the ratkin’s head, sending a spray of blood in the air.

The third guard looked up at the sound of the two bodies falling to the ground, but Pachi’s form blurred, covering the remaining distance between her and the miserable creature instantly. She leapt in the air and tore its throat out before any call of alarm could be raised.

My heart hammered in my chest, and I felt electric. Still, caution won out, so I put off any celebration. My sole concern was Alysand. How had the gunsinger fared?

Pachi and I regrouped and trotted over to the entrance of the mine, keeping close to the mountainside in case another guard was within. When we got there, Alysand’s sullen form stalked into view, two thin knives in his hand, dripping blood. He looked composed and unperturbed despite the spray of blood across his face.

The opening of the cavern that led into the mountain was empty of foes, so I ran out again and waved toward Madi’s position. In a moment, her athletic form ran out from the trees, followed by a loping and excited Tejón.

Our group formed up, taking in the arching framework of timber that held up the cavern’s ceiling. The first room we entered was massive, nearly as large as the town hall in Benham, though not as tall. At the end, three smaller tunnels veered away from each other, all burrowing into the mountain in separate directions: one up, one down, and one straight ahead.

“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised,” the gunsinger said. “It seems that we have a choice on our hands. I have my own opinion, but where would you two ladies like to start?”

Madi and I looked at each other and shared a grin. Both gamers, used to the natural progression of dungeons, we spoke our response in unison:

“We go down.”





4: “Often, it is the same wounds that wake us at night that shape our hearts and bolster our spines.”





— Sire Quinn Taelman III





MADI





I fought to contain my frustration over being put in the rear of our party—again. Tejón panted behind me happily, and I scratched his head. It seemed no matter what was going on, the bear was determined to be happy.

Hana looked at me, her bright eyes seeming to hold some unasked question, before she turned again and headed into the dark of the tunnel, the gunsinger on her heels. It was strange seeing the genial man holding two bloody blades. He looked equally prepared to open a throat or spread caviar on a cracker. The addition to our party wasn’t one I had originally wanted. Being alone with Hana was exciting. As much as she sometimes pissed me off with her recklessness, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking of her.

Though the tunnel was dark, a lantern hung from the ceiling, lighting our way intermittently. It was nice to know that Alysand had more flares, though. The idea of being stuck in the belly of a mountain made me want to puke. No thank you. I’d rather screw a porcupine than go that way.

Soon, we came to another fork. Hana whispered to Alysand, and they took the right passage. Again, I bit back my annoyance. It just didn’t seem like I was very vital at the moment. When the real fight started, though, I’d be front and center again.

A cold wind gusted up from the new passage, and I smelled sulfur and something like kerosene. No doubt from all the lanterns that were burning away. Who in the hell refilled these things anyhow?

Suddenly, the passage opened up into a wide cavern. And though there were no sounds of actual mining, a few dozen faces of grubby trow goblins looked up at us, pausing their eating. Everyone froze for a second, and I took the moment to scan them. All of them had the same creature marker.





Trow Goblin Miner: Ambivalent

Level 17

HP: 1530/1530

Abilities: Burrow, Smelt, Tackle





Alysand seemed to note them as well and stepped forward, speaking in a voice that I had to admit was straight from some legend. “Listen. We are not here to take your lives, but those of your masters. We will not leave here until they are all dead. If you would like to escape, now is your best chance.”

The group of miners stood and scurried past us in a single mass, fearful glances scanning us for deception. I thought we were in the clear until one scrawny worker screamed out in a shrill voice, “No! Masters good and powerful. You die!” It charged at our party, but Pachi flashed forward and pulled it to the ground, ending its miserable life.

I scanned the beast as it died to see what might have possessed it to act so differently from its friends.





Trow Goblin Miner: Zealous

Level 17

HP: 1530/1530

Abilities: Burrow, Smelt, Tackle, Call Alarm





Zealous, huh? That explained it.

Alerted by the creature’s Call Alarm, four burly ratkin ran into the cavern from a side passage. They wore leather armor augmented with iron plates. And though the metal was pocked with rust, it looked strong. Their descriptions made sense and promised more resistance than overworked miners.





Ratkin Lord Guard

Level 22

HP: 6250/6250

Abilities: ?





Finally, a fight I could join.

I used my Taunt ability and the beasts focused on me. Hana swept her katana out at one on the left, and Alysand ran to the tunnel the guards had come from.

The first of the guards slashed at me with a crude sword that must have weighed nearly as much as my axe. It was a miracle it could wield the thing at all, but as I sidestepped the blow, I saw it look me dead in the eyes. No matter. I activated Sunder—an upgraded version of the Cleave ability that I’d chosen after gaining level 20—and enjoyed the feel of my gorgeous new axe as it split the center of the ratkin’s breastplate. It fell in a heap at my feet.

Hana had dropped her first enemy already and was now turning on another. Pachi darted ahead of her and used her paws to pounce her target dead center, sending it slamming into the stone wall. A second later, his cries were drowned in a gurgle of blood.

One left, one for me. I spun my axe and ran at the beast who was raising his sword to slash out at me. His strike would be too slow, and even if I took a hit, I could regenerate quickly enough. But before I had the chance to land my attack, a figure bowled past me. Tejón charged the ratkin and tackled it to the ground. He climbed up on the guard’s chest and swept his claws across its neck and chest. Blood poured from the wound. The beast died almost instantly.

I laughed as Tejón looked back at me, his intelligent eyes seeming to ask one question. How’d I do?

Alysand returned, and said in a low voice, “I don’t think anyone else heard us. These four came from a small room at the end of this tunnel. It doesn’t go beyond that. We won’t have much more of this, though. Our element of surprise is about to run out. Let’s take a quick break here, then keep going.”

Hana and I checked the guards for loot, but only found a few silver coins and moldy food. Their gear was strong, but so crude it wasn’t worth the weight of hauling it.

Our party was still buffed from the Smokey the Bear Meat, and I was excited to see how much the XP gain might enhance my gains during the raid. We drank some water, cleaned our weapons, and continued down the passage.

The air around us got colder the deeper we went, and I had to ignore the thought of thousands of tons of stone above my head. Still, the air was fresh, with some ventilation apparently running through the mines, which made the whole ordeal less terrifying somehow.

We passed a few of the larger rooms like the last, and each time, we slowed enough to examine them properly.

Finally, we came upon a massive cavern, though this one was not a neatly lined and timber-supported room that had been mined out. It was a natural cavern. The sound of picks at work filled the air alongside a few voices. It was surprising how far we had to go before anyone came into sight. Sound traveled easily off the stone walls, and the cavern curved in on itself as it continued to descend.

Hana peered around the corner, then tiptoed back to let Alysand and I know what lay ahead.

“A whole team of miners is up there, maybe twenty of them. At least five guards as well, but something else. Some of the miners look different. They are trow I think, but… but they are huge and don’t really look right. I don’t know. Let’s just be ready for anything, okay?”

As Hana turned to leave, an idea came to mind. Rather than bumble into a huge group of creatures, it seemed best to use our heads a bit. “Wait, let’s try something different,” I said, waving the two over to my position.

I told them my plan and we set about preparing.

A minute later, Alysand called out in a ratkin voice that was so accurate it was shocking. I fought back a laugh as his shrill voice filled the cavern. “Invaders! We kills them for masters!”

The sound of heavily armored guards hustling our way echoed off the walls, sounding like no less than an army. I waited in my position, standing like the badass I was in the center of the path around the corner. They saw me at once as they came around the corner. I taunted them, and predictably, they reoriented themselves and charged. Six guards this time, but still not enough.

As the distance closed, I heard an arrow whistle past me and bury itself in a ratkin’s eye. It fell and knocked over one of its brothers in the process. I hefted my axe, preparing to strike the first enemy in line as Pachi flashed from her hiding place. She tugged the rear guard back to the ground just as he was struggling to regain his footing. Two down, four to go.

At last, the Ratkin Lord swung his sword as me. I caught the blade on the end of my axe and landed a kick to his breastplate. He stumbled back, and as the second opponent came at me, wielding two shorter swords, I used Sunder again. My axe bit through his block and severed his arms above the wrist. Another swing sent his head thumping on the ground before his body.

The one I’d kicked had recovered and now swung at me again, this time with more skill. I winced, expecting the blow to fall, but an arrow sprouted from his neck and he fell in a heap at my feet, clutching the arrow with both hands like it was something precious.

The third looked down in surprise as his companions fell around him, and I bashed him in the face with the butt of my axe. The beast’s skull caved in and he fell, his limbs spasming.

Tejón charged the last, and I winced as I watched the ratkin slash at his head with a sword. A loud clang sounded, and sparks filled the air. Tejón mauled him and cut off his scream. I breathed easy when I noticed the sword blow had left only a white scratch on one of his bone plates. He was one hell of a pet.

Alysand walked up beside me and laughed. “At this rate, I will have fun watching you four dispatch everyone we find. I’m almost thinking I should have stayed back in Benham.”

We searched the bodies again and found more coin. This time, one of the guards had a handful of gold rivets on him, which made me smile. Cash is king. Afterward, we walked around the bend where the party of miners was, their picks now silent. Several of them saw the result of the fight and picked up their gear to sprint away. However, five of the zealous miners wielded their picks and charged us, followed by three figures that gave me pause. Massive trow goblins, swollen and disfigured, rushed us with an oversized pick in each hand.





Twisted Trow

Level 20

HP: 5012/5012

Abilities: Tackle, Smite, Frenzy





The zealots were dispatched quickly, but as the hulks behind them approached, I couldn’t help but admire their power if not the odd configuration of their bodies. Each was well over seven feet tall and as proportionately thick in the arms and legs as their diminutive counterparts. The twisted trow must have weighed four or five hundred pounds each, and as they tromped toward me in iron-shod boots, I felt the ground shake.

They looked pained, though. Their bodies quite literally twisted, whether by magic or some other means. Perhaps that was how they had gotten so big.

“Incoming!” I shouted and lifted my axe to block a pickaxe from skewering me. Though I caught the implement on the edge of my axe, the sheer force of it pushed me to my knees. The monster lifted the next one to finish his work, so I rolled to the side to buy myself some time.

Play time was over. I buffed myself with Guardian of the Wild and then the party with Berserker’s Boon. New power flooded my veins.





Status Effect: Guardian of the Wild

Guardian of the Wild: Buff 1 will grant +10% Strength and +10% Constitution when fighting against a creature with any of the following status conditions: deranged, diseased, possessed, or evil. Buff 2 activates when serving in a protective role within a group, granting +5% to all attributes. Buffs will apply as Guardian of the Wild 1 and 2, respectively. Duration: 5 minutes. Cooldown: 30 minutes.





Status Effect: Shield of the Barbarian

Shield of the Barbarian: +10% to Vitality, +5% Stamina. All damage taken reduced by 10%. Duration: 2 minutes. Cooldown: 5 minutes.





I taunted the group to make sure I had both aspects of the Guardian of the Wild buff active, then hefted my axe for action.

A growl at my side made me look down. I was happy to see Tejón’s brave form standing next to me. As my companion, it seemed he could tank side by side with me.

The trow had gone after Hana and Alysand, but Pachi drew their attention away through flashes of her teleporting movement. Now that I had drawn agro, the other three group members began to attack the enemies from behind. All I had to do was stay standing.

Rather than block the next attack, I swung my axe sideways, pushing the huge pick off balance and sending it crashing into the stone floor. Luckily, the implement got stuck. The trow seemed not to notice and simply raised his offhand to attack. I sunk my axe into its neck on the unguarded side. To my surprise, the creature wasn’t killed. The attack was blunted by its stone-like skin. I had to use Dodge again to avoid being slammed with the second pick.

Tejón bulled into the creature and disarmed it, and the two bruisers began pummeling each other with blows so hard they shook the air.

The other two trow closed on me, and I avoided the first attack easily enough, only to have the second monster reach out and grab me around the neck.

I felt my throat close as it crushed my windpipe in its hand and began to lift me off the ground. I flung my axe at its head, but it caught the attack on its forearm and stared at me while I struggled. The second trow was winding up to bury its crude weapon in me when I heard a trilling whine and explosions erupted, filling the chamber with smoke and light.

The trow holding me was still growling, its mangled teeth bared in a terrible grimace, when its head snapped to the side, a hole punched through the side of its temple.

It released me and fell in a heap beside its companions.

Alysand stood, wisps of smoke trailing from his pistols and a look of concern on his face. Then I remembered Tejón.

I spun on my heel and saw the bear shaking his head, bits of gore dripping from his mouth. The trow underneath him was unharmed but for its crushed skull. Tejón sneezed a few times and licked at his maw, his face wrinkled in disgust.

“Ha!” I said. “You freaking gangster. Don’t like the taste of trow brains, eh? I wouldn’t either.” I looked back to the gunsinger, noting that he had already reholstered his guns and was now brushing his waistcoat with careful hands.

“I’m sorry,” Alysand said. “We are compromised for sure now. Every malevolent creature in this blasted hillside has heard us, and it is my fault. I’m…”

“Callete la boca! You saved my life. Thank you, Alysand.” I walked over to him, and despite his obnoxiously precise manners and perfectly tailored suit, I hugged the man.

I heard Hana laugh as I released the poor man. “You shut up, too. That isn’t funny, and you can tell princess feathers over there to watch it or I’ll sic Tejón on her.”

“Pachi!” Hana said, staring in shock at her pet. “Watch your mouth.”

It was my time to laugh, and we took a minute to collect ourselves.

Alysand spoke first. “I say we hurry up from here. No doubt a reactionary force is being assembled as we speak. The sooner we begin eliminating whatever opposition we may fight down here, the better.”

Our jerky buff was wearing off, so we all ate a bit more of the dried bear meat and drank more water. Then, with me in the lead, we headed down into the dark tunnel.

It felt like an hour passed as we trudged deeper and deeper into the mine. Several empty rooms met us, some with fresh evidence that they had previously been occupied. It wasn’t a good sign.

The tunnel finally leveled out and began to widen. An orange light flickered ahead, brighter than any other we had seen so far. I stopped for a moment and recast my buffs.

“Alysand, how about that Bullet Blessed? It’s a savage skill. We might need the extra Stamina and Dexterity.”

“It can only be activated once a day. I think it wise to wait until we need it most.”

I nodded and stepped out into the cavern.

A deep voice echoed off the excavated walls, startling me. “Greetings, friends. We’ve been waiting for you to arrive. It isn’t polite to keep your host waiting, you know?”

The chamber was the largest yet, an amphitheater of a cavern, with huge torches burning along the wall. To one side, a line of miners continued to shuffle out a side passageway, a few of the ratkin lord guards prodding them with spears. In the center of the chamber stood a huge ratkin with bright steel armor on his chest and shoulders. He held a halberd that shone in the fire of the torches. I inspected the leader and was not surprised to see he was a named mob.





Foreman Shezkal: Elite Ratkin

Level 26

HP: 9633/9633

Abilities: ?





The ratkin continued his rant, saying, “You killed some of my friends, though, so I am not feeling generous. I think we’ll kill you. And, oh, you’ve brought us bear? So tasty. I really should thank you.” He smiled at those who stood with him—a dozen twisted trow and six ratkin guards. The leader opened his mouth to keep talking, but I just couldn’t take any more.

I interrupted him, watching with satisfaction as the creature’s smirk disappeared. “Usually people talk a lot when they are scared crapless. How about, let’s fight already.”

He slammed a visor down over his face and jabbed his huge polearm in the air. “You heard the girl. She wants to fight. Attack!”

The trow ran ahead, and Alysand began his eerie whistle again. Flashes lit the walls as his bullets tore through their bodies. I taunted the group and they converged on me. By the time I swung my axe to intercept the first attacker, five of them had already fallen.

The gunsinger moved to the side and continued pelting the rest of the party with his piercing rounds. Hana and Pachi were clashing with a beast of their own, and Tejón stood beside me, standing up on his hind legs and trading blows with a trow wielding a wooden cudgel.

Two of the monsters began to rain blows on me, the first using a large pickaxe and the other throwing around a hammer that would have made Wardeen’s forge hammer look small. I used Dodge to avoid an attack, then Cleave, sinking my axe into a trow’s mouth. Its teeth were shattered, and my axe carried through and cut the top of the beast’s head off.

The other kicked me square in the chest. I flew backward and crashed into the cave wall. My vision flashed as the stone cracked against my skull. I stood and narrowly avoided the hammer strike that followed. As I scrabbled to my feet, I grabbed a handful of the rubble that lined the walls.

Screw honor. This fight was getting crazy. I threw the dirt in the trow’s eyes and sidestepped its attack easily. The blind beast flailed around a few times with his weapon, smashing one of the remaining trow behind him. I darted in and used Cleave again, burying my axe in its face.

It fell to the ground in a heap, limbs still twitching. I noticed the others had fallen as well. Alysand was reloading, Hana was panting, and Tejón and Pachi’s mouths dripped with fresh blood.

Foreman Shezkal gave an order, and his guards fanned out. “Excellent! It is a fight then. Ratkin, bring them down. Focus on the irksome fire mage. He is the most dangerous.” These were labeled as ratkin lord guards like the ones we’d fought previously, but they were elites and were all level 22. To make matters worse, they all wore plate armor like their master.

They held long spears, which would make my job a lot harder.

They formed a rank of four, two falling behin