I woke a short while later to find a familiar face staring at me from a few feet away.
Frida looked exhausted, her eyes were bloodshot and she seemed a bit paler than normal. I couldn’t blame her.
“Hey,” I said softly.
“Hey,” she returned.
“Like ah were dead,” she said quietly, then lowered her eyes. “Thought ah were, actually. A few times. P’raps ah did die, an’ now ahm back. Feels like t’could be the way of et.”
“Well, then,” I said, clearing my throat. “As ambassador of life, I would like to cordially welcome you back to the realm of the living. Now, you’ve been gone for a while. So, before you get too comfortable, you’ll want to know that there have been some changes.”
“Oh?” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “That is quite interesting. Pray tell?”
“Nobody wears pants anymore.”
I gestured to my kilt.
“That is a revelation, te be sure.”
I adopted a frown and stared at her armored legs.
“Yeah, it’s actually considered pretty rude now to wear them.”
Frida made a show of grasping at her legs and glanced up at me.
“Well, ah don’ want te offend. Should ah jus’ remove ‘em here? Or…?”
She’d called my bluff, and I commended her for it. I chose to laugh awkwardly to ease the tension that was almost definitely one-sided.
“Seriously though, glad you’re still around.”
“Aye,” she said, nodding and glancing around. She seemed to spend a fair bit of time looking over the edge of the entrance to the tunnel and I cleared my throat.
“Does it feel the same?”
“Eh?” She asked, glancing back at me in confusion.
“As it did before? I don’t know how to gauge something like that. I’ve never been—you know, pulled through time. I’d imagine some things might be different, though.”
Frida placed a finger on her chin thoughtfully.
“Hard te say,” she said, surveying our little makeshift camp. “Haven’t seen much o’ et yet.”
Then she locked her eyes on me and raised an eyebrow.
“Though things seem te be lookin’ fine as far as locals.”
I cleared my throat again.
She’s just messing with me, to see what my reaction is. That’s gotta be it.
“You wanna know something crazy?” I asked.
“Ye mean more mad than what we jus’ survived?”
“Possibly. Okay, here goes: I haven’t actually seen what I look like.”
“I know, right?” I asked. “All this time running around getting poked by the bad guys and I never stopped to take a peep at my reflection.”
“Goodness,” she said. “Yoor missing out on et, then.”
“Yeah, but I guess I haven’t really come across any mirrors or ponds or anything like that. What’s that about? I’m going to start a campaign to install one full-length mirror for every fifteen miles of woodland area.”
Frida brightened, and gestured to my side.
“Ah’ve an idea! Hand me pack over.”
I glanced down and picked up her knapsack, sliding it across the stone to her. She yanked it open and in an instant, had a silvery helmet in her hands.
“Eh?” I wondered. “Is that yours?”
“‘Course et’s mine,” she said. “Don’t wear et much—gets in the way a bit when ahm bouting. But more ‘portantly—it’s shiny. Now then. Off you go.”
She handed me the helmet gingerly. I accepted it and turned it around to the back and stared, suddenly gobsmacked. Not only was the reflection clear, the face that glowered back was surprising. It wasn’t the face I was used to, but also not one I was expecting. My skin was green—that much I could have guessed—but there were other aspects that really threw me for a loop. My cheek bones were high, slightly more prominent than I’d have assumed would be normal. My jaw, no longer broken from battle, was angular and symmetrical. My nose wasn’t shaped like a pig’s or anything, and my teeth were only a little sharper than they were in the old world. I had tusks jutting out from my lower gums, and I’d felt those, but they looked much more proportional to the rest of my face. Most surprising was that I actually liked what I saw. I’ll admit to having been a bit hesitant initially because of my preconceived notions—but this was shockingly dissimilar to the image I’d conjured in my mind this whole time.
“Holy shit! I’m handsome!” I exclaimed. “What the hell? I thought I was going to be ugly as fuck.”
“Why would ye think that?”
“Well, mostly because the menu straight up said that I’d be uglier than most orcs.”
“Well,” Frida began thoughtfully. “P’raps it were judging ye by the standards o’ most orcs?”
“What’s that now?”
“Orcs value a certain look about ‘em,” she continued. “By human standards—and ye’ve led me to believe that’s what ye were, ‘riginally—the harsher we perceive ‘em, the more brassy they’d be lookin’ to others o’ their kind. Mayhaps the opposite’s true.”
“So, all the fly orc hunnies would find me repulsive to behold, but the elf ladies will be wanting to break off a piece?”
“If’n I understand what ye saying—an’ ahm no’ sure ah do… aye.”
“This is fantastic news!” I chuckled. “I’m a fuckin’ morsel.”
“Donnae let et go to yoor head,” Frida smirked.
“But it’s already on my head! This is a game changer!”
Frida beamed at me and rolled her eyes before glancing at Stinky. She nudged me and nodded his way.
“Should we wake him?”
I took a gander at the matau, who was snoring quietly with his chin pressed to his chest.
“Nah, maybe in a bit,” I said with a smirk. “If we rouse him too soon he’s just gonna be cranky.”
“Ain’t he always cranky?”
“That’s a good point,” I said. “But, let’s chill for a bit longer without the oppressive cloud of grump hanging over our heads.”
“Right-o,” Frida said, then frowned. “Sorry.”
“Merra used te always say that,” she said softly. “Got use te slingin’ et about meself.”
“I think that’s good,” I said, surprising myself with my own sense of introspection. “Keeps the memory alive. I use phrases my—er, people that are gone used to use all the time. Helps to sort of feel like they’re still around, you know?”
“Aye,” Frida said.
“Besides,” I said, trying to bring the mood back up. “We won’t have to wait long.”
I reached into the front pocket of the kilt and removed the glittering necklace of Merra’s amulet. Frida’s face brightened.
“Ach! Loon! Why dinnae ye tell me ye had that hangin’ about by yoor nethers! Ah’d just gone and got meself a mantle o’ heartbreak. Rude te do to a girl, that.”
“Stinky isn’t the only one who appreciates a dramatic flair.”
“Him?” Frida said, gesturing toward the sleeping matau and looking aghast at the prospect. “Dramatic? Nae, lad. Get yoor head on.”
“It’s on, and as previously established…” I winked at her. “Quite handsome.”
“It wonnae be fer long if ye surprise me like that ‘gain,” Frida chuckled.
“Alright, easy, Killer,” I said. “From now on I’ll divulge all of my secrets well in advance.”
“Thank ye,” she said, but then her smile drifted away as she took on a more serious tone. “Ye think we’ll be able te make et all t’way doon there? Te the lower chamber, ye ken?”
“Not easily,” I said, focusing on the tower in the distance where the unknown variable if Yosper was located. “And not as we are now. We’ll need to get stronger, gain some Levels—probably a lot of Levels—and still… not alone. We’ll need more people if we’re going to have any chance at making it out alive of the Funky Town.”
“Aye,” Frida said, her gaze unfocusing at a spot in front of her.
I didn’t need her falling out of her good mood right then, so I optioned for optimism.
“Fortunately,” I said emphatically and clapped my hands together, knocking her out of her daze. “I know a spot where loads of people of similar interests are. Real agreeable types, you know? We’ll swing by, scoop them up and then get our training montage going before flying back into that Crypt and reviving our friends.”
“Think they’re ken te help out?” Frida asked. “Might be a tad harder than yer thinkin’ to bring ‘em round te the idea of delving into a dungeon like that ‘un.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said brazenly. “I’m like a king to those people—they’ll be falling all over themselves to help.”
“Is that right, Yer Majesty?” Frida laughed.
“Your Highness will do,” I said.
“S’pose ye won ‘em over with yer keen people’n skills?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Yes,” I stated matter-of-factly. “That’s exactly what I did. People love me. I am a people person.”
“Aye,” Frida said. “S’pose ye are. Guess we’ll jus’ have te see, won’t we?”
I nodded once.
“Yes we certainly will.”
I tucked the amulet back into the pouch.
“Until then, this bad boy is going to be danglin’ near my bits for safe keeping.”
“Is that truly the best spot fer et?” Frida asked. “Seems a bit unwholesome.”
“Frida,” I said, acting offended. “I might get blasted in the face by fire, stabbed in the legs with magic knives, have my fingers eaten off by dragonskunks—but I always protect my bits.”
“Plus it’s the only place I have pockets.”
“Tellin’ of,” Frida said, staring at my kilt. “What that parcel ye got danglin’ out of ye there?”
I looked down. The top of the miniature wizard tower that was Zeol’s talisman was jutting out from my pocket at an angle, easily noticed, obviously.
Well, that won’t do. I’ll have to find a better method of not only keeping it secure, but keeping it hidden from public view. I don’t know how many people are aware of its existence, and I’d like to keep that number as close to zero as I can manage.
I removed the talisman and held it up.
“Just a trinket.”
“What’s et do?”
“You know… I’m not quite sure. Let me check.”
I no longer had my Analysis Ability, but had replaced it for a newer, improved version that I was calling Better Analysis. I accessed Eye of the Saboteur and then held the talisman in my gaze for a moment.
This better not be one of Zeol’s sex toys or something. It would be hilarious, but also, a lot of people died so that I could get my hands on it.
When the information populated in front of me, I scowled. Unlike with the statue and the magical barrier, the talisman didn’t hold any information about the materials, weakness, or really anything like before. In fact, the description was just two lines long. I hadn’t actually absorbed it out of disappointment, but then I went back and read it. I felt my heart sink. My expression must have been very telling, because Frida nudged me.
“What’s wrong, Loon?”
I sighed, reading it again to make sure I’d understood. That couldn’t be right, could it?
Acquired inside the Forbidden Crypt of the Dreadnaught Lord. Contains the soul of Rexen Gravetongue – the Dreadnaught Lord.
“Ah, fuck,” I hissed, staring in disbelief at the simple-seeming item. “Well, this fuckin’ complicates things