Of all the things you might force someone to do by pointing a sword at them, reading probably isn’t one that immediately springs to mind. I pointed at the posters on the wall, each with a line of something unintelligible written on them.
“I said read it.”
Grayson stood with his hands held up, more requesting calm than offering surrender. “Now, you don’t want to—argh.”
I only meant to poke him slightly with the sword to show him I meant business, but the tip slid into his side with ease. I pulled it back out, a red smear on the end. So this was how a real weapon worked.
Grayson started reading. “Ogre, easily confused, 300 bits. Frogman, uses basic beast magic, 200 bits. Gnome, weak to bright light, 100 bits. Lamia, able to mesmerise, 250 bits.”
“Maurice, grab some paper and write this stuff down. Claire, you get some paper too and copy the map off the wall. Mark where the different creatures live. The colour of the poster matches the same colour region on the map.”
They quickly did as told. Grayson continued reading out the names of different mythical beasts (apparently not as mythical as I had been taught to believe) and their weaknesses/abilities. Maurice scribbled everything down. A cheat sheet.
I held the sword pointed at Grayson, although I felt like he was letting me. If he had rushed me, I doubt I could have stopped him from taking his sword back.
It took about ten minutes to get all the information jotted down. Some of the monsters I’d heard of, others were new to me. Grayson had one hand on his waist, stemming the flow of blood. It wasn’t spraying out or anything, but it did look painful. I had an urge to ask him if he was okay, even to apologise, but it would seem a bit disingenuous, seeing as how I was the one that had wounded him.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s go.”
We backed away from him, heading for the exit. Grayson didn’t say anything, didn’t call for help from his men outside. It occurred to me we would be fugitives from now on. Outlaws. I really didn’t want to be on the run for the rest of my days (not that there’d be many of those the way we were going).
I looked at the sword in my hand. It was a beautifully crafted weapon, even I who knew nothing could tell that.
“This sword probably means a lot to you. I don’t really want to take it from you. If I leave it here, will you give me your word you won’t come after us?”
Grayson looked surprised, but he nodded. I place the sword on the bench nearest the door.
“Will you be reporting us for this?”
“For showing some initiative? No. But if we cross paths again…”
He left it hanging, but I got the idea. Keep paths uncrossed. We had made it to the door and were about to leave when Grayson said, “Wait. You’re going to need this.”
He opened one of the desk drawers and grimaced as he awkwardly took out another piece of card. He had to swap hands to write, grabbing his side with his free hand and picking up the charcoal stick with the one now painted red. After writing something on the card, he walked towards us.
We all flinched and took a step back. He stopped, placed the card on a bench and backed off. I took a few steps forward and picked it up. A white card with writing on it.
“They don’t allow strangers into cities without one of those. It confirms you are visitors with full privileges. No tax, no tolls. The closest city is Fengarad to the west, but it will work in any of them. Show it to the guards at the gate and they should let you through without problem.”
“Thank you.” I didn’t know what else to say. Even though I had threatened and wounded him, he was still willing to help us. That is assuming the card didn’t read, ‘The person holding this card is a criminal, lock him up immediately.’ I really had to learn their stupid language.
We walked out of the shed and immediately found ourselves facing the soldiers waiting by the cart. The one I had spoken to earlier in the day saluted me. Turned out all you needed to gain respect in this place was to commit mass murder.
He looked like he was going to say something, but I didn’t want to hang around making small talk while Grayson changed his mind and had us all strung up by the neck.
“Right!” I said in an authoritative voice. “Evening training session starts now. Everyone keep up with me.” And then I ran through the town as fast as I could with the others chasing me.
We didn’t stop until we were well out of town. It was getting dark and we needed to find somewhere to make camp. There was a small group of trees off the main road that provided cover and hid us from sight. Building a fire didn’t take long, but we didn’t have any food and only a little water.
“Wait here, I have to do something.”
“Where are you going?” asked Claire. She seemed concerned I was going to run off.
“I have some unfinished business in town. I won’t be long. Here.” I handed the chit for 1200 bits to Maurice. “Hang onto that. And take this too.” I gave him the pouch with the money in it, but first I took out a handful of coins. “I’ll try to bring back some food.”
“Do you want one of us to come with you?” said Dudley.
“No, it’ll be easier for me to sneak in and out by myself. Don’t worry, I won’t take any risks, trust me.”
And they did trust me. Which was fine, because I was trustworthy. For now, anyway.
I walked back into town keeping a low profile and avoiding any people that were about. Flaming torches outside each store were the only form of light and provided plenty of shadows for me to sneak through on my way to the smithy.
The blacksmith was banging away as I approached. He glanced up, didn’t seem very impressed, and went back to banging. I stood in front of him, but I was here to see someone else. Kizwat came out to a backroom carrying a box of something. He stopped when he saw me.
“Kizwat, I need to speak to you.”
This got the blacksmith’s attention. He put his hammer down, wiped his hands on his leather apron, and turned to look at his apprentice. “What’s this about, Kizwat?”
Kizwat shrugged and looked at me. He seemed worried I was going to make things awkward for him somehow. He was sort of right.
“I killed the Mouse King.”
“That was you?” said Kizwat, his eyes wide with surprise. “We heard the news but I didn’t imagine…”
“Yes, well, me neither. But I used this to do it.” I held up the spike he had made for me. “I’m assuming the Mouse King counts as a superior beast?”
Kizwat’s mouth fell open and he dropped the box he was holding. It clanged as it hit the floor. He shook his head. “No, he doesn’t.” His voice was small and weak.
“Really? But he spoke, doesn’t that mean…”
“The Mouse King isn’t a superior beast,” said the blacksmith. His demeanour had changed from disinterest to intense irritation. “The Mouse King is a unique beast.”
“Oh. Is that better? I mean, you can still get your hammer, right?”
Kizwat, still stunned, nodded. He looked to his master with a goofy smile on his face.
“You made this weapon?” the blacksmith asked him.
“Yes, master. I made it from an off-cut, using the spinning technique you taught me.” He turned to me. “A unique beast means I will be able to claim a silver hammer. I’ll be able to open my own forge. People will come from all around to buy what I make. A silver grade blacksmith is very rare.”
I never expected to kill a superior beast in the first place, let alone something even rarer. “In that case, maybe we should amend our deal.”
Kizwat nodded vigorously. “Whatever you want me to make, at cost price.”
The blacksmith’s mood didn’t improve. “Did you really use that to make the killing blow? They have ways of verifying these things. Don’t send my apprentice all the way to the Guild on a hoax.”
“Unlikely as it might seem, it’s the truth. His blood is still on here.”
“You must have got lucky,” said the blacksmith.
“Yes,” I agreed.
Kizwat walked over to me. He looked nervous and sweaty. “I’ll need to take the weapon. I’ll have to show it to the Guild Master.”
I gave him the spike, a little reluctantly. I hadn’t realised I’d have to return it. “I don’t suppose you could make me another one?”
“Wait here,” said the blacksmith. He disappeared into the back.
“Where will you set up your forge?” I asked Kizwat. “If you’re to make good on our deal I need to be able to find you.”
Kizwat was staring lovingly at the spike. “I will head to Dargot. It is the city in the north. They had a silver blacksmith there who died recently.”
“Won’t his apprentice inherit his hammer?”
“Silver hammers can’t be passed down, they must be earned. Come find me there in a couple of months and I should be ready to make you whatever you wish.”
Seemed like a good plan. The blacksmith returned carrying something wrapped in green cloth. He opened it to reveal a short sword, about the length of my forearm.
“Take this. The same deal you made with Kizwat. A man who gets lucky once might get lucky again.”
I took the sword. It wasn’t as flash as Grayson’s, but it had the same feel. A real weapon.
“Agreed. I will come back if I kill another unique beast.” Although, to be honest, I had no intention of hunting any more monsters. Defending myself from other humans, however, would probably always be a thing.
“Or maybe something higher,” said the blacksmith.
“Higher than a unique beast? There’s something like that?”
“Indeed. A very unique beast.”
I couldn’t help but scoff a little. “If unique means there’s only one of them, what does very unique mean?”
“There is only one unique beast in a group. When they die, a new one is born, eventually. A very unique beast, there is only one in all the world, and when it dies, it is gone for good. They are tremendously powerful.” The blacksmith sucked in his breath. “It is unlikely you will ever encounter one, but…”
I made a mental note to avoid very unique beasts at all costs.
On the way out of town I bought some chickens from the butcher. He also sold animal fat, which we could use to fuel the lantern. I found this out by asking, a new skill I seemed to have picked up. I also bought a proper bag and some other bits and pieces. With money in my pocket, I could have spent hours shopping, but the longer I spent in town, the more powerful the urge to get out of there got. Leaving Probet felt like the only way to truly graduate from being a noob.
I still considered the chances of this all turning out to be a game to be high, but whether it was or not didn’t make a difference at this point. I had to find a way to survive. To not only to be able to live, but to be able to live with myself. Killing monsters made no sense if I had to become one to do it.
I headed out of town to meet up with my party.
Gadget Tramp – Can disguise weapons to look like trash, because that’s what they’re made of.
Angry Witch – Can cast ‘Lower Self-esteem’ on herself and everyone else.
Grinning Priestess – If laughter really is the best medicine, you’re saved. Otherwise, say your prayers.
Slow Ranger – Uncanny ability to always know exactly where the sky is.
Batman – The hero this world neither needs nor deserves.
End of Volume 1.