His voice earned a number of startled cries and shouts to identify himself. Eric cautiously backed up before it clicked what the problem was, why people were squinting his way as he reflexively angled his tricorn hat, still firmly affixed to his half-helm, a part of him still ashamed of anyone getting a close look at his face. The clue was the pair of dimly glowing globes he had avoided focusing on, because though he could use infravision and regular sight simultaneously, it was easier to focus on one or the other when in a mad frenzy, fighting for his life.
Because of course the travelers couldn’t see for shit along this vast, cavernous tunnel. Where for him, the stone showed up in pristine shades of blue, and any living thing shone brilliantly to his eyes, the caravanners were trapped in an oppressive cloak of darkness, pierced only by a pair of dimly glowing globes. Which meant that the fight was probably a far more nightmarish and disorienting affair than it was for him.
And though the lizards were a bit more of a challenge than warm-blooded rats to spot with his gifts, and he couldn’t differentiate their organs much at all, thanks to the thick scales making up its hide, it was certainly generating body heat by active skeletal-muscular use, if nothing else, assuming this monster was truly cold-blooded at all. Even so, it was definitely more of a light green to his eyes than the brilliant orange of the suspicious humans now glaring his way.
"The fucker's right, whoever he is," said the girl with the wand, still glaring at the spasming lizard. "We form up back to the intersection and figure out what the hell to do from there,"
“Alice, that fucker killed Vince! And Tommy, fuck, was Tommy hit too?”
Eric winced at the crumpled body of who he supposed must be Tommy, sent flying a good twenty feet before slamming into the cavern wall, the bright patina flaring against the cold stone making it clear that blood had sprayed from the impact, the utterly still and slowly cooling form of Tommy making it clear that the would-be samurai was no more.
“You’re friend got hit by the tail. I don’t think he’s getting back up. Which is why I recommended you all back away,” Eric said, pointing at the remains of the fallen guard while keeping himself hidden in shadow from the dim, flickering lights marking the caravan’s passage.
“Who the hell are you?” said one glaring guard, spinning around, spear held at the ready, eyes wild with terror, frustration, and anger that had nowhere to go. His eye widened as he caught a good look at Eric, his expression transforming to disgust. “And what the fuck happened to your face?”
Eric blinked, his witty rejoinder that he had practiced so many times in his head instantly evaporating, leaving him open-mouthed and speechless, his cheeks flushing in sudden hot shame.
At that moment, he wanted to do nothing more than turn around and race back the way he had come.
The girl giving orders turned from glaring at the lizard to glaring Eric’s way. “That’s a real good question, Johnny. Who the hell are you, why do you have a loaded crossbow at our back, and just how long have you been following us?”
Eric’s heart was pounding, though whether with shame, embarrassment, or simply because the girl’s jaw was clenched, and her wand building up a crackling discharge, he wasn’t sure.
And the fact that she was shockingly beautiful, blessed with flawless skin, lush crimson lips, a thick mane of ebony hair and luminous eyes he could fall right into, certainly didn’t help his tongue-tied state. Yet to his horror, he sensed the buildup of some kind of energy at the tip of her wand even as he stared, slack-jawed, at the girl.
Clearly, if he didn’t speak up, he was going to be eating a lightning blast to the face.
“I was just trying to help!” he said at last, instantly knowing how lame, how ridiculous that sounded. But by the looks of bemusement and consternation now being sent his way, the caravanners were at least forced to consider the possibility that he was something besides a threat, and an ugly threat at that, deserving of instant death. Which at least cut some of the sudden awful tension, no doubt ratcheted up by the massive lizard still grunting and slamming both cavern floor and far wall in its frenzy as it continued to spray blood from its mouth, giving him the breathing room to speak more definitely.
He cleared his throat. “If that lizard ever finishes dying, you’ll find a pair of crossbow bolts stuck in its throat and innards. I’ll give you three guesses as to who shot those bolts.”
The girl, who Eric thought could be anywhere from his age to her early twenties, frowned thoughtfully at that, offhandedly adjusting one of the straps of her kevlar vest, the crackling glow on the tip of her wand slowly fading, though still held at the ready. “I thought I saw that fucker jerk back before my lightning hit it. Still doesn’t explain why you’re following us, though.”
She furrowed her brow, glaring at the thrashing lizard that was stumbling crashing down the tunnel, back the way it had come. “And now the fucker’s fleeing.” She forced a wan smile, clearly affected by all the anxious gazes the caravanners were sending her way. “But what matters today isn’t taking out those damned lizards. It’s about getting these people safely to their new home.” She dipped her head respectfully towards Eric. “Thank you. I think you’ve helped us save some lives today.”
“Bullshit!" snarled the man with the crossbow, now cocked, loaded, and pointing Eric's way. "There's no way that fucker managed to hit that thing. My bolt bounced right off its hide!"
Eric looked at the man’s recurved crossbow. “That’s because you’re using a recurve with a short draw stroke and a low draw weight. I'm using a reverse draw compound with a 200 pound draw weight and a longer stroke to boot. You're damn right my bolts are hitting faster and harder than yours."
Eric couldn't help cracking a smile as the man clenched his weapon and glared. "And it didn't hurt that my first bolt went straight down its throat when it was kind enough to show us all its teeth."
Before the man could argue the point, the girl shook her head. "Not the time, Tim.” She then flashed Eric what was probably meant to be a reassuring smile. “You wouldn’t mind giving me your word that you weren’t stalking us with the intention of ambushing our caravan, taking any of us out, or revealing Junk City to the goddamned orcs, or elves, or gnomes, or any other fucker that wants to take us out?”
Eric nodded, having no problem with that. “You have it. I just stumbled upon you guys by chance. I heard screams, and I thought, world ended, so why the hell not play the hero? Can’t help the ugly mug you see, though. I’ll let you guess who I have to thank for that.”
The girl snorted. "Our friends up above?"
Eric flashed a bleak smile. “Let me put it this way. I really do hope I run into a few orcs...” This earned a few hisses and glares before he continued. “So I can put as many crossbow bolts through their pig faces as possible.”
This earned a couple of whistles, though one of the guards, dressed in patchwork armor of sheet metal squares fastened to a leather jacket with bits of copper wire, was gazing at him with rough-shaven features and disbelieving eyes.. “Wait, you’re not going to tell us you actually crawled out of one of those orc’s goddamned barbecues? A fucking hell pit?”
Eric smiled at the man’s incredulous gaze. “And what if I told you that’s exactly what happened to me?”
The guard just shook his head, though at least the girl’s… the mages? smile was almost pitying. “I think we’d believe it. So, nameless wanderer...”
Eric grinned. “If only this were my favorite game. Call me Eric.”
This earned a bemused chuckle from the strikingly beautiful woman. "Wait, seriously? You played it too? Anyway, name’s Alice.” She frowned thoughtfully at Eric. “How’d you like a job?”
“What? No fucking way!” said Tim, positively glaring daggers Eric’s way. “We don’t know this ugly motherfucker from shit! My bet is he’s scoping us out.”
Eric noted the man had yet to lower his crossbow, Tim’s hostile glare turning to a hard smirk.
“In fact, best thing we can do if you ask me, princess, is put this guy six feet under. So whoever sent him knows loud and clear our town is not to be fucked with.”
“And then you're up a sweet crossbow, is that it?" Eric said with a cold smile, noting the guy's flinch, not hesitating to summon his steel-plated heater shield, casually raised as if it had always been strapped to his arm, and most definitely angled such that almost any bolt would skip off the smooth surface. And his 14 strength meant that yes, he most definitely could hold his crossbow quite comfortably one-handed, especially with its reverse limb draw, even if he'd normally never be so foolish as to shoot it that way… save, perhaps, in situations like these.
“We’re down two men, Tim. And you haven’t said one thing about going back and saving Tommy,” Alice snapped. “I don’t care if you hate this cat on sight. If those bolts inside that monstrous freak of a lizard are his, then that means he hasn’t done anything but try to help. If you’re going to start suggesting every lone stranger we meet needs to go six feet under, then we’re going to have a serious problem!”
Tim paled, turning to glare her way. “Seriously? You’re going to take the side of a guy you just met?”
Alice sighed. "Look, it's been a bad trip. A real bad trip. Let's just focus on the fucking lizards, and not on each other, alright?" Her apologetic gaze hardened. "And he gave me his word, Tim." The crossbowman flinched at that. "And I felt it. You already know what that means."
The closest spearman was frowning, as were a number of others. "Actually, princess, no I don't. What the hell does that mean?”
Alice smirked. “It means he’s an adventurer like me, John. It means he had the guts to actually enter one of those death pods and came out the other side, even if nine out of ten who dare it end up being transformed to a horrific freak show." The look she sent Eric's way sent chills down his spine. "And if it turns out he's lying, I get to tear free a piece of his entire experience pool."
Eric blinked. “Wait, seriously?” He whistled and shook his head. “That’s one sweet ass cheat power.”
“I know, isn’t it? Blood magic’s the best.” Her eyes twinkled. But Eric wasn’t blind. He saw the strain underneath her smile. He could only imagine the weight on her shoulders, multiple men down and dozens of close to panicking civilians, more than a couple glaring their way and demanding they get moving, others sobbing and saying they should go back to the city they fled.
“Don’t be fucking stupid,” roared one of the spear-wielding guards. “You all know the city’s a death trap! You want those damned orcs to clamp you in chains, make you all slaves? Or stick you in one of their barbecue pits where you’ll end up looking like this cat?”
Eric, knowing a cue when he heard one, promptly doffed helmet and tricorn cap and bowed. “Eric Silver at your service, and I do recommend you take our good friend’s advice, one and all. Because those pits are damned hot, and no place you want to be.”
This earned Eric a number of wide-eyed looks and murmurs, though not entirely for the reasons he had hoped.
Alice’s gaze hardened. “Eric?”
“What’s up?” he asked, donning half-helm and tricorn once more.
“How the fuck did you make your crossbow and shield disappear?”
Eric froze for long moments, heart racing, before the obvious answer came to him. “Magic. How else?”
This earned him brief smile. “Touche. So, you coming with us or what?”
Eric grinned. “Lead the way.”
And shortly thereafter they did get started, Tim settling for just sending glares Eric's way as he, Eric, Alice, and the spearmen took the lead, scouting for any more rogue lizards. Eric made a point of always positioning himself with at least one other guard between himself and Tim, just in case the asshole got any sudden ideas.
Alice glared at them both. “I’ll say this once. If either of you dies to a crossbow bolt, I’m lighting up the other like a Christmas tree. Are we clear?”
Eric smirked, pleased to hear those words. “Crystal,” he said, before being struck by a sudden flood of experience so rich that it had him trembling where he stood, Alice’s startled gasp made it clear she had felt it too.
"Well shit. At least we know the lizard we tagged is dead," she whispered.
“And how the fuck do we know that?” Tim snapped.
“Because I just got a shitton of experience.”
Eric’s entire body was now tingling with untapped potential he knew he dare not manifest right now. So he took a deep breath, visualizing himself tucking that blinking tab firmly away. Though he couldn't help flushing at the knowing look Alice gave him.
“What level are you?”
“Four,” he admitted.
“I’ll be that put you over the top, no?” she said while twisting a golden ring on her finger, and a little ball of fire began bobbing over her head, lighting their way as they headed back where Eric had first met them. "Well, you'd best hold off on leveling, at least til we get back to down. And don't worry, I'll look after you when you do. Adventurer’s courtesy and all that.”
Eric blinked. “That’s a thing?”
“Damn right it is. Because any fool that would cut down mankind’s last hope in their sleep is a dog that doesn’t deserve to live another day.”
This earned more than one solemn nod from the spearmen walking by Eric’s side, though Tim just gave an angry snort, and Eric was grateful to find that he could safely contain the surge of potency now swirling in the center of his chest.
One of the spearmen whistled. “Oversized bastard tried to flee, but he dropped, sure as shit, Lady Alice!”
His partner abruptly cried out when he caught sight of the guard who had been sent flying from the lizard’s death-throws.
“Steve! Shit, that’s Steve! Hold on guys, I found..." Eric winced for the sharp sob he heard, suddenly certain that the spearman and the fallen swordsman had shared a bond far stronger than casual acquaintances.
“I’m sorry, Julien,” Alice whispered. “If you need a moment, we understand.”
And that was when Eric sensed it.
Death, just a heartbeat away.