Novel The Unnecessary Adventure of Lyre Lamp [working title]

Discussion in 'Community Fictions' started by zloi medved, Nov 22, 2019.

  1. zloi medved

    zloi medved Well-Known Green Tea Bitch

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    Title: Untitled actually. "The Unnecessary Adventure of Lyre Lamp" just seemed funny at the time. I will paypal.me $5 to anyone who comes up with a better title+synopsis. Not this isn't a joke, buy yourself something nice, kid.

    Synopsis: Here is a story. An adventurer walks into a bar…

    Lyre Lamp to be exact. And it was less a bar, more of an Adventurers’ Union hall. A country bumpkin of uncertain past who may or may not be more capable than she appears? Tick. That. Box.

    Well, this isn’t a story trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s just a laid back slice-of-life litRPG about one tired adventurer trying to dodge responsibility and live an easy going life. The only things I promise:
    1. I have absolutely no planned plot.
    2. The protagonist will not be derailed by creating amazing recipes or laundromats.
    3. No slaves.
    Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Slice of Life
     
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2021
  2. zloi medved

    zloi medved Well-Known Green Tea Bitch

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    Given that it was fairly late in the morning, the Adventurers’ Union was rather empty; with only a few robust figures seen relaxing at the bar exchanging information with one another, or browsing the job boards for anything promising. Although there was still a little bustle, by this time most adventurers would either be taking the chance to sleep in after getting back from a long job or already set out for work — leaving early was common sense for a variety of reasons, after all.

    Fitel, from the Iron Bears Guild, was currently chatting with Godet, from the Basilisk Lords Guild, as the latter had recently raided a newly formed and still unnamed dungeon in the area and his party had managed to get two floors in before having to retreat. Since the Iron Bears had taken a reconnaissance request to map the dungeon he wanted to get a handle on the situation in the dungeon. Technically the Basilisk Lords were rivals since they were also trying to do a dungeon push, but as they were more interested in cataloguing the monsters in the dungeon their goals could be said to be complementary rather than opposed.

    “Since it looked like a standard cave dungeon, I thought it would have standard low level cave monsters to match, but there seems to be an overabundance of water mana in there actually. Without proper preparation, traversal is difficult since many pathways are flooded or entirely blocked off.” Godet grumbled, the main cause of the retreat revealed. Unknown monsters could be easily tackled by an experienced adventuring party, but difficult terrain was something that could only be overcome with correct preparation. “The first level was mostly slimes and leeches, but with the flooding in the second level, a lot of passageways were submerged and filled with fish type monsters.”

    Fitel sighed. It was difficult to fight even low level monsters if the battleground was underwater. Submerged passages would also make their mapping request more difficult as there was no telling where or even if they could find air pockets — but it would also make an accurate map of the dungeon all the more crucial, meaning a higher than expected reward payout.

    Well, better not to get that far ahead of himself. Putting his eyes on the reward would just distract his gaze from the problems in front of him.

    Leaning back in his chair, he took a slow sip of his drink — fermented juice, too early for alcohol — before his attention was suddenly drawn to the double doored entrance.

    Perhaps it was because the hall was devoid of activity — at least compared to the expected hubbub associated with such a rowdy profession — there was a marked response from the patrons to the sound of the large hardwood door of the Union opening. There was no ominous creak, as the Union had enough pride to keep their door well oiled, but the slightly obscured figure did make for a dramatic silhouette: a slim lower half outlined by the form-fitting clothes in simple undyed linen, the upper half mostly obscured by a hooded woolen cape coat, but a rather basic leather cuirass could vaguely be glimpsed through the partially unbuttoned coat. An unstrung bow was slung over the back, and a utility pouch was slung over their hips, explaining the straightforward attire — woodsmen tended to prefer to trade in the protection of intricate armour sets for more maneuverable outfits. The stranger’s body was androgynously slender — rather than saying they possessed both feminine and masculine leanings, it would be better to say they were devoid of both. A formless, gawky figure without masculine strength nor feminine grace.

    Although the hood of the cape coat was raised, even as the stranger entered the hall and made their way to the reception desk nearby, it wasn’t as though this was particularly mysterious or unusual. The romantic myth of the “mysterious hooded ranger” was more commonly “very tired adventurer who had the hood up to keep the sun out of their eyes or the wind out of their hair and was just too lazy to lower their hood once indoors”. The somewhat short figure bounced up onto the balls of their feet to lean comfortably on the polished wooden countertop, arms crossed before them.

    “I was told to come here if I wanted to register as an adventurer recognised by the union.” The voice was soft-spoken and rasping, feeling more due to being chronically out of use rather than naturally so. After a thoughtful pause, the figure added, “I was told membership documents could be used as identification when entering settlements and passport when crossing borders,” then, after a further timid pause, now speaking in a near mumble, “And that it would allow me cheap or free entry into settlements.”

    There was a ripple of an of course feeling through the Union hall. Although the gear was well-maintained, showing the newcomer wasn’t hopeless, it was also obviously well-used and had some inevitable wear and tear that even the most loving of maintenance couldn’t stave off. This newcomer basically just screamed “broke”.

    Unfortunately, that was the lot in life for unregistered adventurers. Since they couldn’t take work from the Union, they could only sell spoils from hunting and gathered resources directly to merchants, who weren’t shy about cutting unfair deals for profit. If they were lucky they could sell information to the Union, but the reward depended on if it was useful or not. Not to mention that while basic identification papers could be used for entering settlements, there would be a toll fee; meaning most profits from selling goods and information ended up going to entry tolls, and food and lodging fees while in town. Ah, it was really difficult being an unregistered adventurer.

    The receptionist — a middle-aged woman with a surprisingly tough temperament — glanced dully at the figure leaning on her neat and tidy countertop, a kind of low-level irritation evident in the corners of her mouth.

    “You’ll need to remove the hood first. Then present your identification papers.” Her voice was flat, quick, and businesslike. Although Chittering was only a medium sized town, since it was located in the nexus of a lot of other smaller settlements and nearby a rich hunting and gathering ground, it saw both a lot of trade pass through and wet-behind-the-ears kids from backwater villages coming in to sign up as a Union-recognised adventurer, so the receptionist here was particularly accustomed to the particulars of the registering process.

    The figure at the counter hesitated for a second, piquing the interest of the surrounding audience. Fitel sat up a little straighter in his chair too. Although the chances were unlikely given their seclusionist nature, but such a small, slender build and a rough woodsmen getup, not to mention the furtive nature of the newcomer meant there was a chance they could be an elf. If their Guild could snatch up an elven bowman…

    Godet seemed to have the same faint hope and schemes as Fitel, as he’d already shifted to the edge of his seat, ready to leap up and headhunt the newcomer.

    As soon as the hood was thrown back, however, there was a disappointed yet unsurprised ripple through the hall. The receptionist glanced coldly at the unhappy adventurers with a judgemental sneer. Perhaps some of them had pure thoughts regarding the battle talent of elves, but more likely many others were just hoping for a nice view.

    Unfortunately, the face under the cloak could only be called — homely! Pallid skin that freckled rather than tanned, unkempt dark brown hair probably no longer than the shoulders when loose but currently tied in a short ponytail, sleepy looking dull grey-brown eyes with tired bruising beneath speaking of a chronically unhealthy lifestyle, a pointed nose and a thin slash of a mouth with pale lips. Most sadly, a rather normal and rounded pair of ears peeking out beneath the loose bangs. Once again, the features were too devoid of any kind of distinctive charm to place the gender, but it wasn’t nearly interesting enough to look at to motivate anyone to stare long enough to puzzle it out.

    “I don’t have any identification papers.” The stranger admitted.

    The multitude of gazes immediately turned away, interest lost. Just another country bumpkin from a village so small and remote they didn’t even make identification papers. Likely this lad — or lass — was one of the hunters of the village who maybe had a little more talent than their peers and thought themselves capable enough to make a living adventuring.

    Fitel more or less had confidence in his eye for unpolished talent, and his instincts told him that this newcomer wasn’t worth remembering the face of. They would probably end up dropping out of the Union after a fortnight — no, look at that stupid, clueless gaze. Giving them a week would be generous. Maybe they were very skilled at hunting rabbits, but “adventurer” was a tougher gig than “village hero”.

    “Well, if there’re slimes I’ll have to put a few mages on the roster, but we don’t have many in our Guild currently at the Chittering branch.” Fitel smoothly transitioned back into the conversation with Godet, planning aloud. “What about a party co-operation? If you take care of the heavy lifting when it comes to monster subjugation, we’ll lend you our best pathfinders and provide the spelunking equipment.”

    “Does that mean you’ll also split the rewards with us?” Godet’s weaselly face twisted into a grin. Actually, it wasn’t like he was a particularly scheming or greedy man — in fact, he was well known for his fair and upright nature. He just had some very unfortunate genes.

    “Ten percent.” Fitel replied coolly. “Even that much is generous.”

    “Fifteen?” Godet pressed. As Fidel began to open his mouth to instantly refute him, the sharp voice of the receptionist interrupted.

    “Lyre what? You cannot be registered without an origin name. It’s basic security.” The imposing woman snorted, tapping angrily at the paper.

    The newcomer, “Lyre”, glanced around the hall sheepishly as eyes turned back their way, then glanced around the countertop. Given a moment of thought, grey-brown eyes rested on the lightsource to their side, then darted up to the impatiently waiting face.

    “Lyre Lamp?”

    At the very obvious deflection, the receptionist finally blew up, “If you keep causing trouble, I will—!”

    “What’s this commotion?”

    The door was pushed open, and a large figure shambled inside. If one had an image for “Union Hallmaster” in mind, this man would certainly be it. A towering 6’7”, made up of a solid wall of meat and muscle, with a frightening scar stretched all the way over his face. Tanned mahogany skin, with a wide lantern jaw covered in salt and pepper grizzle broken up only by scar tissue. His attire was both simple and practical, yet just well made enough to be appropriate for his position. His large hands were covered in calluses from long training, and old nicks and scars. He was both intimidating enough to keep a firm hand on the adventurers under him, but clearly experienced and worldly enough to also gain their respect. He was the legendary A-ranker, Ioco, and rumours had it he had ogre blood in him somewhere back a few generations.

    “Sir! This miss wants to register with the Union, but refuses to disclose her background identity.” The receptionist reported the situation succinctly and obediently, with only a slight frown indicating her personal frustration. “I was just about to ask her to leave.”

    Hallmaster Ioco glanced over the small figure at the counter, mostly looking somewhat taken aback by the fact that they were allegedly a miss. There really wasn’t the faintest whiff of femininity coming off them — her. Most in the hall expected things to be resolved quickly with the spicy newcomer either crumbling under the hard gaze of Ioco, or being shown the door, thus attention turned away naturally. Adventurers that the Union recognised didn’t tend to be the type to like to sit around and watch children being humiliated.

    Contrary to expectations, the girl named Lyre didn’t seem the least bit nervous underneath Ioco’s gaze. On the contrary, she seemed ready to peacefully doze off, her red-rimmed eyes framed by dark circles blinking with exaggerated slowness. Perhaps this fearlessness — or extreme apathy initiated by tiredness — was what made Hallmaster Ioco decide to dismiss the frazzled receptionist and take the registration papers himself.

    “Follow me.” He motioned to a door leading to a back room, the type used to receive higher profile employers or prominent adventurers visiting the Union. The figure didn’t immediately follow, throwing another look around the room. Too many curious gazes making her feel nervous? But after weighing up the situation, she pushed her slight body to hurriedly follow the broad steps of the large Hallmaster.

    Godet raised his eyebrows at Fitel, both of them curious about this mysterious turn of events. Fitel couldn’t help but crease his brows. Although he was a C-rank adventurer, he still had confidence in his instincts and judgement, but the actions of Ioco had thrown him off. Could there be something more to this newcomer than he could discern? Although he still didn’t think her worthy enough for recruitment, he marked down that maybe he could help her out and do her a favour, gain her goodwill while she was still green. If it didn’t pay off, the wasted investment would be negligible. But if the Hallmaster’s eyes could be counted on, perhaps…

    He shook his head. No point scheming and planning over a random prospective adventurer too deeply. The new dungeon still needed to be tackled.

    “So we’re agreed on ten percent?” He quipped.

    “Ah?” Godet hurried to catch up with the sudden heel turn in conversation, which Fitel took advantage of and hastily shook his hand, a sign of a deal being made. Iron Bears and Basilisk Lords had a good relationship, and Godet was fairly mild-mannered, so this little bit of cunning wouldn’t be a problem.

    “Great!”

    It wasn’t until well after the two of them had agreed upon the particulars and then left the Adventurers’ Union to convey the party co-operation with their respective guilds that Ioco finally came out carrying with him the completed registration forms, the small Lyre shadowing his footsteps. There was a complex look in his eye. Those still lingering in the lobby, waiting to see the final fate of the unfortunate child, glanced surreptitiously over in his direction as he set the forms down on the countertop.

    “Finish the registration for solo adventurer Lyre Lamp, occupation: scout.” He intoned dully. The receptionist was taken aback, but Ioco wasn’t one given to tender-hearted flights of fancy, so if he had agreed to allow the registration, it meant he had thoroughly understood the background of the newcomer and approved of her entry into the Union — even if he was helping to conceal it to others.

    “Very well.” She slid the papers over to her distastefully, clearly unhappy about the Hallmaster going over her head even as she acted out his final decision nonetheless. “Lyre Lamp, approved for registration as a Union-recognised adventurer, rank: F, no guild.” The receptionist slammed the stamps down onto the forms, leaving large red marks denoting the final approval for registration. Gathering up the leafs of paper, she tidied them up for filing away, gazing at neither Ioco nor Lyre as she crisply continued, “Before accepting requests, you will need to be advised on the laws and ordinances of the Union—”

    “Already taken care of, Beryl. Sorry.” Ioco tiredly interjected. Judging by the wilting look the receptionist Beryl gave him, he’d robbed her of her favourite part of the registration process.

    Not one to be easily knocked down, she sniffed, “Then I shall repeat the most important points to keep in mind, for posterity. First, we have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to breaking any civil or Union laws. Your registration will be revoked, no exceptions, and you will be barred from rejoining the Union unless through special appeal. Secondly, we do not allow in-fighting between Union members, no exceptions. Third, we do not involve ourselves in inter-guild disputes, no exceptions. Finally, you may not accept a request graded higher than your current Union rank. If you form a party with adventurers ranked lower than yourself — which is no one, at current — you may only accept a request at the same grade as your lowest ranked member.”

    “No exceptions?” Lyre helpfully drawled.

    “Exceptions in the case of rank-up exams, civil emergency requests, or special Union decree. The Union operates outside the constraints of local law and government, so don’t think about trying to use any noble connections you may end up with to sidestep Union laws.” Beryl warned. Almost everyone else in the hall expressed disbelief the unkempt figure standing before them might ever form such lofty connections.

    “Well, I think that summarises the most important parts, aside from registration fee and yearly commitment fee.” Ioco cleared his throat. “Beryl can also take care of that. Ah… take care of yourself, don’t get in over your head.” He hastily clapped Lyre’s shoulder, her whole body weakly sinking down in response, before fleeing the scene and leaving the final details to Beryl’s considerable authority.

    The registration fees were something more like an insurance and general costs fee for covering the Union identification card, and to prove reliability. The commitment fee was basically just a membership subscription. Although on the surface this kind of payment scheme would seem to end up prohibiting those from poorer backgrounds from ever being able to join the Union, there was a workaround. For example:

    “If you don’t have the required amount for the registration fee and your first year’s commitment fee with you at the moment, you can agree to sign over a percentage of your request rewards until the debt is paid off. As an F-rank, you’ll be expected to turn in six requests a month until your rank is raised anyway, so I highly recommend you take this option.” Beryl urged, with a hidden meaning in her eyes.

    “Oh. Sounds good.” Lyre placidly agreed, hurriedly signing the debt paper without glancing through it.

    Definitely a broke country bumpkin, the other adventurers sighed. If she’d just read through the contract, she would have realised that while this debt scheme did allow her to pay off the sum over time rather than in a lump payment, it also included interest. Most F-rankers ended up finding half their reward money going back into the pocket of the Union paying off just the registration fee. Really too sad to look at… but then, how many of them had fallen for the same trap? Consider it a learning experience. Spare the rod, spoil the child, or so they say.

    “Then… if everything is finished, I can start working immediately, right?” Lyre tilted her head questioningly, one arm pointed at the jobs board.

    Beryl gave her the hard eyeball, before nodding, like a queen dismissing her subjects. “Have a look. By the time you’re done and have picked something, your Union card should be completed.”

    Given her eagerness to begin work, one might expect Lyre to rush bouncily over to the jobs board. On the contrary, she plodded along lazily, peering with idle curiosity at the much more sparse end of the board where the higher graded requests were as she made her way down. The further down toward E-grade requests she moved, the more notices there were on the board, until one reached the double-sized F-grade requests board. It wasn’t just that there was more menial work available to lower ranked adventurers, it was also that many of the requests posted for F- and E-rank adventurers were “open requests” — basically, requests that were never really marked complete. For example, a local pharmacy might have a need for a certain common medicinal herb good for reducing fever. This demand was never likely to end, so neither were the requests looking for supply.

    When Lyre reached the F-grade requests, she took her time sweeping her gaze over the requests posted there. The contents were mostly what she’d already been told they would be by Ioco — gather and delivery requests. Everything else was strictly forbidden for F-rank adventurers, even low level monster subjugation and harvesting jobs. There was no fun or glory in being an F-rank adventurer, only tedious menial labour, but that was the point. If you weren’t willing to do the boring and unrewarding parts, the Union didn’t want or need you.

    Squatting down, she rested her elbows on her knees and tucked her chin in her hands, staring inquisitively at the jobs nearer the bottom. These were ones that had been here the longest, many of the papers yellowing and curling. Some were open requests, others were just very old but still valid.

    Although her perusal seemed casual, in fact, Lyre had some very strict standards for what requests she was willing to take. First of all, they had to be close enough to only take a day trip. Second, as much as possible any requests should be in the same general area so she wouldn’t have to constantly learn new areas. Third, for delivery requests do only the minimum required amount and preferably for produce merchants that might give her free samples — hard labourers like bowyers, blacksmiths, and tanners were strictly off the cards and should be avoided at all costs.

    After careful thought, the ones she picked were all gathering requests located in the nearby forest. Although the herbs in the requests were varied, according to the almanac she’d bought off that peddler, they tended toward similar environments and habitats. Actually, she might end up tromping around the woods for a while looking for them all, but once she pegged down their locations it would be easy money just collecting the same thing everyday, right?

    Feeling pleased with herself and her clever laziness, Lyre took five different gathering requests back to the counter to officially accept them.

    Beryl returned to the counter, a slight limp in her step that was impossible to notice when she was still sitting. A simple white card was carried over in her hand, the materials of it unknown. The membership card was probably one of the most pointlessly mysterious features of the Adventurers’ Union. As sturdy as metal yet light as air, made of rare white mwyn* and manufactured through unknown means. According to the registration ritual, a small nick was made on Lyre’s thumb, dripping blood onto the face of the card.

    * Crystal formations of pure magic that form in and around dungeons, safe for human use. Mwyn forms in a range of sizes and colours theoretically linked to the alignments and strength of the magic.


    Rather than sliding off the surface, the blood seemed to disappear into it as though it were water, gradually staining it a light pink. Immediately in response to its transformation, the card pulsed with a milky white light, floating above Lyre’s outstretched hand. It began to rotate, spinning faster until the form of the card was lost and only a blurred circle remained, before suddenly shooting down into her hand and disappearing.

    She yelped and flexed her fingers as the tingling sensation of the card bonding with her raced up her arm, numbing her all the way to the shoulders. She hastily shook feeling back into her arm, the intense discomfort of pins and needles setting her on edge while she grumbled under her breath, something about “could have warned me” and “can’t you just use a badge or something”.

    “Now that you’ve received your Union identification card, you will receive full Union benefits and be able to take on requests directly through any Union hall like this one.” Beryl explained, more out of obligation and an iron rod sense of professionalism than anything, as Ioco had already given Lyre the rundown on things. “You can also use the card as formal identification at any settlement or city in any nation where the Union is recognised. At F-rank, you won’t get much benefits and most cities and towns will still make you pay a toll, but as the location of your ‘home’ hall, you’ll be allowed free entrance and exit to Chitterling until you rank up to E-rank. After you become an adventurer that’s actually useful, most places will gradually begin to lower or waive the toll altogether.”

    “Card!” Lyre declared, still holding her hand out, palm upwards. In response, the pale pink card once again emerged from her hand, imprinted with her Union information now publicly on display. Her name, Union rank, and assigned class of “scout” were listed, but details such as her age, race and skills were strictly kept off the public information. For skills especially, it was naturally a taboo to reveal these things without permission, much less put them on a public access information card. Moreover, the Union felt that it was better not to judge people based on race or skills, but rather on the merit of their actions — actions Lyre had yet to achieve, leaving her rank dismal and much of her card blank.

    For the purposes of both identification and negotiating amongst other adventurers, this much information was fair and just.

    After putting the card away, Lyre asked her next burning question: “Which places let adventurers in for free?”

    “Depends on your rank, and how desperate they are.” Beryl snorted derisively. “Most backwater villages that don’t have any nearby Unions will treat any E-ranker that comes by like a hero. Smaller towns that don't have their own Union, or have a lot of local monsters or dungeons in the area will also let any adventurers rank E or higher in for free to encourage them to stay. But for a place like Chitterling, with access to a well-run Union hall like ours and plenty of talented adventurers, you would need to be C-rank or higher before expecting that sort of treatment.”

    There was a preening quality to her voice as she finished the last sentence. Lyre obediently clapped in appreciation. Well, it was a very tidy hall by the looks of things. Beryl nodded in approval, then swept up the requests Lyre had picked out.

    “Fairly ambitious of you to pick up so many when you’re still wet behind the ears.” She commented.

    “Well, they’re all open requests, so it’s not like I have a time limit on completing them — just as long as they’re done before my monthly quota, right?” Lyre leaned against the countertop, yawning sleepily, her head resting on her forearm.

    Actually, with her scanty height and lackadaisical behaviour, Beryl had been surprised to find out this new adventurer was already twenty-one years old. But then again, all sorts of weirdos ended up in this line of work. It wasn’t any business of hers what kind of attitude or background Lyre had, as long as she did her assigned work.

    “Very well, hold out your hand to register the requests to your card. As long as you finish an open request once, in the future if you want to do any of them again you only need to mark your card with them; you don’t need me to process them.”

    In this way, the Union made things very straightforward and hassle-free. Although bureaucracy was necessary to some degree, adventurers were by nature the type to prefer not to sweat the small details when it came to paperwork, so the Union had naturally streamlined the whole process as much as possible to give their members more autonomy. Lyre nodded in appreciation for this system that would better facilitate her immense laziness.

    Lyre stretched out her hand, holding it over the papers. The papers had a small imprint in magic ink that glowed in response to her card, and all the details of the request were immediately marked on her Union status window. Truly this illogical system was the definition of convenient.

    “Don’t forget to also take a delivery quest before the end of the month.” Beryl warned, and then dismissed Lyre from further interaction by way of completely ignoring her, sorting out the requests to return them to the jobs board.

    Although she seemed to be concentrating on her task, completely putting Lyre out of her mind, the moment the girl left the Union and the door shut behind her Beryl immediately discarded her current task and limped her way toward the back of the Union where the Hallmaster’s office was located. Forcefully opening the door, she placed her hands on her hips and stared at Ioco, emanating a feeling of if you don’t provide me with answers, don’t expect to escape.

    “Well then. How about you stay where you are and tell me why you let such an unco-operative scallywag into my Union?” She demanded.

    Ioco cowered guiltily in his chair. It was better not to be fooled by her mumsy middle-aged appearance: Beryl had at one time been a B-rank adventurer, before her injury caused her to retire. Actually, as a mage it wasn’t like she really needed to retire, since as long as it was something like a merchant escort mission, her limp wouldn’t cause a problem or hold anyone back — which meant that she was more than capable of bringing down fear and fury onto the shoulders of anyone misbehaving in the Union hall. It was this strength that had made Ioco immediately assign her to be his Vice-Hallmaster when she’d arrived on his doorstep, and why he immediately became obedient toward her now.

    “I’m willing to tell you some of it,” he mumbled, trying to recover some of his authority as, ostensibly, her boss, “but other parts I can’t. Sit down, Beryl, you’re blocking the door.”

    “Hmph.” Was the response, but she still made her way in and sat across from him at his desk. “Well?”

    “You saw her age?”

    “Twenty-one, right. How do you get to that age and yet still be so muddleheaded?” Beryl’s reply was immediately one of judgement, rolling her eyes.

    “Then you remember the events still happening five ago?” He quietly reminded her.

    She fell silent.

    There was no one who wasn’t aware about the state of things up until five years ago. For roughly two decades the demon kingdom of Helend had been aggressively expanding, attacking borders and raiding other kingdoms. It wasn’t just their own kingdom, but everywhere on the continent that Helend dared to reach out a hand. The more the demons expanded, the more dire things became. Most species only became exhausted by war — famine, malady, grief, all anathemas to a functioning society. But demons were the opposite. The more destruction they wrought, the stronger they became. The pattern was obvious and the fall of the continent to Helend was inevitable — perhaps afterwards, the world would be next.

    Until five years ago when an adventurer had risen up and managed to defeat the demon king. It was a fairytale situation. He was previously a nobody of humble background. Unregistered with the Union to boot. It seemed like his family had been killed by demons and this desire for justice — or vengeance probably — had motivated him to take the impossible journey into the toxic demon lands and kill a monster thought to be unkillable. Afterwards, phrases like “chosen by god” and “blessed by the holy light” had been thrown around, but that was all just publicity after the fact. Maybe it was a fluke, maybe the “hero” had been the chosen one, but the results were the same: the demon threat had been defeated.

    Well, the main threat anyway. Demons didn’t by nature like working together, and only the overpowering strength of a demon king could herd them into a single unified force. Killing the king just caused them to fall into disorganised chaos, and while ostensibly in the past five years they had managed to push the demon forces back into Helend, the fact was there were still demons running about outside causing trouble.

    Ioco didn’t randomly bring up the Demon War for no reason. If Lyre was twenty-one, that meant she was still only sixteen or so when the demon king was defeated? Counting back further, the most likely conclusion was that, like many children, Lyre was…

    “A war orphan?” Beryl frowned.

    “Rather than withholding her origin name, she simply doesn’t have one.” He agreed with a sigh, then explained about what happened:

    When he had taken Lyre into his office, he had immediately jumped straight to the point.

    “Is there a particular reason you can’t explain your background?” His instinct told her there was something unusual to be dug up about this newcomer, so he didn’t waste time beating around the bush. Lyre sat down heavily upon a seat, immediately making herself at home and sprawling out into it without care about her current circumstances.

    “I just don’t have one.” She admitted. “Or at least I don’t remember it.”

    “Your parents-”

    “Are dead.”

    Ioco paused. “Then, your village-”

    “Destroyed. Ashes. Long gone.” Her voice was as light and casual as if she were discussing the weather. “I must have been… oh, two? Three at most? When a demon raiding party came to the village. At least I barely even remember my time there. Apparently I was the only survivor — at least, that’s what I was told.”

    Ioco was shocked into silence. War orphans were actually not that common, only because demons never left survivors if they could help it. They had no tender-hearted feelings even for children, so the possibility of a child, let alone one so young, surviving was a miracle. But not an unknown miracle.

    “Told by who?” He grasped at straws.

    “Hmm, how to describe him… not really a foster father, since he never really formally adopted me and he was never particularly fatherly. My master? Or maybe more my owner?” Lyre lazily played with a loose thread on her coat as she spoke. “But since he never adopted me, I was never given his name. Or any name, actually. He preferred to just call me ‘oh, it’s you’. A fellow victim — ah, apprentice? Foster brother? — well, he was the one that ended up giving me my name.”

    There was no tragedy or nostalgia in her voice. Whether it was her decimated village or the man who had raised her, she seemed to have no particular attachment or wistful reminiscence for either. Though given what information she had already revealed, it didn’t seem like there was much sentimentality between herself and her “master”.

    “Then this master is the one who taught you the bow? Taught you how to survive?” Ioco rubbed his temple, feeling a headache forming from this irresponsible situation. It wasn’t that he disbelieved her story. The problem was that he knew enough adventurers, especially unregistered ones, to know that it was entirely too plausible.

    “Well, that wasn’t his intention I think. Just didn’t need a deadweight dragging him down more like — I don’t think he picked me up because he felt bad for little orphan me. If I had to guess,” she tapped her chin thoughtfully, eyes rolling around as she shuffled through her theories, “he thought my apprentice brother an annoyance and just picked me up to be a playmate to keep him distracted?”

    Ioco rested his face in his hands, ruminating on the situation. Luck could be considered a type of skill, and to not only survive a demon raid but also be picked up by a passing master would normally use up a lifetime’s worth of luck. The most important point was that she wasn’t lying — his office was entirely locked down in spells that prevented anyone from saying anything false while in the room, not to mention he had a keen instinct for dishonesty. The other main point was, well…

    After finishing his story, he shrugged at Beryl. “The main point is, anyone strong — or bold — enough to enter a village that had just been attacked by demons is someone to be wary of. Besides, I can think of a few old colleagues who would do something as nonsensical as picking up a toddler from a battleground and entirely forgetting to name them. Remember that psychopath we ran into when we were in Silere?”

    “The Red Queen?” Beryl groaned. “Yes, she would. As well as a few others. Still, that just makes her more of a gamble. A child raised by an unregistered adventurer? No social skills or common sense?”

    “My ears started burning the moment I laid eyes on her.” Ioco argued firmly. Beryl scrunched her brows. Ioco and his damn ears…

    “Besides.” He explained, somewhat sheepishly, his voice quiet. “I also just… feel sorry for her.”

    She narrowed his eyes at him, but eventually didn’t say anything. Probably because he’d spent his whole life adventuring and never settled down, Ioco never had a family of his own. But his brother had. One way to look at it was that it was his luck to be away when his town was attacked. Another way to look at it — it was the most tragic of luck to survive when everyone else had died.

    Ioco had no sympathy for Lyre. But because of his brother, he had the deepest empathy. Given her age when it happened, perhaps she truly had no lingering grief over the loss of her home and family, but it was hard not to project your own feelings onto such a similar story nonetheless.

    However tough she might have been, Beryl wasn’t heartless. She would never let someone in on a sob story alone, but couldn’t help but at least ease up her judgement somewhat in the face of such a background. Maybe the greatest danger Lyre posed was just due to an unbalanced upbringing that never taught her how to fit into normal society, in which case turning her away would make the problem worse, not better. At most, she’d just end up floundering in E-rank for the rest of her career — but nothing about what Beryl had seen made her think Lyre would mind such a result.

    “Well, it’s too late to change your decision now. She’s already been registered.” Although she acted like she had suffered an unrecoverable loss, Beryl had relaxed in her chair, resting her chin in a hand. “Already picked out five gather quests. I can’t tell if that one is pro-active or lazy…”

    “Oh? You approved that many?” Ioco’s mouth twisted up into a teasing half-grin.

    “Well, she was surprisingly clever. All the resources she has to gather grow around the same area of the Ardent Woods, so as long as she doesn’t have your sense of direction, she should be able to manage it. Hypnum root, maimelon, feverfew, leafy valer— what’s that face for?” Beryl paused the process of counting off on her fingers to shoot an inquisitive gaze at the cramped face of the Hallmaster.

    “All those grow best around klados holt, right?” He asked carefully.

    “Yes, as long as she does a little investigation she should find that out.” She confirmed.

    Ioco wordlessly handed the report that had made its way to his desk just yesterday over to Beryl. She raised her eyebrows, flipping quickly through the papers, falling into contemplative silence.

    “Ought we… send for her back?”

    Ioco shook his head. “Like I said, luck is a type of skill — so is forethought and adaptability. This could be bad fortune for her, or it could be an opportunity, both for learning and to see her worth.”

    He couldn’t help but dwell on those apathetic eyes as she had blithely described her tragedy to him. Instead of a still and calm lake, it was more like a bottomless pit of mud — even dropping a stone in wouldn’t scatter the surface. It would just sink down silently, as though it were never there, never to be seen again.

    Lyre Lamp, he couldn’t help thinking, why do my ears tell me you’re going to bring all sorts of trouble to my door? But I can’t help but look forward to it.
     
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2020
  3. onnyfp

    onnyfp Well-Known Member

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    I will give my opinion if you can manage to write more than 5 chapter
     
    Waffles2.0 likes this.
  4. Gisber

    Gisber Active Member

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    Tittle: Why do you say it is mi fault!? I only wanted to live peacefully!

    Synopsis
    In a world five years after a war against the demons a bumpkin named Lyra arrives at an Adventurers’ Union hall who barely joins as an adventurer and whose past seems to be as as common as many of the orphans of war, has the goal to live peacefully, but everything changes when she gets entangled with a chain of events that reveal that she is more than what it was once thought.

    Ok, not my better works but it seemed funny.
    PD. If you think it wrong grammatically it because English it is not my native language.
     
  5. Silver Snake

    Silver Snake Out of Order|Rain & Reason|Lonely Light

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    For the title, have it describe what makes your MC special.

    Most web novels with litrpg adventurer settings describe the MC very literally. Like is your MC a spider, slime or vampire? Or are they cautious, or do they use a shield?

    That's my take.

    Edit: for the synopsis, have it be the backstory of the MC. Like it was tragic or average. And/or add in what the goal of the MC's is.
     
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2019
  6. zloi medved

    zloi medved Well-Known Green Tea Bitch

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    :blobscream::sweating_profusely:

    I... I didn't actually expect anyone to read this thread, let alone respond to it. Show me up for being ballsy enough to offer monetary rewards. As onnyfp said, not much point giving input right now, so if people actually do end up wanting to give titles+synposes, I'll pick out ones I like after a few more chapters. But I do like Gisber's title suggestion, it's funny.

    While Hallmaster Ioco was busy listening to the fortune telling properties of his sensitive ears, the subject of his rumination had already made her way back to the Dancing Donkey Inn she was staying at. Chittering wasn’t a large enough town that it ended up being a far distance between the Union hall and the inn, and it took Lyre no time at all to be back in the warm, homey building.

    “How’d it go? Manage to register without any trouble?” The innkeeping mam called in greeting, helping her to remove her coat.

    “Mhmm, without a hitch.” Lyre lied smoothly.

    “Well, that’s good news.” The innkeeper folded the coat over her arm, tilting her head toward the mess hall in question as to whether Lyre wanted the late breakfast she’d offered earlier.

    “Good for you, since it means I can start paying accommodation.” The newly minted adventurer blinked slyly, taking the proffered coat and headed toward the mess hall. The innkeeper just laughed.

    “Well, there’s that too.” She didn’t disagree, giving an impish smile, then hollering to her husband, “Ronnic, warm up some of the leftovers for our new little customer!”

    Rather than saying that the Union and inns in the area were obliging by allowing Lyre to book a room and join the Union even despite her poor financial situation, it was better to say they were cunning and thinking of the long-term benefits. Chittering was geographically located as a little nexus for many little hamlets and villages, which meant many prospective hopefuls ended up drifting through. The town would welcome them with open arms, a pat on the back, and then when they weren’t looking — slip the hand down the back pocket and steal the wallet. There was no doubt if Lyre hadn’t secured her finances by getting into the Union, she’d end up the inn’s workhorse.

    Thus, she didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the hospitality while it was still present, sitting down and eagerly awaiting her meal.

    “As a matter of fact, I already took a few requests. I’ll be starting tomorrow — I still get that bath, right?”

    “Of course, Dancing Donkey is the finest inn in town for a reason!”

    “Right. Then I’ll be starting tomorrow. I could end up being gone for a couple days, so I won’t extend my stay.” Lyre nodded at her plan, lifting her hands off the table to allow the innkeeper to mop the top hurriedly.

    “A couple days? Big job?”

    “Early bird gets the worm.” Lyre laughed. “I should have enough to pay for tonight’s lodging and service, and then hopefully a few days more when I get back.”

    “Well look at you, rushing to climb up the ranks.” The innkeeper snapped the rag at Lyre playfully, a large grin on her face, then looked up as her husband brought out a bowl and set it down before their customer.

    Although it was a simple acquacotta, salted rabbit meat had been added as well as being topped with a poached egg. For Lyre, who had grown up in a “family” of people who did not know how to cook and furthermore refused to learn (herself included), this seemed like an exciting and masterful dish. As soon as the food was in front of her, she forwent any manners and immediately began shovelling it into her mouth. Anyone would think she had been raised in a barn.

    “Good?” The husband asked, a small, shy smile on his lips. Anyone would like to see their cooking appreciated.

    “Good!” Lyre confirmed emphatically, already tipping the last dredges of the soup into her mouth before wiping off her face with the back of her sleeve. “Alright, I’ll go and organise my things for tomorrow, then head out and pick up anything I’m missing. After I get back, I want a hoooot baaaath.”

    Pick up with what money? That was simple. The Union had handily given her credit card when the identification card had integrated with her. Whatever she spent, the Union would cover, and the debt she owed the Union would simply increase. What was there to be concerned about? Since they gave her such an abusive system, she would abuse it right back.

    Placing down the polished clean bowl, Lyre stood and gave an appreciative nod to the innkeeper and her husband, then made her way out of the mess hall and upstairs. With her back turned, she didn’t see the helpless look shared by the married couple.

    The inn room she’d rented for the evening was pretty much standard fare for this type of settlement: a small single bed, a bedside table with a lamp, and a chest at the end of the bed for belongings, fitted with a simple lock. The space was economically used, allowing for more rooms to be built at the inn, and as long as there was a soft kept bed it was enough for adventurers with their nomadic lifestyle. Although she’d checked in as soon as she’d arrived in Chittering that morning, she had immediately left the inn for the Union as soon as the room was booked and had yet to inspect it.

    First she kicked open the chest. Well, not much space, but enough to dump your gear. Only an idiot would leave anything truly valuable unattended, even in a trusted establishment. Lyre dropped her coat into the chest, then hastily pulled off the restrictive cuirass, crashing it down on top, before lazily slamming the lid shut. As an afterthought, she squatted down and drew a small pattern in the air over the lock — yet there was no discernable consequence of this action. Finally, she sat down on the bed, feeling its springiness under her with a sense of satisfaction.

    Aaah, it would be nice to just take a nap right now… no, no. First, do all her jobs in one big burst, and then spend the rest of the month lazing about. Eyes on the prize, Lyre!

    She slid the pack on her back off her shoulders and onto the bed, then turned around to nonchalantly upend the whole thing over the covers. A small pile of travel goods began to pile up — travel rations, a flint and steel set, soap, a skinning knife with a whetstone, a simple bedroll, the missing quiver of arrows to go with her bow, a waterproof blanket, several well-worn books including an out-of-date almanac of wild vegetables and herbaceous plants of the country, as well as a several decades old travel guide and a basic dictionary translating common phrases to other local languages, a collection of shiny rocks, a rolled up oilskin cloak-

    At some point, it felt like the pile of items on the bed seemed to have outgrown the realistic volume of the pack’s carrying capacity.

    Lyre hastily spread the items out the items over the surface of the bed with the haphazard grace of a child shuffling cards, then peered down at her assortment of luggage, useful and otherwise. After thinking about it carefully, remembering the taste of that simple but delicious acquacotta, she mumbled, “Perhaps cooking utensils?”

    Even if she just got some basic cooking oil and seasoning, it would surely taste better than the food she’d been putting up with for so long.

    The only other thing on her list was to find a more up-to-date almanac and some maps on the local geography. Even without books or maps detailing the terrain, she could still chat up the local shopkeepers for information. This was the one and only skill that the truly worthless excuse of an oxygen converter that had been her family had ever taught her: be nice to the local merchants if you wanted to learn anything about the area.

    Lyre once again opened the yawning mouth of her travel pack, and swept everything back inside without regard to packing order or space management. Yet once again, everything fit snugly into the confines of the bag without the least bit of struggle, leaving not even a telltale bulge against the canvas fabric as a result. She dropped it lazily back onto her shoulders before making her way downstairs, declaring her exit to the innkeeper to allow her to start preparing a tub and hot water.

    Stepping back out into the warm sunlight, now sans coat and cuirass, she stretched out her gawky limbs and enjoyed the wash of golden warmth to soak through her simple linen clothing. Without the cuirass binding her torso, her shirt hung loose over her body, obscuring her already pitiful silhouette.

    Heading straight for the business district, Lyre’s first stop was the general store. Since the town was so openly focused on catering to an adventuring population, the general store naturally did so as well. Although there was a wide collection of domestic goods, the entirety of one wall was taken up with general purpose travel goods — travel lanterns, flint, travel rations, portable cooking utensils and dried spices, insect repellent, small sewing kits, machetes, foldable fishing rods, to name barely a few. Lyre’s eyes swam with excitement at the selection, but quickly bypassed them for a moment for the literature section.

    The collection for sale was pure, 100% practical things. An adventurers almanac was essential, noting down the rising and setting times of the sun and moon over the year, the placement of key celestial bodies, the growth cycles of common and useful plants as well as the reproductive cycles and migration habits of aggressive wildlife and monsters that they were more likely to deal with, as well as the dates of large holidays and festivals for significant towns and cities. Although it was impossible to be completely accurate with each detail, since all the information was based on observation and prediction, it was still an essential tool. She added more local information to the pile — a map of Chittering and the surrounding towns and villages, and another map with the surrounding forests and plains detailed as well, accurate to the latest scouting information issued by the Union. Although there was a piece of paper marking that there was a more recent almanac of local plants and minerals usually carried in stock, the place where the books should be was entirely empty, all sold out.

    Well, though her current battered copy was a few decades old, plants and rocks didn’t move around these parts, right? They were rather infamous for being fairly stationary, in fact, if she recalled quite correctly. Yes, yes, it would be fine.

    She headed back toward the travel supplies and picked up a simple portable cooking pot and stand, as well as some preservation seasonings and dried spices, balancing it on top of the maps and adventurers almanac. Her instincts told her — just throw things in a pot and let it boil for a while and it should turn out harmless at the very least.

    The counter was manned by a boy who looked to be twelve at the most, probably the son of the store owner lasso’d into doing free labour. Lyre set the things down on the countertop, hesitating for a moment, but supposed even if he was a child if he grew up in the area he should be fairly knowledgeable.

    “Hey, d’you know where can I find these plants?” She phrased her request straightforwardly. There was no point trading polite back and forths with a child trying to win over his good side. With her palm outstretched, she brought up the details of her gathering request to show him.

    Immediately the boy perked up, his eyes sparkling with unhidden excitement. “You’re an adventurer?” The moment his eyes grazed her rank though, he visibly deflated, casting her a supercilious look. “Only an F-rank. Hmph.”

    Lyre felt her face cramp in embarrassment and anger. Really, what a rough deal. Even a child half her age had the authority to walk all over her. F-rankers surely had it rough~ Perhaps she should work hard to rank up after all~

    “If you don’t know, you don’t need to act. Just say so.” She responded patiently, curling up her palm into a fist to put away the card screen. Just because he could act so haughty didn’t mean she didn’t know how to deal with such a child. Even if he knew she was using reverse psychology on him, children — especially boys — at such an age had a terrible temper and competitive edge, they really couldn’t stand having their abilities questioned. Thus so, his face immediately turned pink, and he angrily snorted puffs of air from his nose, glaring at her up and down.

    “Such common information? Even idiots know that all those plants grow around the northern parts of the Ardent Woods. I could just spend five minutes searching around the bitter lake or the klados holt and find more than enough to fulfill the request! An F-rank adventurer is only so!” The child declared, and began angrily adding up the goods on a notepad. Everyone in this town really liked to show their superiority by dismissing people in such a familiar way, hmm?

    “Wow, really impressive.” Lyre praised in a deadpan voice, adding a small smattering of applause in appreciation for services rendered. “Then, just put these on my tab — tell the Union the debt is for Lyre Lamp.”

    “You better pay it back properly, or else the Union will revoke your membership!” The boy hollered at her retreating back after she had carelessly shoved the things away. Though his attitude was fierce, actually, there seemed to be a certain level of sincere concern in his words. Wow, so touching. Lyre felt she might tear up.

    Her next stop was naturally the armoury. The smithy was located behind the building, hidden out of sight, but even here she could make out the sounds of metal slamming against metal. The armoury building was very squat and simply arranged, with no attention given to trying to engage customers with exciting gimmicks. Over here were arranged pole weapons, over there were blunt and cleaving weapons, and here were slashing and thrusting weapons. Since she was looking for an arming or short sword, Lyre browsed the last section - slashing and thrusting weapons. Essentially they were different makes of swords for any style of battle. There were a few that were exquisitely crafted, with high price tags, but the number of ones of this kind of superior make were limited. Most adventurers that could afford such a weapon would naturally prefer simply having one custom made to their needs instead — these were merely to show off the craft of the smith attached to the armoury, and to make do in an emergency. The larger selection were the “off-the-rack” weapons, crafted by apprentices or from leftover parts. Their quality had been checked and approved for sale, but that didn’t change the simple fact that they were just barely above junk weapons made cheaply available for poor beginners like herself.

    “Looking for something in particular?” A rough voice by her hip piped up, causing Lyre to stumble back in surprise. Her gaze lowered to a figure barely higher than her thigh, and considering her own stature this wasn’t much of an accomplishment in growth. Her eyes opened wide briefly before settling back into their more accustomed sleepy half-closed state, and she hurriedly put some space between herself and the squat, bearded stranger.

    “I never expected to see a vartwerg this far out from the mountains.” Lyre commented, patting her chest to stifle her surprise.

    “Vartwerg?” The face consisted mostly of beard, but there was still a sense of a face scrunching beneath.

    “Ah, must be a difference in regional dialect. Let’s see, the local term is… dwarf?” She weakly corrected, hurriedly dismissing her faux pas. Then out of curiosity, she further asked, “Are you, erm, male? Or…?”

    “Female!” The dwarf stressed, crossing her arms. “Jomyn Freename*! And since you’re the first newcomer to ever even ask that question, I’ll give you a discount. 0.01% off any purchase!”

    *In dwarven culture the family name of a dwarven clan is taken from the name of a masterwork weapon or artefact created by a member of their clan. As a result, inverse to many human cultures where older family names carry more prestige, dwarf families that have the same name going back generations consider this an embarrassment as it indicates that no descendant has been able to create anything exceeding their ancestors. To dwarfs, a more recently acquired family name is a source of pride, indicating the innovation and talent of their family. Some dwarfs who go so many generations without a new naming that it becomes humiliating elect to emancipate themselves entirely from the clan, going by the nom de guerre Freename to indicate that they are now clanless and aspiring to develop their own masterwork under which to name and develop their own clan.

    Freename, to this end, is a dwarven surname that indicates both shame and courage. It is a mark of proof that you come from a stagnant clan, one unable to create anything exceeding their predecessors — but also a proof of a dwarfs bravery and commitment in pursuit of the craft, to give up everything in order to create something exquisite and new. To this end, you should never, ever make a comment about the surname “Freename” when meeting a dwarf by that title.


    “Oh.” Lyre dryly coughed into her hand, taken aback by this generous reward, then gestured a length of around 40 centimetres with her hands. “I just needed a side sword, preferably this long at most. My last one, ah, broke.”

    Jomyn once again furrowed her — well, her whole facial situation. “Broke?”

    “Yes. Clean in two.” Lyre nodded, then helpfully added, “It was a sort of, clash! Shinggg! Fwip! Good byeeeee~ situation. So now I need a new sword. Anything is fine, as long as it’s cheap and not too long.”

    “Anything… cheap…” Jomyn seemed incensed at such a laissez-faire approach to weapon ownership. “That’s why your last one broke!”

    Lyre just felt helpless, raising her hands defensively. “I’m a scout, you know? If I end up needing to use a sword, it’s because I’m not doing my job correctly. It’s just there in case of the worst situation.”

    “Hmph! Typical bowman attitude.” Jomyn grumbled, grabbing a simple arming sword exactly to the measurements Lyre had indicated earlier and offering it up. “I won’t renege on my promised discount, but don’t expect to get away with a free scabbard or sword belt!”

    “I will find a way to make do.” Lyre solemnly responded, then once again flashed her ever-helpful Union card. “Just add it to my tab.”

    After stuffing the sword into her trusty pack and leaving the armoury the next thing to do was… usually, tour the town and eat some delicious street food? Unfortunately, such an opportunity wasn’t available to Lyre: street vendors did not accept credit. With a regretful sigh, she instead headed back to the Dancing Donkey in order to indulge in a long-awaited bath.

    With the water having warmed her up and her stomach still half-full from her belated breakfast, she felt like a cat who had found a sunny spot and already had the schedule for the rest of the day marked down — nap, nap, and then of course nap. She dropped face first onto the bed wearing only her unmentionables and nuzzled into the blankets, curling up into a perfect ball shape before drifting off. She woke up only in the evening to the smell of food, and made it halfway down the hallway when the innkeeper saw her and sent her back to her room to make herself decent. After she ate and returned to bed, she fell rapidly back asleep, and in turn dawn arrived accursedly quickly.

    She sat up in bed sleepily, grinding the heel of her palm into her eye in order to force them into focus. It was a bad habit she couldn’t shake to always wake up a few minutes before the sun did, when false sunrise had turned the sky grey.

    Her master had once said, “If you want to survive for long in this world, always wake up before everyone else — and that includes the day.”

    Then he threw a knife at her face to keep her on her toes.

    Throwing back the covers, Lyre hissed as the cold pressed against her, her breathy clothes no defence against the early chill. Swinging her legs off the bed, the floorboards of the room were cold beneath her bare feet, instantly waking her up from any lingering stupor. Her jaw cracked as she fought a yawn, stumbling out of bed and directly into the wall opposite of her cramped room. She slid down, fumbling for her boots and wrestling them on her feet, banging them against the floor to get the fit just right. She straightened out the clothes she had casually slept in, then pulled on her cuirass next.

    By the time she’d finished dressing in all the necessary accoutrement — belt, pouches, arm guard, chest guard, shooting glove, quiver, pack, bow, cape coat — and was ready to leave, sunrise had more or less officially arrived. The sky was pink-orange, the sound of the soft bustle of the town beginning to set up for the day drifted into the window, and the vestiges of sleep were slowly receding from Lyre’s mind.

    The mess hall was already half full; as most of the patrons of the inn were adventurers, getting up early was the norm. This was convenient for Lyre as it meant that the breakfast service began early. As with the previous day, the breakfast menu was acquacotta made up of the leftovers of yesterday’s lunch and evening meal, this time seasoned with something spicy and what looked like venison jerky soaking in the broth gradually softening up, as well as a cup of juice. She especially asked for an extra poached egg, quickly gobbling down the meal and washing it down with the watered down juice. Afterward, she bade farewell to the innkeeper and made her way directly toward the northern gate.

    She was easily allowed out after flashing her Union card, though there wasn’t as much security when it came to people leaving anyway, and began her journey toward the northern fringes of the Ardent Woods. Pulling one of the maps she had purchased the day before out of the side pocket of her pack, she unfolded and inspected the general layout. After solemnly comparing the map to the landmarks within her vision, she gradually turned it the right way up and then plotted her journey.

    According to what the brat from yesterday had said, there were two key gathering places where all the requested items could be found — bitter lake and klados holt. In terms of general gathering, bitter lake was the better choice. The lake itself covered a large territory with a diverse biome on its banks, meaning of the common requests the lake would be the best target for any search. However, it was deeper into the woods than klados holt, which could be considered to be in a relatively shallow part of the woods — one where the foliage softened the amount of sunlight that could reach the ground, but still gave enough for those plants that needed it. Since everything she needed could be found there, the choice was obvious: to klados holt.

    Roughly four kilometres away from the holt, two figures were squatting outside a cave located along a river’s edge, the entrance half-submerged in the flowing water. It immediately stood out as something dangerous at first blush, given some old and yellowed humanoid skulls that had been pierced through metal and bone rods decorated the front entrance, warning away travellers. The metal had rusted from being half buried in a river, the bone structures balanced on top growing moss and mould. The skulls came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but to anyone with a discerning eye, it was clear that they all came from “higher” races — the more advanced species that made up what counted as civilisation in the area.

    But to more experienced adventurers, such as the pair currently peering into the darkness of the cave, these ominous totems weren’t what made the structure something to be wary of, yet also alluring. It was more subtle than that, something you’d only see if you were looking for it or had very, very good instincts. It was the way the light filtered through the mouth of the cave, the way it gradually blended into the dark. Subtle, yet undeniably there.

    Or rather not, was the issue.

    Because the true “entrance” was just beyond the bounds of natural light, it was hard to see at first the veil of solid dark that turned away the world outside. A solid wall of black that drew a clear delineation between “outside” and “inside”, as certain as a door. No natural light could enter a dungeon, no natural air, no natural creatures either. In turn, nor could anything that was dungeon-made escape into the world outside. Monsters born in the dark would die if they left as surely as a fish yanked from the waters. A dungeon was more akin to a small dimension, its own self-sustained world. Nobody knew why this was — and furthermore, no one knew why higher races, such as humans, could ignore this law of separation and enter dungeons with little trouble.

    Of course, none of this meant that dungeons didn’t pose a threat to the outside world. Just because what was inside couldn’t escape, didn’t mean that the presence of a dungeon didn’t signal ill tidings for the area unlucky enough to spawn one. Although a dungeon could be thought of as its own pocket dimension, to a certain extent it still existed within the world outside. Perhaps it was better to think of it as a tumour. Thus a dungeon, left unchecked, would grow like a tumour upon the body that created and fed it, gradually converting the healthy into the ill, steadily and surely killing everything around it. The worst part is, this was an aggressively enduring tumour. It could not be cut out or poisoned away. Once born, a dungeon could not be killed. It could only be kept in check by the process that came to be known as “clearing”.

    By making a mess of the insides, the dungeon would in turn focus all of its growth energy on repairing itself instead of expansion. By regularly “clearing” a dungeon, it could be carefully managed and kept from wreaking havoc on the area around it. Of course, all this hinges on there being a regular stream of people who are capable of clearing the dungeon, and for that to be necessary, there had to be a brave or glory-hungry few willing to take the first steps in mapping out the dungeon.

    This was the joint task taken on by the Iron Bears and the Basilisk Lords.

    The two who had been sent to investigate and keep watch over the entrance of the dungeon were exactly a pair of scouts from these guilds. Up until the first “clear”, the dungeon could only be left to grow unchecked, or else try to mitigate damage by sending small raiding parties. Without knowing how large the dungeon was, however, these raids could be hampering the dungeon, or they may be nothing more than a tickle to its sides. Scouts with specialised knowledge of the existing terrain and capable of measuring the rate of change around a newly born dungeon became critical at these times, as they could externally measure the rough size of the dungeon, and the speed of further growth. The other purpose was naturally to keep stupid novices looking for shelter from rain or monsters from stumbling into an inviting cave and becoming dungeon food.

    “Should be ten levels, downward mostly. There’s a bit of mutation over on the hill yonder, so at least some purrlanular growth, but nyat a lot.” The first scout, indistinguishable due to the standard issue waterproof hooded cloak they wore, observed. Their voice was higher pitched and soft, indicating a high likelihood of being female, but they were also roughly two feet tall, indicating it may be a consequence of their species’ small stature.

    “So, would you say five layers deep, two levels to a layer?” The second considered. This one was most likely human going off the general build, and male by the voice.

    “Chances are good!” The smaller one nodded, then pointed to the skull totems. “Should we worry about goblins?”

    “Ah, no, not a chance.” The human-likely one shook his head. “Probably they were living in the cave before it transformed into a dungeon — the burrow network of goblins are prime dungeon foundations after all. But given their cowardly and segregationist nature, as soon as the cave started to change they likely grabbed what they could and fled. Far enough away that they wouldn’t be impacted by the dungeon growth, but close enough to remain in familiar territory. Let’s say, roughly four kilometres maybe?”
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2020
  7. zloi medved

    zloi medved Well-Known Green Tea Bitch

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    Picking up this story again, but reshuffling some things. Made some very minor edits to already posted chapters.

    Changelog:
    • Removed overt LitRPG elements. There are no longer tables or status boards of any sort, nor mention of stats. Story is still LitRPG but... I'll be playing with the idea a little differently going forward.
    • Added some footnotes. One in chapter 1 and one in chapter 2. Chapter 1's footnote is semi-relevant, chapter 2 is pure flavour text.
    • Name and synopsis is still in a state of ???

    Lyre’s jaw creaked as she let out another yawn, feeling lulled into sleepy desires by the play of warm light and calming shadows dancing over her, borne from sunlight filtered through mottled foliage. There was naturally a hiking trail leading right to klados holt, so the journey had ended up being so disarmingly easy she’d completely stopped bothering to even try to stay on guard. Perhaps because this was such a well-trod area, the wildlife shied away by instinct, and with the wildlife staying away, the more aggressive creatures that predated upon them didn’t bother with the area either.

    The journey was slow and soothing, and since she pattered along at her own pace it was already late morning by the time she’d travelled to the area known as klados holt. It was a rough square kilometre of sloped woodland, the tree growth even lighter here than near the border of the woods. The deeper into the holt she walked, the more the treeline opened up until she arrived at a wide glade. The slope before her crescendoed into a large hill, completely bare of trees except a single large, twisted oak at the very top.

    The tree was clearly old, much older than those surrounding it, the trunk so thick it would take six large men to encircle it. The boughs grew twisted, seeming like they had been pressed down under some great weight, causing them to creep out downward rather than reaching for the sun as should be normal. Some even rested upon the earth, the leaves upon the branches growing like shrubbery against the grass.The roots billowed out around it, rising up and diving down in snarling, snakelike patterns. It gave off an oppressive feeling of oddness, yet it was undeniably nothing more than just a very old oak.

    With the entirety of the glade otherwise clear it ended up awash in growth, wildflowers and shrubbery unhindered by the resource stranglehold on sunlight caused by tree foliage — thankfully, as a popular harvesting location by adventurers it had not reached a point of being completely overgrown, making the walk up the hill not too difficult.

    The walk to the holt had worked her up into a sweat, so she quickly shrugged off her coat and hung it over one of the low slung boughs, dropping her backpack beside. She only made a small gesture in the air over the both of them, casually and as if by habit, before pulling the plant almanac out of her bag and beginning to search the hill for anything matching the illustrations.

    Her work was haphazard and sloppy, with anything resembling the depictions in the book yanked from the ground without making sure they were correct. A small pile of herbs were quickly gathered up without any organisation differentiating one from the other. Some had been pulled up roots and all, dirt clods still clinging to the fine hairs, and others had merely been grabbed by the leaf and torn in half from the stem, the plant crushed beneath her fist. With such lacklustre care, it was no wonder it didn’t take her long to gather so many.

    Lyre paused her work, smearing dirt over her forehead as she wiped away sweat with the back of her hand. Given the high noon sun and pangs of muscle pain crawling up her spine from her poor work posture, it seemed as good a time as any for a break. A pile of tattered herbs were discarded in a pile beneath the tree, heaped beside the star-shaped girl lying down in the shade. Such a nice, lazy sort of sprawled position mixing with the exhaustion of a morning of questionably hard work soon caused her to drift off into a catnap.

    As she drifted off, the several pairs of eyes watching her from between the raised, gnarled roots of the oak went unnoticed. Her slumbering self was defenceless against the creatures that crawled and somersaulted out from the warrens beneath the earth.

    Their skin came in ranges of browns, yellows, greens, blues, and even violets, mottled with dark spots like camouflage. Their small noses were squashed flat into their bulbous heads, nostrils smeared into a constant flare. Their eyes were enormous, taking up the majority of facial real estate, matched well by the wide mouths that stretched from one ear to the other, froglike, below. The large and pointed batlike ears spread horizontally out from the skull. The entire strange visage hovered over a body that seemed too small and squat to support it, with arms the same measure as the legs and torso combined, knuckle-dragging along the ground.

    The critters surrounded Lyre, keeping just enough distance to not quite touch, but staring with open curious fascination. Communicating in low grunts, growls, and confused gibbering, they seemed to be discussing what to do with the adventurer that had delivered themselves straight to their door. Long, thick-knuckled fingers poked and prodded lightly, experimenting with her sensitivity.

    Although her body twitched at each prod, it was mostly by instinct. The soft groans and twitching eyelids were nothing more than subconscious response, encouraging the creatures surrounding her to take more drastic action. After a short exchange, they came to a gleeful agreement.

    When Lyre awoke, she was no longer lying beneath the dappled shade of the oak tree upon the holt. Either that or she’d direly overslept and it was already night. Beyond the veil of her closed eyelids there was only darkness either way, with a clammy, earthy scent in the air and roughness beneath her body. Thanks to her prior experiences, she felt capable of making a solid guess that she was in some kind of cave structure. Hmm, a somewhat damp earthy smell, faint vegetative scent of tree root — a burrow? A faint chittering sound, more due to lowered voices than distance, reverberating around the enclosed space and indicating she wasn’t alone.

    Her eyelids fluttered open to inky blackness. Lyre stared at the formless black vapour around her for a few minutes, but when nothing began to coalesce, she realised there wasn’t enough low light for her eyes to adjust to night vision. Well, whatever. She sat up abruptly, raising her hand in an open-palm gesture. The atmosphere itself seemed to move in response, though very slightly, the stale and musty underground air stirring around restlessly, like a panicked animal that had scented a predator. It began to — to glitter was the only way to describe it; tiny sparks reflecting nonexistent light, dancing over her fingertips. It sank into her skin, creating an aurora of faint colourless light that turned her hand a sickly shade.

    No. It would be inaccurate to call it light exactly. It was more like the suggestion of light, a first draft conjured based entirely upon description of the phenomenon.

    She spread her hand in front of her, reaching through the black until she found an obstacle. A shaft, the texture of roughly whittled wood beneath her fingertips. The glitters of false-light spread out, swarming like ants from her skin and washing over their new host, gradually revealing the shape of — a cage. Rudimentary, lashed from bent branches and twine made from dried vines, but unyieldingly sturdy. The door was bound tightly, but more concerningly was the way her gentle glitters shied away from the “lock”, indicating that there was magic resting upon it. What an awful lot of trouble to go through for one measly adventurer.

    Abruptly, the voices accompanying her until this moment stopped.

    “Hey, hey, the tall-stride sat up.” One voice nervously observed.

    The other voice was initially silent, either in thought or fear, but eventually added, “It’s even uglier in motion. Look at how its colourless, gelatinous skin just oozes around its bone structure.”

    “Not to mention those tiny, beady little eyes, devoid of all thought…” The former voice agreed.

    “My eyes are my best feature, you little bastard.” Lyre grumbled under her breath. “They are aglow with wit and charm.”

    “Ah, I think it just spoke?” One of the voices was once again startled.

    As the two conversed, Lyre’s magic had gradually spiderwebbed throughout the cave, surging along each obstacle and barrier and tracing their silhouette beneath each spark. It even enveloped the two creatures growling to one another in their odd language, revealing their shapes to Lyre. Each wall and figure the magic outlined was colourless, however; a glimmering bone white spectre in Lyre’s eyes. Neither of them reacted to their magical parasites, clueless entirely regarding its presence.

    She leaned up against the bars of her cage, whistling to gain their attention.

    “Hey, where’s my stuff? You didn’t junk it all, right? I had food in there!”

    “Aaaah, it definitely just spoke! What did it say?”

    “Wh-who knows. I can’t understand tall-stride language. It’s all whines and clicks, hard to believe it’s even a language. Anyway, what do we do? Tell the Knowing?”

    “Right, I’ll do that! You stay here and keep watch!”

    “H-hey, why do I have t-”

    One of the figures broke away against the protests of the other, heading down the dark arch that marked the edges of the cavern. The glittering creature grew smaller before taking a turn and disappearing from her view entirely.

    Lyre made herself comfortable, sitting cross-legged on the dirt and resting her chin in the palm of her hand. Somehow she got the feeling she would end up waiting in this cage for a while before any decision was made concerning her. It was just a hunch she’d developed based on the temperament of these creatures, whatever they were, that she’d seen so far. As she idly drew in the dirt with her other hand, across from her the guard that had been left behind by its unreliable partner stared at her, a makeshift spear fashioned out of a shaved down branch held nervously at the ready. Although there was a language barrier on the other’s part, it managed to convey through body language — Don’t try anything funny, I’m watching you.

    Since she had better things to do than lock gazes with the little cretin as though they were long lost lovers reunited across the gulf of time, Lyre instead closed her eyes sleepily, focusing on the figure in her mind’s eye scurrying through the burrow. Roughly estimating the distance between them, how fast it was moving, and time passed since its departure, it seemed that she was currently deep in a labyrinthine network of tunnels that had been efficiently bored out through the earth. It was impossible to map the burrow based on her little unwitting spy as the twists and turns it was taking were too many to memorise, but it at least gave her an idea of the scope of the environment.

    The creature paused in its tracks, loitering for a moment before moving again — entering a room or cavern of some sort, as it came to yet another halt immediately after. Body bowed and limbs moved animatedly, indicating it was probably entering a discussion with the designated leader of this species’ group, but her little anti-light parasites only allowed her to see the creature, not hear.

    Lyre opened her eyes, the cretin’s silhouette disappearing behind walls and walls of earth and rock. She scrutinised her remaining captive, but it genuinely seemed far too nervous to pose any threat or help either way. She instead turned to study the “room” she’d been placed in. She was sitting in one of three cages, the other two empty and her nose was telling her had been for some time. In fact, the wood used to make the cage seemed fairly unweathered, so it's likely she was marking its maiden use. How flattering. Popping its prisoner cherry.

    She shuffled to the back of the cage, for all the manoeuvring room really available to her, crossing her arms and propping herself up against the bars. The circumstances were more or less that she was being held captive by an unknown species for unknown reasons, completely without any of her gear. She may be eaten by them later, or used as labour. Preferably the former.

    Lyre yawned. Nothing she could do about it then, may as well take a nap.

    At one point she was shaken away by a surprisingly tentative hand. As soon as her eyes fluttered open, some kind of meal of large, edible leaves that had been stuffed and rolled were thrown into the cage in a gesture of almost terror, and her jailer immediately scuttled away.

    As she cautiously picked up the scattered food, it occurred to her that they seemed to be afraid of her. She bit into one of the leaves, resisting the urge to look inside at the contents as she immediately recognised the gritty, rubbery texture she’d practically grown up on. Too bad she had it beaten into her to never waste a free meal, so she ended up eating all off the stuffed leaves, nightmare filling and all. At no point as she ate was she approached or spoken to by her jailer, so it seemed like negotiations regarding her ultimate fate as her prisoner were still ongoing.

    Why even capture her if they didn’t even know what they were going to do with her.

    She licked some juices off her fingers, making an active decision to ignore that this was an important question worth pursuing further, and instead returned to her sleep.

    Whatever it was she was being held captive by, they had far better scotopic vision than humans did as they forewent any form of lighting in the burrow. The constant gloom and erratic sleep schedule obscured the passage of time, messing with Lyre’s internal clock and making it hard to keep track of how long exactly she’d been held captive. Two days? Three? It hadn’t been that long but, hmm. Long enough that someone should have noticed? Her lack of any visible hostility or otherwise desire to escape hadn’t put her captors at ease, and they maintained a round the clock guard. Their lack of any visible hostility or otherwise larger plan on what to do with her had completely put Lyre at ease, and she maintained her welcome new lifestyle of being brought food, however bad, and sleep.

    In all honesty, she could have happily gone a month or two with this treatment. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and it seemed an unstoppable eventuality that a change occurred in the burrow.

    She woke from an extended four hour light nap to find the “prison” she was in no longer guarded. Well for accuracy’s sake, it was better to say that the guard was still there, it’s just his head had been turned into a new coat of paint on the sides of the cave wall. The situation caused Lyre to freeze, breathing in slowly and then exhaling a long, lazy breath in turn, sending out a wave of anti-light shimmers. They spread hungrily across the ground, sloshing against the walls like ocean waves lapping against cliffs, revealing the empty room. The sense of wrongness with the situation encouraged her to to remain still, feigning sleep continued sleep. She was by habit a light sleeper, and something with enough force to do that to skull bone should have made more than enough commotion to startle her awake earlier. Instead, she’d only found an empty room.

    Now that she was aware, she could hear the faint sounds of shuffling in the dark, of something moving with blind caution through the room. Whatever had assaulted the jailor wasn’t suited to the dark. Normally this should have given her an advantage, but the fact that she couldn’t “see” it meant that she was just as blind to them as they were to her.

    Lyre tensed as she heard the shuffling moving closer to her position, pausing as it passed by each cage as if inspecting for contents within. When whatever it was, was finally almost upon her there was… the sound of collision, and some beleaguered swearing in a distinctively human voice.

    “Oh, buggery.”

    Lyre sat up.

    “Buggery? Haven’t you ever heard of using a bloody torch?! Scared me half to death.”

    Silence followed, and then the voice called out tentatively, “Oh. Are you…” A long silence followed, and just as Lyre was about to interject, clarifying am I what, the voice finally completed the question, “a person?”

    On the list of possible nouns she had expected, admittedly, that one didn’t even make the rankings.

    “That’s a pretty philosophical question.” She thoughtfully considered the signs of intelligence the voice in the dark had exhibited, then decided to thoughtfully clarify, “I’m human though. If that’s what you meant.”

    “Oh.” The voice seemed to be weighing what to say next, finally settling on, “Are you maybe, um, a captive?”

    Lyre looked at the outline of the cage bars, the sturdy magically enchanted lock on the gate, and the jailor wall dressing.

    “I think that was the idea behind putting me in a cage. I take it you’re not? A captive, that is.”

    “Oh. Oh no. I’m an adventurer. Children have been going missing.” Feeling this wasn’t really a clear enough explanation, the voice added, “That’s why I’m here. For the children.”

    The voice was, after listening to it a bit, distinctly masculine. It was low and soft, more of a natural affection judging by the steadiness of it rather than a designed intention to avoid arousing the attention of any of the other inhabitants of the burrow. The confidence and basic eloquence of his words meant he probably wasn’t a simulacrum of any sort. The accent was very mild, not from this area directly but definitely local to the kingdom, probably northern. In other words… human?

    “Well, you picked the wrong prison room. It’s just me in here.” Lyre told him, then simply asked, “Are you a person?”

    “Oh? Oh.” His favourite word, twice in a row. “I’m also human. Are you sure there’s nobody else? I can’t… see anything, is all.”

    Human, male, kind of stupid. Lyre nodded steadily once all the facts were laid out. Still, there was a bit of a mystery to him, like why he was invisible to her. Some kind of magic resistance enchanted gear?

    “I’ve been in this cage for a while now, and nobody else was ever brought in. If there were a captive here before me, they probably would have spoken to me, or at least tried it. Sitting alone in solid darkness makes most people desperate for company, otherwise it’s easy to go mad.” Lyre carefully pointed out the obvious logic at play, and the voice lapsed into thoughtful silence.

    “Oh, uh, yeah. Makes sense. I’m… sorry, I hadn’t thought of, uh.” There was an awkwardness to his words, a sort of hurried apology to his tone. “I was only told about the missing children today, I hurried over as fast as I could but, um. Let me, let me get you out of there.”

    Lyre felt at a loss, until the thought struck her. Oh.

    Yes, most people would go mad if they were trapped alone in complete darkness for days on end. It was too easy to doubt your own solipsism in that kind of isolation, when the shadows were so thick they seemed hungry, eager to swallow up even your sound.

    Whoever the adventurer was, he’d mistaken her for most people.

    “The cage door’s lock is sealed with magic.” Lyre warned him.

    “There’s a hexen?” The voice seemed interested in this. “That’s a problem. I don’t have time to cut apart the cage either. Sorry, you’ll need to sit tight a little while longer.”

    “Not really.” The holiday was over one way or another, it was better to come out of this with a little dignity intact. Lyre slid her thin arm between the bars in the cage as far as she could, managing to just grasp the edge of rough fabric and gave it a tug to indicate her position. “Pass me your knife. They nicked mine when they, hm, ‘captured’ me.”

    “You can’t force the lock. The magic will just rebound—”

    “C’mon, knife.” Lyre tugged again, feeling impatient. There was the sound of rustling fabric, and then the voice pushed the handle of a somewhat larger skinning knife into her palm, clearly meant for the hand of a man. She pulled it back through the bars, moving away from the lock and instead squatting in front of the twine acting as a door hinge. The skinning knife was well maintained, sharp as a razor, so combined with the force she pushed into each cut, she easily dismantled the vine-woven twine, then softly pushed the door open.

    Her hand reached out, found an arm, then trailed down to grasp the large hand covered in thick calluses, returning the blade to its owner.

    “You cut through the hinges.” The voice mumbled.

    “Yes.”

    “I hadn’t thought of that.” He admitted.

    “Nobody ever thinks of that.” Lyre agreed. “Do you mind if we make a detour? I’d like to get my shit back. I’ve got a kit in my pouch to make a torch too. Why don’t you have a torch, anyway?”

    “Oh, I did, I just…” The voice sighed and admitted sheepishly, “I dropped it in a scuffle and it got trampled out.” After that the train of logic was obvious; it was too dark to find the sputtered torch, and even if he had found it, it would have been too dark to light again with flint and steel. “I’ve just been following the wall to get around since. I haven’t come across the armoury yet, but that’s probably where they put your things.”

    “I know the way.” Lyre admitted, wrapping her smaller hand around his thick wrist gently.

    The voice in the dark hesitated, seeming to want to ask the obvious question, but in the end respectfully declined. Instead, he merely allowed her to lead him out of the room and through the maze of burrows.

    It wasn’t as though Lyre had done anything complicated like tried to memorise the labyrinthine layout of the burrows. It was simply that she’d always had a bad habit of losing things. She’d long ago gotten into the habit of leaving a small imprint on her things, and finding her gear was as simple as searching for the unique imprint amongst the sea of bland glimmers that mapped out her vision, and then charting the pathway that led toward it. It wasn’t that far in terms of straight distance, but the twists and turns of the burrow turned it into a longer walk.

    Although he had called it an “armoury”, the room they finally arrived at was little more than a shoddy storehouse for bits and bobs. Less clubs than thick tree branches and less swords than stone chiselled daggers by way of weapons, and chest plates and shields cobbled out of wood and twine by way of armour. They weren’t placed on racks or tables to keep them elevated away from the coarse dirt and earth floor, subject to sogginess during rain, but strewn in barely organised piles around the cleared out space. Lyre’s pack too had been left discarded on the floor, somewhat worse for wear and showing signs that attempts had been made to rifle through it. Too bad for them she’d grown up with a sticky little cockalorum always sticking his paws where they didn’t belong, and Lyre had since become more than adequate at keeping her belongings out of the hands of simpletons. Her bow, luckily too large for use by the creatures of the burrow, had also been left to rot on the ground. Unfortunately her coat wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

    Since it would be useless in the curving tunnels of the burrow, she hooked her bow into a strap on her pack and instead kept her arming sword handy at her waist belt, then motioned hastily in the air over her gear. If once it just seemed like an odd and meaningless gesture, here in the dark where her vision was guided only by the eerie particles visible only to her, Lyre’s actions seemed purposeful. The pale glimmers were lifted and sent swirling in response to her gesture, like dust in a long stagnant room suddenly faced with the sudden draught of fresh air from an opened window. The particles came together for just a moment, forming a line that flashed faintly gold trailing along the path of her fingertips, gradually unveiling a shape. It was a symbol drawn in the air, almost reminiscent of language but slightly falling short of the concept. The way it squirmed as if sentient and unwilling to organise itself into script only made it harder to comprehend. Whatever it was, the symbol flashed for only a moment before dissipating into loose motes of energy.

    Lyre went through this practiced motion in merely a second before quickly pulling open her backpack and rifling through until she brought out a torch and her fire kit. The torch staff wasn’t overly long, the same length as her forearm, the top wrapped in fresh cloth and the staff slightly blackened from previous use. She pushed the torch into the hand of her companion, instructing him to hold it while she lit the end.

    As sparks sputtered up into life and turned into a hungry flame, the harsh ruddy light overpowered the soft glimmer that had previously lit her vision. The hollowed out cavern acting as an armoury was lit by a shifting waltz of glowing firelight and stark shadows as the flames of the torch danced around wildly. With the birth of the flame, the figure standing before her was suddenly brought into vision, startling Lyre.

    The most striking thing first of all was his overwhelming sense of largeness. In height alone he was somewhere around 190cm, face and clothing equally covered in dirt. Who knew what he’d crawled through to get into the tunnels. Rather than any sort of armour or travel gear of an adventurer, he was clad in unprotected peasantry attire, as though he’d dressed to go out and tend the fields. He wore undyed cotton breeches tied over a dark set of hose, calf-length buskins, and a plain moss green tunic cinched with a leather belt. A sword that looked like it had seen better days, by this point less a blade and more a blunt instrument of bullheaded violence, was casually tied off at the belt without scabbard. The liripipe of his dark brown hood was droopily wrapped around his shoulders, scarflike, the hood’s capelet falling to just above his elbows in length.

    Beneath the hood was a plain face — inoffensive but ranking just below average due to a few unfortunate rolls on the dice of inherited genetics. Eyebrows a little too thick and bushy, naturally tilted in a way that lent him an inborn temperament of perplexity, eyes a little too small, a mouth that drooped at the corners on its own accord.

    “Oh.” Lyre intoned.

    He frowned. “Oh?”

    “No, it’s just… that’s the whole human facial situation you were born with, huh.” She scratched at her cheek in embarrassment that she’d let her mood slip.

    “My… face…” He frowned at her, glaring her up and down — or was that just the byproduct of his naturally narrow eyes? No, no, he did seem genuinely annoyed — then rebutted icily, “I can’t change my face, but what’s your excuse for that personality?”

    “Tragic backstory. Dead parents, emotionally negligent adoptive father, et cetera.” Lyre sombrely confessed.

    The man somehow managed to manoeuvre his unfortunate eyebrows into some semblance of surprise, fumbling in a lame whisper, “Oh. Uh.” He fumbled to change the subject as hastily as possible. “You can sort of figure out the layout of this burrow somehow? Can you tell me where the children are?”

    “I didn’t even know they were here.” Lyre pointed out, tilting her head. Actually, the real problem was the height of the creatures of the burrow were roughly around the same size as human children, so there was a good chance she’d imprinted the children but was just unable to differentiate them from their captors.

    Her new companion sighed. “We’ll just have to search the old fashioned way. Can you find the way out of here?”

    Lyre hummed and closed her eyes, letting her finger drift lazily until she found the direction of the exit.

    “That way.”

    “That’s a wall.”

    “I meant sort of, generally.” Lyre opened her eyes, staring at the wall at the end of her pointing finger. “I can more or less figure out the path there.”

    The man beside her nodded, then waved the torch toward the yawning mouth of the cavern leading back into the looping path of the burrow in a “follow me” gesture. Despite his frame, he was surprisingly adept at moving through the narrow space of tunnels meant for much smaller inhabitants. His half-stooping form was outlined by orangey rim lighting in front of her as Lyre followed behind. Without enough draw space, he instead held his sorry sword at the ready in front of him.

    “Oh!” He paused suddenly, causing Lyre to almost piggyback herself over him.

    She steadied an arm over his bent back, grumbling, “Oh what.”

    “I just realised you’re an adventurer.” He seemed genuinely perplexed, glancing over his shoulder at her. “What rank?”

    She paused, somewhat relieved he didn’t ask her how, as an adventurer who clearly hadn’t been captured while trying to save the little innocents or anything so dignified, she ended up trapped in the dank underground. Still, the answer was equally embarrassing.

    “Rank F.”

    He looked at her meaningfully, and she somewhat defensively added, “It was my first day.”
     
  8. zloi medved

    zloi medved Well-Known Green Tea Bitch

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    As Lyre watched the last of the creatures turn into decimated liquid under the brute force of her companion’s swings, she glanced again at the children huddled in the corner on a bed made of rushes and soft grass. They were definitely more afraid of their “rescuer” than they were of the inhuman creatures that had kidnapped and imprisoned them. They were physically unharmed, just a little psychologically traumatised, gripping each other and cowering away from the lumbering killing machine that took up most of the cavern.

    “All right.” The man merely shook his sword in a half-hearted attempt to clear the blood and chunks off. “That’s one, two, three… four? Children. All are present.” He tried approaching the pile of shivering bodies but they all instinctively drew back. Taking the hint, the man paused his approach and turned to give Lyre a helpless you handle this look.

    But I hate kids. Lyre stared blankly at the small creatures who seemed to have grasped a lifeline; some kind of instinctive adolescent thought that linked a present female with maternal care. The four of them tripped over themselves to run to her side, keeping a wide berth of the harbinger of brutality that had come to save them from captivity. Lyre gave a soft “oof” as one body after another collided with her slight frame, her hands grabbing onto the fabric of the backs of their shirts and frocks to stabilise herself.

    “Fine, fine. You want me to lead them out while you go face the big boss, right?” She looked down at four pairs of pleading eyes, then gradually shrugged. She really wasn’t good with kids, but given the choice, Lyre would take the lazy stroll through to the exit over the climactic boss battle in the heart of the tunnels.

    She commanded the troop of shorties with a stern, “Stay,” then made her way back over to the strange man, gesturing for him to lower the torch.

    “You can have it back,” he hesitantly proffered the torch, but Lyre just shook her head. Cupping her hand beside the flame, she made a gesture as though pulling at a stray thread. A small tendril of warm orange light followed the gesture obediently, coalescing into a fist sized orb hovering over her fingertip. Lyre turned her palm to face upwards as though cupping the floating fireball, then slowly clenched her fingers around some invisible force pushing back, turning her fingertips white with the strain. The fireball shrunk gradually in size until it was barely an inch in diameter, compounding into itself — but rather than dimming with the decreased size it instead became more fierce, the flames turning white with the heat and throwing out a broad corona of light around itself.

    The man looked at the bow strung on her backpack, then drifted his eyes back toward the floating light, curiosity evident but common etiquette between adventurers causing him to refrain from posing the obvious question.

    Lyre was happy to co-operate with his attitude. They were strange bedfellows who’d only met by coincidence; no need to start trading more information than necessary. She merely nodded a farewell and turned on her heel, heading toward the tunnels. The children glanced fearfully at one adult, and then hurriedly followed after the other with such excitement it was as if they were afraid they might be gobbled up if they lingered too long.

    The empty tunnels were silent as they made their way back through the winding passages. Lyre led the way, with one child gripping onto her backpack like a lifeline and holding the hand of the child behind, leading back into a chain of hands grasped together tightly and shuffling adolescent feet.

    “Don’t pay too much attention to what you’re stepping on.” Lyre warned the children, her voice mild. Her previous companion had more or less ploughed through all obstructions in the bluntest way possible, leaving a squelchy carpet to walk on, on the way back.

    “A-are-” Desperate to distract from what Lyre had made them acutely aware of by her casual comment, a quavering voice struck up conversation, “Are you a m-mage?”

    Lyre smiled wearily, glancing back at the row of curious eyes staring at her. Although 60% of people were said to be born with magic, only half of them had enough of it for it to be channelled into any greater use, and even less of them had access to training, and even less of them had the perseverance required to reach enough proficiency to be regarded as a “mage”.

    In other words, it could be said that while anyone could run, not everyone could be a professional athlete.

    “No.” She confessed straightforwardly. It wasn’t as though it was some particularly profound secret she was holding close to her bosom, and keeping the sproglets distracted would make it easier to wrangle them, so she simply explained, “I’m not a mage. I’m just a… ‘magician’, and this is just a trick.” She swept her hand across the tunnel, giving a better view of the condensed flame ball. “Conjuring — magically creating fire versus simply moving it from one place to another are worlds apart.”

    “Oh.” The child lowered its gaze, unfortunately placing the remnants in the tunnel in their line of sight and causing them to start shivering all over again. Lyre gritted her teeth through her smile, feeling frustrated. This was part of why she hated children. They needed coaxing and coddling or else they’d react over-sensitively to even the most minor of things. Although she wasn’t that old, she still only had distant memories of the period of her life that could accurately be called “childhood”, and she had a distinct lack of any distinct memories regarding how you were supposed to go about said coaxing and coddling.

    “You’ll be home soon.” She offered as sympathetically as she could. “You can see your various family members after you’re checked for injuries. Are you, uh, injured?”

    One of the taller children shook their head.

    “Hungry?”

    A few shaken heads this time.

    “Tired?”

    Some pause for thought, and then a mixture of shaking and nodding heads. Lyre gave a thoughtful “hmm”, turning her gaze forward. In all honesty, she couldn’t see that they’d gone through anything particularly harrowing — well, up until the end.

    “They-” A child tentatively cried out, “They made us weave.”

    “Ah?” Lyre wasn’t really interested, but the little creatures seemed nervous of the silence so she let them ramble.

    “Baskets mostly. A-and pickled… insects, fruits, things like that.”

    “So they kept you locked up to do labour?” She asked.

    “...no.”

    “No?”

    “N-no. We wasn’t really… locked… up…”

    Lyre paused, turning and staring back over them thoughtfully. Although she herself was on the shorter side of average, the tallest of the range of children only came up to her waist. She wasn’t very good at gauging ages, but that probably meant that even the biggest was still quite young, and mental barriers were much stronger than physical ones at that age. A cage wasn’t necessary to keep them in captivity.

    But nobody had made Lyre weave baskets.

    She immediately felt dreadful boredom at the mystery of the situation and put it aside in her mind, indicating for them to continue moving.

    “Home soon.” She promised.

    Roots began protruding through the rough and slipshod walls of the tunnels, the earth turning into packed soil and the air carrying a hint of freshness pushing out the animal stench of the burrow inhabitants. All indications pointed to Lyre being surprisingly reliable in her claim that she indeed knew the way out.

    As soon as daylight broached the dark of the tunnels there was a stirring of excitement behind her, and small bodies suddenly jostled and pushed past her. Lyre braced against the wall to keep from being knocked over, watching the silhouette of the children backlit against the warm orange light of — sunrise? Evening?

    The entrance to the tunnels was relatively small and well hidden, disguised by overgrowth and deliberately arranged shingles of stones. As the main exit in and out of the burrows this one was the largest, but Lyre still had to half crouch in order to pull herself through the exit. Trying to imagine that man manoeuvring his large frame through the little entrance made for such smaller bodies was… certainly an image.

    She snuffed out the orb of fire before she set off a tragic forest blaze as she wiggled through the overgrowth, finally stepping out of the gloom and into the warm light of dwindling — or possibly dawning — day. The air had a fresh green smell that excited the former captives, signalling their escape and freedom. Well, Lyre was fine, but the children were definitely excited.

    She didn’t recognise this area of the forest — clearly she’d been dragged through one of the side exits — but judging by the relative layout of the burrows it was unlikely that she was very far from klados holt. The burrows were a knotted labyrinth of tunnels, but the rough diameter of the total space wasn’t all that large. It mostly twisted over itself or built downwards, into the damp, rather than sprawling outward and covering more horizontal surface area.

    Placing her fingers to her lips, Lyre gave a harsh whistle in order to capture back the attention of her little charges.

    “Right, do any of you recognise where we are?” She asked once she had four sets of eyes on her.

    “‘Issa forest.” One helpfully pointed out, pity in their eyes as they stared at her.

    Little bastard. “Do you reckon you could be more specific, or is that about the extent of your geographical knowledge?” Lyre responded drily, “I’m not exactly local. We should at least be in the vicinity of klados holt.”

    A small hand shot up, and before Lyre had time to react a squeaky voice had proclaimed, “I can climb a tree!”

    She eyeballed the owner of the hand and voice, uncertain how to respond. Congratulations, or a rebuke that now was not the time for bragging?

    “...to see where we are.” The squeaky voice added after her judgemental silence.

    “Ah.” Lyre nodded solemnly, as if this had already occurred to her. “Good thinking.” She paused, tilting her head back to eyeball the relative height and stability of the trees around her. Visions of tiny bodies falling out of trees and turning into mosaic’d corpses flashed through her mind, and she very carefully said, “It will be quicker if I do it.”

    Although she wasn’t familiar with the local topography, as long as she could find the general direction of Chittering it would be enough. There ought to be smoke and other towny things signalling its location, right? Lyre quickly picked out the tallest tree and immediately began climbing, making quick work scaling its gnarled trunk and monkeying up the thick, reliable boughs. As she reached the higher, thinner levels of branches, where the wind swayed the treetops in a way that was unsettlingly apparent, Lyre finally managed to start peaking over the treeline.

    The world spread out in rough panorama around her, but the sight was mostly treeish. Along one side was the faded purple of a distant mountain range, like a bruise on the horizon. Trees rose and fell in height around her, like the lapping waves of a green ocean, clearly growing taller and denser further to the west toward the mountain range. To the rough nor’east she saw a berth of trees and the vaguely geometric forms of buildings, signalling their goal. With one arm hooked around a swaying branch and her feet wedged up against the bough, Lyre used her free hand to make a small yet complicated gesture in the air; a sort of circle with some lines passed through in an odd pattern. With one eye squinted shut, the other focused on the town, Lyre slowly lowered her finger until, within her vision, it pressed down on the largest landmark building in town she could see.

    Although nothing visibly happened, she seemed satisfied with her work and quickly descended the tree, leaping off the lowest bough and landing with an “oomph!” on the ground gracelessly.

    “Town’s that way.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of Chittering, then began kicking about the brush in search of the right tool. “How’d you get captured, by the by? All I’ve heard is you went missing, but I have a hard time imagining those things smuggling you lot out of town.”

    The children exchanged looks until eventually the tallest stepped forward and admitted, “Well, my ma’s sick and my da, he sends money back home from his work with the trade caravans, but it’s not really enough. So, I mean, there are lots of herbs in the forest, and the Union has plent of open requests for them, so’s they’ll buy some off anyone who has them to sell—”

    “So you wanted to earn a little extra income, wandered into the woods, and got snapped up by monsters.” Lyre found a fallen branch about the thickness of a child’s wrist and the length of her forearm. Giving it a few sturdy wacks against a nearby tree proved its resilience, perfect for what she needed. Pulling out her pocket knife, she carefully began carving down the length of it, chatting as she did, “Can I guess the rest of you have similar stories?”

    “...firewood.” One child admitted glumly.

    “We sell preserves at the market, and ma needed some wild berries. She said to stay at the edges, but there weren’t any left…” Another sighed, holding the hand of their presumed sibling.

    “Right, and you all got caught around this area?” Lyre confirmed as each nodded hesitantly in turn, expecting rebuke but knowing the situation was too serious for fibs. “Well, I more or less have an idea of what happened here.” She blew wood dust off the completed branch, folding her pocket knife away and swinging the stick experimentally to make sure of her work. With a nod, she set one end of it on the ground and gently released. It tetered for a second before falling down to the ground with the softest thump, exactly where she needed it too. Good.

    “Okay, let’s head back.”

    “Aren’t you…” the voice of the smallest child tentatively called out, barely a nervous whimper that Lyre might not have even heard had she not cultivated attentive hearing, “gonna help the big mister?”

    Lyre paused in her footsteps, turning back to stare at the children. She was honestly surprised by their concern, but…

    “Do you think he needs help?” Since silence was the response, Lyre just shrugged, pointing in the direction of town. “I’m going to start walking in that direction. Whether or not you follow is up to you.”

    As she set off into the trees, four small bodies chased after her.
     
  9. zloi medved

    zloi medved Well-Known Green Tea Bitch

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    “Turning in a request.”

    Curious eyes stared at Lyre as she shuffled to the front desk and dropped her bag on the wooden countertop, four little shadows in tow. As it turns out, it had been evening when they’d left the burrows and by the time they were halfway back to Chittering it was already dark. It wasn’t safe to send the children running around the town back to their homes in the dead of night, at least according to them, so they had insisted upon following her back to the Adventurers’ Union. After consideration, Lyre realised that from there the Union could send out notices to the families that their children were safely delivered, and she wouldn’t have to interface with any hysterical parents glad to see their little offspring safely back in their arms. Win-win.

    “Herbs, assorted. Children, also assorted.” She laid the withered, bedraggled herbs she’d picked on the countertop in front of the stunned face of Beryl, and then flapped open her arms in order to display the children huddled around her hips like nervous chicks under the care of a mother hen.

    “Aren’t these the missing children? There’s one extra?” Beryl’s mind had taken aside the sight before her and carefully analysed it, and after receiving the unlikely results had no choice but to confirm it with the culprit in front of her.

    “An extra?” Lyre paused, then remembered, “Oh, the parents of one of them… weren’t in a position to be able to report their absence.” One bedridden, the other working away from home. She hoped they had nosy neighbours, or who knows what may have happened to the sickly mother. “So, all accounted for? Do I get a bonus?”

    Beryl furrowed her brow, asking quickly, “But what about-”

    “Will the mister be okay?” A traitorous voice suddenly piped up from behind her left buttocks.

    Beryl raised her eyebrows, and Lyre raised hers back in hopes they could come to a silent agreement about pretending the sentence had never been said. Unfortunately, the Union worker didn’t seem to want to go along with Lyre’s scheming.

    “How exactly did you end up bringing these children home?” The voice had a warning tone, indicating Lyre should be more careful with her fibs going forward. “This was a C-level request that was accepted by another adventurer.”

    Lyre gave her best shot at reassuring and reliable, quickly explaining, “When I was gathering herbs I happened to end up in the burrow of some humanoid creatures, and in the process of leaving my path crossed with another adventurer — tall, male, ears? As a senior adventurer, he took control of the situation and delegated tasks. I was given the responsibility to bring these children home, while he remained behind to cut the threat off at the root. As you can see, I was just following the directions of someone else so any fault is his.”

    And any rewards, mine. She patted herself on the chest, trying her best to come across as absolutely serious and trustworthy, but the curl at the corners of her mouth gave her away. The other underlying meaning was: he volunteered to go off alone, his safety shouldn’t be her responsibility.

    Beryl snorted, but little more could be said as there were still a gaggle of emotional and frightened children standing in the Union hall that were a higher priority to deal with. She glanced down at the entirely unusable herbs Lyre had gathered, deftly depositing them into a waste bin, then pointed to the adventurer and instructed strictly, “Go sit at the bar, do not leave. I’ll get to you.”

    Her visage immediately melted as she turned to the children, goosebumps rising across Lyre’s skin as she stared at the “gentle auntie” who had suddenly appeared before her to deal with the timid sprogs. “Would you like to come with me to get something to eat until your parents come to pick you up?”

    A series of heads all nodded in rough unison, faithlessly abandoning Lyre in order to eagerly follow after the limping Beryl after the simple lure of food succeeded. Lyre exhaled roughly, glancing briefly at the waste bin holding the summation of her first every job as an adventurer. Hmm. Rescue and retrieval of local wildlife should balance out the obvious failure with the gathering quest, right?

    She didn’t dally at the counter, heading obediently to the bar and ordering a simple water while she waited, setting her bag down by her feet. Sipping water quickly turned into folding her arms on the bartop and using it as a pillow to rest on. The loud chatter of adventurers and a bustling business wasn’t enough to keep her awake, and it didn’t take long for her ability to seemingly sleep in any sort of circumstance to manifest. She didn’t dream, as she wasn’t prone to it, and slept lightly enough that when there was the slightest intensification to the bustle around her she was instinctively drawn awake.

    Cracking open an eye and glancing at the light filtering in through the window, indicating that she had slept for roughly three hours according to the change in light, Lyre yawned and sat up. It was not a coming commotion but rather a going one, as a familiar tall and broad figure was coming out from the Hallmaster’s back office surrounded by a gaggle of well-dressed figures.

    He looked out of place and decidedly annoyed, entirely ignoring the wealthy affluents vying for his attention and instead speaking to Ioco. His dull toned eyes turned away from the Hallmaster’s face, brushing over Lyre’s direction completely casually, as if by coincidence, but the tingle down her spine indicated otherwise. She’d developed an excellent sense of when she was being watched thanks to the efforts of her master, who would make sure she suffered bruises at the least and more often broken bones the moment she let down her awareness.

    Does it hurt? He’d once asked, standing over her curled up prone on the ground, cradling the arm broken in three places. If he’d sneered, laughed cruelly, exhibited some kind of malicious glee it would have been easier. But his face had been stony, and his voice could almost be called gentle when he warned her, The knife in the back that comes when you think you are safest will hurt more. To live is a privilege, not a right. You’re not yet worthy of it.

    Lyre blinked back at the adventurer, a split second of silent communication between them before his eyes moved away as though she were just part of the scenery he’d happened to take in. He lowered his head, bidding a nod of farewell to the Hallmaster, leaving the building with a handful of tails wagging behind him, still trying to get his attention.

    Aah, she’d unexpectedly ended up rubbing elbows with a bigshot? Those men had been well-dressed, fit enough to be a county lord, but as expensive as the clothing was it was simple in design. They were servants, not masters, and masters who could afford to dress the help that well… Lyre felt thankful he hadn’t indicated that they were familiar even in passing.

    “Miss Lamp.” Ioco called across the hall, indicating with his fingers that he should follow, turning and walking off before even confirming she was following.

    He was rubbing his temples tiredly when she entered his office, looking considerably more haggard since the last time she saw him. She stood before his desk, her bag slung over her back and her hands linked together behind her at attention. Attempting “obedient” this time, she softly called, “Sir?”

    He sighed deeply, pulling out a sheet of paper and readying an ink pen, “Start explaining how you ended up the captive of goblins.” His voice was dripping with disappointment and disbelief.

    Lyre lifted her eyebrows in surprise.

    “I didn’t.”

    Ioco shook his head, his voice turning slightly gentle, “I’ve already been giving a report by— by the adventurer that found you. You were being held prisoner in a goblin horde burrow.”

    Lyre furrowed her brows, feeling puzzled. “Those were meant to be goblins?”

    “Just how sheltered were you… yes, Miss Lamp. I suggest you review the Union resources on local monsters and wildlife before heading out again. Goblins, monsters, unranked. Although they’re neither strong nor particularly aggressive, thus not a threat to even F-ranked adventurers usually, their low intelligence and strong sense of territory can make them an issue for civilians.”

    “Low intelligence?” She tilted her head thoughtfully, feeling more and more puzzled. “By low intelligence do you mean…?”

    “They’re considered to be ‘lesser sentience’ beings by the Union.”

    “Hmm.” Lyre lowered her eyelids, filing this information under N: for Not Her Concern. “Well, I’d taken a nap, sir. When I woke up, I was underground and in a sort of makeshift cage.” In order to defend some semblance of pride, she added, “The cage was sealed with magic.”

    “Yeah, he informed me about the hexen.”

    “Hexens are bad?”

    Ioco finished scribbling out the end of his messy sentence, giving a soft hum of agreement. “Goblins normally aren’t considered much more than pesky for two reasons. First, their firm sense of territory. Although they don’t like other things entering areas designated as their territorial zone, they’ll absolutely never leave it themselves unless their hands’ are forced.” Making them incredibly simplistic to avoid. “Second, as I said: they’re a low intelligence species. They’re a step above animals, but just barely. They have a simplistic social order and no real developmental or expansion goals. Hexens are the outlier to that, though. They’re approaching intelligence, they’re orderly, and worst of all ambitious. When a goblin horde develops a hexen in their ranks, it’s a harbinger of them becoming a problem. Union policy is to kill the hexen and the horde it came from.”

    A facile analysis and a very admirable genocide policy, Lyre thought wryly, but didn’t feel a need to comment. What could a beginner adventurer even say to the most senior figure of her company to the contrary? And moreover, what was the point? The so-called “goblins” hadn’t harmed her, but that didn’t make them her responsibility.

    “You’re banned from taking gather quests outside Chittering without approval for the remainder of your probationary month.” Ioco warned. “You’re strictly limited to gather and delivery quests within the city. At the end of the month — if you’re not out of the Union — I’m going to ask Beryl to quiz you on your knowledge.”

    Lyre’s face twitched imperceptibly at the new ruling, a tidal wave of unpleasant nostalgia washing over her. “Is that standard?”

    “No, but neither are you. Even those children you brought back are capable of recognising a goblin. It’s fine to be this daft as an unregistered adventurer where your life is your own, but you’re Union property now; we have a certain responsibility to keep you alive. Not to mention you also pose a risk to the other members if we let you go on like this.” The Hallmaster finished making notes on what seemed to be a report sheet, setting it aside momentarily to let the ink dry and to gaze up at Lyre.

    “Ah.” She eventually agreed. It wasn’t really much of a sacrifice for her after all, it just meant she would have to mess about with a few extra annoying social situations.

    A month was not in fact a long amount of time. Although the money earned from doing quests within Chittering was considerably less, it was still enough to live off. Especially after the situation had reached the ears of the innkeeper couple, as they’d joyfully taken advantage of the opportunity to trade her free labour in return for lower board rates. Lyre was not galled at the idea of ending up sleeping on the streets — she’d slept in worse places — but after weighing up the options, she decided a little extra work in exchange for a mattress wasn’t such a sacrifice. It all counted to her work hours for the Union in the end.

    Chittering, she was discovering, was not that complicated a city at all. Due to its origins as a small frontier town that flourished despite itself, the neighbourhoods seemed to grow up in a random and haphazard fashion as needed, but there was a sort of order to it at the heart of things. The main thoroughfare looped a C shape from the south-eastern gate to the north-eastern and it had become an unspoken rule that most of the commercial district would sprawl off from this as the primary vein. As the city grew, it was destined to grow in a winding S shape due to this.

    There was little religious structure and any shrines of worship were the type made at home. And for those who did not live above or behind their businesses, the knotted backstreets that were designed according to available geography rather than logical town infrastructure made up those homes. Neighbourhoods were roughly marked by the remnants of what had once been town boundary walls, too many houses built against them as part of their foundations to recycle the stone for new city walls. Currently the north-west part of the city had been marked out for protected farmland, pastures and fields tucked behind protective stone, but as the city grew the cycle would continue as the farmlands would be pushed outside the limits and the vast space would be gradually converted to new housing, until that too would press flush against the walls.

    It was this part of Chittering that would at first appear to be the most difficult to learn to navigate. In fact, once you came to understand the history of the city’s development it became much easier to learn your way around. Like a tree, the city grew in rings. The further west the rings of the residential district, the further removed from the commercial thoroughfare and it’s glamour. It was not that no businesses operated in the residential areas, but that the business of the main thoroughfare all grew out of the adventuring industry, all monster parts and rare resources that were perilous to collect, being processed back into goods and gear which adventurers could use to gain greater wealth. As far as the shops within the residential district went, it was all the scraps and offcuts of these industries, or else mundane everyday general goods that civilians needed.

    The closest thing resembling an upper district was the area directly around the Adventurers’ Union hall as it was a natural epicentre for both business and politics due to its trade. It was also the safest place to be, as despite the rowdy appearance of the adventurers, the Union kept strict policy about behaviour. Property around the hall was at a premium due to this, leaving only the wealthy or the influential capable of buying.

    As a frontier hall it was already a prime location for trading rare goods and monster parts, but as news of the new dungeon spread things only became even more frenzied and representatives of trading firms were rolling into town within a couple of weeks, placing agents to build up connections as early as possible.

    Dungeon goods were not inherently valuable. Some were worthless, either due to being pointless junk or being too dangerous to be of actual use even as a display piece. But they were limited, and sometimes all it took was for something to be finite in order to gain undeserved value.

    Lyre chewed on a skewer, backing up off the street to avoid any possible accidents as a wide four-horse carriage was pulled along the cobbles. Food stalls were opened all along the mainstreet, there was barely a place you could get away from the alluring smell. The broad shopfronts allowed for generous stall placements; not an intentional economic situation, but one that manifested due to arrogant and ambitious assumptions about the initial development of Chittering. Akin to a child writing their first “happy birthday” card by hand, the realisation came there was going to be a lot less room for the rest of the city if they kept up this sizing. So the mainstreet shops were wide and grand, but in the winding offshoot roads the storefronts were cramped and creative with their stock space.

    “Don’t get run over, Sleepyhead.” The stall owner laughed as he washed her zone out. Lyre blinked sleepily at him, flashing a smile.

    The nickname had come about due to a long tradition of all the best of clubs and societies: hazing the new member. The story of her kidnapping with stress on the napping had spread quickly amongst the Union adventurers, and the nom de guerre had been awarded to her in an attempt at good-natured mockery. Too bad that Lyre was not only not disgruntled by the name, but had seemed particularly pleased with it. Why not? It gave people expectations of her that she would prefer to live up to.

    “Even I’d wake up for that racket.” She defended herself innocently, discarding the ravished skewer in the stall’s provided waste bin. Lifting the stack of parcels bound together with string, she bid him, “I’ll be off.”

    Although nominally she was only required to fulfill six requests each month to maintain her Union status, the system was much more of a scam than anticipated. The Union allowed adventurers to place an unlimited amount of credit onto store tabs with co-operating businesses on the surface, but deductions would be made from their payment rewards automatically to fill the void. The deductions were higher the lower your rank was, thus the already low returns on rank F quest rewards were outright halved. Simply doing the requisite 6 quests a month was not enough for living expenses as is unless you had the backing of a guild or another source of income, and the added burden of half her wages going to paying of Union fees and store credit left Lyre working several jobs a day, all of them composed of running to and fro across Chittering, couriering goods or doing labour.

    This had the desired effect behind arranging such quests to be mandatory for F-ranked adventurers: she’d become ingratiated with many of the local business owners and earned a trustworthy reputation as a reliable helper, as well as learned her way effectively around Chittering as comfortably as a native. For an adventurer, especially one of the Union, these were the two most universal requirements if they wanted to maintain a comfortable career.

    She slipped through the backstreets that gradually grew more and more narrow as space became an increasing luxury, stopping occasionally to amiably greet familiar faces. The armourer had a delivery of lizard hide offcuts that were too small or odd in shape to use for the cobbler, and the alchemist had medicinal residue that were too weak for adventurers to use but were more than effective enough for the needs of the average civilian to deliver to a medicinist. There was also a drinking well that needed its spindle repaired and the inn needed someone to help with a large supply delivery, and each task would take her all across the city.

    “Don’t slack off, Sleepyhead.” The medicinist warned as Lyre passed the parcel over, his face serious but his gentle and amused.

    “I’ve not been given much of an opportunity to.” She complained, but the response was a doubtful expression. Who hadn’t caught Lyre sleeping standing up against building walls or sprawled on town infrastructure snoozing? She’d truly taken her new title as an open pass to loiter in public.

    Lyre waved as she departed, finishing her daily rounds of labour. The mending and labour jobs she was given took no craft, only physical strength and stamina, but gradually built up a foundation of knowledge that was not unuseful.

    Beryl’s face as she carefully counted out Lyre’s share of the quest rewards hinted at a sense of dissatisfaction with how well she’d adjusted to her gloryless new lifestyle. There was no ambition, no impatience for excitement and experience, no drive to improve and climb the ranks. Although her face always held a sense of contempt for Lyre’s lackadaisical lifestyle goals, today she seemed particularly frustrated.

    “Report to the hall tomorrow morning at eight.” She was sourly informed by Beryl. “You’ve been nominated for a specialised Union quest.”

    Lyre pushed her paltry pay into her coinpurse, glancing with mild interest at the older woman. “Is that common for F-rankers?”

    “Almost unheard of barring extenuating circumstances.” She complained back, clearly not pleased at this exemption against protocol being made for Lyre. But no further words were made, indicating that as unhappy with it as she might be, she also did not ultimately disagree with the decision.

    Her view was not universal. Lyre cautiously pressed, “Do I have the option to refuse the request?”

    “Obviously.” Beryl snorted, as disapproving toward Lyre’s lack of appreciation for this opportunity as she was toward the opportunity itself. “You’re required to report in, but it’s nothing confidential; you can make a decision after you hear the details tomorrow.”

    The young adventurer merely hummed in acknowledgement before leaving. Beryl cast a harsh eye at her retreating figure before casting an evil more toxic stink eye toward the Hallmaster’s office behind her. It was not simply the favour being given to less-than-a-month recruited newbie that had her feeling so outraged, but the recklessness of the Hallmaster’s decision.

    A dungeon was no place for an F-ranker.
     
  10. zloi medved

    zloi medved Well-Known Green Tea Bitch

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    She was not led to the Hallmaster’s room but rather what appeared to be a conference room reserved for special guests and formal circumstances. The furniture was spartan and practical, but carefully arranged and of strict quality. A long conference table was arranged in the centre, unadorned but for the other people already arranged in seating around it. With her ranking, Lyre wasn’t even supplied a seat at the table but rather a small stool that had been brought in and placed in a back corner of the room by the door.

    She was extremely exact in her arrival, showing up at the Union hall at eight o’clock to the minute, and not a second sooner was allowed. Her mussed hair was loosely tied and barely out of a state of bedhead, and her fingers were covered in the grease of street food she’d opted to purchase for breakfast rather than burn valuable time sitting down to eat. The other members of the meeting glanced at her in momentary curiosity before instantly dismissing her.

    They couldn’t be blamed. The other adventurers in the room were obviously higher ranked, a judgement that could be comfortably called based on their dress alone, though their bearing was also a giveaway to anyone with a trained eye. In contrast to the figure in worn and mass produced cotton clothes, sloppily slouching on the stool with eyelids half-mast and gaze vacant. There were also civilians in the room, but their clothing was not only far finer in quality and expense than all the adventurers, but they were definitely far too cautiously and stylishly crafted to be locally tailored. These were representatives from the newly arrived merchant parties if she had to guess.

    Hallmaster Ioco arrived shortly after she did, apparently just as precious with his time. He glanced at her on his way in but made no other obvious acknowledgement of her presence, making a beeline straight for the head of the table on the other end of the room. A stack of materials carried under one arm was set down on the table with a heavy thump.

    “Hallmaster Ioco for the Chittering branch of the Adventurers’ Union formally opens the meeting. Minutes to be taken by clerk attendant Serry.” He nodded gravely to the young woman sitting at a small desk to the side, poised with a stack of papers and an ink pen. “This is a meeting discussing the exploration and resource rights of the newly formed dungeon, designated V0-4Y7VP for the records. Colloquially and going forward referred to as: the Ardent Water Dungeon.” His voice was flat and even, accompanied only by the faint sound of a metal nib scratching against paper at a high speed.

    “During a joint expedition by the Basilisk Lords Guild and the Iron Bears Guild,” Ioco gestured to a group of four adventurers, who each nodded acknowledgement, “a large deposit of mwyn was discovered. Blue mwyn was found in the upper levels of the Advent Water Dungeon, but on the sixth floor both pink and white mwyn was discovered.”

    There was a sharp intake of breath from around the room. There were no overt expressions of shock, suggesting that most of the parties present already had information indicating the likelihood of the findings. Hearing of it was hearing of it, however. To have it confirmed by the Hallmaster directly was another matter entirely. Each representative party from the civilian merchant guilds shifted forward in their seats, their entire body language changing from suppressed civility to open eagerness.

    “For the purposes of the record,” the Hallmaster’s head turned subtly toward Serry, “according to the civil law of Ostia, dungeons that show growths of three forms of mwyn become the managing property of the closest Union. According to Adventurers’ Union laws, dungeons with three forms of mwyn are marked as high-risk and are only accessible to C-rank adventurers or above. Civilian rights to content mining must be approved in writing by the managing Union hall. Basilisk Lords and Iron Bears have both foregone the 2% mining rights in favour of a lump sum finder’s fee.”

    The guild representatives exchanged rueful smiles. Without a doubt, the combined 4% mining rights were by far the more outrageously valuable option and one they’d have preferred in a better situation, but that was what made it such an impossible hot potato to handle. They did not have the strength nor even the means to make use of such mining rights, and it would only become a target on their backs.

    “As the managing Union hall, the Chittering branch of the Adventurers’ Union claims their rightful stake of 15% of the mining rights of the ore.” Ioco continued. “25% is claimed as the rightful property of Ostia, let the record show Hallmaster Ioco of Chittering Adventurers’ Union acknowledges and concedes these rights. Today’s meeting is for the negotiation of the remaining 60% of the mwyn mining rights.”

    With his part in the meeting completed, the man stepped back and allowed the verbal bloodbath to commence without his interference. However the merchant guilds sorted this out was between them, as long as none of his furniture was destroyed in the process. His eyes locked onto Lyre’s and he gestured with his fingers for her to follow him to a discreet corner of the room. Lyre wasn’t particularly invested in the merchants currently snapping at each other’s throats in an attempt to haggle the best deal out of one another, so she obediently pattered over to Ioco’s side.

    “Dungeon?” She lifted her eyebrows lazily, pre-empting whatever he had to say.

    His voice was low and quiet, just enough for her to hear over the din behind them at her current distance. “You don’t know? It’s fine, it’s not exactly beginner knowledge; I’m just surprised your master didn’t explain. But listen: while a lot of adventurers go their whole careers without ever getting involved with them, it’s still important to be aware of the signs for your own safety.” He sighed, feeling a sense of irritation at whoever the cause of chaos behind the girl’s half-arsed education was. “They’re self-contained worlds that operate on their own fucked up laws. No one knows where, why, or how, but monsters tend to spawn naturally inside of them. Consider it dungeon self defence. Civilians are restricted from entering and Unions tend to do their best to keep tabs on dungeon development to best decide what level of adventurer is safe to access them.

    “They’re dangerous, but they’re also the only place you can find mwyn. Small enough dungeons don’t develop any kind of mwyn growth, but once they reach a certain size crystals’ll start popping up all over the place. But usually only one colour.”

    Lyre kept her gaze lowered, keeping silent while she listened. Her lips were slightly pursed and her dozy face had an imperceptibly tense expression — just for a moment, before her face suddenly relaxed as though nothing had happened. With her head turned downward, this moment had completely passed Ioco by unnoticed.

    “Dungeons that develop multiple strains of mwyn are dangerous. Once it was assumed larger dungeons created more varieties, but time’s proven that theory wrong and now we don’t really know what causes different crystal growths. Just remember the more colours that you see, the warier you ought to be.”

    “Three locks out all adventurers under C-rank?” Lyre confirmed. Considering C-rank was the highest rank outside of the Hallmaster that the Chittering branch had, it was a decent rough indication of what level they considered the dungeon. It also gave a prediction on the future development of the city. There was no possible way for Chittering to remain a small-scale frontier city with these resources — and no possible way for Lyre to stay.

    “Nominally, but the truth is even C-rankers wouldn’t go in without a guild backing them.”

    “But you want to send me in.”

    The corner of his lips twitched at her accurate appraisal, begrudgingly giving a nod of agreement. Naturally. There was simply no other logical reason for her to be here.

    “You have some kind of long-distance mapping ability?” He asked cautiously. “You don’t need to explain the specifics. But the—that senior adventurer you met in the goblin caves proposed it as a possibility. You’ve also kept up with deliveries in Chittering.”

    “My lockdown probation was a test?” Lyre felt bemused.

    “No, that’s because you’re an idiot who can’t be trusted on her own in the woods. But it helped us to make an educated guess.” Ioco snorted. “We need as safe and comprehensive a map as quickly as possible and your skill could help. But I can’t and moreover won’t force you. If you agree to enter the dungeons, you won’t need to engage in combat. In fact, except for extreme self defence measures you’ll be absolutely banned from it, and your party will prioritise protecting you as a resource.”

    Lyre scraped the nail of her thumb across her lower lip in thought, cautiously asking the most important part: “What do I get out of it?”

    “Rewards equal to an upper-tier C-rank request, and depending on what agreement that mob comes to, a chance at a cut of the initial crystal samples.” He jerked a thumb at the near-rioting group behind him.

    “The Union isn’t allowed to take a cut for debt repayment.” Her voice was flat.

    “You need to be at least D-rank for that allowance.”

    “Or I could just not go. Delivering lunches to forgetful husbands is safer and less work.”

    “You are not unexpendable. Just an option to make things easier.”

    “Yes, and this request is an option for me to take or not.” Out of sympathy, she added, “I also don’t need any mwyn.”

    He squinted, cautiously haggling her down, “Based on your performance we’re willing to accelerate your rank-up exam to E rank which decreases the mandatory Union deduction of rewards by half.”

    “And yet, dismissing the debt repayment will decrease the mandatory Union deduction fee by all of it.” She smiled back.

    “Miss Lamp, the chance to explore a dungeon amongst the protection and guidance of more experienced adventurers is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Others would step over your body for it.”

    “I thought you wouldn’t force me?”

    “I won’t.” Ioco promised. “But I’d be irresponsible to all the adventurers in my Union if I didn’t do my best to persuade you. A good scout can save not just time but also lives.”

    As the discussion behind was winding up, Lyre glanced up at Ioco’s face in thought. She felt somewhat odd at his reasoning, but it was enough to make her decide to weigh up her options once again more carefully. The simple fact of the matter was she was bad with — what had Ioco called them? Dungeons. Yet he was quite right in saying the opportunity to clear a “dungeon” without lifting a finger of her own energy was a rare one.

    “Accelerate the rank-up exam, decrease the deduction accordingly, and allow me to take one thing from the dungeon.” She heavily emphasised again, “Just one thing.”

    “Just one what?”

    Lyre and Ioco both turned to the source of the voice at the same time, giving a considering look to the man standing by the table. Most of the other guild representatives had a tired, defeated look to them, a sort of hunter wariness in their blank gazes. Only three had come out of the negotiation table looking unscathed and even pleased with themselves — this one prime among the rest.

    Ioco didn’t answer right away — it was only common sense when dealing with merchants to never give anything away for free. He deflected by asking, “You’ve settled the terms of division?”

    “We merely have to finish drawing up the contract and sign. The Hummingstead Merchant Guild will be taking 20% of the mining rights, and thanks Hallmaster Ioco of the Chittering Union for his co-operation with the guilds.” The man nodded amiably, then rather than pursuing the previous topic directly he intelligently chose a detour, turning and smiling disarmingly at Lyre. “This miss isn’t with a guild, might she be a good seedling the Union is grooming?”

    There was no intentional arrogance in his tone. He naturally suffused the self-confidence of someone who had achieved a noteworthy position in life through ability and effort, which those prone to envy and self-doubt would conflate with arrogance due to their own flaws. But his bearing was civil and reasonable, friendly without sycophantry.

    She merely smiled in response. It wasn’t that she intended to be scheming; Lyre just didn’t have the social energy to try to parlay with this man. Ioco, likewise, merely chuckled without giving much away.

    The process of writing up and confirming the contract was more a formality and for the sake of record keeping than anything else — everyone in the room of any position traded on their trustworthiness, so the verbal agreement drawn was considered to have made the deal done. Thus in the meantime it was easier to merely continue the meeting to discuss the dungeon clearing.

    Since none of it was really relevant to her, Lyre zoned out for most of it, but the general gist of things was: the merchant guilds would be the financial backers for an official Union raid on the Ardent Water Dungeon. They would cover the costs of reward fees for all participating Union members as well as supplies in exchange for a cut of whatever the initial haul of resources was and as part of their requirements to claim the mining rights.

    The goal of the raid would be three things, only one of which was pertinent to Lyre: first, “clearing the dungeon” as it was called. More or less all that meant was going in and tearing up the place from top to bottom. Lyre was really in awe at this nonsensical approach to dealing with dungeons, but somewhere along the way they had developed the logic that this somehow helped to keep dungeons’ growth in check.

    Second, create a complete dungeon map and gain a general scope of the size and nature of the dungeon. The first few levels had, according to the adventurer guilds present, been thoroughly and meticulously mapped by them already. They even provided copies freely to those at the table, one of which was passed to Lyre. A full recording of how many floors were in the dungeon was needed, according to them, as well as a map of the layout of each one with — if possible — a listing of all terrain hazards. This was where she was expected to help out.

    Lyre couldn’t help but frown. Dungeon floors? She marked a note on the map she had been given to pursue this question later. She really couldn’t make heads or tails of the way these people talked about things.

    The third goal naturally was a survey of all the mwyn growth within the dungeon — the quality, quantity, and growth areas. Though technically part of the mapping process, this wasn’t something Lyre was expected or even really allowed to do. That required approved surveyors. It was, she came to understand, yet another thing that was arranged for the sake of record keeping and formality.

    She folded her arms on the table in front of her and rested her chin on them, one hand loose and idly scribbling on the map papers. There were six of them, one for each “floor”, though with each progression the maps became less and less detailed. The first floor was minute down to the last inch, with even some secret rooms and passageways marked. By the sixth floor, however, the map was still incomplete and each only gave a general shape of the layout of each pathway. Some of this had to do with the dungeon becoming more difficult the deeper the progression, but more of it had to do with the fact that the second through to fourth layer was largely flooded.

    “Regarding the mapping, the Union will provide one of our scouts.” Ioco finally gestured to Lyre. She lifted her face up slightly off her arms, but didn’t fix her posture. A few of the merchant guild representatives gave slightly furrowed expressions, but they were the ones she’d identified to be weaklings. At least in terms of their own culture. They’d managed to scrape less than 10% of the mining rights together between the lot of them.

    “Lyre Lamp, scout, currently F-rank.” She introduced herself honestly.

    “A probationary adventurer?” The man from the Hummingstead Guild was smiling, but his eyes held no warmth. “It’s not her ability I question, you understand.”

    “This dungeon raid will be serving as her rank-up exam.” Ioco intoned. “A dozen civilians have already volunteered to sign for her.”

    Lyre smiled blankly, nodding in agreement even though she had no idea what he was talking about. In an attempt at being convincing, she added, “I’m very well liked by the locals.”

    “Trusted.” The Hallmaster corrected.

    “Both.” She insisted, ploughing on, “Due to my rank I won’t be participating in any fights, but when it comes to scouting and mapping the dungeon I have full confidence there isn’t a single person serving the Union who is better.”

    The adventurers from the Iron Bears Guild and the Basilisk Lords Guild both gave stiff smiles, but in the name of solidarity quietly chose not to comment. Lyre’s smile became slightly more genuine at their inability to express discomfort over her braggarty due to social niceties.

    Since she had them all here as a captive audience, she added, “My repayment will be the standard maximum for an E-rank adventurer, but I request the right to take one thing of my choosing away from the dungeon with me.”

    “You may be the only E-rank adventurer to ever get a dungeon treasure. You can take it, but whether or not you can keep it is your own problem.” A merchant to the side commented. His dark-skinned face was stony, but he wasn’t contemptuous in his words. This was another representative who seemed to come out of the battle of wealth with better rewards.

    “I know my limits.” Lyre promised.

    “Then onto the matter of preparation. The proposal is for the raid to take place in a week and a half, at the end of the month—”

    Lyre rested her cheek on her crossed arms once again, closing her eyes and blocking out the drone of voices as she fell asleep.

    A week and a half was considered a rushed effort. It was barely enough time to sound out recruitment notices and organise all the necessary adventuring gear, especially considering it was restricted to those below C-rank without special permission. The merchant representatives would, naturally, not be going with the raiding party. They were the ones to hire independent surveyors who would be considered the same as Lyre; noncombatants there to fulfill a specialised role. The surveyors were all mages, but their magic was specialised and wouldn’t serve much purpose in combat.

    Although she was part of the raiding party, Lyre still had rent to pay and daily necessities to fund, so she spent her “prep” period still mostly running around the city fulfilling low-level requests for the locals.

    This comfortable and willing approach to low-glory handiwork was, it turns, what had allowed her to take the accelerated rank-up exam. Before adventurers could move out of the probationary rank F and become a “real” adventurer of the Union, fully recognised and able to begin reaping material benefits as well as begin to take “real” adventurer requests, they needed at least ten civilians to sign for them.

    “A Union adventurer,” Beryl spoke authoritatively at Lyre, holding her quest completions hostage in order to force her to endure her lecture, “is different from a freelance adventurer, because a Union adventurer is part of civilised society. If you want to live in the woods, fighting bare-fisted with animals and monsters and simply seek strength, then living and dying as a freelance adventurer is better suited to you.”

    “I use a bow, not my fists.”

    “Unions don’t belong to any kingdom; they’re an independent organisation. But we still exist within them, and still operate in conjunction with them.” She barrelled on, ignoring the interruption with admirable fortitude. “We trade with merchants, we eat from farmers, the work we take is paid for by people — people who need our strength, everyday people, people who keep things running. Adventurers defend walls, but it’s masons who built them in the first place. That’s why even if someone who had the strength of an A-rank adventurer walked in that door right now, they would be told, do the work or hit pavement.

    “F-rank is not about testing strength. It is about testing your willingness to do work even if you consider it ‘below’ you for the greater good of others. It is about your ability to ingratiate with the locals, to communicate with them and meet their needs. It is also about perseverance — to ignore the lure of glory and understand the need for duty.”

    “So people spend a year delivering lunch and picking herbs to cool their temper. Got it.” Lyre intoned, staring longingly at the completion stamp being waved around.

    “As you deliver those lunches you learn the city, you learn the people who live there, you learn its layout and its customs, the local climate and recent events and gossip. You find out, for example, the local blacksmith broke his arm meaning there’s no smithing work available, meaning products are being sold at a premium. You learn the quickest routes through the city so you can get the menial work over with sooner. Mark my words, every new city you visit, take up those menial delivery requests first until you know the place like a native.

    “And as for picking herbs, what of it? You’ll be doing it your entire adventurer career.” Beryl snorted, finally holding out her hand to indicate Lyre present her card. “Shiver grass is a natural antipyretic even without formal processing in a pinch, while follyleaf can be used as a painkiller if chewed on — and both grow like weeds in all sorts of climates. If you get caught out with an infection and no medicine, it’s better to be able to know where to find them and how to harvest them. So spend the time doing so for work!”

    “This would be easier if you just let my requesters confirm completion.” Lyre pointed out, rubbing her wrist where Beryl had grabbed her.

    “Wait until you rank-up. As long as you don’t get someone killed you’ll pass your rank-up exam, far too early for my liking.” She placed away her stamp, staring at Lyre menacingly.

    “Should I try to get someone killed, then?” Lyre drily offered, and in response Beryl merely turned her back on her in the universal sign for I am done with this interaction.