Excited for Fool's Bond?
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The dampness filled the air with the scent of cedar. It didn’t quite cover the smell of rot, but it helped. Not enough though.
Jackal had noted the strong, pleasant, woody smell as they’d made their way closer to the entrance of the dungeon. The rain had been falling heavily all day, its constant drum adding a background rhythm to their hike. The dungeon was on the outskirts of the town of Prince George.
Before the System, the dungeon had been a pulp and sawmill. They’d gotten solid instructions on how to traverse the dungeon: Start in the former Administration Center, which would open access to the pulp mill, and clearing that out would open access to the Sawmill. It was effectively a three-level dungeon, with the hazards growing at each level. The Prince George adventurers recommended they take their time with it. Regulars suggested a day for each level.
It was a good dungeon for a city. The first level was challenging enough that no one had soloed it yet, but teams of low-Level Basic classes could complete it. Mid Levels could make it through the second level. The last level hadn’t been completed by anyone yet, but the first few monsters had been tough, even for the highest-Level Basic classers in town. A couple of Advanced classers had made it through the first part of the last level but had never been heard from again.
Jackal smelled the rot again, cutting through the otherwise pleasant cedar smell. The System had transformed the inside of the administration building, according to the locals, but the outside looked the same. A long and quite pretty boardwalk passed over some neatly trimmed wide grass fields to a building that looked sort of like a school or small-town hospital, low and a bit spread out. The rain and cool spring air had resulted in a mist all around the grounds, and instead of being spooky, it had looked almost romantic.
That had been a lie.
It jumped on him from somewhere above. Probably intended to surprise him. Whether that might have worked had been made moot by the horrible burbling scream it had let out while leaping at him.
Jackal cut a backhand cut without even really thinking about it, but the face of his attacker froze in his vision. That happened sometimes. In the middle of a fight, like a freeze-frame image. It didn’t stop or slow him down, but it was like a portion of his subconscious was chewing on something it saw and was reluctant to let go.
Jackal hated that. Hated it because he knew he’d be seeing that face in his mind’s eye, probably just as he was falling asleep.
Wide-set red eyes and a little pug nose almost between them. Long, bat-like ears flopping out to the side…an incongruous silver loop earring hanging from the left one. Impossibly wide mouth open in a scream, with hundreds of small, needle-like teeth filling it.
It had been wearing a tattered little jacket, ragged with patches all over. Big black boots went right up to its knees, sharp hobs poking out from the soles. And a big, meaty cleaver, that it had been swinging at Jackal’s head.
The image in his mind was frozen just after his sword cut cleanly through the goblin. There wasn’t even any blood yet, just the smallest hint of recognition in the goblin’s eyes that something horrible and permanent and irrevocable had happened to it.
All Jackal had felt as he bisected the creature was a faint pop that traveled down his arm from the sword. Just a minor wobble, a tiny reverberation that caused a subtle but pleasant ting sound, if anyone was listening.
He didn’t even really feel the impact of the two halves of the body when they hit him less than a second later.
Jackal realized he’d let himself drift and pulled himself back into the moment. He took a quick glance around the space to see if he’d missed anything.
They were in a large, open space. The admin building featured a beautifully designed atrium, all wooden beams and planks and floor-to-ceiling windows, interspersed with criss-crossing, green-painted stairs leading from floor to floor, office to office. All of that was still intact but expanded.
And filled with goblins.
Fool was ahead of Jackal, swinging his warhammer with both hands at a pair of what looked like Gremlins. Or possibly goblins covered head to toe in fur. Jackal couldn’t quite tell, but Fool seemed to be handling things fine. A quick glance behind him confirmed that no one had sneaked behind Jackal.
The reception area was still spattered with the lavender blood of the Sirens they’d had to fight past, but none of those bodies were even twitching at this point.
Ahead of him, the Mousekin were moving in tight formations.
Jackal grunted in appreciation of their tactics. The Mousekin looked beyond adorable, but you couldn’t argue with their skills. They were a compact military patrol unit composed of two squads made up of two four-mouse teams each. Each team had a mage, two melee fighters, and ranged weapon specialist, with an additional healer for each squad. They’d clearly been trained to a high degree and moved with precision, laying down a river of damage as they engaged the enemy.
It was even more impressive because they were smaller than the goblins. Each Mousekin was just over a foot high, and the goblins doubled that. If the Mousekin patrol didn’t punch way above its weight class, they’d have been swarmed under the goblins in no time. Instead, they were cutting through the goblins about as easily as Jackal was.
That accounted for everyone. Except the Mousekin leader, Roger. Where was Roger?
Jackal looked all over the room but couldn’t see him or his two companions, Eric and Olivia. Where the hell had they gotten to?
A moment later, Jackal figured it out. Another goblin came flying out from the floor above… and plummeted straight down. Jackal saw the wounds on its body. Neat holes from the Mousekin firearms, and a deep stab wound that had turned into a cut, opening the body up to show the odd green insides. Jackal knew what had caused that wound.
“Fool,” he said, “they’ve gotten ahead of us. I’m going to catch up.”
He didn’t say any more than that, trusting his friend to get the context.
Fool’s response was a string of curses as another goblin sneaked in behind him and bit him on the ankle. Jackal managed not to laugh. Then he activated his [Potoooooooo] and [Lead Zeppelin] Skills and burst up across the room and up the nearest stairs.
His smile faded as soon as he got to the next landing. The sign on the floor just said “Marketing.”
The Dungeon Master had a low sense of humor and had been a former employee of the mill. As a result, he’d built up the city dungeon from his vision of what the worst of the company was. This was the floor all the goblins were coming from. And there were more of them up here.
A lot more.
Individually, or even in small groups, the goblins were no threat to Jackal at all. But a lot of them were suddenly charging at him.
He saw other creatures mixed in with them as well—the ones he’d originally taken to be fur-covered goblins. They now seemed to be a creature of roughly the same size, but with a sturdier build. They looked just like Gremlins from the movie his parents had made him watch. The one that had given him so many nightmares when he was a kid.
A mixed horde of them started for Jackal, but he had a moment to take in the whole situation. He was on the landing of the second floor, which was composed of a walkway going all around the atrium. The side he was facing held a row of offices going far back into the building, judging from what he could see through the dirty glass windows that lined the walkway. There were no more stairs going up, so the entrance to the next floor up had to be somewhere in those offices.
Since he couldn’t see Roger or his two friends anywhere, they were either dead and piled under a mound of goblins, or they’d pushed on to the next level.
No point in assuming the worst. If it was true, they were screwed, and the mission was shot. So, he had to assume that Roger had somehow pushed through the hordes and had moved on to the next level.
Judging from the larger mess of creatures he could see at the far end of the offices, that was what had happened.
Jackal saw a commotion there, and some of that seemed to be turning back toward him.
He activated his [Blade Walking] Skill, and he felt the corners of his grin touching his eyes. It was a Skill tailor made for this kind of environment, letting him almost literally walk across the incoming blades of massed attackers, avoiding most damage and letting him attack at will.
It was useful when facing small groups of higher-Level monsters, letting him gain a significant edge on them when they expected to have the upper hand by dint of numbers.
Against a horde of the lowest-Level monsters?
Jackal danced through them with almost no resistance. He could feel their blades slashing and rising up to him, and his spirit flared up, the grin splitting his face. This was what he lived for. He let himself go, holding nothing back, spinning and chopping and stabbing in a timeless flow, leaving a river of blood behind him.
Even with his Skill, he was taking damage. He saw his health ticking down, along with his mana, but wasn’t that what they were for? Coin to be spent in service of living his life as it was meant to be.
For a moment, he cut through all of his attackers. The combat paused, and he found himself on the floor again, surrounded by a screaming mass. He heard the faint plip, plip of blood dripping off his twin swords. No breathing or other sounds. It was as though the entire room had frozen in time. The gleaming teeth of the creatures were all around him, dripping with a viscous saliva, twisted grins of fear and hate.
A poem his father had read to him when he was young ran through his head. A poem of his people, his father had said, but had never explained more. He understood the words now, and their meaning.
The “Poem of Antar” came to his lips, and he recited it out loud for his enemies:
And then it was his turn to scream and leap.
He tore through the creatures like a hurricane of steel, blades flashing like lightning. The Gremlins held for a moment. A brief moment.
Then they broke, scattering with hoots and screams, and Jackal chased them, desperate to land one more righteous slash.
Then they were gone.
And his world was dimmer for it.
He had the room to himself, although he could hear the beasts chittering and shrieking in the other rooms. For a moment, he thought about turning back to make sure Fool was okay. Some goblins had thrown themselves over the railing and must have added to the numbers his friend was facing.
Fool was no warrior, but Jackal had learned to trust his abilities. He did so now.
Fool and the Mousekin could handle the first floor and whatever was left of this one. They may not have the best time of it, but they’d manage it.
And Fool probably needed the experience in any case. If they were going to hit their Advanced class soon, every drop of experience was needed. Which meant leaving Fool alone to fight his battles for a while.
Besides, Jackal had to catch up with Roger.
He should have expected this. The young man had seemed affable, if arrogant, when they first met him. The arrogance had only grown during the brief trip from Roger’s home on the coast to Prince George. Jackal had marked it up to youthful bravado and assumed it would fade with some real-life experience.
Instead, Roger had leapt into the first battle without even a moment’s hesitation. And not even an inkling of wisdom. The Sirens in the reception area had easily overcome all of Roger’s resistances, and he’d been right on his way to walking into their embrace with open arms. Only Fool’s Skill had saved him.
Roger hadn’t stopped to acknowledge that though. Just gone from love-struck idiot to stunned, to an angry charge with sword and shield. And his two friends were too loyal to do anything other than follow along.
All of them had rushed after Roger, not wanting him to be alone in the dungeon. For a few moments, they’d all been together, fighting the first wave of goblins shoulder to shoulder. Then the second wave had arrived, and things had gotten chaotic.
Which had been enough for Roger to charge up to the next level without even thinking about everyone else.
That was stupid, and Jackal would have been inclined to chalk it up to eagerness, but he had a sneaking suspicion something else was at work. He’d dismissed some things Roger had said during their trip here, but now he was thinking he should have paid more attention.
He wasn’t going to know until he caught up with him though. He’d especially not know if the idiot got himself killed.
With a sigh, Jackal jogged toward the stairs at the far end of the room. As he got closer, he heard mutters. The stairs themselves were on the other side of a set of glass doors, marked “Human Resources: Level Three.”
Someone had propped the doors open with a pile of garbage. Probably the goblins. On the other side of the door was a wide set of stairs going up one flight to a landing before turning back to head up to the next floor. Jackal couldn’t see the next flight, but he saw a head poking around the edge of the wall that divided the two flights.
Olivia. The mage of the trio.
She waved to him as he came into the lower landing, then ducked back.
“Jackal’s here!” she shouted.
“Send him up now!” came another voice. It sounded like Eric, the other fighter of the group. There was no urgency to the voice, but there was some anger.
Jackal started up, hoping the trio hadn’t done something monumentally stupid.
He had serious doubts.
Eric was sitting halfway up the next flight and waved. He’d taken off his shield and laid it down next to him. His short gladius sword was in his hand. He’d chosen to follow a Roman Legionary motif, fairly historically accurate. He looked pissed, but he clearly wasn’t going anywhere at the moment.
Olivia nodded and moved to the side to let Jackal pass. She had a determined look in her eyes, but her hands were shaking a little. No fear, but probably suffering from a solid dump of adrenaline… either a result of the long charge up here, or from whatever was on the other side of the door.
The door that Roger was leaning against, which he’d clearly wedged closed with a length of railing broken off from the stairway wall. There was the odd thump coming from the other side, and a high-pitched, chittering warble. Whatever it was, it had finally stopped Roger’s head-long charge into the unknown, and Jackal was almost grateful toward it.
He took a moment to look at the three humans. There weren’t any injuries on them. It had been a few minutes at least, so any minor injuries would have healed up. Their gear showed a bit more truth, with fresh tears and scratches all over.
Roger himself looked fine, if a little harried. He was a burly lad, past his teenage growth spurt but not really showing any signs of slowing down. He was easily over six feet tall and had enough muscles to show his interest in bodybuilding.
Jackal figured Roger was more likely to get into a thicker powerlifter look as he aged up a bit, judging from the genetics his parents had passed on to him.
Roger was dressed in a sort of medieval armor, with a fitted, cloth-covered breastplate and banded steel armor on his legs and arms. He’d topped it with an open-faced barbute helm, with only a nasal bar protecting his face. Round shield, and an oddly short, wide sword with a basket hilt.
That had all come from his parents. They’d been high-ranking members of the Society of Creative Anachronism and had been grooming their son to be a leader in that group since he was a kid. He’d practically been born in armor and fighting with sword and shield since he could walk. His parents had also been quite well off, so when the System Apocalypse had arrived, they’d been in a perfect position to take advantage of it.
When Jackal and Fool had arrived at their home, they’d found a complete Norman-style Mott and Bailey castle, built up from local materials and reinforced by System add-ons.
The family had been vacationing at their private retreat on the BC coast with what amounted to a small army of private security. As a result, they were already a local powerhouse, and aiming to move their way up in the new world as far as they could. Roger was their pride and joy.
And he knew it.
Roger was grinning as he looked down at Jackal, and Jackal had to bite back the irritation that flared up in him.
“Just in time, bud!” Roger said. “Like, a whole mess of these shitty flying things on the other side! Total pain, could use a hand to wrap them up.”
“Imps,” Olivia said with a pained voice. “I told you, Roger. Imps.”
“Whatevs.” he replied. “They fly and they look like little demons, and they are complete assholes. Ready to go rip ‘em a new one?”
Jackal really wanted to rip that grin off Roger’s face, but instead he turned to look at Olivia and raised an eyebrow in question.
“Imps,” she said. “Flying demons, lesser grade. They have a tail like a scorpion, poison sting. Some of them might be able to shape change. Some might be very intelligent. They probably manage the goblins. Likely report to a higher form of demon, or some other kind of monster.” She gave Roger a bit of frustrated side-eye. “Looks to be about a dozen of them on the other side of the door, at least that we saw. They swarmed us, used their wings and tails to get in our way and trip us up. We barely got away.”
She directed that last bit at Roger, crossing her arms and glaring at him.
“Hey, no worries!” Roger said. “We almost got them, and with Jackal here, we can clear ‘em out in no time. Let’s go!”
“Jesus!” Eric shouted. “Give me a minute to catch my breath, will ya? What’s the rush, dude? Those things are a pain. Shouldn’t we come up with a plan?”
The three of them looked at Jackal. With an effort of will, he managed not to roll his eyes. Instead, he put his swords away and opened his hands, palm up, toward them. He flicked his fingers a few times in invitation. Time to see what the young scions could come up with.
“Plan,” Roger said. “I guess. Why don’t I open the door, charge in? They’ll focus on me, then you guys can pick them off while they do that.”
“How ‘bout a plan that isn’t you doing what you’re going to do anyway?” Olivia said, with a little less heat in her voice than her words implied.
“And don’t forget how fast they move,” Eric added. “The minute you open that door, they come piling through at us. They aren’t just waiting on the other side, you know. They’re making plans of their own.”
“Huh,” Roger said. “You think they can hear us?”
Jackal nodded and pointed at the door with his chin.
The squabbling noises and banging had stopped. There was only an eerie silence from the other side.
The three youngsters looked at each other, then back at the door.
There was suddenly a long, high screech from the other side, like something metal being dragged across the floor.
Eric took a step down the stairs and Olivia took a step up, putting them both on the same level and looking up. Roger looked down at them, then back at the door.
“Right,” Roger said. “Not dumb. Probably a trap. Is there another way up…” His voice trailed off as Eric and Olivia made frantic shushing motions with their hands.
Jackal raised his eyebrows and pointed at the railing jamming the door.
Roger looked at him for a moment in confusion, then realized what he meant. He turned and gave the door a few tugs, but it didn’t budge at all. He nodded back to Jackal.
Trusting the strength of the temporary fix, Jackal motioned Roger to come down and join the three of them. Once he’d come down to the same level, Jackal held a finger to his lips and pointed downstairs, then made a gathering motion with his hands.
Eric nodded enthusiastically, and Olivia let out a quiet “yesss…”
Roger just looked confused. “What?” he whispered.
Olivia leaned in a little closer. “Head back down. Gather everyone else. The Mousekin probably have a drill for this. We can let them breach the door.”
“Or flank,” Eric said. “They can probably access more parts of this office than we can.”
Roger shook his head angrily. “Don’t need help. We can do this. We could probably have done it on our own if we hadn’t let them swarm us.”
Olivia punched Roger in the shoulder, hard enough to make the metal armor ring. Jackal raised his eyebrows. She was dressed like some kind of prehistoric shaman, with bone fetishes and strips of leather, but she had a lot more strength than Jackal would have assumed for a mage. There was a flash of anger in her eyes that hinted at even more strength.
Jackal decided she’d work out just fine.