It was the tapping, inconsistent in rhythm and volume, which brought Antios out of his deep sleep.
He wiped the sleep from his eyes as he sat up on the cot, groaning as he swung his legs over the side before realising someone had taken off his boots.
“By the sisters of the four hells, is that smell my feet?” He cursed, looking down at the threadbare socks covering his toes. His boots were close by, and smelled just as bad, he quickly pulled them on hoping it would seal in the odour.
“It is common knowledge that you sleep better with bare feet, but no one else would sleep near you.” Iki replied from near one of the other cots. They didn’t wear boots and flexed their scaled feet in demonstration.
The kobold was in the process of examining a section of wall, they held a small dagger in one hand and a lock pick in the other.
“You have slept for only a few hours. The others have returned to your home.” They pointed out towards the central chamber of the nexus with the lock pick.
“Iki cannot leave, the echo, Dath, he said I stay here. He will return to keep me company. Havia promised to send me some nice foods.” They made a small trill sound in anticipation, Antios couldn’t help but find it endearing.
“I have found two secret storage areas so far, both empty, but I am sure there is more to this space than it seems. The shape and size of the rooms is not quite right. It is hard to describe.” They tapped on the wall with the hilt of the dagger again. Then took a few steps before tapping again.
“I am hoping to discover more before Dath returns.” The edges of their wide, long mouth turned up in a smile and the kobold carried on their way around the room. Antios took it as his sign to leave the kobold to their investigation.
“I’ll come back and hang out with you before we go further into the dungeon.” He promised, standing unsteadily to his feet. “You have been an asset Iki, I’m glad you decided to stay with us.” He said, eliciting another trill from the kobold as it lowered its eyes.
“I look forward to our travels as well.” They said as Antios pulled his pebble from his pocket and muttered the phrase to teleport home.
“Homeward bound, safe and sound.” There was the now familiar disorientation as he disappeared from the nexus and reappeared on the Dragon-stone circle. The daylight hurt his eyes for a second and he blinked frantically while looking around, but he was grateful that he no longer felt like throwing up from teleporting.
Dath and Havia were nearby, deep in conversation. Antios waved at them as his vertigo faded and he walked to the edge of the dragon stone.
“We’re going to rest up for the night, then tomorrow me and you are going into town.” The thief patted him on the back as he approached. “You look like Krit’s own arse.” She laughed and gestured to the house. “Utig is in the kitchen throwing together a meal and then you should rest some more. We’ll sort out what we need from town in the morning.” She turned back to the echo, who had a small basket filled with food stuffs at his feet. The thief waved him away towards the house as she continued her discussion with the echo.
Despite how bright it had felt, the sun was setting at the far end of the valley, evening was fast approaching. A warm light poured out of the house on the ground floor, as he walked slowly through the doors, he could hear Utig and Quink chatting cheerfully as a sizzling filled the air.
“All I’m saying is every meal is better with some kind of meat, it’s not my fault it tastes so good.” Utig asserted while Antios made his way inside to the kitchen.
Lamps had been lit and a fire was roaring in the fireplace, a pot of water hung above it and was boiling away nicely. Utig was throwing a log into the augur as a pan on top of it crackled and popped with fat.
“Not that there aren’t good meals to be had without meat,” he continued, “don’t get me wrong. The wood elves are a hardy bunch, and they have a mostly meat free diet, oh Hey Antios, you’re up. I’ve a stew going and was frying up some fia-cakes.” The fighter grabbed a seat as the barbarian grabbed a plate of rolled meat, potato, and miscellaneous vegetables that he started kneading together before dropping them into the spitting fat with a loud hiss.
Quink was stood at the large central table, chopping vegetables which she periodically scraped into the pot above the fire. It was a warming sight, seeing the two of them working together to make a meal.
“So, forced level up, how was that?” The mage asked, not really waiting for a response before continuing. “We thought we were going to lose you for a minute there you know.” Antios smiled and rubbed the back of his neck anxiously.
“Yeah, sorry, I know it was dumb to hold on to my ether for so long, I just couldn’t choose properly.” He looked sheepishly around as Utig flipped some of the hissing fia-cakes over. “Oh, I get it. Do I level up a particular magic school or my mana pool, would the last dungeon have gone better if I could have fired off more spells, or stronger spells? We all have those issues. Just, talk to us more about it.” The mage walked around the table and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t be a fucking idiot about it ok. I finally find a party I can stick with, and you pull this lame shit, it’s not funny ok.” She smiled warmly, despite her terse words, and gave him a quick hug. Utig coughed as he started plating a few of the savoury cakes.
“And yeah, this oaf would be lost without his fellow bruiser.” The mage laughed while returning to check the stew above the fire.
“Did you get anything good with your ether, or just increase your stats?” Utig asked, placing a plate with two fia-cakes in front of him. They steamed and fat was dripping out of them, but the smell was amazing. Utig had added some herbs whilst mashing the potato and meat together, the resulting fia-cakes were stodgy but delicious.
“I’ve not checked yet, but I did unlock a few skills and one unique, I think.” He said, grabbing a fork and using it to dissect a cake into quarters before spearing a piece and lifting it up to blow on it.
“Wow, you don’t usually get unique skills until after reaching level ten. Any idea what it does.” Utig asked, dropping more cakes into the pan to a chorus of hissing and spitting.
“Something called ‘stalwart protector’, I’ve never heard of it before, I’ll investigate it after were all settled.” Satisfied he wasn’t going to scald his mouth Antios dropped the chunk of cake into his mouth, savouring the rich, salty taste.
Brick dust and mortar filled the air, Levi had jumped back behind the corner just as Aiegwin had thrown a spell at them, letting the bolt hit the wall instead. For a clerk she was surprisingly fast, and her spells were much more powerful than they should have been at her level.
He’d headed straight for the guild house in Flindora once the teleport had finished. Marching in with a squad of guild-guard, only to find the head clerk had fled hours before. Her office was empty, and a large sum of gold was missing from the guild house coffers. Levi had made sure his squad contained skilled ex-adventurers with high level search skills, they wasted no time in tracking her down to the west district of town. It was the adventurer’s guild’s role to chase down rogue adventurers, those abusing their power, but Levi knew something was different with this chase. They had entered Aiegwin’s residence to find it littered with complex traps which took two of his guards down and hindered everyone else. Luckily none of them had died. He was glad they had invested so much time in continuing their training and upgrading their skills.
A game of cat and mouse followed, tracking the clerk from one trap laden den to another. Now they had eyes on the bitch, but she was fast, and desperate.
“You know, you could just hand yourself in? Make this a whole lot easier?” He shouted round the corner, allowing his lions roar skill to increase the volume of his voice. It was one of several unique skills he’d unlocked over the years. Using it at higher levels could cause sonic damage and disorientation.
There was no reply, she was probably already running, but where to?
Levi clicked his fingers to one of his remaining guards, a healer predominantly, although very skilled at hand to hand.
“Eli, do you have the map of the town?” He asked as they approached.
“Yes sir, right here.” Eli said, producing a folded canvas map. Levi took the map, folding and unfolding sections until he had the area of Flindora that they were currently in.
“When were these updated last?” He asked as he scrutinised the labyrinthian lines that marked the streets of this quarter.
“Last month I believe sir.” Eli replied, before ducking up against the opposite wall. Further down the street another small explosion of magic could be heard.
“She’s heading to the old temple district.” He said, showing Eli the map.
“See, that’s where she was holed up, and this right here,” he pointed at a small nest of lines that circumnavigated a large straight street. “That’s where she’s been dancing around us.” Eli glanced at the map, a brief look of confusion on his face.
“But, sir, that’s leading into the market district.” He sounded tired, Levi grinned and nodded his head.
“Aye, and she is making a lot of noise about heading there. Someone this cautious has back up plans. No way she is heading into the market district, hard to run through crowds, and way too many city-guard on the lookout for her. If I were her, I’d make a lot of noise that way.” He pointed down the street as another explosion filled the air. “And head to somewhere else where I can lay low until I can get out of the city.” He gestured on the map a small route of streets that led to the temple district.
“We know she’s got timed release magic, traps and complex illusion magic. I don’t think she is down that street.” The guild-master looked at his squad, he’d missed the chase, he should join them on more missions.
“Warn the city guard, in case I’m wrong, but I’d bet a month’s salary she has backup there.”
The sun had set by the time they found the abandoned temple where Aiegwin was holed up. A subtle illusion had been cast on it, hiding her occupancy. Haz, one of his best trackers, found the trail and helped them navigate the traps and alarms that had been put in place.
“We need to be careful, Aiegwin is clearly a higher level than she was registered with. She’s been using the stolen ether to boost herself over the last few years. I can’t believe we didn’t catch on sooner.” He shook his head as they crouched next to a crumbling wall. They had warned the Flindoran city-guard and Levi had left one of his men to create the illusion that they had followed her to the market district.
With night falling fast and the light diminishing they had regrouped outside the old temple district. A lot of the old temples had been repurposed by the various religions into storage or training facilities. Still, a lot had been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Levi nodded to his squad, five of the best guild guard he had. Eli had spent the last hour making sure everyone’s health was optimum and they all had buffs applied. Now they crouched opposite a dilapidated temple to the twins, lesser deities of balance.
The air was broken by a shrill scream of frustration, swiftly followed by a crash. Whatever plans Aiegwin had, were coming undone swiftly. Levi moved forward, his knees aching from being crouched for so long. The guild-guard fanned out instinctively and approached the temple from different directions. They had already spotted several traps and alarm spells placed around the crumbling structure. It was easier to spot them, now they were familiar with the type of spells she cast. Levi signalled two of his guard, they both had spider-climb as a skill and made their way up the wall of the temple, climbing in through a large broken window. Levi and the others meandered through the overgrown gardens of the temple towards the rear entrance and the ground floor windows. They waited while a particularly vicious trap on a window was disarmed by Eli and followed the guard through.
As they crossed the threshold an uneasiness crept over them, it was like entering the boss room of a dungeon. There was no way Aiegwin was this powerful, but something radiated a devastating aura from the main chamber of the temple. Gritting his teeth, the guild-master stepped forward, a slither of light escaped the main doors, cutting the growing darkness like a red-hot blade. Levi rested by the door, wiping his brow. It had been too long since he had been in the field, he will start practicing with the guild guard more often.
Behind the door he could hear two muted voices, one was obviously the clerk who was sounding more and more hysterical. Suddenly the clerk began shouting.
“What? What do you mean you can’t teleport me out. You promised. After all I’ve done for you.” Her voice rose in pitch as she spoke. Levi knew the sound of someone on the edge, this could go badly.
“I am sorry, really, truly. My power is limited, cut off from the Matrius as I am. You are now a liability, and my goal takes priority.”
There was a scream, pain wracked and terrifying. Levi pulled the door open and watched, shocked, as a robed figure stood before Aiegwin, their hand buried to the wrist in her stomach.
“What was given is returned.” They proclaimed before turning to see Levi entering the chamber. “Oh look, you have guests.” He withdrew his hand and Aiegwin screamed, the figure held a red glowing stone, dripping in blood. The clerk collapsed to the floor, a pool of blood quickly spreading out beneath her. The robed figure drew back his hood and laughed. He was a young man, with short cut brown hair. He examined Levi with piercing eyes that swirled with a dizzying array of colours. Winking mischievously, they straightened up proudly. Shaking blood from the stone, to watch, emotionlessly as the spatters rained down on the fallen clerk. They looked hauntingly familiar; Levi had seen that face before.
“Oh, well. Time to go.” They said, disappearing in the blink of an eye, as if a glow stone had been turned off. The chamber turned instantly colder, there was no spell, chant, mechanism. No teleport circle on the floor. They had simply ceased to be in this space. Aiegwin groaned, collapsed on the floor, blood oozing from the hole in her stomach. She struggled to speak.
“Witness, I was meant to bear witness.” She coughed, blood trickling from her mouth.
“A new god, will be born.” She breathed, her eyes closing as she collapsed.